Saturday, March 1, 2014

Parashat Pekudei: Like a Tent

So last  Friday I got an email forwarded to me about an event happening at the University of Delaware.
UD Students for Justice in Palestine is teaming up with the Delaware African Students Association (DASA) & Amnesty International at UD to host UD's first ever "Israeli Apartheid Week."
Yay! Doesn’t that just sound like fun?

I forwarded it to Seth Katzen at Federation, called up Rebecca Kirzner at J-Street to get her insight as to a good response, and shook my head. But I’ve found myself thinking more and more about this.
It isn’t my first encounter with BDS. I’ve had conversations with Presbyterian ministers and helped support an anti-BDS Jewish group at my alma-mater, Oberlin College. I won’t go into all the problems with the whole “Israel Apartheid” thing (though those problems are legion) but I’ll tell you the part that bothers me the most. It’s not the latent anti-semitism, or that it doesn’t actually help promote a 2-state solution, or that it does a disservice to those who fought against actual apartheid. It’s that the BDS movement silences dissent. It is an extreme position that is meant—according to their supporters—to force Israel to the negotiating table. But really, all it does is harden positions, coarsen dialogue, and force people to make all-or-nothing stands. Either your pro-Israel or against Israel, David Mamet or Noam Chomsky, AIPAC or PLO. There is no room for nuance, no room to talk through the issues in a real or meaningful way, no way to say ‘I’m a Zionist, but I think X, or Y, or Z.” It creates a black-or-white conversation. Worse, it creates a monoculture.
Do you know what a monoculture is? It’s exactly as it sounds—one size fits all. Usually the term is used for agriculture or industry. For example, we grow wheat by planting seeds that have no-long term support. Farmers plant huge fields of one crop of wheat, ply it with pesticides, fertilizers and the like, harvest it up, leaving nothing left, resulting in topsoil washing away, and then repeat the process every year. As Wilson Miner wrote in The Manual:   this kind of agriculture is short term efficiency maximized for rapid, unbounded growth. It works, but it is, by its nature, unsustainable.

This has been our problem with regards to Israel for years. We have only one way of talking about Israel—pro or con, because extremists on both ends push this kind of monoculture. There is no nuance, no way to talk about different layers of support for Israel. And while it gets dramatic short term results, it’s turning people off in the long-run.

And this is true throughout the organized Jewish world. Much like other aspects of American culture, many of our institutions are built for rapid, explosive short-term growth, but not for long-term engagement. We struggle to create lasting, sustainable relationships. Look at Birthright Israel as an example. Great short term experience, but Taglit and its partners have struggled for years to figure out what the follow-through looks like. Synagogues have done a better job, but too frequently we measure success in terms of growth. I can’t tell you how often I talk to colleagues and they ask me “so, how big is yours.” With all the unintended double entendres that can arise from that kind of question. But, as Miner points out: There are more ways to scale than growth. There are more ways to deepen our impact than just reaching more people.

This week, in parashat Pekudei the Tabernacle is completed, and we are told that everyone participated in the making of the Mishkan. Every person gave something, and on top of that everyone gave as their heart so moved them. The Torah spends pages and pages describing the different details of the Mishkan, and all the materials that went into its making—precious stones, precious metals, different kinds of skins and thread. And yet, with all the utensils, furniture, and fabric, the center of it was empty, save the presence of God. While it could be to show off how splendid it was, or preserve a cultural memory of the Tabernacle for future generations, I think it serves another purpose. Everyone could go to the Tent and see themselves in it. This Tent, sitting in the center of the community, made by EVERYONE, also gave everyone the space to be a part of it. It’s meant for everyone—not the most pious, not merely the leadership or the priests. Contrast that with the Ziggurats and Temples of old, which were off-limits to the hoi polloi. This was open to all.
And that’s how Judaism is, at its best. We’re not supposed to be a monoculture. We’re supposed to be many threads coming together to weave one fabric. We’re not supposed to be stalks of wheat that are harvested, leaving no roots behind. As the preschool kids sing at the JCC, we’re supposed to be trees, rooted firmly, our branches stretching up to the heavens. Our relationships with Israel are diverse, but we’re supposed to have a relationship, and not be scared off by crazies with love it or leave it ideologies. Judaism has never been interested in short-term growth at the cost of long-term health. There has always been a diversity of voices competing for attention. Good, that’s how it should be, but no one voice should ever be so loud as to shout the others down. Even in the Talmud, if a scholar’s minority position lost—that is, it wasn’t put into practice—he was still allowed to teach it. Because root systems only grow stronger, and tapestries only share their beauty, when there is diversity to it. And Tents are only wonderful when there are those to fill it.

There is a new study guide for the Presbyterian Church on Israel. Andrew Jacobs from Hanover Presbyterian and I are going to study it together and have a nuanced, rich and sometimes conflicted conversation. I’m sure sometimes even a heated conversation. But it will be a conversation, not an attempt to silence one another. And we’ll all have many more conversations, each one a thread making the tapestry of this community. And let them come together like a tent to wrap us up, because we know we are in God’s presence when we see the diversity in ourselves and give voice to that diversity, when we plant roots.

Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Hear each other’s voices; call that profit. See the different strands. Prophesy such returns. Then, O God, may we make a sanctuary for You to dwell among us. Amen.

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