Thursday, June 24, 2010

Some thoughts as we approach an important anniversary

With Gilad Shalit now reaching 4 years in captivity, I thought I'd share my "The Rabbi Speaks" for next weekend here:

In my wallet, surrounded by pictures of my son, credit cards, receipts and other assorted flotsam and jetsam, is what looks to be a baseball card. It’s blue, laminated, and has a young man in a uniform on the front, smiling, frozen forever in his youth. He’s not in a baseball uniform, however, nor any other sports paraphenalia. He wears the uniform of an Israeli paratrooper. His name is--was--Michael Levin, and he died on August 1st, 2006, leading his men against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Michael was an American, just 22 years old, from the Philadelphia region. While he was not a member of my congregation, I knew his family, their rabbi. Most of my congregants knew them, their kids had Michael as a summer camp counselor. Michael chose to make Aliyah, to immigrate to Israel, joined the army, earned the rank of sergeant, and was visiting his family while on leave when the war in Lebanon broke out. His friends told him to stay in the states, but he refused. His was an old-fashioned kind of Zionism, a love of land and people that could not be deterred nor minimized, and he was going to fulfill his duty to his people and homeland, though it would take his life. It was Israel where he belonged, alongside his men, and it is for Israel that he died, and in Israel where he is buried.

I think of Michael at this time of year, for this past Friday, June 25th, was the 4th anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s captivity. Shalit, of course, is the young soldier (he turns 24 this August) who was captured by Hamas in Gaza, after Israel’s disengagement and pullout from the Gaza strip. that event set off a chain reaction of kidnappings on the Lebanon border, causing Israel to move against Hezbollah and Hamas, therefore ending Michael’s life, along with the lives of many young people.

Full disclosure: I’m a peacenik, unabashedly so. I believe that there should be a Palestinian State, that Israel has a moral imperative to make peace with the Palestinian people. I believed in the Oslo process, what Yasser Arafat called “the peace of the brave”. I had hoped beyond hope for the Gaza disengagement to work. I want to see a smaller, more peaceful Israel, one that doesn’t have to send its children into harm’s way generation after generation. I cringe at the tone-deaf responses from an Israeli government paralyzed by its right-wing political parties and a military that is unmatched tactically and understands the immediate existential threat, but cannot see beyond the horizon to an Israel five, ten, twenty years from now and what is needed to fight and win then.

And yet, I am painfully aware of the double standard that Israel is held to, by both Jews and non-Jews. We expect and demand a Jewish state be somehow more ethical, more righteous, more perfect than any other in the world. I am aware of the latent anti-semitism that masks itself as a love of human rights or the downtrodden, that flinches at the idea of Jewish power. I am aware of a world that drinks in a sermon on ethical behavior from Turkey, a country that has perpetrated ethnic cleansing on the Armenians, and engaged in the surpression of the Kurdish people. I am aware of the pain all Israelis feel at Shalit’s captivity, for in Israel, which still maintains a national draft, he could be anyone’s son, anyone’s brother, anyone’s friend or partner.

A few weeks ago, after the Gulf of Mexico became a code-word for ecological disaster, before the World Cup and Kyrgestan exploded in violence, before McCrystal lost his job fighting the forever war in Afghanistan, Gaza came into our headlines again, with the deaths of so-called peace activists sailing a fleet of aid ships to a blockaded Gaza. We were all horrified by the scenes of violence, at the idea of young soldiers and sailors, poorly briefed and ill-equipped, rappelling into a lion’s den of violence, forced to respond with brutal violence themselves, resulting in indelible images of bloodshed and Israeli oppression. The incident with the blockade runners calls Israel’s leadership into question and heightens the need for a speedy peace. It reminds us that a military solution, by itself, will not solve Israel’s future security needs. But it also reminds me of Shalit and his parents, wondering if they will ever see their son again. It reminds me of Levin and his parents, how they will never see their son again. And it reminds me of this prayer offered by one of Israel’s greatest poets, Yehuda Amichai:

Not that of a cease-fire,
let alone the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather as in the heart after a surge of great emotion:
to speak only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill: that’s why I’m an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say mama.

A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into plowshares,
without words, without the heavy thud of the rubber stamp;
I want it gentle over us, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds--who speaks of healing?
(and the orphan’s cry is passed from one generation to the next
as in a relay race; that baton never falls).

I want it to come like wildflowers
suddenly, because the field needs it: wildpeace.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Required Reading

My Bible professor, Dr. (Rabbi) David Aaron, gave the commencement sermon at this year's Hebrew Union College Ordination in Cincinnati. If it were up to me, it would be handed out with every ordination certificate from HUC forever, and I'm sorry I wasn't there to hear it in person. It is as powerful a statement of what it means to be a progressive rabbi for a progressive movement as I've ever seen, and I'm not the least surprised.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Changes on Intermarriage Policy

The following is a letter I sent out to my congregation this past week. I'm posting it here in case members of my congregation hadn't seen it yet.

Dear Friends:
I want to speak with you about something that is very near and dear to my heart, as well as to the mission of this congregation: our outreach efforts toward those Jewish families with a non-Jewish spouse.
At the Central Conference of American Rabbis meeting in March, the rabbis of the Reform movement had a conversation about reaching out to those whom we have often referred to as ‘interfaith families’, and what we must do, as rabbis, to welcome them into community. While officiating at weddings between Jews and non-Jews was among the topics, there was a general sense among all Reform rabbis that we must do more in general as clergy to hold out that hand of invitation that is so important.
As you know, we at Congregation Beth Emeth pride ourselves on our warmth, our welcoming nature, the way we invite people into our spiritual lives. For years we have exemplified this by permitting non-Jewish spouses and parents some role on the bimah for life cycle events and worship, accepting children born of either Jewish parent as Jewish and providing them an education, offering introduction to Judaism classes (along with the other rabbis of Wilmington), and providing opportunities for conversion for those who would choose Judaism.
This past year, we have moved toward being more welcoming; expanding the role of the non-Jewish parent at b’nai mitzvah¸ blessing interfaith couples about to be married with an aufruf on the bimah, and blessing the non-Jewish parents and spouses in our midst. However, there is more we can be doing.
As many of you know I do not currently officiate at weddings or civil unions where both partners are not Jewish. This is not because I feel that the couple is doing anything wrong, but merely speaks to my own sense of empowerment: as a rabbi, I do not feel that I am permitted to be misader kiddushin— the celebrant—at such events. Having said that, I always do whatever I can to welcome the couple to Jewish life, offering to do premarital counseling, encouraging the taking of introduction to Judaism, offering a blessing before the ceremony, to help them write a service that fits both their faith traditions, or find an alternative clergyperson. I know from my own family how important it is to have a Jewish clergyperson present, as Marisa’s parents were confronted with this exact issue when they married some forty years ago. While I am not changing my position at this time, I know there are Reform clergy who do feel empowered to celebrate and rejoice with our families at their sacred moment of kiddushin.
That is why I am (with the support of the board and the staff) bringing one more opportunity forward. Today, the clergy of this congregation (including future clergy) are welcome to celebrate life cycle events with our congregants so long as they follow certain guidelines, attached to this letter. I’m sure you have questions and would like to provide feedback. Please join me on Saturday, June 26th for a discussion after services about this change.

Here are the guidelines:

Proposed Guidelines for Congregation Beth Emeth Clergy Officiating at the Wedding of a Jew and non-Jew

A rabbi or cantor of Congregation Beth Emeth may officiate at the wedding of a Jew and non-Jew under the following circumstances:

• The couple must have a relationship with the congregation, either as current members themselves or be the children of members in good standing.
• The couple commits to establish a Jewish home and, if they are blessed with children, raise them exclusively as Jews, providing them with a Jewish education and identity, including appropriate life-cycle experiences (Brit Milah/Brit Bat, Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Confirmation, etc.).
• The couple agrees to complete an Introduction to Judaism class (either the RAD course or a URJ approved equivalent) and/or a program designed with a CBE rabbi/cantor.
• In addition to the initial meeting(s) with a member of the clergy, the couple agrees to meet with that clergy member on a regular basis, established by the rabbi/cantor, prior to the wedding date.
• The Ceremony will be a Jewish ceremony, inclusive of all rules and guidelines (e.g. cannot be on Shabbat or holiday, will only include Jewish liturgy, etc.)
• No non-Jewish clergy may co-officiate in the ceremony. Couples may opt for the participation of Jewish clergy who are members in good standing with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) or the American Conference of Cantors (ACC). Clergy who are members in good standing of another rabbinical or cantorial association approved by a CBE rabbi/cantor may also officiate. No clergy other than those approved by a CBE rabbi or cantor may participate in the ceremony.
• The officiating CBE clergyperson must approve the liturgy to be used at the ceremony. No prayers or symbols or music of another faith may be part of the ceremony.
• If the couple does not meet these guidelines, the rabbi or cantor acting as the point of contact may choose to refer the couple to another rabbi or cantor, as described above, and/or to a Jewish justice of the peace (JP) who has a relationship with CBE.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Kids Are Alright (?)

Just read this incisive bit of commentary by Jack Shafer on Peter Beinart's New York Times article, essentially poking holes in the whole 'young American Jews today don't care about Israel' trope. By now, it's a well-worn bit of conventional wisdom, that those Jewish kids today simply don't have the same connection as their parents and their parents did, yadda yadda yadda, cue shrying gavult and rending of cloth and saying kaddish over kids today. Then the complaints that it's the fault of the left, the right, the synagogues, the JCCs, Federation, Rock & Roll, Intermarriage, whatever.

But as Shafer points out, citing work by Theodore Sasson and Leonard Saxe, it's not quite that cut and dry:

Moreover, as we pointed out in our published response to the original Cohen-Kelman report, younger Jews have reported lower levels of attachment to Israel in most surveys going back as far as there are data to analyze. Younger Jews were less attached to Israel in the National Jewish Population Surveys of 2000 and 1990. They were less attached in the AJC surveys going back to the mid-1980s. If, in fact, young Jews are always less attached than older Jews, then the differences in age groups are likely related to lifecycle rather than generation. As Jews age, they become more attached to Israel. In other words, the younger Jews who reported a middling level of attachment to Israel in the mid-1980s grew up to become today's over 60 group, which reports a high level of attachment.

(their article can be found here)

So it may be that kids today aren't very connected...but our parents and grandparents are remembering the old days of American Zionism and their involvement through rose-colored (or white-and-blue colored) glasses.

So now let's ask the follow up question: if this is true, what role do Birthright and other such programs play viz. connection to Israelis, if not to Israel?

And after that, the more important question, the question we are almost too afraid to ask: if the young are automatically more detached than their elders from a Jewish state, but that attachment naturally increases with age and experience, rather than thinking of what Israel (or the Diaspora leadership) need to do to woo them back or vice versa, what kind of role should Israel play in their lives?

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Gentleman of the Road Speaks Up.

We were discussing Michael Chabon on Saturday in Torah study and lo and behold, he opines in the New York Times on the Flotilla fiasco (thanks to Fred Mannis and my Mom for sending me the link). More to the point, he discusses our obsession with the 'yiddeshe kup', the idea that Jews are somehow more likely to look "for a clever way out of problems, someone who understands that the most direct way — blunt force, for instance — often represents the least elegant solution, a person who can foresee consequences of his actions.”

Of course, that isn't the case, as Chabon points out, but part of our mythology about ourselves is that we're smarter, more nimble, and that by extension so is our State of Israel. Chabon suggests that this is part of the problem; because we--as well as the rest of the world--views the Jewish people as somehow being preternaturally smart and therefore disinclined to get stuck in stupid situations, likewise the Jewish state would be immune to doing something this diplomatically inelegant, to using blunt force as another country might.

How is this the problem? Because we expect more out of ourselves as a people and a nation. In the same way that Jews around the world shried gavult over Rosanne Barr's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner or beat their chests over Bernie Madoff's criminal activity, we look--and the world looks--at Israel's actions as a reflection on us, and vice-versa. So when they do something spectacular or miraculous, we kvell, and when something terrible happens, well, their shame is our shame, because we're somehow supposed to be better than that. But what if we're not? What if David Ben-Gurion's dream has come true? What if we're...normal?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hammers and Nails

Thanks for those who have provided positive feedback on my response to the flotilla assault. Things are going, predictably, from bad to worse, with Turkey "apoplectic" (using's words), Egypt opening their border to distance themselves from Israel's blockade, Americans wondering out loud whether this was done on purpose so Bibi & co. could show that they're not beholden to the Americans, and Israeli discontent getting louder.

In the midst of all this, I'd like to share an op-ed from Amos Oz, whose moral voice I think many are striving to hear in Israel and around the world. Thanks to Joan Wachstein for sharing it with me.

FOR 2,000 years, the Jews knew the force of force only in the form of lashes to our own backs. For several decades now, we have been able to wield force ourselves — and this power has, again and again, intoxicated us.
In the period before Israel was founded, a large portion of the Jewish population in Palestine, especially members of the extremely nationalist Irgun group, thought that military force could be used to achieve any goal, to drive the British out of the country, and to repel the Arabs who opposed the creation of our state.
Luckily, during Israel’s early years, prime ministers like David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol knew very well that force has its limits and were careful to use it only as a last resort. But ever since the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel has been fixated on military force. To a man with a big hammer, says the proverb, every problem looks like a nail.
Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip and Monday’s violent interception of civilian vessels carrying humanitarian aid there are the rank products of this mantra that what can’t be done by force can be done with even greater force. This view originates in the mistaken assumption that Hamas’s control of Gaza can be ended by force of arms or, in more general terms, that the Palestinian problem can be crushed instead of solved.
But Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. Hamas is an idea, a desperate and fanatical idea that grew out of the desolation and frustration of many Palestinians. No idea has ever been defeated by force — not by siege, not by bombardment, not by being flattened with tank treads and not by marine commandos. To defeat an idea, you have to offer a better idea, a more attractive and acceptable one.
Thus, the only way for Israel to edge out Hamas would be to quickly reach an agreement with the Palestinians on the establishment of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as defined by the 1967 borders, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Israel has to sign a peace agreement with President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah government in the West Bank — and by doing so, reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip. That latter conflict, in turn, can be resolved only by negotiating with Hamas or, more reasonably, by the integration of Fatah with Hamas.
Even if Israel seizes 100 more ships on their way to Gaza, even if Israel sends in troops to occupy the Gaza Strip 100 more times, no matter how often Israel deploys its military, police and covert power, force cannot solve the problem that we are not alone in this land, and the Palestinians are not alone in this land. We are not alone in Jerusalem and the Palestinians are not alone in Jerusalem. Until Israelis and Palestinians recognize the logical consequences of this simple fact, we will all live in a permanent state of siege — Gaza under an Israeli siege, Israel under an international and Arab siege.
I do not discount the importance of force. Woe to the country that discounts the efficacy of force. Without it Israel would not be able to survive a single day. But we cannot allow ourselves to forget for even a moment that force is effective only as a preventative — to prevent the destruction and conquest of Israel, to protect our lives and freedom. Every attempt to use force not as a preventive measure, not in self-defense, but instead as a means of smashing problems and squashing ideas, will lead to more disasters, just like the one we brought on ourselves in international waters, opposite Gaza’s shores.