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.