Friday, December 6, 2013

psalms 116:15

Nelson Mandela, of blessed memory.

The example of Nelson Mandela can lead us to llok at other oppressed peoples, espeially those whose struggles are violent and messy and corrupt, and ask, "Why don't they have a Mandela?  Why don't they have a Gandhi, or a King?"  But the real question should be for those of us who, by virtue of nationality or income or what-have-you have any kind of privilege or power: "Why," it asks us, "do you need to see another Mandela?  You know what must be done.  What more do you need to learn about justice?"

Friday, August 16, 2013

in support of bad taste

I know that everybody (including some of America's Most Influential Rabbis) disagrees, but personally, I think that kid's Bar Mitzvah party is nobody's business. Did it cost more than I will ever make in a year? Yes. Did it have anything to do with what I think of as important Jewish values? No. Would I have enjoyed being there? God, no. And my conclusion? So. And also, What?

 Let's face it: Lots of Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties have nothing to do with Jewish, religious, or ethical values. Lots of them are vulgar. In lots of them, people - particularly women - are dressed well beyond the bounds of traditional Jewish definitions of modesty (though many of those are family and guests). And my guess is that many of those took a greater proportional chunk out of the families' discretionary income than this one did. We don't hear about those, though - probably because those don't have quite the volume (read: they didn't cost as much) as this one had.

 Also, there are probably lots of Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations that cost a whole lot more than this one did, but we don't here of them, either, because they were in Better - or at least quieter - taste. A celebrity performer? A luxury trip abroad? Why not? As long as it's not tacky.

 Be honest: the values at stake here are not moral or religious but aesthetic. And if you've been elected Censor by the Centuriate Assembly, judging the aesthetics of a private family function is precisely at your pay grade. But otherwise, unless someone is trying to force you to adopt that kind of taste as your own, why is it a subject for your public judgment?

 Look, you want to use your pulpit to inveigh against the kind of wealth inequality that allows one family to spend on one event what most other families will never make in a year? I'm right behind you. You want to establish sumptuary rules so that all simchas are affordable. Rock on (but good luck with your congregants). You want to insist that all Bar/Bat Mitzvah kids and their families demonstrate a commitment to a life of piety and good deeds? Yes, please.

 But if you don't object to private fortunes, if you don't insist on a common standard of taste, or an overarching expression of piety in family celebrations, then maybe a better, more pastoral response would be to stand in front of the prurient crowd, and protect a family from a public shaming. Isn't that a Jewish value, too?

Friday, April 5, 2013

bad stuff

In writing about the culture of violence that is both the necessary foundation and natural concomitant of, the military occupation of the West Bank, Amira Hass writes something bad and stupid:

“Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule.”

It’s odd, too, because elsewhere in her essay she writes compellingly about civil disobedience, suggesting that training in the theory and practice of thoughtful, peaceful resistance should be part of the curriculum of Palestinian schools.  Violence, though, is not civil disobedience, and her words are not only morally corrupt, but strategically dangerous, threatening to further damage what there is of political discourse and to accelerate a looming spiral into chaos and bloodshed.

So: her statement is bad and stupid.

 It is important, though, to note what her statement is not.  It is not, contrary to the claims of some, an incitement to murder.  Throwing rocks at people is violent, is dangerous, and may be lethal, but it is generally not an attempt at homicide, and everyone knows this – including those making the most extreme claims against Hass.   Should the settlers who threw stones at Palestinian school buses, or  at police and soldiers who have come to dismantle illegal structures,  have been treated as would-be murderers?  

Yes, a stone can kill.  So can a rubber-jacketed bullet; so can a baton.  But when police use them in riot control they are hailed – or criticized – for using non-lethal force, in spite of the potential danger.  And that is because we recognize the distinction between an act of violence with the intent to kill, and an act of violence with a different intent; between throwing a stone and throwing a grenade.
Moral judgment means precisely that – judgment.  It means evaluation, it means judgment.  To say that something is bad does not mean that it is the worst; to say that something is not the worst is not to say that it is ok.  What do incitements to, or justification of, murder look like?  “Deathto Arabs” spray-painted on a wall – that looks like one.   Suggesting that “din rodef” applies to an individual or group, that could look like one, too.  “Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule?”  Not so much.

Should we condemn Amira Hass’s justification of violence as morally corrupt?  Yes.  But we should condemn it for what it is – not for what it isn’t.