On the Passing of David Koch, Shr”i

It’s a funny thing–I write my posts and often do not have a clue about what my friends will like, dislike or even bother to read. Yesterday I posted an article about the passing of someone I consider to be a villain. I didn’t expect much if any response. Most of my friends already disliked him, and I figured those who didn’t probably wouldn’t bother to reply. But I was seriously wrong. Quite a kerfuffle erupted over my comments.

One of the reasons for that is that I stepped on a bit of modern Jewish tradition–basically a superstition, and apologies if those who hold by this think that’s offensive, for me it’s a term of art from my profession–teaching Religious Studies at a secular university. The tradition I mentioned is that “One does not speak ill of the dead.” And one reason I use the term superstition to describe this is that I think it hearkens to a notion that the dead might return to take some sort of revenge. I’m not sure–I’d have to do some research on that. But the point is that there is such a notion within Judaism today.

That’s actually one reason I went out of my way to introduce my comments with an explanation that the acronym “Shr”i” is one I took from Medieval Jewish literature. It stands for “shem r’sha’im yirkav” (שם רשעים ירקב). I believe the first time I read it was in Sefer haQabalah which describes the schism between rabbinic Jews and the Karaites. The rabbinic author used it to describe the Karaite founder (of course long dead by then).

That there is no such notion in our most sacred scriptures is patently obvious. Not only do we condemn the memory of Amaleq, but technically we are commanded to seek out and kill all of his descendants. One of the most difficult commandments of the Torah to figure out is the one that tells us to blot out the name of Amaleq–just how do we extirpate his memory by reminding ourselves about him every year?

The Book of Esther celebrates the hanging of Haman together with his sons, and Jews have turned this into the original Mardis Gras. By rabbinic ordinance we are commanded to celebrate this hanging, and it is the only time of the year that Jews are commanded to drink until they cannot tell the difference between “Cursed” be Haman and blessed be Mordecai.

The author of the Book of Kings, writing long after the deaths of those kings, had no problem with speaking ill of the dead:

וְנָדָ֣ב בֶּן־יָרָבְעָ֗ם מָלַךְ֙ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בִּשְׁנַ֣ת שְׁתַּ֔יִם לְאָסָ֖א מֶ֣לֶךְ יְהוּדָ֑ה וַיִּמְלֹ֥ךְ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל שְׁנָתָֽיִם׃ וַיַּ֥עַשׂ הָרַ֖ע בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וַיֵּ֙לֶךְ֙ בְּדֶ֣רֶךְ אָבִ֔יו וּ֙בְחַטָּאת֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶחֱטִ֖יא אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

Nadab son of Jeroboam began to reign over Israel in the second year of King Asa of Judah; he reigned over Israel two years. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of his ancestor and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit. (1 Kings 15:25-26)

One of the people who complained about my comments made the point that the person had a good side, that he made large contributions to charity. In recent years we’ve seen several examples of why charity cannot be a reasonable response. Bernie Madoff is rotting in prison where I hope he will remain despite having given large sums–as it turns out of other people’s money–to charity. More recently, Jeffrey Epstein (Shr”i), a convicted pedophile who also trafficked children, committed the Jewish sin of suicide. Are we not supposed to speak evil of him? But he contributed enormous sums to Jewish charities! Funny thing–there was actually a controversy over whether he could be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I wonder how you can engage in a controversy over such a subject without “speaking ill of the dead.” Personally, I wouldn’t want my ashes near any place where his foulness might linger.

I’m sorry, but there is no quantity of charity that can compensate for destroying our planet. So I think we get to the crux of why my comments ruffled a number of feathers. The problem is that in some circles–mostly those populated either by people who are deeply committed to religious views bordering on fundamentalism, or those who support Trump (and obviously there’s some overlap there)–there is skepticism about the seriousness of climate change.

It may not seem like it is so, but Israel itself is in a very precarious position with regard to human created climate disaster. You can get a visceral sense of this by the view from Masada. When I toured Masada in 1973, the Dead Sea lapped the shore just a mile or so from the mountain. Today, it is bone dry. The Dead Sea’s southern basin would be completely empty were it not for a pipeline Israel laid to deliver sea water for the needs of the resort hotels that bring in large tourist revenues. Back in 1973, I had to worry about being flooded out of a trip through “Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” but no more, there isn’t enough water to cause a problem. True, this is not because of “global warming”–rather, it is caused by the diversion of fresh water inflows to the Dead Sea which have also reduced the Jordan River to a trickle.

But if the climate scientists are right–and the opinion is nearly unanimous–Israel’s agricultural industries may soon be confronted with a Judean Desert that will move steadily north. And while Israel is in a good position to manage such issues, let’s keep in mind that regional instability is not good for Israel, and climate change will probably be contributing to large amounts of regional instability all over the world, and in the Middle East in particular.

Lots of people share responsibility for this disaster. But the person I called out yesterday bears an enormous personal and direct responsibility. He and his brother have donated huge sums in an effort to wreck every attempt to control the carbon emissions that are the single greatest contributor to the planetary crisis.

Although I will likely be gone before the worst of this becomes a reality, I feel a deep responsibility for my children and my grandchildren. I want to do what I can so that they can enjoy the world as I have been able to do, not inherit a sandbox.

Regarding the passing of the man yesterday, I echo the author of Kings, “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of his ancestor and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit.”

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