Category Archives: Israel

Gasping For Air In Israeli Discourse

Jeff_Rowley_Big_Wave_Surfer_wipeout_Photo_Jaws_Peahi_by_Xvolution_Media_-_Flickr_-_Jeff_Rowley_Big_Wave_Surfer

I love the ocean.  Whether surfing or just playing in the waves, as a native Californian, I feel at home when I am in the salty water of the Pacific.  Mere moments after I jump in, I find tranquility, introspection, and rejuvenation. But I also am well aware of the danger the ocean poses.  From sharks (yes, there was a Great White breeding ground near where I grew up) to stealth riptides to pounding surf, the ocean can be dangerous, even deadly.  I vividly recall the terror I felt after wiping out while boogie-boarding many years ago:  caught underneath a cavalcade of waves, I barely held my breath long enough to outlast the barreling set and resurface.

This sense of struggling to breathe is how I now feel about Israel.

On the one hand, I firmly believe that Israel faces threats to its security more substantial than any it has faced since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Iran is the most obvious of these threats.  Its nuclear ambitions pose an existential threat to Israel and risk plunging the entire volatile region into a nuclear arms race.  It continues to sponsor terrorism in Gaza, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and remains the primary patron of Hezbollah.  Even the purportedly “moderate” regime of Rouhani has refused to repudiate Iran’s unabashed desire to destroy Israel

Israel also faces neighbors who themselves are fighting—officially or unofficially-with militant Jihadists.  Whether it is terrorists in the Sinai confronting Egypt or the ongoing, tragic civil war in Syria, Israel currently is situated in the least stable geo-political neighborhood on earth. 

Even “responsible” international actors continue to put Israel in their cross-hairs.  Just last week, the UN Commission on the Status of Women decided that there was only one country on earth that deserved condemnation for its treatment of women.  Who was that country?  Not Saudi Arabia.  Not Sudan.  Not Nigeria.  Israel. 

These threats are real, substantial, and cannot be rationalized or justified as a response to any policy of Israel.  Period.

On the other hand, how can I continue to support the ongoing rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government?  In the desperate throes of the final hours of the recent Israeli elections, when Bibi faced a real threat of losing his grip on power, he made two deplorable, shameful statements. First, in an expression of blatant racism, he urged Israelis via social media to vote because “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and thus threatening the country’s “rightwing government.”  I am proud that the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I am a member, rightly condemned such hateful and xenophobic speech, saying, “This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”

Second, either to curry favor with right-wing voters or in a display of his true colors (or both), Netanyahu eviscerated the prospect of a two-state solution by repudiating any support for a Palestinian state.  He stated that no Palestinian state would be established for as long as he remained prime minister, calling such a move “simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.”   Rejecting a two-state solution not only flies in the face of a bedrock principle of American-Israel policy but also leaves no viable solution to the increasingly untenable status quo in the West Bank.

Even before the election, Bibi’s ruling coalition has endorsed policies that fly in the face of Jewish values and human rights.  Led by coalition member Jewish Home, the right-wing government has taken draconian positions against Africans seeking asylum in Israel, incarcerating individuals who have fled brutality and civil war in their African homelands.  Through the Prawar Plan, it has pursued inhumane, shameful policies with respect to Israel’s indigenous Bedouin population.  Bibi’s statements and positions in response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe–that European Jews should just come to Israel–have, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently put it, created an unnecessary and “anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.”

So I find myself stuck between support for an Israel that is under siege and condemnation for Israeli leadership that continues to push immoral and egregious policies.  Instead of being able to embrace Israel as a home, as a place I love, I feel myself drowning in this cognitive dissonance.  How can I stay silent when BDS, or Students for Justice in Palestine, perniciously spread half-truths that, in the echo chamber of liberal university politics, resonate with and influence college students? But how can I defend Israel with integrity when the normative way of doing so is to demand unflinching support of everything Israel’s government does (AIPAC’s position)?  The moneyed Jewish establishment has created a McCarthy-like ethos where any critique of Israel (JStreet, Open Hillel, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc.) is viewed as treason.  Yet some of these very same groups, while openly critical of Israel’s rights violations, do not seem as willing to address Israel’s real, existential threats. In this context, as a rabbi, how on earth am I supposed to teach young adults about Israel?  As a community leader, how am I supposed to cultivate a consensus of ahavat Yisrael, love and support for Israel?

The truth is, I need Israel to be an or l’goyim, a light unto nations.  It is not enough for me for Israel to be celebrated as a Start-Up Nation.  Or the least egregious violator of human rights in the Middle East.  Israel is my spiritual and moral home.  As a result, I do hold it to a higher standard.  I need it to represent the best of humanity, to apply the moral truths of our religion to contemporary reality.  Am I expecting too much?

So here I find myself, to borrow from Greek mythology, caught between the Scylla of defending Israel and the Charybdis of criticizing it.  I hope, like Odysseus, that I can somehow navigate this howling sea without losing my sanity.  I pray that I can find, or create, enough oxygen in the discourse about Israel in America that I can breathe. But it grows ever harder each day.

Posted on March 24, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Who Speaks for the Jews?

shutterstock_135970736I have sung the song “David Melech Yisrael” thousands of times. It’s easy to learn and fun to sing with hand motions. The song voices the hopes of the Jewish people; exiled, dispersed, powerless and persecuted, we have longed for the “good old days” of the strong, unified and powerful kingdom of King David. Some three thousand years later, we haven’t stopped wishing for a return to the Davidic monarchy. It is our messianic yearning, fueling optimism and collective hope.

Optimism is one of the Jewish values that most animates our spiritual worldview. But recent events have prompted me to revisit the content of this narrative. The wish for a monarch who rules over a united Jewish nation, even the whole Jewish people, looks different now.

It is time to replace “David Melech Yisrael” with a different trope. We do not have a King of Israel, and we shouldn’t. That was then, and this is now.

In 70 CE, when we lost the last grasp on our Jewish nation, our people dispersed. During that time of dramatic change, our leaders took to the study halls. Their leadership was built on learning, interpreting, and vigorous debate over all aspects of life. The record of those holy disagreements became the Talmud, the sourcebook for rabbinic Judaism. The Jewish ideas that inform our lives today flow from those pages. “When there are two Jews, there are three opinions,” the joke goes. But it’s true. The Jewish people thrive on diverse opinions freely shared.

Today, during another time of great change, the yearning for King David has a new voice. As if “David Melech” once again lives, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed the mantle of power for all Jews. The Prime Minister recently asserted that he is the representative of the “entire Jewish people.” Netanyahu argues that the Jewish people are endangered, and only a strong state of Israel can protect all of us. Together with his invitation to French (and other European Jews) to make aliyah – move to Israel – the Prime Minister has stirred an anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.

We’ve been down this road before. In 1950, the head of the American Jewish Committee negotiated a pact with founding Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. The Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement with Israel asserted “without any reservation, that the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country.”

I support policies and politicians who make the world safer for Jews, and make Israel strong. But we will best accomplish this goal by vigorous debate and respectful divergence of views. My prayer for a safe, strong Israel includes a vision of a just, democratic nation. The voices of all its inhabitants, and all Jews, form the chorus to the song of Israel. No one representative, no king or absolute ruler, can achieve that. Only we can do that together.

Posted on March 22, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Freedom of Now

When does time begin? What does time measure? What came before the beginning? Such mind-bending questions evoke timeless truths especially relevant at this very moment in the Jewish year.

Humans measure space and time from origins – beginnings deeply rooted in history, culture and values. Moderns traveling east or west across the globe chart distance in longitude from Greenwich, England, a relic of the British Empire’s dominion. Modernity marks secular time against Greenwich Mean Time, which scientists call “Universal Coordinated Time,” as if the whole universe sets its clock by London’s lights. Spiritual time and space also chart from starting points. Jews traditionally pray toward the Western Wall in Jerusalem, as if the Temple once towering above was the center of the world, the axis mundi around which all else revolves.

shutterstock_47433454Jewish time spirals from not one but four origins – four New Years, each with unique spiritual and historical purpose. Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”) marks the physical creation, cycle of teshuvah (repentance), ancient tax year, and sabbatical and jubilee years. Tu Bishvat (“New Year of the Trees”) marks the agricultural birthday of trees. Rosh Chodesh Elul marks tithe years for cattle and Moses’ ascent of Sinai to receive the second tablets.

This weekend (March 20-21, 2015) marks the fourth Jewish New Year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, origin of Jewish identity and spiritual consciousness. Two weeks before the Exodus from Egyptian bondage, “God said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt: “This month [Nisan] will be for you the first month… of your year,” a tribute to the upcoming liberation that would define the Israelites as a people (Ex. 12:1-2). This tribute to freedom – defining Jews as a people released from bondage to reach toward spiritual liberation – is the origin of Jewish time. In a spiritual sense, Jewish time exists only in relationship to our bondage and liberation.

Jewish time exists only in relationship to bondage and liberation. If not for liberation from bondage, there would be no Jewish time. As then, so now. When we are gripped by inner emotional or spiritual bondage, in a sense Jewish time stops because in bondage we stop living. Just as Shabbat reboots the weekly Jewish work cycle, Rosh Chodesh Nisan reboots Jewish time itself.

A coincidence of Rosh Chodesh Nisan helps illuminate this truth. On this day, newly freed Israelite slaves wandering the desert completed and dedicated the mishkan, ancient cultic focus for God’s indwelling presence. As the people journeyed, the miskhan was the center of their camp. The mishkan, symbol of holiness and holy living, became our forebears’ origin in space, linked to Rosh Chodesh Nisan as their origin in time. It was the mishkan to which they brought not only celebrations and triumphs to be uplifted in gratitude, but also guilt, shame and defeat to be uplifted and released. The mishkan offered ways to express yearnings for holiness, to release heart and soul from the grips of emotional and spiritual bondage.

The ancient cycle of bondage and liberation continues to this day. Rosh Chodesh Nisan marks the two-week countdown to Passover, marking the liberation from historical bondage. Each day and each moment invites us into emotional and spiritual release from inner bondage. Community and ritual – playing out in space and time – bring this drama to life on the human plane.

And now – right now, at Rosh Chodesh Nisan – is our time to begin again. Time itself refreshes and renews. We get ready for freedom anew. At long last, we welcome the radical liberation of Now.

Posted on March 19, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Israeli Elections: True Confessions of a 21st Century Israeli-American

Israeli_municipal_elections,_2013You say you care about the Israeli election?  Me too, but how much do you know? How many political parties are represented in the Israeli election? Which party best represents your views?(You can take this quiz if you are curious to see if your assumptions about yourself line up).

First, let me say that I love America. I love America in a way that is statistically consistent with the majority of Americans (only 15% of Americans said they were following elections ‘very closely’ just one month prior to the 2014 mid-term election, only 36% of Americans actually voted).

Politics is a strange thing; we say we care, but do we really? Of the 561 bills passed by last year’s Congress, how many can you name? Me, I can’t name even one. I remember the spectacle of Washington the past few years; Republicans blocked Obama; Obama snubbed John Boehner by not inviting him to golf. It was all very House of Cards – great theater. D.C. is rightfully called Hollywood on the Hudson because Washington politics are as entertaining, and as forgettable as a Netflix series. Who is running for president in 2016? That’s pretty far in the future, but someone named Bush or Clinton is always a safe bet. I love America and I think the laws we live by are very important, just not important enough to capture my full attention.

Let me also say that I love Israel, but I couldn’t tell you which 13 political parties are currently represented in the Knesset without Googling it. Today is election day in Israel and either Bibi will win or ‘Not Bibi’ will win (His real name is Isaac ‘Boujie’ Herzog of the Zionist Union Party). But, winning doesn’t mean that either one will necessarily take over. It just means that the ‘winner’ will be given 40 some days to see if he can build a coalition of 51% by making pacts with other smaller parties. [For more, check out JTA’s Who’s who in the Israel’s elections or 5 things you need to know about today’s election.

I know that Herzog is willing to work closer with the Arabs and that Bibi no longer supports a two state solution, but where do they stand on religious equality, the cost of housing in Tel Aviv, or on health care? I don’t actually know. It isn’t too hard to find out more about what is going on in Congress, or in the Knesset for that matter, so why don’t I?

In my defense, not investing significant energy in something that I purport to care about is not a new issue, nor am I alone. Rabbenu Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th Century Spain) said that people fail to pay greater attention to vital things (for him, God) because we become so enamored with the most immediate cause and effect, that we fail to look at the larger picture. He said that we either grow so comfortable with our present situation that we fail to look beyond simply preserving our personal station. Or, he said, we become so downtrodden, that we again fail to look beyond our own discomfort.

Our focus day-to-day is on ourselves. Which means that we are capable of deeply caring about something larger, say God, America, Israel, without feeling obligated to pay a commiserate balance of attention, even to these vital, greater-than-self ideals and values.

SelfieThe 2006 Time Magazine Person of the Year was “You.” The internet, and specifically YouTube, were recognized for the powerful reflection of society that was then just exploding. The picture on the cover was a reflective mylar mirror. Just last week, ten years latter, the National Academy of Sciences published a study linking a rise in narcissism with a rise in aggression and violence. Other studies found a connection between narcissism and another growing plague, loneliness.

If I love America and I love Israel, why don’t I invest more time in learning and studying the minutiae of every bill and every election that shape my two home countries?

Hey, that’s a good question for my Facebook friends.

Posted on March 17, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Denominational Ins and Outs: The New Mishkan

Jewish life is turned around – so suggests this week’s Torah portion (Terumah) about the first Mishkan (ritual focus of cultic and religious life) in the desert. This ancient narrative offers profound reflections on the denominational ins and outs of modern Jewish life.

Australia_R2-2_(L).svgOne way to understand Jewish history is in denominational terms. Before modernity, Jews in their social, linguistic and philosophic diversity had no denominations like the streams of Christianity (e.g. Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Evangelical, etc.). Painting with a broad brush, Reform Jewry was a late 18th century social-theological reaction to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Orthodoxy was a self-protective reply to Reform. Conservative Jewry was a 19th century response to Reform. Reconstructionism evolved in the 20th century from Conservative Jewry as a reaction to social and scientific modernity. By the late 20th century, Jewish denominations established seminaries, congregational affiliation systems, dues structures, governance methods, employment eligibility criteria, prayer books, theological reality maps, and committees to apply Jewish law (or reject Jewish law entirely).

Amidst these denominational fault lines, we can forget that Jewish denominationalism is barely a blip, just two centuries over a span of millennia. What’s more, the denominational tide is going out. Now-mainstream seminaries of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the Academy for Jewish Religion-New York, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, and Hebrew College arose to ordain rabbis outside denominationalism, preparing clergy to serve increasingly fluid, porous and diverse Jewish communities. The Internet is democratizing access to Jewish learning and resources, fueling continued rise of independent synagogues and chavurot. Denominational synagogues, in turn, are bucking “mother ships” on dues structures, guild limits on who may apply for pulpits, and centralized policies about Jewish status. Initiatives like OHALAH (the trans-denominational rabbinic association for Jewish Renewal) and CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders testify to the porousness of modern Jewish life, and the boundary-challenging experiences that are their primary organizing forces.

This counter-denominational trend is re-shaping Jewish demographics. The 2013 Pew Study found that fully 22% of U.S. Jews – and 32% of Jews born after 1980 – reject all labels on their religious identity. Today fully 30% of U.S. Jews actively practicing Judaism claim that their Judaism has no denominational label. Second to Reform, which claims allegiance of 35% of U.S. Jews, today’s largest denomination in active U.S. Jewish life is no denomination at all. This trend is quickening, and denominational leaders know it. Among the many social and economic causes of denominational decline, waning denominational identification is top among them. Partly as a result, the number of Conservative congregations declined by 25% since 1985; in the 2000s, the Reconstructionist Movement merged its synagogue arm and rabbinical college.

We are witnessing the retrenchment of denominationalism in U.S. Jewish life. The question isn’t whether it is so, but what we make of it.

Enter this week’s Torah portion. To build the Mishkan as a focus for the Indwelling Presence of God, Torah recounts that Moses was to receive gifts from everyone with willing hearts (Ex. 25:2). Their gifts were radically diverse in content, composition, color and style (Ex. 25:3-7). The purpose was to build a sanctuary from their diversity, so God could dwell b’tocham – not within “it” (the Mishkan) but within “them” (the people) (Ex. 25:8). Together these images evoke a collectivity in which everyone shares diverse gifts to establish the immanence of God among us – with no barriers of denomination, tribe, race or caste to divide the people.

To put a fine point on it, the Indwelling Presence (Shechinah) dwells not amidst any subgroup but among the entirety. So wrote the Sfat Emet in 1870: “Shechinah dwells among all the Children of Israel together.” So teaches the Zohar (3:202a): “The whole of the people are the vessel for Shechinah.” Spiritually speaking, the modern blip of denomination is entirely besides the point.

185px-Royal_Arch_Room_Ark_replica_2Even more telling are the kruvim (cherubim) atop the Mishkan, which in this week’s Torah portion faced each other (Ex. 25:20). In pre-exile Jerusalem, however, the kruvim faced not each other but the Temple (2 Chron. 3:13). Talmud’s rabbis noted this inconsistency. They reasoned that when the people behave well and honor God, the kruvim face each other; but when the people behave poorly and dishonor God, the kruvim face the Temple (B.T. Bava Batra 99a).

In modern spiritual terms, we ourselves are the kruvim. Our calling is first to face each other, not any dogmatic structure. When we face each other – inclusively, making room for all, accepting everyone’s heart gifts – we honor Torah’s call to build a Mishkan for the immanence of God to dwell among us. When instead we face first a denominational or dogmatic subgroup, we re-trace Talmud’s definition of poor behavior that dishonors God and defies our spiritual purpose. The Jewish sense of God can only dwell amidst our entire collectivity: no mere part will do.

Denominations bring scholarship, investment, organization and purpose. Klal Yisrael needs those benefits, and denominations continue to be vital vehicles for them. For those reasons, Jews outside denominationalism do wrong to glibly demonize denominations as inherently corrosive of Jewish spirituality. By the same token, denominations do wrong to diminish or disenfranchise Jews and Jewish leaders whose spiritual or community affiliations grow outside denominational structures. The Mishkan needs their diverse gifts no less. Our failure to learn these lessons risks turning each other into Others, turning the spiritual kruvim away from each other, turning Jews away from our collective spiritual calling.

For the ins and outs of denominational life, the upshots are clear. Denominations must drop bans on which legitimate seminaries’ rabbinic ordinees may apply for pulpits: Jewish community is a spiritual body, not a collection of protectionist mercantile guilds. Jews are voting with hearts, minds and wallets against exclusivist denominational strategies, and denominational leaders must evolve accordingly. For their parts, non-denominational Jews must drop their “ugly stepchild” narrative of exclusion and subjugation. Denominational successes aren’t affronts to chavurot, independent communities and unaffiliated seminaries. Non-denominational leaders would do well to learn the denominations’ wise use of organizational tools to enrich the collectivity of Jewish life.

Learning these lessons will help us turn toward each other anew, like the kruvim atop history’s Mishkan. Perhaps by turning toward each other in these ways, we can build a new Mishkan worthy of that name – a collectivity fit for the Indwelling Presence of God among us all.

Dedicated to the memory of R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, zeide (grandfather) of Jewish Renewal, who taught that “the only way to get it together is together.”

Posted on February 19, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Israel or America?

Should the Jews of Europe move? And if so, to Israel or to America?

imgres“To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”
– Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu after a second terrorist attack in Europe within just a few weeks.

After an a murderous terrorist attack in Copenhagen, killing a cartoonist, two policeman, and a Jewish man walking out of the main synagogue in the Danish capital , Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu went to the media and announced that it was time for the Jews of Europe to move home.

“Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe,” he said. “To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms,” Netanyahu said.

He said these things and I was confused. Anti-Semitism is hideous and frightening wherever it pops up, European anti-semitism terrifies some of us in a unique way – the Shoah (Holocaust) is still fresh in our collective psyche. Part of me thought, “Yes, get out of Europe. Go with Bibi. Go to our Promised Holy Land.” But there was another part of me, a darker, deeper place inside me that said, “Yes, leave Europe, but come here, to America – It’s safer.” These might be the voices you would expect from a duel American-Israeli citizen. But it also speaks to the popular narratives of modern Jewry. Where does Yentl (Barbara Streisand) go when she realizes that Europe, the old country, could no longer be home? America. At the end of Schindler’s List, after having ‘saved’ by Oskar Schindler, the group of Jews come upon a Russian soldier.
“Where should we go,” one of them asks.
The soldier answer, “Don’t go East, that’s for sure. They hate you there. I wouldn’t go West either, if I were you.” And, more or less, the credits roll as we watch the real survivors walk with the actors that portrayed them to place a stone at the grave of Oskar Schindler in Israel.

“I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that You have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” – Jacob’s prayer before reuniting with Esau who swore to kill him (Genesis 32:10).

Has the Jewish people become two camps?

There can be no replacement for our home:

כי מציון תצא תורה, ודבר ה’ מירושלים For the Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Holy Blessing One from Jerusalem.

And yet, we cannot ignore the importance, and historic roll of the Diaspera (those Jews dispersed in lands not our own). Judaism has been deeply influenced by the cultures in which we have lived – Even the Torah was given to us outside of the land, not to mention the encyclopedia of rabbinic thought, the Babylonian Talmud.

Some will argue, but I do not think all the Jews of France and Denmark should leave their homes. Freedom is work standing up for. And yet, and yet. The primitive, fear-driven part of my brain wonders: “Might it be that we have indeed become ‘two camps’ for the same pragmatic reasons that Jacob once divided his family? If one should be attacked, at least the other would survive.”

Posted on February 17, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Secret Weapon for Peace

We Refuse to be Enemies

photo credit – Bruce Shaffer

I believe that there will be no solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict until the Palestinians come face to face with the fact that we Jews have seen ourselves as a people, and not just as a religion, for time immemorial. This is a bedrock fact of our identity. And at the very same time I also believe that there will be no solution to the conflict until we Israelis admit that the there is a national component to Palestinian identity. They understand themselves to be a people, and therefore they are. No amount of denying that will change their sense of themselves.

I also believe that there will be no solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict until a significant number of Palestinians understand and internalize the simple truth that the Jewish People have a long standing and legitimate connection to all of the Land of Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. And at the very same time I also believe that there will be no solution to the conflict until a significant number of Israelis understand and internalize the fact that the Palestinians have a long standing and legitimate connection to that same land – all of it.

Both sides have a legitimate claim to all of the land. The claims derive from different foundations but in the end, the same land is both Israel and Palestine. When we first wake up to this realization, it tastes like a bitter pill to swallow. It might seem to make this an intractable conflict, but denying that truth will only cause us to pursue solutions that will eventually blow up in our faces, because they ignore the deepest truths dearly treasured in the hearts of the people that must make peace if they are not to make war.

So many of us on both sides stick our heads in the sand and ignore one half or the other of this truth. Most Israelis dream that we will wake up the next day and find the Palestinians gone. And most Palestinians very likely harbor the vision of a land without Jews. But it is not going to happen. Both sides are here to stay and both sides deserve to stay and to flourish.

I am not afraid of a complex reality. My study of Jewish sources taught me long ago that “these and those are the words of the living God.” Two truths, even conflicting truths, can both be true at the same time. Our rabbis taught us that “you should make you ear like a funnel to hear the words of those who permit and those who forbid,” that is, those who say yes and those who say no. Not only can two contradictory truths be true at the same time, but more than that: we have an obligation to struggle to absorb both and accept both. Only then does the soul expand towards the fullest truth, “the union of opposites” that Rabbi Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook wrote of so eloquently.

Had do you begin getting to that place? By knowing that all truth is truth from somewhere and never from nowhere. It is from our vantage point, from our perspective – whether individual or national –and is therefore partial. At that is so even for religious truth, revealed truth. God created us such that we rarely see more than a sliver of the whole. Even the revelation at Sinai, according to Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, was only an approximation of the infinite divine truth. God granted us the gift of not knowing it all, in order to provide for us the opportunity to embark upon the journey towards ever-growing truth. Expanding our consciousness to see the truth on the other side, the Palestinian side, is part of the divinely mandated journey.

So how do we Israelis – and the Palestinians – begin the process of seeing and identifying with the other’s truth? By crossing the borders that divide us and getting to know the other. Not by debating but by listening, active listening. By taking off the blinders and opening our eyes to their reality, that is, reality as they see it. By putting ourselves in their shoes. This is not easy. It is challenging and painful and really hard. You have to exert yourself in the search for the fuller truth. You have to hold yourself back from fighting, from arguing, from defending your version of things. At later stages there is room for the give and take of a respectful disagreement, but first you have to listen! You have to listen while you feel offended and attacked and then keep listening. You have to absorb and even identify with it until you feel unmoored and then you still have to listen more. And then you have to put it all together and find room in your soul for two competing, powerful, partial truths.

Naive you say. I would have thought so myself. Except that what I have described is a process of personal transformation that I and scores of other Israelis and Palestinians have experienced over the course of the past year. And thousands of other have been shown a window into this process, all in the framework of an amazing initiative that we have built together in the Gush Etzion area.

Yitzchak Rabin was not quite correct. You don’t make peace with enemies. Here in the Holy Land where our lives are so intertwined, such a peace will not hold. Rather, first each side must learn to see at least some truth on the other side. Then we can be transformed from enemies into human beings, and then into neighbors, and when we are neighbors – each genuinely concerned with the good of the other – political solutions become plausible. As we embark upon the process of making the other into our brother, we can make peace.

This is another way of saying that this is going to require good will. If we come to the negotiating table as if we are at war, doing battle with words, then we will stay at war. If it is about trying to extract concessions from the other side, the efforts to come to an agreement will be doomed to failure. Rather, only when we – and they – truly realize that the more the other side, both sides, can get of its dream, the better off we all will be.

And yes, there are potential ways to fulfill much of the dreams of both sides at the same time. When both sides have made room in their souls for the humanity and the truth and the needs of the other side, we will find the way. There are such plans out there but that is for another article.

To me it appears that this – deep, long term, empathy-creating dialogue – is the secret weapon for the Palestinians to get from us what they want. And it will also achieve for us what we want. It is their tool to attain their dignity – and their rights and their justice and their national aspirations. And it is our means toward recognition and peace. All other weapons harm and kill; this one creates life. If only each side would realize the amazing power of this secret weapon.

Posted on February 6, 2015

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“Never Again”…Again and Again and Again

Long ago, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sang in his gravelly tones,  that “the times, they are a-changing.” He was a truth teller in a time of historic social justice activism.

Those of us who remember the 60s and 70s recall the courage of Vietnam protesters, civil rights marchers and women pursuing equal rights in society and under the law. They stood and strong and took great personal risks to advance their just causes. Values, ethics and laws were challenged—and changed. These efforts were not without cost: The Kent State Massacre. The Watts Riots. Lynchings. Beatings. Imprisonments. It seemed as if our nation was on fire as the passion and effort lurched our society into a new evolution. Not that the work was completed, but, strides were made.

And then, many, or most, of the activists got married, had kids and that, for the most part, was that, as Dylan’s message was lost in the 5-CD player shuffle. But in truth, the times never stop changing, nor do we, in our priorities, morals, social values, and willingness (and sometimes lack thereof) to accept challenges—and to raise them.

Last week, we watched in awe as some 3.7 million  citizens and world leaders converged throughout France to raise what I took to be a cry akin to “Never Again”—though it remains unclear what the next steps in this multi-national outcry against terror may be.

The news now reports details about the long and twisted web that directly links the Paris attacks to ISIS, painting an unnerving picture of the months and years to come. At the same time, the actual terror of the attacks—the human fear and anger and frustration—have oozed from news sites’ front and home pages and have settled into a somewhat safer space in our lives.

In our own lives, perhaps. But not so much for the people of Paris, or Boston, or the Iraqi Christians fleeing from the same terrorists. Or the people of Belgium whose have learned that their police force had been targeted. Or maybe the Ohio neighbors of Christopher Cornell, the seemingly average boy-next-door, who is in custody for allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Capitol building and gun down fleeing legislators in the name of ISIS. And not so much for the families of all who have been murdered in these horrendous attacks all over the world, nor all who came within a hairs’-breadth from becoming victims.

In our lives, for the most part, we have known people who were directly affected by the injustices against which the throngs rallied. Now, we are being called to respond to a global crisis and ensure basic physical security and basic human rights for all who seek peace.

Of course, this nightmare hits us very close to home as we read of the proliferation of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel commentaries in France and many other many nations after last weeks’ attacks (links: 1, 2, 3, 4). So when we hold the cry “never again” as a sacred commitment to our people, we must extend our commitment to our entire human family, because none of us will ever be safe until all of us are safe.

If 50 years ago it felt as if our nation was on fire, today it can seem as if the whole world is aflame. The people who are now on the front lines fighting this world scourge are our brothers and sisters every bit as much as the twelve million individuals who were murdered by the Nazis. They face torture and execution as their communities are destroyed. They are victims not just of terror, but of hatred parading as righteousness—even as the ISIS equivalent of “Heil Hitler” is ringing throughout the Islamic extremist world. It is again time for action and passion. A time to raise challenges—and meet them. As we learn in Pirke Avot, (Ethics of our Sages) we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Nous sommes Juifs. We are Jews. It is our duty to act, and teach our children not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors both next door and half a world away. We need to learn and educate and inspire others. We need to give generously to help victims of terror wherever they are in the world. And we must make our voices heard here at home by our legislators so that they will know that we are not willing to not stand idly by. Not now, not ever.

Posted on January 16, 2015

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Digging Wells for Generations

Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.

Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.

This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.

Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee.  Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.

My great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Lavitt’s book. Photo credit: Jason Lavitt.

According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?

As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.

Posted on November 17, 2014

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The World’s Most Contested Religious Site

temple mount

photo credit: Laura Duhan Kaplan

“The world’s most contested religious site.”

So says the New York Times about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, claimed as a sacred portal between heaven and earth by both Jews and Muslims. Jews say it is the site of the Temple where the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies to meet the Divine presence. Muslims say that here the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to speak with God.

Currently the site is controlled by an Islamic charitable trust. Jews may visit, though few do. Rabbinic authorities worry visitors might accidentally trespass on the Holy of Holies. Non-Muslim visitors to the Mount are forbidden to pray there. Several activist Jewish groups contest the law. When tensions rise, as they did last week, violence and tragedy rise too.

About a year ago, amid earlier stories of tension, my husband Charles and I wondered: is the Temple Mount a place of historic resonance, strengthened by cultural stories? Or is it also a mystical place that calls people to deep connection?

We were Israel-bound, so we planned to visit.

Early on our chosen morning, we set out on foot for Jerusalem’s Old City, entering at Jaffa Gate. We paused by the information booth. The booth was not yet open but a map was posted. Unfortunately, the section that says, “You are here” was rubbed out.

We approached a police officer. “How do we get to the Kotel (Western Wall)?” we asked, knowing that the Temple Mount entrance was there. “It’s closed now,” he said. We knew he was jokingthe wall is open 24/7but we did not laugh.

At the Kotel Plaza, the normally overcrowded women’s section was empty. So, I asked Charles for five minutes. As I ran in, my right hand ripped a corner off a notebook page. My left hand fumbled for a pen. I scrawled a very short prayer to press between the stones: “?”

Just past the plaza, a long line of people stood by a weathered wooden bridge leading upwards and into a wall. “Announcement and warning! Entering the Temple Mount is a violation of Torah law,” proclaimed one sign. “No religious artifacts or symbols allowed,” proclaimed another. Conveniently, a locker with no lock stood waiting to hold anything deemed inappropriate by the guards.

At the metal detector, the security guard checked our American passports. “Yoush?” he asked. Perhaps he was making conversation; perhaps he was asking, “Are you Jewish?”

We had read about the site’s hours in advance: the Temple Mount is open to visitors four hours a day, ending at 10:00 am. At exactly 10:00 am, guards outside let the last visitors in. And exactly at 10:00 am, guards inside ask all visitors to leave.

That day, Charles and I were the last two people allowed to enter.

We crossed the wooden bridge, walked through a narrow indoor gate and WOW!

Everything opened onto a hidden expanse: a huge open-air park with two mosques, an olive grove, paved walkways, and broad steps. We glimpsed the splendor of the original Temple. We felt the holiness vibe; a funnel of light flowed down from heaven. We merged into the sky.

The magic lasted about 90 seconds.

A man waved his walkie-talkie at us. In heavily accented English, he said, “You have to leave.” He said it again and again, as if it were the only English phrase he knew. No one could argue with him; his only response was, “You have to leave.”

People paused by the gate. A few left, but most lingered. A feral cat hopped out of the wall.

We joined a Spanish-speaking tour group that seemed to have permission to stay. With them, we meandered respectfully along the courtyard’s back wall to another gate. No one wanted to leave. Everyone lingered.

“Exit!” said the guide, in Spanish. “It’s time!”

Through and just outside the gate’s narrow tunnel, the guide paused his group, describing Jewish-Muslim tensions on the Temple Mount. We walked through the circle of people; out to Via Dolorosa; then we took a right, a left, a right.

And found ourselves completely lost in the Old City streets. Sunlight did not reach these cobblestone alleys, but local shoppers didseeking socks, phones, toasters, and conservative Muslim-style dresses, in bright colors with fashionable details. Deep in this maze, we were the only tourists.

Suddenly, we grasped the magic of the Temple Mount from below. Out of a crowded, dark web of city life, eleven hidden gates open onto the mountain’s light. The Temple Mount is a numinous place. One ascends through the fabric of every day life to a different consciousness, to the spacious possibility of divine-human encounter.

Back home, we prayed:

May Jerusalem’s factions find a way of multicultural co-existence. It could be one shared answer for all, or a compromise that makes space in different ways, and at different times, for different claims.

May this holy space not be seen as a symbol for all political tension. Rather, may it be known as a place charged with spiritual energy; one that calls out to seekers, and is big enough to welcome all who come in good faith.

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Posted on November 3, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy