Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Yes, I still...

The moment a terror attack happens in Israel, the comments start to come. “So do you STILL think there is someone to talk to?”  “Still believe in ‘peace’ do you?”  “Do you finally see who ‘these people’ are?” The implication is that there is no rapprochement possible in the face of utter barbarism. The only possible response to “these people” is force and lots of it.

When I see the picture of a man in tallit and tefillin (like me every morning) shot dead in a pool of blood in synagogue (where I too customarily go every day) I am overcome with a wave of nausea followed by a surge of anger. I don’t have words for the fury and the fear at the thought of a person charging into our place of worship and hacking a fellow Jew, who, like me, appears before God in tallit and tefillin, to death.  If he weren’t just like me would I feel the same? I don’t know. I look at the black pants, the white shirt, the build of the man, the black striped tallis that I wear and this is deeply personal.  This brutal monster has killed one of US and I am furious.

In that, I am just the same as the person who taunts me. 

Where I differ is that while I get that I am going to feel more intensely when I have an affinity for another human being as a fellow Jew, I also strive to see all human beings as “in the image of God”  (so to speak, trust me on this my Muslim friends, this really is NOT a blasphemous notion- its metaphorical).  Each human being is a reflection of the Divine majesty and precious to their Creator. Where is that well of outrage when every single day human beings are being hacked, torn, shot for every possible excuse? Where are my tears for the innocent of every color, race, language, and faith?

Where I differ is that I distrust the idea of “these people.”  I don’t believe that barbarians  or the gullible idiots who are always there to cheer such people on get to elect themselves the moral representatives of their people.  “These people” whoever they may be in today’s news are like all people a conglomeration of the best and worst in all of us.  No people deserves to be branded by the moral ugliness of its most despicable citizens.

Where I differ is that as much as I sometimes want to, I don’t believe that I have permission to give up.  I feel compelled by the example of Abraham, who pleaded to God for the murderous idolaters of Sodom. My struggle, like his, is to strive to uplift humanity in any way that I can, not to wish for its destruction, not even the destruction of the worst of us.  Abraham believed that even a few righteous people could turn around an entire world gone crazy.  So I reach out to the righteous, encourage the good where I can because it’s the only plan I have got.

I push through the pain and through the fear and do what I have to do for the sake of my conscience, for the good of my people,  for the good of humanity,  with as much trust in my Creator as I can muster.  So yes, even today, I still…

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Brainstorming! Naive, Crazy and Dangerous Ideas

My naive idea is that God created man with the unique gift of language, a means that should and can replace bashing each other over the head as a means of intra-species communication. On both sides, its time to use that weapon. Now for my crazy idea! To do that effectively I think there are two pre-requisites. First, there is a new moral direction demanded of us, not just to consider our own interests but to actually understand and appreciate the needs of the "other side" and moreover, to want FOR THEM what we want FOR OURSELVES. It is a huge moral leap. It is the ultimate moral leap. Like all good leaps it can also be taken in small discretely do-able steps. The second moral leap is the dangerous idea of engaging in a process of truth and reconciliation, to acknowledge wrongs done on both sides in the past and seek ways to reconcile for the future. (A process like this was pretty successful in South Africa) One the one hand it involves people diverging from "their story" and facing up to some very hard facts on all sides in relation to the past. It also means, abandoning the persistent fantasy that "other side" will miraculously disappear or move out of the neighborhood and imagine a future together. Anything that changes both the way we see the past and how we create the future is, by definition, dangerous. That is where I start. How about you? Got any naive, crazy or dangerous ideas of your own?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Lonely Man of Questions

On both Twitter and Facebook I shared a piece by Shira Lipkin on her struggle to reconcile her attachment to Judaism and the Jewish people with her distaste and disgust for the violence she now sees in Gaza and the negative attitudes she now sees permeating both societies, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim.

Several people have expressed wonder as to why I would post such a thing. This is the start of an answer.

While I am surrounded by people who seem so certain, I am find myself questioning. Throughout the past two weeks, my questioning has been understood as "breaking ranks" with one or another side. My moral exploration and reflection has been dismissed as seeking "moral equivalency". From where I sit (and I think Shira Lipkin experienced the same thing) I am engaged in a genuine struggle. It is a moral struggle and a spiritual struggle. It is a struggle with myself, with my faith, with my sense of the world and sometimes with friends and family.

Here are a few of the things I struggle to understand:

  • How my friends, neighbors and acquaintances so quickly manage to get their opinions in line with each other when I can not.

  • How is that people who live in a pluralistic society here in America, who profoundly benefit from that society and its values of tolerance can so completely abandon those values to the extent that any kind of coexistence with "others" is unimaginable or even anathema to them?

  • What God's promise of a "Promised Land" means when the grip on that land must be held through a violence that can be both oppressive and brutal

  • How does what is happening in the Land of Israel relate to the Torah's "conditional use permit on the land" the promises of security in the land if we are righteous and absolute insecurity if we are not. How much of this is US, how much is THEM, how much is God? 

  • How much of what people say about THOSE PEOPLE is true? The claims are so black and white and exaggerated. "Palestinian mothers really hate us more than love their children. Palestinians are content to be used as human shields. Palestinian children a fed on a childhood diet of pure hate. Israelis are racist haters who won't be happy til every Palestinian is gone. Zionism is Naziism." The world is awash in these messages. What do you DO with all that besides say everything WE say is true and everything THEY say is a lie?

  • How the same people who could quote hundreds of ahadith demonstrating the gentleness of Muhammad, and may be very gentle in their private lives can be so harsh in the context of strife.

  • How is it that in conflict so many of us who LIVE great values in our interpersonal lives somehow drop them when we are in conflict? Polite people become rude. Merciful people start to sound cruel. 

  • How to square my fierce love for Judaism, Torah and the Jewish people with Rabbis and others (who may know much more than I do) who increasingly de-emphasize the Torah of kindness while promoting a Torah that endorses military force even against "civilians."

  • How what are for ME deep and difficult questions have been replaced by hashtags, memes and slogans that seem to discourage any creative thinking. 

  • What does peace mean? Everybody seems to want it and nobody seems to want it. 

I have lots of questions. These are really just a few of the greatest hits. I am too mentally exhausted to write a complete inventory.

So, if I seem confused, I am. Some of you wish I wasn't. I kind of wish you were.

A quiet and questioning voice of sanity.

My daughter Sara posted this on Facebook before shabbat (the sabbath). I share it as a quiet voice of personal struggle for sanity in an insane world of competing perspectives reduced to hashtags, memes and slogans.  

"Briefly breaking my promise to myself to not talk about this on Facebook, and I apologize to be commenting at all as an American not on the ground. I realize it's not my right. But why does choosing to 
#supportGaza and choosing to #supportIsrael have to be a binary? And why do we reduce these issues that are so complex and deeply personal to hashtags and memes? Let's support civilians. 

May there come a day soon when not a single one, on either side of the Gaza border, has to live in fear of rockets or bombs. Shabbat shalom le'kulam - A peaceful shabbat to all (G-d willing)"

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Prayerful Goodbye to the Social Media War

May Hashem/ Allah (swt) grace us all with purified hearts to serve Him in truth!

It is with sadness and resignation that I will not be reading any more posts or contributing to any more posts on the conflict in Israel/Palestine on social media. There is no way for me to measure and certainly no way to express my disappointment at friends, family and acquaintances for an inability to see beyond the narrow confines of one side or the other to the human realities of the conflict; the reality of Israeli families hunkered down in bunkers with sirens wailing over their heads as rockets rain, the reality of families in Gaza with no place to go facing bombs, destruction of homes and a rising death toll which inevitably includes many who are innocent.  I deeply believe that our Creator will judge us for our refusal to grant humanity to one another. I will continue with my work in Abraham's Tent and I will continue in my personal life and my personal mission as "Jihadi Jew" to try to create love and connection between Muslims and Jews.

To speak what is in my heart. I want to share a prayer from Rabindranath Tagore.

"Give me the supreme courage of love, this is my prayer — the courage to speak, to do, to suffer at thy will, to leave all things or be left alone. Strengthen me on errands of danger, honor me with pain, and help me climb to that difficult mood which sacrifices daily to thee.

Give me the supreme confidence of love, this is my prayer — the confidence that belongs to life in death, to victory in defeat, to the power hidden in frailest beauty, to the dignity in pain which accepts hurt but disdains to return it.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Is there room for pacifism in Judaism and Islam?

A Quaker can be a pacifist on the basis of his religion. Maybe a Christian can too “Turn the other cheek.”  Jews and Muslims can not be.  It is quite clear that our scriptural and legal traditions view violence as a reasonable and often unavoidable  means of resolving human conflict. Both traditions set limits on who you may hurt, when you may hurt and the conditions under which you can hurt them.  Both traditions are very realistic about recognizing the ugliness that violence raises in its participants, the possible abuses that place in time of war. Both traditions strive to manage that.  They create limited room for dividing the spoils (which in ancient times certainly included humans as property) and for the harm of non-combatants who happen to be in the way.  Judaism and Islam both decry the intentional attack on innocents and the wanton destruction of property.  We are not pacifist religions in principle. In practice though, I wonder however whether the nature of violence in the modern age, may not call us to be pacifists, in practice.

The scriptures, narratives, examples and legal precedents upon which both Jewish and Islamic legal traditions base their rulings on war and violence are largely ancient and medieval and nature.  They speak of a time of  relatively small scale warfare.  Armies lined up against other armies or perhaps small groups of insurgents fought guerilla wars with larger armies. Combatants were clear and well-defined.  Weapons were smaller. There were stones, knives, hatchets,  swords, bows, long-bows, cross bows and eventually cannon and muskets. These  short range weapons required a virtual face to face engagement with the enemy.  Even in the heat of battle, it would be hard to forget the humanity of your opponent. Though tragic, such wars were necessarily limited in scope and damage. They were wars that could be won. Territory could be conquered and successfully held.  In one to one engagement with the enemy, the killing of non-combatants was certainly possibly but not likely.  Commanders fought at the head of their troops.  When those in power face the same imminent danger as their troops, it can create powerful incentives to make peace (or accept submission).

In modern warfare,  we move further and further from face to face engagement. The incentives for peace are largely gone. The war makers are in boardrooms far removed from their battlefields. Aerial bombings and the use of unmanned drones alienate even the soldier from the heat of battle, reducing the enemy to pixels on a screen. The  drone soldier who prowls the plains of Afghanistan for his targets from the air-conditioned comfort of Las Vegas knows nothing of the ancient “nobility” of war or has any reason to avoid its savagery .  Big powerful weapons from assault rifles to cluster bombs make “collateral damage” the killing of innocents and absolute certainty.  As human beings crowd themselves into denser and denser population centers, war begins to look more and more like shooting rats in a barrel. Collective punishment also becomes a certainty. Nuclear and biological weapons make the wanton destruction of environment an inevitable consequence of pulling those triggers. There is little face-too-face engagement to humanize the enemy. The horrors of war make less impression on minds and hearts awash in endless dramatized violence.
The limitations that our religious traditions put on the practice of violence have effectively become meaningless today. If war was ever noble, it can’t be now.  Jews carry the image of the God-commanded struggle to conquer The Land in the time of Joshua. Muslims see the glory days of Islamic expansion, the violent struggles of the early Muslim community.  Americans fantasize about the conquering of the West, the brave cowboy.  I have come to believe that  F-16s, drones, assault rifles, bunker-busters, cluster bombs, phosphorous weapons, and biological weapons have rendered all of that a quaint fantasy.  The goals and values that our religions teach us can no longer be furthered by modern war. 

If the facts on the ground make the limitation on violence an impossibility, we have two possibilities;  to obliterate those limitations or to embrace some kind of collective practical pacifism. The movement has clearly been to do the former.  The definition of non-combatant becomes more and more narrow. Scholars will find reasons to consider children and women as “legitimate targets.”  They dig deep into our complex traditions to find texts to defend the indefensible We invent euphemisms like “collateral damage” to cover up our wanton destruction of human life and human environment.

I am not really a pacifist. I recognize that people sometimes have to defend themselves. I would use violence to defend myself, my family, or others from harm.   I am not prepared to argue that somehow it would have been better not to fight the Nazis.  (The inevitable challenge.) I humbly recognize that my faith acknowledges the legitimate use of violence and I take that very seriously.  At the same time, I can’t ignore the growing disconnect between the kind of warfare we see in the real world and any possibility of building the  world that both Judaism and Islam envision, a world devoted to the service of God in peace.
I am struggling  and now sharing the struggle with you. I look forward to your reasoned, polite, heart-felt thoughts and comments.

Monday, June 30, 2014

In Mourning for Three Young Men and For All of Us.

I join with the entirety of the Jewish people and with our many friends in mourning the senseless murders of  Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaer.  It is only right that we mourn for our own. At the same time, we mourn for a world so broken that the murder of children has really become a commonplace. If we are sensitive to the cries of mothers who look and sound like us, maybe one day will be respond to the cries of mothers who don't.
Those of us who believe ourselves to be faithful, decent people need to raise our voices, not in cries of vengeance but in prayer and words of peace. We need to own up to the fact that we are creating a world so rife with violence that it is virtually unlivable for many of its inhabitants. We are failing at our mission to be God's viceroys and stewards on earth.

Three Jewish boys dead.  Five Palestinians. Hundreds jailed. The rationalizations, the recriminations, the calls for revenge, the clamp-down, the resistance, the clamp-down on the resistance are soon to come. We can take the well-worn and easy route and spiral ever-downward or we can seek to climb the steep ladder that ascends to friendship and peace.

We do have choices. Every time we claim that we do not, we belittle the great gift of moral choice which is the common inheritance of all mankind.  When we choose good, when we choose peace and compassion we honor that same gift.

Master of the World! Please help us give the world the comfort of our best choices.