Friday, August 31, 2012


Parshat Ki Tetze
13 Elul, 5772
August 31st, 2012

When I lived in Israel, I visited Bethlehem and the Palestinian side of Hevron with an outfit called Encounter

It’s hard to get one’s head around what they do. They are dedicated to transforming the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but they do not advocate a political point of view. Encounter isn’t about debate, nor strategy, nor positioning. The only task of an Encounter participant is to listen. Palestinians from the area tell their personal stories, their history, their priorities, their beliefs. The participants just sit and listen. That’s all.

Accordingly, Encounter is an incredibly frustrating experience. Listening is aggravating – always wanting to speak up and contradict, to yell and to argue. Moreover, it’s not like these Palestinians are shining angels. They are people – prone to plenty of truth and delusion. One Hevron dweller said to me, “the Jews and the Arabs – we are one. We all agree that it’s the Zionists that are the problem.” Afterwards, he and I had a talk about that little gem.

But I will tell you that Encounter was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and for the better. I strangely came away more committed to Israel than ever, but with an appreciation for these enemies as full-blooded, life-sized people. There is a power to personally told stories that I cannot adequately articulate. I did not become more or less of anything on Encounter, but it was as if my mind stepped half around a circle and sat down in a new vantage point. I will remember those stories till the day I die.

My colleagues and I take flack for going on trips like these. People natter about how such an experience is accommodation with the enemy. Some of them once had my respect, though it has since flickered out like a broken light bulb.

Whatever your political path, know that these people are wrong.

I had Azerbaijanis today. Religious scholars and journalists from Azerbaijan visited Washington D.C. on a State Department program. They came for a tour of Sixth & I.

Most Azerbaijanis are Shia’a Muslims, as was this entire group. After they were done being polite, they asked about Israel. “Are you a Zionist?” I said I was. “Why do you believe you belong in Israel?” I paused.

This was the moment of truth. And there were a thousand ways to respond: I could have been aggressive, defensive, principled, or argumentative. But because I had been on Encounter, this time I chose a different path.

I told the story of our people. I talked about how we had been exiled, and still pray for Jerusalem three times a day and at every meal. I talked about what it was like for us among the nations: that in every place we had settled we had experienced moments of peace and prosperity, but that those moments were dwarfed by our pain. I talked about the Crusades, and how we have records from the survivors of parents killing their children and then themselves, rather than be raped and tortured, or burned to death. I talked about how, in the Enlightenment, we had hope for a new kind of life. That in one place in particular Jews felt so redeemed that they called their country a “new Zion.” That country was Germany. I said that after such experiences we were no longer willing to surrender ourselves to the bitter kindnesses of history.

This is not a new story. You’ve heard it – so much so that it might even be hackneyed (though I believe it). But as I finished the woman who had asked the question shocked me.

She started to cry.

Now I am just a little rabbi from America. There is, in this vignette, no diplomacy, no tikkun, no overblown expectations that we’ll all just get along. There is no grand finale, nor seeds of peace. But this woman (and a number of her colleagues) understood. They got it. They understood why I and others care. They saw it through our eyes.

And when they asked me about Palestinians dying, and how could I support Israel’s policies, I responded that I disagreed with certain of Israel’s policies (housing demolitions, checkpoint treatment), but that I had also been there in 2001 when something exploded every single day, and how terrifying it was. I explained that they needed to understand that a mutual solution had to be found, or we were going to destroy each other. And then questioner looked at me, and he nodded.*

Many will not understand, but today’s story meant something. In a conflict that drags on with no appreciable end in sight, in times of proposals and counterproposals and counter-counterproposals that end in nothing, when facts volleyed back and forth only serve their expositors and never understanding – the power of getting an enemy to understand one’s perspective means something. So before (or after) you arm yourself with all the facts, before you memorize all the talking points, before you paint the protest signs, figure out why you care and why Israel is important. And then go grab an enemy and tell your story. Maybe even listen in return.

*The Azerbaijanis did not speak English. I communicated through an interpreter.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Virtue is the Fruit of Irritation

Parshat Shoftim
6 Elul, 5772
August 24th, 2012

My friend Shawn Landres and I were part of a Muslim-Jewish dialogue in Los Angeles. At some point, we were asked to present an overview of Jewish history to the Muslim participants

In half an hour.

4 millennia of history in a half hour is damned hard, nigh impossible. Shawn, who is among other things a scholar of religion, accepted the challenge and did a beautiful job. Another teacher and I were stunned.

Of his half hour, Shawn spent 10 minutes describing American Judaism, including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. As he finished (again having done brilliantly), another Jewish participant stood up.

Irate, this man decried that Shawn had not described his experience of Judaism – that that was not how he had been raised as a Reform Jew.

I wanted to throw my hands up. Of course Shawn had not replicated his experience. Shawn was succinctly describing the experience of millions, over thousands of years.  

This man’s words frustrated me. His assumption was that teaching should mirror his internal feelings. But words that parrot personal experience are not teaching, they are sycophancy.

Since we’re talking Muslim-Jewish dialogue, let’s quote Rumi: “if you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” People increasingly value the power of subjective, personal, authentic experience. We choose for the spiritual “I” to be paramount.

However, the price of the “I” is irritation when people speak of the spiritual “we,” for it will not map perfectly upon personal experience.

Our work is to treasure annoyance: to realize that its presence reveals the opportunity to learn, to  broaden and deepen our individual spirituality by incorporating that of others. The fruit of irritation is virtue.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Lines Straight and Crooked

Parshat Ekev
22 Av 5772
August 10th, 2012

I have to warn you that politics will be mentioned in this post. These days, politics are like the sex in the movies:  people should know before the feature so that they can take their kids and leave.

Anyways, NPR interviewed an unemployed man who blames the president for the economy. Such a conceit is reasonable, whether accurate or not. However, he went on to say that the President and his wife hate white people. This idea is not reasonable at all.

People forget that our President is bi-racial: half African, half Caucasian. To say he hates white people forgets that fully half his family, and his mother, are white. So from where does such a claim come?

The answer, I think, lies in the power of stories. The story of America is of racial divide. Despite all of our progress in the last century, black and white in this country do not yet trust each other. Racial divides remain, and the narrative of racial divide is so strong among us that circumstances which do not fit neatly into its categories are forced to conform. Thus any person who combines black and white is shunted fully to one side of the race debate regardless of inclination, and is slapped with the narrative that applies to African-Americans, no matter how specious.

The ultimate point is not about the president, nor our political furor. The point is that we are willing to sacrifice the identities of others to the needs of our own stories. Case in point: would any man or woman in this country who comes from both black and white parentage, and whose skin is noticeably dark, ever be called anything but black by the outside world?

One of my favorite images from the prophets is of the plumb line – ankh in Hebrew. A plumb line is a simple builder’s tool – a string with a weight at the end. By holding it out, one determines whether a building is truly vertical. Here’s the prophet Amos: “And HaShem said to me, ‘What do you see Amos?’ And I said ‘A plumb line.’ And my Lord said, ‘indeed I am placing a plumb line on my people Israel, and I will no longer let them off.’”

Our charge is to break through the insular circles of life with a plumb line. We should not suffer that which is crooked to remain.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Pride in Prejudice

Shabbat Nahamu
Parshat VaEthanan
15 Av, 5772
August 3rd, 2012

I end up thinking about guilt a lot.

This is not by choice.

Guilt is the disease of those whose cultures have survived long enough to abrogate their own expectations. It is the byproduct of being told what to do since time immemorial, but choosing to do something different. So, for Jews, Catholics, and many others, it’s mother’s milk.

It is also a major motivator of human behavior, and I am confronted with it daily. As a rabbi, I represent the segment of life about which people have the deepest ambivalence. Thus I have developed the superpower of inducing guilt merely by walking into a room, and I have become quite a student of how it manifests.

By far, guilt’s most interesting expression is through pride. One sees this, especially in the states: a prideful, often scorning, relish in a real or perceived deficiency: “book-learning is a waste of time;” “I would never lower myself by thinking of something so common as money;” and my personal favorite, “I’m a terrible Jew – I’ve broken the entire Torah.” (which is not possible, and really, all I wanted was some ice-cream from your shop.)

What links all three is the admixture of a choice – not to pursue higher learning, not to learn business, not to be observant – and an unconscious fear that somehow one is living in error. How else to explain the aggression towards those who have walked said path?

The incomparable Rav Kook, writing to his students, once said, “One who is inclined towards piety, to the highest possible spiritual wisdom, should know that it was for this [purpose] that he was created…and therefore be happy in his lots; however, never should they be despised in his eyes, nor should he demean the lots of others – even though they are very far (from this wisdom), for in certainty they have other vocations which are good and useful, and are very far from [the student].

It is our ability to accept the lots of others with grace and joy, different though they may be from ours, that attests to the rightness of our own lives.