Can the Jewish people find common ground? Is there enough that brings together all the varied different ways of being Jewish to find a shared destiny and shared future? Our differences these past few weeks have come in sharp high definition. The elections in Israel that secured Benjamin Netanyahu more time as Prime Minister. The speech by Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress shortly before the elections in Israel. The heightened public disagreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu that continues to escalate. The recent J Street conference in Washington D.C. where the President of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, withdrew from attending because one of the chief negotiators for the Palestinians, Saeb Erakat, would be in attendance. These incidents and many more have brought the question of where is the Jewish common ground to the fore.
All of the recent controversy surrounding the relationship between American Jewry and Israel and the discord within the American Jewish community on Israel does not even begin to touch the longstanding divides along denominational and religious lines. Is there Jewish common ground between a convert to Reform Judaism and someone who identifies with a denomination bound by halakha, Jewish law? Is there Jewish common ground between a person who is Jewish through patrilineal descent and someone who is Jewish through matrilineal descent? Is there Jewish common ground between a person whose Jewish identify is defined by culture and one defined by religion?
I was part of a conversation a few months ago among a very diverse set of Jewish participants in which one person made the assumption that all the people present could at least resonate with the notion that the Land of Israel, if not the State of Israel, has played and continues to play a central role in Jewish thought, belief and communal identity. This assumption was also proven wrong as this too was not a value shared by all people in the conversation.
A month ago I offered the thesis that one can view the Jewish community through the lens of minimalists and maximalists. The minimalists are those who seek to construct a Jewish world around them that only looks like them and desire conformity as a central value. The maximalists want to foster a diverse Jewish community and want to cultivate a Jewish space where varied expressions and points of view are welcome. I made the point that minimalists and maximalists can be found in every Jewish movement and transcend denominations. There are Reconstructionist minimalists just as there are Orthodox maximalists.
Yet, the notion of the maximalist still rests on the idea that when one drills down to the core there is a Jewish common ground to be found. There are some shared principles, shared language and shared ideas that enable the creation of a place where all the difference can meet. The Midrash presented an early formation of this idea when it offered the idea that the Sea of Reeds was not split into a single path for all the Jews to march through but rather twelve separate paths, one for each tribe. Each tribe took their own path but they all arrived on the same dry land and there was one Jewish common ground.
What is our Jewish common ground today? Can we find values, ideas and language that we can use to construct a Jewish shared space? If not, what does that portend for the Jewish future?
I 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.
Should the Jews of Europe move? And if so, to Israel or to America?
“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.”
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.