In recent weeks, several of my colleagues both on this blog and elsewhere, have written thoughtful articles on current issues of national concern. Issues such as immigration reform, vaccinations, perspectives on scientific research, and more. Like all the pieces that we share here, these articles are designed to stimulate thought and dialogue. Sometimes they express a strongly-held opinion, but more often they seek to contribute to an ongoing conversation by bringing in personal experience, or pastoral experience from working with others. Often they bring some Jewish textual wisdom into their writing, usually to demonstrate the existence of Jewish conversations throughout the centuries that might provide ethical or spiritual narratives that embed the contemporary debate in something much larger and older.
As I’ve read these various articles I am, of course, also interested in the commentary – the comments – that are generated by a wide variety of readers. Those who agree and those who disagree. Just as with the commentaries upon commentaries that we find in the Talmud and centuries of Jewish debate, the commentary can add considerably to the depth and impact of the article itself. Many times my own personal perspective on an issue has been broadened when, having read something with which I thought I was in wholehearted agreement, I then read comments that present cogent and thoughtful arguments for an opposing point of view.
However, in recent weeks I’ve noticed a different kind of commentary that, while perhaps not surprising in the broader context of the culture of social media, nevertheless causes me enormous sadness. Commentary that, rather than presenting a counterpoint to the article, responds to the author with utter disdain for their audacity to offer an opinion on the topic altogether as a rabbi. Some commentary seeks to diminish the very essence of people who do their work with care and the utmost of integrity using language that I cannot imagine would be used in any genuine face-to-face encounter. While I wish to call for all who wish to enrich and broaden the thoughtful debate on issues to do so in a way that holds firm to Jewish ethical principles of human interaction (see teachings on Derech Eretz – respect, Bushah – causing embarrassment, for example), I also wish to address the deeper question of what rabbis speak about, how we speak about them, and why.
When we study Torah, and the vast vault of Jewish literature and wisdom that the teachers of our tradition have generated over centuries, we quickly see that Judaism is infinitely more than a set of ritual practices or ancient stories of our origins. It is a path through life, with wisdom teachings on every aspect of that life, from health and safety issues, to business ethics, to ethical ways of engaging with and treating foreigners, to the obligation to create a just society that takes care of its poor and takes steps to protect the most disenfranchised. Now, it is the case that we often cannot simply lift a quote or a law from a particular moment in time or place in those texts as a proof-text for a particular perspective on a contemporary issue. But these texts often provide us with very worthwhile guidance on how to sift through both the fact and the opinions on a contemporary issue. They can sometimes offer us another way to frame the conversation (a conversation on giving tzedakah that might start with judgments on how the tzedakah will be used, gets broadened to a consideration of the dignity of the receiver when viewed through the lens of Jewish teachings, for example). And yes, sometimes, there is a clearly expressed ethical position in our tradition that, while not perhaps helping us determine whether a specific piece of legislation is well-worded or designed or not, can point to a Jewish way of thinking about what kind of changes get us closer to a vision of the best society we can be. And it’s never black or white. Society has changed a great deal over the centuries, and the sources we might consult may no longer do what we need them to do in a contemporary situation.
We live in an age when experts of all kinds are being challenged and questioned. That is not a bad thing, although it does sometimes make it harder for a society to chart a clear path forward on certain issues. When rabbis speak on issues of pressing relevance to our lives – issues that are also being debated by scientists, by politicians, by doctors, and more, it is to add to the breadth of perspectives that are to be found in the public square on these issues. Because if we believe that our faith tradition has more to offer than lighting candles on Shabbat, celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or keeping kosher, then it is the job of the teachers of that tradition to bring to light the enormous wealth of material from our tradition that can continue to help us navigate our path through life today. That life is shaped by a myriad of forces, decisions, expert guidance, and ethical choices, each and every day. And that is why rabbis need to talk about these issues too. And if you disagree with what you hear or what you read, present your arguments and offer alternative points of view. I believe that we can do all of that… amicably.
“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come.” So said President Obama in his State of the Union speech last night as he began to speak less of specific legislation and more of the values that he believed should shape how we, as a country, approach the choices we make and the kind of society we want to live in.
Earlier in the day I had participated in a multi-faith community prayer service at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester MA. The semester begins with a coming together that expresses a spiritual foundation upon which everything else is built at the college. Near the start of the ceremony they invited all present to stand to represent their faith tradition. Those who identified as Humanists, Atheists, and those who identified as “Agnostics, Seekers, and Questioners” were among the many groups called to stand. In other words, the whole college community was included. And without preaching, a presentation of the beauty and message of a variety of faith-based paths set the tone for the start of the semester.
However, even more than the ritual itself, I was struck and impressed by a conversation I had with a student after the service; a young woman who identified as Jewish, who came from a mixed-faith family background. I was particularly struck when she shared with me that studying in a college where faith community and spiritually-infused values are the foundation for everything that they do is so inspiring because there is a greater sense of purpose and meaning that feels so evident in the college community. Even though the college is overwhelmingly Catholic in its student make-up, the message has not been to be Catholic. Rather, she has been inspired to think more deeply about how her own sense of faith is defined and how it inspires a sense of purpose in her own life. And she is learning about the importance of being part of a larger community, working together, to live out that sense of purpose.
Hearing the President speak last night, and listening to this young woman earlier in the same day, I was reminded of what we know to be true but so often, caught up in the details of daily life, we forget. Whether as a country, a town, or a congregation, we easily lose our way and are more inclined to make poor, short-sighted choices, when we narrowly focus on immediate gains and don’t do more to convey the “why” of our institutions. We all want and need to be part of something greater than ourselves that is purpose driven.
President Obama asks, “who do we want to be?” In the remainder of his speech, he made it abundantly clear that this was not a solo question. He talked about economic justice, gender equality, LGBTQ equality, environmental concerns, international relations, the right to vote, and more. What we are creating together is incomplete when we leave some of us out.
For all of us who are part of communities, and for those of us leading congregations, this is the question that needs to lie at the heart of our mission statements and the focus of our being together. “Who do we want to be?” We may have different answers to that question but if asked with a broad and inclusive sense of “we,” the conversations that we have and the sense of purpose that we create will be ones that unify rather than divide us. Whatever else we may be doing in and with our congregations and communities, always returning to this question will anchor us and, as the President articulated last night, “… will make us stronger.”
When I was a college student, I remember an image from a class that has stuck with me. It was a photo of a uniformed police officer in the UK chasing after a black man. What information did the image convey? What conclusions did we draw from this picture?
Then we were shown another photograph of the same scene, but the camera lens had pulled back to reveal a broader perspective. Now we saw a third man running in front of the black man. What, it became evident, we were looking at was a black man, who was a plain-clothed detective, and a white man who was a uniformed police officer, both chasing after a criminal.
These images, and our readings of them, revealed many things to us. It brought our awareness to how the camera lens, whether fixed image or moving image, has the power to interpret the unfolding of events to us in ways that may or may not align with a fuller, more complex and nuanced picture of those events. And it also highlighted the ways in which we read situations and images through the lens of our own stereotypes and assumptions that we are always superimposing on what we think we are seeing unfolding.
Today, I know that there are thousands of people who are angry and upset about the police shooting of a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, who are peacefully protesting and marching and conveying their pain not only at a particular verdict but at the larger set of societal patterns that it highlights. I know this because I’ve heard about the extensive community organizing and planning and the opportunities to march peacefully that one of our colleagues, Rabbi Susan Talve, has been directly engaged and involved with.
But if you based your knowledge of how the community in Ferguson is responding to the news solely on where the lenses of media cameras are focused, you would think that violent and angry protest is all that this community is capable of. And that would be untrue. As Rabbi Talve shared earlier today in a webinar organized by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: “That’s not the story here. We can’t let the media take over the narrative.” What is troubling is not only that the camera lens is hiding from those of us who are not physically present on the scene the larger picture of how the community is working toward change and calling for justice. In choosing to focus in on the violence of the minority, the media reinforces the images of black men being angry and violent. They contribute to the very stereotypes that lead to more black men being stopped on the street and the likelihood that they will be shot because a police officer sees them through a lens that leads them to believe that they are interacting with someone prone to violence and anger. The narrative reinforces and reproduces the very situation that the community is seeking to address.
Rabbi Talve explained that the demand for justice goes beyond the specifics of what happened when a police officer shot Michael Brown and whether or not this officer acted appropriately. Rather, this is one in a string of incidents that highlights how systemic racism leads to these kinds of outcomes. When we focus in closely to what Missouri police protocols permit an officer to do and under what circumstances they may draw and fire their gun at someone, it may be concluded that this particular officer acted within these protocols. But if we pull back the lens and look at the bigger picture we may ask different questions.
If we see clear signs, as I believe we do, that racism continues to play a significant role in how black men are seen and treated in public space, then these are some of the questions that we might ask:
- If we value the preservation of human life as the highest goal, and we truly mean that to apply to all lives, are there protocols and methods or tools that police officers could be retrained to use that, while enabling them to enforce law and remain safe, would minimize the need to resort to deadly force?
- Have we, in fact, put in place procedures to ensure that the use of deadly force is truly the last resort?
- Have we spent time and effort to ensure that our police officers, whether in small towns or large cities, have the training and education and the cultural competency that can help counter inbuilt systemic racism?
- Is this something that needs to be tackled at a national scale to ensure that all police forces have access to the same resources, training, and expectations?
I think that a great deal of the anger and frustration that we see goes beyond the rather unusual decision of a grand jury to prevent this case from going to trial. What is missing right now is any willingness, at least publicly, for those in positions of political, legal, and police authority to step forward and say, “let’s sit down together with members of the larger community and try to better understand what these larger concerns are. Let’s look at how we do our work and see if there are new rules, programs, or other steps that we could put in place to minimize the loss of life in these situations in the future.”
I could cite Jewish sources on the value of preserving life. But those sources won’t help us find a path forward in Ferguson until we are able to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others. And before we all jump to conclusions and debate and analyze based on the very incomplete pictures that most of us have, let’s start by pulling back the lens and asking whether we truly know what is happening to the left and right of where the cameras are currently pointing. And if we don’t, let’s begin by listening more closely to the communities who are crying out to be heard.
I’ve never actively sought out or consulted with a medium, or anyone who made claims to be able to communicate with those who have crossed over. But on this week, following up from my colleague Tsafi Lev’s piece yesterday on the possibility of spirits of the dead communicating with us, I’d like to share the story of what happened to me the first year I led a Rosh Hashanah service.
Now, I should preface this story with the knowledge that, traditionally, Judaism has been quite clear that we should not consult with mediums—there is a biblical prohibition (Leviticus 19:31). At the same time, we have the dramatic story of King Saul (I Samuel, 28), who had himself banned such people from his Kingdom, consulting in secret with the Witch of Endor, to get one last piece of advice from the prophet Samuel, at that time deceased. What I find fascinating about both the biblical prohibition and the story in Kings is that, while we may not seek guidance in this way, our tradition clearly recognizes that such a thing is possible and that people who have the ability to communicate with the other side exist. Whatever you believe to be true, there’s certainly a rich history and folklore in our tradition on this subject.
So, back to my story. I was a student rabbi who had just started my first year of rabbinical school. I was contributing to the High Holy Days at a synagogue in northern England. On the second day I had been asked to provide a less formal, creative service that would appeal to families with children, and so I was on the bima taking the lead for that particular morning. About 20 minutes before the end of the service, I noticed a middle-aged blond woman in business attire enter the sanctuary and take a seat. I thought it a little strange to arrive so late in the proceedings, but being a visitor to the community I had no idea if she was known to others or not.
When the service came to an end, a number of people came up to me but most of the congregation quickly moved toward another room for the Kiddush. The blond-haired woman approached me and the first things she said was “I have a message for you.” Her eyes fluttered and the tone of her voice changed, and she proceeded to share a message that had less to do with who might be doing the communicating, and more to do with where I was in that moment in my life and the decisions that I knew lay before me. They were framed in such a way that, as I listened, I was drawn in and fascinated by what was unfolding before me, while also maintaining a healthy skepticism that this might be a con and it was easy enough to make my own connections between the words she shared and the situation that I was applying them to. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but as I was trying to decide, she snapped out of the altered state.
Speaking quite normally, she explained that she was driving by the synagogue on her way back from a business meeting. She didn’t know this was a synagogue, but she received a strong message to enter the building. So she pulled up, sat down, and knew she had to wait until the end of the service to speak with me. She told me she didn’t control when these messages came and that she had learned just to be the messenger and those that she delivered messages to would figure out what they meant to them. I asked for her business card (which did not list her as a Medium), thanked her, and she promptly left. I went to join the rabbi and the congregation at the Kiddush, and didn’t say a word of any of this to any of them. It felt very surreal.
I’m still not certain what I experienced that Rosh Hashanah of 2001. I wrote and thanked the woman, but never had any further interaction or communication with her. The words she shared with me that day were words that I heard to be of direct relevance to the fork in the road where I felt that I was standing at that moment in my life. I don’t know if I would say that she helped me choose which fork in the road to take, but when I made my choice, her words echoed in my mind, providing reassurance that I had made the right one. A Medium or a Messenger? In Hebrew, the latter is a malach—which we more typically translate as “Angel.”
I’m no more certain today than I was then of what is true or what is real. But whenever anyone approaches me with,
“Rabbi, I have a story, but I’m not sure if you’ll believe me…” I’m ready to listen.
“Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. “ (in Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, by Dani Shapiro, p.3)
There is an old saying, from the Yiddish that asks how should we define a tzadik? Tzadik, from the same root as tzedek or tzedakah, literally means one who is righteous and just; it is usually used to describe someone who is wise and highly respected. But the old Yiddish saying defines the tzadik as “one who makes new mistakes.”
It was the great Jewish philosopher and expounder, Maimonides, in the 13th century, who taught that the final stage of teshuvah— repenting for one’s mistakes—is that, would we find ourselves in the same situation again, we would not repeat that mistake. Now, I know that a mistake is not the same as a failure.
Failure can be the lack of a desired outcome, even when we did our very best and didn’t do anything wrong. But the errors we make in life—errors of judgment, lack of effort, poorly chosen words, unethical choices … these are forms of failure. To err is human, but our ability to pull ourselves back from harmful patterns of behavior, to reflect on what has gone wrong, and to choose our response when we are aware of our failures—this is a vital part of life’s journey. And our Torah and traditions teach us that this is an important part of our spiritual journey too, as individuals and as a community of faith.
Take, for example, the story of our first great patriarch—Abraham. His journey from his homeland—the land of his father to a new place that God will show him is not just a physical journey. It represents the spiritual journey that takes him to a faith in one God, and a sense of purpose and meaning in life that is about establishing something that will go on long after his life is over.
Let’s take a look at how that story begins:
(Gen 12) God said to Abram, “Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”
Now, receiving a message like that could go to one’s head. All these promises of greatness, and bountiful blessings—you’ve got to be something a bit special to warrant God’s attention in this way. Was Abraham God’s golden boy?
What’s interesting is what happens next in the story. Abram, we are told, leaves just as God has commanded. He stops near Beth El and builds an altar. And then…
(12:10) There was a famine in the land. Abram headed south to Egypt to stay there for a while, since the famine had grown very severe in the land. As they approached Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarai, “I realize that you are a good-looking woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will assume that you are my wife and kill me, allowing you to live. If you would, say that you are my sister. They will be good to me for your sake, and through your efforts, my life will be spared.”
Barely 4 verses earlier, God was promising Abram greatness and blessings. What must Abram be thinking at this moment… famine, entering a land with customs and practices that put his very life at risk? This is not the only time in Abram’s life that he will experience things not going as planned. The Mishnah, in Avot (5:3) tells us that Abraham experienced 10 testing times in his life. A variety of commentaries offer different lists of what the ten are—some are drawn only from the Biblical text and some also include events from Abraham’s life that we only find in rabbinic midrash.
We see in these stories that, even in the midst of the very start of the spiritual journeys that led to the creation of our people and our faith tradition, failure and struggle are integral to that story.
We may have a sense of mission, or a goal that we think we are aiming toward. We may be infused initially with great enthusiasm about heading toward our goal. But then life takes an unexpected turn. Like the famine that sent Abram to Egypt, we are starved of the means to immediately get to our perceived destination.
This can be about life in general, but much more frequently it is about the specifics of our lives. It might be about a new venture at work, or the implementation of a new strategy. We may have some clarity of vision but, just a short while into the project, we come up against challenges—personnel, resources, bureaucracy… and we have to take a detour, or reassess. Sometimes we can’t get to where we thought we were headed… at least, not at first.
What happens when we fail? What would keep us on this path of striving to live by such high ideals and ethics when we don’t always receive the reward of success and a life without challenge? Don’t we sometimes have days, or years, when we find ourselves wondering what it’s all about, when we see others around us, who don’t appear to be better than us, succeeding where we are failing? Don’t we get tempted, like the school child who isn’t willing to accept the lessons of failure, to cheat?
‘Look!’, we are told by the Rabbis of old, “at our spiritual ancestor, Abraham.” Not just one bad day, or one bad year, but 10 tests! Our spiritual life journey, even if we were the founding patriarch, does not teach us that a life of faith is a life of success. It teaches us that a life of faith is a life of resilience. A life in which we realize that we can gain wisdom from the downs as well as the ups of life.
Perhaps the key to success is failure. If by “success” we mean how much we progress up the career ladder, how much money we earn, how big a house we have, what exotic places we went on vacation, then I don’t think this is a lesson we want or need.
But if, instead, by success we mean how we respond in times of challenge and need to each other, whether we reflect on our failures or mistakes with humility and self-awareness, whether we continue to strive to be a mensch even when life is getting us down, and whether we aspire to be what some of our Yiddish-speaking ancestors defined as the tzadik—one who makes new mistakes … if that is what success in this life looks like then, yes indeed, the key may lie in our failures, and the lessons and the resilience that arises from them.
“Where there is faith, there are fewer beliefs. You use beliefs to shore up opinions, rather than a relationship with the cosmos… Faith is the function – the deep, deep function. So when you use the word ‘faith’ as a noun, it doesn’t work. ‘I should have faith so, nu, I should go to the grocery store and see if I can buy some faith.’ It doesn’t go that way. So what is faith? Faith is a ‘faith-ing’; it is a verb, it is an activity, it is a function. And it goes like this: ‘I open myself up the Central Intelligence of the Universe so that I might live for the purpose for which I was made.’”
These words come from an interview with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l, from a documentary film still in production, Beyond Belief. As I prepare myself for the High Holy Days this year, I’m spending more time than usual with the specific liturgy that occupies the prayer services of the season. We are preparing some draft material from the Reform movement’s forthcoming (2015) High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, and so I’ve been paying close attention to how some of the contemporary material has been selected to complement and, depending on how it is used by the prayer leader, sometimes to replace the traditional liturgy.
During my own youth I struggled enormously with what appeared to be the predominant themes of the High Holy Days; worshiping a “King” who sat in judgment over us and decided between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur whether we would be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death in the year to come. Actually, struggle is the wrong word. I outright rejected that set of images. And, for a long time, I had nothing to replace them with. I was able reestablish a real love for Judaism when I learned how to approach the breadth of our tradition more as a cultural anthropologist. Then much of it became a thing of great beauty – ancient ideas that fulfilled important purposes that were still meaningful today, if only we translated some of these ideas into a more contemporary language; if we understood the difference between the form and the purpose.
Today, the only Book of Life I think about is the one in which I’m writing the pages each and every day. The High Holy Days becomes a time for some introspection to see if I’m living in alignment with who I think I want to be and what I think I should be doing or refraining from doing. I do my best to engage in the spiritual practice that Reb Zalman called “faith-ing.” Beliefs, he acknowledges, can get us into trouble, especially if we read the humanly-constructed words, stories, laws, and theologies of our religious traditions in fundamentalist ways.
That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do away with the particularist practices, prayers, teachings and rituals of Judaism. Once I’ve freed them from the shackles of belief, I’m able to appreciate and enjoy them as part of a rich, cultural heritage. I’m able to explore and probe them to try and uncover the questions, aspirations, concerns, and values of those who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand. I have come to appreciate that the prayers we recite and the rituals we perform over the High Holy Days provide the scaffolding for the faith-ing work that I need to do for myself. Without them I might never take the time to engage in this important work of the spirit. There would never be the right day or the right season; there would always be something more pressing to do. And the different parts of the liturgy, and the many images and ideas embedded in them become a stepping-stone for my own inner contemplations, guiding me through different states and activities, from gratitude to remorse, to questioning, to realigning and rededicating, so that I can give myself the best shot at entering a new year renewed.
I’m looking forward to being able to pray with a new machzor that, through the diversity of language, theology, sources and teachings, helps us all to see that the ancient images do not describe a literal reality, but are simply doorways into the inner world of the soul, and the work that we are all invited to do at this season.
Rabbi Gurevitz is posting about individual texts and prayers from the forthcoming Mishkan haNefesh on her own blog, ‘Raise it Up’ throughout the month of Elul.
“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.” So says the author of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in a famous chapter that begins by telling us, “there is a time for every matter under heaven.” Yesterday was Tisha B’Av, a fast day which traditionally commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in ancient Jerusalem and all subsequent tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Last night, as I studied together with congregants, we looked at a story found in the Talmud (Gittin 55b) that attributes the destruction of the second temple to sinat hinam—baseless hatred. The story demonstrates how powerful emotions such as humiliation, pride, shame, inaction, and revenge unleash a destructive series of events on the people. And it all begins with words—an act of speech that contains the power to hurt and to harm in real, material ways. At every turn in the story, the question must be asked, “what if he had said…? What if they had said…? Did they say something in private? Should they have spoken in public?” I am a struck by the complexity of applying the Jewish ethical teachings on shmirat lashon (guarding the tongue) —taking great care with our words and lashon hara (literally “evil tongue”)—negative speech/slander/gossip in real life situations. When must we speak out, and when ought we to consider silence in order to listen, observe, and witness?
Over the past few weeks I’ve read with sadness as some friends online have shared that they have been “unfriended” or have themselves “unfriended” someone with whom they have a profound difference of perspective over the war between Israel and Hamas. These are indeed challenging times as we consider the impact of our words and the challenge of responding to Kohelet’s observation with thought and care—when is it a time to be silent and when is it a time to speak?
There have been times when speech is absolutely necessary. Those representing Israel must speak in the public sphere; to the media, to the UN, to the people of Israel and the people of Gaza. Those who seek to defend Israel’s absolute right to defend itself from terrorist attack must gather and speak in public venues to demonstrate that Israel does not stand alone. Those who investigate and learn something that can further our understanding of the practices and tactics of Hamas, and of the Israel Defense Forces, must speak. And there are times, using the tools of social media, that we feel that we must share information that illustrates an important truth or an important need.
When, then, might it be a time for silence? I have read literally hundreds of postings and articles on the war this past month. Some I like, because they accord with my already pre-existing opinions and positions. Some I find challenging, because they share a perspective that, while it may contain important truths, are inconvenient because they do not accord with how I wish to frame things. There are things that I read, and I think most of us know them when we see them, that are so strident in how they express the certainty of one way of looking at things that it appears that the primary goal is to antagonize those who see differently, and not to educate on some important matter of fact. Those are the moments when it is easy to be drawn into a war of words—and when, in fact, we might do better to remain silent. I can like something without hitting “like” and I can disagree with something without needing to use the blunt tools of social media expression to bring the poster to task for what I perceive to be their misguided perspective.
Another time when silence may be better than the wrong words, or well-intentioned but clumsily expressed words? When I read the postings from my dear friend, a Muslim married to a Palestinian, who is in pain. I notice that she does not share political pieces, but simply her pain at bearing witness to the pain and suffering of her people. Could I counter with questions about who has caused those deaths and injuries, or talk about the use of human shields? What would be the purpose of my words? What is the emotion and the need expressed in her words? My silence could, of course, be interpreted as a lack of caring. But my silence is meant as an expression of respect—respect for the reality of the pain and suffering. I wish to say nothing that will diminish my friend’s pain. My friendship is more important.
As we discussed these, and other scenarios, in our gathering last night, what became clear to us all is that it is very difficult to discern with clarity when to speak and when to remain silent. Simply carrying that awareness might bring with it a humility that accompanies our word—an awe that contains within it the knowledge of how much, in any moment, we don’t know. There are times when we still must speak, and times when we still must respond. But, perhaps, if we take a little longer to reflect on our felt need to do so, and our perception of someone else’s need to express something different, our words can contribute more to all that we seek to create, and do less harm to our friendships and to our society as a whole.
Jon Stewart, in his July 21 episode of The Daily Show, viscerally demonstrated what many of us, I am sure, are experiencing on our Facebook feeds and our email inbox when it comes to postings on Israel and Gaza. Take a look at his attempt to talk about Israel.
At the same time as I support Israel’s right to defend itself in a war with Hamas 100%, I do believe there is room for respectful and thoughtful analysis of the broader context as we try to understand why we have arrived at this moment, and what might lie ahead. There are those who are uncomfortable with that conversation, because they don’t think it’s the right time to raise anything that might be critical of Israel’s choices and policies, but it’s not really possible to have the conversation if we’re not willing to look at those choices. I don’t think that’s helpful. I don’t think we need to silence opinion and conversation, but I also don’t believe that this broader conversation about the peace process can be applied to the specific battle at hand today. Whatever both sides may have done or failed to do in the past, today’s battle, if you identify with the fate of the Jewish people and the Jewish State of Israel, is about Israel defending its citizens from indiscriminate attack, and nothing about the larger context of the peace process will shake my certainty that they must do what must be done to achieve that goal.
Among Jews, there are a wide spectrum of opinions and feelings about what is happening in Israel and Gaza right now. But on certain issues I would hope we would substantially find agreement:
1) Hamas is a terrorist organization. It has stated publicly that it seeks to cause harm to its own people as a way of furthering international condemnation of Israel. To that end, it operates from mosques, schools, and in the midst of heavily populated areas. What it is doing from these locations is firing rockets indiscriminately on the civilian population of Israel.
2) No nation state in the world would tolerate for one moment this kind of bombardment. Israel is completely within its rights to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens. When the safety of your citizens and the stability of your country is at stake, you do whatever it takes. Those who speak of a larger context or the suffering of the Gazan people are conflating issues that should not be conflated. We can still talk about the larger question of what is or is not happening with the peace process, and where Israel bears responsibility for poor judgment along the way along with poor choices on the part of the Palestinians. But none of that mitigates Israel’s right to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens when they are being indiscriminately fired upon. That is an act of war, and Hamas has chosen to declare war on Israel. And if you were living in Israel right now, you would not expect anything less of your government.
3) Even while defending Israel’s right and need to take the actions it is taking, as human beings we can still have compassion for all who are suffering through this war. When Gazan civilians die in the midst of the battle, we should cry for the loss of lives. When children in southern Israel have PTSD because they have now lived through years of having seconds to run for cover when the sirens sound, we should have compassion. When Israeli extremists murder a Palestinian teenager we should be disgusted and bring them to justice (as Israel is). And when young Israeli adults are serving their country in the IDF and will be called upon to do difficult things that will lead to the loss of lives, we should think about the impact that war has on all who have to fight it. There are no easy choices.
When it comes to thinking about and talking about Israel, I’m sure that many of you, like me, have been listening to the news and reading many online articles about the situation. Some information is helpful, some inaccurate. Some are naïve, some are antagonistic. Some draw lines of connection that are helpful and some are profoundly misleading.
We all have a tendency to read more from those who already think like us. So how do we navigate our way through the quagmire of information? One might try to distinguish between what is descriptive and what is opinion. But this isn’t always useful. We might hear a news report that begins by telling us how many Gazans died today and how many times Israel fired on Gaza. That is descriptive. But if only as an afterthought is it mentioned, in passing, that Israel did so in response to the several hundred rockets fired by Hamas at their civilian populations, then the information is not being communicated accurately. When Israel is criticized because more Gazans were killed or injured today than Israelis, that is simply a preposterous way to judge and evaluate what is happening and what Israel needs to do to protect its citizens in this war. Approximately 7 million Germans died in WWII and 420,000 Americans died. Was America guilty of a disproportionate response to Hitler? Where opinions clash, it is often not about the facts on the ground per se, but about the framing of these facts, where there are enormous differences in perspective.
And then, when we try to expand the conversation to understand this recent flare up in war with Hamas in the larger context of the long-term lack of a peaceful two-state solution, what we have are many pieces of a puzzle, and they don’t all fit neatly together. So we can talk about the need for a settlement freeze and other choices that Israel could make to better lay the groundwork for a different kind of way of thinking about the Palestinian question. And we can talk about it, as many Israelis already do, independent of an all-inclusive final peace settlement. But if we’re going to talk about those things, we also have to talk about the choices that Hamas has made to take 10 years of potential economic development in Gaza and pour those resources into weapons and tunnels designed to kill Israelis. When we talk about Israel’s policies and choices, we cannot do so in a vacuum that excludes the context of Palestinian policies and choices.
Part of what makes this so complex are the narratives that each side tell about the other; narratives that are often deeply flawed. I’ve often argued for the need to listen carefully to the Palestinian narrative; not because we are required to agree with their framing of their plight, but because we cannot understand what they are doing or why when Israel seems to make a step in the right direction (like withdrawing from Gaza) they are rewarded with terror attacks. It’s not so easy to change someone else’s narrative. So, for example, Hamas will often make reference to the success that the Algerians had in making the French leave. They hold that story up as a model for themselves; make life so intolerable for an invading colonial power that eventually they will leave. But the problem is that, as much as Palestinians define Israel as a Western colonial insertion in their land, that is not what Israel is, and is most certainly not how Israel understands itself. The people of Israel don’t have a “France” to go back to.
And so, when Hamas ramps up the terrorism, Israelis who will not be terrorized out of their homes will fight back with all they’ve got. On the other hand, if we listen to Bibi Netanyahu and observe his policy of continually increasing the breadth of settlement activity, it would appear that he and many others operate with a narrative that thinks that if Israel just continues to establish itself and build itself up, the Palestinians will eventually just give up and move to one of the surrounding Arab countries, or accept a minority status in a Jewish state. Given the Palestinian narrative in which they see the creation of the State of Israel as having denied them their sovereign rights in their own homes and villages, that is a naïve and foolish policy to pursue.
But it gets more complicated. As Jews, we often focus on Israel’s choices and policies. Those on the right support the Netanyahu narrative. Those on the left want to change the narrative to one that could open the pathway to peace. But… that pathway doesn’t exist if only one side changes their narrative. While Hamas continues to operate out of its narrative, then peace simply cannot be—they will not let it be. I’m not sure, but I think Mahmoud Abbas might wish to change the Palestinian narrative, but it is challenging for him to do so without great danger from fundamentalists on his right. Perhaps that is why he is being quiet during this Gaza war. Perhaps he understands that nothing will ultimately change until Hamas is taken out of the equation. Israel understands this too.
In the meantime, let us pray that this war can come to an end soon. Let us pray for the safety of civilians everywhere. Let us pray for Israel’s soldiers, and let us pray for safety of Jews around the world—Jews in Turkey, Jews in France, and elsewhere where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks have already taken place. And let’s talk with one another; reach out to those with family in Israel, respectfully share thoughts and opinions about the larger issues, stand up for human rights when they are violated, and stand up for Israel when she acts to defend herself.
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A version of this article was delivered as my Shabbat sermon on Friday, July 18th. The original sermon can be viewed on the archive of our livestream (sermon begins at approx. the 40 min mark).
On Thursday, I landed in San Francisco on the first day of a family vacation. As I turned my phone back on as we pulled into the gate, the first news I saw was the announcement of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s passing. On Monday, my colleague Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan wrote eloquently about Reb Zalman’s overall approach to Jewish life—an approach to renewing the spiritual heart of Jewish practice. That approach to renewal, while leading to the creation of an organized group of students, communities, a rabbinic program, and much more under the umbrella of ALEPH (Alliance for Jewish Renewal), reached far beyond any particular denomination. And that was of Reb Zalman’s design. His gift did not fit in just one vessel, and he was eager to see the wisdom and innovation shared widely. I’m not sure that I can identify another rabbinic figure whose teachings and wisdom have, in our time, shaped and inspired so many others in so many different parts of Jewish life.
While I am ordained by Hebrew Union College, and work under the auspices of the Reform movement for a Reform congregation, my soul has been and continues to be rooted in Renewal, the teachings of Reb Zalman and the many other teachers that he inspired and empowered to spread their light in the world. In much of my work in Jewish communal settings, my reputation is for bringing spiritual awareness and practice into mainstream settings in ways that are accessible and experiential. When I stop and think about what, specifically, people are drawn to and respond to, so much comes from all I learned from Jewish Renewal.
Once a month, I offer a creative service which borrows Hayyim Herring’s label (from his book Tomorrow’s Synagogues Today)—”Ritual Lab.” In fact, this forum, which allows us to deepen our experience of our worship together and the inner meanings of our prayers, is my own iteration of “Interpretive Davening”—a gift from Reb Zalman and his students. Sometimes these services include chanting—a gift shared by Rabbi Shefa Gold, whose chanting wisdom was blessed, appreciated and encouraged by Reb Zalman. In one service, my cantorial soloist and I modeled before the congregation how to take a psalm and, one line at a time ,taking turns, read and drash on that line to more deeply experience and connect to the verses. A gift from Reb Zalman. Sometimes, at a Torah service, I’ve invited people to see if they feel ‘called’ to the Torah for an Aliyah because there is a teaching from the week’s parsha that connects to the fabric of their lives. And every week that I bless a bar or bat mitzvah student with a Mi Shebeirach blessing, I trust that the spirit will inspire an appropriate, spontaneous blessing in the moment that recognizes that student’s spiritual link to the Torah they have just shared with us. All this, and so much more I learned from Reb Zalman or from one of the many students who were inspired by him.
There is so much more Jewish creativity and spiritual inspiration, today found in settings across all denominations and none, that owes, either consciously or unconsciously, a debt to the gifts that Reb Zalman either taught directly or encouraged and blessed in others. Take the success of Storahtelling and the wonderful work of Amichai Lau Levi. Inspired by the earlier work of the Institute for Contemporary Midrash—a part of the Jewish Renewal world. Ever sat in a Jewish meditation service? Many of the early teachers who brought forth a practice that, for centuries, was primarily only to be found in mystical or Hasidic contexts, did so first to a receptive community in Jewish Renewal. Ever been transformed by a niggun—a wordless melody—at a Shabbat gathering? These tunes, lying at the heart of Hasidic musical spirituality, were brought into the heart of communal gatherings in the context of Jewish Renewal. Not only there, but so many of those who learned melodies and shared them first learned them in a Jewish Renewal setting. I know that I did, and all of my early work in Jewish communities, focusing on spirituality through music, prior to entering rabbinic school, was inspired by those experiences.
And there’s more. A couple of years ago a young woman, now a Youth Advisor, and I got talking at Kutz Camp, the leadership camp for the Reform movement. It turned out that I had been her religious school teacher in the UK 20 years ago! She told me that there were two things that she specifically remembered about those classes (I was amazed; I don’t think I can recall anything from Religious school at the age of 10). She remembered being shown how all the festivals fit to the seasons and had a different emotional feel, presented in a big pie chart diagram on the wall. And she remembered our classes on Eco-Kashrut. I taught these things because I had been inspired by my teacher, Reb Arthur Waskow, one of Reb Zalman’s earliest students. How incredible – Reb Arthur and Reb Zalman were talking and writing about Eco-Kashrut decades before these topics entered the mainstream awareness in other branches of Jewish life.
As I approach every festival, consider how to invite a community into an experience that will translate ancient words and rituals into the hills and valleys of an inner landscape that we are called upon to explore and come to understand, Reb Zalman’s teachings and the teachings of those he inspired are my guides time and time again.
Reb Zalman cared passionately about a Judaism that would be deeply meaningful and spirituality inspiring. He is the source and the inspiration for so much; truly a gift to us all.
While on the surface, the last two posts on this blog from my colleagues, Laura Duhan Kaplan and Joshua Ratner, are about two very different things, they are, I believe, both reflections on the shifting culture in which our Jewish lives and worlds are embedded. Sometimes, in our analysis of our field of focus, we can lose sight of a broader set of dynamics that may have as much, if not more, to tell us about a situation we are examining than some of the specifics of the situation itself.
Let’s start with Joshua’s concern that, at a recent rally for the three kidnapped boys in Israel, there was a stark lack of young people present. Likewise, he notes, at communal Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut events, the presence of a younger generation is often lacking. Is it that they don’t care? Are we dealing with a more self-centered generation than in the past? These are some of Joshua’s questions.
While there may be some partial truths there, I think a step back to look at the worlds that many of our teens and young adults are living in may be more instructive. And not just our teens and young adults, but many other segments of our communities too. One of the things that I’ve observed is that often, regardless of the topic or the issue, any Jewish gathering that aims to or claims to bring all sections of the community together often reaches none, or very few. Perhaps only those who are comfortably self-identified as the Jewish establishment will appear (those are the 50+ folk that Joshua saw in his crowd). They know that we are addressing them. Others may not be so sure unless we break things down and are more explicit about who we mean.
This is why there are many independent communities and minyanim that have popped up in recent years. Not necessarily identified along established denominational lines, they are, in part, a result of young Jews who are less interested in simply “belonging” to an established Jewish entity because it is already there, and are more interested in creating something that fits who they are, where they can be with like-minded folk. It is why, within a more established kind of Jewish congregation—one like my own where we are the most significant gathering place for Jews who come to us from 20 different towns—our ability to engage and connect with our members requires us to correctly identify many of the different groups and interests within our larger membership and provide a range of doorways in for those specific needs (creating many small gatherings and opportunities within the large). Its why many congregations realized that when you simply advertise “adult education” you always seem to get the same group of, primarily, empty-nesters and retirees in attendance. Its not that others aren’t interested in learning; it’s just that its only when the kids have left home that you finally have some time to do study for its own sake. Or perhaps you now begin to seek new realms of meaning now that not so much of that meaning-making is invested in raising children. That doesn’t mean we can never get other groups to come and learn with us. It just means we have to be really smart about what it is they need at other junctures of their lives.
So I’ve found teens and young adults to be very engaged with Israel, and deeply able to connect with the impact of the Shoah on Jewish peoplehood, but in places where they come to be with each other. Joshua and I shared the same community for a while. The year that we brought our annual Yom HaShoah observance into our community High School Tuesday evening gathering, it was very powerful to see a couple of hundred teens watch Holocaust survivors light candles, and hear the testimony of one of them. Several teens every year did the “Adopt a Survivor” program and personally got to know one survivor and commit to tell their story. It was clear that they had a connection in our debrief the following week. But do they come on a Sunday afternoon for a “communal” event? Not so much.
Laura’s very honest reflections on how, at an event that was meant to bring community together, she felt somewhat uncomfortable and disconnected from narratives being offered by Jewish leadership from another denomination is, I believe, another dimension of some of the same cultural phenomenon. On almost no topic are we a “one community” mindset. It is almost impossible for anyone to speak anymore and be accepted as “the voice” of the people, or even of a particular moment. Perhaps there was a time, in a more modernist era, where we were willing to let voices of authority speak on behalf of all of us—a Chief Rabbi (in the UK, for example; something that was far more accepted a few decades ago than it is now), a communal leader at a rally, an Op-Ed in a newspaper. But today, some of the most successful Jewish communal events are ones that focus on and celebrate plurality and diversity of voice—take the enormous world-wide success of Limmud, for example. Even on something where you might have assumed that, at least publicly, we’d all stand with one voice, it is the right to have even the minority voice heard that overrides any sense that doing so might undermine a perceived communal unity. Take the position of Jewish Voice for Peace on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), for example, and their recent role in a Presbyterian Church vote to partially divest from three companies doing business in Israel. Some are outraged by their presence in the public square of debate on Israel. But, if we take a step back from the issue and better understand our cultural context, in which we have celebrated and empowered those who are drawn to define and act upon their own sense of justice in a plurality of ways, we shouldn’t be surprised by the result.
Just to be clear, I’m not mourning the lack of perceived unity and peoplehood. Neither am I celebrating it. I’m simply describing the cultural landscape that I believe we are living in the ways that I see it. Simply better understanding it can, I believe, help us do our work in connecting Jews together, engaging Jews in communities, activities and causes, with more successful outcomes. Trying to get everyone at the same event, on the same page, and caring in the same way is a fruitless exercise. We can, however, be successful in creating or supporting many gateways, many voices, and many opportunities to be and do Jewish with each other.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.