Friday, October 29, 2010

Day of Dialogue

On Wednesday I was asked to participate in a panel discussion entitled "Israel/Palestine and the Blockade" at Hofstra University's Day of Dialogue.  The following are my introductory remarks.  A video of the presentation and subsequent discussion is promised.

This is what I believe.  And this is what I hold to be paramount.  Let me be brief and direct.

A few opening facts should be mentioned at the outset.  Israel captured the Gaza Strip in 1967 from Egypt.  Palestinians never had sovereignty there under Egypt.  In my estimation, the Arab world has not supported Palestinian’s aspirations for sovereignty.  Throughout the years Egypt never even wanted to discuss Gaza.  During the Camp David accords Israel repeatedly tried to raise the question of Gaza but was rebuffed by Egypt.  My view is that Israel has tried to help establish sovereignty for the Palestinians while guaranteeing the security of its own citizens.  80% of Israelis support a Palestinian state with such safeguards.

In 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and ended what is called by many "the occupation."  It uprooted 7,000 settlers at great cost, most especially at great emotional cost.  This was in some ways like its earlier withdrawal from Southern Lebanon.  But the disengagement from Gaza was similar but different.

It is the same in that Hamas, like Hezbollah, is sworn to Israel’s destruction.  It has declared war against Israel.  Its charter is filled with antisemitism.  It is part of the movement of global Islamic fundamentalism.  Hamas controls Gaza..  And Hamas fails to prevent the firing of rockets at Israel. 

This in a nutshell is the central issue for me.  Although I am sensitive to the suffering of Palestinians, I believe Israel has every right—and a sacred duty—to defend its citizens.  The legal issues are secondary to this moral imperative.  It can be on the high seas.  It can be within another country’s sovereign borders.  It can be on Israel’s borders.  It can be in tunnels within Gaza.  Israel must do everything it can to protect its citizens.

Hamas continues to fire rockets at Israel—175 to date this year.  Hamas fires these rockets from civilian areas.  It fires these rockets at civilians.  These facts are what do more harm to the people of Gaza than any of Israel’s actions.

That being said, I do admit that Israel is not always perfect.  Sometimes it makes mistakes.  Sometimes it even makes tragic mistakes.  The IDF does its best to live by a moral code, and to investigate those who fail to live by this code.  I wish it quietly let the ship from Turkey slip into Gaza’s port.  Israel boarded these ships as a matter of principle.  But there were no game changing missiles on board.

Israel must walk a fine line between providing security and lashing out in vengeance.  It must balance the security of its citizens against applying collective punishment.  I believe that the vast majority of the time it acts out of its security needs.  It is fighting an enemy who hides behind its own citizens.  This fight is not easy.  

I am proud that in this day and age there is a Jewish state that struggles to live by Jewish values while protecting and defending the lives of its citizens.

Since the panel ended and in response to some questions I continue to reflect on the situation.

I still believe that although the blockade is painful, it is indeed justified because Hamas and Israel are in a state of war and belligerence.  Although there is no formal declaration of war, hostilities exist to justify the blockade.  

My fellow panelist, David Wildman, from United Methodist Global Ministries, argued that Israel and Hamas should just talk and not resort to armed force or blockades.  But I wonder how you talk to someone who wants to kills you.  The right of self defense is a sacred right.  The critical difference between Israel and Hamas is that Israel does not want to destroy the Palestinians while Hamas vows to destroy Israel, Israelis and Jews.

Some students expressed disappointment that I did not respond to every one of David Wildman's facts and figures with better facts and figures of my own.  "You should have said that Egypt maintains the blockade as well!"  Although this fact is evidently true I find such back and forth arguing over facts to be similar to, "He said.  She said."  Or as my teacher, Dr. Tal Becker remarked, "It is like my daughters who are constantly fighting.  When I ask one of them what happened, she screams, 'It all started when she hit me back.'"  

We might be better served by struggling to understand the narrative that is told on the other side and to work to include the other within our own narrative.  We are not going to convince each other whose facts and figures are mightier.  The answer might only be to see ourselves as standing in their shoes.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dancing (Under the Gallows)

Here is a wonderful video about Alice Sommer, who at 106 years old is the oldest Holocaust survivor.  Not only is she an extraordinary person but a talented musician.  She survived, in Theresienstadt,  in large part because of her remarkable musical abilities.  But I like her most of all because of  her philosophy.  Among her powerful statements are the following:
Music was essential to survival.
Every day, life is beautiful.
I was always laughing.  Even there [in the camps] I was laughing.
Watch the video to learn more about Alice and to listen to her words.

Recently I found myself thinking about this outlook and what I have now learned is Alice's approach to life.  It takes much hard work and devotion to shape optimism. When on vacation it is easy to have such an outlook. There are not the familiar pressures of work and school.  The daily grind is absent.  You are then free to explore the vacation paradise to which you have traveled.  So sometimes I imagine that I am on vacation and go out and explore my own neighborhood.  You should not have to travel far to reshape your worldview.  It might be just as simple as a small detour on your way to the office.  Below is picture from the hilltop overlooking Cold Spring Harbor.  The North Shore of Long Island is beautiful this time of year.

Alice is right.  What a beautiful world indeed!  If she can say this for 106 years then I can say day in and day out.  Sometimes however the detours help.

Chayei Sarah

This week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, opens with Sarah’s death and the subsequent purchase of a burial cave in Hebron, a place that remains holy to this day, yet is still wrapped in controversy.  The portion concludes a few chapters later with the death of Abraham.   In between is the detailed account of the finding of a wife for their son, Isaac.  Here is that story.

Abraham tasks his most trusted servant, Eliezer, with the duty.  Abraham commands him: “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord…that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell, but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Genesis 24)

In ancient times an agreement was solidified between men by placing the hand on the upper thigh.  I won’t of course discuss this at services but it is interesting to note that this practice and in particular the proximity of the hand to the testes provides the origins of the word testify.  I am sure all will agree that a handshake is preferred!  (By the way the origins of a handshake are found in demonstrating to another that you are unarmed.)

Back to the story!  Eliezer sets out to the land of Abraham’s birth.  He goes to the town’s well and waits there to find a suitable wife for Isaac.  In ancient times the well was the equivalent of a modern singles bar.  If you want to meet a young woman go to the well because their job was to go fetch water for their families and flocks.  Eliezer devises a test and prays in his heart.  The woman who offers him a drink and water as well for his camels will become Isaac’s wife.

Almost immediately Rebekah appears and says to him, “Drink, and I will also water your camels.”  Eliezer asks her about her family and asks to meet them.  He does so and showers them with many gifts.  (Abraham was apparently a very wealthy man.)  Eliezer then asks for permission to allow Rebekah to return with him to the land of Canaan in order to marry Isaac. 

Soon Isaac and Rebekah meet for the first time.  It is the Bible’s version of love at first sight.  From a distance Rebekah sees Isaac working in the field.  “Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac.  She fell off the camel (most translators incorrectly render this as alighted) and said to the servant, ‘Who is that man walking in the field toward us?’  And the servant said, “That is my master.”  So she took her veil and covered herself….   Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife.  Isaac loved her…”

Many times the Torah does not provide us with such inordinate detail. In this instance, however, it provides us with many details.  We will explore this story and even more of its details at Shabbat services tomorrow evening at 6:30 pm.  In particular we will examine the servant Eliezer’s test.

He quickly outlines for us a measure of a person.  A good person is he or she who offers others simple acts of kindness.  Eliezer does not highlight Rebekah's looks or her clothes.  He measures her instead by the act of providing water for his camels. 

In this Torah portion that tells the story of the deaths of our greatest patriarch and matriarch the real hero is instead their servant, Eliezer.  It is he who reminds us that the measure of a person is not their stature, wealth or good looks but instead their compassion.  Do you agree with Eliezer’s estimation of a good person?  How do you measure up a person in an instant?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Shalom Chaver

Last week marked the 15th yahrtzeit of Rabin's assassination.  According to the Hebrew calendar it was during the bereft and already bitter month of Cheshvan.  I have been thinking about Rabin and his leadership during the course of this week.  Rabin was the last of  Israel's courageous soldier-statesmen.  He was in my estimation brave because he pushed through the Oslo peace accords.  He believed that this agreement was the best way to guarantee peace--and security. 

Although I admire his courage and even more, his sacrifice, the assumptions that underlie Oslo proved false.  The main assumption was that with the promise of a Palestinian State and through the apparatus of an emerging government, the Palestinian leadership would have no choice but to cease their violent struggle and come to terms with the Jewish state on its Western border.  Unfortunately Rabin's darkest fears about Arafat proved true.  He preferred violence and suffering (as well as corruption and power) over what he viewed to be a partial state and a half way victory.  Nonetheless I admire Rabin's courage and resolve.  Sharon as well surprised me when he set in motion the painful disengagement from Gaza.  I am saddened to say that I do not see these character traits in Netanyahu.  He appears more intent on maintaining his prime minister position than forcing the people he leads to make painful, and unfortunately, necessary sacrifices.

Since Rabin's death the number of settlers has doubled, from approximately 150,000 in 1995 to nearly 300,000 living in the West Bank today.  (To my knowledge these figures do not include those living within Jerusalem's neighborhoods situated beyond the green line.)  Although I do not believe that a settlement freeze will advance peace I wish that Netanyahu courageously addressed the citizens he leads with the words, "My fellow citizens, I am skeptical that freezing settlements will advance peace, but our good friend the United States and its president, Barak Obama, has asked this of us and sometimes we do things for no other reason than a friend requests it.  I believe that many of our Palestinian neighbors want peace.  Let us see if we can sit down together and talk about the painful sacrifices that each of us will be required to make.  Both of us will be required to sacrifice in order to achieve peace--and security.  We are of course influenced by history, both recent and ancient, most especially that of  World War II and the Holocaust, but we must also be influenced by the tradition we so love.  In that peace is the greatest goal and its highest aspiration.  It is even more important than the land we hold so dear.  Let us meet with the Palestinians and their leaders. Let us talk.  If building must be curtailed to make it easier for us to speak, then that is the choice this nation, the country I lead, must indeed make."

I understand how difficult and painful this settlement freeze is to contemplate.  The crux of the issue for Israelis, and many Jews including myself, is that the West Bank and Jerusalem represent our return to the biblical land more than the shining metropolis of Tel Aviv.  The continued failure of the Palestinians, and much of the world, to affirm that Israel is not just about the Jewish people achieving national sovereignty in the Middle East, but instead about reclaiming sovereignty in the land of our ancestors, is a daily reminder of the failure of the world to appreciate the central truth of Zionism (and perhaps as well our failure to communicate this truth).  That is part of why the West Bank matters.  It is not Gaza.  And it is certainly not Kansas.  For Jews, Jerusalem and Hebron, Tekoa and Shiloh, are not like any other places in the world.  These places reverberate with the pulse of the Bible and the resonance of thousands of years of Jewish prayers.  If the Palestinians would affirm this religious and historical connection then they would do much to advance a peace agreement and make it far easier for Israelis to sacrifice great pieces of their biblical homeland.

Moreover, the recent uprooting of 7,000 settlers from their homes in Gaza was terribly traumatic.  Even if Israel retained large swaths of West Bank territory, the large settlement blocs of Maaale Adumim, Gush Etzion and Ariel, they would still have to uproot some 70,000 settlers!  Imagine this trauma and pain.  This would only be compounded if Palestinians continue to say that Jews have no right to live in this land.  Each of us must affirm the others right to live in the land of Israel.  Given that Arabs are citizens of the Jewish state, Jews must also be allowed to become citizens of any Palestinians state.  Why the world thinks it is ok for the Arab world to be Judenrein escapes my understanding.  (For more about a partition plan for today read Gadi Taub's recent article in The New Republic.)

In addition, 40% of the IDF's officers come from the religious Zionist camp and as Yossi Klein HaLevi points out two of Israel's recent military heroes who fell in battles with Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north built homes in an isolated settlement in the West Bank.  Majors Roi Klein and Eliraz Perets lived in Givat HaYovel.  Given their sacrifices most Israelis are sympathetic to their families' situation and support expanding their homes.  It would not be so simple to leave our homes in the West Bank, no matter how isolated.  These places may very well be isolated in the world's imagination, but they are less and less isolated from the Israeli mainstream, in large part because of their residents' continued sacrifice in behalf of the security of the state.

Here is where we stand.  80% of Israelis still support the creation of  a Palestinian State so long as their safety and security are guaranteed.  The vast majority of Israelis are prepared to sacrifice much for peace.  In a recent study 49% of Palestinians would agree to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as part of a peace agreement.  Whereas 48% would object to affirming this all important point.  Prior to this round of "peace negotiations" 58% of Palestinians said they would make this affirmation.

It saddens me to think that we are moving backward rather than forward.  Shalom chaver!

Thursday, October 21, 2010


This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, contains four stories: the announcement of Isaac’s birth, Sodom and Gomorrah (it did not go very well for those cities), Isaac’s birth and Ishmael’s subsequent banishment, and the binding of Isaac.  Let’s talk about the first story.

God’s messengers arrive to tell Abraham that he is going to have a son.   “I will return to you next year, and your wife Sarah shall have a son!”  Sarah, who is nearly 90 years old and happens to be listening on the other side of the tent, laughs (that is why Isaac means laughter) and says to herself, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?”  God of course hears Sarah’s laughter and what she said and angrily declares to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'"  (Genesis 18)

The Rabbis of old noticed that God does not accurately report what Sarah said.  Sarah had suggested that their infertility was due to Abraham’s age.  When repeating her words to Abraham God instead suggests that she blamed herself for their lack of children.

The Rabbis spin lessons and values from God’s apparent mistaken retelling.  It can’t possibly be that God did not hear her words correctly.  They reasoned, it must instead be that God wanted to protect Abraham and Sarah’s relationship and so decided that it would be better to lie than inform Abraham of Sarah’s true thoughts.

In Judaism’s hierarchy of values truth takes second place to peace.  Our tradition counsels: it is better to lie than destroy shalom bayit, peace in the home.  Truth can be sacrificed for the sake of peace.

The Talmud debates this idea and discusses the question of whether or not you should tell an ugly bride that she is beautiful on her wedding day.  Rabbi Shammai, who was known for his zealous commitment to principle whatever the cost, says, “Tell her the truth.”  Hillel says instead, “Tell every bride she is beautiful.”  Jewish law follows Hillel.  He reasoned that she is beautiful in her groom’s eyes so it does not really matter what every one else thinks.  On the wedding day every bride is beautiful.  

Hillel always seemed to find a way to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible.  Shammai on the other hand probably did not get to officiate at too many weddings and remained alone with his principles.

Judaism wants us to be at one with others, and with the community.  This is why peace is valued more than truth.  I often think about this as I watch the many people encouraged by TV hosts to confess and share their most intimate secrets.  These truths end up destroying friendships and relationships.  It makes for great drama and to some great TV, but it also makes for damaged and broken communities.

Truth does not always set you free.  Sometimes it leaves you alone.  This is Judaism’s counsel.  Beware of the truths you share.  Even God sometimes lies to keep the peace.  And shalom is always the most precious gift of all.

Monday, October 18, 2010

60 Minutes

Last night's 60 Minutes segment on the archaeological dig at Jerusalem's City of David is important to watch.  Be forewarned.  It does not paint Israel in a flattering light.  Both Jews and Muslims (and Christians as well) claim Jerusalem as a holy city.  In order to advance peace we must affirm the others claim to this city.  The Palestinians' continued denial of the Jewish roots of Jerusalem and their attempt at rewriting ancient history must stop.  Yasir Arafat used to claim that the Temple never stood in Jerusalem.  Such talk must end!  On the other hand the arguments of Jews that Mohammad never actually set foot in Jerusalem or that Jerusalem is not mentioned by name in the Koran is immaterial to the present crisis.  Today Jews and Muslims regard Jerusalem as holy.  We regard it as such because of our beliefs.  Denying each others beliefs will not change today's issues.  Digging for proof that our beliefs are more ancient and therefore more superior will not advance peace.  I support the dig only because I wish to learn more about my sacred text.  Recognizing that this place is both of our homes is the only solution.  Both Palestinians and Jews should strive to affirm this truth. 

See and read more on 60 Minutes Overtime.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lech Lecha Sermon

...What is the importance of reminding ourselves of the source of our blessings and good fortune?

I have noticed that we tend to ascribe too much credit to our own hard work.  We say that we earned our good fortune, that we deserved this or that.  But it is not all due to our hard work.  It is also about mazel and yichus.  We must not forget that good luck and good connections also help us.  It is not all in our own hands.  But it is also not all in the hands of fate.  For if this was the case what would be the point of waking up and working hard.  It is a balancing act between these three.

Yet there is a greater danger in seeing it all in our own hands.  Then we think we don't need others.  Then we forget how others helped us.  Then we think that God's hand is absent.  Then we forget that we can't control everything and begin to think that God does nothing.

We must be honest with ourselves about how we achieved our good fortune.  Lean on any one of these legs of the three legged stool and we fall.  That is the secret.  Abraham is called not just because of his own merit, but because of being in the right place at the right time.  We are like Abraham.  It is not all about our own hard work and merit.  It is also about who we know and to whom we are related.  And it is also about good mazel.  That is why we must be open to being called each and every day.

We Need Loyalty Acts, Not Loyalty Oaths - Shalom Hartman Institute

Gil Troy, "We Need Loyalty Acts, Not Loyalty Oaths"
This past summer I had the pleasure of studying with Gil Troy at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  His insights on Israel's proposed loyalty oath are well reasoned.  I agree with much of what he states in this article.  He writes:
Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, with its pluralistic population, in all its glorious contradictions, depends on loyalty acts not loyalty oaths. We need a renewed covenant between all of Israel's citizens and the government - not meaningless mouthings dictated by demagogues targeting one segment of the population - Israel's Arabs....

Israel's Proclamation of Independence promises all citizens civic equality, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or atheist; black, white, or brown; longstanding Jewish Jerusalemite, Holocaust survivor, Jewish refugee from Arab lands, or Arab villager from the Galilee. As with other Western nations, Israeli national identity can be defined enough to have a Jewish character, to forge a Jewish public space, but elastic enough to offer full citizenship and rights to, say, a Palestinian who harbors resentment that there even is a Jewish state or whose relative in a neighboring country has fought against Israel. Does that create identity confusion, legal contradictions and political tensions? Certainly. But are these problems that cannot be resolved, or reasons to view the Jewish nation state as something to be dissolved? Certainly not....

Yes, it is true, Israel is being judged by yet another double-standard. When Canadian immigrants swear allegiance to the Queen, it is charmingly anachronistic. When Americans pledge allegiance to the flag, it is red-white-and-blue patriotic. Yet when Israelis propose loyalty oaths it becomes oppressive.

Still, while Benjamin Netanyahu's so-called "nationalist" government must do more to boost patriotism and Zionism, why start with meaningless, controversial declarations? Why not start fostering pride by fixing the education system, cleaning the streets, fighting crime? Why not create a vision of modern Zionist civics that includes Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs, who frequently use state funds to carve out anti-Zionist collective identities? Nationalism is best nurtured not dictated; loyalty is best earned not proclaimed. We need a politics inspiring a sense of mutual obligation not generating confrontation. We need policies that encourage rather than compel....
For a view contrary to my own, read Lee Smith's "Under Oath" in Tablet Magazine.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Op-Ed Contributor - An End to Israel’s Invisibility - NYTimes

Michael Oren, "An End to Israel’s Invisibility"
Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, wrote an excellent Op-Ed in today's Times. He reiterates some of my sentiments from yesterday's post, but of course states it more forcefully.  He writes:
Affirmation of Israel’s Jewishness, however, is the very foundation of peace, its DNA. Just as Israel recognizes the existence of a Palestinian people with an inalienable right to self-determination in its homeland, so, too, must the Palestinians accede to the Jewish people’s 3,000-year connection to our homeland and our right to sovereignty there. This mutual acceptance is essential if both peoples are to live side by side in two states in genuine and lasting peace.
The core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the refusal to recognize Jews as a people, indigenous to the region and endowed with the right to self-government. Criticism of Israeli policies often serves to obscure this fact, and peace continues to elude us. By urging the Palestinians to recognize us as their permanent and legitimate neighbors, Prime Minister Netanyahu is pointing the way out of the current impasse: he is identifying the only path to co-existence. 
The Palestinian leadership's refusal to recognize the historical, religious, international legitimacy of the modern State of Israel is indeed a major stumbling block to achieving peace.

Lech Lecha

This week’s Torah portion starts it all. In it the first Jew is born. Seemingly out of nowhere Abraham is called by God with the opening words of our portion, Lech Lecha. “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”

The first question is why Abraham. The Torah offers little clue. Generations of commentators have read between the Torah’s lines and suggested that Abraham must have merited the call. He must been such a great man or have done something so great for God to take notice. This line of reasoning has sustained us for thousands of years.

So ingrained is this thinking that many people believe that the famous story about Abraham minding his father’s idol shop is in the Torah. It is instead a midrash written to answer our first question. One day Abraham’s father Terah asked him to watch the store. First Abraham scared away all the business when he told customers, “Why would you want this little statue? It can do nothing!” Then Abraham smashed all the idols but one. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abraham pointed to the one remaining idol and said, “He did it!” His father of course responded, “That’s ridiculous.” To which Abraham responded, “Exactly!”

Abraham became in that moment the first monotheist. God saw this and called out to him: “Lech lecha.” This midrash and understanding of the story fits nicely with our modern philosophy. We earn something by merit. In fact it is this very idea that built our country. You rise or fall based on your merits.

But not everything gained is done so on merit. There is also yichus, connections. There is who you know or to whom you are related. Sometimes we gain something by virtue of our friends, family and acquaintances. This is the point of Jewish geography. Judaism operates on this theory as well. Look at the opening of the Amidah. Before we even ask God for stuff we remind God that the person standing in prayer is related to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. “Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak v’Elohei Yaakov...” In essence we say, “God, remember that I am related to Abraham so please grant my request.”

And sometimes it just plain old luck, mazel. Your good fortune can be because you were standing in the right place in the right time. You can happen to meet someone on the train, and this can become a lifetime business partnership. That is how friends are sometimes made. Yet we fail to open ourselves up to such mazel in our modern day world. We sit next to people but talk to others miles away. I continue however to believe that such chance meetings are what add blessings to our lives. But in truth, the meaning of the original Hebrew is more akin to the English phrase, “The stars were aligned.” So perhaps there is no such thing as luck and it is all beshert, destiny.

In the end we gain good fortune by merit, connections and luck. And so we should ask a second question: must we be aware of how this good fortune came our way? I have often noticed how mazel and yichus are transformed into merit in people’s own minds. “I deserve this. I earned this.” becomes the mantra that floats in our hearts. What is the importance of reminding ourselves of the source of our blessings and good fortune?

Settlements, Peace Processes and Loyalty Oaths

I have been reading with keen interest the reports on the current round of peace talks or better, the peace process or better still, the lack thereof.  The United States appears the most engaged of all the parties.  This of course presents the greatest problem.  Although history records that the US added a decisive push to conclude a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the current peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are no where near the final stage.  Instead the US is attempting to coax both parties to the table, most especially the Palestinians who are insisting that Israel renew its ten month freeze on settlement construction in order for them to reenter talks.  If the Palestinian leadership truly wants peace then come to the table and negotiate, about the settlements, about refugees, about Jerusalem.  Both parties should agree to talk no matter what.  There should be no agreements beforehand.  I remain suspect that Abbas, and Netanyahu as well, truly want to make peace.  Both leaders must truly desire peace.  Both leaders must recognize the legitimacy of the others claims, and aspirations.  Well at least some of those claims, if not all, can be a starting point to make peace.

Recently I read in The New York Times that settlements, refugees and Jerusalem remain stumbling blocks to advancing the peace process.  But what about the Palestinian's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the State of Israel?  This is a legitimacy granted by virtue of Jewish history and the United Nations 1948 vote.  The Arab world's decades long rejection of the State of Israel is a major part of the story.  The Arab states' expulsion of their Jewish residents is also not to be forgotten.  The Palestinians must come to terms with a Jewish state in the Arab Middle East.  They must recognize that this state is bound to thousands of years of Jewish connection to the land and legitimized by the international community.  The stumbling blocks to peace are not only what Israel must overcome but also what the Palestinians must hurdle.  Peace can only be made by both sides acknowledging the others claims.

I have also been reading about Israel's loyalty oath, demanding that non-Jews, in particular Arabs, who wish to become citizens of the state must affirm Israel's Jewish and democratic pillars.  Leaving aside the political motivations for the promotion of this law, I do understand its philosophical motivations.  Israel struggles to balance its dual commitments to being Jewish and democratic.  Nearly 20% of its citizens question its Jewish authenticity, namely its Arab citizens.  Nearly 20% of its citizens question its democratic principles, namely the ultra-Orthodox Jews (although they may also question the form of its Jewish character).  These two principles, enshrined in Israel's Declaration of Independence, are what make Israel so wonderful.  The tension between the two is also what makes it at times so frustrating.  These two principles are also under attack.  Being both Jewish and democratic is what I love so much about the place.  If it were only democratic I would not love it so much.  If it were only Jewish it would not tug on my soul as much as it does.  Nonetheless coercing love and devotion is never a good idea.  Israel must work and work and work to make its Arab citizens to feel at home.  That is the only solution.  A new law will not change this landscape.

Years ago I tutored Arab students in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Safafa.  One day I asked my students if they would move to a Palestinian State when it was created.  (25 years ago I falsely believed such a state was in the near future.)  They answered, "Of course not.  We will stay with our families, in Jerusalem, in Israel."  They did not of course feel entirely at home in Israel.  They had a litany of complaints about their adopted state.  But with all its imperfections, it was still their home.  They recognized the beauty of its democratic principles, even if they were uncomfortable with its Jewish commitments.  I wonder how far we have strayed from that moment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Noah Sermon

At Shabbat Services I asked the question about repentance with regard to Noah and the flood.  Why were the generation of the flood not given the opportunity to repent?  Noah offers no defense of his friends and countrymen.  He says nothing in response to God's command.  He just starts building.  The rabbis suggest that the building of the ark was actually intended to be a sign, a goad, motivating the people to repent.  This sign obviously failed and the world was destroyed.  In the end maybe the story is not about the people's failures, despite our tradition's attempt to find a sin so great as to merit the world's destruction, but about God's.  In the book of Genesis God impresses order on creation.  God fashions order out of chaos in Genesis 1.  The Rabbis in fact suggest that God created many worlds before this one and destroyed them because they were flawed.  Only this world did God let stand despite its imperfections.  With this world God must learn to quell anger.  God must learn to give more room for human beings to better their world.  At the beginning of our story God is angered by the disorder of Noah's generation.  At the conclusion and its covenant of the rainbow God promises to forever quell this angry impulse.  This is the meaning of the rainbow.  The entire Bible can be read as a lesson about God learning to let go and people taking more responsibility.  By the end of the Bible, as Jack Miles observes, God is silent.  God withdraws to give more room for creation.  We can no longer wait for God to right today's wrongs.  We must fix the world ourselves.  God is waiting.  Every day God recreates the world and its beauty, in for example, this season's changing of the leaves' colors. God is waiting for us to improve the world.  God is waiting for us to fix the world's problems and make it even more beautiful.  The lesson of the Bible is that God created the world, drew us into the covenant and is forever waiting for us to better this imperfect world.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


This week we read the second Torah portion in Genesis, Noah.  It of course tells the familiar story of Noah and the flood.

“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.  When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.  Make yourself an ark…’” (Genesis 6:11-14)

I have often wondered about this story.  What could be so terrible that God would destroy everything and everyone, except of course Noah and his family and the animals, two by two?  There is much discussion in the tradition about this very question.  Some suggest that the people were guilty of gross immorality, in particular sexual aberrations.  Others, ruthless violence, in particular the strong taking advantage of the weak.  Still others, material prosperity and affluence caused people to lose faith in God, judging God incapable of hearing prayer and enforcing moral standards.

Still I wonder: everyone?  Every person on the entire earth stood guilty of these sins?  There were not even ten people in Noah’s age, like in Abraham’s when he approached Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Jerusalem Talmud writes that lawlessness means that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not even prosecute them.  This caused people to lose faith in the ability of the government to create a fair and just society.  The world then slipped into anarchy.

This explanation goes further than the others in creating a reason why the entire earth and all its inhabitants would need to be destroyed.  If the world had descended into anarchy then the only choice might be to start over.  A new system must be created to bring order to the world.  The opening chapters of Genesis are about God bringing order to a chaotic and disordered world.  The Noah story then fits with this theme.  God creates and then re-creates.

But what about repentance.  Why are the people not allowed to change their ways, like the inhabitants of Nineveh?  Why is God so quick to destroy the earth and its inhabitants?  Surely the innocent were swept away with the guilty!

In the end, my attempt to search for a human sin so great as to merit the world’s destruction might be the wrong approach.  Perhaps this story is not about the people’s failures but about God’s.  One way to interpret the Bible is to read it as a story of how God learns to approach human beings.  As in any relationship there is a learning curve.  In the beginning God is quick to become angry.  Slowly God learns to quell this angry impulse.

With the covenant of the rainbow at the end of these chapters and the promise that God will never again destroy the earth, the age of such divine do-overs ends and God shifts the responsibility to humanity’s shoulders.  It is now in our hands to right the wrongs.
God will never again destroy the world in order to create a better one.  This means that God will also not fix our problems for us.  The fixing is in our hands.   And I believe that God rejoices when we succeed to better our world, and cries when we fail.

Monday, October 4, 2010

An Israeli Platform for Peace: A Foundation for Unity

Shalom Hartman Institute - Jewish Scholarship, Education, Leadership for Israel, Diaspora
My teacher, Rabbi Donniel Hartman offers here a platform for peace.  He argues that Israelis are so divided that they need to agree on basic principles, rather than trivial policies.  He writes:
Independent of what the Palestinians want or will accept we cannot afford to perpetuate the current void of conversation with regards to the key elements which must serve as the foundation of Israel's peace platform. Such a platform will never be the subject of a total consensus. It can, however, unite the vast majority of Israelis and create both the political backing for serious peace negotiations, as well as foundations for unity in the midst of vociferous political debate.
He suggests a number of principles that would form the basis of a peace platform.  Among his ten principles are the following:
2. The Jewishness of the State of Israel will be determined by the identity of the majority of its population, the quality of its policies, and the nature of its public culture, and not by the quantity of land that it holds.
5. Occupation of another nation is an evil which must be brought to an end in accordance with our legitimate security needs and concerns. Until this occurs, avoiding any non-security-motivated actions which perpetuate the occupation and fulfilling the highest standards of moral sensitivity and commitment to basic human rights must be our goal.
6. The State of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, and all final status arrangements must bring to an end Palestinians' aspirations to express their national identity within the borders of the State of Israel.
9. Israel is a democracy and must live up to its highest standards. No Arab citizen of Israel can be stripped of his Israeli identity unilaterally, and every effort must be made to minimize the hardship and maximize the support for any Jewish citizen negatively affected by the outcome of territorial compromise.
The articles and debates about for example the settlement freeze are not the core issues.  They obscure the pressing issues and the more difficult discussions that are required.