Thursday, February 16, 2017

sorry not sorry

Jews have a substantial traditional literature on how to deal with making a mistake, on how to repent for hurting others. Though we may not always act on our knowledge, we know what we're supposed to do when we've said something cruel to or about someone else. More recently, we've also developed a body of wisdom on how to respond to hate speech.

Let's be clear: When David Friedman referred to supporters of J Street as "not Jewish" and "worse than kapos", he was engaging in hate speech, no less than if a non-Jewish politician had referred to members of AIPAC as Nazis. Now, with a plum political job in reach, Friedman is making a public show of what is supposed to be seen as “contrition.” 

"I regret use of such language," Friedman said during his first hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The inflammatory rhetoric during the presidential campaign is entirely over. If confirmed my language would be measured," he added. Friedman went a step further by saying that there was "no excuse" for his choice of words. (source: Haaretz)

Has he reached out to those he’s hurt?  Has he tried to undo the damage by saying not just, “I shouldn’t have used that language” but, “I was wrong – these people are Jews, are not enemies of the Jewish people or the Jewish state, and while I disagree with them profoundly I see them as caring, decent people”?  Has he, in fact, done any of the things that the tradition demands of the penitent? Well, I know I’m still waiting for my call.

Or has he done any of the things that we’d demand of even a juvenile who’d painted a swastika on a JCC?  Has he spent time with those he’s attacked, learning about who they are, what their experience was, so that he might come to empathize with them and understand the pain he has caused and explore his own bigotry?  Please.

To those who believe that Friedman should be the American Ambassador to Israel because they approve of his language, or at most think it’s no big deal, well, it’s a free country.  But to those who might suggest that he has in any way apologized? That’s insulting.

Monday, November 14, 2016

the jewish task in an age of trump

For a long time, my favorite line from the liturgy has been a reference to God as every day renewing the work of Creation. There was a hopeful to it, a promise that nothing had to be simply because it had always been but that each day we had a chance to start again.

What is only now becoming clear to me is what that actually meant, that nothing exists on momentum alone. Even the most basic civic commitment, even the most rudimentary ethical standard, even the most elementary consensus as to standards of rational discourse, all of these have been shown to be if not illusory at least astonishingly fragile. Rather than taken for granted, they must be rebuilt every day, tended and protected.

This rebuilding, this regular maintenance of the fundamental pillars of a just, kind, and healthy world is both an urgent need, and the responsibility of everyone who wants to live in such a world. And that suggests that a Judaism worth engaging in must be actively participating in this work.

I’ll put it this way:  Everything we have seen about the president-elect, from his early career to the beginning of his candidacy to his first acts following the election suggest that a his election and the forces his election have unleashed pose an existential threat to the American experiment and to global society. Any institution that pretends moral authority, that claims to present eternal truths, that presents itself as important, must be engaged in fighting this threat. The only question for Jewish institutions is to determine what our role in this struggle will be.

At the very least, those of us involved in Jewish education can resolve that our greatest role is to nurture wise, kind, and caring students, students who will use what tools we can give them to help build, every day, those pillars of society we took for granted for too long. Students who will be call us to be their partners, every day, in renewing the work of Creation.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

this is what we are here for

This is the email I sent to the students in our MA program. If you're a teacher, it's for you, too.

Hi, my friends... If you are like me, you are probably dealing with some strong emotions, perhaps apprehensive about what lies ahead. I don't want to project my own feelings onto you; I know I'm feeling somewhat at a loss.

I want to remind you, though, of some of the great blessings you have - not in general, not in the abstract, but right here, right now:

First, you are able to give your students an enormous gift by providing them with a calm, loving, non-reactive presence. Be there for them.

Second, as Jewish educators, part of our work is to help our students grow into wise, loving people. Is there more important work than this?

Finally, you have as your colleagues some of the biggest-hearted people I know - in the field in general, and in this program specifically. We are all here for each other. Please feel free to reach out to me or to your classmates if you feel a need, and let your classmates and your coworkers know that they can reach out to you.

This is what we're here for. I'm proud to be with you.



Tuesday, October 18, 2016

a day like purim - yom kippur 5777

(A d'var torah given at Minyan Masorti, Germantown Jewish Center, Philadelphia)

For a people as entranced as we are by word play, it is surprising that it took until the late middle ages for someone to notice the similarity between “Yom Kippur” and Purim,

תיקוני זוהר תקונא עשרין וחד ועשרין
פורים אתקריאת על שם יום הכפורים דעתידין לאתענגא ביה ולשנויי ליה מענוי לענ
and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that someone would get around to making the pun

ר' צדוק הכהן מלובלין - פרי צדיק שמות פורים
ואיתא בתיקוני זוהר (תיקון כ"א) פורים אתקריאת על שם יום הכפורים דעתידין לאתענגא ביה וכו' וכן אומרים בשם הרבנים הקדושים זללה"ה דפורים בחינת יום הכפורים ונקרא יום כפורים היינו כמו פורים ובאמת נרמז בתיקוני זוהר כנ"ל. וכמו ביום הכפורים עיצומו של יום מכפר כן ימי הפורים עיצומו של יום עושה מחיית עמלק
That “Yom Kippurim” is “Yom k’Purim” – a day like Purim.

Though maybe it’s not that surprising after all; It’s hard to imagine two less similar holidays.  We are – or so the liturgy tells us, engaged in a matter of life and death, facing the many, many, many things we’ve done wrong and the urgent need to fix what we’ve broken.  It is the day when we are told that things matter very much.

 Purim, on the other hand, is a time of play, a day when practically nothing matters: we party, we dress up, we give free rein to our most impious urges in what can be viciously funny purim shpiels. 
The imaginative play isn’t just the icing, it’s integral to the idea of Purim, because it is the subversive power of the imagination, as satire, as mockery which allows is truly revolutionary. For whatever real power tyrants and oppressive systems may have, it is built on the myth that they matter: that they are indeed powerful, and that power is, if not deserved, real and entrenched.  That’s why bullies and dictators hate satire and mockery, because it reminds them that they are not in control over the imagination, and so  it threatens tyrants; it threatens established systems: Purim is the festival of nothing has to be.

If Purim cleans the slate, Yom Kippur is a time in which we prepare rebuild, to make things better, to mend what we’ve broken.  And here’s the thing: the imagination is central to this as well.
First of all, if we want to be agents for good in the world, to act effectively, or to judge actions wisely, we have to be able to look at the consequences of actions – who’s involved, who’s implicated, where the ripples might be.  This is what I think is meant by Rabbi Shimon’s answer when asked for the most important virtue: “ha-roeh et hanolad”, which is usually translated as “foresight” but which really means “to see that which is aborning” : not prophecy, but to have the imagination to see the world as pregnant with possibilities.

Second, in order to understand the import of those possibilities, one must understand what they means to people, and that requires empathy.  But as anyone who’s tried to anticipate what another will like or not like knows, you can’t ever really get into the head of an other, precisely because people are so radically other.  Empathy, too, is an act of the imagination.

But, as we’ve been reminding ourselves all day, we haven’t been doing that work, not the fixing and not the empathizing.  We know that, and yet we don’t change.  What stops us?  For me, and perhaps for you, it’s largely the belief that I can’t. We feel ourselves stuck, bound with the bonds of habit and guilt and – especially as we get older – a kind of moral despair.  In order to do teshuvah, we must be able to – yes – imagine ourselves as different, as better. 

Yom Kippur is a “day like Purim” because so much of its work depends on the imagination.  And, as with Purim, the imagination becomes a central part of the observance.  Today, we too have a “shpiel” – the Avodah service, where we imagine ourselves in a different place, a different time, as different people.  And, over and over and over again, the liturgy invites to imagine ourselves as forgivable.
But that’s not just Yom Kippur, and not just Purim where the imagination is such a central part of the practice:

·         On Pesach, we are famously told that we each have to imagine ourselves as having made the passage from slavery to freedom
·         On Shabbat, the idea of “prohibited activities” provides an opportunity in which to imagine the world as good, as good enough that we don’t need to change it.
·         The blessings we might say on food, or actions, or experiences suggest that imagine the event as an extension of the Infinite into the world
·         And when we pray, those words we didn’t write and don’t feel and don’t believe, are a framework in which we can imagine ourselves as spiritually mature.

Here’s the punch line: Judaism not a practice of faith, but a practice of the imagination, in which we’re invited to be imaginative and even playful, because it’s in that playful mind and heart that we can explore possibilities; it’s the imagination, I’m here to tell you, that is the central religious faculty.   On Yom Kippur, the day like Purim, we begin to focus that faculty. To bring it to our view of the world, of others, of ourselves – so that we can move away from these “playing fields of the Lord” and out of the shul: caring for others, caring for ourselves, seeing the fruit of our imagination blossom, and finding the joy of play in the joy of a rebuilt world.

Friday, July 25, 2014

can we talk?

I have been absent from much of the conversation going on about recent events in Israel and Gaza.  Partly that’s been because much of what I was feeling just did not want to be captured in words.  Partly because there were issues that I felt demanded more knowledge than I could pretend to.  And partly because, given the state of the discourse – at least as it appears on my FB feed – I didn’t feel that anything I might actually say would do anything beyond proclaim, “I’m the kind of person who thinks X!”  And while this seems to be The Conversation the Jewish community is having, it doesn’t feel much like a conversation.
What follows, then, are some notes about what a real conversation might look like, based on what I think I know about ethics, about the current situation, and about how to speak to people who don’t agree with you (I used to teach high school, so I’ve had some experience with that).   If you think I’m wrong on some of these, let me know – although if you disagree with me on any of the “Categorical Statements” under “Thoughts on the Situation” we probably don’t share the same universe.  Because it seems to me that if we’re straight on these, then we might be able to talk.  To each other.

Some thoughts on moral reasoning
To have a right to something does not mean having a right to do anything claimed to be in support of that right.
Conversely, to say that something done in support of a cause was wrong does not in itself invalidate the cause.
To have a right to do something does not mean that thing is either moral or wise.
Suffering does not necessarily endow one with either virtue or wisdom.  Sometimes people  do become wiser as a result of their suffering; sometimes they become broken and bitter; and sometimes it doesn’t change them at all.
The potential total amount of suffering, folly, and injustice is infinite; neither victimhood nor wisdom nor righteousness is a “zero-sum game”.
At the same time, when things like suffering, folly, and injustice, as well as wisdom, righteousness, and compassion, do occur they do not do so in infinite amounts.  The fact that a particular action is unjust does not make the party committing it entirely unjust.
It follows that:
·         Critiques of the wisdom or ethics of an action or strategy cannot be met by arguing for the legality of that action or strategy.
·         Critiques of an action or strategy are not, in themselves, critiques of the cause they are claimed to support. 
·         Similarly, critiques of an action or strategy cannot be met by arguing for the justice of the cause (although the justice of the cause is a precondition for the justice of the action). 
·         Nor can critiques of the wisdom or ethics of an action or strategy be met by arguing that those on whose behalf the actions are purportedly taken are themselves victims.
·         To point out injustices committed by both sides is not to create a moral equivalence.  One could, for example, argue that the fire-bombing of Dresden was a war crime without claiming that the Allies were no worse than the Nazis.

Some thoughts on discourse
The purpose of cheerleading is to bolster the feelings of those already convinced; the purpose of arguing is to convince someone.  It is important to be mindful of the distinction, and to choose one’s rhetoric accordingly.
Insisting on a point is not the same as arguing for a point.
Saying that everyone in a particular community believes something to be true is more a statement about the community than about the truth value of the proposition.
A figure known to be a partisan of one side is unlikely to be seen as a compelling authority to those not already sympathetic to that side.
A figure held to be untrustworthy on a range of issues may not have much credibility on others.
Questioning the integrity or moral status of one’s interlocutor is similarly unlikely to prove an effective strategy for convincing him or her.
If a large number of your target audience is unconvinced by your arguments, it is a more useful exercise to re-examine your own presentation than to blame the audience.

Thoughts on the situation.
1) Categorical Statements:
The death of children is a bad thing.
Targeting civilians is a bad thing.
While particular institutions may be broken and particular polices unjust, the principle of international law is a good, not only when it is helpful or convenient.  This is especially true for treaties one has signed.
Oppression is a bad thing.

2) Particulars
The State of Israel has no less legitimacy, and no less a right to exist, than any other state.  Jews have no less a right to define themselves as a people than any other people.
Palestinians have no less a right to define themselves as a people than any other people.   Palestinians have no less a right to self-determination and freedom from oppression than any other people.[1]
The Occupation is not, and has never been, benign.
Hamas is not a force for good or liberation, and its policies have increased the misery of the residents of Gaza.
Hamas has shown no interest in a long-term settlement with Israel.
It is past time for the American Jewish community to address what it means that  no country outside of Israel has ever seen the settlement of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights as anything other than a violation of international law.
A stable Palestinian state is crucial for Israel’s long term security.

[1] Yes, I’m aware that I didn’t say that Palestinians have the same right to a state as any other people.  That’s because I’m not convinced that peoples have a categorical right to a state prior to that state’s existence, in the way that people have a right to be free from oppression.  Do the Basques have a right to a state?  The Kurds?  The Roma?  And yes, I’m prepared to apply this reasoning to Israel.  I don’t think, prior to 1948, that the Jews had an absolute “right” to a state.  That doesn’t delegitimize Israel; I don’t think there was an absolute right to a Czech nation-state, but that doesn’t delegitimize the Czech Republic.   That also doesn’t mean I don’t think there should be sovereign Palestinian state; I do.  That’s because I think it, like the State of Israel in 1948, is the best political solution in the current situation.