Thursday, June 18, 2009

a purely hypothetical question

So here's what I'm wondering:

Do we believe, as a theoretical matter, that Israel might do wrong? Not tactical or strategic mistakes, but that the government could do something "bad" or illegal, something about which we'd agree that it shouldn't have done it. That is, in a disagreement between Israel and the non-Jewish world, is it possible that Israel might be wrong - or is it the case that Isreal is beyond censure? And if Israel is wrong in a particular instance, should we know about it? should we speak about it?

If Israel can be wrong, if it's possible for it to do something illegal, how would we know? It can't be that the only reliable sign that Israel did something wrong is when the State itself makes that declaration - that's just another way of saying that Isreal is above external reproach. Similarly, to say that official Jewish leaders and institutions are the only reliable judge of Israel's behavior is just to extend the blanket of infallibility from the State to the Jewish People at large.Moreover, if Israel can be wrong in a policy but that should not affect our public or private behavior - if it's not something we need to know - then we're telling ourselves, and our children, and our neighbors, that when it comes to Isreal we cannot be trusted as a source of sound legal, political, or moral judgment.

If we don't want that to be the case - if it's possible for Isreal to do wrong, and if it's important for us to know the truth - then there may be times when we need to pay attention to non-Jewish critiques. There's no way around that.What would be an good indication that Israel might be wrong, or a critique that we need to take seriously? If Syria says so? If OPEC says so? Probably not. But what if every country in the world, every major legal institution, said that Israel was wrong? Would that be an indication that there might be something worth paying attention to?

Or are we always right?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

steal this seder

The first few years of my working "adult" life I only had one set of good dishes for Passover, and they were dairy. The main course of the seder was usually salmon - maybe a smaller fish poached in foil in the oven, maybe a large whole filet roasted with potato crust. For desert, a pesachdik English Trifle. Nobody complained.

That was twenty years ago, and when I read Alex Witchel's surprise at a dairy seder I got a bit huffy. But when I read her surprise at a seder where people asked questions, I just got sad. If you look at the earliest discussions of the seder it's clear - clear - that the point of the meal is for there to be dialogue. Many of the practices we know today began is tricks, stunts, things done purely to get the children to wonder, What the hell is going on? And just as the question was supposed to be spontaneous, so too was the answer which was not supposed to be a recitation, but was a response geared to what the child could understand. All of which goes back to the biblical precident: "And when you enter the land the Lord will give you as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your childeren ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord...'" Exodus 12: 24-27

When the seder becomes merely a repetition, whether as a mind-numbing plod through the English or as a breathless race through the Hebrew, the participants - no, the witnesses - miss out on the original program. That's a shame, less because they're not doing what they're spozed to than that they're losing the opportunity to connect as active individual subjects with the text, with the ideas, and with each other.

It's a shame, but it's not a surprise. I think the experience Alex describes is what most Jews are used to. Which is pretty strange, because I don't think most Jews actually get much out of it. It's not that they don't like the larger gestalt of Seder. They like the family gathering, and the sense of history, and the food, and the songs, but they don't really connect to the telling part, the part that was once thought to be its reason to be. And yet, it's not like being at a High Holiday service, where a cantor is singing and a rabbi is talking and an usher is shushing and your role is to follow along. The seder belongs to the people. Every family gets to run their own, and many families simply run it down.

Now, it's quite possible that some families have such respect for the ancient rabbis that they wouldn't dare trifle with anything they said or prescribed, any more than they could imagine them joking or being ironic, and so they take their seder straight as a discipline, a form of obedience. But outside of the Orthodox community there are few Jews who feel that way.

I think that the real reason is that for all too many people Judaism is like some obscure musical instrument or piece of forgotten machinery. The idea that it could be helpful, that it could be used for one's own purposes and in one's own way has long been forgotten, let alone the knowledge of how to use it, and so it sits in its glass case while we look on.

There are rabbis and community leaders who see this as a yet another sign of the degraded state of the folk, but it's not the folk's fault. It's us, the rabbis, who are to blame because so many of us are so concerned with doing it right that we've never said, "Make Jewish practice yours, make it a tool to help you do the work you need to do." Partly because a lot of us are not so sure how to do that ourselves, and partly because then we'd lose some control. If the quality of your seder depends on how closely it follows my script, well, then I get to be the arbiter. But if it depends on how well it works, then my teaching is going to be tested in the crucible of your experience and that can be kind of scary. For me - but for you, too. Because if you're bored with my script you can happily blame me, but once you take it into your own hands you become responsible for its success.

Scary as it is, there is no other way. Not if Judaism is going to be alive, not if it is going to be a real participant in the world, a discipline for making holy art out of life, for finding one's place and one's task in the midst of the confusion. It's got to be used, and lived with, and played with, and experimented with, and if that means sometimes getting it wrong at least that's better than not getting it at all.

Most Jews, and certainly most Jews reading this, are in a pretty good condition, all things considered. There are dangers, there are anti-Semites, but by and large we're not oppressed; we're not impovrished; we're not enslaved. It's not Jews who need to be liberated this year - it's Judaism.

Monday, March 23, 2009

practice makes...better

I've gained weight. Not that much perhaps, but some. There's no mystery about it; I haven't been to the gym in a while, and that's what happens to me . I'm given to understand that that's true even for those who seem to stay thin naturally - if you want to be fit, you've got to keep exercising. Even athletes, because otherwise all those things that provide the edge begin to go. There's no appeal from the second law of thermodynamics: what you don't work to maintain eventually goes to hell.

Which is true for all the virtues, of the mind and heart as well as of the abs. Particularly the heart. And so I find it, well, bizarre that as a response to claims ranging from war crimes to grotesque, systemic insensitivity there is the repeated insistence that Israel has the "most moral army in the world." First of all, it's irrelevant. Help me out here in case I've got the math wrong, but whether or not a person (or an army) is generally saintly doesn't make a bad act impossible, and it doesn't make that act good.

It's also a really lousy rhetorical turn, and that has nothing to do with the listeners being anti-Semites or not. It's safe to say that in the entire history of human discourse, the rejoinder "We are the most moral nation/army/institution/religion" has never convinced anyone who did not already believe it. Why would it? It's not really a response to a charge, it's a refusal to respond, a rejection of the possibility that the other could even make a claim. Fuck you, in other words.

It's not just the bad logic and it's not just the bad PR that make "we're the most moral" a strange thing to repeat; it's that it's self-defeating. Being moral, like being agile or being toned or being quick, takes constant practice and one of the key practices is self-examination. While that's true with all virtues - if you want to be excellent you have to look for your flaws - it's particularly true with morality because honesty, humility, openness are not just instrumental to moral growth, they are in themselves part of being moral.

When an army closes itself off from the possibility that its soldiers, or its officers, have committed crimes it loses whatever defenses it may have had against continued crimes; just as a people who close themselves off to any kind of moral criticism becomes corrupt.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

good friends (a rant)

No, I don't know when I'll be done and I don't know what I'll do with it when I'm done, but one of the pleasures of having a dissertation hanging over my head is that it every now and again I get to read something that I wouldn't have known about otherwise, but knowing it now, I wouldn't want to miss. Right now, I'm reading The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction by the very wonderful Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005). It's a big work, and I can't possibly do it justice in a line or two, but in brief he suggests that we think of our encounter with with books, stories, etc. as encounters with the "implied author." Not the flesh-and-blood person, but the sense of the author we get from the work.

Seen this way, reading is a "social act", a kind of friendship, and Booth suggests that we can evaluate books in the way we evaluate friends*, or potential friends/acquaintacnes. Some "friendships" provide us with certain specific goods: contacts, status, concert tickets, sex, the loan of a car. When the goods end, so does the friendship. Some friends are simply fun to be with; their company is a pleasure, and we make time for them for the sake of that pleasure, even though we might not particulary respect them. And there are some friends - if you're lucky - who are simply championship human beings, and in their friendship you experience the possibility of your own enoblement. Books can be like that, too, he suggests: some you read for profit, some you read for pleasure, and some for the privalege of being in the company of that "implied author."

Of course this sounds simplistic - I've given you a one-paragraph summation of an almost 600 page work. But when elaborated with nuance and skill it's a very powerful tool for helping us talk about what we mean by a good book, and that's one reason I like it so much.

The other reason is that I find Booth himself, the Booth whose presence I experience in the reading, is himself one of those great souled types. Wise, kind, good-humored' but wearing those characteristics lightly, like Trollope. Spending time with him makes me feel that I, too, might become a little more wise, a little more kind, a little better-humored.

Maybe you'll pick up the book, maybe not. But here's the thing: for all the talk we might do about becoming better at something - more skilled, more attractive, more successful, more energized, more calm, healthier, wealthier, whatever - we don't talk about becoming just better. Maybe in part that's because the whole discussion of character development has been seized by / ceded to the cultural conservatives. And maybe because of the whole Enlightenment shift to locating value in the individual's own self-actualization. And maybe because the logic of late capitalism demands that we spend our energy on getting goodies of some kind. Whatever. My observation - maybe I'm wrong, let me know - is that to the sense we speak at all about the issue, it's in terms of what is lacking in some "them" or other, and what "they" need to do to be better people.

There are few kinds of people as tedious as those who insist they know what I need to be a better person. And yet, there is a kind of soul-healing to be found in being with someone, whether on the page or in person, whose own - yes, I'll say it: virtue (in the classical sense) - makes me believe in the possibility of my own virtue. Damn it, it feels good. Better than good: it feels compelling.

So here's the question: When you look for people whose friendship (in person or on the page) might help you be more, I dunno, noble or good or menschlikh, or when you look for people to talk about what that even might mean, to talk about what kind of character you want to develop, where do you go and whom do you seek? And if those people and those pages and that conversation isn't somewhere near the center of the Jewish enterprise, then what the hell are we doing wrong?

*With a nod to the best blog name (and a damn good blog) on the Web, Please judge me.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Security Risk

Two recent, and related, stories got a surprisingly small amount of press here, and even among the shmoozerati there hasn't been much notice about them. A short while ago, Haaretz publicized the Israeli data base of settlement activity in the West Bank. The punchline, presented nicely in the Times online, along with some neat other stuff, is not good: in some seventy-five percent of the settlements, construction took place without, or contrary to, official permits. In 30 settlements, construction took place on land owned by Palestinians (there's a word for this). Keep in mind, please, that these figures are not just about those settlements labled by the Israeli government as "illegal", but those claimed to be "in accordance with international law."

In thinking about the settlements, it's important to keep in mind the lessons of Gaza. Not the recent war, but the withdrawal. If it wasn't common sense before hand, it was proven by demonstration: settlers assume their homes are permanent.

"Well, duhhh" do I hear you say? Hardly. For years - for decades - there has been the official claim that the settlements are "bargaining chips," with their future status "pending negotiation." But if they're bargaining chips, if the status of the land they're on is uncertain, why establish permanent homes, with schools, synagouges, infrastructure, the whole nine yards, and fill those homes with people who don't plan to move? What the Speigel report demonstrates is that the Israeli government has been engaged in a project - illegal under it's own laws - to informally annex increasingly large chunks of the West Bank.

Now, it's true that lots of countries do and have done lots of illegal things, and many of them - including the USA - are enjoying the fruits of their own land grabs with impunity. The real problem, though, is one of Israel's own safety. Isreal's single greatest security need is a stable, Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, at least moderately prosperous and at least moderately democratic. That being the case, anything that hinders or delays the establishment of such a state endangers Israel and its citizens; threats to the creation of the State of Palestine are threats to continued existance of the State of Israel.

The argument is not whether the settlement project has hurt the prospects for peace, it is only whether it has killed it completely. And yet (and this is the second story) Israel continues to build, unable to face the true costs for what it needs as much as it needs an army.

The existential danger to Israel created by the continued occupation has got to become part of mainstream American Jewish discourse, whether in "insider" conversations synagogues and the meeting rooms of the major Jewish philanthropies, or in public addresses to the Administration. To do less would be disloyal.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

gaza talk


And then what do I say? I’ve been observing two entirely different discourses: there’s that of the organized Jewish community, and there’s that of, well, just about everyone else, and, well, you know, there’s not been a whole lot of contact between the two. It’s pretty clear to me that Hamas is a nasty organization, not just in regard to Israel, but in general; only the most na├»ve anti-Zionist would see a Hamas government as empowering to its residents. Clear, too, that lobbing mortars and rockets at Israeli civilian centers is inexcusable and criminal, not to mention mind-bogglingly stupid as a strategy to get Israel to lift the siege. These two facts are crucial to any discussion of the war.

Yet these two facts neither answer nor preclude two central questions:
1) Was the war a wise and appropriate approach to Israel’s legitimate long-term security needs?
2) Was the war prosecuted in accordance with international law?

You’re all as smart as I am, you have access to the same sources as I do, you can try to answer these for yourselves. But that’s the point – we need to get to a place where we can, indeed, try to answer them.

Concerning the first question, I’d like to note that “Because the bastards deserve it” while necessary, is not, by itself, a good reason to go to war – notwithstanding Bush’s attempt to retroactively apply it to Iraq. I’d also like to note that questioning the wisdom of a country’s policy, even arguing that a policy is wrongheaded and doomed to fail, is not an attack on the country. Nations, even democracies, do wrong-headed things, and it’s worth remembering that the official Israeli report described the second Lebanon war as a blunder, the result of an inadequate decision-making process. In the words of Justice Winograd, “Israel did not use its military power wisely or effectively," Would it have been anti-Israel to say this during the war?

As to war crimes, well, the accusation that the Israeli military may have committed war crimes is an ugly one, and it should be, because war crimes are bad things to do. But they’re bad things even if the good guys do them, and even if the bad guys are committing war crimes, too. This isn’t a zero-sum morality, where if one side is bad they’re entirely bad and the other side is entirely good. God knows (and God does know) that the US isn’t pure, nor is Britain, nor any other country. And we demand an accounting especially when the “good guys” commit them because we want them to remain the good guys – and that doesn’t happen if you begin to believe that goodness and justice are categorical attributes, not qualities that require ongoing commitment.

I’m worried about the long-term security of Israel, because Israel’s most pressing security need – a reasonably stable, reasonably democratic Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza – seems further and further away. But I’m worried, too, about a Diaspora Jewish community that does not have a way of engaging in a serious, reasoned, discussion of Israel. Something, by the way, we’re going to need more and more in the coming years.