Israel, Politics

Speaking from Heart to Heart, and the Jewish Community’s Faustian Bargain

One of my favourite gemaras from the Talmud (it adorns the “Teaching and Learning” page here on my blog) advocates a fierce commitment to openness to dissent and the ability to learn from a multiplicity of opinions, even those that may diametrically your own:

אף אתה עשה אזניך כאפרכסת וקנה לך לב מבין לשמוע את דברי מטמאים ואת דברי מטהרים את דברי אוסרין ואת דברי מתירין את דברי פוסלין ואת דברי מכשירין.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya taught… make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid.

Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 3b

The Talmud’s argument here is that while a person/community may have a sense of what is halakhically permissible – what is, quite literally, “Kosher,” – one must still open oneself to learning from others why their beliefs are different.

I think the Talmud specifically refers to both “ears” and “hearts” here to encompass the entirety of self that one needs to open to others – this isn’t just about being nice and tolerating a different opinion; we have to open all of our learning senses – our intellect and our emotions – to understand why it is that people have different beliefs and opinions.

I’ve been thinking about this philosophy quite a bit lately, particularly as part of my training through Resetting the Table to bring people together for meaningful conversations across charged political differences.

This gemara also came surging to my mind as I read about the lamentable smear campaign that was launched against Rachel Lithgow, former head of The American Jewish Historical Society. You can read about it in her words on Tablet, or in the recent New York Times article covering the incident.

TL;DR version: Jewish organization innocently (without political motivation) allows people associated with Jewish Voice for Peace into its space; chaos ensues; head of said Jewish organization denies any ideological support for JVP; head is still smeared by a defamation campaign (itself, a violation of halakhah); head of organization forced out of job and/or quits.

Lithgow describes her expunging in stark terms:

It is a Faustian bargain for the Jewish community as a whole to trade talent and passion for some mythic notion of ideological purity that we never enjoyed–and which will never placate this new iteration of zealotry anyway.

She’s right. Goethe, himself, noted this in Faust: “A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart,” he wrote. “You’ll never speak from heart to heart, unless it rises up from your heart’s space,” he warned.

If we are only willing to see in the world what we already believe; if we are only willing to inhabit ideologically pure spaces; if we are unwilling to listen, hear, and understand… we will be condemned to a life in isolation.

A life without learning.

A life without meaning beyond what we think we already know.

But the antidote, the alternative, the voice crying out so loudly from our tradition… is so clear, if we would only hear it:

Attune your ear to the voice of the other.

Attune your heart to be more understanding.

When you feel yourself resisting the words of another, wanting to push that person outside of your circle, what would happen if instead, you drew them closer, asking questions and searching for meaning?

There is, nor has there ever been, any sustainable ideological purity in Judaism.

Our people is strong enough to withstand dissent. Indeed, we are made stronger by it.

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Judaism - Torah

Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life

It is difficult to speak of biblical flood stories when there are those still suffering from literal flooding in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean.

It is difficult to speak of a mass natural disaster, when thousands are homeless, ravaged by fires in California and earthquakes in Mexico.

It is difficult to speak of mass human death, when we are still reeling from death in Somalia; in Niger; in Las Vegas.

But here we are this week at parashat Noach – one of the most famous of Torah stories, one that we must acknowledge, is filled with destruction and death.

How are we to work towards repairing the very real death and destruction around us, if we are just up against a God who permits such devastation?

Continue reading “Parashat Noach: No Dress Rehearsal, this is Our Life”

Judaism - Torah

Fierce Chesed

Here we are in the aseret y’mei t’shuvah – the ten days of repentance. After spending long hours in synagogue praying, reflecting, and attuning ourselves to the holy, we are back for Shabbat. Given the grandeur and majesty of Rosh Hashanah, it might feel somewhat anticlimactic coming down from those great heights.

The soaring melodies, stirring poetry, and deep worship of Rosh Hashanah helps us do that ever-important soul work. But now, it’s a little more quiet. What are we to do now?

Here’s the truly great thing: Maurice Lamm teaches that God is not just a Rosh Hashanah God. Holiness is available to us, if we acknowledge it, every day. God’s majesty cannot be contained within a synagogue ark, or squeezed into the stone walls of Jerusalem, or locked tight in the 25 hours of Yom Kippur.

Continue reading “Fierce Chesed”

Judaism - Torah

Emet v’Teshuvah: Truth and Reconciliation

In 1940, at the age of eight, a young boy named Russell Moses was forcibly removed from his home. Ripped away from all that he knew, he was relocated by the government to one of many re-education schools. The government stripped him of his identity and gave him a number that was sewn onto his clothes.

Robbed of his name, forbidden to speak his native language, subject to harsh physical punishment, and deprived of love, Russel suffered enormously.

Born in 1932, Russell Moses was a member of the Delaware band of the Six Nations of the Grand River, an indigenous Canadian territory in what is now the province of Ontario. The story of his life – like many of the indigenous peoples of this continent – is one that includes discrimination, poverty, and tragedy.[1]

Russell’s story is just one of hundreds of thousands. Each similarly unconscionable, each more tragic than the last. They are uncomfortable truths that many would rather ignore than dredge up. We tell ourselves that we have evolved, that we are better, that these injustices are a thing of the past. Such attitudes ensured that until recently, most of these stories had never seen the light of day.

Continue reading “Emet v’Teshuvah: Truth and Reconciliation”

Judaism - Torah

Come From Away: Parashat Tazria-Metzora & Spiritual Exile

 

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Credit: Come from Away

The town of Gander, Newfoundland is one of the most remote towns in all of North America. Built in the late 1930s as an airport town linking North America and Europe, it is found on the northeast tip of Canada, surrounded by trees and rocks; rivers, an abundance of wildlife, and the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean. Gander’s population is remote, but diverse. The people who live there are mostly government, health care, and education workers. Their municipal website has an online complaint box, where answers are promised within a day. It is about as far away from my home New York City, as you can get.

On September 11, 2001, thirty-nine wide-body airplanes made emergency landings at Gander International Airport, as the world changed forever. Nearly 6,600 people were stranded there for a week, in a town whose population at the time was around 9,000.

The story of Gander, and the 6,600 unexpected visitors who inundated the town, is being told in a new Broadway show, Come from Away, which I had the privilege of seeing this past week. The play captures the depth of emotions from that bittersweet time, as a town opened its arms and doors to thousands of anxious individuals. In a time when we are surrounded by talk of closing borders and building walls, the show tells a story of acceptance, and welcoming diverse people from all over the world.

Filled with joyful and stirring chords of Newfoundland Celtic rock, Come from Away explores some of the deeper questions of our lives: what happens to us when we’re forced away from home? How does our sense of home change, when we welcome others into it? Why are some of the most transformational moments in our lives those that take place in these in-between places?

Continue reading “Come From Away: Parashat Tazria-Metzora & Spiritual Exile”

Living in Jerusalem

What Musar can Teach us About how we Talk About Israel

Each and every letter in a Torah scroll symbolizes an individual human being. Just as a Sefer Torah is incomplete if even one letter is missing, so too is all of creation incomplete if even one person is excluded by others.

So teaches a most profound idea of Musar, the Jewish discipline of ethical and spiritual development. The power in this teaching is that every single letter of Torah reflects the inherent holiness within each human individual, and likewise, the diversity of creation itself is a reflection of the Torah’s holiness.

In the wake of the AIPAC/IfNotNow standoff last month, I have been thinking a lot about this teaching as a religious response to the widening chasm in the Jewish world. Over the past weeks, I have witnessed conversations devolve into contests over who can cherry-pick the “right” biblical verse to show that “all” of Jewish thought somehow agrees with their view, or who can summon the best Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote to support their cause.

I want to share two exchanges illustrative of this divide that I have been unable to shake off: In one, an INN supporter told a rabbinical student that should this future-rabbi not make an active and vocal opposition of the occupation a central part of their rabbinate, there would be no place whatsoever in their community for this individual. In the other, an AIPAC supporter told a group of progressive Zionists that because of their critical love for Israel and anti-occupation stance, they should find a term other than “Zionist” to refer to themselves.

As these debates reverberate, a question has been gnawing at me: is there something profoundly un-Jewish about the way we are navigating this gulf?

Why? Each of these stances essentializes and condemn the identity of the person identified as opposite. Each posture creates a litmus test which says: unless you agree with me, then you’re not good enough for me.

As anyone remotely concerned about Israel can attest, these interactions are not unique or isolated. They are very much reflective of the increasing ossification within the Jewish world vis a vis Israel.

I want to suggest that the reason these exchanges (and the wider paradigms they reflect) do not reflect the best of what Judaism has to offer can be found in the very banner which INN uses to proclaim their resistance against AIPAC:

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Photo Credit: ifnotnowmovement.org/weresistaipac

I don’t know whether INN had Musar in mind when they designed their graphic, but this powerful image of a Sefer Torah constructed out of a diversity of people is actually a perfect illustration of the moving teaching about the Torah and human holiness.

It prompts some uncomfortable questions: What about all the people dismissed from that Torah? In our debating over Israel, how many people are we excluding from a life of holiness?

Too much of the discourse on Israel and the occupation seeks to exclude others. Too much of our resistance against ideas or actions which we find to be morally unconscionable is having the side-effect of expunging the holiness inherent in each of us.

One of the core ideas of Musar is that we can combat divisiveness and work to increase holiness and inclusivity by balancing our capacity for judgement (Din) with our capacity for kindness (Chesed).

Yes, our passion to rectify ills in the world must indeed come from a place of judgment. But if it is only rooted in Din, without any Chesed, then it becomes far too easy for us to diminish the worthiness of each human being as one of God’s holy creations. I see this when we reduce others to but one part of the totality of their identity, when we operate with an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality, or when we deny the lived experiences of others.

Our vision of a more perfect world must be tempered by self-reflection and an ability to acknowledge the impact of how we treat those closest to us. As Jews, we’re blessed with something of an inbuilt way to do this.

What combination of Din and Chesed does this moment in history call for?

As I see it, we have an overabundance of Din, and are desperately in need of some Chesed. What we need is a willingness to acknowledge and confront hard truths, from a posture of love, kindness, and openness to the holiness inherent in every single human being as a creature of God.

Living in Jerusalem

Parashat Vayikra: A Salty Paradox

There’s a certain paradox to salt: it has the power to elevate our meals to culinary heights, or bring them crashing to the kitchen floor.

Salt is best when we’re not aware of it. We only notice it when there’s too much or not enough. Too much, and food tastes sharp and potent. Too little, and it lacks umph. But the right amount, precisely balanced, doesn’t just make food taste better; according to food scientist Alton Brown, it “makes food taste more like itself.” This is why professional chefs obsess over the right amount of salt, seasoning at every step along the way. It’s a technique that most of us – with our less-refined taste buds – won’t ever be able to match.

This salty paradox isn’t limited just to the foods the mineral graces – it applies to us humans, as well: Too much salt intake may eventually kill us, but our bodies also depend on it to survive; if we don’t keep up our sodium levels, we will eventually die. So much power, all within a tiny grain of sodium chloride.

Our parasha this week is also aware of the power of salt. We read of God’s commandments regarding the elaborate sacrifices to be brought up to God. Among all the minutiae, there is one peculiar instruction:

וְכָל־קָרְבַּ֣ן מִנְחָתְךָ֮ בַּמֶּ֣לַח תִּמְלָח֒ וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁבִּ֗ית מֶ֚לַח בְּרִ֣ית אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מֵעַ֖ל מִנְחָתֶ֑ךָ עַ֥ל כָּל־קָרְבָּנְךָ֖ תַּקְרִ֥יב מֶֽלַח׃

You shall season (salt) your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all of your offerings you must offer salt. (Lev 2:13)

Four times in one verse, God commands us to salt our offerings, as a symbol of the “salt of the covenant”? What is this melakh brit Eloheikhah – salt of the covenant? Of all the covenants we’ve encountered in the Torah, none of them have included the use of salt.

We all know that salt has a dualistic power: the power to preserve and the power to destroy; the power to kill and the power to maintain life. It turns out that some of our rabbis of old were also aware of this power.

Rabbeinu Bachya, a thirteenth century Spanish rabbi, brought his understanding of the workings of the natural world to his commentary on this verse from Vayikra. He knew that salt can both give flavour and preserve food, and also that land which has been salted will not grow. He understood basic chemistry – that salt requires the heat of the sun to evaporate water so that it can become usable.

Casting these observations in a mystical light, he wrote that salt has two competing forces within it, each one the opposite of the other: water and fire. He believed that these forces parallel the two divine elements upon which the world is sustained: God’s judgement – din, and God’s mercy – rachamim.

Din – God’s judgement – is like fire; it is salt upon the land. Like Noah’s Flood or the salty and sulfuric destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Torah is clear that human actions have consequences and that at times, God exercises judgement over humanity.

Rachamim – God’s mercy – is like water; it is the salt of preservation. Like God’s compassion toward the orphan, the poor, and the widow; or the redemption from Egypt and the parting of the salty waters of the sea, the Torah is also clear that our God is a merciful God, endlessly patient, and overflowing with love.

We want our relationship with God to be one balanced between din and rachamim. We need some judgement, so that we can discriminate the path God desires of us, and so that we can know that there is something at stake in our relationship with God. But we also crave God’s mercy, for we are only human beings – imperfect and struggling to do better in this world.

So why is salt symbol of our covenant with God? For Bachya, salt is a symbol of the competing forces of God’s judgement and mercy. Too much din, and we cannot survive. Too much rachamim, and there is no incentive to act according to God’s instructions.

Rabbeinu Bachya’s idea is beautiful, but how do we bring this lofty, mystical interpretation down to the salt-of-the-earth?

Perhaps we can think of salt as a symbol for how we live in relationship with those we hold most dear. All of our relationships – with our parents; our children; our friends – require certain things to sustain them: support, guidance, a hand to hold onto. Like the salt of the covenant, each of these has a dual nature: not enough guidance, and we lose our sense of place in the world. But too much, and we feel as though we are unable to chart our own path. Not enough handholding, and we may hamper developing empathy. But too much, and we risk becoming overbearing, helicopter-like.

Somewhere between these poles is the sweet spot – where those in a relationship feel as though they are both supported and nurtured, but also have freedom and agency.

Just as this is true in our own relationships, it is true for our covenantal relationship with God. When our ancestors brought forth salted sacrifices on the altars of old, they made a supreme declaration of the depth of their love of God. To seal those offerings with salt as a symbol of the covenant was a profound way of acknowledging those same competing forces inherent in any partnership – the forces of preservation and of destruction; of judgement, and of mercy.

The paradox of salt requires our attention to detail. I am inspired by great chefs, who constantly salt, then taste, then pause to reflect: “am I elevating this, or am I destroying it?” If we bring this care and love, then just like salt with food, our partnerships and covenants will bring out the best in each other, and our lives will be full of flavour.