Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Second Day of Pesah, 5770 - Clinton, AIPAC, and "Digital Thinking"

(Originally delivered on March 31, 2010.)

Most of you know that I was not always a rabbi. I received BS and MS degrees in chemical engineering, and worked as an engineer for more than 5 years before deciding to go in a different direction. However, the idea of joining the rabbinate had been sitting in the back of my mind for many years, and it took a certain amount of "activation energy," the heat input required to initiate a chemical reaction, to make the leap, first to the cantorate and finally to the rabbinate.

I first applied to rabbinical school in 1994, to the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College. They did not accept me - I was 24, finishing my MS in Chemical Engineering, and not a Reform Jew in any real sense. The reason, they told me, was that the admissions committee concluded that I had difficulty seeing two sides to an issue.

That was 16 years ago, and my perspective has changed quite a bit, not necessarily because I am now a Conservative Rabbi, but more likely because at the time I was an engineer, thinking in a problem-solving mode rather than in the mode that I try to pursue today, that of understanding. Of course, being a rabbi, I find that I am often cursed with the problem of seeing THREE OR MORE sides to every issue. And that is certainly how I felt last week when I attended the Policy Conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, in Washington. I'll come back to that later.

I am concerned about the fact that I am seeing less and less "understanding" in our world. That is, fewer of us try to place ourselves in each other's positions; fewer of us take the time to listen to anybody else; fewer of us, in our professional lives, are able to extend ourselves beyond the four walls of our cubicles in order to gather enough information to make informed decisions. Hence the rash of plagiarism incidents involving journalists and authors; the horse-race style approach to political campaigns; the epidemic of greed and irresponsible lending that led to the collapse of the real estate market and the rest of the American economy. Indeed, we are all stretched to the breaking point - what with families to feed, children to ferry from lesson to practice to Religious School, insurance companies to argue with, and so forth, who can devote more than the minimum amount of time to anything?

I think that we have entered a kind of digital age. Not the one that you are thinking of, where we are all enslaved to our devices and captivated by the infinite interconnectedness of the Internet. But no, we are now in an age of zeros and ones. On a fundamental level, all digital devices can be broken down into a series of tiny switches that can only be on or off. There is no grey area; there is no glass half full. And the same goes for all of us, on some level: we are all either black or white, hot or cold, or content or infuriated.

Jewish tradition does not work like that. You can read the Torah or the Talmud multiple ways, and the raft of commentators medieval and modern disagree with each other, and in fact regularly tear each other down in print, across centuries and continents. But even when one rejects the opinion of another, they do it not by insulting them or dismissing them in anger. An opinion is an opinion, and can only be negated through logical argument.

Example: the mezuzah. Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, two great medieval rabbinic authorities, disagree about the placement - Rashi dictates that a mezuzah should be mounted vertically on your doorpost; his grandson, known as Rabbeinu Tam, mandated that it should be mounted horizontally; each had their reasons. So what do we do? A vertical mezuzah cannot be horizontal, and vice versa. We therefore mount a mezuzah diagonally, thus satisfying (in some way) each of them.

Our tradition of rabbinic argument teaches us to see the complexity of divergent views that co-exist, even when they conflict. To be sure, that is the rabbinic way - there are always multiple opinions, multiple ideas, and complex arguments. There is rarely one, simple answer to any issue.

More relevant to Pesah is the story of the Exodus, as we read last night in the haggadah. On the one hand, the Egyptians are portrayed as the oppressors and the Jews as the oppressed. On the other, those of us who are first-born children know that we fast because the Egyptians suffered too (to be sure, there were more than 100 of us first-borns, women and men, here on Monday morning as Rabbi Stecker concluded study of Seder Mo'ed, siyyum, etc.). We acknowledge the suffering of the Egyptians, also God's creatures.

I do not see the same respect for those we disagree with today. Soundbites and 140-character tweets leave little time or space for nuance. All that remains are the ones and zeros.

Those people that we call leaders today, too, are not interested in understanding the other side's point of view.

Here is a more relevant example: the latest kerfuffle over Israel's intent to build 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. On the one hand, this is not a new policy - Israel has been building in East Jerusalem for over 40 years, since they annexed the eastern parts in the reunification of the Holy City following the Six Day War in 1967. Not only that, but this new building is in a pre-existing Jewish neighborhood, and one that is not nearly as controversial as many of the other areas of the West Bank where Jewish Israelis have put down roots.

On the other hand, the timing of the announcement was certainly awkward, and seemed almost to designed to provoke. The Obama administration has been making noise about "settlements" for some time, with the general goal of, I think, showing that they are responsive to the wishes of the other side.

Last week, I and a few other members of Temple Israel joined another 7500 delegates to the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. While many tend to see AIPAC as a politically right-wing organization, the reality is that it is merely supportive of the existing Israeli government, and its lobbying efforts are focused on maintaining the close alliance between Israel and the US, regardless of which way the political wind is blowing. The people that attend the AIPAC conference, and the speakers featured, tend to run the gamut, from peaceniks supporting a two-state solution to hard-liners advocating for Israel to pre-emptively take out Iran's nuclear capability tomorrow.

I was there in the convention Hall when Sec. of State Hillary Clinton spoke on Monday during the morning plenary session. During her speech, which was widely covered in the media, she reaffirmed the administration's positions on Israel, which are, of course, generally supportive and in line with the Netanyahu government. She stated that the United States is committed to the following:
1. Preventing a nuclear Iran
2. Maintaining Israel as a safe, secure, democratic state
3. Preserving Jerusalem as a place for everybody
4. That safety and security in the region depend on the establishment of 2 states for 2 peoples
5. That we will not negotiate with Hamas until they renounce violence, recognize Israel, and honor prior agreements

She of course also addressed the recent dustup over new homes in Ramat Shlomo, saying that the status quo is not sustainable for three reasons: demography, ideology, and technology.
Demography - because the Arab population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean will soon exceed the Jewish population.
Ideology - because continued conflict supports extremist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Technology - because the quality, accuracy, and power of the missiles that are now in the hands of Hamas and Hizbullah (largely financed and/or directly supplied by Iran) are changing strategic considerations on the ground.

The status quo, she said, actually undermines the quest for peace by supporting those who reject it. Meanwhile, the American administration's goal is to bring the PA and Israel back to the negotiating table, and, said the Secretary of State, the administration's critical statement about new building in J'lem is about getting to that table; accepting new building without comment undermines US credibility in the region. "We objected to this announcement because we are committed to peace," she said.

Judging from the reaction to these statements by many supporters of Israel, Secretary of State Clinton's message was hostile to Israel. The news media all played clips on the final point, leaving out all of the other supportive things that she said. Of course, the media tends to seek out the conflicts, rather than the points of harmony.

But the larger picture that I see emerging, in this context and elsewhere in American Jewry, is that some supporters of Israel see even the most tame criticism as indication that you are "anti-Israel," or even worse, "anti-Semitic." Anything less than unconditional support means that you are an enemy.

Well, my friends, I've lived in Israel, and the reality there is far more nuanced than it might seem to us on the other side of the world. It may be the Holy Land, but it certainly is not perfect. And its leaders. just like our leaders, are only human, perhaps overwhelmingly so. Few Israelis shy away from criticizing their own leaders, even those they support.

I must admit that the incident regarding new units in East Jerusalem seems to me a trumped-up excuse to criticize Israel in advance of the largest pro-Israel conference of the American political scene. (Aside: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at what was certainly the largest kosher dinner ever served in Washington, if not the world. There were nearly 8000 people there for the Monday night banquet.)

Perhaps this widely-publicized difference of opinion is an unfortunate example of manipulation by the Obama administration. And, once again, given the timing of the announcement, perhaps BOTH the Israeli and American governments are guilty of manipulation.

And even though I certainly agree with Mr. Netanyahu, who stated unequivocally at that dinner that Jerusalem is not a "settlement," but rather the capital of Israel, I also believe that digital thinking, black or white, could hurt everybody's chances of peace. Mrs. Clinton was right on when she said that the status quo is, indeed, not sustainable, and all parties gathered around the table, even Mr. Netanyahu, know this.

If we can get past the attitude of, "If you ain't with us, you're against us," we might be able to satisfy both sides, just like we satisfy Rashi AND Rabbeinu Tam on our doorposts. And, my friends, that is precisely where we should be headed.

Hag sameah.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Judaism on the Electronic Frontier

(Originally appeared in the Temple Israel Voice, March 5, 2010)

The world is changing. On NPR this morning I heard that the United States Postal Service is considering halting mail delivery on Saturdays. Not because it is Shabbat, mind you, but because doing so will save $3 billion dollars per year, and the USPS is $9 billion in the hole. This is not entirely surprising, as email and Twitter and Facebook and all of the other paperless means gradually take over all of our interpersonal communication. I suspect that we are witnesses to a paradigm shift that will touch virtually everybody, or perhaps touch everybody virtually.

The Jewish world is, as I am sure you can imagine, slow to respond to the changing paradigm. Yes, there are a number of Jewish organizations that have attractive and educational websites, a few rabbis are keeping their congregants updated using Twitter, and even your humble correspondent has a blog containing some of his sermons and articles. There are even synagogues that broadcast their Shabbat services via webcam, so that the homebound can feel connected. But let's face it: you can't attend a minyan in cyberspace. There's no, where you can fulfill your religious duties, educate your children, celebrate a lifecycle event, and eat herring while schmoozing at kiddush.

Now, there may be a couple of reasons for the Jewish lag. For one thing, our tradition, written and "oral," goes back a few millennia, far longer than the U.S. Postal Service. The collected wealth of Jewish text (i.e. the Tanakh, Talmud, midrashim, commentaries, music, poetry, history, modern Israeli literature, and so forth) cannot be easily captured in 140-character niblets (the maximum length of a Twitter "tweet"). Furthermore, no matter how interconnected we are via social networking websites, ours is a tradition that requires physical presence, actual human bodies in the same room, to be done properly. I hope that I never see the day (or night) on which the tale of the Exodus from Egypt is recounted electronically, with nobody sharing the same salt water in which to dip their parsley, and no-one else around the table to whip with a scallion (a Persian custom).

Of course, it is important to note that I grew up under the previous paradigm, in which newspapers flourished and book publishing was a healthy, profitable industry. My daughter will never know a world without the Internet, and will grow up with the comforting knowledge that everything that she needs can be found with just a few keystrokes. I wonder if she will ever read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby from a well-loved, dog-eared paperback, or puzzle over Rashi's comments on a page of the "traditional" Vilna layout of the Talmud (which only dates to the 1880s). She may never understand what I long for in the tactile sensations associated with reading material printed on paper.

Yes, we are limited now by certain halakhic impediments to, say, reading the Torah electronically. But, as the leaders of Orthodox feminist groups have repeated as a mantra for years, where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halakhic way. Most of the Jewish bookshelf is now available electronically; I have seen more than one person davening in a weekday minyan, reading the prayers from an iPod. How long will it be before the next generation of rabbis, the one that might include my daughter, permits what seems anathema to me?

On some level, I keep hoping that our newfangled, low-voltage social networks will cultivate within us an even greater need to be with others, although I am not seeing evidence of this yet. Perhaps it will take another generation of adapting to the new reality to see this low-tech rebound. But meanwhile, as we watch our electronic appendages embed themselves further into the consciousness of our children and grandchildren, I must wonder aloud if Judaism must knuckle under to technology, or remain firmly entrenched in the paper- and parchment- based world of the past, isolated and irrelevant? I hope that we can find a middle ground, one that embraces all that is wonderful about this brave new world, and yet maintains the face-to-face contact, the manner in which God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai, that our faith necessitates.