Monday, May 16, 2011

Israel - Our Homeland?

Implicit in the laws regarding the Shemita and Yuval, contained in this week’s Torah portion Behar, is a reminder that even if we own the land, per economic standards, it is not ours to keep. Every seven year, the land must rest. Every 50 years, וקראתם דרור בארץ , the land must be ‘released.’ In actuality, these laws are virtually impossible to enact. While convoluted loop holes are built into the halachik system today in order to enable, at the least, a symbolic re-enactment of the shemita and yuval in modern day Israel, it remains unclear if (and most believe improbable that) these laws were ever fully applied in the land. Yet, this attempt at tempering our sense of sole proprietorship of the land serves as a lesson from which all those living in the region today – both Israeli and Palestinian should learn.

One of the greatest challenges with regard to Jewish religious identity vis a vis the state of Israel, in my opinion, has to do with the terminology we use with regard to Israel. The sacred attachment Jews feel with Israel is often described as one of returning home to the land of our ancestors (the land to which Avram was called, lech l’cha, "go forth!"). Israel is identified -- it is qualified -- as our homeland.

Permit me a personal anecdote. The first time I visited Israel was to live there for an extended period of time. All first year students of the Hebrew Union College were (and still are) required to study at the HUC campus in Jerusalem. My very first visit to Israel, thus, required my securing an apartment, making new friends and acquaintances, getting settled into a new neighborhood and learning where the post office, phone and utility companies (in those days, bills were paid in person), bank, shops, and bus stops were all while immersing myself in a new language and culture. It literally required my making a home for myself. I was not a tourist or religious pilgrim. This home in Israel, by the way, was the first that I had ever set up and lived in all by myself – no family, no roommates, just me, myself, and I. This adventurous experience of picking up and moving to Israel as a younger woman was extraordinary; but despite the wonder of it all, despite the very fact that I was creating a home in what I was raised to understand to be the Jewish homeland, I was still a foreigner: an American student living on a extended, but temporary, visa. I loved living in Israel. I long to do it again, perhaps as part of a study sabbatical; but, it isn’t my home. America is, currently, Pikesville.

This sacred concept of ‘homeland’ is underscored by our liturgy – the prayers we regularly recite, our festival cycle (specifically our pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, & Sukkot), and of course, all of Rabbinic literature. Our hearts and mind are constantly directed where towards Zion,המחזיר שכנתו לציון. The power of this sacred concept of “homeland” has its roots in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the forced dispersion of our ancestors from what was literally their home. Recall that the Temple was not only a centralized place of worship. It had far more meaning than a local synagogue. The Temple was a symbol of independent sovereignty. Long before the separation of church and state, the Temple, in Hebrew literally, mikdash – holy thing/site, stood in Jerusalem as the seat of both religious and temporal power. The Temple, this holy site, represented Jews having full power over Jews. It wasn’t solely the religious component that made the Temple so enduring, rather, this coupling of religious and political sovereignty is at the heart of what makes its memory so compelling. The Babylonian and later Roman conquest of this seat of power had huge implications for the Jews of that period, implications which have extended to us, the inheritors of Rabbinic Judaism.

In lieu of this physical structure representing power and cohesion among the community, Rabbinic tradition fostered and nurtured the memory of it and the constant yearning, back (חדש ימנו כקדם, "renew our days as before") and yet at the same time forward, towards this sacred place. Moreover, though the Temple, the mikdash, no longer stands, sacred place is still attainable; it is within our reach. The Rabbinic sages specifically identify the home as the mikdash me’at. Each of us has the capacity to create a microcosm of the Temple in our own homes through the practice of ritual and mitzvot. It wasn’t until the 19th century when German Reformers dared to use the word Temple to refer to a Jewish institution outside of Jerusalem; and indeed, its pointed use brought with it controversy that remains, though far less so than in its day, today.

A challenge faced by the American Jewish community, particularly the liberal Jewish community, is how to maintain this sense of Israel as homeland when faced with the possibility of religious autocracy in place of democracy and pluralism. If we truly consider Israel ‘homeland,’ than we cannot continue to pray and yearn towards Jerusalem without a firm commitment to furthering democratic and pluralistic values within her borders. Vital to this commitment is that we – and by ‘we,’ I mean both Jews living within Israel and without her borders – must be cognizant of the ‘other’s’ narratives regarding the land. Though Israel may be the Jewish homeland, it isn’t solely ours. It is sacred space to others who have a stake in its history and a stake in its future. The only way it can remain a sacred, and even viable, space for us is if we, and more importantly those who live there both Jew and non-Jew, figure out how to respect the narrative of others who lay claim to it.

In honor of Yom ha-Atzma-ut (Israel's Independence Day) which was marked this past week in Israel, I share a few examples of Israeli poetry which I hope will serve to challenge us to reflect on Israel, not just as our homeland, but as a land that serves as home to many.

Each of us has a Name: written by the poet ‘Zelda.’ Zelda was born in the Ukraine in 1914, moved to Jerusalem with her parents at the age of 12 and died there at the age of 70. She had a traditional religious upbringing and did not devote herself fully to writing and teaching until after her husband’s death. Her work began to appear in 1968 and immediately became popular among religious and secular Israelis alike.
(Read Each of us has a Name)

After the fall of 1956 – written by Dvora Amir, a sabra, born in Jerusalem in 1948. Her parents were Polish immigrants who became very active in the agricultural workers’ movement. She began her study of Hebrew literature, Jewish philosophy, and kabbalah after the 6-day war. As her life, much of her poetry reflects the backdrop of war.

Two poems by Ayman Agbaria, a Palestinian-Israeli (his self-identification) poet and play write: Everyday and Debate.

I conclude with one of my favorite poems by Yehuda Amichai, one you’ve heard me recite before. Amichai, who lived and wrote throughout the latter half of the 20th century in Israel, is one of Israel’s most popular and well-known modern poets. His poem Jerusalem succeeds in relating a painful honesty in its utter simplicity.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Osama Bin Laden's Death & Justice: Really? Thoughts on Shabbat Emor, 5/7/2011

It’s unsettling. Osama bin Ladin’s death and the subsequent responses to it. Despite the initial expressions of unbridled joy, enthusiasm, and patriotism that erupted almost immediately early in the week, most of us are left feeling unsatisfied with bin Laden’s death - an event we long hoped would bring some element of closure to the tragic events of 9/11 and the incredible sense of loss and pain American citizens have felt since the fall of 2001.

Objectively, we can pin our uneasiness on the reality of the unknown. News analysis and after analysis reminds us that bin Ladin’s death may or, more likely, may not signal a decline in terrorism. It certainly won’t serve to change the anti-American sentiment that is promoted by many other Arab leaders as an excuse for inciting violence. But, subjectively, our unsettled-ness is far more difficult to compartmentalize and attribute to political uncertainty. Tom Pyszczynski, a social psychologist quoted in yesterday’s New York Times, in his description of the dramatic reactions to the news of bin Ladin’s death as “pure existential release,” touches on the reality that our celebratory response has less to do with bin Ladin and far more to do with our own feelings of insecurity. “Whether or not the killing makes any difference in the effectiveness of Al Qaeda hardly matters,” he explains. “…defeating an enemy who threatens [our] worldview and core values…is the quickest way to calm existential anxiety.” The problem is that quick is not necessarily lasting. When we respond in like manner to violence, our existential anxiety may in the long run be heightened. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the middle of the last century in a book entitled, Where do we go From Here: From Chaos to Community,
"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence, you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. …" The copious postings of this quote this week on Facebook and the like reminds us of the thick layer of uneasiness that lays just below the surface of Sunday night’s celebration.

Now, I willingly leave the continued objective analysis of our national security to the various news media pundits, but I offer three examples from Jewish tradition that perhaps can help us formulate a way in which to navigate through the morass of emotional responses to Osama bin Laden’s death.

First, an analogy drawn from the holiday of Purim - yes, Purim. At first glance, the holiday appears to celebrate the downfall and murder of the Jewish community’s arch-enemy number #1 – Haman, the prime descendent of Amalek and the embodiment of all evil. But, looking past the children’s festivities of dress up and carnival that have risen up around this holiday, we find evidence of great discomfort in the hanging of Haman. Our noise making isn’t entirely celebratory, it is intended to erase our memory. We want to block out Haman’s name, and the very fact that he ever existed and harmed us. The Talmudic mandate (Meg 7b)to drink wine until any discernable difference between the names Mordecai and Haman disappears underscores our desire, perhaps our need, not to celebrate Haman’s death, but to forget the entire episode completely. Moreover, when we chant the passage from the story of Esther that lists the ten sons of Haman killed in battle, we do so, not in the festive melodic trope reserved for Purim, but in a mournful tone and in one singular breath that is held during recitation as if to subdue or prevent any feelings of joy from interrupting the moment.

Second, according to Rabbinic tradition, the moment of redemption from Israelite bondage was not entirely one of joy and celebration. Rabbinic tradition notes the narrative of the Israelite enemy, namely the Egyptians. The Midrashic imagination portrays God shedding tears as the waters of the Reed Sea close behind the newly redeemed Israelite nation. Additionally, the sages imagine the angels beginning to rejoice at the deliverance of the Israelites only to be scolded by God for celebrating so quickly. Even the death of an enemy constitutes loss.

Finally, we come to our Torah portion for this Shabbat, Parashat Emor. Continuing the Holiness Code begun in Kedoshim, the author strives to set clear boundaries with regard to manslaughter. The attempt is made to categorize crime and punishment into an equitable and orderly construct: שבר תחת שבר עין תחת עין שן תחת שן, "a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." . The poetic symmetry of the biblical Hebrew forwards the neat package; but, the poetic symmetry also serves to confound the intent. As Emma will share in just a moment, Rabbinic commentators and sages from all ages have struggled with the language and its intended meaning. Perhaps, however, lack of clarity is just the point. The attempt to package justice so succinctly highlights the very challenge of implementing justice in such a simple and equitable, let alone, satisfying manner. It's as if the author understood the complexity of exacting justice and thus left us with this poetic gem, the seeming simplicity of which opens it up to a wide breath of interpretation. It can never be as simple as it sounds (chant: שבר תחת שבר עין תחת עין שן תחת שן)

Even though bin Laden’s death by American forces brings a modicum of comfort to some and a sense of American empowerment to others, his death can never serve as full retribution for all of the loss and pain suffered on 9/11 and thereafter.

I doubt anything can.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Shabbat Kedoshim – A celebration of Adult B’nai Mitzvah, TE 5771

דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני יי אלהיכם

What does it mean to ‘be holy’? In the Torah, being holy is connected with abiding by law and by extension living according to the covenant outlined, presumably, by God. The earliest reference to the people being qualified as holy appears in Exodus just before revelation of the ‘big 10’ at Sinai. Being holy is conditioned on action, "you’ve seen what I can do," God informs the masses (recall just a few chapters earlier God is credited with the other ‘big 10’ – those nasty plagues – and the subsequent splitting of the Reed Sea). "Now," God continues, “IF you truly listen to me and keep my covenant, THEN (implication being, 'only then') you will be my most treasured people, a גוי קדוש, a holy nation."

Fast forward to parashat Kedoshim. Presented here in the text is what is known as The Holiness Code, what most classical commentators view as a fleshed out reiteration of the 10 Commandments. Here too, the litany of laws and rules are prefaced by the qualification of the people as holy. This Levitical qualification, however, is strikingly different than its earlier iteration (clearly written by a different quill). .קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני יי אליהכם – Holy you will be, because holy [am] I, Adonai, Your God. The conditional language is gone. Action is still a vital part of the equation - the covenant between God and the Israelites; but our holiness appears as a given. And perhaps even more significantly, rather than a consequence of, our holiness functions as the primary motivation for, proper action. As the laws unfold, we are constantly reminded: “Ani Adonai Elohechem.” It’s almost a refrain (chant:אני יי אלהיכם or later in even shorter form אני יי ). Now, I’m no creative writer (academic, yes…but artistic writing is left better to other hands, such as Jill’s), yet I can’t help but think the author is using this refrain as a poetic sound bite to remind us of the entire opening statement: קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני יי אליהכם. Lest we forget why we are to do all these things, we are repeatedly reminded why we are holy, because: אני יי אליהכם. Proper action is incumbent upon us because our Godliness propels us to it.

Few of us feel “holy.” Well maybe Donald Trump does (oh, never mind…that’s full of himself, or full of something else altogether), but for most of us, the idea of kedoshim feels foreign or something set apart from us. Jewish tradition reinforces this concept of separateness in the marked division between the chol & kodesh, the ordinary & the sacred, with regard to time, space, and ritual. The Medieval Midrashist, however, in his elaboration as to why The Holiness Code appears where it does in Torah provides a different model of understanding ‘being holy’ that may be more useful. Kedoshim, and its Holiness Code, appears immediately after a section of text that discusses forbidden sexual relations. It’s placement here according to the Rabbinic imagination is to remind us that in every case where there could be a possibility of immorality, there is also the possibility of sanctity. Our choices and our behavior play a large part in whether something leans towards holiness. Moreover, despite the most stringent attempts at creating legal constructs, the boundaries between what is holy versus what is mundane, let alone profane, aren’t always so clearly delineated. Perhaps this is why the discussion of holiness often flounders into vague and subjective notions of spirituality, a term in and of itself difficult to define.

I can say with certainty, however, that I have experienced kedoshim in being able to share in the sacred journey of these four students sitting here on the bema. On the one hand, our time together could be viewed as quite mundane: informal lectures and discussions (me talking a lot – talk about mundane, hopefully it never crossed over into the profane), watching a movie; heck, one week we sat around wrapping string and tying knots. But, this journey of studying Jewish history, discussing the challenges of assimilation, immersing ourselves in Torah and liturgy, engaging in philosophical explorations of God and practice, and tying tzitzit together was sacred, kadosh, because of the very intention and sincerity brought by teacher and student to the journey.

Burt, Shelley, Jill, and Shanna – אתם קדושים, you are holy. You have created and modeled a sense of holiness throughout this year of study and personal reflection. And, אנחנו קדושים, we are holy, because you are have chosen to share this milestone with us in the context of our Shabbat worship. Our Torah’s sound bite, אני יי אלהיכם, reminds us of the Divine element in holiness and the fact that according to Torah, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, literally in the image of God and thus with the capacity to be holy. I believe, however, that we are truly holy, davka, because we are human. I thank each of you for sharing your humanity with us, and thus enabling us all to share in kedoshim this Shabbat!