Sunday, October 9, 2011

ask not (kol nidre 5772)

The Talmud teaches that for all but the most grievous sins against God, if a person repents come Yom Kippur he or she will be forgiven. In fact, for some sins (the “thou shalts,” where you didn’t do something you were supposed to do), forgiveness comes immediately, before you’ve even had time to move. Whether or not you believe that, or whether or not you believe in a God who can forgive sin, or a God who can be sinned against, or a God at all, the possibility of that kind of forgiveness – that grace, really – is pretty damn compelling. That simply by feeling bad about the stuff I feel bad about, and saying so, I can be relived of having to feel bad about myself…well, who wouldn’t want that?

And so as Yom Kippur approaches, we seek it out, if not from a God we might not believe in, we ask one another for that grace. “I’m sorry that I hurt you,” we might say to a friend, neighbor, or colleague, “I hope you’ll forgive me.” Or, “If I hurt you, I hope you’ll forgive me.” We might even broadcast it, posting on our Facebook pages, or on our listserves, or tweeting it out: “If I’ve hurt any of you, I hope you’ll forgive me.”

But in doing that, we forget. We forget what the Talmud teaches, that if I hurt another person I’m responsible for all kind of reparations: for physical harm and emotional harm, for long-term effects as well as short-term ones. And we forget what we learn from the ketubah, that when someone becomes vulnerable to me, I become responsible for guarding that vulnerability. In short we forget that the business of atonement is not so that we won’t feel bad about what we’ve done, but so that we can make better what we’ve done.

When we do that, not only do we miss the point of atonement, and lose an opportunity to bring some healing, some repair to our screw-ups, we forget that we can bring some repair to our screw-ups. What we do is more deeply inscribe a story in which all we are, are helpless screw-ups in need of forgiveness.

So I wonder what if we focused less on the grace we want, and more on the healing that those we’ve hurt need; if we started saying “If I’ve done anything to hurt you, I hope you’ll tell me what you need from me to begin to be whole.” It might help us be a little less selfish. And it might actually help out some people who need it. And we might discover that while we may indeed be screw-ups, we are screw-ups who can do some good, who can still – in spite of our brokenness, in spite of our screw-ups – bring some healing, some repair to the world. Which realization is itself a kind of grace.

Friday, August 5, 2011

the costs

"Look, have fun - but please," I asked her before she left for one of her teenage adventures, "don't do anything stupid.” She looked at me in awe. "Abba, you're right. If I find myself thinking, ‘Should I do something stupid?’ I promise to answer ‘No.’"

She was right of course. We don't generally do things once we know them to be stupid; it's precisely because we don't recognize just how stupid our ideas might be that the advice not to do something is stupid is virtually impossible to follow. The outsider can easily forget what the rabbis of the Talmud knew (Arakhin 16b): that it is not enough for a directive, or teaching, or reproof, or piece of advice to be true, it must be accessible: advice isn't any good if the person can't follow it, and if you know the person won’t be able to follow it it’s better to be silent. No small thing when the Torah itself commands that you reprove your fellow who has done wrong, lest you come to “hate him in your heart.” (Lev. 19:17)

And the sages of the Talmud took hatred very seriously. They taught that while the first Temple was destroyed as a result of the Israelites' idolatry, the second Temple fell because of sinat hinam, generally translated as “gratuitous hatred”, among the Jews of that time (Yoma 9b). This was surely a radical teaching: that God would not live among people who could not live with each other. And it is a teaching that has enormous currency these days. Not a year goes by without some anguished reference to sinat hinam within Israel or the broader Jewish community. These anguished references are not usually confessions; the baseless hatred that causes so much concern is usually what someone else is up to. This is not really surprising. Hatred is such a powerful emotion that we rarely experience it as being anything but well-founded. Don't get caught up in gratuitous hatred? Ok, I won't. My hatred is only directed against those who really deserve it.

More: Even if one were able to recognize when his or her own passions were gratuitous, what about those those that aren't? If you believe that I pose a threat to the State of Israel, or that I am willfully leading others to sin, or that I am destroying the foundations of a just society - well, that hatred is certainly not gratuitous. I find this "earned" hatred even scarier than the baseless kind. Because hatred tends to be so powerful, so pure an emotion, the "justification" tends to become absolute and any kind of compromise, is itself a failing, and to look at the costs of maintaining or acting on that hatred is a kind of accommodation with evil.

But if this is so, where does that leave the ancient rabbis and their warning against sinat hinam? Perhaps more pertinent than ever. There is another meaning of the word hinam, found as early as the Bible. After nearly forty years in the desert the Israelites romanticize their old slavery and complain about the diet of manna. "We remember," they say, "the fish we ate in Egypt hinam." (Numbers 11:5) Hinam, you see, can also mean free. Without cost.

not to be “hatred without cause” but “without cost,” a hatred that is thought to be without risks or losses or consequences. That is indeed dangerous, because hatred – even when it is justified – is never without cost, and certainly never without risks. The expression of hatred, whether in word or in action, releases a destructive force into the world, and one can never be certain of keeping it fully under control. And whether expressed or not, hatred takes a psychic toll on the individual, again: even when it is justified, even when it is the wisest and healthiest reaction it still has a cost.

Those costs are easiest to forget precisely when we are most sure of the righteousness of our feelings, and thus the danger: at the very moment when our feelings are at their most powerful and most likely to be destructive we are least likely to put a check on them. Sinat hinam, the belief that our hatred has no cost is like the belief that surgery has no risks; and a doctor with that attitude quickly becomes a killer. It is not hard to imagine how that kind of hatred could have brought down the Temple.

Don’t tell us not to hate, because that much self-control we don’t have. And don’t tell us not to hate gratuitously, because none of our rage feels anything but righteous. But if you remind us that even the most righteous hatred has a cost, well, we may stop and think And if we think hard enough and clearly enough, perhaps we’ll decided more and more frequently that those are costs we don’t need to pay.

Monday, July 4, 2011


This one is for David Cobin, of blessed memory.

A recent essay by Robbie Gringras of Makom, a project of the Jewish Agency, has attracted admiring attention from friends of mine, both real and virtual. I confess I found it troubling. There's a facile comparison between the protestors of Tahrir Square and and the early (and contemporary!) Zionists, and a bizarre slip-slidey move that equates having a historical connection to a place and having a categorical right to sovereignty over that place*. But I don't know how much those issues really matter - Israel has the same rights to be free of attack as every other state, and its citizens have the same right to define its nature as the citizens of every other state, subject to the same legal and moral constraints governing the conduct of other civilized democracies. It is the simple fact of Israel's existence that provides it with all the legitimacy it needs - which is precisely the same legitimacy as any other state; such legitimacy is not threatened by the philosophical incoherence of its supporters.

What did bother me was this: It may be that we in the Jewish community have moved a little too far from the source. It may be that some of our arguments are more about Western values refracted through Israel, rather than about Israel itself. It's the old rhetorical move to delegitimize certain claims as coming from an outside source. Sometimes, as here, it's the Israel/West boundary that's being asserted; other times it's the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish thought. In either case, it's wrong, and worse, it's dangerous.

First things first. A secular state is a Western idea. A constitutional democracy is a Western idea. National liberation is a Western idea. You can't exclude "Western ideas" from Israel without replacing the Zionism of Herzl and Ben Gurion with the weird ethno-fascist clericalism expressed most recently and most explicitly in the work Torat HaMelech.**

By all accounts, Torat HaMelech is vicious, terrible work, and emerges from the ideological stew as gave rise to the terrorist butcher of Hebron as well as Rabin's assassin. Now, I do not believe that everyone in the religious settler community supports terrorism. I don't even believe that all of those protesting the questioning of Rabbi Dov Lior are actually in favor of murdering non-Jewish babies. Of course, they're not protesting on behalf of a general "Freedom of Speech" either. Rather, they're insisting that "Torah" is not subject to critique from the secular state - from "non-Jewish values."

But here's the thing. If Torat HaMelech is indeed a terrible work, it's not because the authors got their sources wrong, misunderstanding a gemara here or ignoring the Beit Yosef there. If you have to wait to find the appropriate Jewish text before passing moral judgment on a passage that says
that Non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and attacks on them “curb their evil inclination,” while babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed since “it is clear that they will grow to harm us” there is something profoundly wrong with you.

The late David Cobin was a legal scholar, and one of his interests was the history of slavery, and specifically Jewish attitudes towards that peculiar institution. One of the things he taught me was that Abolitionism arose first in the Quaker community. It was not until later that Jews joined the struggle against slavery, and there remained rabbis who supported slavery (just as leaders of other religions did) until after the Civil War.

Now, I trust all of us would agree that slavery is evil. Absolutely and categorically. And that any one, even a rabbi, who spoke otherwise would not just be wrong, but would in an entirely different moral universe. But as David Cobin pointed out, abolitionism was at first a non-Jewish value. Nevertheless, we have made it into a Jewish value not because traditional rabbinic sources say so, but because it is so powerfully true.

And so we are left with a choice. We can have a Judaism from which we try - like those defending Rabbi Lior and his friends - to exclude all "foreign thought;" all "Western values." Or we can have a Judaism that teaches that slavery is evil. We can't have both. I know which one I want.

*See under: Basques, Welsh, Hutus, Lapps, Samaritans, Kurds, Ainu...
** I am not ruling out the possibility that the current aggressive rejection of secular authority by both the so-called "Religious Zionists" and the Hareidi community is itself informed, if indirectly, by the triumph of militant Islam in Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Monday, June 20, 2011

those crazy jews

I guess I should write a few words about how Israel, as a topic, is making the American Jewish community completely nuts. I mean, completely nuts. The Simon Weisenthal Center, whose primary mission is to hunt Nazis and fight anti-Semitism, in the person of its Associate Dean, read an op-ed on Fox News, in which he attacked "President Obama's outrageous demand that [Israelis] retreat to pre-1967 Six Day War lines, which were dubbed by the late Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, 'Auschwitz' borders." Now, put aside for a moment that Obama made no such demand - here's a group that has no particular geopolitical mandate or expertise, using Holocaust imagery to attack Obama, whose position on Israel's borders is essentially the same as Israel's own center-left, including much of its recent defense and diplomatic corps. That doesn't mean the position is right, of course, only that it's the kind of mainstream position that an ostensibly non-partisan organization has no business attacking (and especially not in shoah terms*) unless the machers have gone off their meds. But of course, if they were trying to make a reasoned argument, they wouldn't be quoting a "strategic assessment" made in 1969.

Or take the fuss about JStreet. Take a look at who their supporters are: they include leaders and former leaders of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements. Again, they may be right and they may be wrong, but it just does not get any more mainstream. But suggest that they be treated as such, and folks go bonkers, whether in the measured tones of a Daniel Gordis or in the full-batshit-crazy mode that Jews normally only display in synagogue when the cantor introduces a new tune. Mainstream, loyal, affiliated Jews who advocate fairly moderate positions - positions that many Israelis believe are in Israel's best strategic interests - are treated as though they were a threat to the country's very existence.

Which I suppose we are. Talking about withdrawing from the Occupied Territories - hell, just calling them the Occupied Territories - suggests that the borders of the State have more to do with negotiations and politics and international law than the Bible. A willingness to accept the fact that Jerusalem is a divided city puts paid to the notion that one is living in the seat of the re-established Davidic monarchy. Concern that Israel may use force unjustly, and that the occupation may be more brutal than security needs mandate or that international law allows implies that Israel might be subject to moral scrutiny by the outside world.

Is any of that really so bad? It all seems kind of normal for a normal country. It's not a good thing to be accused of a war crime, let alone commit one, but to hold Britain accountable, or France, or the US, for unjust use of force is not to attack their legitimacy or demand their dismantling. To call for a state to accept international law is not to deny its sovereignty. None of the above are incompatible with concern, even love, for a country.

Not for a real country, anyway. And that's the point. The JStreet constituency treats Israel as a real, normal, country situated in the real, normal world. In doing so, it challenges - no, it rejects - the idea of Israel as a mythic place. That's the Israel that's threatened.

A lot of Jews, though, need to believe in that Israel just as children need to believe in their parents' perfection. [It's not just Jews, by the way, who have this kind of need. Look at the way Palin et al furiously demand that Obama swear allegiance to the idea of American exceptionalism]. Some, particularly the religious right, are explicit about this: As the reborn Zion, Israel has a claim on all of Cis-Jordan by virtue of the Divine Promise, period.

But most American Jews don't really believe that, not at least in their grown-up brains. They can't say, even to themselves, that they need to imagine Israel as messianic, or recognize their fury at those who would deny them their illusions. And so they insist that they're speaking about Israel's physical security, and that the very positions held by the former head of the Mossad are treasonous when coming from American Jews. But when you try to make a security case for a mythic belief, you end up sounding, well, crazy.

*Oh, by the way - waving around the word shoah is only the mirror image of waving around the word apartheid. The fight against bad historical analogies begins at home.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

who cares?

What should a good synagogue - or any Jewish institution - do?

Thought experiment:

Let's imagine that Judaism mattered. That is, it made a difference whether or not it were being done - and by extension, done well. What would it be about Judaism that was important?

Maybe it's the moral imperative. I hear that a lot; in fact, I heard it a number of times just today. A friend was telling me about a conversation a friend of his had had with her Orthodox parents about her mover away from observance. "Isn't the most important thing whether I'm a good person?" And then later today, I saw that a wise and influential rabbi had written "Jewishness is believing one person can transform the world."

Now, it is really, truly, desperately important that one try to be a good person. And there's no question that believing that one can transform the world - or should at least try - is crucial if there is to be any kind of justice done, any repair of the world. But. But. But. If being Jewish meant being a good person, then either all good people would be Jewish by definition, or only Jews would have the capacity for goodness (either through some inherent quality, or through a monopoly on moral teachings). And both alternatives are patently nonsense. But think of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Dr. King. Of Florence Nightingale; of Harriet Tubman. Not a good Jew in the bunch.

So the Jewish part of being Jewish, the stuff that would matter if Judaism matters, has got to be different than just the moral imperative*.

To be sure, maybe it doesn't matter - not beyond a kind of ethnic pride, a desire for the kind of immortality that comes from being connected to something that lasts. In which case, who really cares what we do, or how? As long as you get people in the door, and get them to pin the "Hi, I'm Jewish" name tag on their psyche, you've succeeded.

But if it there was something, or a couple of somethings, that were really important on their own; if there was something there that the God or the world or your neighbor or you would be poorer without, then it seems that the institution would have two tasks:
1) Identify what it was that needed to be done - and what that thing looked like when done well;
2) Make sure it gets done well.

Actually, if we thought there was a core that really mattered - in the way that other stuff that matters matters - we'd be changing our relationship with our shuls and JCCs and the like. We wouldn't be so concerned about whether they entertained us or bored us - we'd want to know whether they helped us do the stuff we needed to do, well. We'd demand it.

Sounds simple, don't it? But I don't see that happening, by and large. Do you? I wonder what that means.

*That doesn't, doesn't, doesn't mean that one can be fully Jewish and be a schmuck; just that there's more to being Jewish than not being a schmuck. Did I really need to say that?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

arts and crafts

Anyone who has heard the expression, "Teaching is less a science than an art" raise your hands. All of you? Wonderful! And can any of you tell me what it means? Wow! So many hands. So many hands.

No wonder. It is one of the most common clichés about the work. And that, in turn, is probably because there is something about it that feels intuitively right. Which is not to say that a good teacher will not be informed by scientific research, especially in the fields of cognition and human development. That research, though, is only a tool to be made use of, the way a painter makes use of the rules of perspective or the properties of pigment on drying plaster. The act of planning a unit, or conducting a class, or designing a project is a highly personal one, engaging the teacher's intuitive, emotional, and aesthetic sides. Surely we have a right to consider ourselves artists.

I want to suggest, however, that there is a fundamental difference between teaching and making art, between what we might call (in a way that will be narrowly defined in a moment) the artistic temperament and the pedagogic temperament, a difference that expresses itself in every facet of life, not only the studio and the classroom. "Temperament" of course is a dangerous term, because it can suggest a kind of essentialism; one "is" an artist or one "is" an educator, as though that expressed a certain fundamental truth about the person. Perhaps instead of temperament we should say "stance," and at any given moment one chooses – consciously or not – to "stand" more or less as artist or as teacher.

But just what is an artist? Sometimes we use that term as an exclamation of skill: "She's no ordinary plumber. She's an artist." And often that sense of art-as-heightened-craft implies that the work has an aesthetic value beyond the needs of the task: "Did you see his suturing? That's not surgery, that's art."

The understanding that an artist is a master craftsman has an old and distinguished lineage. Aristotle taught that the ability of a work to appeal to our aesthetic or emotional sides was subject to certain principles, and an artist was "simply" someone who had mastered those principles and could put them to work. And John Ruskin, the 19th century critic, wrote movingly of anonymous masons and carpenters and glaziers whose craft made for the art of the Gothic cathedral.

At the same time, we know – we know – that that is not the whole story. Though there are advantages and disadvantages to both, no one would confuse being called an artist with being called a craftsman. The craftsman, after all, is subservient to the discipline while the true artist is subject to nothing save his or her own vision.

This approach has a respected pedigree as well. Plato insisted that whether one was or was not an artist had nothing to do with skill; an artist was simply a vehicle for a muse, much in the way that a biblical prophet was a vehicle for the spirit of God. And while the cult of real supernatural muses has been dormant for quite a while, the romantic image of the artist as someone who is in a kind of thrall to that inner voice is with us still. The understanding of that "voice" as something almost supernatural is so powerful that the trope of the artist not needing to follow ordinary manners or morals has been a cliché for well over a hundred years.

Although he was not writing about artists, Ahad HaAm understood the attraction of this model, and generations of young Jews have felt themselves inspired by his presentation of the prophet, committed to the pure and absolute Truth, in opposition to the Aaron the priest, the man of compromise and conciliation.

"My Lord God has spoken, who can but prophesy?" (Amos 3:8) This experience, this urge, (or a non-religious version of it) is at the heart of what I call the artistic temperament or stance: I have a fire within me, and I must let it out; I am possessed of a singular vision, and I must express it. Not subject to the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" of ed school courses and "teacher-proof" curricula, the real educator as artist-as-prophet.

The problem is that the prophets were lousy teachers. Holy men? Undoubtedly. Vehicles for God's message? To be sure. But if we judge a teacher by the impact she or he makes on the students, well, I don't know how they would fare. Indeed, the only prophet who can be said to be truly successful is Jonah, and he is the one who is least taken with his role as prophet. (Nathan is an interesting exception, but as prophet to a king, and not the people, he is in a different category.) It seems as though there is something about being a good prophet (or in secular terms, a capital ‘A' artist) which is inimical to being a good educator.

Why should that be? What is it about the artistic stance that gets in the way of teaching? I want to play for a minute with Ahad HaAm's paradigm of Prophet v. Priest. Judaism doesn't have priests any more, but Catholics do, and the Catholic "High Priest" so to speak is known by a number of terms. One of them, pontiff, comes from the title of the cultic head of ancient pagan Rome, pontifex maximus. The Great Bridgebuilder.

"Bridgebuilder" is a fine metaphor for a priest, but I think it's an even better one for a teacher, not least because it can be understood in many ways. Do you span the gulf between student and information? Do you make it possible for the student to cross over the bridge from her current condition to a future one? Are you the bridge? The builder? The ledge? But however the image is understood, the point is that the bridge is about getting from here to there. The builder's attention has to be focused on that other side. It is only then that she can begin to think about the look of the bridge.

If you were to ask people to visit a classroom in their mind's eye and then asked who was speaking, most of them (even teachers) would say, "the teacher." And teachers do need to speak, and to write, and to dance about the room, because teachers need to teach. So it is tempting for us to claim that artistic stance, to find what it is we most want, most need, to say. But if we want to be teachers, not artists, our concern must be with that other side. Not what we most want to say, but what the student most needs to learn. It is a stance of listening, not speaking; of getting one's vision from the other, not from within.

Taking the stance of the educator is a humbling discipline, because what we might most want to say doesn't really matter that much. What matters is finding a way of saying what those others most need to hear, and finding a way of saying it that can be heard. It's surely not prophecy, and it's not even Art. But doing it well is the work of a master craftsman. It's the work of a teacher.

Friday, March 18, 2011

your amalek and mine

Bear-in-mind what Amalek did to you on the way, at your going-out from Egypt, how he encountered you on the way and attacked-your-tail - all the beaten-down-ones at your rear - while you were weary and faint, and thus he did not stand-in-awe of God. So it shall be: when YHVH your God gives-you-rest from all your enemies round about in the land that YHVH your God is giving you as an inheritance, to possess it, you are to blot out the name of Amalek from under the heavens; you are not to forget! (Deut. 25:17-19, trans. Fox)

Who is Amalek? We know that Amalek must be totally destroyed; that is, that Amalek is completely unredeemable. Our history knows of many villains, individuals and nations. What makes an enemy so dangerous that against it, and only it, the Torah demands eternal warfare, eternal vigilance? What makes the crime of Amalek worse than that of Egypt, the enslaver, or Moab, the seducer? The Philestine kingdom of Lebanon helped to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, but Amalek, and Amalek alone is to have no place on God's green earth.

What did Amalek do? The Torah tells us that he attacked the stragglers, those who had fallen outside the camp. But the very notion of stragglers should give us pause. As the Torah describes it, the Israelite community on the march was much like an army, with every tribe in its place, every clan intact. Who was there to be left behind? Surely even the old and weak had families to look after them. Amalek's victims, then, must have been those who were not only weary, but who were allowed to fall behind.

Is it hard to imagine that God's own chosen would let some fall by the wayside? It shouldn't be. For while in our stories we tend to romanticize the poor and the sick (whether it's the begger as Elijah of folklore or the saintly-homeless-man of so many movies) many of the weakest in our society are downright unattractive. They are the people we hope will not sit next to us on the subway, the people whose neighborhoods (if they are lucky enough to have neighborhoods) we avoid. They are hicks and yokels; racists, misogynists, and homophobes with primitive ideas. Filthy and dangerous, or just weird and unpleasant, we don’t actively persecute them (we’re way to progressive for that) but neither are they foremost in our hearts and minds.

This does not make us wicked; it is part of being human. We are limited beings and our capacity for compassion is likewise limited. Our areas of concern are a series of concentric circles - sometimes ill-defined, sometimes porous, but they are there. The Tradition acknowledges this, even mandates it. We are obligated to see to the needs of those closest to us (by kinship or geography) first. True, there are cases in which a need may be so pressing that it compels attention and jumps to the head of the line, so to speak, but generally the Torah is content to assume that everyone falls within someone’s inner circle. It is those who do not, the widow, orphan, and stranger that the text commends to our particular and communal care.

As well it should. Because we see in our own world what happens to those on the outskirts of our concern: they die. Their nutrition is worse, their shelter is worse, their medical care is worse and comes later. Having the least to spare they are more subject to violence, robbery, fraud. Whether it’s defined by “lifestyle” or skin color or status or general attractiveness, those at the margins are at the greatest risk. And though surely death comes to us all, it is equally sure that death comes most aggressively to those who have none to look after them. For Amalek waits to strike at those who fall behind.

The Torah tells us all we need to know. Amalek is the enemy that preys on those who are left behind. And Amalek must always be remembered because Amalek cannot be killed - not by the sword, at any rate, for Amalek is called into existence by his prey. For Amalek to be defeated, he must be starved. It is this aspect of the enemy which drives the almost desperate anxiety of our passage. Because Amalek will spring up wherever there are holes in the safety net, whenever our guard is down. If we forget to watch out, if we forget to take care, if we forget that everyone in the society must - must - be cared for, there will be an enemy waiting for them in the wilderness. Amalek will only be fully vanquished and his name blotted out when he becomes unimaginable; that is, when the very idea of stragglers will be as foreign to us as the idea of child sacrifice.

And one more thing. Our reading is not just a reminder, not just a warning. It is a command. The war against Amalek, victory over Amalek, is now our responsibility. If Amalek survives, it is because we allow it. If he takes victims, it is because we have failed. And when people die who didn’t have to because they were behind us, because they were beneath us, well, that blood is on our hands. Out here in the desert there is no other way.