One very cold March morning in Chişinău, Moldova, a boisterous bear of an Israeli rabbi made me an offer: pause your work as administrator of the kosher kitchen serving Ukrainian refugees and staff, he proposed, and help smuggle military-age Jewish men out of Ukraine.
It was one of the harder calls I had to make during a month-long break from studying Talmud at yeshiva and philosophy at university that I spent assisting the Chişinău Jewish community’s refugee relief efforts. Aiding the civilian victims of this unjust war seemed like the perfect way to enact the ideals I usually spend my time contemplating. But eight years of Jewish and liberal higher education were inadequate to settle the sorts of quandaries that came my way.
For instance, the Israeli rabbi’s operation violated Ukrainian law, though such assisted border crossings were then widespread and not unique to Jews. And I’m certainly not courageous enough to begrudge anyone an escape from Russian guns. Especially if it’s a Jew en route to Israel, which, my Zionism tells me, will protect and nurture a Jew better than any other country. But helping healthy sons of Israel flee recruiters for the Ukrainian army might promote all sorts of lies, including Russia’s big one that Ukraine is not a real nation. Or a just nation, which by most recent empirical evidence—and in my anecdotal experience—has done right by Jewish citizens in peacetime and so earned their loyalty in wartime. Anything sponsoring doubts about the Jewish capacity for such loyalty shouldn’t be done unless absolutely necessary.
To be sure, I articulated all this to myself and to others at the time. But describing the problem and “deliberating” about it, however well I was able to do those things, just had nothing to do with how the problem ended up getting resolved. When the rabbi approached me, I felt the reasons for and against accepting his offer just fight it out in my head and my chest. I could name the players for you—the needs of a just state’s military, the historical destiny of the Jews, the physical safety of someone’s father, husband, brother—but absent from this clash of values was someone well-equipped to impose a defensible order on the values, to determine which value should win out. I couldn’t govern these real-world incarnations of my principles. They governed me, and then I post-hoc rationalized what I felt to be pulling strongest on my will.
Such situations diminished my hopes for an orderly transition from the life of the mind to a life of purposeful activity. Oddly enough, I initially found my philosophical and Talmudic predilections nurtured quite well by that nemesis of thinking, bureaucracy. In Chişinău, most of my time was spent running a kitchen that supplied food for Jewish refugees. It’s not that my work as kitchen administrator was intellectually taxing—that it wasn’t was part of the point. Like the premises in a good syllogism, our procedures were well-defined and easy to follow. Tasks were performed in as self-marginalizing a way as possible to advance the one noble purpose of keeping refugees warm, fed and healthy until their flights left for Tel Aviv. The whole relief operation was a straightforward, airtight argument of benevolent intent.
Good lists are a mainstay of any bureaucracy, and the kitchen I ran from a kashered Irish pub had several that were followed to the letter. Groceries for two days: ten kilos each of onions, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes, twenty of potatoes, a hundred of fish, thirty of rice and of beans and two dozen gallons of oil, about two thousand white eggs (brown ones have non-kosher blood spots), and as many plastic forks and hundred-gallon garbage bags as God saw fit to let man render. Five hundred kilos of meat arrive on Wednesdays, ten huge plastic bins for defrosting it. Two thousand Moldovan lei for delivery taxis for three days, and ninety American dollars times nine staff members equals wages. Natasha, my heroic co-manager, gets double. One volunteer per hotel, rotated out after a week at most, needs to speak Russian or Ukrainian and either Hebrew or English. Medical training a plus. Zero discretion is advised. Just follow the damn rules.
Alas, some people didn’t. One rabbi, his wife and six students had come from Israel to Chişinău to help the local Orthodox community aid Ukrainian refugees. The medical supplies they brought included menstrual hygiene products badly needed by dozens of women in our care. I discerned that the rabbi’s elaborate mission concept did not entail telling the relevant person (me) how much he had of what so that tampons, pads, adult diapers, ointments and the like could be delivered along with dinner. Nor did he want to join with other volunteers: “My approach is: we come as a group, we stay as a group.” After thirty minutes of this sort of thing—well, I’ll spare you the details of my eruption. Let me just report that I’ve gained some sympathy for the target of Milton Friedman’s remark that hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat scorned.
Certain requests for deviation were more sympathetic. As chief of kitchen operations I was the addressee for all food-related complaints. It turned out many of those refugees didn’t like the food. It wasn’t the chef’s fault. Or anyone else’s fault. They just didn’t like the food. So we changed the food. More liked it. Some liked it less. So be it. Varying the menu costs money. It’s not that I didn’t care. It’s that it might hurt someone who yesterday lost her home in Kharkiv to a Russian missile and is now starving in a rat-infested cellar with ten strangers if I allowed it to matter. There’s not much money. The more we cater to the desires of the current refugees, the more likely it is that the next set won’t have what they need. The bureaucratic answer wasn’t perfect or even very good. It elicited few smiles and it responded to no one as an individual. Its advantage was relieving people in need as efficiently and fairly, therefore as humanely, as possible.
Sometimes, it should be said, a rule did need breaking. One day I got a call from my friend Yaakov, who disclosed he’d set up an off-the-books nursing home in what the architecture and odor suggest was a brothel during the Brezhnev years. Yaakov—a combat-hardened medic from upstate New York who smokes like a chimney and puts in thirty-hour international shifts—had been caring for the old and infirm in this makeshift medical facility; among his patients was a young woman confined to bed with a grisly muscular disorder. Institutional Jewish Chişinău didn’t know about any of this because instead of obeying the protocol governing refugee arrival, registration and housing, Yaakov often just goes and rescues Jews in bad shape. Our kitchen staff illicitly delivered kasha and tuna salad, and an American friend raised funds on Twitter to pay the building’s rent.
Useful procedural violations like these were not liberties but duties that just hadn’t been anticipated by my superiors. No blame for that. Bureaucracy is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants, and its limitations are just those of its creators’ writ large.
But more than once the mission couldn’t be satisfied by simply bending the rules, for the terms of the mission were themselves subject to controversy. The invitation to join the smuggling operation of army-aged Ukrainian Jews tested my belief in the Ukrainian cause against the Jewish fidelities that had so far channeled my efforts to serve that cause. And sometimes those Jewish fidelities competed with the stated desires of actual Jewish refugees. Many Ukrainian Jews did not want to go to Israel. So we had to decide whether to provide administrative help and transport to those seeking asylum on the continent. During my first week, I organized transport to Krakow for a non-Jewish Ukrainian family that had ended up in our care but obeyed furious instructions from my superiors not to do the same for Jews. Jews had to go to Israel, I was told; any desire they expressed to the contrary was just the false consciousness of the exile. But they see themselves as Europeans, I once said, pleading their case to a comrade of mine. Cole, he replied, spend a week anywhere in Europe with your yarmulke and your tzitzis. The local goyim will tell you what you are.
I still can’t decide whether these ideas were right or wrong.
Which isn’t surprising. The philosophy I studied at university—even moral philosophy—aspires to the status of a theoretical science. It provides rules and principles but abstracts from their application to detailed cases. If you’ve got a real-life quandary pitting this value against that value, then the Aristotle and Kant you’ve read may at best gesture toward some plausible answers. They won’t answer the practical question: What is to be done?
But what shocks me now as it shocked me then is how little I cared to think about the texts and questions I’ve spent years of my life studying. It’s not that Aristotle and Kant (to say nothing of the Bible and the Talmud) were unhelpful when I traded study in Jerusalem for kitchen administration in Chişinău. They were just not in my thoughts.
Here, for instance, was how a typical morning would go:
Techno-beat alarm terminates a night’s sleep begun an hour late because Israeli volunteers needed their hands held through some Google searches. On with yesterday’s shirt, sweater, pants and wool socks inside the mandatory boots. Abridged prayers muttered rote. The cheap double espresso that ends a sip too early shakes inside a rented station wagon scented with tobacco, week-old fish and an emergency stick of salami. Some icy-hearted scoundrel took the parking space outside the Irish pub. Oh, it’s the owner. And a hearty zdravstvuyte to you too, sir.
Only half the food is ready to send out. Yes, Doron? Cole, we need 150 hot meals for the flight this afternoon. Doron, go to hell. Okay, we’ll make sandwiches. You seem anxious, my brother, here, have a cigarette. The food is ready. Order taxis, but with the slow app, not the fast app that Gershon says sends your data to the FSB. The Chişinău morning rends the skin on knuckles gripping the lid of a thin, tin gastronome. Lotion and nicotine lubricate the semi-weekly debrief with the chef. Yes, I’ll speak to Lena about a wire transfer, I said for the umpteenth time. I’m sorry your hotel bedsheets aggravate your skin condition. I’ll try to find you a hot shower. The Ukrainians want borscht. Please stop cooking the fish and potatoes at a Middle Eastern level of spicy.
What an electric current of joy! Every word, step, breath, flex, sneeze and cough so absolutely sanctioned by the final purpose of feeding refugees that the purpose itself could be put out of consciousness. “The Lord’s work,” a friend in New York told me over the phone. The truth is that I gave Him little thought. I was too enraptured with chapped hands, stolid Moldovan workers chopping vegetables and the reverent way the tattooed sous chef addressed his commanding officer.
Even when I had to make a serious decision and could put my liberal and religious education to use, I didn’t work out the reasons for and against a course of action. The reasons worked themselves out on me, tossing my desires this way and that until a strong enough feeling in one direction yanked me into action. A wonderfully astute friend proposes that it is when freedom of choice is most critical to our situation that we feel most compelled in one direction; I just had to tell the truth, to keep my promise, to save my friend. I hope I measured up to her synthesis of freedom and necessity! I fear it felt more like my head was serving my heart, which I could only hope was well-enough formed to be aiming at the correct result.
The rush of daily routine supplanted conscious thought about the ultimate aims of my work, and the pressure of a morally serious atmosphere clouded rather than clarified my deliberations about what I should do. As it has done and will continue to do for many a dedicated student of the humanities, worldly movements displaced contemplation. But the raw psychological power of activity isn’t an argument against the life of the mind. It was the heroes I met who supplied that. Their average days were life and death, and their values none the worse for it.
At about 3 a.m. on my first night in Chişinău, I met Benjamin Levin, a bright-eyed Swiss-British Orthodox Jew who hardly sleeps and never frowns. Benjamin’s specialty is high-tech logistics for medical extractions from hot spots, mostly of elderly patients. A licensed electrician, Benjamin came from England with a dozen walkie-talkies, some satellite phones, a Wi-Fi router that shields your location from hostile snoops (used in tanks, I’m told), a combined heart monitor and defibrillator from Phillips, an Advanced Life Support kit with intubation equipment, and a small stuffed Mickey Mouse. “We’ve paid massive amounts of money to get [Ukrainian] army licenses to drive our ambulances,” he tells me. The dark is no friend to Benjamin and his crews of doctors and medics. After curfew, he told me, “the Russians or the Ukrainians will shoot at whatever moves, if they don’t know what it is.” Once he gets a half dozen people out, Benjamin charters a small business jet—easily convertible, with its sofas and tables, into an airborne ambulance—to fly them to Israel for medical treatment.
Benjamin is 25—my age. If I hadn’t promised my father I wouldn’t bear arms or enter Ukraine during this pause in graduate school, I’d have learned how to navigate and shoot and escorted medical teams to Odesa and Kharkiv. Our communal Shabbat meal was once joined by a Ukrainian Jew who’d funded transports of his coreligionists to safety. I asked him how I could help. “You could come with me to Kyiv,” he said.
But that, I suspect, would’ve been the end of me. Not mainly because the Russians might have shot me, though of course they might have done. What really chills me even now is that after picking up a gun and feeling the nonstop frisson of conflict between, as Christopher Hitchens wrote after 9/11, everything I love and everything I hate, I might have never again been content outside a state of emergency. It’s one thing to relish mundane tasks that can be paused at bedtime or on Shabbat for some orienting thought about why and for whom I’m doing whatever it is. But whether it’s a risible excuse for cowardice, or just good sense, or both, I fear that taking up arms even in a wholly just cause would have left me more entranced by the arms than by the justice of the cause. Addicted to the ferocious intensity of the means, I might have forgotten about the ends.
Of course, this is just the most extreme version of a broader worry about coming to love the world too much. And there is so much to love! The smell of a hundred unbathed human beings sleeping in a small synagogue, now safe from a brutal super-state. The five minutes some elderly Kyivites spend together smoking and chatting, a moment of leisurely fellowship in a hostile time. The translator worried for his book collection’s fate, the Christian woman with flowers in her hair holding a juice box for an infant just over the border, the “jajajajajaja” my journalist friend from Barcelona thinks signifies laughter over text…
In proportion as all these things project an entrancing beauty, serious men and women have a duty not to be seduced. The proper value of each thing has to be appreciated, and the thing itself given its proper place in a reasonable hierarchy of values. Which means the values themselves, the relative importance of helping the innocent, of fighting their enemies, of friendship, books, giving children juice and the quirks of cross-lingual texting can never leave one’s thoughts. The thrill of the particulars is no excuse for forgetting about the principles, just as the splendor of eternal truths is no excuse for not getting one’s hands dirty.
After a three-hour flight separated me from Moldova I enjoyed a Shabbat without checking my phone for refugee medical emergencies. In Jerusalem, thank God, that’s someone else’s job. Instead, I gave some thought to what the Jewish tradition could teach me about what I’d learned in Chişinău. Ecclesiastes is the lament of a man weary with the very best things in life, because he did not—as he declares in his final sentence he ought to have done—consecrate them all to his Father in Heaven. Not only sensual pleasures, stupid jealousies and minor associations but even, especially, marriage and patriotism and charity and philosophy and just wars and the whole roll call of Plato’s forms can be offered to God or seduce His children away from Him. To Chişinău, a shabby city of natives and refugees, with its open and songful churches, parks populated by elderly couples dancing to old music in the noonday sun and screaming, barely supervised children—all undaunted by the specter of a possible Russian invasion—I feel a debt of gratitude for instruction in King Solomon’s ancient wisdom.
Photo credit: Dan Gutu, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid (Flickr, CC / BY 2.0)