Saturday, November 29, 2008

Red diaper babies and strict justice

Tonight we had Shabbat dinner at my self-declared “red diaper baby” friend’s house. It was his father’s 80th birthday and the only other song we sang beside “Happy Birthday to you…” was The Internationale. Dinner was Indian food and no bracha (blessing) was said over candles or the abundance of wine that flowed.
The guests came from all over my favorite quadrant of the United States, north of Mason-Dixon and east of the Mississippi. There were a lot of teachers present. My friend is a school principle, as am I, and many of his friends and family were teachers or involved with universities. Discussions focused on disappointment with president-elect Obama’s cabinet choices to the need to lead from the center, from history of central and South America to the slave trade and the continuation of racism.
I was literally picked and dragged into the conversation about the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Of course, this comes in the week that I was spoken about to my Israeli friend, a visiting professor of film from the Open University in Tel-Aviv, as a radical. Little did those who labeled me know that they were speaking with someone with a voting record more radical than me. I have voted for both the left wing Meretz party and the left of center Labor party. My friend, I am told, has voted for Meretz and Chadash, the Arab-Jewish communist party. Regardless, radical is a label I wear proudly, although it saddens me that my very grounded perspective is seen as radical.
In the conversation, my wife took a liberal Israeli position. An older Jewish man took a more tradition, American Jewish position, and another guest took a position that was not supportive of Israel. What bothered me most in the conversation was the centrality of a monolithic understanding of justice.
The person who had the biggest grip with Israel brought everything down to the issue of justice, as if justice were a uniform measuring stick by which we can gage the behaviors of individuals and countries. Justice is anything but monolithic. Very little can be measured against justice because it is not a reified thing which has an absolute value. Justice for Jews is different than justice for Palestinians, in general, and justice for me is different than justice for my wife, also a Jew and an Israeli. As long as we aspire for uniform justice, we will only see injustice in the inequalities left from the absence of strict justice. As it says in the Talmud, “If you seek to have a world, strict justice cannot be exercised; and if you seek strict justice, there will be no world…You can have only one of the two. If you do not relent a little, the world will not endure. (Genesis Rabbah 39:6)”

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Letter to my Palestinian Friend Islam in Hebron

Islam my friend,

I am so embarrassed by the behavior of my co-religionists and co-patriots who are doing these awful acts of terrorism in your beloved city. I imagine that our shared forefather, Abraham, and his beloved wife Sarah are turning in their graves with disgust.
I wish I could explain to these thugs that the reason Abraham bought the machpela was because he understood the difference between divine realities and worldly realities. Clearly Abraham believed that God promised him the land of Israel. This is why he abandoned everything he knew, all his worldly comforts, to go to the place that God would show him, but he also knew that there were inhabitants in the land with deep ties to their homes and customs of their own. Nowhere in the Torah do we have an indication of the burial practices in Ur, but when Abraham comes to Hebron and meets with his Hittite neighbors, he opts to adopt their burial practices, he acknowledges his status as a resident-alien and he insists on buying the plot at the Machpela, in public, at full value, because he wants to show that he accepts the worldly truth—that he is living among people who are different from him and that he must respect their ways.
I wish there was some way we could convince these settlers to walk in Abraham's ways and create breathing room between people when conflict seems eminent. This is what Abraham proposed when his shepherds and his nephew Lot's were having difficulty sharing the fields where their flocks grazed. Abraham proposed separation, two states for two nations, and successfully avoided war. Why is this lesson lost on the settlers who rampaged through your city.
Islam, I am sorry that you and your family must experience this shameful, violent behavior and that in the streets of Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem my fellow Jews are not agitated and ready to follow our command from Torah to “surely rebuke your friend. (Lev. 19:17)” The word friend here is amitecha, which comes from the word am which means nation. We are commanded to rebuke our co-nationals, yet we are so afraid of civil war that we act as if we are paralyzed while your co-nationals are being robbed and beaten by our teenage boys. This is simply unacceptable, as is the response of the Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, who said that the government will not forcibly evacuate settlers from the "House of Contention," but will instead settle for preventing settler attacks on their Palestinian neighbors. (HaAretz, Nov.26, 2008) Both terrorist violence against your people and illegal acquisition of Palestinian property, as determined by the Israel Supreme Court, are very wrong and need to be repudiated by all Jews, everywhere.
It would be much easier for me to say that these settlers are not my responsibility, that we do not share common beliefs, that they disrespect the government that protects and defends them and thus should be cut off, but this won’t work. That same word, am, which I told you before is the Hebrew word for nation, is a word that was prescribed to the Hebrew grandchildren of our common ancestor Abraham by Pharoah. Unfortunately, we Jews live with the uncomfortable binary of having an identity which we both assume and cannot escape because it is ascribed to us, and we experienced great hardships as a result of that ascription. So we are stuck, as Jews, in bed with our “wicked sons,” a reference to our Passover Haggadah, and you will have to have faith that people like Yariv Oppenheim, the head of Peace Now, and Professor Zeev Sternhell, one of Peace Now’s founders and a victim of those same terrorists you are facing now, and many more are doing what is in our power to change this situation.
Please have faith in us and don’t ascribe to us the same identity you rightly ascribe to those wicked young people doing pogroms in your city. We all share Abraham as a forefather, but each of us, you and me, have people in the family who are making our forebears squirm in their graves. Now the task before us is to call on our inner strengths and talents and find ways to “rebuke our co-nationals” when they do wrong, in a way that helps reverse this terrible violence and brings us back to some form of normalcy. And of course, we cannot give up hope.

Peace be onto you,


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Putting the Dedication in Chanukah

At varying times both Mao Tze Dung and Thomas Jefferson agreed that governments need revolutions in order to avoid stagnation and corruption. You may have heard the quote that we need a revolution every ten years. Judaism also offers a strategy for recommitment to the organization of society in the celebration of the Festival of Lights, Chanukah. Starting with the name Chanukah, dedication, this festival has every opportunity for Jews to recommit themselves to their Judaism, but there are obstacles in our way. For instance, the proximity to Christmas can change the focus of our holiday.

But Christmas is not the only challenge to Chanukah celebration. The State of Israel poses different educational problems. Chanukah is an historical holiday. It commemorates the Hasmonean Wars and the victories of a Jewish family-led military over the Syrian-Greeks. Or does it?

In Israel, where models of Jewish heroism are in high demand, this story fits comfortably with the historical essence of Chanukah. But in truth, this non-religious holiday was created (it is not found in the Bible) for the purpose of helping Jews connect to the continuous concern of God for His people. Sometimes we don't see the miracles around us, and Chanukah is a holiday that the Tanaim, our sages, invented for this purpose. The story of the Chanukah lights is a legend told to remind Jews that God still cared for us after taking our people out of Egypt and during our often difficult existence in the Land of Israel.

As an educator and father, I often ask my students and children why the rabbis created the legend of the oil miracle. My pedagogy never insists on finding a definitive conclusion, but we often discuss the possibility that the rabbis made up a miracle story to assure Jews that God still cared. Of course, I prefer the conclusion some of my wiser students arrive at - that humans are simply limited in seeing the miracles that are always happening around them and that they sometimes need the help of their teachers to point them out.

The modern world also offers a third educational angle on this holiday. Clearly Antiochus tried to end Judaism by keeping Jews from practicing their religion. This was a very good strategy, and Mattathias knew it just as well as his adversaries, which is why he was willing to have his family band together and fight an overwhelming enemy.

What we can all learn from this is that keeping a Jew from Jewish rituals and traditions can contribute greatly to ending Judaism. So now I am forced to ask, why, in the modern era, do some Jews do this to themselves? Why do they, of their own will, not celebrate Shabbat? Why don't they engage in the various rituals that sustain Judaism?

This Chanukah, as Director of Education at Solel, I implore you to ask these questions around your table. Hopefully, it will be a table full of latkes and sufganiot, jelly donuts, with a Chanukiah in the window to share your pride in your Jewishness, but, at the very least, it will be a conscious decision and not a lapse of dedication.

Chag Urim Sameach!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Join the Impact - Protest Prop 8 on November 15th!

Now that we've crossed one barrier to full equality in our country, we must put an end to these mean and dehumanizing policies against our GLTB brothers and sisters. As long as we allow discrimination against some Americans through our legal system, there are two Americas.