Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Studying in Jerusalem

Today marks the last day of my studies at the Shalom Hartman Institute. It has been an extraordinary month of learning. We begin our day with hevruta study. We gather in small groups and study texts from the Bible, Talmud and often Maimonides. We then hear the master teacher's analysis and insights into the texts. After breaking for lunch we study Jewish mysticism. Often we have a few hours off during the heat of the afternoon before making our way back to the Institute for a lecture about Israeli society and culture. The theme for the month was God and spirituality so we spent most of our days debating questions of Jewish theology. We learned with David and Donniel Hartman, Yisrael Knohl (whose controversial theory about Jesus was recently reported in The New York Times), Moshe Halbertal, Melila Hellner-Eshed and Rani Jaegar to name a few. As impressive as our teachers are I am most impressed with my fellow participants in the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. It is an extraordinary group of rabbis. We have learned a great deal from each other. In this group there are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist rabbis. I have learned the most from those rabbis who don't share my Reform orientation. In fact a few days ago Adam Scheier, a young Orthodox rabbi from Montreal, led Jonah Layman and me through the winding streets of the Old City's Muslim Quarter. He had studied at yeshiva there some years ago. He brought us to Kotel HaKatan (the Little Wall). There is picture of this site on the Blog's sidebar and in the slideshow. It is a small section of the Wall that runs above the Western Wall Tunnels. There is no plaza there, no throngs of people, no beggars and no one telling you how you should pray. In this small corner of the Old City a Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbi stood together and touched 2,000 year old stones. This moment embodied the summer's most important teaching.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Zohar and Our Questions

For the past week we have studied Jewish mysticism with Melila Hellner-Eshed. The esoteric world of Jewish mysticism begins to unfold before my eyes. In the opening chapters of the Zohar, the seminal Jewish mystical text, Rabbi Shimon, expounded on the meaning of God's name "Elohim." This name is a combination of "elleh--these" and "Mi--who" (when the last two Hebrew letters are reversed). Elleh represents the structures of religious life, the letters of the alphabet, the texts of our tradition. Elleh represents the fixed, the halachah, the edifice. Mi represents the questions. All of us bring questions and doubts to our religious lives. We have many questions, many unsolved riddles. God is the combination of the structures and the questions. Without institutions, without laws Judaism would be lost. Without questions, without doubts Jews would be bereft. God embraces both. God is both. Elohim is the combination of structures of Jewish life and our questions.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Funerals, Rallies, Markets and Bars

All week I have been mulling over the scenes from the news. Wednesday morning we watched in silence as two black coffins were handed over by Hezbollah. The sound of the coffins touching the ground was the first confirmation the Regev and Goldwasser families received of the deaths of their sons. Two black coffins drove silently from the northern border to the grieving families. Israel turned over the bodies of 199 Hezbollah dead and five captured terrorists, the most astonishing of all was Sumar Kuntar who was granted an official pardon in order to facilitate his release. Kuntar received a hero's welcome in Lebanon. He walked off the airplane on a red carpet to cheers and praise. This brutal murderer received accolades in Lebanon while here in Israel there were only tears and bewilderment. The image of two black coffins and red carpets remain seared in my heart. The light of the full moon illuminated the distinction between good and evil. The chasm between those on either side of our northern border added to my despair.
For me this despair was finally lifted when I listened to a friend and accompanied him to Mahane Yehuda. The market stalls were closed. In their place was a bar set up in the middle of the street filled with hundreds of Israelis smoking and drinking, dancing and singing. We listened together to a band playing a unique blend of jazz, Sephardic and Klezmer music. Here tears and despair do not last for months and years. This morning there were tears. Now there is only laughter and music. The streets and bars are filled with the noise of a city that loves life and celebration. Although today was the 17th of Tammuz yesterday's sadness no longer colored the air. This evening, joy was painted across the night sky with a glistening, although waning, full moon.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Shabbat in Jerusalem

Shabbat is descending on Jerusalem. Hallah and flowers are sold on the street corners. Stores close early. Young students are picked up on street corners by family and friends to make their way to their Shabbat destinations before the setting of the sun. The sound of traffic dissipates with the approach of evening. Shabbat menucha (rest) and oneg (joy) descend on the city. Soon families will walk to friends' homes for dinner. Tomorrow morning the streets will be filled with men hurrying to synagogue with the sails of tallisim flowing behind them. There is a fervor of Shabbat joy among the people of Jerusalem and the feeling of Shabbat rest on its streets. Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem!
Saturday evening the city and its streets return to life. Shabbat goes out around 830 pm. By 9 pm people, cars and buses return to the streets. By 11 pm crowds fill the restaurants and cafes. Here the rhythm of Shabbat is mirrored in its architecture. The pulse of Jewish life moves through the streets and alleys of Jerusalem. This city, the soul of the Jewish people returns to activity. The smell of wild rosemary fills our nostrils as the memory of havdalah spices dissipate.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Prisoner Release

I arrived in Israel to news of the upcoming prisoner release. Israel has signed an agreement to exchange captured terrorists (including Samir Kuntar who brutally murdered a father and his four year old daughter in 1979) for the bodies of its soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Israel has agreed to release many Lebanese prisoners even though it means not the return of its soldiers but the bodies of these soldiers killed in the attack that precipitated the 2006 War with Lebanon. That the exchange lacks balance is clear. Despite this fact as of today's writing 60% of Israelis support the deal. There are a great many problems with the deal. We are negotiating with terrorists. We are repatriating terrorists with blood on their hands who will surely receive a hero's welcome orchestrated by Hezbollah in Beruit. Hezbollah and in particular Hamas who still holds Gilad Shalit (and who it seems clear is still alive) will no longer have the incentive to keep their hostages alive. Yet most here appear to favor closure for the Regev and Goldwasser families over these legitimate concerns. Most favor securing the present and healing the wounds of these families over worries of the future. Most believe because our enemies do not fight by the "rules" must not be an excuse to let loose of our moral fiber and Jewish values. Pidyon shevuyim (the redemption of captives) is a Jewish value of the highest order. If I have read the attitude here correctly it is we will fight to protect our families while doing our utmost to preserve our values. In the State of Israel the Jewish choices bubble much closer to the surface. They are at times painful and wrenching, but there is no mistaking that Jewish values animinate the soul of this country.