On Friday, I visited with a group of 18-year olds participating in Habonim-Dror [Jewish Youth Movement] Workshop, a nine-month program of learning and service in Israel, with a liberal Labor Zionist perspective.
If you worry about the future of liberal Judaism, an hour with this group can heal you.
If you can’t make it to Israel for your hour of healing, read about my interview with one of the workshop students.
Tell me about one great educational aspect of your Workshop program: Jewish education doesn’t feel forced. I chose to be part of this program and I am enjoying it. Our learning is discussion-based. We took a serious Judaism course. We read some texts by Amos Oz. In one, he talks about the difference between a museum religion and a living religion. A museum religion you leave on the shelf; admire it; dust it off once in a while. A living religion changes with the times. It adapts; it is always being adapted.
What is the core of being Jewish? If I had to choose a core, I would say: Jewish values like “love your neighbor as yourself.” They lead to a Jewish way of life. Obviously, mitzvot about how we treat other people are value-driven. But so are the more ritual ones. Even practices like kashrut [keeping kosher], for which no one knows the reason, bring us back to values. These practices are mysterious so that we question them. They bring us to the intrinsic Jewish value of questioning everything.
What are your thoughts on God? I don’t know. Any conclusion I come to is not a real conclusion, because it’s not possible to know whether God exists or not. Someone can say they don’t believe in God, but believe the same thing as people who do say they believe in God. Belief is a lifestyle choice; it gives you a sense of meaning.
“The old man in the sky” is not the Jewish view of God. A Jewish view is more like the one I learned in elementary school: God is all around you; God is the air; everything has a piece of God. Judaism doesn’t have only one view of God.
Why do you think Judaism is important? Judaism feels important to me because it’s a part of me. Sometimes I think that religions have caused a lot of conflict. But then I realize people cause conflict, using religion as an excuse. I am still struggling with this question, to be honest. No matter why I think it’s important, it exists. I could not break myself off from it; I will always be associated with Israel and Judaism.
Why do you think Israel is important? Jews live in disparate, disconnected Jewish communities around the world. In some ways, Israel is a unifying factor among Jews around the world. It brings people together. In my mind, why ask if Israel should exist? It does exist. It is a Jewish state. It could be a really positive amazing place. I want it to be positive and I feel a sense of responsibility for it.
Israel today has a lot of issues. Religious and secular Jews do not always respect each other. Mizrachi Jews and migrant African workers are mistreated. Ideological settlers carry out price tag attacks [against Palestinians]. There is government corruption.
What do you think about the future of the Jewish people? Someone’s got to take responsibility for it.
Would you make aliyah? Maybe. I don’t know if aliyah is the best method for taking responsibility. We read some interesting texts in our Habonim-Dror history course. One said that the ultimate hagshamah (actualization) of the movement is aliyah. Another talked about how the movement started in Europe. One youth leader was running a Jewish club, but came to realize it was just a club for Jews; they weren’t doing anything Jewish. So they started doing Jewish activities but the club still had no center. So, he put Israel in the center. Originally, Israel was a method, not a value. The real value was the empowerment of young Jews.
Maybe there are other methods of empowering young Jews. You know that survey that came out this fall that said a lot of Jews are intermarrying and assimilating? A lot of people used it to say that Judaism is dying. We had an Orthodox rabbi come and tell us that Diaspora Jewry is dying. He said, if you’re not Orthodox and you don’t move to Israel your kids won’t be Jewish. I don’t agree.
There’s a lot we can do to enliven Judaism.
Image: Habonim-Dror semel (symbol). Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.
I am on Kibbutz Ein Dor, near the city of Afula in Northern Israel, visiting my 18-year-old son, a participant in the HabonimDror Workshop program. A road lined with trees circles the kibbutz. My late cat Yogi – my dreamtime wisdom guide — and I sit on a bench by the road, quietly contemplating. The air is still; the sky glows with twilight; the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold; the world is absolutely perfect for a human being.
Cosmic, messianic; a perfected world of beauty and peace; good for the human body, heart, and soul; the kind of dream I want to dwell in forever.
Until my alarm clock – an iPhone app — rings.
As I reach to turn it off, I see the notification: an unusual early morning email from the HabonimDror office. What parent would not be concerned?
I just wanted to inform everyone who may have heard about the suspected terrorist incident in Afula today that all of the Workshoppers are safe and on kibbutz. Nothing to worry about.
In an instant, my cosmic dream turns practical. My parent radar had received J’s reassurance. Relief at my son’s safety and trust in my parental connection fill me. Who needs email when your dream guide takes you astral traveling?
When I enter the kitchen, my husband says, “A stabbing on a bus. I noticed it in The New York Times. You might get more info from Haaretz.”
Sure enough, Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, already has a full article posted. There I read that a Palestinian who entered Israel illegally has stabbed an Israeli soldier, claiming revenge for his jailed relatives. A 16-year-old Palestinian and a 19-year-old Israeli. The 16-year-old is in custody and the 19-year-old is dead.
What parent would not be concerned?
Strip away all the politics and that’s what you have here: children. Motivated by terrible beliefs, traumatic experiences, a sense of responsibility, a desire for meaning, or a social current beyond their control, children take on what they imagine to be adult decisions.
At least, that’s how I see it through my parental eyes. Through my eyes still heavy with the dream of a world perfect for all human beings. I see two boys, not two representatives of countries or social movements, caught in tragedy. A universalist perspective, to be sure.
Just one year ago, the blogosphere buzzed with commentary on an exchange between Rabbis Sharon Brous and Daniel Gordis. Rabbi Brous suggested we try empathizing with our enemies as fellow human beings. Rabbi Gordis wrote that if we do so, we betray our own people.
Their exchange raised a familiar philosophical problem: moral vs. ethical commitments. And the double demand they place on us.
Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit defines morals as imperatives based on our connection with a group. A moral mode disposes us to favor those closest and most like us. Ethics, Margalit says, are formulated when we step outside the group’s perspective. Ethics express a reasoned view about what is best overall.
Margalit does not favor one approach over the other, but notes that both have a role to play in healing trauma. Group solidarity gives meaning to loss and turmoil; universal awareness makes clear that evil anywhere affects all human life.
On Wednesday morning, I felt a double demand. My first concern was for my own son. When that was satisfied, I stepped into a larger view. The relationship that connects me so deeply with my son became a basis for empathy towards the sons of others.
Of course, I am not in Israel or Palestine. My personal traumas come from non-ideologically motivated injuries. Though I try to understand others, I do not stand in their shoes. It might well be harmful to preach empathy when self-protection is needed. Or to preach self-protection when empathy is needed.
Small-group solidarity is only one part of the fullness of human experience.
The symbolism of my dream seems so much deeper now.
I sit at the edge of a circular road. Inside the road sits the kibbutz, home of a tightly knit group. As I look outwards, I see a world perfect for all human beings. I sit with Yogi the cat, who embodies the full experience. She is both inside my family and outside my species. In her calm cat pose, she watches as I shift between seeing her in these two ways. She does not judge either one as better or worse, but understands that both are living parts of our relationship.
She brought me all the way to Afula so that I could see what she sees.
Image: Kibbutz Ein Dor, kibbutzimofisrael.netzah.org. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.
The yahrzeit for slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, passed with scant notice here a few days ago on the 12th of Heshvan. November 4 will mark the date on the secular calendar, now eighteen years later. Perhaps by then we will have returned Rabin’s memory to its proper place in our discourse and our prayers.
In the days after the assassination, the Whitman poem “O Captain, My Captain!”, set to music in Hebrew, became the theme for those who mourned Rabin’s death at the hands of an extremist Jew. The poem had originally been written to mourn the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The shock of that moment, just when Israel seemed to be on the brink of peace with the Palestinians, signaled another painful block in the road.
In 1999 the Prime Minister Ehud Barak remembered Rabin at a memorial in Oslo: I still mourn the death of Yitzhak, my commander and mentor. And I tell you, Yitzhak, that you are fallen dead, but your spirit and will are stronger than ever. So today, I pledge to you, Yitzhak, to all our neighbors, and to the whole world—to travel the course you charted and to finish the journey you’ve led towards security and peace. Only then, when we reach this destination, will we proclaim, in the words of Walt Whitman, “O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done; The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won; O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells; Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills.” And here today I bring to all of you the prayer that we will see in the not too distant future the fulfillment of the vision of Psalms about Jerusalem: “May peace be within your walls, tranquility within your palaces.” This is our hope. This is our responsibility.
Peace would be costly, including withdrawal from most of the territory occupied in the 1967 Six Day War, a painful retrenchment. It would mean facing the issue of Jerusalem, with swaths of Arab East Jerusalem being open to negotiation.
Rabin brought much of Israel together under the banner of peace. The first Intifada had led many Israelis to understand that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza carried unsustainable costs. Compromises were necessary. But in the ensuing years, and the second Intifada, many Israelis grew to despair that the Palestinians could be trusted to make peace.
So many attempts, so many failures. Another round of talks have brought out the optimists, the pragmatists, the pessimists and the naysayers yet again. I reside in the realm of pragmatic optimisim. It must be the case that peace is possible.
Now, 18 years after Rabin’s murder, where are we? Are we any closer to peace? Does the legacy of Rabin’s courage and leadership linger and inspire as he did before his violent end?
On the night of Rabin’s assassination, he was carrying the words to the song “Shir Lashalom | A Song for Peace” in his jacket pocket – it was the theme of the huge peace rally in Tel Aviv that night. After the shooting, the bloody paper illustrated the wound to the prayer, and peace itself.
In memory of our Captain, Yitzhak Rabin, may his memory be for a blessing, I pray for a renewal of faith in the possibility for peace. Let us sing Shir Lashalom as our prayer once again. Rabin taught us to reach beyond our despair, our hurts and angers, and even our realistic doubts, and to create the reality that gives full expression to the dream of our people: to live in peace as a free people in our land.
Shir Lashalom | A Song for Peace
Let the sun rise, the morning shine,
The finest of prayers can bring us back no more.
And he whose flame has been extinguished,
Who’s buried in the ground,
No bitter wails will wake him, will him restore.
No one can bring us back from the dark of the grave.
Here, neither the joy of victory
Nor paeans from the brave can help.
Just sing therefore a song to peace
Don’t whisper prayers.
Far better, sing a song to peace,
And sing it way out loud.
Let the sun in through the flowers.
Don’t look back, let the fallen rest.
Raise your eyes in hope, not through the barrel of a gun.
Sing a song to love and not to victories.
Don’t say “a day will come” – go bring that day yourself,
For it is not a dream.
In all the squares, ring out a song for peace.
When news broke last week that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to a new round of peace talks, how did you feel? Excited that we might finally be on the cusp of a paradigm shift? Dismissive that this will be yet another exercise in unrequited, heightened expectations? Or angry that we still bother to negotiate with, and offer land back to, the Palestinians, seeing them instead as an existential threat to Israel’s well-being?
I suggest that many American Jews, and even more Israelis, sit somewhere between the second and third options. We are burned out by two Intifadas, the failure of negotiations post-Oslo, the constant hate being broadcast by Hamas-controlled Gaza and, to a lesser extent, areas of the West Bank, and the overwhelming chaos surrounding Israel’s borders in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. We have come to accept a defensive posture, preferring security and stability even if it means giving up on the hope of an actual peace agreement that deep down we know is both morally and strategically necessary. I call this the Av mentality. The first nine days of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar is a period punctuated by sadness and despair. As the culmination of the period of “Three Weeks” that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of Av internalizes death and destruction: Jewish mourning rituals are adopted, such as refraining from weddings, parties, and other public gatherings, and some people refrain from shaving or haircutting. The Three Weeks comes to its apex with Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively), and which subsequently came to be associated with myriad Jewish catastrophes, from the razing of Jerusalem to the expulsion of both British and Spanish medieval Jewry. This is a period of time for mourning, fasting, living with regret and despair. We do not so much hope for new beginnings as bemoan what we have lost.
So it is fitting, and more than serendipitous, that the agreement to hold peace talks came after Tisha b’Av, just as the month of Av transitions into Elul. The month of Elul is a time for reflection and contemplation, but also a time for preparation for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. It is a time of teshuva, of taking stock of our failures over the past year and to begin the process of forgiving others for their sins against us. It is both a time of assessment of past wrongs and a time of re-commitment to doing more and living better lives in the coming year. We seek out the restoration of relationships with those to whom we have become estranged, striving to replace anger and pain with love and mutual respect.
It is precisely this modality of Elul that we need to embrace when we react to news of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Remaining in the defensive posture of Av–or worse, a level of hopeless indifference and assumption of perpetual lamentation–does little beyond promoting the status quo. It is neither spiritually nor politically satisfying.
Instead, we should use the occasion of Elul to approach the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as one deserving of forgiveness, self-criticism, and love, rather than blame, defensiveness, and anger. The month of Elul invites us to come together in fellowship and mutual understanding. It is not a time for pollyanish hopes of happiness and kumbaya, of “forgive and forget,” but a time for doing the hard, yet sacred, work of tikkun, of deep, heartfelt, repair and forgiveness. If we have the courage to do so, the audacity to believe in the perpetual potential of transformation and the willingness to do what is necessary to achieve it, then maybe, just maybe, the year 5774 will be the year that peace finally comes to Israel.
If we fail to treat others, even the worst among them, humanely, than it is we who ceed the ‘moral high ground’, and the greatest values of our country will be undermined.
California Prison Blues (Johnny Cash is dead and he ain’t comin’ to play at Folsom)
I woke up this morning feeling empathy for an imprisoned, convicted killer, an Aryan Brotherhood member, Todd Ashker of Pelican Bay State Prison in California. What the hell is wrong with me! He’s a killer. He’s an anti-semite. And, he’s joined three other gang leaders in the prison to start a second hunger strike against conditions in the California prison system. 600 inmates have joined them. These are men who have tried in court and found guilty of killing innocent people – they shouldn’t get to dictate terms.
Still, the conditions in solitary confinement have long been under the scrutiny of our legal system. “Conditions in [solitary] may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” wrote U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in 1995.
Recently, Israel approved the transfer of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of good-will before renewed peace talks begin. To be sure, these are some of the worst of the worst. Some have been imprisoned for more than 20 years. It must be painful for families to watch the killers of loved ones go free. How can we let them go?
To this Netanyahu said, “There are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of them.”
Guantanamo Bay opened way back in 2002. It became an international symbol for America’s failure to exercise due process, a bedrock of it’s own legal system. Five years later candidate Obama said we needed to shut it down. Then in January 22, 2009, soon after his first inauguration, he signed an Executive Order that was to begin the shut down of the prison. He said, “We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world. We intend to win this fight. We’re going to win it on our terms.”
By his account, we have not reached the ‘moral high ground.’
A Guiding Tale: In the worst cities that ever were, the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, there was murder, rape, theft – and those were good days. Of the inhabitants of these two cities there was only one, just one righteous man who did not murder, rape or steal.
“Stop what you are doing. Don’t do that,” He would say to his townsmen. They would just laugh. Still, every day, he would go out and plead with them to stop the evil, and end the pain they were causing each other. Every day they would laugh at him.
After years and years of his appeals to their better selves and their laughing at this lonely morally grounded man, one brute asked the man, “Old man, why do you come out here and tell us to stop every day, when you must know by now that we never listen to you?”
“At first,” said the man, “ I kept repeating my message to try and change your ways. I continued to say them so that you would not change me.”
The President said of closing Guantanamo, that we would ‘win it on our terms.’ I understand that to mean that the United States of America would not be cowed by terror, that the hideous acts of terrorists would not change the character of our country. Twelve years after 9/11, we are still a country that is unsure of the balance of security and privacy that we are comfortable with.
The President said that we would “win on our terms,” but without due process, and without humane care – even in prisons for the hardest killers in the system – “We may be human beings, but we cease to be humans.”
In every case, perhaps especially those cases that draw on our anger and desires for revenge, let us not become what we despise.
There is a big election coming up on Wednesday, one many American Jews might not be aware of. In response to January’s parliamentary elections, Israel will elect new Ashkenazi and Sephardi Chief Rabbis. While the election for Sephardi Chief Rabbi has important implications for the future power of Rav Ovadya Yosef, the highly influential and controversial former Chief Rabbi who has several sons running for the position, I am far more interested in the outcome of the election for the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi: I find myself in the unusual position of hoping that the “liberal” candidate, Rabbi David Stav, loses to his more right-wing rivals. Rabbi Stav hails from the National-Religious movement and is therefore “Modern Orthodox” by Israeli standards (he does, after all, wear a knitted kippah). He has been denounced as “wicked” by the Sephardic religious party Shas for trying to help people establish their Jewish identity and therefore get married. And he promises “real revolution” if elected. All this should sound good to a liberal Jew like myself, right?
The problem with a Stav election, however, is that it likely will mean the continued vitality of the Chief Rabbinate (or Rabbanut in Hebrew). The Rabbanut itself is a $5.6 million institution, created by the British in 1921, that has become a calcified, corrupt, politicized, and reactionary body. It prevents women from getting divorces from abusive husbands, prevents consenting adults from getting married, and vehemently opposes Jewish pluralism within Israel. As this op-ed in the Jerusalem Post recently put it:
What has been going on is nothing short of a disgrace. If there ever was a public institution which has become totally discredited in the eyes of the people it is meant to serve, it is surely the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Many are rightly asking: if this the depth to which this institution has sunk, is it perhaps time to seek an alternative mechanism by which religion can be organized in the State of Israel?
Nor is Rabbi Stav himself committed to radically reforming the Rabbanut from within. His “revolution” consists primarily of making the Chief Rabbinate a more user-friendly service organization. Were Stav to lose, however, many insiders feel that a real revolution would occur, with non-religious and National Religious alike coming up with alternate, “privatized” rabbinic and religious functions in areas ranging from conversion and marriage to kashrut certification. Such changes are already underway through efforts such as the Beit Hillel Movement, which includes both men and women in its rabbinic organization. As this article in Ha’aretz suggests, a Stav loss makes it likely that “such trends will intensify and accelerate – and a de facto alternative to the Chief Rabbinate will arise. Not only the nonreligious, but also the national religious will reach the conclusion they have no place within the Rabbinate.”
For secular Israelis, and for religious Israelis who support pluralism and a sense of klal Yisrael, this would be a wonderful turn of events.
Is Yom Hazikaron a good thing? This unusual question recently popped into my head while we were teaching our religious school students about the series of “Yom” holidays this month (Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, and Yom Ha’atzmaut). Yom Hashoah was easy for them to understand, if somewhat hard to relate to. Yom Ha’aztmaut, which we explained to them as the Israeli Fourth of July, was easy on both accounts. But where students had the most difficulty grasping any meaning was Yom Hazikaron. I tried explaining it as Israel’s Memorial Day but soon realized that this description was completely ineffectual to them: unless one has a family member in the Armed Services, Memorial Day, in America, has little civic meaning. Instead, it has devolved into little more than the last school holiday of the year and the pop cultural start of summer. This, in turn, led me to wonder: which Memorial Day would I rather have, Israel’s or America’s?
In Israel, war is a perpetual reality. Virtually everyone serves in the army. There have been six wars fought since 1948, with the first four (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) threatening Israel’s very existence. Even when it is not in formal war, Israel faces constant border skirmishes and rocket attacks from its hostile neighbors. And, perhaps most importantly, everyone has a relative or close friend who has perished in combat. Yom Hazikaron is marked in Israel with piercing air raid sirens, interrupting the evening and later the morning and bringing everyone together to commemorate the fallen. Ironically, for the generation I was teaching in religious school, America too has been in a perpetual state of war since 9/11. But because of our huge population, the remoteness of the armed conflict, and our strength compared to that of Afghanistan or Iraq, war for Americans lacks any existential resonance. We might worry about the financial impact of war and whether our troops are getting the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) treatment they deserve, but we do not worry about whether America will be wiped off the map tomorrow. When Memorial Day was first proclaimed on May 6, 1868, by General John Logan, to honor dead soldiers in the aftermath of the Civil War, I imagine it did express a similar sense of somber uncertainty. But today Memorial Day means little more than permission to wear white pants until Labor Day.
So the more interesting question to me is this: which Memorial Day is preferable, from a meta-perspective? Yes, Memorial Day in Israel certainly means more, but is that a good thing? Or would we prefer for Israel to reach a state of power and stability that it no longer fears the threat of annihilation that Yom Hazikaron hints at? From a psychological standpoint, don’t we want our children to grow up without losing friends and family to armed combat? Assuming conscription remains necessary given Israel’s small size, wouldn’t we prefer to military service in Israel to feel more like military service in Switzerland–an exercise of vigilance rather than preparing for the inevitable loss of life in war? On the other hand, Yom Hazikaron takes on a sacred feel that Memorial Day does not. Do we want to risk losing this sense of kedusha, of holiness? Do we like what it signifies about the value of each human life; of dedication to an obligation bigger than oneself?
I am eager to hear your thoughts. And in the meantime, may each of us take some time today to pause and reflect about the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many Israelis to enable each of us to have a Jewish Homeland to enjoy and celebrate.
Members of my Canadian synagogue are deeply engaged with Israel. Almost all, teens included, have visited the land at least once. They keep up with Israeli news. Some follow the liberal Ha’aretz; others the conservative Jerusalem Post. Most support local political organizations – ranging from the citizen diplomacy projects of Peace It Together to the staunch Israel advocacy of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. But when they get together, they don’t like to talk about Israeli politics.
Their Jewish learning is deep. Kids attend Jewish summer camp; adults graduate from the Melton Adult Jewish Studies Program; newcomers perfect their Hebrew; all love to discuss ideas and texts key to Jewish life. But when they get together, they don’t like to talk about Israeli politics.
The Shabbat before Purim is traditionally designated Shabbat Zachor, Shabbat of Remembering. With special Torah and Haftorah readings, we remember the evil of Amalek, who attack the weakened Israelites just after the Exodus. After the Israelites settle in the land and develop a strong army, Amalek continues to engage them. In one battle King Saul spares the life of the Amalekite king; the prophet Samuel disapproves. In Samuel’s view, a ruler’s first priority is national security. A king must guard this with absolute ruthless vigilance. In Saul’s view, a ruler can act with compassion towards those he sees as peers.
When we discuss this at our synagogue, someone invariably says, “Wow, that’s relevant to contemporary Israeli politics! These are two opposing Israeli views of how to manage relations with Palestine.” Everyone nods meaningfully, and then someone quickly changes the subject.
On Purim itself, we read Megillat Esther, story of the rise of a Jewish queen and her courtier cousin in the Persian Empire. The satirical story describes excesses of drunkenness, cosmetic use, sexual slavery, harmful legislation, long memos, ostentatious clothing, formal speech and — yes — killing. Many readers laugh their way through the excesses, until they read about the Jews killing outrageous numbers of potential enemies. Then their laughter pauses and they wonder why they find the Megillah funny.
When we discuss the Megillah at our synagogue, invariably someone says, “Wow, that’s relevant to contemporary Israeli politics! When Jews have political power within a corrupt international system, how should we wield it?” Everyone nods meaningfully, and then someone changes the subject.
A decade ago, our synagogue did discuss Israeli politics. Discussions were painful, conducted without manners, and in ways that compromised the safe, quiet space of Shabbat gatherings. Gradually, a consensus emerged: let’s acknowledge our differences, but not dwell on them.
As an American, I tried to respect this quiet Canadian solution, but found it odd. Much of our traditional liturgy expresses yearning for a homeland built on peace and justice. Thus synagogue should be the perfect venue for discussing Israel’s efforts. If we improve our skills in respectful dialogue, I thought, we will talk in a polite Canadian way. So I brought in facilitators from the Children of Abraham Compassionate Listening Project; offered training in public issues dialogue skills; hired speakers to teach about the history of Zionism. Everyone found the events meaningful, but did not use their skills to discuss Israeli politics.
Eight years of frustration finally yielded a breakthrough understanding. I’m not simply slow at adapting to Canadian politeness; I’ve been slow at understanding contemporary Jewish life. From my perspective as a rabbi, spiritual community sits at the centre of Jewish experience. Thus, if Israel is important to us, we should explore it during synagogue practice. But for many Jews, synagogue is not the centre of Jewish life. It is only one expression of their Jewish identity, and not the one they associate with Israel. As rabbi, I should listen carefully to their understanding of Jewish identity, learn from it, and celebrate its richness.
Photo by Dave Kauffman. Cross-posted to OnSophiaStreet.com
It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
“Because I am a Jew,” one person said. I had asked the participants of a class to tell me why we should care about Israel. This response in many ways summarized the sentiments of the group, who were mostly middle-aged, and highly selective. After all, they showed up in synagogue to have this conversation.
I pointed out that this response reflects an assumed value of peoplehood – that we, the Jewish people, are a mutually bound family. As a family, our identities are rooted in shared history and lineage, and we feel responsible for each other. Israel, as the nation of the Jewish people, belongs to all of us. Right?
Well, maybe. It turns out that one’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual reaction to this question depends on how we each understand our identities. Are we part of the “family” known as the Jewish people? Does being a “member of the tribe” bind us to any certain responsibilities or obligations?
There is a good bit of hand wringing in the Jewish community about the eroding sense of Jewish peoplehood. Do Jews feel responsible for each other? Do Jews continue to prioritize charitable giving to Jewish causes as we did a generation ago? Do Jews choose to affiliate with Jewish communities to be among “family,” as my parents did 50 years ago? The entire Jewish world is being rocked by shifting views of Jewish peoplehood.
For that reason, I was particularly interested to read a fascinating column in the NY Times this weekend, “The Myth of Universal Love“, but Stephen T. Asma. Asma argues for “favoritism,” and what he calls a “small circle care” and family preference. By rebuffing the social scientists whose universalist values have deeply influenced our culture, he demonstrates that commitment to our “small circle of favorites” is actually a crucial ingredient for human happiness. “Favoritists … are very good at selflessly giving to members of their inner circle.”
Wouldn’t we all want to be the beneficiaries of selfless generosity? Doesn’t it feel good to offer kindness to those who matter most to us?
Asma builds his case by punching holes in the theories of two of the leading liberal social theorists, Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer, who “think we can overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe.” These universalist “utilitarian ethics” were developed by an early nineteenth century thinker, William Godwin. Check out this logic:
Godwin asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.
Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”
Singer extends this to the ultimate universal idea: that “we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness.”
I bristled with displeasure to imagine anyone choosing to leave their mother to die or harming their own family by prioritizing strangers over them in apportioning resources. My thinking is not just a reflection of my training in Jewish texts and ideas – it is simple logic. We are most satisfied when we sustain mutual relationships with others. As Asma points out, studies show that “the most important element in a good life is close family and friendship ties – ties that bind.”
I didn’t need studies to tell me this. Being a part of the Jewish people has taught me well. And that is worth saving.