Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Balaq 5770 - Storm theology

(Originally delivered on June 26, 2010.)

Dear God:

As You know, I returned on Thursday night from the United Synagogue’s New Directors’ Institute, a 3-day training seminar for educators taking new positions as Educational Directors at various synagogue schools. As You also know, my flight home was cancelled because there was a tornado (or something mighty close to it) in, of all places, Great Neck. As You must surely also know, there are downed trees all over our little peninsula, with many homes and other buildings damaged.

You may not know that I do not blame You for this mess, and all the moreso that I do not blame us. Yes, yes, I know that a tornado is a quote-unquote “act of God.” Yes, I know that You are given credit for powerful storms in the Tanakh and elsewhere in Jewish literature. Of course I know of Your promises to our ancestors, repeated throughout the Torah, that if we fulfill our obligations to you, we will receive good fortune, and that if we do not, the opposite will occur.

But I’ll tell You something. I am not going to get suckered into such a na├»ve understanding of Your ways. I am not like some religious leaders, Christian, Jewish and others, who take the theologically easy path, blaming the earthquake in Haiti or the flood in New Orleans on the evil deeds of the people of those locales. (OK, so there is no real comparison here - a few downed trees and power lines in a posh suburb may have inconvenienced us here a bit slightly, but the extent of destruction was nothing like those other two examples.) Nonetheless, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, natural disasters of all kinds - it is tempting to call these Your works.

You might know that my wife, Judy, was speaking to a woman in the street on Thursday evening, as they were surveying the damage in our neighborhood, and this woman said to Judy, “This is a punishment from God.”

I cannot accept that. I cannot accept that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah is inclined to be either deliberately or arbitrarily bloodthirsty. You are the Source of all good, the benevolent God who creates peace on high and down here, Mordecai Kaplan’s “power that makes for salvation.” You are the God who promised Avraham Avinu descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the shore, Who redeemed us from Egypt and gave us our own land (and returned some of us to it once more in modern times.)

But are You not the same God Who flooded the world in the time of Noah, and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah in a hail of fire and brimstone, who smote Judah’s sons Er and Onan, who slew the first-born of the Egyptians AND drowned their armies in the Sea of Reeds, who killed those responsible for the Molten Calf, who caused the Earth to swallow up the followers of Korah, who ordered us to blot out the Amalekites, and took away Saul’s crown when he failed to kill every single one of them out of mercy?

Are You not the same God before whom we recite at funerals the passage entitled tzidduq ha-din, the justification of the divine decree, in which we say, “You are just, O Lord, in ordering death and restoring to life, in Whose hand is the charge of all spirits.” Are You not the same God before whom we say on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, “Who shall come to a timely end, and who to an untimely end, who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by wild beast?”

These stories and theological constructs speak powerfully to us. They tell us tales of our ancestors, and of who they were and, to some extent, who we are today.

Or, perhaps this was a theology that spoke to our ancestors. Perhaps fear of Your vengeful nature brought more people to the synagogue one thousand years ago, or even just two hundred.

But frankly, O God and God of our ancestors, although You are eternal, we are not. Times change, and our perspectives change. Thank God (thank You) for giving us Baruch Spinoza, and Martin Buber, and Franz Rosenzweig, and of course Kaplan, who gave to Your people new ways of understanding You.

Thank You for opening our minds and hearts to the possibility that Your contact with us is not a one-time Sinaitic revelation, but an ongoing one that continues to this moment. Thank You for granting us the idea that we are only open to You when we put no conditions on You. Thank God for the option to understand the Torah as the devoted work of Your people, who sought to understand You in their own time and in their own language and imagery, and the corollary possibility to re-interpret You and Your Torah for modernity.

Why am I letting You off so easy? Why am I perhaps allowing You to get away with murder?

Because, O Lord our God, I cannot let You take all the credit for bad things that happen, because if I did, then I would be in a real pickle. Despite the language of tzidduq hadin recited at funerals, justifying Your every verdict, can I with a pure heart tell a grieving son that God gave his beloved father the cancer that took him from this world? Can I tell a despondent mother that You took her daughter from this world at an early age because she committed some sort of wrong against You? No. That is ridiculous, offensive, and likely to engender more resentment, more anger, more denial of You and everything that we stand for.

There is a well-known Hasidic tale of Rebbe Levi Yitzhaq of Berditchev, who brought a din toire, a lawsuit against God for being responsible for the suffering of the Jewish people.

Well, my Lord, You will not be hearing from my lawyer any time soon, because I know that You are the source of good in this world; that You designed an orderly universe, that Creation is perfect.

We are imperfect, it is true, but that is not Your fault. We had a few glorious moments of perfection in Gan Eden, but things went rapidly downhill. I am sure that You are very disappointed in us.

And, while we are on the subject of disasters and disappointment, I am certain that you are really disappointed with the way that we have handled Your magnificent Creation. That oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, the one that is coating pelicans and causing tourists to re-think their summer travel plans, that is clearly not Your work. We did that ourselves, by being profligate with Your Creation, by digging holes where they were never meant to be dug, by engineering solutions that consider only the bottom line and not the Almighty on high, but most significantly, by designing our own lives such that they are NOT in harmony with Your own masterful design.

As you surely know, today in Parashat Balaq, Bil’am praised the Israelites with the famous phrase, Mah tovu ohalekha yaaqov, mishkenotekha yisrael, (Numbers 24:5) “How fair are your tents, O Jacob / Your dwelling places, O Israel.”

Your diligent servant Rashi told us that the Israelite tents are good because the entryways do not face each other. He was relying on the principle, described in the Talmud, that doors of residences should not face each other so that neighbors cannot readily see into each others’ homes.

But I think that Rashi pointed to something even greater than that. (And here is the point where my inner engineer pokes his head out.) Bil'am's praise of the Israelite's dwelling places tells us that they are good because they are well-designed, well-built; that they incorporate a respect for their neighbors and a respect for You. That is what makes them Godly, and what still makes us holy today, when we seek this order.

You, Lord, are the God of good, the God of order, not the God of disorder. Chaos must come from somewhere else.

Psalm 148, which we read this morning, as we do every morning, tells us that the order of Creation includes violent storms; but it cannot be true that it is ever Your intent to harm Your people out of vengeance.

And you know very well that this is not my idea, but has resonated with Jews for hundreds of years. Yes, on the High Holidays we chant the Untaneh Toqef, which warns of the various ways that we might perish during the New Year if we do not follow Your mitzvot. But we also chant the shelosh esrei middot, Your 13 attributes as quoted in Exodus:

“Adonai, Adonai, El rahum vehanun erekh apayim verav hesed ve-emet. Notzer hesed la-alafim, nosei avon vafesha vehata’a venaqeh.”

“The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and granting pardon.”

Except that, as You know, God, the very end of that statement is truncated, because venaqeh does NOT mean, “and granting pardon.” On the contrary, the original text reads “venaqeh lo yenaqeh.” “He surely does NOT pardon, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children“… etc.

We changed that line! Our ancestors modified it for use in prayer, because they understood that you work through hesed, lovingkindness, and not through revenge. You gave us the Torah in love, and You continue to reveal Your word to us in love.

I do not know where natural disasters come from, or why we continue to suffer from them. But I am certain that they are not Your retribution for our human failings, because the God that loves us does not rise up in rage against us.

Please stay in touch.

Zissa Kalman ben Arye Leiv haLevi uFesya Leah.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Qorah 5770 - Standing with Israel Now

(Originally delivered on June 12, 2010.)

A story is told of the Texan who visits Israel, and is underwhelmed by the size of a kibbutz. "Let me tell you something, my friend," he says to his Israeli host. "On my ranch back in Texas, I can get in my car at dawn, start driving west, and not reach the end of the property before sundown."

"Oh," says the Israeli. "I used to have a car like that."

This is a perspective on the Israeli character that is best appreciated if you have been to Israel and are familiar with the land and its people. There are plenty of other perspectives regarding Israel, and some that have come to the fore in the past few weeks are especially troubling.

I confess to being a zealous Israel-phile and supporter of the Jewish state. Many of you know that I travel there about twice yearly (more if I can get away with it), and not just because my older son lives there. I love the state of Israel - the land, the people, the culture, the cities, the food, the climate; I love hiking the varied terrain of Israel; I love resonating with the holy sites and the archaeological wonders; I admire the entrepreneurial spirit; I embrace the prickly outside and the sweet inside of the Israeli persona. If I were an engineer and not a Conservative rabbi, I might be living there now. (One irony of the Jewish state: no work for Conservative rabbis or cantors.)

But more than all of that, I know that we need Israel - not the land, mind you, but the political entity. There are good, solid reasons for there to be a place that the Jewish people can call home, good reasons why Brooklyn is not the Promised Land. Some of these reasons are theological, but some have more to do with the words of Hatikva, Israel's national anthem: Lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu - to be a free people in our own land.

Occasionally, it helps to remember that we live in diaspora, in somebody else's land. The events of the past couple of weeks have reminded me that threats are looming. Some of my colleagues and others in the pro-Israel camp tend to highlight threats, and I am often suspicious of their motives, and therefore suspect the validity of the threats. After all, fear is a strong motivator; it causes people to, among other things, write checks and call their representatives.

And yet, I am surely beginning to see a confluence of existential threats, and a kind of alarm has begun to sound in my head. I have watched these events unfold in horror and disappointment and frustration.

So you can probably guess at least two of the three items that I am about to mention:

1. Mavi Marmara
2. Helen Thomas
3. Peter Beinart

1. I am certain that do not need to describe the first item to you - this has been widely reported for the past two weeks. I must say that when I first heard the news headline (Israeli commandos shot and killed 9 "peace activists"), I was shocked; as more information filtered out, the case appeared far more complex than the initial headlines let on. No matter, of course; the damage was done. Just as the world still associates the name of the northern West Bank city Jenin with "massacre," and the name Mohammed al-Dura with the photograph of the Palestinian boy cowering with his father in the line of Israeli fire, even though both of these stories have been debunked, "Mavi Marmara" will heretofore always suggest, "Israel killed innocent civilians."

Never mind that this was clearly an attempt to provoke Israel to violence and more bad PR. Never mind that the activists were members of a Turkish fringe Islamist group that has been linked to Al Qaeda. Never mind that one of them radioed the provocative statement, "Shut up! Go back to Auschwitz" to Israeli naval authorities. In the court of world opinion, Israel loses again.

There will surely be more of these flotilla operations, and Israel will most likely respond in the same way. So that is the first item.

2. Ms. Helen Thomas, the so-called "Dean of the White House Press Corps," self-destructed this week when video footage surfaced of her saying that the Jews should "Get the hell out of Palestine," and furthermore that they should "go back to Poland and Germany." (If you have not seen this, you really should. It's truly, incomprehensibly awful.) Ms. Thomas is 89, and was (until this week) still working for the Hearst news corporation in the White House; she has been doing that since the Kennedy administration, and was the only member of the White House Press Corps who had a chair with her name on it (rather than the name of her news organization).

As painful as it was to watch her destroy her remarkable life (she was a groundbreaking reporter for a number of reasons, known for her red dress and incisive tongue), the real pain is the evidence that she brought to light regarding the relationship between some journalists and Israel. While there are many in the pro-Israel camp who have accused some media outlets of anti-Israel bias, that was not something that I was ready to embrace until this week. To be sure, there are many folks out there right now, smugly reciting, "I told you so."

It is, of course, unfair to paint journalists with one brush, and I am not cancelling my subscription to the New York Times. However, there were only a few news organizations, that had picked up this story late last week, and it did not appear in the Times, generally recognized as the American paper of record, until Tuesday, the day after she resigned. It makes one wonder about the following possibilities:
(a) Did the Times (which has a significant Jewish readership) not deem this story newsworthy? or
(b) Were they trying to downplay anti-Israel bias among journalists?

How many other Helen Thomases are there out there, among the ranks of journalists, authors, teachers, TV producers, and so forth? How many others might, when they let down their guard, say such hateful things? Maybe I'd rather not know the answer to that. So that's the second item.

3. The third item is the article that appeared a couple of weeks ago in the New York Review of Books by Jewish-American author Peter Beinart, which Rabbi Stecker mentioned in this space last week. In the article, entitled, "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," Beinart argues that major Jewish organizations in America are losing touch with the majority of younger American Jews over their Israel stance. Liberal Zionism, he claims, is slowly dying, while the children of secular zionists find it outrageous that their parents' generation does not see Israel's faults.

Perhaps more troubling, says Beinart, is the phenomenon of non-Orthodox Jews gradually disengaging from Israel. A physical manifestation of this is the observation that some have made in the Jewish Week regarding the Salute to Israel parade, which many of us attended three weeks ago. He says,

"[A study by the American Jewish Committee] found that while only 16 percent of non-Orthodox adult Jews under the age of forty feel “very close to Israel,” among the Orthodox the figure is 79 percent. As secular Jews drift away from America’s Zionist institutions, their Orthodox counterparts will likely step into the breach." The result may be, says Beinart, that soon enough, the only ones supporting Israel are the Orthodox. While one of our congregants has written a letter to the editor of the Jewish Week to point out that Temple Israel sent 170 members to the parade (look for it in next week's issue), the prevailing sentiment is that the majority of parade marchers were Orthodox, and I must confess that this has been my impression for a number of years.

Beinart also points out that this is part of a wider phenomenon - it is not merely disengagement from Israel but a general withdrawal from Jewish communal issues that plagues the non-Orthodox majority. We just do not seem to care as much about anything.

There have been no shortage of eloquent responses to Beinart's accusations. But I can tell you that from my perspective, he is right on. My siblings and peers are far less committed to Israel than our parents; their children will, most likely be even less so. So there is item three.

I am going to add one more to this list of threats, not because it is something that happened recently, but because I am hearing this organization's name pop up more and more frequently:

4. The Global BDS Movement

Boycott, divestment, sanctions.

This group seems to be the most successful in broadcasting a message that makes me squirm - that of isolation of and delegitimization of Israel.
Among other things, they say Israel's occupation of the West Bank meets the very definition of apartheid - that the law applies differently to different people.
They say the residents of Gaza are suffering.
They say the blockade against Gaza has accomplished nothing.

I do not have the time to argue these points individually, but there is always another side, and you get the picture.

Now it might be tempting to paint this group as a bunch of anti-Semites. In actuality, there are many Jews who support this idea. (Maybe some of you heard about the octogenarian Jewish Holocaust survivor Greta Berlin, founder of the Free Gaza movement and coordinator of the recent flotilla.) Their goal, however, is to continually hammer home the idea that Israel is illegitimate and deserves to be isolated from the rest of the world. And that message is now being broadcast far and wide.

These four threats call to mind the experience of Qorah in today's parashah. Qorah is a threat to the stability of Benei Yisrael; he accuses Moses and Aaron of taken advantage of their positions. (Num. 16:3) "Umadua titnase-u al qehal adonai" - Why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" says Qorah.

Sometimes, threats are real, says the Torah. God evidently sees Qorah and his 250 followers as a true threat to the Mosaic hegemony; Ibn Ezra explains that the followers are piling on grievance - they are an assortment of grumblers and malcontents. The end of the episode seems, to our modern sensibilities, cruel - Qorah and his faction are swallowed up by the Earth, they go down to Sheol, and all is well and good again.

These existential threats to Israel, the external and the internal (i.e. within the Jewish community), seem to be multiplying, something like the Qorah rebellion. Unlike Moses, however, we cannot expect the earth to open up and swallow those advocating delegitimization. (And frankly, if that happened, I would be pretty freaked out.)

So how do we respond?

These threats must be countered. We at Temple Israel (and throughout American Jewry) need to work harder to promote Israel in our community and elsewhere. We need to go there.

To that end, one of the things that I will be doing in the coming year as the interim Director of the Youth House is leading a trip there with our teenagers during the February vacation. My intent is to raise enough money to subsidize Youth House members such that the price comes down from about $2700 to about $1500 for a nine-day trip. If we participate as a community, we can easily do this, and it will be a fantastic community-building and consciousness-raising experience for all involved.

Also, Rabbi Stecker and Cantor Frieder and I will soon be unveiling plans for a congregational trip to Israel, probably in August of 2011. This will be an opportunity for families to travel together and learn about and understand Israel as the multigenerational community that we are. Watch for that, and join us.

In addition to going there, we also need to invest our time and our money in pro-Israel activism here. Seek out organizations that suit you, and support them however you can (e.g. State of Israel Bonds dinner on Tuesday night; we will have a congregational trip to the AIPAC Policy Conference next May; then there's the Parade as well). But the worst thing that we can all do is to be silent, to be apathetic. You all understand the need for the continued existence of the State of Israel. Now is the time to stand up for her.

Magnum Farce

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, June 11, 2010.)

As I write this column, the world is up in arms about Israel's move to board the flotilla of ships headed for Gaza with supplies. Spin factories on both sides of the issue are churning out video, emails, and press releases to demonstrate that Israel is either the guilty aggressor or innocent self-defender. The real story here is not the boats or the propaganda or even the body count; the real story is the tremendous gullibility of all parties involved.

While I cannot claim to possess any inside information about this incident, I have heard/seen/read enough to say confidently that Israel made a tactical error, as she sometimes does. Defense Minister Ehud Barak chose not to take any chances; they were going to pull those ships into Ashdod by hook or by crook. By sending out Blackhawk helicopters and lowering marine commandos onto the ships, the Israelis walked right into a trap that was so obviously set for them. The goal of this flotilla was not to bring supplies to Gaza. Rather, it was a decidedly un-clever ruse to provoke a heavy-handed Israeli response that would bring international condemnation, and the Israelis performed brilliantly, exactly on cue.

And, sticking to the script as well were all of the usual suspects, chiming in with condemnation from all corners of the globe. EU nations, the Arab world, and the UN all jumped at the opportunity to criticize the Jewish state one more time. Here's another brick in the delegitimization wall.

But worst of all is the press. Always seeking the sensationalist angle and never the underlying story, the ad nauseam drumbeat of simple math or analogy (e.g. Israel + "humanitarian" activists = massacre, or Israeli : Palestinian :: oppressor : victim) fuels the world's misunderstandings. By the time this column is published, the news cycle will already have left the saga of the Mavi Marmara behind; whatever emerges as a result of investigations in the coming year will be largely ignored. Thanks to the need to sell advertising space, the bad guy beating up the good guy story always wins. Where is the analysis that upends this farce? Where are the probing interviews with the pro-Palestinian activists that ask the tough questions? Who will uncover the true motivations behind these "peace activists," who were clearly preparing for war?

None of this was unpredictable. Everything went according to the same tired plan. And regardless of the facts, guess who comes out looking bad?

Meanwhile, Israel's current government channels its talent into maintaining the outrage against Iran's nuclear weapons, which have been nearing completion for some time now. The two-state solution, Israel's only real choice for the long run, is apparently on the table only via lip service.

Now is the time to think strategically. Baqesh shalom verodfehu, says the Psalmist. Seek peace and pursue it. Let's hope that somebody in Jerusalem, the city of peace, hears that message echoing through its ancient walls.