Friday, December 23, 2011

Hanukkah: A Time we made for Optimism

Truth be told, Hanukkah is a strange holiday. It is framed as the commemoration of the victory of the Macabees over the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes and his forces, but it is really about a zealous family that won a Jewish civil war and then became so delusional by its own power that it self destructed and fell to the Romans. It is also framed as the holiday of the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days at the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. And, during the time of the Winter Solstice, people all over the northern hemisphere celebrate light, which is why Hanukkah is the festival of Lights, thus the rabbinic greeting Chag Urim Sameach – Happy Lights Holiday.

While each of these stories warms our hearts, spinning the nice parts of our history, believing that God intervenes in history and celebrating light in its absence, there is something wildly absurd and beautiful about it. The question I’d like to raise is whether this is an inherently good thing. Is it good to delude ourselves about our historical narrative? Is it beneficial for us to believe that there is someone in heaven looking out for our interests? Should we really celebrate that thing we long for so badly when we are at our furthest moment in time from its presence in our lives?

The rabbis seem to have created the miracle of the oil with good insight into human psychology. Here they were defeated in the promised land with the potential of exile hanging over their heads, and they offer a story that fits our psyche perfectly; someone up there is looking after you and can intervene to your benefit. I can’t think of a better suited epistemology for a battered people who have lost all semblance of power and control over their lives. Kudos to our sages.

Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, however, was also prophetic in his resurrection of the Macabee story. In those days, in this time, there were tough Jews who lived in this (that) land, and “We can be like them.” Ben Gurion left the continuation of the narrative on the cutting room floor.  I’m not sure that this was as clever as the rabbis. Ignoring the addiction to power and its negative impact on Jewish society has not been, “good for the Jews.” Instead of learning from the zealotry of Mattathias and the Hasmoneans, we should take a lesson from Hillel about humility and presenting the argument of our adversaries before our own. What Israel can use now is a lesson about light, which the last message of our holiday.
Light has this incredible presence. You don’t actually see it, but it illuminates what is present in your path, thus it removes obstacles. The early pioneers of Israel were brilliant about removing those stumbling blocks that prevented our people from achieving our collective goals for humanity; justice and peace. The founders of Israel sought to create a great society that would shed a light onto the nations. Somehow, along the way we decided to become a “normal” country. Normal countries don’t share light, nor do they seek peace and justice. They do what President Richard Nixon was, at least, honest enough to admit, “We’re in it for national self-interest.”

National self interest is not the Jewish way. Our aspirations are for the world God created, not merely ourselves. Again, returning to Hillel, “If [we] are not for ourselves, who will be for us? If [we] are only for ourselves, what are we? And if not now, when?” Hanukkah is a time we created for optimism, and I am full of hope that we can take inspiration from this holiday to return to our Jewish dream; peace, justice and our role as a light for the nations.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thoughts for the 2nd day of Rosh Hashana

There is a great Jewish legend about a shoe maker who comes to the rabbi and asked if he can learn Talmud. The rabbi says to the shoe maker, “To study Talmud, you must think like a scholar.” He then proceeds to share a story.
“Two criminals break into a house through the chimney. When they climb out of the fireplace, one of them has shmutz all over his face.” The rabbi then asks the shoe maker, “Which one washes his face?”
To this, the shoe maker quickly replies, “The one with the shmutz.”
“You see,” says the rabbi, “you are not thinking like a Talmud scholar.”
At that moment, a light bulb goes off in the shoe makers head and he replies smugly, “I get it! The one with the shmutz sees the one with the clean face and can’t imagine himself being dirty, but the one who sees his partner with the dirty face must imagine the same about himself, so he washes his face.”
“Oy!” Says the rabbi. “Did you really believe that a man can slide down a chimney and not get shmutz on his face?”

I love this story because it helps illustrate the most important things about being Jewish; one was the title of an Apple computer advertising campaign several years ago, the other the profound message of my hero Lenny Bruce.
Years before the iPad and iPhone, when Apple wasn’t the wealthiest company in the world, and their market share was not what it is today, they tried appealing to the fringes by asking us to “Think different.” Judaism has had a monopoly on this simple command as far back as Abraham. In a world of pagans, in a world where people are willing to trust their morality to statues and a plethora of Gods, Jews said, “Think different!” and brought us Elohim, one God, to help avoid the possibility of dissonant sources of morality.
When you think about it, “Think different!” is an amazing request. It asks us to not settle for the status quo, to not be happy with the easy answers, to not get stuck in our old routines. “Think different!” is our way of saying, we are a people of hope, a people of possibility, a people who can repair the world; all we have to do is put our minds to it.

The message of Lenny Bruce is truly more profound. It says, be irreverent. Don’t respect holy cows. Fight the power! Don’t believe everything you hear.
Lenny lived his Torah. When the police started arresting him for “obscenity” in his performances, He didn’t censor himself. He turned to his friend, the great comedian Steve Allen, and asked for a meeting with his father in-law, a missionary reverend. He wanted to understand why talking about “the first commandment God gives in the Bible, ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ is obscene.” He couldn’t understand the hypocrisy of his puritanical accusers. The same is true of our rabbis. When they were confronted by the Bat Kol, the voice of God, who told them that they were wrong and the lone Rabbi Eliezer was right, in a matter about the kashrut, the kosherness, of an oven, the rabbis refused to capitulate. They declared, “[The Torah is] not in heaven.” It isn’t God’s anymore. It’s theirs. Ours. And we must determine how we understand it. This is also the irreverence of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who, when asked what to do if the Mashiach comes while people are planting trees, said, “finish planting the trees and then go greet the Messiah.”

Every second day of Rosh Hashana, I miss the irreverence of Abraham who had the chutzpah to ask, “Shouldn’t the judge of the world act justly?” Why did you lose your irreverence and obey when you thought God asked you to sacrifice your son? Why didn’t you “Think different!”
This Rosh Hashana, it is my hope that we find it in ourselves to act Jewishly and be people who can study Talmud. We need critically literate Jews if we are going to make the world a better place, and we need the chutzpah and irreverence of our forebears to go beyond the status quo. This is what the judge of the world expects of us, and we cannot afford to dissatisfy Her.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Of Tents and Tea Parties

Today I’m feeling like I decided to remain with the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menasheh on the other side of the Jordan. It’s hard to live in the Diaspora, especially in a time of great pride for all Israelis, really all Jews. More than 150,000 people took to the streets in Israel (the greatest number since the demonstrations surrounding the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in the first Lebanon War) to demand of their government the kind of society they want; I want. They were shouting, "the people demand social justice" and "we want justice, not charity." I wanted to take out my Israeli identity card and wear it on my chest. I feel like wrapping myself in the flag.
Living with a dual identity, American and Israeli, I naturally compare the two countries. In Israel, a tent revolution, how natural for a people who lived in sukkot as they traveled from slavery to freedom. In America, a tea revolution, also natural given the historical source of the name, but unfortunate in that it is far from the idealism that inspired the break from the British monarchy.
The Arab spring has reached Israel’s impermanent borders. It has penetrated the violence of the occupied territories and the injustices of the blockade of Gaza and reached the citizens in Beer Sheva, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Nazareth and especially Tel Aviv. But this is not a reaction to tyranny. Our tent revolution is a tikkun in the trajectory of the self correcting vector of Jewish existence. Judaism has always sought to better itself, and it has always been the work of mindful Jews who insist on staying loyal to our people’s pursuit of justice and human dignity.
In light of Israel’s tent revolution, the Tea Party in America looks particularly shallow and selfish. Just like many things in this “land of power and glory,” as Phil Ochs so proudly referred to it, we Americans have come to resemble the brands of our existence and not the substance within. The Tea Party is not a revolt against injustice and tyranny. It is a bastardization of a great collective memory we Americans share of a moment in time when we said no to taxation without representation, not to taxation.
In reflecting on the difference between the tent revolution in Israel and the Tea Party in America, I have come to the conclusion that language really matters and that the Hebrew word for taxation, maas, is so much more representative of what we citizens should feel as we contribute to our own societies. Maas could be translated as taxes, but it also means “dues,” and dues are part of what we owe to each other. In this sense, Jews who traditionally contributed two taxes, the universal half shekel and the tithe, understood that citizenship is a reciprocal relationship. As we learn in the Talmud (Talmud, Shevuot 39a), “All of Israel are guarantors of each other.” But in America, taxes, those dollars that go to the salaries of our armed forces, our police, our teachers, the men and women who pave our streets, the people who collect our garbage and many more, these taxes are branded as evil. When President Bush spoke his now infamous words, “read my lips, no new taxes,” he knew what he was saying. Even though he couldn’t keep his promise, he knew that he would get further appealing to the based greed of humanity rather than the civilized dignity of those who know that we are nothing without each other.
This is why I am proud today to be both Israeli and Jewish. My people, once again, are showing their collective will to create justice in the face of power. As we learn in the Sayings of the Fathers, “Who is a hero? One who conquers his instincts.” As Jews, we have defined heroism as the ability to transcend the base instincts of our nature, to be civilized, and to reciprocate with our fellow citizens. Now all I can hope for is that we can shed the light the prophet Isaiah demands of us onto the nations, so that all social movements can be tent revolutions and not loosely branded tea parties.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

1st Shabbat outside of the Land

This is my first Shabbat as a non-resident Israeli. I’m in Los Angeles, and the Shabbat is definitely keeping the Jew. Living outside of the Land, it takes a lot of work to be Jewish, but this is work that I like. There is a debate in the midrash about whether the sukkah of clouds that escorted the Jews as they made there way to freedom from Egypt to the promised land was real or metaphorical. The Shabbat and Jewish ritual seem like that sukkah. It’s as real as we make it and a metaphor we can live with. As a secular Jew who is deeply committed to his people and tradition, I am happy to be able to celebrate this first Shabbat in the metaphorical sukkah of my Judaism. I wish it were closer to the promised land, but I’m delighted to have this place outside of time that doesn’t rely on geography. Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Shabbat farming with my Palestinian neighbors in the West Bank

This past Memorial Day eve, I tried something different. I went to a service organized by the bi-national group Combatants for Peace, and we used the Israeli holiday to remember the victims of our wars from both sides of the battlefield. Remembering only our fallen soldiers, I have observed, has not successfully contributed to our will to end the conflict with our neighbors. In some ways I think it embitters us toward them. Maybe my expectations of the day are mistaken. Professor Avishai Margalit wrote a book about The Ethics of Memory which was triggered by a news article about an officer who didn’t remember the names of his fallen soldiers, even though he remembered the soldiers lives in detail. He starts with the question, what are our ethical obligations to remember. I am not sure what the purposes of Memorial Day are, but certainly a healthy society doesn’t want to add to the list of those it mourns for. 

Yesterday, I went with the Combatants for Peace to Kfar Yanoun, a village of 300 that has dwindled down to 36 residents as a result of attacks by settlers who have built illegal outposts on every side of the village and who insist on making the villagers lives miserable. When I say miserable, I need to explain because some of the things these “idealistic,” “pioneering” settlers have done are beyond my active imagination. In Kfar Yanoun, for instance, they found a murdered dog thrown into their drinking water tanks. Snipers have randomly shot taxi drivers bringing villagers to and from town, and the army is often called in to stop them from farming. Currently, they claim, they subsist from working only 3% of their registered agricultural fields.
Combatants for Peace is an organization that refuses to engage in the familiar paradox, fighting for peace. They are made up of equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in each area that they work. They insist on being a collaboration of former enemies. For this reason, they brought a bus load of “beautiful souls” from Tel Aviv to work together on agricultural projects in the village. The term “beautiful souls” is pejorative in Israel. It tries to mock the good intentions of Israelis who are trying to creatively seek out a better mode of coexistence than the current, failed model. It tries to serve as a substitute for more literal terms like foolishly naïve.

In Kfar Yanoun, we planted trees and moved boulders to create a path through the village to the water towers. It was symbolic work. We weren’t needed to get the job done. We were very needed to send the message that there still exists a segment of Israeli society that recognizes the humanity of the other.
After lots of thought on the bus ride back to Tel Aviv, which included a humiliating stop by our own border patrol at the check post, I decided that my work on Shabbat was not a desecration but, rather, a sanctification of God’s name, to borrow from the religious Jewish lexicon. By going to Kfar Yanoun and helping with agricultural projects on my day of rest, I was upholding two of the most basic Jewish values. I was loving my neighbor as myself and I reaffirmed my conviction that all humans are created in the divine image.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

For the love of Israel

The most pressing issue facing Israel today is not a nuclear Iran. It is not the corruption in government. It’s not even the threat of a September request by the Palestinians for independence at the United Nations. The biggest threat facing Israel is the elimination of constructive public discourse amongst Israelis and Jews everywhere about the nature of the huge and wonderful Jewish enterprise known as the State of Israel.
We Jews believe in censure. Some of us feel commanded to give reproach. In the very middle of our Torah we read, “You shall surely rebuke! (Lev. 19:17)” And yet, the current Israeli government and many in the worldwide Zionist establishment are trying to change the rules of the game. This is unacceptable and does not appear to conform to a Jewish way of thinking.
The rabbi’s argued about this very issue. “Rabbi Tarfon said, ‘I would be very surprised if there is anyone in this generation that can accept criticism.’ Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria responded, ‘I doubt if there is anyone in this generation that knows how to give criticism.’ (TB Arachin 16b).”
Sometimes we forget that tochecha, our command to rebuke, is surrounded by two other important commandments. “Do not hate your brother in your heart,” and  “incur no sin because of this.” Context is everything.
Much of the discourse about Israel is framed in the language of love. What love means and how it is demonstrated are both very unclear. When I say that Israel is among the only places in the world where a Jew cannot exercise freedom of religion, I am referring to my personal experience of being forced to marry outside of my homeland because my Reform rabbi was not authentic Judaism for the Jewish state. I don’t want a theocratic, intolerant state for my people.
When I critique the Israeli educational system, as an insider with a doctorate in education, it is because I want the system to serve my children and my neighbors well. We take 13 years out of our kids lives and spend a good portion of our tax revenues on this project because we care about the future citizenry of the nation. When I oppose the occupation of the Palestinian Territories and advocate for human rights in all of the Land of Israel, I do this, first and foremost, as a Jew who cares about the behavior of his people. How I go about this is a different story. It is essential that I make every effort to incur no sin along the way, but there are no clear borders to what this means.
The rabbis of the Talmud worked in chevruta, learning dyads, to argue out the fine points of the civilization they wanted to leave for us. Sometimes the arguments went too far. Rebbe Yochanan’s obstinacy caused the death of Reish Lakish. Grief and having a “yes man” to replace him led to Yochanan’s demise. Jews don’t benefit from rubber stamps. We need challenges. They make us better as individuals and as a collective. They force us to reflect on our behavior and make choices that advance our purpose of being a holy nation.
We believe that we are commanded not to destroy our beautiful, promised land. “And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” How can we prevent the defilement of the land without serious, constructive dialog? It is completely legitimate to argue tactics. It crosses a line when we try to define our fellow’s tactics as traitorous, disloyal or hateful just because we don’t agree with them. Nobody has a monopoly on the love of Israel, but we should reflect on the models of the expression of this love. It would be too simple to say that there are only two models, but for the sake of brevity, I will generalize.
There are those who say that loving Israel means letting her decide what is best for the country and then helping that decision find fruition. The other model says that to love means a different type of support. In this model, loving Israel requires acknowledging the whole and helping to correct the bad while continuing to promote and strengthen the good.
The first model proposes unconditional love. When I was a kid in America, the way we were expected to support Israel was by writing blank checks and letting the decisions happen in Israel. Part of the argument was that the Israeli Jews serve in the army and fight the wars; they suffer the recourse of their decisions. But bombs in Jewish buildings in Argentina, synagogues in Morocco and attacks in community centers in California show the faults of this approach. The world sees Israel as a Jewish project and the targets have no national borders. The unconditional love model has another serious problem. It doesn’t work.
The most unconditional love we humans know is for a new baby. Human babies are the only creatures that are born completely dependent on others. They cannot even turn over by themselves for several months, and it takes about a year before they start to crawl. Still, not all babies are loved by their parents.
As someone who trained and worked as a dairy farmer in Israel, I know that baby calves can walk and find their mothers to suckle immediately after their births. This is the same with every species except humans. Our babies need us for everything and the love we give them is unconditional because they are completely dependent and because they are our progeny.
As our children grow, we set borders and expectations. Rarely does the violation of those borders result in a termination of love. When I was an undergrad, my friend, the comedian Steve Allen shared a story about his son who had joined a cult, and he eventually made him choose between the cult and the family. This was an exception to the rule and would be a painful experience for any parent. Unconditional love doesn’t keep us straight and narrow. It doesn’t raise a mirror to our eyes and let us reflect on our behavior. With unconditional love, things go bad and we turn the other cheek. It is no small wonder that this form of love of Israel finds a comfortable bed partner in Christian Zionism.
The model of love of Israel that I subscribe to is holistic. I love so many things about our country. I also desperately want to right the wrongs. I love the dialog and hope to have the humility to assume that my vision for the country is not always right. I celebrate the diversity of citizens and I believe, as Churchill so gracefully put it, that “Democracy is the worst form of government, accept for all the others that have been tried.” I don’t like the tyranny of majorities, but I don’t mind getting dirty and arguing over the direction of my homeland. I am, however, getting pretty fed up with the attack that says that I don’t love Israel because I want to make her the best that she can be. That is simply untrue and hurts the cause. Just as the Torah has seventy faces, there are many ways to love one’s country. Mine is just as valid and may be more helpful.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Do not keep it for yourself: A research plan

If you see your brother's ox or his sheep wandering, do not go by without helping, but take them back to your brother. ‬If their owner is not near, or if you are not certain who he is, then take the beast to your house and keep it till its owner comes in search of it, and then you are to give it back to him. ‬Do the same with his ass or his robe or anything which has gone from your brother's keeping and which you have come across: do not keep it to yourself. (Deut.22:1-3)
לא תראה את שור אחיך או את שיו נדחים והתעלמת מהם השב תשיבם לאחיך׃ ‬
‫ואם לא קרוב אחיך אליך ולא ידעתו ואספתו אל תוך ביתך והיה עמך עד דרש אחיך אתו והשבתו לו׃ וכן תעשה לחמרו וכן תעשה לשמלתו וכן תעשה לכל אבדת אחיך אשר תאבד ממנו ומצאתה לא תוכל להתעלם׃ ‬

I have a research project that I cannot afford to implement, but I’d like to explain it and build my hypothesis. My question is simple and complicated at the same time. Does religion make people better human beings?
Of course this is a relative question because the baseline is illusive. What is a normal human being without religion? This is the first question I ask. Next, I want to know what religion is in the context of my question. But let’s leave the critique for a moment. How can I test this question?
My study would take a fixed number of wallets and disperse them in the public realm in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Whether I should do more cities is a detail for conjecture. In each wallet, I would put personal identification and five, twenty shekel bills.
If you want to really be scientific, you could say that the amount of money has to be greater to make the stakes worthwhile and the ID has to be varied. After all, people might return money to a woman before a man or an elder before a student. Also there is the question of the transgression threshold. When is the transgression worthwhile? Do you keep the money at one hundred shekels or do you wait for one thousand before you mess with the Big Guy?
There are lots of details with my study that will always be refuted, but leave that and join me in forming the hypothesis. What do we think we will learn about our subject? This is an essential question for designing the survey. What information will we gather from people who try to return the wallets? Here are some of my questions. Some answers are quantitative. They will give me statistics like X% of people who returned wallets consider themselves secular. Some questions will have to be qualitative because we need to understand what secular means to someone who defines herself that way. The better the qualitative questions and answers, the more useful the statistics.

a. Do you define yourself as religious?
b. Do you believe in a deity?
c. Are you Jewish?
d. Christian?
e. Moslem?
f. Do you believe in the afterlife?
g. Do you believe in a deity that is involved with the world and human life?
h. Do you believe that you will be judged by your god?
i. Do you believe that there is a concrete instruction manual from which you can understand what your god expects of you?

I try to write my qualitative questions in a way which will leave the answerer feeling comfortable to answer in the way that best represents her opinions and provides the most qualified information.

a. How do you define religious?
b. What do you think happens to human beings after they die?
c. If you believe that your deity is involved with the world, how does that effect the free will of human beings?

I could go on, but I think my point is clear. No research is free of the inherent biases of human language, in general, and of researchers, specifically. When we read research, we are not reading truth. There is no world to be discovered. It is framed. Our research defines the answers we get and the world we discover.
The common term for putting too much credibility in scientific methodology and conclusions is called scientism. I would claim that for much of the western world, scientism has replaced or joined religion as the answer to questions which might be better served by addressing them with doubt. For example, my wife is an acupuncturist. Her profession is built on thousands of years of practice. Some people swear by it. Others wouldn’t take a needle if their life depended on it. Western medical science, as we know it, is a baby in comparison to Chinese medicine. It has only been around for about two hundred years, and it constantly changes and contradicts itself. When I was an infant, my mother was told to bottle feed me because science knows exactly what nutrition I need better than my creator’s body. My mom put her faith in science (which may explain my many deficiencies.) Which medicine do you turn to? Why?

I have some hypotheses about my research and some prior assumptions. Almost everyone reading this assumes that Jerusalem has more religious people. We could turn to statistics to answer this question, but what good would it be without qualitative research? Religious people don’t all define themselves the same way. Having a Commander in chief is a form of religiosity, but some commanded people believe they will be judged in this world and others in a world to come. What does it mean to say that 60% of the wallets returned to their owner came from self-defined religious people? Would it mean something different if we learned that half of those wallets came with some or all of the money missing?

Living in Tel Aviv, as I do, I cheer for the home team. I want my city on Spring Hill to be the home of good human beings because I am one of them. I have a logic I have built to support it. Jerusalem is on top of a mountain. It has its head in the clouds. It is disconnected. Tel Aviv is fresh. It is renewed with every wave that hits our beautiful shoreline. Even our religious in Tel Aviv are better than in Jerusalem. They live pluralistic lives among the secular masses. Just walk down Rothschild Boulevard on a Shabbat morning and you will see what I mean.
In the Talmud, when Rabbi Eliezer tries to convince the rest of the rabbis of his righteousness, he brings the Bat Kol to speak for God. It speaks and proclaims his righteousness, but the rabbis will have nothing to do with it. They make two claims; the Torah is no longer in heaven and it (the Torah) instructs us to lean toward the majority. How can we listen to God when He has created the circumstances by which we are to be in charge of our own destiny?
I’m sorry that I don’t have the money to do my research study. Research is a fun and interesting job. It helps me pay the bills with dignity. But maybe I’m better off not participating in a system that has all but replaced faith for so many people. Six of one, half a dozen of another is such a brilliant algorithm because it explains exactly what I mean. At the end of the day, it is not science or religion that proves anything. Both are systems that demystify the mysterious, and both are matters of faith. At the end of the day, we have to make choices, and the important thing is that we are willing to be critical of ourselves and the systems within which we make them. This is my Torah and if you give me enough money, I’ll give you a study that proves that I’m right.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Education Israel style

The headlines made it nearly impossible for me to pass the opportunity to address my feelings about the school system in Israel. “Netanyahu, officials launch highly anticipated education system reform.” Wow! You’d think they adopted New Math, but whatever you might have thought, you would probably be mistaken. Here’s the tag line; “New program, coming after years of deliberations, would see teachers' pay increase by 51% in exchange for additional working hours.” And the worst part, it’s a bad deal for teachers. They increase their work hours from 24 to 40 per week, 16 hours or 66%, and they only get compensated for 51%. The net effect is a lower hourly wage. But this change doesn’t even get close to deserving the word reform.

There is a lot to fear when reform is used in education in general, and in Israel specifically. I’m not referring to the difference between revolution and reform, between which Israel needs the former. I am talking about the long history of educational reforms that Israel suffers from because of the unfortunate tie of the ministry of education to the political system. These reforms make our kids schizophrenic. For example, under Yuli Tamir, the students learned about the Green Line and Naqba Day. Now, under the Likud’s Gidon Saar, the state of Israel and the land of Israel are virtually synonyms, saying Naqba is punishable by law and schools will be doing field trips to Hebron. But this is not the subject of this tome.

The revolution I call for is directed at high schools and matriculations. I firmly believe that the existing system of training kids in grades 10-12, to remember materials and take tests, is at the core of many of Israel’s problems. We cannot have a dynamic society of individuals who know how to creatively solve problems and imagine the kind of country they want to live in if we feed them answers and ask them to regurgitate them in tests. Maybe this is what the country needed 63 years ago when we had to draft as many resources as possible to the cause of defending the homeland, but today the challenges are different and the anachronistic approaches are doing much more harm than good.

I believe that personal anecdotes help vivify important social questions. Here are a few. I taught Israeli high school civics and Bible. I did things like ask my students to try to understand the Israeli Declaration of Independence via comparison to the American Declaration. I thought it would be helpful for them to see that Israel leaves out God and democracy while America includes both. In Bible, my class of all immigrant students wrote about their immigration in comparison to Abraham’s calling to “Leave your country, and your homeland, and your father's house, and go to the land that I will show you.” My principal responded by telling me that I was too philosophical and creative. She handed me the matriculation tests and the answers and told me that, “this is all that matters.”

My daughter Maya recently saw her Solomon Schechter eighth grade teachers who were here on a day school trip with their students from Chicago. Her English teacher asked if she was still doing the great writing she had done in middle school. Maya told me that the question made her upset because it reminded her that she is never asked to be creative. “They ask me to write answers to questions in a very narrow way that gives their understandings. They don’t care what I think, only what I know.”

The irony of the situation is that the Jewish state has primary Jewish sources that complicate the idea of what education should look like, and we don’t look to them. In Pirkei Avot, Moses receives the Torah and passes it to the elders who pass it forward as if education is concrete and reified. This is the Education ministry model. But we also have the story of Moses sitting in Rabbi Akiva’s classroom dumbfounded because he doesn’t understand his own Torah. In this model, knowledge is made by the individual through engagement with ideas. It is not something that can be remembered and repeated for standardized tests. Moses doesn’t recognize his Torah because it is not the a solid, unchanging thing. Knowledge making is a skill of the individual and it is fluid. In our Talmud, both of these ideas exist side by side, but in the Israeli education system, we only want to pass a tangible, specific Torah, and it changes with every government.

The other Jewish example is also found in Pirkei Avot. We read of Yochanan ben Zakai’s five students. I will recount two. “Rabbi Eliezer the son of Hurkenus is a cemented cistern that loses not a drop; Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is as an ever-increasing wellspring. [Rabbi Yochanan] used to say: If all the sages of Israel were to be in one cup of a balance-scale, and Eliezer the son of Hurkenus were in the other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name: If all the sages of Israel were to be in one cup of a balance-scale, Eliezer the son of Hurkenus included, and Elazar the son of Arach were in the other, he would outweigh them all.” The Talmud never decides for us what is better to be a vessel of knowledge or to produce a vital necessity. It leaves us with two models that contradict each other. Both have their time and place. Why in Israel do we have to stick with just one?
My daughter is in the middle of her high school experience and I feel like I am doing her wrong by not choosing the best education system I can find for her. Nothing is perfect, but I think America is better, at least my America. I hate having to face this choice, but those are my cards. Now the question is whether to stay and fight to improve things while my daughter finishes school here or move to where I can do the best for my kids. It seems like a simple choice, but not when you live in a wonderful city like Tel Aviv. Right now I’m feeling the old Yiddish saying, it’s hard to be a Jew, but I’m feeling it about Israel.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lag B’Omer 5771 and the doomsday prophecies

Lag B’Omer 5771 is a gleeful irony of history. Why? Because the same holiday celebrating the Jewish romance with mysticism and secrets behind the revelatory texts paradoxically coincides with the prediction of the end of the world.
For Jews, Lag B’Omer is the celebration of the life and teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, on the anniversary of his death over 1800 years ago. According to legend, upon dying he instructed his disciples that the day of his passing is “the day of [his] joy.” This year, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, the barley harvest, coincides with a prophecy of the end of days.
Rashby, as bar Yochai is known, was the author of the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar. Tonight and tomorrow, half a million Jews will descend upon Mount Miron in the Galilee, where he is buried, to pay homage to their mystical leader by lighting bonfires and slaughtering sheep. To my sensibility, this is avodah zara, idolatry, in the fullest sense of the word.
According to tradition, God, not humans, buries Moses to avoid the site of his grave becoming a shrine. Jews don’t mark the location of the Sinai revelation because they don’t want to make idols out of land. Why does God ask Moses to build a Mishkan for Him “to dwell in it”? Because holiness exists outside of geography. The only thing close to being holy in the Bible is the land of Israel, and even it is made holy by our actions.
The celebration of Rashby and his mysticism shows how much the idea of hidden meaning has found a place in Judaism. Rashby’s teacher, Rabbi Akiva, gave us the term, “the language of God,” in opposition to Rabbi Yeshmael’s “language of man,” to avoid fundamentalism and strict adherence to the letter of the law in exegesis, but the anti-literalism of the Akiva school can be a pandora’s box. The minute we open the door to mysticism, anything goes and we often end up with radical predictions.
Fox News recently reported, “The [recent] prediction [of the end of the world] originates with Harold Camping, an 89-year-old retired civil engineer from Oakland, Calif., who founded Family Radio Worldwide, an independent ministry that has broadcast his prediction around the world ” Here is the basis of this forecast according to The Telegraph, “The number five, says Camping, represents atonement. 10 represents completeness. 17 represents heaven…Using the three numbers, if you multiply atonement, completeness and heaven, and then, multiply the sum by itself again, you end up with 722,500 i.e. (5 x 10 x 17) x (5 x 10 x 17) = 722,500. If you add the number of days on from the crucifixion, you arrive at, at least in Camping's view, May 21, 2011, the day of the end of the world. ” Some of you may now want to stop reading and start getting ready.
These predictions sound crazy in the hands of an 89 year old radio network owner from California, but they are common place in mystical traditions and go back to the origins of Lag B’Omer. Rabbi Akiva read the verse in Numbers 24:17, “There shall come a star out of Jacob,” and renamed the Jewish warrior, Shimon bar Kosiba, bar Kochva. He then declared that he is the messiah. In the seventeenth century, Nathan of Gaza made a similar claim about Shabtai Zvi, and in recent history many in the Chabad movement have said that the Lubovitcher rabbi was the messiah.
There is something very liberating about mysticism. It creates space for a power in the world that exists but cannot be fully understood. My favorite mysticism is in the texts which use metaphor to explain science of the world. Some claim, for instance, that the Hebrew letters are the DNA or atomic building blocks of all things.
Metaphors are wonderful as long as we acknowledge the fact that we tend to live by them, as Lakoff and Johnson remind us.
The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.
A hidden system of an all-powerful God’s will, discoverable in texts and complicated calculations, is a dangerous metaphor to live by. By what criterion ought we say that the prophet in California is less qualified to determine hidden meaning from the texts than Rabbi Akiva or Nathan of Gaza. In the time of Shabtai Zvi, half of all world Jewry believed that the messiah was about to reveal himself. Some sold all their worldly possessions, some even moved to Israel. The pilgrims to Mount Miron will account for 4 percent of all Jews worldwide. How many more are pilgrim wannabes? How many believe but are hedging their bets to see what happens to the early-adopters?
Actually, the glee I take from the Lag B’Omer celebrations this year comes from a completely different train of thought. Forget the end of days for a moment and focus on the celebrations themselves. Lag B’Omer starts at the end of Shabbat. The main event of the celebrations is the lighting of bonfires. This year, as last, controversy has arisen from the concern that if Lag B’Omer is celebrated on Saturday night, thousands of secular Israelis will defile the Shabbat by building and lighting their bonfires before the end of the day. I despise religious coercion in Israel, but I love the fact that the religious are so concerned with us fellow Jews that they would even consider changing the date of this minor holiday. That is what Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef wanted to do.
Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas was successful at getting a compromise from his anti-Zionist, Haredi colleagues who moved the lighting of the first fire to midnight tonight. Wow! This may seem like a small feat, but I assure you it is reason for celebration. First of all, it is an expression of Jewish concern for one another. Moving the time of the bonfires symbolically expresses an attempt to prevent fellow Jews from sinning in their efforts to participate in this national celebration. Second of all, this is a victory for internal, civil dialog among Jews in Israel. A Sepharadi, Zionist rabbi was heard by an anti-Zionist, Ashkenazi rabbi and his words were considered. In light of these events and the speech of President Obama this past week, instead of dwelling on doomsday scenarios, I suggest we choose a different metaphor to live in, at least for today. “Yes we can!”

Sunday, May 8, 2011

My Alternative Memorial Day Commemoration

It would have been much easier to put on my black shirt and wrap myself in blue and white and head over to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where I live, or the Kotel, the Western Wall, in Jerusalem, where I study. But tonight I chose to commemorate the fallen with members of my species and not my collective self. Sometimes we think that we can get closer to our individual corpus when we incorporate and draw lines that separate us from the others. That is not how I experienced the eve of Memorial Day in Israel this year.
This evening, I waited in line outside of the concert hall, Reading 3, at the Tel Aviv Port, with nearly a thousand human beings, as the sirens sounded to mark the battles of Israel, but the crowd I stood with was unlike any other. Tonight, at Reading 3, for the sixth straight year, the members of Combatants for Peace brought together human beings to mourn their losses, and the absence of flags and anthems and generals and otherness was astounding.

Tonight, Moti Fogel mourned the loss of his brother and his brother’s family, to a savage terror attack, beside Palestinians who also lost their loved ones to violence. And Yair Dalal sang his prayer for peace in Hebrew and Arabic with the accompaniment of a children’s choir. And a bereaved, Palestinian, Israeli, Druze sister mourned the loss of her brother, who served in the Israeli Defense Forces, and shared with us the story of being asked, “How could your brother have pointed his gun at his Arab brothers?” Whoever wrote that schoolyard verse, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” must have been deaf.

I knew I was in the right place this evening when Yoni Richter took the stage and put music to the words of Yehudah Amichai’s The Place Where We Are Right.
From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world like a mole, a plow. And a whisper will be heard in the place where the ruined house once stood.
Tonight, surrounded by a thousand members of my species, in a place where everyone mourned, and we all recognized the humanity of the person sitting beside us, flowers grew and the possibility of peace felt like more than a whisper.