Thursday, November 11, 2010

An important message from my 10 year old son Itamar

My name is Itamar Steiner. I am writing to you to seek help for two friends of mine who walked to Israel from Sudan where they were born.

Poogy and Deng left their country to escape the war. Their dog was killed by a robber in Sudan before they came to Israel. It was too dangerous to live there.

My new city, Tel Aviv, really tries taking care of refugees. They send about 20 kids from the poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv to get an education at my school. One of the problems is that my class mates are not used to having African kids at school. Some kids were picking on Poogy and Deng. I decided to invite them to my birthday party so they could show off what good athletes they are.

One weekend when they came to sleep over, they came to baseball practice with me. They loved it and my dad spoke to the head of the league about getting them full scholarships. Now they come home with me twice a week and then we go to baseball practice.

They come to school on a bus the city provides for them, but when they come to baseball we need to get them a ride home. On Fridays my dad and I drive them home and we see how they live. Poogy and Deng each have many siblings. Poogy’s family lives in 1 and a half rooms for 8 people.
Deng’s family is pretty much the same. Their older brother’s have to work many hours as well as their parents. People take advantage of the fact that they don’t have solid legal status and they are paid very low wages. Their landlords take advantage of them. For one and a half rooms, they pay over $600, and the rent is going up.

As their good friend, I have decided to raise money to support their families. As generous people, I turn to you for support. My dad taught me that in the Midrash and Koran it says, “If you save one life, it is as if you saved the world.” Imagine how much good you would do if you helped save two families.

If you are interested in helping, please respond by email and I will tell you how you can help. Write me via my dad at and please pass this on to your friends.

Thank you,

Itamar Steiner

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Parashat Vayeira

Parashat Vayeira has a lot of great stories. Stories in the Torah are there to teach us something about human behavior and values. I really object to the idea that they are there to tell us about our distant past, but that is an important subject for a different discourse. What is unique to Judaism is not the values we learn from the stories, it is that we learn our values by repeatedly returning to the stories and deriving our rituals from them.
Vayeira starts with God, according to Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina in the Babylonian Talmud, visiting Abraham on the third day after his circumcision. Loyalty has its rewards, and God knows that Abraham needs to see him while he is recuperating.
Then we have the infamous story of the three visitors whom Abraham greets with great hospitality. Jews don't have a monopoly on hospitality. Visit a Bedouin family and you will see how the masters fulfill this value. Still, hospitality is a Jewish value and it is learned through narrative.
In my favorite story of this parasha, Abraham has the chutzpah to argue with God about Sodom. Here, we learn two important lessons. Negotiation is an art and God, the author, wants us to know that we have individual, internal, moral compasses.
Negotiation as an art is a critical lesson. When Abraham asks, "Will You even destroy the righteous with the wicked?" He is appealing to one sensibility of his negotiating partner, justice. When he says, "Perhaps there are fifty righteous men in the midst of the city; will You even destroy and not forgive the place for the sake of the fifty righteous men who are in its midst?" Abraham tries to give his partner a chance to make a compromise.
Abraham is masterful when he implores judgment, especially when he knows the possible outcome. "Far be it from You to do a thing such as this, to put to death the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should be like the wicked. Far be it from You! Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?"
And then there is the trick. After engaging God in a negotiation and making himself appear humble by acknowledging his human, created, status, Abraham employs a language trick. "Perhaps the fifty righteous men will be missing five. Will You destroy the entire city because of five?" Of course, God is onto him and says, "I will not destroy if I find there forty-five."
Through all of this, God teaches us that we have dignity as humans. He listens to Abraham's rational thought. He doesn't take the upper hand. Both God and Abraham are also flawed here. Abraham uses tricks. To some degree, he disrespects the hierarchy of power. On the other hand, he teaches us that sometimes the hierarchy is flawed and deserves challenges.
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. writes,
One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."
The problem with this for our story is that Abraham's negotiation is with God, presumably the source of just law. Even Martin Luther King would be confounded in Abraham's position because his position is that God is the source of justice. King asks, "How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law."
The problem is that in this instance, God is acting in a way that seems unjust. What can we do with this? We can, as many do, and the Rambam implores of us,
1. accept that we cannot understand God and continue to cling to Her despite our moral compass.
2. We can judge God poorly, as the Gnostic religion did some two thousand years ago, and cling to hedonism while we are free in this world,
3. or we can follow Abraham's lead and challenge any form of justice that doesn't conform to our moral compass.
The important thing to remember is that there is an author to the text. Whether that is God or a redactor or a singular human voice, the message is that Abraham acted according to his moral compass. He challenged God, the character in the story, and spoke out despite the possible consequences.
I am thrilled that my tradition grapples with this issue. We are not Gnostics. We don't think that God is an indifferent creator. We also have room for negotiating what a good god would expect of us. Abraham's God is willing to conduct the negotiation. The author gives us this story to instruct us that this is our option, and anyone can still fit into the tradition whether she believes or not that there exists a higher power that commands. The behavior of the characters is separate from the author, and the message of the text is also independent.
In this small segment of Parashat Vayeira, we have a text that illuminates the pluralism of our tradition and leaves room for everyone at the table while making it clear that morals are negotiated between ourselves and what we think is collectively good. We may not all agree that that collective good originates with a benevolent deity, but we are all empowered to and commanded by the text to participate in the dialog.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Lech Lcha

The opening of Parasha Lech Lcha has a very different meaning when read as the continuation of the previous parasha, Noah. Of course, there are lots of rabbinic comparisons between Abraham and Noah, but this is not what I am referring to. I have always been troubled by the last sentence of the Parashat Noah when we are told of Terach's death. This does not sit well with the beginning of chapter twelve in which Avram is made out to be this great guy who is so dedicated to God that he will leave his native land, the place of his birth and his father's home to follow Him to an unknown place that He will show him. This model of super hero, role model is problematic.
Rashi has a different problem. He is worried that, "Abram did not fulfill [the commandment of] honoring his father, for he left him in his old age and went away." Rashi explains that this is the reason why, "Scripture calls him dead." He even gives a formula to explain that he was dead before Avram left.
If Terah died in Haran, then Avram didn't leave his native land, the place of his birth and his father's home to follow God to an unknown place where that God will show him. He was already on the path.
Why do we create histories that make our heroes better than they really are? Would we be better served acknowledging that Martin Luther King was at the Lorraine Hotel cheating on his wife when he was shot to death by an assassin? I would like to propose that we would, and I believe that the Torah agrees.
The deal with God, come and you'll inherit the land, appears to be a dud. Who needs a land that can't even provide basic sustenance? After a short time of wandering around worshiping God for the gift of another people's land, Avram and Sarai are forced to go to Egypt to get food during a terrible famine in the Land of the Canaanites. Along the way, Avram realizes that his wife is hot. I don't mean dessert hot. I mean hot like the kind of hot you would either pay or kill for. Avram is worried about the latter and asks Sarai to pretend she is his sister. He doesn't continue with the logical reason, "that my soul may live because of you." He first says, "in order that it go well with me because of you." Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolfe says that this was Avram pimping his wife. I won't be so direct, but whatever you call it, things went well for Avram and by the time Pharoah had kicked them out of Egypt, they were so rich with flocks that they had to send Lot away because there was not enough land to graze for both of their herds.
Why does the author of the Torah share this story with us? Even Rashi doesn't know what to do with this. He turns to Genesis Rabbah where it says that, "[Avrum] hid [Sarai] in a trunk, and when they demanded the customs duty, they opened it and saw her. " He then explains that this is how we know that when they saw how hot she was, they decided to praise her to the Pharoah.
Rashi does the same thing that Chazal do. He tries to turn the misdeeds of the hero into admirable choices. I can understand this as one who looks for role models in making my moral decisions, but with my doctor of education hat on, I think we do a dreadful disservice when we do so, and I think the Kadosh Baruchu sides with me by presenting the good, the bad and the ugly when he gives us the text.
In my humble opinion, the text is trying to activate the moral compass that is inside of each of us, as we learn about in next week's parasha, Vayeira. Torah presents us with a beautiful tension between the quality of a human soul and the deeds of an individual human. By presenting Avram in all his dimensions, the author of our text is trying to tell us, use your moral compass, look for the good deeds and emulate them.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Parashat Noah

The ark started moving, it drifted with the tide
The unicorns looked up from the rocks and they cried
And the waters came down and sort of floated them away
That's why you never see unicorns to this very day

You'll see green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you're born
You're never gonna see no unicorns

- The Unicorn Song, words and music Shel Silverstein

In Parashat Noah we learn about the importance of seeing in addressing the world in the first few sentences of the portion. What's most interesting about his, however, is that for the author of the Torah, being is separate from the observed world. We know this because the author chose to first tell us, "Now the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth became full of hamas (There are many ways to translate this. Rashi refers to the Hebrew gazal which means robbery) (Gen. 6:11)." וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱ־לֹהִים וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס: Only in the next line do we read that God saw the world, "[A]nd behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth." וַיַּרְא אֱ־לֹהִים אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה כִּי הִשְׁחִית כָּל בָּשָׂר אֶת דַּרְכּוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ:
Why does Torah first tell us that something exists and then that God observed it. I believe that we are being told that there is a difference between objective reality and perception. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the use of the word hamas is there to strengthen the fact that there is an objective word which has values thrust upon it. When God sees the earth, verbs are used to describe the state of the world; it was corrupted. When objective reality is described, adjectives are used to let us know how to feel about it. These are the assertions of the author.
Perception and reality are always different. Imagine an art studio with many painters trying to capture a model on their canvass. Each stands in a different position relative to the model, each can reveal a different aspect of what exists. This may explain why the rabbis tell us that there are seventy faces to the Torah. In their day, there were also seventy members of a Sanhedrin which validated and legitimized the teachings of Torah. One perspective could be tyrannical. It could never give voice to the multiplicity of understandings of the text.
The same is true for the end of the portion. The people unite in one language and try to build a monolithic tower to heaven. God hears of the tower and goes to check it out for Herself. וַיֵּרֶד יְ־הֹוָ־ה לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם:
Rashi is troubled by this. He says, "He did not need to do this, except to teach judges not to condemn a defendant until they see [the case] and understand [it]." Here God doesn't need to see objective reality for Her to know of it, but She understands the separation. Seeing is part of believing, which is why God sets an example and goes to see the Tower. God reaffirms the distance between objective reality and observation and, in doing so, also strengthens the space between reality and perception. Depending on where a person stands, s/he will see something different.
This is one of the strongest lessons of the Noah portion. The distinction between our perception and reality is not finite. It changes with time. It changes as we change. But the knowledge of the existence of this separation is essential for us to be good judges and make good judgments as we navigate our way through time and travel our path through this objective world.


Rashi teaches us that the first two words of the Torah need interpretation. This, in itself, is mind boggling. Who was this text written for if not humans? As such, why does it need interpretation? Was the author, traditionally understood as God, incapable of conveying Her message in a clear manner? Why would God the author want to create a system of understanding that relies on interpreters? These are big questions that demand our attention.

Rashi continues by telling us that these words, Beraishit Barah, translated as, In the beginning, created, (The Hebrew verb and noun are in opposite order) “teaches us that the sequence of the Creation is impossible as is written.” He goes on to explain that the Hebrew word Beraishit is in the form of a word that must be succeeded by another and gives many examples including, “In the beginning of (בְּרֵאשִית) the reign of Jehoiakim”

Rashi surely has an ideology about understanding Torah, but he also has a critical methodology. My teacher, Professor Menachem Fisch would often burst out in class, “Aren’t we lucky we have the Oral Torah?” By this, I think he meant that we are fortunate to have a corpus of literature that helps us to understand the Torah. What I am not sure of is whether he says this because he believes that it helps us understand the authorial intent or because it gives us a structure within which we can live Jewishly.

When Rashi says that we need interpretation to understand even the first two words of the Bible, I think he is creating a power which I struggle with. Do I really want to give over my autonomy of understanding the text to a canon of interpreters who, like me, can never meet the author?

When discussing power, it is hard to ignore the writing of French philosopher Michel Foucault. In his essay, What is an author?, Foucault addresses an additional layer to the problem of understanding sacred text, what does authorship do to the writing (écriture)?

In the Secular Yeshiva of BINA, authorship is an open question. In our pursuit of personal meaning derived from the text, we do not reify the authorship or hand it over to an all powerful , all knowing deity. We allow the deity a place at the table along with the philosophers, interpreters, Zionist leaders, historians, writers, artists and others. We believe in the method of meaning making designed by our forebears, to assess meaning through rigorous debate and discussion, but we don’t privilege anyone.

As we celebrate this Shabbat Beraishit, let us try to find a place for everyone at our table as we study for its own sake and let the study transform us. In this way, hopefully, we will find in the text those things that empower us to repair our world – regardless of commandments and unnecessary hierarchies.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

An Open letter to President Abbas

Dear President Abbas,

It's Sukkot and while we are celebrating and wishing one another moadim b'simcha, joyous times, there is a shadow hanging over our heads. The shadow is violence which may occur if you choose to leave the peace talks because our prime minister chooses not to continue the building freeze in the West Bank.
Before I continue, I would like to remind you of a letter I wrote you, which I hope you read, back when our prime minister told you to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition of peace. At that time, I encouraged you not to acquiesce. My reason was simple. I didn't want to lighten the definition of a Jewish state by having it determined from without. I encouraged you to refrain on the grounds that you are not capable of judging the Jewish quality of the state. I know that there is much more involved, that it would hurt your position vis a vis refugees, but taking my stance achieves the same goal, and I continue to urge you to not comment on the religious qualities of my state, even if this gives Prime Minister Netanyahu a chance to walk away from the talks.
Your walking away is different. It raises the possibility of a resurgence of violence accompanied by pain and fear on both sides. I want desperately to avoid this scenario. Usually, as a democratic minded person, I believe that my efforts must be directed at my own role in the situation. I can't change what others do and I must control myself, but the Netanyahu government is teaching me the meaning of Winston Churchill's famous quote, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." While other forms are far from perfect, in democracy we suffer the tyranny of majorities, or in Israel's case, the tyranny of the number 2 party and its cronies.
This Sunday, when both of us learn what my government has chosen to do with regard to building, we will be in the beginning of the week in which we read the first portion of the Torah. I know the high regard the Prophet Mohammad had for our book and its people, so I will appeal to your understanding of the book and its message regarding Genesis and the first humans.
Of course, I can only guess at the authorial intent of this great piece of literature, but I am quite certain that the message of two parents, Adam and Eve, for all of humanity is that we are siblings and must treat one another as family. This is challenged when we get the message that siblings fight and even kill one another.
"Am I my brother's keeper?" This brilliant stroke of the pen conveys the interdependence of humanity. It also conveys that ultimately we can only control our own behavior. In Judaism, our rabbi's redefine a hero as one who "conquers one's instincts." This is what I am asking of you.
If on Sunday we both awake to renewed building, I imagine that your instinct will be to pull away. Why should you trust someone who speaks from both sides of his mouth, asking for peace while continuing to build the major obstacle to reconciliation? But I implore you to be a hero and conquer this instinct because the alternative is worse. You may consider yourself justified in responding to aggression with aggression, but you won't serve either side well by letting loose the specter of violence. The Al Aksa Intifada, you have proclaimed, was a failure for your cause. Walking away from the talks could be the mother of all failures. Walking away and letting loose the will of violent instincts will not achieve peace, it will destroy hope.
While I asked you once to not judge the Jewishness of my country, today I am asking you to listen to our rabbis, the sages of the Talmud, and be a hero. Conquer your instinct and do what you can to remain vigilant about the long term goal, peaceful co-existence between our nations in this land which we both treasure. While Prime Minister Netanyahu may feel he has won a battle, ultimately, your heroics will end the war.

Best wishes and joyous times,

David Jay Steiner, EdD.
Tel Aviv, Israel

Saturday, September 11, 2010

An open letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,

Shana Tova to you and your family.
My family moved back to Israel after a 13 year hiatus in Chicago where I received my doctorate. Before that, in 1990, we moved back to Israel just in time to help elect Yitzhak Rabin, z''l, to the premiership. We left around the time of the beginning of your first tenure at prime minister.
I remember the early Oslo period as a time of euphoria punctuated with some of the worst expressions of hatred and cynicism ever. Once, a suicide bomber took his life within a football field from my apartment in Tel Aviv, and, for three hours, I searched the area for my wife and newborn daughter wondering what would happen to my capacity to hope and dream of peace if they were taken from me. My high school roommate told me that he commanded soldiers who were killed on either side of him in the first Lebanon War and, despite all logic, he cannot trust Arabs. I didn't want that to happen to me, and I don't think that is a luxury we Israelis have.
Hope is at the core of being Jewish. It, literally, is our national anthem. We live in hope and anticipation. Just think for a moment about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who insisted that we plant trees in this world before greeting the messiah. Think of Honi the Circle Maker who taught us, through his experience, that planting trees for future generations is one of our most holy expressions of faith.
Much of our hope rests on your shoulders today. We are full of hope that you will lay the foundations for peace for this and future generations. My personal hope is that you have the strength of character that Yochanan had when he saw our people eating straw because the Thugs and Zealots had burned their food in a cynical attempt to cause a rebellion. Yochanan didn't join the infighting of the people. He rose above the pettiness and snuck out of Jerusalem in order to sue for peace. This could be how we remember you.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, we just ended the month of Elul in which our efforts were focused on self reflection. Now we are approaching the Day of Atonement on which we will take collective responsibility for our nation. With humility, we will chant aloud, "ASHAMNU: we have been guilty, BAGADNU: we have betrayed, GAZALNU: we have stolen, DIBARNU DOFI: we have spoken falsely." What self knowledge and beliefs will stand behind these words?
Why are we guilty? Have we been less than completely sincere about our intentions for peace? Are we guilty of allowing the Palestinians under our military rule to live for 43 years without civil rights?
Who have we betrayed? Have we betrayed the sacred command, "Do onto others as you would onto yourself." Have we betrayed the words of King Solomon in the Proverbs, "Seek peace and pursue it."
What have we stolen? There are many in Israel who claim that Judea and Samaria are part of the booty of the Six Day War. Other's remind us of the Geneva Convention that makes this illegal. While I fully stand behind the Geneva Conventions, I can understand the argument that loosing land is a risk of starting a war. This, theoretically, is a deterrent. Still, the subject of processing land is fraught with complexities, and it is not so simple that we can rightfully say that Israel won the right in battle or that it was promised to us by God without consideration of the residents. Just think of the respect Abraham showed for the Hittites shortly after God promised him the land. He bought the Cave of the Patriarchs to bury Sarah because he respected the indigenous people. Land comes with responsibility for the residents.
How have we spoken falsely? I would suggest that by asking the Palestinian President to say that Israel is a Jewish state as a condition for advancing peace is speaking falsely because it puts an impassible obstacle in front of the peacemakers. In Israel, we are far from understanding what it fully means to be a Jewish state. We have not reconciled being Jewish and being democratic. While our Torah tells us to have one law for ourselves and the strangers amongst us (Leviticus 19:34), we have at least two types of citizenships in the country, not to mention the status of those in the Land who have no civil rights.
Mr. Prime Minister, I don't love clichés, but I want you to know that many of us prefer a land of peace than a piece of land. We also see no distinction between our Judaism and our democratic values. In fact, we see democracy as a cornerstone of those values, while we have not found a consensus on the definition of a Jewish State, we are very happy existing in the machloket (debate), as long as it remains civil.
What we don't want is to be the pariah of the world, to be thought of as a nation that does not respect the rights of all of its residents or its neighbors, to exist as the "neighborhood bully," in the Middle East.
You have a unique opportunity to fulfill the hopes, dreams and responsibilities of our people. You will not be judged better for the amount of land you retain. You will not be evaluated with distinction for the level to which we monopolize the natural resources of our region. You will build your legacy on your ability, like Honi the Circle Maker and his date palm or Yochanan and the academy he built in Yavne - outside of Jerusalem, to start a process that we need to continue as a peace loving, democracy craving, justice loving people.
God speed in your very important mission and Shana Tova to all of Israel and the world.
Best wishes,
Dr. David J. Steiner
Tel Aviv, Israel

Friday, September 10, 2010

Response to the letter of support for Israeli actors boycotting performance in Ariel and the West Bank

It's Rosh Hashana, the birthday of the world in our tradition, and I cannot think of a better birthday gift than the pursuit of justice. This is why I am writing to you about the letter you signed supporting the Israeli-Jewish actor boycott of the West Bank.
As some may know about me, I detest the occupation. I wrote my dissertation about peace education between Israelis and Palestinians, I moved back to Israel to be an active force in changing the politics of my homeland, and I am studying to be a rabbi to have the credentials and the learning to engage our people in a serious discourse about this terrible injustice done in the name of all Israelis and Jews. And yet, I am very concerned with the development of this boycott mentality within us as a people.
For certain, we have always had infighting. The Thugs (Biryonim) and Zealots (Kanaim) in Jerusalem were willing to burn the food supplies of their fellow Jews to encourage a rebellion against the Roman occupiers. Korach and others rebelled against the leadership of Moses. Jewish infighting is not a new phenomenon. But now we have a country of our own and we have to strengthen the institutions within which we conduct our discourse.
As I write, I am cognizant of Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham jail in which he left us the brilliant statement, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." In this letter, King tells us that, "The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." But the actors' boycott of West Bank is not intended to open any doors. It actually closes them.
Noah Efron, a Bar-Ilan University lecturer and member of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa City council, wrote that,
the only chance we have of making proper sense of the world around us is if we see what surrounds us in all its complexity, and if we are alive to voices different from our own… Arguably, artists and scholars ought to seek venues in Ariel, and other settlements, and to energetically hunt for opportunities to challenge those who live there and to be challenged in return. If we believe in the power of what we do, we ought doubly to wish to debate it with those who see matters differently.

I do not fully agree with Efron. We should seek to debate the collective policies of our country. The tyranny of the majority is exactly why Winston Churchill says of democracy that it is a terrible system, except for all the rest. But we can overcome that by creating as many venues for civil discourse as possible without asking our artists an scholars to compromise their values and perform in settlements that they believe are illegal and immoral.
On the other hand, in an opinion piece in Haaretz,, Theodore Bikel, unintentionally, gave me the reason to oppose the boycott as a collective effort of Israeli artists. He refers to "Pablo Casals, the world-famous cellist, who chose life-long exile from his native Spain because of the fascist dictator who ruled the beloved country of his birth, [and] said this: 'My cello is my weapon; I choose where I play, when I play, and before whom I play.'” My art and my scholarship are not weapons. They are my voice, and when they become weapons, I have changed my perspective relative to the discourse. I believe in civil discourse.
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in their book "Metaphors we live by" argue that the metaphors we use become the frames that shape our thinking and behavior. I cannot chose raising weapons on my people, even those who I detest politically. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the avowed pacifist Catholic theologian who was executed for his efforts to assassinate Hitler, I agree that there is a time to fight and even kill, but that is a last resort. At this time, our efforts should be directed at engagement and discourse. A boycott is an act of force. I prefer not to end the occupation through force. I want to end it through creative, democratic exchange. In the Arab market in Jerusalem they sell t-shirts with a slogan that explains my feelings. "Fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity." I think the idea of boycotts, other than possibly against corporations, is pregnant with negative ramifications. It brings us down to their playing field. It makes our means inconsistent with our ends.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the Palestinian Call for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel are both intent on forcing Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank. While I concur with this limited goal, I disagree with the means. Likewise, Im Tirzu, the right wing, Israeli political organization funded in part by Rev. John Hagee, uses the same methods to force their way on internal Israeli opponents. Recently, they threatened to bring their protest to funders of Ben Gurion University in order to make donations for the academy conditioned on their political will. Both of these examples are uses of force for political gain, and neither is willing to attempt to achieve their aspirations through discourse. To my sensibility, this is McCarthyism for the 21st century.
Since I opened this door, let me say one small thing about McCarthyism. My absolute favorite response to Senator McCarthy and his ilk was the movie Salt of the Earth (1954) written by Michael Wilson, directed by Herbert J. Biberman, and produced by Paul Jarrico, all blacklisted by the Hollywood film industry. Instead of fighting censorship and fascism, they engaged it, creatively, in the public realm. This might be what the actors of Israeli theater troupes should be doing in Ariel. Noah Efron suggests, " At the end of each show, they could turn up the house lights and enter into discussion and debate with the audience. Such meetings would be heated, no doubt, but they might help thaw the frozen seas inside those of us who live in Tel Aviv and in Ariel alike." Again, I like the intentions, but I question the methods.
Performing in Ariel is legitimizing the occupation. I don't travel on Highway 443 because it cuts through the West Bank on its way to Jerusalem. I am not as diligent about East Jerusalem. I travel there to protest in Sheik Jarrah, which is fine, but I also visit friends in East Talpiot. I always bring guests from abroad to the Old City, and I travel to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian activists and scholars. These issues are very complicated. One of the most beautiful things about our Hebrew language is its complexity. Appropriately, for our conversation, the three letter root of the Hebrew word for "abstraction" (hafshata) is also the root for the word "simple" or "literal" (pshat). In English we say, it’s a thin line between love and hate.
I am not afraid of complexity. Another great movie that deals with this issue is The American President. For most of the film, the president, portrayed by Michael Douglas, does not want to engage his opponent, played by Richard Dreyfus, about attacks on his personal behavior because he is not willing to go down to his level. Eventually, he decides that the time has come and he fights fire with fire. "There is a time for every purpose under heaven." Maybe the time has come.
It is impossible to have this type of conversation, when Israel is involved, without referring to our sages. There are two brilliant references that should be considered in this situation. When faced with the infighting that ensued after the destruction of the Second Temple, Yochanan ben Zakai snuck out of Jerusalem in a coffin in order to sue for peace. It wasn't a democratic move. He acted on his own, but, in doing so, he saved the Jewish people from destroying themselves from within.
The other example is the chevruta, the study partnership, of Reish Lakish and Rebbe Yochanan. After converting Reish Lakish from a life of crime into a life of piety, Rebbe Yochanan verbally spars with his student in the classroom. This leads to Reish Lakish's death. Not having clear civil borders for the discourse ends in tragedy. In recalling their study partnership, Yochanan remembers how through a process of challenging each other with 24 questions they get to the fullest understanding of the subject. While I certainly agree that individual artists and scholars should not engage in behaviors that offend their moral and political sensibilities, I think you have an obligation, if you want to boycott collectively, to create alternative frameworks for engaging your political opponent. It is not only for their fair participation in the decisions of the larger collective, it is for everyone's benefit in achieving the fullest understanding of the issues.
This is the kind of pluralistic discourse I want for my country. I don't want pluralism because I like every idea out there. I want pluralism because I have the humility to know that I don't have all the answers in here. Furthermore, while I am not an advocate of nationalism, I am fully intent on working with my country men and women to make our homeland the best that it can be. A country, for better or worse, is not a marriage. We cannot simply end all our conflicts be divorcing ourselves of one another, and we ought not end them through force. This could very well be why the sages put the family and marriage at the center of our community life. They did create an escape. We have divorce in Judaism. By our hopes and dreams are for healthy homes and families in Israel. This includes finding ways to constructively, as equals, get beyond our problems and work for the fulfillment of our dreams.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Playing by the rules

The month of Elul has begun and I am trying to make sense of my behavior over the last year. Elul is understood as an acronym. ELUL, Alef (Ani) Lamed (L’dodi) Vov (V’dodi) Lamed (Li). I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. We say it at weddings as a message of equality between the spouses, but dodi also refers to “my God.” I have always appreciated that in Judaism we take the month of Elul to make amends with the people in our lives first and then we are considered ready to make amends with God.

One thing that always has bothered me is what I should be making amends with God for. Common Jewish literacy holds that are 613 commandments, of which 365 are negative (prohibitions) and 248 positive (things we must do). Among the things we must do are keep the Sabbath holy, respect our parents and give to the needy. Then there are others like kill homosexuals, wicked and rebellious sons and idolaters. These seem much harder to implement in good conscience.

For his reason, I decided to ask one of the on-line rabbis who claim to be able to decipher the true meaning of scripture. I left his name out because the sages of the Talmud teach us the evil of embarrassing someone in public. It’s called halbanat panim and I think they were very wise and ethical for advising us against it. I also don’t want to engage in the evil tongue, Lashon harah, which is when we tell true things about a person behind their back. They say that these crimes will keep us from heaven and they compare the evil tongue to an arrow. They say that it is better to hit with one’s hand than with an arrow because your arm is retractable, whereas an arrow isn’t. The Rambam says that it is better to do a mitzvah because you are commanded than because it is rational. I have to strongly disagree. I cannot imagine a good God wanting me to do things without critically assessing the request. I can, however, see why somebody who wants absolute power would make these requests and attribute them to God. Below is the content of my inquiry from the anonymous on-line rabbi. I promise that it is 99% factual. I took the liberty of cleaning up my poor spelling and grammar a bit to hide my inferior intelligence. I also wasn't completely upfront about my agnosticism. I wasn't sure how seriously I would be taken if I said I was an agnostic concerned with interpreting God's will as expressed in Torah.

David - How do you explain the mitzvah to stone to death a Jew worshipping other gods for this weeks parasha. Rashi doesn't give much. There is not one I read who addresses this. I feel very uncomfortable with the text instructing us to kill in God's name, especially when it asks us to judge other humans behaviors. I think Chazal would have a very difficult time with this mitzvah. I'm not well versed enough to find their commentary, but I know they didn't want to fulfill these types of mitzvot.

Anonymous online rabbi - What is hard about understanding stoning to death an idolator? He's lucky that's all he gets.
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David - I will assume that your question is rhetorical. Would you really stone an idolator? What would it take for you to decide that someone is an idolater and deserve death? Would you actually execute this punishment or would you give it to others to execute? This really intrigues me.

Anonymous online rabbi - We do what the Torah requires of us.

David - What would it feel like if one of your students or readers executed your judgment and stoned an idolater to death? As I read your answers, I feel like you are telling me to execute justice against an idolater. What if my judgment is wrong? What if I kill the wrong guy, or he was just dabbling in idolatry but he wasn't serious? What is the point of no return?
I have a guy in my class at Tel Aviv University who is a Jews for Jesus. Does he deserve this punishment?

Anonymous online rabbi - It doesn't apply to us nowadays so why worry about it?
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David - When does nowadays start? What if somebody doesn't understand that and executes justice as Torah instructs? I would hate for somebody to judge the pictures I have of Joe Louis and Mohammad Ali (the boxer) on my wall and decide that I worship idols. Although, at times I do feel like their grace in the ring is divine. When Joe Louis clobbered the Nazi Max Schnell didn't it just seem like God was putting his bets on Joe Louis? I can see why stoning an idolater could have its perks. It'd be like Sandy Koufax in the world series or a Nolan Ryan fastball.

I'm still bothered by the fact that our God would ask us to kill idolaters. Why would he command us not to kill and then have us kill idolaters and homosexuals and wicked and rebellious sons? It just doesn't make sense.

Anonymous online rabbi - Are you G-d? Why does everything have to make sense? Does it make sense that when a man dies childless that his brother marries the widow? Why not let her marry whomever she wants? I don't think most commandments really make sense. We do them because we're told to. The Sefer Hachinuch discusses rationale for the commandments. Ultimately, G-d does not want people worshiping idols.

David - I'm not God. But how am I supposed to know that these laws don't apply now. Who makes up these rules? Who decides when they stop being applicable? How is the average Joe supposed to know? Should I not respect my parents? Does that rule apply now? What is the difference between applying the one rule and not the other? It looks as if somebody is playing God and making the decisions?

It's almost Rosh HaShana and I want to stand in front of God with a clean conscience. If he's asking me to kill somebody, there should be no amendments to the Torah. This is not democracy. This is God. How can somebody be so vain as to step in and tell me it doesn't apply now?

Also, since God is so great, why is he worried about other gods, middle weights, threatening his title. He's the Greatest. Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee is nothing next to splitting the sea and killing all the Egyptian first born.

Everything doesn't have to makes sense, but there needs to be sense to the human answers and interpretations of when Torah applies and when not, unless God instructs us otherwise.

Anonymous online rabbi - Did you ever study Gemara and Medrash?

David - Of course. The Torah is not in heaven. It is ours to interpret. But we are supposed to lean toward the majority. When was a vote taken and why wasn't I invited?

Anonymous online rabbi - You need to learn the rules
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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The rapist, the politician and the definition of Jewish Identity

Reading the news about Sabbar Kashur, the Arab man going to prison for sleeping with a Jewess while posing as a Jew, in the same sitting as I read about the Rotem Conversion Bill and Avrum Burg’s new Arab-Jewish political party, Shivyon Yisrael, Equality for Israel, I cannot help but question what it means to be a Jew.

In the case of the woman who consented to sleep with Mr. Kashur, being Jewish was in name and race. Sabbar’s nickname was Dudu. Even his wife called him by this variation on the Hebrew name Daveed, as in the king. I don’t know the personal beliefs of Mr. Kashur, but as a Palestinian, he comes from one of two (possibly three) monotheistic religions. He’s also not a foreigner in this land. All this leads me to conclude that Kashur’s “crime” was not his lie, Jews embellish on J-Date all the time, it was his race or ethnicity or whatever you want to call being a Palestinian Arab. In this sense, for Mr. Kashur’s accuser, Judaism is her race, not his.

For Yisrael Beiteinu’s Dudu, David Rotem, Jewish is both something that jives, exclusively, with his orthodox religious beliefs and serves as a form of legitimization for the over a hundred thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union, his constituents. He didn’t bring his bill to the Knesset floor to offend Diaspora Jews. He didn’t have the foresight to think about it. He was advancing the political will of his beliefs and his party. This political jockeying is one of the byproducts of being a people with a state. Rotem’s Judaism is orthodoxy and the orthodox stamp of approval.

For Avrum Burg, being Jewish is a personal praxis of individuals who consider themselves within the big tent of Judaism. (I may be doing a disservice to Mr. Burg who probably would reject Jews for Jesus and others like them.) I think Avrum is juggling three identities; Jewish, Israeli and democrat. It may be hard for someone outside of Israel to conceptualize the struggle we have as democratic people who want to preserve the refuge status of Israel for Jews and not just be a country with a Jewish majority. Once, former Meretz leader Yosi Sarid, in his vulgar way, said that in his wet dreams he wakes up and there are no Arabs here. I’m not even sure that fantasy is good for the Jews. We have a lot to learn from our co-nationals, as they from us, and their presence here reminds us that we were never alone in this land. For Avrum Burg, and probably Yosi Sarid, Judaism is the private religious choice of individuals. It is not state business.

There is one thing that should be pointed out above all; in the 21st century, identity is not reified. It is fluid. For instance, I am studying to be a rabbi. Both schools which I attended in this pursuit are non-denominational. Some people ask, what kind of rabbi will you be? My standard answer is, “A good rabbi.” I can guarantee you that when I am looking for a job, if need be, I will declare a denominational identity. This is what it means to say that identity is fluid. For me, being a Jew is living within the Jewish myth.

In Israel, there are two identities in an I.D. card; national and religious. The purpose of national identity is clear. Can you vote? Must you pay taxes? Will you travel with an Israeli passport? The purpose of the religious identity is less clear. Donniel Hartman, in his book The Boundaries of Judaism says that Israel has adopted the lowest common denominator definition of a Jew, someone with a Jewish grandparent, the same as the Nazi definition. The reason for this is that part of Israel’s purpose is to remain a refuge for Jews, something most of us agree upon. The State of Israel has come up with a different reason for defining Judaism, to create authority over the various religious groups in Israel. Here, in Israel, each religion has a czar of its own.

MK David Rotem’s conversion bill is about the authority of official Judaism in Israel. Rotem was, on one hand, strengthening his orthodox cronies, on the other, he may have been trying to cater to his constituents who have difficulty becoming legitimized as Jews. Either way you look at it, any Orthodox converted immigrant from the former Soviet Union who would have a sexual encounter with Mr. Kashur’s accuser would not be required to give his pedigree nor would he have to explain his religious beliefs. Simply put, the Kashur case is about official Israeli racism toward Arabs.

I don’t know about you, but racism is not part of my Jewish values. It is historically true that defining ourselves in contrast to others has always been part of defining who we are. This is not unusual, even among non-Jews. It’s also true that Judaism traditionally discouraged intermingling. But this is not the problem we are addressing.

There is a tension in Israel between being a state of Jews and a Jewish state. We need a refuge for Jews. This is a given. We may also believe that whatever it is that we define as Jewish is valuable, otherwise we wouldn’t choose to remain Jewish in a world where we are free to assimilate. But the big question is whether a state can have a character. France is dealing with this at the expense of their democracy by not allowing free religious expression. Israel is dealing with it at the expense of Diaspora Judaism and non-Jewish citizens (which also hurts our democracy).

If a state can have a character and we want our state’s character defined by Judaism, then there remains the question of how we determine what Judaism is? Donniel Hartman, head of the Shalom Hartman Institute where I learn, writing on the Conversion Bill and the affect the bill has on Israel-Diaspora relations, says that “Israel must be a place …where the various Judaisms of the Jews have footholds and a place of respect.” (Notice, he doesn’t say Israeli Jews.) Ari Elon, a Hartman fellow, in his wonderful book From Jerusalem to the edge of heaven, suggests a difference between Judaism and Jewishness. Neither of them address, specifically, the Arab members of Israeli society, but both are known to value democracy.

Having a Jewish character and being a state of one form of Judaism seem mutually exclusive. Jews have always been varied in their praxis and belief. What we need to do is separate religion from the state’s powers and maintain a Jewish character. This will require change from all parties to the discussion. Who is a Jew is too important a question to be left to politicians. It requires all of our input and a willingness to engage each other as legitimate equals. Can we stand up to this challenge? I don’t know. When Yochanan Ben Zakai fled Jerusalem to sue for peace from the Roman captors, we was not acting as the spokesperson for the people, even if he acted on their behalf. Maybe what we need is a Yochanan Ben Zakai, maybe just a large table where we can sit together and talk. Whatever the case, let’s not leave ourselves out of the discussion. The ramifications are too big to be left to others to decide for us. Chazak, Chazak v’nitchazek.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Finally, a pushke with my vision of Israel

Living in America, I was starting to feel like a doctor (not of education, which I am.) Every time I would push my check into the blue pushke, I would take the Hippocratic oath, “do no harm,” and write in the memo line, “Not for use over the Green Line.” Now I am asking myself, what was I thinking all those years.
This past Sunday, I went on a rabbinic tour of Tel Aviv with the New Israel Fund. It accomplished exactly what it had intended. It showed us how the money donated to this alternative vision of Israel is spent. I am reluctant to say “new” because the NIF vision is the one I was raised on as a child in Habonim. If only I wrote my checks to NIF all these years, I would have been able to feel like I was part of the solution, not the problem, and I would have been a participant in forging the vision of Israel I was supporting.

Our Sunday NIF trip through Tel Aviv started, of all places, in the NIF offices in Jerusalem at a breakfast with former member of Knesset, Avrum Burg. What a delight! Avrum came in to the room and shamed me. How can I take of the leisure of being pessimistic about Israel when he is such an optimist, especially Avrum Burg, the man maligned for expressing the evil (sarcasm intended) opinion that we need to come out from the ashes of the Holocaust and start thinking about what kind of society we want. Avrum told us about the work of the New Israel Fund in Israel and the meager beginnings of the organization which started 30 years ago in the Bay Area with a mere $80,000. This was clearly a Herzlian story of “if you will it, it is no dream.” The lions share of his talk was not about the external threats. It was about what Israel could be. Ironically, or maybe intentionally, days before Tisha B’Av, Avrum also discussed Sinat Chinam, infighting, and looking for a way to end this 2000 year old Jewish virus.

Our next stop was Tel Aviv. We met at one of the beneficiary organizations of the NIF, the Hotline for Foreign Workers. This was truly amazing. Hotline for Foreign Workers is an open society organization started by volunteers who were concerned with a prevalent problem is Israeli society which was not address by its creators, the government. Israel, since the first Intifada, has been trying to wean itself of Palestinian labor. This is not an new story in the land of our forebears. I have a poster in my kitchen that says, “Hebrew watermelon,” which was the early Zionist call to support Jewish labor over Arab. Today things are worse. We have not managed to do what Ber Borochov and Nachman Syrkin prescribed for us, to flip the social/economic pyramid of the Jews who were excluded from European society for so long. In Israel we maintain the pyramid but change its base. To replace Palestinian labor, we bring outsiders to do our dirty work. This wouldn’t be a problem if, as our hosts explained, they didn’t behave like human beings and fall in love, hope to be treated with dignity and need the basics of human sustenance. In Israel, we seem to want laborers who were not made in the same image of God as we were.
The Hotline for Foreign Workers is a magnificent organization on the meta level because it is the fulfillment of Hillel’s teaching, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” The nuance is also superlative. They address the real problems of affordable housing, labor justice, the absurd Knesset attacks on the children of these foreign workers and now they have entered the new realm of dealing with foreign workers who didn’t come here by choice. They were chased away from their home countries. Yes, it is beautiful that the Moslem Sudanese man who now runs a computer center in South Tel Aviv decided that Israel was the best country to turn to of all the neighborhood, but it would be better if we welcomed him with the same Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming of guests, demonstrated by Abraham.

After lunch at Dr. Shukshuka in Yafo, we went to see how the other half lives. No, not the Israeli Jewish downtrodden, of which there are many, we went to the cousins in Yafo. Before I describe the visit further, I must disclose a terrible fact from my marriage. My wife, who is also not a fan of this, comes from a family that moved into a house in Yafo where dinner was still cooking on the stove when they arrived. Now, in all fairness to them, they had just arrived from Algiers, had no money and were confronting an Ashkenazi bureaucracy in Israel that was anything but sympathetic, but this is not the fault of the Arab family that fled their home trying to either escape Jewish attackers or fleeing with the hope of getting more when their brothers in Egypt got rid of the Jewish menace in Palestine. I am not planning to judge here the ethics of people who had to deal with existential questions in times of war. As a peace educator, I can only hope to prepare others for making better decisions in the future.

In Yafo with NIF, I learned about the close interconnection of economics and ideology. My impression is that Judaicizing Israel is exploited for the economic gain of the few. It is no wonder that the building contractors in the West Bank settlements are the biggest supporters of the right wing ideologues. In Yafo, the situation is very complicated. Arabs who left their dwellings and moved south but stayed in the general vicinity of their homes, those who didn’t get the luxury tents in Gaza, are now being forced to move again. This time the pressure is not military, it’s economic and legal.

From his Birmingham, Mississippi jail cell, Martin Luther King once wrote,

One may ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all.

I have difficulty understanding how anyone in Israel can see fairness in a law that forces Israeli citizens to leave their homes because of convoluted statutes that benefit the upper echelon of society. Maybe the Jewish state doesn’t always intend to live by the spirit of the Biblical call for equal justice between ourselves and the strangers amongst us. Are we just a state of Jews or do we want something Jewish about our character? Maybe if those affected by this miscarriage of justice were Jewish, people would be up in arms. This is why we need the New Israel Fund.
Remember when President Obama said, “There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America.” Something of this spirit has to be part of the Israeli vision for itself. Jews have always lived with strangers among ourselves, otherwise God, the master of tzimtzum, sparing use of words, would not waste ink inscribing for us the command to have equal justice for the stranger. Ironically, it takes an American founded, Israeli non-governmental organization to remind us that the Jewish state, before all else, must maintain some of its Jewish character. And by this, I don’t mean forced orthodox weddings, but this is an issue for another blog post.

I am so glad to have been part of this NIF trip and thrilled not to have to write in the memo line of my checks, “not to be used over the Green Line.” Tzedaka given without fear of its misuse is much nicer than the experience with my blue pushke. The only problem now is that switching to the “dark side,” as NIF is often portrayed by the McCarthyistic right in Israel, will mean having to bring my brain. As an NIF donor, I will have to be cognizant of the fact that my shekels affect change and I will need to have a vision for that change. I will have to be a literate civilian in the Jewish nation, and I will have to maintain vigilance in the face of the fury of right wing attacks. I guess this is a small price to pay for a openly Jewish, Israeli society. Who know, maybe one day there wont be a difference between a Jewish state, a State of Jews and a modern democracy.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Tisha B'Av food for thought

Forgetfulness prolongs the exile; remembrance is the secret of redemption. - The Ba'al Shem Tov

It is Tisha B’Av, 5770, and, as usual, I want to take our calendar seriously. Most people might say that means fasting. I’m not so certain. I understand that we take the loss of Jerusalem seriously. But things are different now. What did Jerusalem really mean to our people? What does it mean now? Was it the 2 square kilometers inside the Old City walls or was it a symbol for something more significant than land? Certainly it wasn’t the inflated Jerusalem of the cynical political leaders who claim that [greater] Jerusalem is the indivisible capital of Israel and the Jewish people. It is clear that Jerusalem was the center of our Jewish longings for two thousand years of exile. At weddings we said, and continue to say, “If I forget thee Jerusalem may my right hand wither…” (Psalms 137:5-6), and we break a glass to remember the sorrow over our loss, even in the midst of our most joyous celebrations. We sing and lament "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion." (Psalms 137:1-2). We bury our dead with their feet in the direction of Jerusalem so that they can rise and start their trek back home upon the coming of the Messiah, and we comfort those who suffer a loss with the words, "May God comfort you among the other mourners for Zion and Jerusalem". But we also have the arguments in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18b) about what will be of the rituals on the four minor fast days once we have “peace,” which can be understood many ways. Rav Papa held that, The ninth of Av is in a different category, because several misfortunes happened on it, as a Master has said: On the ninth of Av the Temple was destroyed both the first time and the second time, and Bethar was captured and the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed. Others believe that Megillat Ta’anit will be annulled based on the words of the prophet Zechariah “Thus saith the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons; therefore love ye truth and peace.” My inspiration comes from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who had the ear and favor of the Roman ruler Vespasian and asked for Yavne, instead of Jerusalem. When he set up the post-Temple forms of Jewish practice, he didn’t insist on incense or small barbeque grills in the sanctuary to remind us of the sacrifices. He didn’t try to build a new Judaism that was wed to a specific land. The rituals I recall above relating to Jerusalem are not about a longing for the way we lived then. When we ask God to return us to the earlier days, we are not asking for the earlier rituals, we are asking for the sovereignty which we now enjoy. True, we do not have peace, as our forebears may have intended as a condition for changing the nature of Tisha B’Av ritual, but we have a country. The design of Tisha B’Av ritual was a use of historical, collective memory to affect our behavior and, more importantly, our longings. It was designed during a period when we didn’t have control over our destiny. Now we are like other nations with borders, inhabitants and neighbors. If anything, the function of Tisha B’Av needs to change. George Santayana claims that, “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” I am not suggesting that we forget. I don’t want to make the anniversary of our tragedy into a shopping holiday like Memorial Day has become in the United States. On the other hand, I think we can draw new conclusions. The tragedy of Jerusalem and the fall of Beitar can also be seen as blessings. We left our land for two thousand years and gathered many fruits. We are returning from all corners of the globe. We bring traditions from all over the world and our internal Jewish discourse is much richer than ever. The road to sovereignty was not easy. It had more and bigger potholes than a Chicago street in mid winter, yet we are finally here in our land. And those of us who haven’t joined the national project are free to remain where they are without fear of oppression. This is a great time to be a Jew. If you don’t believe me, imagine, for a moment, how your great, great grandparents might react if you brought them here from their ghettos. Today we have a strong Jewish army, a distinguished Supreme Court, rich Hebrew culture with feature films, songs and novels which are translated into every language. We had a Jewish vice-presidential candidate, Jews in the Baseball Hall of Fame and Jews, Israeli ones, traveling in space. I don’t know about you, but I’m positive that my ancestors would be in shock. Would they be pleased is another very important question. Did we really want the responsibilities of a national homeland all those years when we considered ourselves in exile or was it really one of those pipe dreams that make anticipation so fun? Some of us don’t think it is a pipe dream at all. They are planning the building of the Third Temple. Others, like the Naturei Karta, think we are causing cosmic disturbances by expediting the coming of the messiah. I am not for throwing the baby away with the bathwater, but my assessment of the Jewish situation today is that we have little to mourn and a lot of work to do. I don’t think we should cancel Tisha B’Av, but we should definitely reassess the curricular goals of our praxis. Why are we fasting? In Judaism we don’t even mourn the loss of our parents for a complete year. Why are we prolonging the mourning for a city that is again in our control? If the purpose of our mourning is to force us to be introspective about our actions and take responsibility for our grief, then I think we should keep the fast. What I love about Tisha B’Av is that we never made it a day about blaming Nebuchanezer, the Romans or our other tormentors. We blamed the destruction of the first Temple on our behavior in relationship to God, i.e. idol worship and improper moral behavior, and the destruction of the second Temple was about the poor relationships among ourselves and the infighting within the community. This model of introspection should be preserved, and I am willing to forsake my culinary pleasure to achieve this important goal, but not because I mourn Jerusalem and not because I want to return to the practices of yesteryear. Today we are a sovereign and free people. But we still have room for self reflection. Did we long for independence for two thousand year to have the biggest social gaps in the world behind the United States? Did we create a state to be led by corrupt and cynical politicians? Did we envision our country to be one where differing opinions and religious practices are frowned upon? We may not have complete control over our security and our relations with the neighbors, but at least we should do everything in our power to make those relationships right. This year on Tisha B’Av, let’s stick with the introspection, question the usefulness of fasting and think hard about what we want our redemption to look like. If we do this, and work at it together, just like Israel, the work of our hands, we will make great things happen.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Israel is not normal

The Wall Street Journal reported on July 8th about the declaration of a minyan of former legislators, executives and ambassadors who call themselves The Friends of Israel Initiative. Their claim, that Israel is a normal country. Of course, this is not new. David Ben Gurion declared it after the first rape occurred in Israel, or so the historical myth factory has it. In any case, both Ben Gurion and The Friends of Israel Initiative have it wrong. Israel is not a normal country, and this is its blessing and its curse.

Why a curse? Because statehood forces us to confront anti-Semitism differently. We now have a law on our books that grants immediate citizenship to any Jew who wants to become a citizen, regardless of belief of political inclination. In some ways, this is the same type of racial definition of Judaism that Hitler proposed. Dealing with anti-Semitism is not a normal problem and it is one Jews, as wanderers among nations, never had to confront as a nation-state with borders. In essence, the practical solution to anti-Semitism, the Israeli Law of Return, makes the country a refuge for almost anyone who had a Jewish grandparent with the exception of Al Capone's accountant, Meir Lansky, and a Catholic Monk named Brother Daniel who was converted to Catholicism to save his life during the Holocaust but was refused Israeli citizenship in the 1950's because of his beliefs.

Today, however, we have thousands of Jewish Israelis who profess beliefs in any number of religions, including Jews for Jesus, Buddhism and Islam. Likewise, with the establishment of an official Judaism in Israel – orthodoxy – many Jewish citizens now see their religion in conflict with their Israeli identity. These are not the problems of a normal nation.

Why is abnormality a blessing? Because it is our difference that gives purpose to our existence.

I believe that I live in Israel wherever I make my home, because being in Israel is not just the geographical designation most people give to the Jewish project taking place in the Land of Israel. Living in Israel is part of living in a grand old myth that believes the world is redeemable and that we have to pursue justice to redeem it. How, exactly, we pursue justice is a uniquely Jewish. Part of it is in our beliefs, much in our ritual. We believe that we are a nation that was oppressed and found salvation in freedom and obligation. We left Egypt to become a free nation and chose to live within a covenant.

If there were no anti-Semitism, being Jewish would only be about choosing to live within the covenant, and our biggest concern would be how we interpret that covenant. Without anti-Semitism, we would be equal but different from other nations. But we live with anti-Semitism, thus we are forced to have a balance between a state of Jews, as defined from the outside, and a Jewish state, which we constantly redefine from within.

If the State of Israel were not to aspire to synchronize itself with the covenant of Israel, I would not support it. But we declare ourselves to "be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel." Everything else we declare is frosting on the cake of Western Democracy; to "ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all [our] inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; [to] guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; [to] safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and [to] be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."

The meeting point of Israel, the people, with the modern realities of nation states and continued anti-Semitism force us to live in a balance between secular, Western democratic values and Jewish values. The nexus of many of these values is quite clear. How we Jews get there is uniquely Jewish, and I wouldn't trade that for all the normality in the world.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Praying with our Mitsubishi

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was asked about his marching in Selma during the civil rights movement in America during the 1960's, he said he was praying with his feet. This Shabbat, my son and I prayed with our Mitsubishi. In a week that was plagued with great moral challenges and tragic loss of life on a flotilla that was loaded with humanitarian aid to Gaza, Itamar and I decided to take a trek up to Um El Fahm, the largest Arab city in Israel, to visit my friend Abed and his family.
Earlier this week, I was devouring press reports, blogs, analyses, op-ed pieces and listserv tirades. I had discussions, wrote, pondered and implored friends to address the situation with patience. Yes, something needs to be done, but the first step in solving a problem is identifying it. We don't have enough information about the flotilla and the Israeli response. I propose an independent inquiry.
Still, there is the matter of human pain and outrage at what was experienced, even if those feelings are based on possible misperceptions, misinformation, or simply desired understandings. People often see the world as they perceive it. It's a matter of the lenses we wear. By going to Um El Fahm, my son and I were addressing those feelings in our own humble way. This wasn't a revolution. It was drip irrigation.
I have known Abed for 19 years. He travels five days a week to Tel Aviv to clean hallways in apartment buildings. When he cleaned our hallways, I would have him come in for Turkish coffee and conversation. This is how our friendship was conducted. When we left Israel 14 years ago, I lost contact with Abed. Recently, he spotted my wife on the street in Tel Aviv and made her promise to have me call. I did, and it was great to hear from him, but I never made the extra effort to come drink coffee with him in his home, until now.
In the Talmud, (Sanhedrin 4:8, 37a) we learn, "Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." Jews share this quote with our Moslem cousins. I often wonder what the rabbis meant by saving a life. What we did by visiting Abed and his family was really a small gesture. No lives were saved. They fed us. Yet, I was compelled to try to be part of the solution, and, for me, that meant showing a human face and compassion in a time of great sadness. In the Ethics of the Fathers, we read, "In a place where there is no man (mensch, good person) try to be a man." This Jewish value feels like it has been replaced with the secular, "When in Rome, act like a Roman."
I am in Israel and I want to act as a Jew, at least as a Jew feels commanded. Acting like a Roman, at this juncture in time, would mean to join a chorus. It could be the choir of Jews who feel compelled to defend our homeland, right or wrong. "Either you are with us or you are our enemy," the Bush doctrine, or the choir of "Israel can do no right," which is having its heyday right now.
Being a mensch turned out much better. We had a really delicious Arabic lunch, enjoyed the great company of Abed's family, went to an art museum, and picked fruit in the garden. Our conversations were political and very personal. We both regret the loss of human life. We both hope for the end of the closure that is the meta cause of the flotilla events and we both celebrated the potential of our shared country once the craziness of war finds its peaceful resolution.

Response to a rabbi regarding the flotilla

A rabbi from a community I care deeply about recently wrote an upsetting message to the congregation in the aftermath of the flotilla disaster. In the spirit of refraining from using lashon harah, the evil tongue, I would like to address his comments anonymously. (See his piece below)

I am very concerned with the message you presented to the community in the aftermath of the flotilla disaster. My concern stems from innocent statements which were made four days after the event, "[T]he more I learned about it, the more my reaction has evolved, "
The premise of my dissertation about peace education is that we are not literate enough to effectively manage our existing discourse with our Palestinian neighbors. As this research pertains to your statement, I must be critical of the learning, early judgment and pronouncement.
In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), we learn, "To every thing there is a season." Four days after the horrible event is not the season to pass judgment. I would like to suggest that part of the discourse literacy we need to achieve peace is to follow King Solomon's words, "To every thing there is a season," with the same self control that we learn of from Ben Zoma, in Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, "Who is mighty? He who subdues his instinct. (4:1) "
It is our very human instinct to try to rationalize and defend our behavior. We cannot live with cognitive dissonance, the state of being in which our thoughts are inconsistent. It is hard to think of ourselves as good people and know that we have done wrong. This is the role of teshuvah, repentance, in Judaism. Jews understand we are flawed beings, "only human." We recognize our flaws, repent and try to turn them around. To try to make consonance of our actions with our positive self perception is, therefore, not very Jewish behavior. The Jewish response is in Pirkei Avot. We must try to subdue the instinct to always understand our behavior as consistent with our belief in our righteousness.
Now is not the time to judge the situation. Now is the time to call for an independent inquiry into the flotilla disaster.
During the month of Elul, we reflect on our sins and atone. We do this secondarily with God. First we do it with those who we have wronged. It is not a Kantian endeavor. We don't look into a mirror. We address the other. It is dialectical. Having the Israeli Defense Force or the government investigate itself is not the way Jews address their behavior.
You claim that, "Israeli soldiers initially fired paintballs, and only resorted to live artillery when attacked." This is what I call convenient information, at this stage in our understanding of the events. It works wonders on the dissonance we are feeling, but it hasn't gone through the critical inquiry we need to attempt to honestly understand what happened. Where does your information come from?
You said that, "[T]he turning point for me came when listening to a radio report from the British Broadcasting Corporation." In that report you heard a woman activist say," I would do it again tomorrow. It shows the terror and murderers of the Israeli government."
To this you responded, "[T]his activist would sacrifice human life to illustrate and publicize her feelings toward Israel. This kind of reaction is the opposite of the values of Israel, which two years ago released hundreds of prisoners to ensure the safe return of three civilians."
I would like to suggest that these are two very different dialogues. The activist was addressing the world when she said she wants to expose Israel. Israel was addressing two audiences; the world and Israel, internally.
On one hand, there was a complicated Jewish message to the world which needs to be unpacked. We love our sons and daughters and will do a lot to bring them home. This is why I explained to my son that after the first soldier was seen being beaten by the flotilla activists, we continued to send more troops. But there is more to this Jewish message to the world.
My son asked, "Why not just shoot from the helicopter?" This very innocent question reveals a lot. Maybe, as Israel suggests, they didn't expect to be confronted with violence from peace activists. I would like to believe something different. It is the argument we made when we sent infantry into Jenin during the second intifada instead of bombing from above and obtaining the military objectives without loss of Israeli lives. "We love all of God's creations and will do our best to protect their lives." This perspective is moral, in a vacuum, and somewhat innocent. Could it be that Israel sent our soldiers onto the boat to speak to the activists instead of fight with them? With all of my Zionist ethos, I wish this were the case, but so much time elapsed before the confrontation that it just doesn't seem plausible that Israel found it most wise to board the ship at four in the morning to discuss peaceful resolution to the situation.
The second message from Israel is to herself. It is about maintaining order within. If the government did not make painful efforts to bring home our soldiers, it would communicate to all the parents, like me, who have Israeli children, "Don't be so certain that when we send your children off to war that we will do everything in our power to return them." This is a major problem today when Israel faces four years of the absence of our kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit, whose parents continuously reminds us in the Israeli media that Israel is not doing enough to return their son.
The last part of your message is really the most upsetting to me. You said, "Israel is not perfect, and we should not expect it to be." As Jews we should aspire for perfection. If Israel is just a normal country, as many Israelis and Jews want it to be, then what does this say about the events of 1948, 1967, and the entire Zionist endeavor?
I am not a Zionist simply because I want to have a homeland for Jews in the historical home of my people. That is only a part of the dream. And it is not because I understand that Jews need a refuge from anti-Semitism, that is a reality forced upon me. I am a Zionist because I think our intellectual inheritance has provided something special and important for us to offer the world. Certainly, we cannot fulfill our purpose if we are destroyed by anti-Semitism or disappear by lack of interest and commitment. Likewise, I believe that much of our purpose is fulfilled in our historic homeland. But we definitely cannot fulfill our mission if we don't expect the highest of moral standards for our collective endeavors.
To excuse our behavior with a lack of moral imperative, or because, as you say,"[Israel] is surrounded by countries that oppose its very existence," is to rationalize and excuse the deep inconsistency between our behavior and our purpose. Israel will be a normal country, if it is only, " a modern-day miracle," as you claim. But anyone who reads the books of the prophets understands that miracles were not arbitrary. They were intentional.
It is not enough to be, "a place where persecuted Jews found hope and a culture was reborn." There are many cultures in the world. Jews live comfortably and contribute much from the diaspora. If we want a country, there has to be more. Israel should be a culture of peace with aspirations for justice. This requires serious introspection and teshuva, interactive atonement among neighbors. Excusing our behaviors prematurely to make us feel good about our existence is not a recipe for peace nor justice. It is not the Jewish answer to statehood.

Dr. David J. Steiner

The "Free Gaza" Flotilla and Its Aftermath

The recent incident involving the "Free Gaza" flotilla and Israeli Navy has generated enormous publicity. It is saddening and tragic. I must admit that when I first heard the news reports, I said to myself, "How could Israel have done this?" Yet, the more I learned about it, the more my reaction has evolved.

I am thinking not only of the violence--clearly illustrated on video--engaged in by the "nonviolent" protesters, and the indication that Israeli soldiers initially fired paintballs, and only resorted to live artillary when attacked. These are important facts, but the turning point for me came when listening to a radio report from the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The BBC is not known for being pro-Israel. Yet, in interviewing one of the leading activists on the flotilla, its reporter asked her if she had any regrets in leading the "humanitarian" mission that resulted in at least nine deaths. The reporter wondered if--given the subsequent loss of life--the activists regretted not accepting the Israeli offer (prior to the raid of the ship) to deliver its humanitarian supplies to Gaza. She replied, "Absolutely not. I would do it again tomorrow. It shows the terror and murderers of the Israeli government." 

In other words, this activist would sacrifice human life to illustrate and publicize her feelings toward Israel. This kind of reaction is the opposite of the values of Israel, which two years ago released hundreds of prisoners to ensure the safe return of three civilians, and which has already begun an investigation into what happened aboard the "Free Gaza" ship.  

Israel is not perfect, and we should not expect it to be. Neither should we automatically excuse wrong-headed acts simply because they are done by Israel. Yet, we cannot refuse to recognize the predicament in which Israel lives. It has an extraordinarily strong military and vibrant economy, yet it is surrounded by countries that oppose its very existence. Even with deep-seated problems among its own political and religious leadership, it remains a modern-day miracle, a place where persecuted Jews found hope and a culture was reborn. The vast majority of its citizens yearn to live in peace with its neighbors. It is our obligation to bring this fleeting dream closer to reality. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Explaining the attack on the flotilla to my ten year old son

I could start by kvelling about my ten year old who is so concerned with world events and justice, but that would be inappropriate the day after 9 (or more) people were killed by my army on the high seas.
I could also start by condemning the actions of the government which led to this catastrophe, but that would be uncritically assessing a very complex situation, something that goes against my democratic sensibilities.
I will start with the pain I feel for the deaths of 9 civilians whose families will miss them forever and whose country folk will make martyrs of them, further perpetrating the violent animosity.
Last night my children couldn't watch the news with us. They were terrified by the images of Israeli soldiers being beaten by angry mobs of metal rod bearing thugs. This is what they saw before they ran away to their bedrooms. This is what many Israelis will see and never look deeper. But in a democratic country, a country not defined exclusively by free elections (only 63% of Israelis voted in our last election, the lowest number ever) but by democratic values, it is incumbent upon citizens to look deep and ask challenging questions. This is what my son did this morning as he grilled me on the situation.
"Why did we drop our soldiers into a boat of angry people with clubs?" "Why didn't they just shoot from the helicopters?" "What was on the boat that was so important they had to fight over it?" "Why didn't Israel just let the boat go to where it was headed?" OK, I will kvell for a second. My son asks great questions. The challenge is answering him in a way he can understand and come to conclusions for himself, unlike the way Israeli citizens will be answered by their government.
There are some answers I cannot portent to provide at this point in time. I want my son to know that I don't have all the answers and that there are good and bad ways of acquiring them. I tell him that we will need an independent commission of inquiry (not in those words although I do work to improve his vocabulary) into the situation. I explain that we cannot expect the army or government to investigate themselves, and get full disclosure of the facts. For his sake, I compare this to him fighting with his sisters. When we ask him what happened, does he ever say 'I acted wrong. I should have thought more before…'?
"Why didn't Israel just shoot from the helicopters?" I through this question back at him. "Why?" His response was exactly where I hoped it would be as a result of my parenting. "If we did that, we would probably kill a lot more people." For my son, this was a great answer. My fear is that in Israel we will take this to illustrate how "moral" we are and how highly we value human life, but that is a crock of … (I won't say it). Asking questions on their own, without context is a great way of getting the answers you want instead of the answers you need to hear. There is no way to examine this issue without the remaining questions. "What was on the boat that was so important they had to fight over it?" and "Why didn't Israel just let the boat go to where it was headed?"
These questions really address the crux of the matter and open up a slew of other important questions. It is important to address the question "What was on the boat that was so important they had to fight over it?" in a manner befitting the situation. We were told that there was humanitarian aid. We can't be sure without checking? We had to weigh the possibilities of not checking and having "bad stuff" get into Gaza, against the possibilities of blocking aid from getting to people who need it.
Here I didn't go into all the details because it is a lot for the young mind of my son. There is a precedent for dishonesty and smuggling "bad stuff" into Gaza, I told him. I didn't know how to explain that Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a terror organization that won the Palestinian election and lost control over the majority of Palestinian territory in a violent civil conflict with Fatah. I didn't try to explain that many of my Palestinian friends told me that they couldn't vote for Fatah any longer because of the corruption, even if they didn't vote Hamas. I didn't try to explain that the Palestinian election system can run two candidates from the same party on one ticket against one from the opposition ending in loss by plurality. These are the kinds of information I expect my fellow citizens to look for when they judge our neighbors, but my son is too young to understand this.
What was hardest to explain was that Israel has been conducting a siege of Gaza and blocking humanitarian aid to its civilians in order to get Hamas out of power. This point I considered explaining. I had an analogy, the South Africa divestiture movement I participated in as a college student, except in that case the people who would suffer from the lack of aid were the ones who asked for the divestment. Gazans, whether they agree with Hamas or not, want to rebuild their homes after the devastation of the war we had with them two winters ago. They want medical supplies and food. I was embarrassed to tell my son that Israel was spreading videos on You Tube showing that Gaza has plenty of food and supplies. What would I tell him, that what really matters is what people think about the bad things you do not whether they are bad in and of themselves?
Why didn't Israel just let the boat in is also complicated? Many will claim that that would be a terrible precedent. I told my son that this question is great and asked him how he might have done this. He said, "Can't America check what's on the boats for us?" He said, "If it's not bombs and guns, then why not let the people deliver the stuff?" Again I kvell. My son's insight was amazing. Would it have been so hard to seek a neutral inspector for these boats? On one hand, Israel claims that they acted according to international law, on the other, they reject the involvement of international bodies designed to prevent these types of situations. How crazy is this?
In the Judaism that I grew up with, that makes me want to live in Israel, that makes me want to be a rabbi, we have a saying that goes, "whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)" Islam shares this saying. I cannot understand, and I can surely not explain to my son, how it is that our Jewish homeland and country has not acted according to this very important and contemporary value.