Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Bronfman Fellowships | Mattot 2016
They once asked Hillel where he was going. He answered: "I am going to do a mitsva."
"Which mitsva?" "I am going to the bathroom"
"That is a mitsva??" "Yes, so the body won't disfunction"
"Where are you going Hillel?" "I am going to do a mitsva"
"Which mitsva Hillel?" "I am going to the bath house". "That is a mitsva??"
"Yes! If those who are in charge of the images [statues] of Caesar in theaters and circuses, scour them and wash them and are rewarded and honored for it -- how much more should we take care of our bodies, for we have been created in the image of God, as it is written, 'in the image of God was human created" (Genesis 1).
Shammai would not say thus, but rather would say: "Let us do what must be done with this body".
Avot deRabbi Nathan b 38a,
Commentary on “Let all your deeds be for the sake of heaven”, Pirke Avot Chapter 2:19
The human body has become the site of this year’s most intense debates and dramas. It seems like one perspective asks of us to look beyond the human body, as a way of recognizing the inherent equality of all human beings, regardless of gender, ethnicity, color, nationality and creed. The growing recognition of the right to self-definition of human beings over their body (including where Hillel will go to perform the mitzvah of going to the bathroom) also seems to want to transcend the human body as a means to freedom – even as it brings the physical body back to the center of attention. And then on the darker side of things, the resurgence of public violence aimed specifically against the human body, in far off lands and close to home, brings our very bodies – not just our beliefs and opinions – back into clear relief. These killings claim symbolic meaning in the public desecration of the human body, renouncing the sanctity of human life not only of those being killed, but by proxy of all humans watching. Some might frame this as a battle between a religious and a secular world view, yet in the Jewish House of Study, the conversation about human life is a conversation about God, for human beings – so we teach our children – were created in the image of God. As I try to navigate my own position in these debates, I find myself returning again and again to this idea of Tzelem Elohim. In it I find that the call to human freedom, equality and uniqueness is found not in overcoming the human body, but in placing the human body as the very site of infinite value and deep equality.
Yet, if we’re going to tout that old adage of “Tzelem Elohim” - being created in the image of God - around, I felt I owe myself to dig deeper into what that idea means: how it was understood, constructed, reinterpreted and used by Jews over the centuries.
Ironically, the place where a culture’s true values regarding the sanctity of human life play out is in the way they choose to end such lives through judicial means, i.e. execution (see Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” for a great exploration of these themes as the essence of modernity). Thus this summer I’ve been studying with the 2016 Bronfmanim the Sixth Chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin, which discusses how a society that believes that humans are created in the image of God would go about the problematic act of execution. The texts are gruesome and dark at times (and feel oddly like binge viewing “Game of Thrones”), but the Talmudic discussions of execution reveal how the Rabbis reshaped the Biblical execution rituals to reflect the two organizing principles that they set for the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which they interpreted to mean: therefor even choose for them a good death”) and “In the image of God they were created”. (Want to study this with us? Take a look at these debates in this chapter of Mishna, in Beth Berkowitz’s fantastic book about execution in Jewish, Christian and Roman texts; or email me to get the source packet from my shiur this summer, which I’d be delighted to share).
But of all the fascinating details of execution – stoning, burning, hanging, oh my - there is one Rabbinic text that stands out as the (bleeding) heart of the idea of the image of God. It unfolds in a speech which is given to witnesses who seek to give incriminating testimony in a capital case. If we are to end a human life because of the words you are about to say, says the Mishna, we want to make sure you understand the gravity of human life. If there is one Rabbinic text which is most important to study, memorize and recite in our times, I believe it is this one:
How do we press the witnesses in a capital case? We bring them in [to the court's chambers] and press them: "Perhaps what you say [isn't eyewitness testimony] but your own assessment, or from rumors […] But take heed, for capital cases are not like monetary ones. In monetary cases, [a false witness] can return the money and be forgiven. But in capital cases, the blood of the victim [a wrongfully executed person] and all their future offspring hang upon you until the end of time.
For thus we find in regard to Cain, who killed his brother, the verse says: "The bloods of your brother scream out!" (Genesis 4:10) – the verse does not say blood of your brother, but bloods of your brother, because it was his blood and also the blood of his future offspring [screaming out]!
It was for this reason that human was first created as one person, to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world."
And also, to promote peace among the creations, that no person can say to their friend, "My ancestors are greater than yours." And also, so that heretics will not say, "there are many rulers up in Heaven."
And also, to express the grandeur of The Holy Blessed One : For a human strikes many coins from the same die, and all the coins are alike. But the King, the King of Kings, The Holy Blessed One strikes every human from the die of the First Human, and yet no human is quite like the other.
Therefore, every person must say, “For my sake the world was created.”
(Mishna Sanhedrin Chapter 5:4, see Hebrew text below)
Here, in the middle of a procedure to kill a person, is where Jews have a conversation about the value of human life. The Mishna uses the story of the creation of Humanity to draw moral conclusions: narrative turns into nomos; myth becomes practice. Three basic teachings are expounded from the fact that in the Jewish creation story, God creates just one human being: that human life is of infinite value (every person is worth an entire world); that all lives are equal (one can’t say “my ancestor is greater than yours”); and that each human life is unique (no coin of god=human being is quite like the other). This could easily become a teaching of radical individualism – “for me the world was created!” – but instead becomes a call of infinite responsibility to human life wherever it is to be found. Ethics, existentialism and mysticism are tied together here. Witnessing human diversity and individual uniqueness becomes a testament to God’s amazing creation – and it all emanates from a great respect for the human body itself, which is infinitely unique, valuable AND equal, because it is an icon of God. Thus encountering human matchlessness becomes a spiritual experience. Building a society that truly believes that human beings are created in the image of God means creating societies where every person is recognized for their own (divine!) uniqueness, where all human beings are equal, and where every human life is of infinite value. The conversation of criminal justice must begin from this point, as must the conversation of why and how Jewish communities so often fail to reflect these values.
The ramifications of this approach lie from the dark hart of capital punishment to the Rabbinic approach to toilets, as in the opening quote from Hillel above: Just as the Romans believed that the icons of their Gods, Kings and emperors were imbued with an element of the sovereign itself, so our very bodies are imbued with an element of Divinity herself, and must be treated with the proper respect.
Shammai, mind you, is having none of this anthropomorphic nonsense. The above Mishna might be the most important text to some Jews, but to others is nothing of the sort. Yet perhaps this too explains why we value debate and dispute, machloket, in Judaism: the diversity of opinions in itself reflects the divine uniqueness of human existence… If only God created more people that agree with me, and not so much uniqueness, the world would be a simpler place…
מסכת אבות דרבי נתן נוסחא ב פרק ל
וכל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמים כהלל. כשהיה הלל יוצא למקום היו אומרים לו להיכן אתה הולך. לעשות מצוה אני הולך. מה מצוה הלל. לבית הכסא אני הולך. וכי מצוה היא זו. אמר להן הן. בשביל שלא יתקלקל הגוף. איכן אתה הולך הלל. לעשות מצוה אני הולך מה מצוה הלל. לבית המרחץ אני הולך. וכי מצוה היא זו. אמר להן הן. בשביל לנקות את הגוף. תדע לך שהוא כן מה אם אוקיינות העומדות בפלטיות של מלכים הממונה עליהם להיות שפן וממרקן המלכות מעלה לו סלירא בכל שנה ושנה ולא עוד אלא שהוא מתגדל עם גדולי המלכות. אנו שנבראנו בצלם ודמות שנאמר כי בצלם אלהים עשה את האדם (בראשית ט' ו') על אחת כמה וכמה. שמאי לא היה אומר כך אלא יעשה חובותינו עם הגוף הזה:
משנה מסכת סנהדרין פרק ד
כֵּיצַד מְאַיְּמִין (אֶת הָעֵדִים) עַל עֵדֵי נְפָשׁוֹת?
הָיוּ מַכְנִיסִין אוֹתָן וּמְאַיְּמִין עֲלֵיהֶן.
שֶׁמָּא תֹאמְרוּ מֵאֹמֶד, וּמִשְּׁמוּעָה,
עֵד מִפִּי עֵד וּמִפִּי אָדָם נֶאֱמָן שָׁמַעְנוּ,
אוֹ שֶׁמָּא אִי אַתֶּם יוֹדְעִין שֶׁסּוֹפֵנוּ לִבְדּוֹק אֶתְכֶם בִּדְרִישָׁה וּבַחֲקִירָה.
הֶווּ יוֹדְעִין שֶׁלֹּא כְדִינֵי מָמוֹנוֹת דִּינֵי נְפָשׁוֹת. דִּינֵי מָמוֹנוֹת, אָדָם נוֹתֵן מָמוֹן וּמִתְכַּפֵּר לוֹ.
דִּינֵי נְפָשׁוֹת, דָּמוֹ וְדַם זַרְעִיּוֹתָיו תְּלוּיִין בּוֹ עַד סוֹף הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁכֵּן מָצִינוּ בְקַיִן שֶׁהָרַג אֶת אָחִיו, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית ד) דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ צֹעֲקִים, אֵינוֹ אוֹמֵר דַּם אָחִיךָ אֶלָּא דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, דָּמוֹ וְדַם זַרְעִיּוֹתָיו.
דָּבָר אַחֵר, דְּמֵי אָחִיךָ, שֶׁהָיָה דָמוֹ מֻשְׁלָךְ עַל הָעֵצִים וְעַל הָאֲבָנִים.
לְפִיכָךְ נִבְרָא אָדָם יְחִידִי,
לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת [מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל],
מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא.
וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל,
מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא.
וּמִפְּנֵי שְׁלוֹם הַבְּרִיּוֹת,
שֶׁלֹּא יֹאמַר אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ אַבָּא גָדוֹל מֵאָבִיךָ.
וְשֶׁלֹּא יְהוּ מִינִין אוֹמְרִים, הַרְבֵּה רְשׁוּיוֹת בַּשָּׁמָיִם.
וּלְהַגִּיד גְּדֻלָּתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא,
שֶׁאָדָם טוֹבֵעַ כַּמָּה מַטְבְּעוֹת בְּחוֹתָם אֶחָד
וְכֻלָּן דּוֹמִין זֶה לָזֶה,
וּמֶלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא
טָבַע כָּל אָדָם בְּחוֹתָמוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן
וְאֵין אֶחָד מֵהֶן דּוֹמֶה לַחֲבֵרוֹ.
לְפִיכָךְ כָּל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד חַיָּב לוֹמַר,
בִּשְׁבִילִי נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם.
וְשֶׁמָּא תֹאמְרוּ מַה לָּנוּ וְלַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת,
וַהֲלֹא כְבָר נֶאֱמַר (ויקרא ה) וְהוּא עֵד אוֹ רָאָה אוֹ יָדָע אִם לוֹא יַגִּיד וְגוֹמֵר.
וְשֶׁמָּא תֹאמְרוּ מַה לָּנוּ לָחוּב בְּדָמוֹ שֶׁל זֶה,
וַהֲלֹא כְבָר נֶאֱמַר (משלי יא) וּבַאֲבֹד רְשָׁעִים רִנָּה:
Friday, June 10, 2016
Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Shavuot 2016
“Few adults, very few, are aware to what extent children watch their parents, constantly on the lookout for some sign of how they should approach the world; how sharp and vibrant their intelligence is in the years leading up to the disaster of puberty, how quick to summarize, to draw broad conclusions. Very few adults realize every child, naturally, instinctively, is a philosopher.” (Michelle Houellebecq in Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take on Each Other and the World)
A few weeks ago, I took a few Bronfman Fellows to visit Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses, at New York’s Romemu, and past BYFI co-director and faculty member. One thing Dianne said during that talk has been buzzing in my brain ever since that conversation. One of the fellows asked about the role of obligation in the liberal Jewish world. Dianne answered that as an educator, she first of all asks herself where people encounter obligation most powerfully in their own lives. “For me,” she said, “the seminal experience of obligation was when my newborn child cried. There it was – an undeniable obligation; a gut surge to be there, constantly, supportive, loyal. I was needed, and I was obligated. I learned what obligation meant when I became a parent.”
This answer struck me because it felt so true to my own experience, but also because it was an inversion of the way obligation was acquired as a trait in traditional society. A person’s basic experience of obligation was supposed to derive from being a child, not a parent! Josephus puts this succinctly (in a way that probably bridges Jewish and Roman education) as he ventriloquizes what parents should say to their incorrigible children:
As to those young men that despise their parents, and do not pay them honor, but offer them affronts…let their parents admonish them in words… and let them say thus to them: That they [the parents] got married not for the sake of pleasure, nor for the augmentation of their riches… but that they might have children to take care of them in their old age, and might by them have what they then should want. …[And]that God is displeased with those that are insolent towards their parents, because he is himself the Father of the whole race of mankind, and seems to bear part of that dishonor which falls upon those that have the same name, when they do not meet with dire returns from their children. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews vol.4 260)
I’m curious if anyone has tried these lines at home recently... Not only does the idea that we gave birth to children so that they’ll take care of us in our old age strike us as odd (and self centered?) but many of us grew up on our parents saying that they made sacrifices so that we could have the life we want to have.
God, Avinu Malkenu, is often metaphorized as parent because Parent is the model of commander and obligator. Loving, caring, compassionate – but also authoritative and powerful. No wonder that the 5th commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” is seen as the bridge between obligations between God and human, and between human and human. Our Parents are our Sinai. In their hugs and admonitions, stories and rules, Torah was given. They were preparing us for the greater Sin;ai that was to come: a relationship with God the Father.
Yet here Dianne was suggesting that Parenthood – not childhood - is a much more relevant Sinai. Sociologists have been pointing out that if in the past marriage signified the move to full adulthood and economic independence, that in today’s affluent societies it is parenting, and not marriage, higher education or professional choice, which has increasingly become the “moment” around which big life decisions are made: what identity I will have, what neighborhood I’ll live in, what family practices we will accept (the Obama’s decision to stay in DC until their daughter finishes high school seems relevant here, somehow). Perhaps this is what Moses clarified to God at the Golden Calf, when God wanted to destroy the Jewish people: Sorry Mr. Creator. Now that you’re a parent, you need to act differently. You can’t just get up and leave: you’re held accountable. True, you obligate us. But we obligate you as well.
In her brief statement, Rabbi Dianne had opened up a whole new theology: what does it mean to imagine God as standing at the Sinai of the Jewish People and saying: Naaseh v’Nishma. I will obey and I will listen.
And yet, as Michelle Houellebecq put it in the quote at the top, we quickly become Sinai to our children too. Perhaps not in the same terms of stark authority and obligation as in the traditional world (although that too is there), but Sinai by way of giving the initial stories, metaphors and frameworks through which the world is understood; we shape the ontology from which our children’s world will be shaped.
Parenthood turns us into storytellers, and thus challenges us to figure out what “the story” is, and how much we believe in it. This is worth dwelling upon, because stories are the perfect envelope in which to couch complex truths. Stories are containers for ambiguity, the navigating of which will be a crucial job of our children in this constantly changing world. In a call this week about parenting among Bronfmanim, many of us were asking how to respond to children’s questions when we ourselves don’t know “the answer”, or face diversity of practice in our own families. I suggested that we might not know what is “true”, but that we can definitely say what is “real” to us. And that “real” is a category our children know well. In this way, the Hebrew word Emet holds both meanings: true and real. That which parents take seriously will be held as true. What they say is always secondary. Being a parent is about receiving a Torah of Obligation, but it is also about giving the Torah on a daily basis. Perhaps that is why teaching Torah to our children has been such an important commandment in our tradition. When the Torah of our family – whatever that may be – is given from parents to children, Sinai happens anew. That’s what Shavuot is all about.
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
A presentation delivered at the Wexner Alumni Summit April 2016, Rabbi Mishael Zion
“What is American Jews’ relationship to Israel?” is a topic of much debate, discussion and handwringing in recent year. Words like crises, distancing, occupation, religious freedom, BDS and assimilation often follow (though usually not from the same people).
Leaving the conversation at that question alone is a mistake. Two important questions must be engaged more seriously: the touchier “What is American Jews’ relationship to Israelis?” and the all-but-ignored question: “What is Israeli Jews’ relationship to American Jews?”
A few weeks ago I was asked to speak at the first Wexner Alumni Summit on the topic of Stronger Together: [Re] Imagining the Israel-North American Jewish Community Relationship. My (somewhat scary) job was to address these questions in front of a room of some of Israel’s top civil servants and North America’s leading lay leaders. The process helped me clarify in my own thinking how much these two communities have contradicted and undermined each other from day one, and how they also need each other and complement each other. I tried to pull apart the various debates and arguments about whether American Jews’ are distancing from Israel and Israelis, and to address head on the way Israelis never cared about American Jews’ and why this is changing today. I believe the tension between these two communities is an important asset in ensuring the survival – or perhaps even the flourishing: morally, spiritually, Jewishly - of these two strange and unique phenomenas of Jewish history.
As Israel celebrates its 68th year of existence I share my remarks online, in a hope that some people still have patience to read something longer than 800 word op-eds.
The poem was written some 600 years ago, by a French Jewish merchant who returned from from a business trip in Germany, and spent Shabbat among the German Jews of Alsace. Deeply disturbed by the type of Jews he met there, he eternalized his criticism in meter and rhyme, writing the following poem. See if you can follow the Biblical pun, which allows him to claim that “לא אלמן ישראל” - The Jews of Allemand are not part of Israel:
The day that I went out from France
And towards German lands made my advance
I found cruel people at first glance
Like ostriches in the wild plain
For Israel is not Alleman [=forsaken]
What has straw to do with grain?
I had hoped to find salvation
A day of rest and relaxation
Yet their offerings lacked consideration
My heart was cleft in twain
For Israel is not forsaken
What has straw to do with grain?
I searched the breadth of all Alsace
No man knew its worth I came across
Oh, would that its ways were not such chaos —
Overriding men, the women reign
For Israel is not forsaken
What has straw to do with grain?
I’ve grown utterly sick of Ashkenazim
For each one is fierce of face, I deem
Even their beards like goats’ beards seem
Heed not their words, all said in vain
For Israel is not forsaken
What has straw to do with grain?
יוֹם מִצָּרְפַת יָצָאתִי
אֶל אֶרֶץ אַשְׁכְּנַז יָרַדְתִּי
וְעַם אַכְזָר מָצָאתִי
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
צִפִּיתִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה
יוֹם נֹפֶשׁ וּמַרְגוֹעַ
וּמִנְחָתָם בְּלִי שָׁעָה
לְבָבִי הָיָה נִשְׁבָּר
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
חִפַּשְׂתִּי אֶלְזוּשׂ אָרְכָּהּ
וְלֹא יָדַע אֱנוֹשׁ עֶרְכָּהּ
לוּלֵי שֶֹלֹא כְּדַרְכָּהּ
הָאִשָּׁה עַל אִישׁ תִּגְבַּר
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
קַצְתִּי מְאֹד בְּאַשְׁכְּנַזִּים
כִּי הֵם כֻּלָּם פָּנִים עַזִּים
אַף זְקָנָם כְּמוֹ עִזִּים
אַל תַּאֲמֵן לָהֶם דָּבָר!
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
between American and Israeli Jews?
Our poet is one model, but when I think of a Jewish model for a healthy
two communities, I think of the Talmud’s “Nehotei”. In the Sea of Talmudic
Halakha, the Nehotei (whose means literally “the descender”, or those
who “get down”) were the way-farers, the bold travelers who went back and forth
between Bavel and the Galilee, those two fabled centers of the Jewish Talmudic
world. They always transmitted what was going on in the other community. If you
follow their sayings closely, you realize their statements are usually game-changers.
Until they walk in, the whole discussion goes one way, but once they’ve
contributed their perspective, the debate goes in a whole new direction.
|Kovner's Sea of Halakha|
In many ways, you – the alumni of the various Wexner leadership programs in Israel and North America, are a room of Nehotei – each bringing ideas back and forth between the two communities. What we’ve come together here to do is to become better Nehotei together.
Intro Two: Patience, and lack thereof
We’re here to study “Talmud המביא לידי מעשה –learning that brings about action.” My job is to offer some new frames for what we all already know, to give a shared language with which we can shorthand our conversations; and to frame some of the machloket – disagreements that perhaps exist in the room, and stir up the pot a bit so that we can bring the power of this room to bear…
One disclaimer: I’m not the expert in the room. People here have written books, led initiatives, organized mifgashim, work full time or during ungodly hours after work towards these issues – some of you have been doing this since before I was born. Instead my role here today is to provide a scaffolding upon which we can rest the coming two days of conversations.
Since I believe we learn best when we discuss ourselves and not just listen, I’ve structured the second half of our time together around three hevrutot - 1:1 conversations with a pre-assigned partner, where we will ask three questions:
- Who Cares? Assessing this moment in Israeli-North American Jewish relationship
- What are “We”? Examining metaphors of connections between the communities
- Going Beyond Mifgash: Lessons Learned and Best Practices
But before we launch into the conversation, wWe each have a story of how we became Nehotei – and I want to start by briefly sharing with you mine:
I was born in Jerusalem – but spent three years of elementary school in US public schools where I picked up a wonderful American accent. I now work in a community that bridges both communities, constantly going back and forth. But in preparation for this summit, I realized that one pivotal moment in my story determined where I am today.
Growing up in Israel, I saw the relationship between Israel and America as a one-way street. Americans were great, but I mostly met them as tourists in Israel, not in their home setting. Their job was to be the “good uncle from Amerika” - support Israel financially and politically, buy Israeli products and go home. Maybe their kids would make Aliyah (most would not), and that would make me happy, but only if they shed their accent and funny clothes and become “true Israelis.”
I come from a family that’s been going back and forth between Israel and America since before the creation of the state. My grandfather made Aliyah in 1947, and fought in the Hagana, before returning to serve as a rabbi in Minneapolis for 25 years (a story that I told in this ELI Talk called “A Tale of Two Zions”). My father made Aliyah after 1967, and has trained a generation of teachers and educators in both countries. Together we authored haggadot in Hebrew and in English that have changed the way Jews in both countries celebrate their Passover Seders, influenced how Jews in both countries tell their key identity stories.
Until I realized that the things I thought that Israeli society needed most could be learned from the American Jewish community, and vice versa. This happened to me on both a national and personal level.
I had wanted to study to become a Rabbi for a few years – but was displeased with the Israeli Orthodox training which only taught laws and not leadership and community skills. I heard about a new Yeshiva which had opened in New York – Chovevei Torah – and called up R Avi Weiss to ask if I could apply. He rejected me, saying they trained Rabbis for the American Jewish community, not the Israeli one. The rejection made me want to come even more. “Teach me how to be an American community Rabbi – I’ll already do the translating to the Israeli scene…” I said. My wife received a post-doc at Columbia University, and we were on our way
But really what was going on was a desire to shake off israeli cynicism that had set in; and a nagging feeling that encountering the American Jewish community could teach me something valuable about being Israeli.
The summers of 2005-2006 were hard ones in Israel, The expulsion from Gush Katif, the second Lebanon war hitting the following summer, we felt it was hard to believe in big dreams anymore. My wife and I realized we wanted to travel to America to drink up some of the koolaid of American naiveté, of the belief in “Tikkun Olam”, seeking a place where we can dream again – but not as a turning of our backs on Israel, but as a way to return to Israel.
What we always found funny was how we were constantly asked to choose sides. “You’re coming back, right” – the bookseller at the second hand book store in Jerusalem demanded before taking my books. “So you’ve chosen Israel over us?” asked our friends at our Upper West Side synagogue when we left New York; “תגידו את האמת, איפה יותר טוב?” – “Tell me the truth, where is it better?” demanded that passport woman at Ben Gurion…
So before we go any further, I want – with your permission – to say a few things I have no patience for in this conversation: I have very little patience for the either/or mentality of Israel versus North America; for the “where is it better” insecurities, for the competition to see “who will be the first to fail”. I have very little patience for the way people in both communities project unto the other one that everything is either “great” or “horrible” about the other community (or about their own ); I have very little patience for awkward “mifgashim”, for sticky talk of “peoplehood” and for “we are one” fluffiness, for the superiority complex of liberaler-than-thou Americans and the hubris of macho Israelis who know what “real” danger and sacrifice are like.
I could go on, but here are some things I do have patience for: I have patience for these two far-from-perfect communities, this dysfunctional family with a tendency for self-delusion, to develop their discord into the amazing machloket that it could be, to find the ways in which we can learn from each other and teach eachother – and make the most of this unique moment in Jewish history.
The “Jewish Normal” Living in Generations of Rapid change
|Invite to the 8th Zionist Congress in the Hague, 1907|
Just over 100 years ago, summer of 1907, in the tiny town of Eibergen (Dutch for Eggtown) a curious Manuel Zion, my great-grandfather, rides his horse and buggy from his small Dutch town to the Hague. He had heard that the 8th Zionist Congress was to take place in the city, and since he carried the unusual name of “Zion” he decided to find out what all this Zionisten thing was about.
When he returned home to Eibergen, excited if skeptical of the grand ideas and programs that were thrown back and forth in that room, he finds a letter: “You are hereby disinvited from the Jewish community’s dinner and dance – there will be no place in our community for Zionists.”
I think of this story often when I am looking for some context about how we got here and where we might be 100 years from now. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to get disinvited from the community dinner and dance on the way to a grander vision.
1848 – 11 million Jews, of which less than 100,000 Jews live in Israel or America
1939 – 17 million Jews
1948 – Back at 11 million, but a Jewish state is founded by less than 7% of the Jewish people; meanwhile – a third of the Jewish people live in America;
2016 – 40% in each country, 20% in the rest of the world
2050 - projections of 8 million Jews in Israel, steady 6 million Jews in US?
So this is all very new. I say this to caution us against doomsday predictability scenarios, and also to inspire hope that paradigms shift and change, pendulums swing and social initiatives do matter (although perhaps not as much as social, economic and political factors).
Two Homes: Different, Contradictory or Complimentary?
That in itself is not your “Jewish normal”. If the ongoing dichotomy of Jewish existence has been exile or redemption, we now face a third option: arrival. It is not quite the messianic redemption, but it definitely feels like a final destination. In both Israel and America, a majority of the Jewish people feel that they are “at home” in the country in which they reside. And I believe that fundamentally understanding how “at home” the Jewish people are in the two homes, their two “Zions”, is extremely important to reframing the work between the two communities. You might not agree with me on this point, or you might feel that this is exactly where the problem lies. But questioning the assumptions of various Jews on “where home is” is exactly the place where I believe the conversation should start, for our two homes are extremely different from eachother:
Lets count the ways:
1. Languages: the two communities speak different languagues, Hebrew and English, ont only as their day-to-day language, but as their Jewish language. A person can be considered wholly literate without knowing much of the other communities literary cannon.
2. They define their Jewish lives very differently – the two largest groups in each community define their Jewish lives very differently, even if their practice is relatively similar: Reform/Conservative in North America vs. Hiloni/Masorti in Israel; this also means that the Haredi and Dati/MO groups in both communities find it easier to be together than the other groups, and are more often those more concerned about the relationship.
3. Political views are viewed very differently: a majority of US jews are left/liberal, majority of Israeli jews are center and right (left is a brand in severe crises in Israel); they view issues of settlements and attempt towards peace very differently;
4. The basic organizing ethic of the two communities is very different: Israel is based in a culture of obligation – מצווה, שוויוןי בנטל, אין ברירה while American Jewish community is voluntaristic – both as a practice and as an ethic. This is not a judgement, but an observation – it effects where power lies: think of the type of leadership in this room – civil servants vs. volunteer lay leaders… The Wexner Foundation mode of identifying the core leadership in each country led to very different paths, because the power and prestige lies in two very different forms of service.
5. Separate base experiences are different: ongoing threat vs. prosperity and gratitude
a. Neighborhoods: Middle East/North America – Jews in Israel aer the majority, but in their neighborhood they feel like the “Middle Eastern other” in a way that recapitulates us being the European “other” for so many centuries. But in the US, Jews are not the other, but in fact, mostly white and privileged. They are accepted as being part of the majority, yet have a self-understanding of themselves as a minority.
6. Most interestingly, Israeli and North American Jews view the threats to Israeli life very differently. 39% of Israelis think the most important long-term problem facing Israel is economic problems. American Jews – 1%. (Do any Americans recognize the name Guy Rolnik or read “The Marker”?)
Either way, it thus makes sense that the “relationship” between these two communities should be so fraught, simply because of the huge differences between them. And yet we are not simply two “different” communities, we are actually two contradictory Jewish projects that by their very nature repudiate eachother:
a. The Israeli project is about creating a Jewish “State”; its underlying assumption is that Jews will only be safe if living on their own land and organized politically. The project includes redefining what Jewish means – Judaism exists primarily in the public space; and for generation the project also included Judaism being super-ceded by Israeliness, weakening the tie to non-Israeli Jews. Its central challenge is that of being the majority. It’s blessing is also a cruse: the unique challenge of power being colored “Jewish”: maintaining a Jewish military, Jewish sovereignty, a Jewish foreign policy…
b. The North American project on the other hand has a very different kind of power. It’s central goal is proving that a prosperous Jewish Diaspora is possible, that we can be a safe and vibrant minority within a democracy which is truly welcoming of minorities. The success of North American Jews disproves Herzlian Zionism on a daily basis – Jews can indeed live safely while being a minority. The energy of the project seemingly is that of remaining Jewish – but really the project is that of being American, and ensuring the America is welcoming to minorities such as ourselves. Jews came to America and discovered they are not only good at becoming Americans, they are good at telling Americans what the American story actually is (and if Jewish helps that, great).
In these ways and others, these two projects undermine eachother, but perhaps they are also complimentary – perhaps each community is only possible because of the other community? perhaps ONLY POSSIBLE because of the other community?
Would Jews be allowed to live in Westchester NY if not for the Jewish state? Would Israel have American support if not for the organized Jewish community?
Can this implicit complementariness, played out in social and political currency, also become an overt one, in a mutual exchange of ideas?
Returning to the Origins of the Relationship: The Blaustein-Ben Gurion Agreement
|Ben Gurion, Blaustein and Golda Meir, 1950|
David Ben Gurion: The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel. The State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens, and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country. We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad. The Government and the people of Israel fully respect the right and integrity of the Jewish com munities in other countries to develop their own mode of life and their indigenous social, economic and cultural institutions in accordance with their own needs and aspirations.
Jacob Blaustein: We shall do all we can to increase further our share in the great historic task of helping Israel to solve its problems and develop as a free, independent and flourishing democracy… But Israel also has a responsibility in this situation — a responsibility in terms of not affecting adversely the sensibilities of Jews who are citizens of other states by what it says or does. American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile. American Jews — young and old alike, Zionists and non-Zionists alike — are profoundly attached to America.
To American Jews, America is home. There, exist their thriving roots; there, is the country which they have helped to build; and there, they share its fruits and its destiny. They believe in the future of a democratic society in the United States under which all citizens, irrespective of creed or race, can live on terms of equality. They further believe that, if democracy should fail in America, there would be no future for democracy anywhere in the world, and that the very existence of an independent State of Israel would be problematic. Further, they feel that a world in which it would be possible for Jews to be driven by persecution from America would not be a world safe for Israel either; indeed it is hard to conceive how it would be a world safe for any human being.
Yet a few years after these statements, Ben Gurion was found back to his previopus antics, undermining the legitimacy of the North American Jewish community:
In his address to the World Zionist Congress in December 1960, Ben Gurion declared: “Since the day when the Jewish state was established and the gates of Israel were flung open to every Jew who wanted to come, every religious Jew has daily violated the precepts of Judaism and the Torah by remaining in the Diaspora. Whoever dwells outside the land of Israel is considered to have no God, the sages said… In several totalitarian and Moslem countries, Judaism is in danger of death by strangulation; in the free and prosperous countries it faces death by a kiss — a slow and imperceptible decline into the abyss of assimilation.”
The same tones heard today – a sense of mutual undermining, a threat of assimilation versus that of dual loyalty, a myth of possible distancing, declarations of co-dependency alongside “get off my turf”-ness, where there from the begininng.
Then why is there a current sense of crises, and where does it emanate from? Many of you wrote about a crises in your applications, but you disagreed on what the crises is. I’d like to share a few of the machlokot that exist in this room (and in the wider world):
Let's start with the North American perspective. Many claim that there is “Distancing” – that a younger generation doesn’t care about Israel as much as their parents did. If it exists, why? And is it a bad thing, or perhaps a good one?
1. Seminal memories – the generational gap emanates from very different seminal memories: not the Israel of 1967 which re-shaped the way in which American Jews saw themselves. Israel is experienced not as a confidence booster to American Jews, but as a liability.
2. This in large part has to do with differing views over the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
o Majority of American Jews blame Israeli Policy for the current situation and resent Israeli leadership that is cynical about peace efforts. This generation doesn’t remember 1967 or 1994, but a local superpower fighting against guerilla warfare and local uprisings.
o Israeli majority feels stalemated: it supports a two-state solution on paper but doesn’t believe it is possible to achieve. Israeli society is swerving to the right, with the left crumbling and the seminal memories of move people under 30 is of ongoing Intifada.
3. An opposite reading – also heard loud and clear in the applications - sees the distancing of young people from Israel as the result of a campaign and a broad sentiment on college campuses, BDS initiatives and the bundling of various other progressive agendas with the anti-Israel cause.
4. A different approach locates the challenge in the lack of religious Pluralism and freedom in Israel. In the American Jewish community, where the Reform movement makes up the largest denomination, and core American values are also seen as core Jewish values – pluralism, religious tolerance and freedom of religion –it is hard to get excited about an Israel in which women can be arrested for reading Torah at the Kotel or where their Judaism is not recognized.
5. The flip side of this argument can be seen in the claim that it is the rampant assimilation in America which is the problem and the greatest threat to the relationship. The “vanishing American Jew” that has also disconnected from values of Jewish solidarity and obligation is eroding the bond between Israel and America
But this has been from an America-centric perspective. What happens when we look at distancing of Israeli Jews from American Jews? Not a myth of a better time, but an understanding that Israelis never quite knew what to do with American Jews.
Hebrew identity – erasing previous identity; Negation of the Diaspora – AB Yehoshua as a paradigm: diaspora is a neurosis, an unhealthy split personality; only way to be full Jew is in Israel.
What gets headlines in Israel is “Vanishing American Jews” – which fits the paradigm mentioned in Ben Gurion’s 1960 quote above. What Israelis think of Americans is: דוד מאמריקה (Uncle from America); Aipac supporters, רפורמים (“Reformim”) = “weird Jews”; תיירי תגלית (birthright tourists). They hardly ever get to encounter American Jews “at home” and thus never understand their ethos, communities and lives in context.
When do Israelis learn about Diaspora Judaism? In Poland! Israeli Education about Diaspora Judaism is state-sponsored Poland trips – and despite many exchanges, the over-arching frame of Auschwitz or IDF continues to be a powerful frame.
The challenge to my mind is that both communities seem to assume an Israel-centric frame.
What caused this frame is that while in 1948, American Jews like Blaustein perceived themselves to be at home in American, in 1967 Israel’s amazing feat allowed American Jews to feel more at home in America than ever before. As Boston’s CJP President Bary Schrage put it: Until 1967, I would often be called a “yellow, little Jew” on my way to school in Brooklyn. After June 1967, that never happened again. Israel saved American Jewish identity once in 1967, and in some people’s mind, its doing that again today, with Birthright.
Yet on the other hand, since 1977 Israel stopped being “David” and to some it became “Goliath”. Israel’s success as a modern economy and a “StartUpNation” meant that it mostly outgrew the need for financial aid from the American Jewish community.
2015: Year of Realignment?
On a strategic level, over the last twenty years we’ve seen a significant shift in the way the relationship works. If in the past the expectation was that American Jews lend their financial capital to Israel, increasingly American Jews are using their political capital to get their government to support Israel.
This has met with much success, but recently was pushed to the limit when the PM of Israel expected to see both political and communal Jewish institutions bend their support against a sitting president. There are many ways to tell this story, but it represents a watershed moment, as it brings back the old challenge of Jacob Blaustein – that of dual loyalty.
At the same time, we’re seeing American Jews becoming more unabashedly interventionist in Israeli society. The most popular newspaper in Israel is owned by an American Jewish billionaire with a very clear political agenda. Organizations like the NIF on the left and Elad on the right raise US funds to further their vision for how Israel should look.
Most recently, the Federation system and the AJC have swung their support towards political endeavors relating to freedom of religion in Israel. On the other end, the minister of Diaspora Affairs has been seeking to lead a major initiative about the Jewish identity of North American Jews – and to overthrow the Jewish Agency’s power over Diaspora politics.
There are new trends, showing a tectonic shift that is not only of distancing, but of growing closeness and intervention in the other community.
- Many young Americans are distancing from Israel at a rapid rate, while many other Americans want to celebrate their Symbolic Particularism in Israel. Yet by doing so they are undermining the liberal values that 70% of them believe in. as long as American Jews feel more at home in Israel than Arab citizens of Israel, we are weakening Israel as a democracy. The Law of Return seems to be getting in the way. On the other hand recently we’ve seen a rise in awareness of the American Jewish community: women of the wall, the Federations stepping up; issues of Jewish pluralism being tied to lending political support to Israel.
- Many Israelis still need to believe it’s Auschwitz or Tel Aviv, not NYC. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are living or have lived in North America, and have a renwed appreciation of the value of American Jewish life.
So the dyanmics of the relationship are not as simple as one of “distancing”, and never have been. Rather, there is a distancing of some and an intervention and closeness on the other hand.
I order to better effect this relationship, and understand its effect on us, we must also examine the words and metaphors we use in reference to it.
Many of you mentioned the need for a new covenant, a new paradigm. Words like partnership, non-utilitarian relationship, family, and “we need to decide to be one people.”
Metaphors have power. Each metaphor is a theory of change, it’s a strategy, implies an ethic. Being mindful of these metaphors is important.
I leave you with four questions:
1. How do we build a mutually generative relationship between two “arrived” communities that have divergent and contradictory Jewish experiences?
2. What are the tipping points, pressure points, bridges, disruptors and translators needed for such a relationship?
3. What method should be embraced: popular connection, leadership to leadership, peer to peer?
4. What are the current assets, challenges and future trends that should be taken into account?
Ending: Jewish People in Bundles
There is often much talk of a need for unity, yet I believe, like Yishayahu Leibowitz, that “No good idea ever came out of a call for unity”. Rather, a rigorous debate, an awareness of our differences, and the ability to leverage those differences in order to strengthen the connections between us, is what we aer called to do. The following Midrash displays this tension with a unqie metaphor. Do we want to build one ship, or do we want to tie many small boats together?
"ויהי בישרון מלך בהתאסף ראשי עם יחד שבטי ישראל" (דברים לג:ה)
כשהם עשוים אגודה אחת , ולא כשהם עשוים אגודות אגודות
וכן הוא אומר "הבונה בשמים מעלותיו ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה" (עמוס ט:ו).
רבי שמעון בן יוחי אומר: משל לאחד שהביא שתי ספינות וקשרם בהוגנים ובעשתות והעמידן בלב הים ובנה עליהם פלטרין כל זמן שהספינות קשורות זו בזו פלטרין קיימים פרשו ספינות אין פלטרין קיימים כך ישראל כשעושים רצונו של מקום בונה עליותיו בשמים וכשאין עושים רצונו כביכול אגודתו על ארץ יסדה.
“The LORD became king in Israel--when the leaders of the people assembled, when the tribes of Israel gathered as one” (Deutoronomy 33:5) – When they are gathered as one bundle, and not when they are divided into bundles and bundles, and so says the verse: “He who builds his upper chambers in the heavens and founds His bundle upon the earth” (Amos 9:6).
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: This is like a person who brought two ships and anchored them together and placed them in the middle of the sea and built upon them a palace. As long as the ships are tied to eachother – the palace exists. Once the ships separate from eachother – the palaces cannot exist.
So are Israel – when they are fulfilling the will of the Omnipresent – “He who builds his upper chambers in the heavens”, and when they are not fulfilling his will – it is as if “His bundle is upon the earth”.
As the seafaring “Nehotei” that we are, we each ride very different ships. Trying to turn them into one boat would be a bad idea. Rather, if we can – like Shimon Bar Yochai suggests – tie many boats together, then we will find ourselves living within a much richer – and stronger – two communities. The waters are treacherous, lets hope this way we can ride out the current storms… and perhaps kick up some new ones.