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For the end of the Jewish year, another parable
Moses and Joseph’s bones, engraving by Pinelli, from the Mary Evans Vintage Art Collection
Tomorrow is the last day of the Jewish year, and therefore the last day of Elul, the month that leads up to Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. It’s a period that’s supposed to be devoted to repentance in both its introspective and social modes, thinking deeply about one’s life but also reaching out to people to repair one’s relations with them.
These are things that still mean a great deal to me, but once upon a time that meaning was more formally bound up in Jewish observance than it is now. That may surprise some readers, who may be under the mistaken impression that I am an Orthodox Jew, or perhaps a lapsed Orthodox Jew, but neither is the case. I’m not particularly attached to denominational lines, but inasmuch as I was or am a part of a Jewish denomination, that denomination is Conservative. I was not raised in an observant household, and despite the yearnings that I felt and the ambitions that I once harbored, I never became strictly observant, and those ambitions, if not entirely the yearnings, were broken many years ago. Now, from a religious perspective, I am just a mass of contradictions that I have chosen to live in rather resolve.
On some level, though, I think I always was that mass of contradictions, and I always knew I would not resolve them. I even have a proof text for that supposition.
The first post on this Substack harkened back to a parable I wrote back in 2003 about repentance, one that referenced the biblical hero Gideon and therefore served to partly explain the title of the Substack itself (and the long-defunct blog that preceded it, and that started me down the path of blathering on the Internet). I wrote that parable about Gideon during Elul, and my proof text is another parable I wrote at the same time of year, and to the same purpose.
Here it is:
When Joseph and his brothers were in Egypt, Joseph went in to his father's house and saw his brothers, Judah and Benjamin, engaged in Torah study. And Joseph thought to himself: here I have been engaged as Vizier in Egypt, and before that I was imprisoned, and before that I was a slave in the house of Potiphar, and I have neglected Torah studies since arriving in this country. But now I am grown, how shall I undertake to study at my age?
So Joseph took his sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, to his father, and placed them on his knees to be instructed. And they took to their studies as a child takes honey. But when they returned home, they would laugh at their father, Joseph, saying, "does the Vizier of Egypt not know the proper way to wash his hands?" or "does the Vizier of Egypt not know the proper way to put on his shoes?" And Joseph was afflicted on their account, crying, "woe unto me, that the accusations of my heart are on my son's lips!"
That night, Joseph had another dream, his first since his brothers came to Egypt. In the dream, he was climbing a mountain carrying across his back a thick rod from which there hung two buckets full of water. He walked with care so as not to spill, and as he walked he saw others climbing the mountain, some with flasks upon their hips, some drinking from the streams that ran down the mountain. The other climbers, unencumbered as he was, passed him easily on their ascent.
Then Joseph looked down at his heavy buckets, and he saw his brothers hanging from the chains, and dipping their cups in the buckets to drink. And Joseph thought to himself: is this the adoration that my youth foretold?
So he climbed, burdened with the water and the weight of his brothers.
In his dream, then, Joseph died, and he watched himself and his brothers from a high vantage point on the mountain, a spot that he had never reached. And he watched as his brothers gathered up his bones, and wrapped them in a shroud, and placed them in one of the water buckets. He watched his brother, Judah, shoulder his burden, and continue the ascent. And he watched, finally, as his brothers climbed, bearing his bones and the buckets of water, and they passed, one by one, the skeletons of climbers who had sprinted past him on his own climb, their bones bleached white and dry as the stones of the mountain.
When Joseph awoke, he called his brothers to him, and bound them by an oath: to bring his bones up out of Egypt. (Breishit 50:25).
It is said there will be two Messiahs, and that one, from the seed of Joseph, will come before the other, from the seed of Jesse. And while the former will not himself bring redemption, nonetheless we should pray for him. For by his efforts is the path of his successor smoothed. And but for his efforts, the son of Jesse would come with a scythe in his hands to clear a path, and those who merit his coming would scatter before him, lest they be cut down.
I hadn’t read Chekhov’s play, Ivanov when I wrote that piece, but when I finally saw it I recognized the signature image as effectively the same one that I had imagined for Joseph’s dream. Nor had I read Thomas Mann’s doorstop version of the Joseph story yet, but when I finally read it I recognized the sadness of Mann’s depiction of the mature Joseph, after welcoming his father to Egypt, as my own. So I think I always knew I would stay in the shallows, always knew I’d never make it past the foothills. Whether my bones will ascend—well, we’ll see. Or, rather, I won’t; I’ll be dead, so I’ll never really know.
Ok: I still have to do the wrap.
Occam’s Razor and Delta
Both my columns at The Week this week were about Covid. The first was about whether Delta is really more deadly, or whether immunity is really waning among the vaccinated, or whether, in fact, the one thing we already know about Delta—that it’s much more contagious—adequately explains the surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. I think it does:
Consider the situation in Israel, where on its face the data suggest a marked reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines, either because Delta is successfully evading our immune system or because the vaccines' effectiveness is waning more quickly than originally expected. But the summary data may be a statistical artifact known as a Simpson's Paradox, where you need to discompose the data into more homogeneous cohorts to eliminate the effect of an exogenous variable and see what's really going on.
In this case, and frequently with COVID, what you need to do is break down aggregate results by age. If you look at the amalgamated data from Israel, as of Aug. 7, it showed that roughly comparable percentages of the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations came down with serious illness (frequently requiring hospitalization) due to COVID. But when you break down that result by age cohort, as the statistician Alan Salzberg did, the effect disappears; in any given cohort, the vaccines are still over 90 percent effective at preventing serious illness.
How can that be? Because the vaccine uptake in Israel has been much higher among older cohorts (as it has been in other countries as well, including the U.S.), the unvaccinated population skews much younger. So comparing the unvaccinated with the vaccinated is, in part, comparing the young and the old. And because the elderly are far more vulnerable to serious illness from COVID than the young, if you compare a younger population with less vaccine-uptake with an older population with higher vaccine uptake, the rates of serious illness due to COVID are similar — which makes it look like the vaccines aren't working even though they are. If that analysis is correct, then the surge in hospitalizations in Israel may well be adequately explained by Delta's extreme contagiousness alone, since much higher numbers of cases will inevitably mean more hospitalizations and more deaths, even if the percentage is much lower than it would have been in the absence of widespread vaccination.
One implication might be that most people may not really need booster shots yet. Another implication might be that vaccinations for children may be less urgent than some commentators think. But the most important implication isn’t either of those things—indeed, on either of those points I’m prepared to turn on a dime. I’m fully prepared to get my booster the moment it’s approved for me, and if I had a child under 12 I’d be fully prepared to get them vaccinated as soon as that was approved.
Rather, I think the most important implication is that you should interrogate your own self-interest in your opinions as fully as you do other people’s, such as those articulated by folks at the FDA. The perverse incentives that afflict regulators—they’ll be raked over the coals for an approval that goes bad, not so much for delaying approval as people die—are at this point well-known. But the public and the press have their own incentives that do not always lead to sensible outcomes. We should be cognizant of when our desire for control over our fate, the need to do something, is driving our analysis over and above the data.
My second column is about a possible ugly political side effect of vaccine mandates—which, I should be clear, I strongly favor. That possible side effect: an ugly conflict over religious freedom.
[I]t seems likely to me that many of those who present themselves [and objecting to COVID vaccination for religious reasons] will be sincere in their objections, and sincere in believing them to be religious. They may be sincere in believing outright falsehoods — that the vaccines are really a plot to control the population, for example, or that they are made from aborted fetuses. They may be following a religious figure, however dubious, who told them the vaccines are pernicious or ungodly. They may believe that their bodily integrity is inviolable because they are made in the image of God, and therefore no one has the right to mandate they do anything with it that they do not wish to, no matter what the effect on the public interest. They may sincerely not know why they believe what they believe. But I suspect most of them won't be outright faking their views as, say, a supposed conscientious objector who simply wants to avoid the draft might be.
This could pose a real problem for the courts, inasmuch as if they want to reject these claims, they effectively have to opine on what a "real" religious view is and isn't. And that's a troubling thing for our system to do.
It’s a particularly troubling thing as more and more Americans either don’t belong to churches or belong to churches without clear doctrinal commitments.
I don’t know how real the prospect of widespread religious freedom objections to COVID vaccination is. That’s the weak link in the argument: data. But if those objecting turn out to be widespread, then I think we might have a real problem.
My only piece for this Substack this week was about the Texas abortion law, and whether it could actually be upheld without overturning Roe v. Wade. I’m pretty sure the answer is no:
If it were, then by letting the law stand the Supreme Court wouldn’t just have done an end-run around Roe — they’d have done an end-run around the entire constitution. If Roe isn’t overturned, after all, then the right to abortion still remains a fact in American jurisprudence. In that context, if the Texas law is constitutional, then any state can deputize the population to enforce a law that infringes on a fundamental constitutional right—including enumerated rights—without violating the constitution. California could pass a law allowing any state resident to sue someone who flew a Confederate flag, or who owned a gun, or who preached that marriage is a sacrament between men and women, or whatever, and the protections of the first and second amendments would be unavailing. Which is obviously absurd. I think all the end-run has done is make it so that until the Court actually hears the case, abortion is effectively illegal in Texas, whereas under normal circumstances abortion would have remained legal until the case is heard.
So shouldn’t the stay have been granted? I think clearly that it should have been—and if a blue state wanted to troll the Court, they’d pass something like the anti-Confederate flag law just to make it clear to the Court just what a Pandora’s Box they’ve opened. But the Court is going to have to address the underlying constitutionality of abortion directly; they won’t be able to sidestep it by blessing the Texas law and formally not touching Roe.
I’ve heard from people since who have more sympathy for the Court for reasons that on the surface are unrelated to the underlying abortion question—for example, saying that we really do want the Court to be relatively slow-moving and cautious. I can’t speak to the details of the legal argument that issuing a stay in this case is difficult, but it seems to me that it collapses very quickly into the constitutionality of abortion even if the people in question don’t intend it to. If a state decided to deputize its entire adult population to enforce a blatantly unconstitutional act—for example, an act that banned the opposition party from participating in an imminent election, and deputized the state population to enforce it rather than involve state officials—I have a hard time imagining that the Court would say that they need time to think through the implications rather than grant a stay. In other words: it’s because Roe may fall that the Court, in this case, thought the issue was thorny. That may be accurate, but I don’t think the Court should be in the business of predicting its own future behavior. It should be governed by precedent unless and until it overturns it.
That having been said, I get the irony of folks like myself—or Jamelle Bouie—who have been arguing that the Court is in general too powerful and should defer more to the legislature, turning around and complaining about the Court refusing to issue a stay in this case.