Israel, Politics

President Obama wants to…

a) Do his job
b) Eat a cookie
c) Give you a hug
d) Ignore the truth, forget history, and destroy Jerusalem

(the answer is D…)

At least it is, according to B’nai Brith Canada (yes… Canada), who has taken the time to inform us that President Obama (whose President? Oh right… a different country’s) has “plans to divide the Jewish capital of Israel.”

Here we go again with B’nai Brith. They always seem to pop up at the most interesting times to add an element of confusion to whatever is going on.

Just in time for Tisha b’Av, this ominous email, titled “President Obama wants to…” arrived in my inbox yesterday morning:

In response to U.S. President Obama’s plans to divide the Jewish capital of Israel, B’nai Brith Canada launched a national ad campaign that reveals the truth about Jerusalem.

B’nai Brith Canada, a self-funded advocacy organization, requires your help in the fight for truth.

Written in the tone of a conspiracy theorist, the email suggests that there are secret machinations afoot to subvert the so-called “truths about Jerusalem,” in an attempt to cut off Jews from the city. You can see the full advertisement here. I’m not even sure where to start on this one, so how about the following simple points:

1. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has proposed the notion that there are neighbourhoods in Jerusalem that will not be part of Israel as part of a final border agreement. Most Israelis accept this, and talk about it openly as if it is just a matter of time until the details are ironed out. So why is B’nai Brith making it look like this is an evil, liberal American agenda? The conservative government of Israel is on the same page…

2. Why is a self-proclaimed Canadian “Jewish human rights organization” running a national campaign in Canada to oppose the American president’s viewpoint which happens to be relatively in line with the Israeli government’s viewpoint? I’m having trouble connecting the dots here…

3. Take a look at the full ad. B’nai Brith has framed this all within the context of Tisha b’Av, as if to suggest that President Obama is bringing calamity upon the Jewish people on par with the destruction of the Temples. This is a misappropriation of our religious tradition to further one organization’s own political agenda, and is wholly inappropriate.

4. The ad argues that “only under Israel’s jurisdiction, did all faiths regain the right to worship” in Jerusalem. B’nai Brith seems to forget that even under Israeli jurisdiction, not everyone has the right to worship in Jerusalem. Perhaps as a Jewish human rights organization, they should spend some time focusing on the rights of Jews to pray in Jerusalem…

While the historical facts B’nai Brith uses in their ad are indeed true, there’s just one problem: they’re just that… historical. B’nai Brith conveniently ignores present facts and present truths. This ad is divorced from current realities. It doesn’t recognize the widely accepted reality that any viable two-state solution will include negotiations regarding Jerusalem (again – something that Netanyahu himself speaks of).

As a human rights organization that is supposedly concerned with Jerusalem, perhaps B’nai Brith should focus on some real human rights issues, and confront some of the current truths and realities about Jerusalem instead of trying to advance a weak political agenda. Here are two simple suggestions:

1. Poverty in Jerusalem. Most of Jerusalem’s non-Jewish children live below the poverty line, and the city’s poverty rate is twice the national average.

2. Religious Pluralism. As the New Israel Fund eloquently notes, “one would think that, having finally achieved a Jewish homeland in Israel, Jews could practice their religion – or not – untroubled by government interference.” Of course, anyone with their eye on Israeli news knows this isn’t the case.

So what’s up, B’nai Brith? Will you continue to languish in the ashes of the destroyed Temples, or will you rise up and acknowledge the realities of 21st century Israel?

Israel, Judaism - General, Judaism - Reform, Politics, Uncategorized

Irrational Theological Yoga (with Maimonides)

It’s that time of year, folks. The time when Jews get really sad and stop eating. The time when we cry about our past that we can’t seem to let go of and spend all day avoiding each other’s eyes.

No, it’s not the family reunion.

We’re coming up on Tisha b’Av, my favourite of the religious practices avoided by Reform Judaism. I say avoided because we haven’t really expunged it from the realm of “normative” Reform Judaism (a concept that I acknowledge is itself highly specious), we’ve just pushed it to the fringes of what we do. I imagine that part of the reason for it’s relegation to the land of tznius and shatnes is that Tisha b’Av always takes place during the summer, when attendance at shul is down and most of the dedicated member base aren’t around. I would be curious to see what a Reform observance of Tisha b’Av would look like if it were in September, right after Simchat Torah.

In any case, it seems that many Reform Jews have a fragile relationship with Tisha b’Av. Most Reform Jews don’t do anything at all to acknowledge the day. At many of our camps, there is some sort of ceremony that is largely tied to the creation of Israel and it’s successes in light of our history of persecution. And then there are those Reform Jews that try and engage with the central meaning of the day – the destruction of the Temples. I would be willing to wager that out of those who observe some form of rememberance – either through fasting, prayer, study, or the such – none actually wish to see the beit hamkidash restored. For those Reform Jews that do observe Tisha b’Av, the day is about something else. So what is it about?

The URJ’s Jewish Holidays website has this to say:

“Reform Judaism has never assigned a central religious role to the ancient Temple. Therefore, mourning the destruction of the Temple in such an elaborate fashion did not seem meaningful. More recently, in Reform Judaism Tishah B’Av has been transformed into a day to remember many Jewish tragedies that have occurred throughout history.”

Ok, fine. Fair enough. We’ve got Rememberance Day in Canada, and there’s Memorial Day in the USA. But collective historical memory is nothing new to Jews. It’s no Reform innovation to say that we need to recall our past tragedies. So what’s going on?

Rabbi Lewis M. Barth, professor emeritus of midrash and related literature at Hebrew Union College, posits a modern Reform approach to the day in this week’s Reform Voices of Torah:

“Tishah B’Av could be a day that we spend in self-reflection and self-examination regarding (1) the legal, economic, social, moral, and religious issues of our own time, (2) the ways our congregations and communities might measure ourselves and society against our commitments to social justice, and (3) the obligations we have to take responsibility for helping to make this a better world.”

Ok, that’s good, too. Great, actually – a perfect model of Reform Jewish practice. But it’s also no Reform innovation to suggest that we need to think about how to better our socity. Ever heard of tikkun olam? Do we need Tisha b’Av to highlite the importance of tikkun olam in Reform Judaism?

This past week, Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman responded to Rabbi Barth’s drash, with the following question:

“How far should we be willing to go in re-adopting what so many of us believe to be antiquated and outmoded observances, beliefs, and rituals? How far ought we be willing to stretch ourselves ideologically when it comes to these concepts which our Reform fore-bearers jettisoned?

Things in Jewish blog-land are never dull. I’ll respond to the idea of “stretch[ing] ourselves ideologically” in a moment. First, here’s an excerpt from David A.M. Wilensky‘s response to Rabbi Shwartzman’s response:

“Does mourning the loss of the immense and rich culture of European Jewry that existed before the Shoah mean that we desire to return to a ghettoized, isolationist shtetl lifestyle? Obviously that’s not what is meant when we mourn the loss of that culture. We accept that a Jewish way of life, full of culture, came to an end and we mourn its loss.”

I’m not sure how much unpacking David’s reponse needs – it’s pretty straightforward. I recommend reading the rest of what he has to say. I happen to agree (mostly) with him on this one. For Reform Jews, Tisha b’Av is not about tying ourselves down to an Orthodox conception of the holiday, nor is it about re-establishing a caste system. In that light, and going back to Rabbi Shwartzman’s posting, I do think that the holiday can be about stretching ourselves ideologically. I also happen to think that that’s what all of Reform theology and practice should be about – stretching ourselves.

I (and I don’t believe I’m alone on this one) have always believed that Reform Judaism is verbular – it is a dynamic movement. Indeed, we are a movement. We’re unsatisfied with stagnant practices and beliefs solely for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Why then should we be afraid of stretching ourselves on Tisha b’Av? How about some theological yoga? Hell, even Maimonides knows that observances are useless unless they direct us towards the greater good:

“There are days when all Israel fasts because of the troubles that happened to them, in order to awaken the hearts and open the pathways of repentance… so that in the memory of these matters we will return to doing the good.”

~ Mishneh Torah, (Ta’anit 5:1)

Even some members of the Modern Orthodox world seem to be acknowledging that Tisha b’Av doesn’t have to be about a restoration of any sort, but is more about fighting against political and societal corruption:

…But by 70 CE the whole [Temple] thing was probably looking a bit dated. How long could the [Beit Hamikdash] have gone on for anyway? Certainly by the middle ages the notion of having a temple and sacrificing animals would have been totally ridiculous, and even by Chazal‘s time I think it was just not feasible… By the end, the Temple had become a totally corrupt institution. (Actually even near the beginning). And the Priests were a political power base which Chazal didn’t care for too much.”

As for me, I think within Reform Judaism, the “raging” debate over observance of Tisha b’Av is part of the greater debate on the inclusion of rational vs. irrational practices. As I’ve noted earlier, I think Judaism (and religion, really) isn’t an inherently rational institution, so to try and square everything out is like trying to push a square block through a triangle hole. At some point, you’re going to distort the square a little too much. Is it rational to observe Tisha b’Av when we have no desire to see the Beit Hamkidash restored? Nope. In no way. Why mourn something you don’t want back. The reason we mourn things is because we lament their loss, and I think it’s completely irrational to mourn the destruction of the Temple. But I also think that’s ok.

I think we should be irrational. I think we try way to hard too rationalize everything, and we are worse off for that. Let Tisha b’Av be a time when we embrace the irrationality that exists within our traditions and stretch ourselves a little. When we mourn the destruction of the Temples, what is hidden behind the irrationality of that mourning? It is the opportunity to think about political corruption and the ways in which we can better society, not for the inherent worth of doing so, but for the sake of embracing a hugely significant part of our history.