Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

As I did last year, I'm reposting the eulogy given by Rabbi (chaplain) Roland Gittelsohn at the dedication of the Marine cemetery on Iwo Jima. A meaningful day to all.

For this Memorial Day I present the full eulogy at the dedication of the 5th Marine Division Cemetery at Iwo Jima in March of 1945 by Roland Gittelsohn z'l, my father's childhood rabbi and the first rabbi to serve as a chaplain in the Marine Corps. His words resonate for us today. 

"This is perhaps the grimmest, and surely the holiest task we have faced since D-Day. Here before us lie the bodies of comrades and friends. Men who until yesterday or last week laughed with us, joked with us, trained with us. Men who were on the same ships with us, and went over the sides with us as we prepared to hit the beaches of this island. Men who fought with us and feared with us. Somewhere in this plot of ground there may lie the man who could have discovered the cure for cancer. Under one of these Christian crosses, or beneath a Jewish Star of David, there may now rest a man who was destined to be a great prophet–to find the way, perhaps, for all to live in plenty, with poverty and hardship for none. Now they lie here silently in this sacred soil, and we gather to consecrate this earth in their memory. 
It is not easy to do so. Some of us have buried our closest friends here. We saw these men killed before our very eyes. Any one of us might have died in their places. Indeed, some of us are alive and breathing at this very monent only because men who lie here beneath us had the courage and strength to give their lives for ours. To speak in memory of such men as these is not easy. Of them too can it be said with utter truth: "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here. It can never forget what they did here." 
No, our poor power of speech can add nothing to what these men and the other dead of our Division who are not here have already done. All that we even hope to do is follow their example. To show the same selfless courage in peace that they did in war. To swear that by the grace of God and the stubborn strength and power of human will, their sons and ours shall never suffer these pains again. These men have done their jobs well. They have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost, as it was after the last war, the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it is we the living who are here to be dedicated and consecrated. 
We dedicate ourselves, first, to live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in this war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men, negroes and whites, rich men and poor–together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination. No prejudices. No hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy. 
Any man among us the living who fails to understand that will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts up his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates, an empty, hollow mockery. To this, then, as our solemn, sacred duty, do we the living now dedicate ourselves: to the rights of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, of white men and negroes alike, to enjoy the democracy for which all of them here have paid the price. 
To one thing more do we consecrate ourselves in memory of those who sleep beneath these crosses and stars. We shall not foolishly suppose, as did the last generation of America's fghting men, that victory on the battlefield will automatically guarantee the triumph of democracy at home. This war, with all its frightful heartache and suffering,is but the beginning our our generation's struggle for democracy. When the last battle has been won, there will be those at home, as there were the last time, who will want us to turn our backs in selfish isolation on the rest of organized humanity, and thus to sabotage the very peace for which we fight. We promise you who lie here: we will not do that! We will join hands with Britain, China, Russia in peace, even as we have in war, to build the kind of world for which you died. 
When the last shot has been fired, there will still be those whose eyes are turned backward, not forward, who will be satisfied with those wide extremes of poverty and wealth in which the seeds of another war can breed. We promise you, our departed comrades: this too we will not permit. This war has been fought by the common man; its fruits of peace must be enjoyed by the common man! We promise, by all that is sacred and holy, that your sons, the sons of moners and millers, the sons of farmers and workers, the right to a living that is decent and secure. 
When the final cross has been placed in the last cemetery, once again there will be those to whom profit is more important than peace, who will insist with the voice of sweet reasonableness and appeasement that it is better to trade with the enemies of mankind, than by crushing them, to lose their profit. To you who sleep here silently, we give our promise: we will not listen! We will not forget that some of you were burnt with oil that came from American wells, that many of you were killed with shells fashioned from American steel. We promise that when once again men profit at your expense, we shall remember how you looked when we placed you reverently, lovingly, in the ground. 
Thus do we memorialize those who, having ceased living with us, now live within us. Thus do we consecrate ourselves the living to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into this soil for us to let it lie barren. Too much pain and heartache have fertilized the earth on which we stand. We here solemnly swear: this shall not be in vain! Out of this, and from the suffering and sorrow of those who mourn this, will come–we promise–the birth of a new freedom for the sons of men everywhere.       Amen."

Friday, May 17, 2013

Naso: On PIckup Trucks And The Blessings We Miss.

So the other day I’m driving into the office and I’m behind a pickup truck, the kind that clearly gets used as a pickup truck. In other words, this isn’t a squeaky clean vanity vehicle or ersatz SUV; there’s wracks with equipment, piles of stuff, and years of grit on this truck. It’s the kind of truck that is often idealized in our culture of independence and personal can-do spirit; the kind of truck you’d picture a Louis L’amour character driving if no horses were available.

So I’m behind this truck, and I notice a bumper sticker. It says, “yes, this is my truck, and no, I won’t help you move.

Yes, it’s just a bumper sticker. Yes, it’s meant to be funny, to be snarkey—that particular blend of sarcasm and entertainment. And yet, this bumper sticker made me sad. Is this what we’ve come to? I thought to myself. Those of us who have ability, who should be among the first to offer help, are now refusing, because being asked to help is annoying.

The answer is, of course, yes. Barring a crisis, our focus is nearly entirely on ourselves. Or, as David Foster Wallace said before his death, “everything in [our] own immediate experience supports [our] deep belief that [we] am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. “ That, he writes, is our default position; that everyone else is merely in the way, an annoyance, in our way. You can find that speech, by the way, in the form of a short film called “This is Water” on Youtube.

Is it? Does that have to be our default position? Must we fail again and again to recognize and help each other, instead of thinking only of ourselves?

The answer is, sadly, probably. But we are given opportunities to break out of that rut, to realize what we’re doing and to have at least a moment of self-correction. This week’s portion describes the act by the Priest of blessing the people Israel; we’ve seen Aaron bless the Israelites but never had a formula for the blessing. Here we have it presented and we know this blessing well—it’s birkat Kohanim, sometimes called birkat shalom, the priestly benediction, a text that was powerful enough that archeologists have found medallions and amulets with the text of it in graves around Jerusalem dating to the early second temple period at least. But then, after giving the blessing, the text continues: “And they [the priests] shall put my name upon the people Israel; and I will bless them.”

What does that even mean “They shall put my name upon the people Israel”? How is God blessing the people if the priest just did the job? The Rabbis of old suggest the answer is in how we see the priest. Is it the priest’s blessing? What if the priest is lousy at his job? What if you’ve just had a fight with him? What if you doubt his integrity? In other words, what if you experience the priest as we experience the people around us; that is, he’s in our way? He’s the dopey guy in front of us in the checkout line, he’s the petty bureaucrat or clerk who makes us redo the form because of a typo, the one who wants to borrow our truck to help him move.  None of that, the Rabbis suggest, is relevant. To quote the Talmud, “For the Holy One, blessed be God, says: "Who blesses you? Am not I the one who blesses you, as it is written: "Let them place My name upon the Israelites, and I will bless them?”

The priest, therefore, becomes the vessel of the blessing, not the provider of blessing. The priest is klei kodesh, a holy vessel, and surely, as Rashi suggests, should give the blessing with due reverence and feeling, with appropriate kavvanah. But it’s not about the Priest. It’s about connecting with the sacred, with what is holy. And what does it mean to connect with the holy? It means having an awareness—having God’s name placed on the people—and waking up to the reality that, while we may be the protagonist in our own narrative, we are also not the center of the universe, those around us are not in our way, do not exist to be mere annoyances. No, they are klei kodesh, vessels of holiness, just like us, but only when we open ourselves to the possibility that we may receive a blessing from them; that our encounters need not be meaningless and aggravating, but full of potential.

In the end, Wallace reminds us that it’s our choice, how we want to encounter the world; do we want to see the world as filled with people who merely want to get in our way, borrow our stuff, or do we want to see others as bestowers of blessing, vessels of holiness? Certainly the latter is harder; it’s much easier to see ourselves as essential and others as inconsequential. Perhaps, even in our better moments, we won’t be successful. But then sometimes we will be, we will recognize that we are the ones in the way, not them. And because of that, I would argue that choice is the most consequential choice we make, for it gives us opportunities to be the kinds of people we want to be, the kind God wants us to be, and reminds us that the blessing is around us and open to us, even in the simple act of borrowing—or lending out—a truck. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

On Divestment: An Open Letter To the Oberlin Student Senate

Dear Fellow Obies: 

Congratulations on the completion of the spring semester. I know many of you have been challenged tremendously--in your academics, your extracurricular activities, and your activism. I know because not long ago (though it feels like an eternity) I was there. I was one of you--long hair flowing behind me, cursing the copier in Mudd, sitting out class on Wilder Bowl on too-beautiful spring days contemplating life and my place in it, going to the 'Sco and complaining about the food at Stevenson and walking through the cigarette smoke to meet my girlfriend at the Con, and mostly wondering how I was going to make a difference in this world I and my generation had inherited. 

See, I went to Oberlin because it was unique. It was--and remains--the kind of place where people take social justice very, very seriously. Combining a cloistered Midwestern study ethic with endless petitions, protests, sit-ins and other acts of political courage, Oberlin was exactly the place I needed to be. I'd always been passionate about Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for 'repairing the world'), and when I got the application for Oberlin in the spring of 1993 I knew I had found my people. On the cover it was an image of earth from space with a question printed in white Helevicta font: "Think one person can change the world?" It was stunning and possibly cynical, until you opened the cover to find the same image, with new words written in white: "So do we." It was a bold statement, and fit Oberlin's ethos perfectly. And, I thought at the time, it was a profoundly Jewish idea (I still think so). I arrived wide-eyed to hear seniors talk of sit-ins in S. Fred Starr's office protesting our investment in South Africa's Apartheid state, women attached to the side of Mudd Library by spelunker equipment to protest animal testing, intense debate about colonialism, feminism, the food we eat, the music we listen to, poverty, Israel, race, and every subject under the sun. It was a place to be challenged. 

That's why I wasn't surprised, but was saddened  by your vote in favor of divestment of Israel. Without a doubt, Israel has been a challenging topic at Oberlin since long before I was a student there, and probably long before the 1987 intifada (which I remember quite well, living in Jerusalem at the time). I remember more than one speaker (the former Stokey Carmichael) coming to Oberlin to fan anti-Zionism, and at least one provocative Oberlin Alumni magazine several years ago (in the Nancy Dye era) that treated Israel essentially as a police state. And Israel's complex relationship with the settler movement and the West Bank and Gaza strip, her insistence on military solutions to political problems, and the often disappointing (from a liberal perspective, anyway) internal conversation in the Jewish state hasn't made anything easier. Is Israel an apartheid state? Most would argue it isn't--Israeli Arabs have equal rights under the law, and are represented in all facets of Israeli life. Israel is a western-style democracy with freedom of speech and the press, freedom to gather and protest, and despite the efforts of some, robust rule of law. But it's clear that there are those who are more equal than others, and that the situation in the Palestinian territories  is, while certainly not Apartheid, also not good. 

In other words, there's lots of reasons to engage in vigorous debate about security, about freedom, about national destiny and racism and Zionism and Palestinianism and what they all mean. And if any place is going to engage in that kind of dialogue, it's Oberlin. Oberlin was MADE for that kind of hard, provocative, robust conversation. Divestment, however, is the opposite of engagement. It is a provocative statement to be sure, but it also closes the door to further communication. It presents an answer without asking any questions. It makes assumptions that, on any other subject, would rouse terrible invective on the part of the injured party, and rightly so. 

As this letter, circulated by alumni and students (and thanks to Anna Band), 

  • BDS stands in the way of constructive initiatives for peace. It employs politics of blame rather than politics of cooperation. Furthermore, it ignores serious impediments to the peace process including terrorism, and refuses to denounce anti-Israel and anti-Jewish violence. This demonization and delegitimization of Israel hinders the possibility of peace.  There is common concern that opponents of BDS view Israel with uncritical, unconditional support. This fear is unfounded. One can have a nuanced, critical view of Israel and still recognize the dangers of BDS. In fact, it is BDS, with its policies of delegitimization and censorship, that leaves no room for critical thinking. “Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.” (Thomas Friedman, “Campus Hypocrisy,” New York Times, 10-16-02).
    BDS advocates boycotts of Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions. Academic and cultural boycotts of Israeli citizens undermine academic freedom and inhibit open and honest dialogue. Discrimination against scholars, artists, or athletes based solely upon their country of origin is reprehensible.
    BDS calls for the “right of return” of millions of Palestinians, born outside of Israel but claiming refugee status. This unprecedented step would spell the end of the Jewish State, replacing it with a Palestinian “one state solution.” While BDS accepts Israel’s right to exist as a state, it categorically rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

    My guess is that many of you struggled with this. Oberlin--and Oberlin students--are some of the smartest, most knowledgeable, most politically active people in the world (who else was talking about East Timor in 1996 outside Australia and Indonesia? Only Oberlin). It is a place where people struggle with their own assumptions and suppositions. That's why you tried to change the language of the resolution, tried to make it clear this was a political statement, not an antisemitic one--because this issue required a politcal statement. That's what Oberlin does, right?

    So now let me make an alternative suggestion: what Israel needs right now is not divestment but engagement. More than ever, Israelis and Palestinians need to see that they are not hated and threatened, but are loved and supported.  These two groups live in permanent existential crisis; BDS exacerbates that. But engagement, dialogue, sharing, letting go of one's own viewpoint to see the Other not merely as Other, this is what Oberlin excels at, and what is called for across campuses and academia throughout North America and worldwide. I made this argument regarding Alice Walker last year as well, and I'll tell you what I said then: You're bigger than this. You're better than this. But by choosing to divest, you choose, essentially, to remove yourselves from a conversation that, granted, is hard, impossibly hard, but essential. By joining the BDS movement, you silence yourself.

    So, the summer is upon us. Many of you are graduating next weekend. Some of you are sticking around for Commencement, then running off to study abroad, to internships, to work and family. Let me give you further summer homework: engage. Read about Israel from a perspective not your own. Travel to Israel--and not just the easy places. Go to Sderot, to Ashkelon, speak to people from those areas. Talk to Zionists and listen, really listen. Anais Nin said "you cannot save people, only love them." Stop trying to save people, for a change, and love them. Then you will truly save the world.


    Yair Robinson, OC 1998