I have so much to say that I don’t even know where to begin.
My heart and soul is full of anguish over the war in Israel. Despite the peace of summer in Austin, I experience constant quickening daily via my constant contact with my many loved ones there (including my daughter Julia, stuck in Tel Aviv due to cancelled flights). My head is bursting with all the new things I’ve learned from a myriad of experiences–academic classes, travels in Italy and Israel, caring for aging parents, documenting the move of a synagogue from the town of Brenham to our campus, and attendance to my first Limmud conference. I know that many of you, too, have major transitions and events happening in your lives, and through you I learn about the variety of concerns in both our immediate universe and in the world. Immigrants, new jobs/new challenges, moves, aging parents, children.
Quickly, the Lowdown
That class (The Problem of Evil–Hebrew College online) was a mind-bender. We went from Genesis Chapter 1 through the Tanach; through rabbinic texts, over Maimonides, around the Kabbalists of Spain and Israel, under the Enlightenment, and then grounded at post-Holocaust writings. It took a month for me to write my final paper and it’s still not finished. (Though you’ll be relieved to know I made an “A,” The pride of schoolgirl lives!) I was ready to teach it, Evil, and you were all interested. Before I left for Italy, I didn’t get a chance to write to everyone to firm up plans. And it’s probably a good thing, because in Italy, I had an experience that bookended the Evil class. After the Arch of Titus and the Vatican Museum (don’t get me started), Eddie and I visited Pompeii. Relieved by archeologists in modernity of its ash blanket-burial, the vulgarities of an extant (and corrupt) Roman city revealed themselves in the form of pre-modern advertisements–penises on the street signs to point to the house of prostitution, arguably the largest structure in town after the baths. We climbed Mt. Vesuvius (on our 14th wedding anniversary–what better way to celebrate marriage than to climb an active volcano!). I picked up a laval rock to put on my desk, a reminder of what some theologians have said is the potential for G-d’s justice.
It’s a sort of madness, this exploration of evil. After some reflection, I concluded it may not be for everyone, and that it would take a long term group to study it. So, I didn’t forget my offering. I am simply letting it rest until I have talked to each of you individually about it.
Learning about Adult Learning
The 8-week course could be summed up this way: adults have complicated lives; life experience; memories; old beliefs–about themselves, their families and their worlds. Education for adults must be relevant. It must be presented in ways that can travel set paths with tools that will enlighten so that new sparks will carry the strength to groove new pathways. This process, if done well, can extend life and health.
So, I have been thinking a lot about our learning circles, and trying to figure out how to continue learning with you all. With people who have moved; with people who have expressed needs or particular things they want to learn. Trying to keep up with who has studied what? There are some new fellow learners in the wings–have I forgotten anybody?
My dear friend Alan Potash and I stoke our long-time family friendship with our Talmud studies on Sunday mornings via Skype. Alan chose to study Tractate Niddah, because (wise man that he is), he thought it would be interesting to study the laws of marital purity with a woman. He’s also into Daf Yomi (“page-a-day”), and wanted to get ahead of the current, rather than backtrack. While I have studied bits and pieces in isolation, I’ve never studied the entire tractate in context, so we dived together headlong into the first Mishnah of the tractate, dealing with a woman’s responsibility to self-examine in order to determine her state of tumah/tahara vis-a-vis her menstrual cycle.
The core question is one of tahara, which is translated alternately as “cleanliness,” or “purity,” neither of which captures the true essence of the concept. Blood of any kind, whether it be from an animal (think kashrut) or a human, renders something essentially unclean. But menstrual blood–a normal and natural part of a woman’s life–raises the question not only how and to what she transfers this essence of impurity when she menstruates, but also when? Does it begin with “flow,” or with cramping that may indicate blood in her womb?
We could sense the Sage’s discomfort in dealing with this private part of a woman’s life in their initial inclination to speak metaphorically of the womb based on other determinations made about objects subject to tumah, or impurity. Can a premenstrual womb be compared to a mikveh? No! A mikvah is part of the public domain! No so the womb.
Can it be compared to a wine jug? No! Wine sours, a womb doesn’t sour, exactly. What about an alleyway with creeping things? Forget it! Part of an alley can be pure and part can be impure on account of sweeping out a creeping thing. True, you can sweep a creeping thing from an alleyway, but menstrual blood doesn’t convey the same kind of tumah as a creeping thing.
Comparing a woman’s womb to an object just didn’t work. The only right and just conclusion they could arrive at was that sensible Jewish women are responsible for determining their own state of purity or impurity. Can you hear the whoops of women’s laughter in the white spaces between the words? Did the men really think they had control over this? That’s a Talmudic LOL for you.
Following the logic of the Bavli, and given that the woman is responsible, the question then reverts to the original question of Hillel and Shammai: does the impurity wrought by menses begin with her sense of flow? Or the onset of cramps or other signals that let her know that flow is imminent? If flow is imminent, is there blood in her womb? Or must she see a stain? But is a stain reliable? What if blood splashed on her while she was at the market?
Enter “testing rags.”
In the day to day lives of married men and women, where beds and chairs and pillows are shared and gender roles for serving food and drink are assumed, how does a wife’s menstrual cycle influence the tahara–the essential purity–of her home? Her kitchen? And most importantly, her marital life? The use of a testing rag–one that a woman can insert into her vagina to see if there is blood–becomes her meter.
I know it sounds gross, but the soul candy is right here, trust me. The Babylonian Gemara, commenting on the section of the Mishnah which reads:
.אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל עד דלפני תשמיש אינו ממעט כפקידה מ״ט אמר רב קטינא מתוך שמהומה לביתה וכי מהומה לביתה מאי הוי מתוך שמהומה לביתה אינה מכנסת לחורין ולסדקין
And if a woman uses testing rags when she has marital intercourse, etc.” R. Judah citing Shmuel ruled: A testing rag used before marital intercourse does not reduce the doubtful period of retrospective uncleanness as an examination. What is the reason? R. Kattina replied: Because the woman is in a hurry to do her marital duty. Since she is in a hurry to do it, she does not insert the testing rag into depressions and folds.
My dear friend Dr. Aaron Bar-Adon, the legendary 90-something year old Hebraic scholar/Israel Prize winner, is fond of saying that just as Shakespeare doesn’t sound so pretty in Hebrew, likewise Torah and Talmud don’t sound so pretty in English. Implicitly, he warns that not all translations are equal.
In fact, not all translations are true. Which, to answer the question of at least one of you, the reason to study text in Hebrew or Aramaic–at least to the best of one’s ability (which by the way, improves the more you study)–is that sometimes, the translation doesn’t even come close. Here’s a perfect example
In this vast world of hurt we all face, suffering occurs at many levels. The victims of violence, of course, bear the most horrific consequences of the global craziness that seems to have engulfed at least half of the planet. Yet there is another kind of suffering, the suffering of the empathic, sensitive, intuitive people (you know who you are). Prone to taking on the suffering of others whether by talking with, listening to or watching them, reading the news, imagining what it must feel like, what it must look like, how it must be for the victims. The world of psychic hurt triples the reality, and leads its sufferers to despair, depression, anxiety, and for people like me, an endless loop of rage at “the stupid people,” people who could change things or lead or do something–but don’t because they are power-hungry, fear-mongering demagogues, terrorists, frauds, dishonest, immoral, unethical, uneducated people, along with unprincipled fearful bureaucrats, greedy business people or out right boors. The whole world seems to be full of them, those, and then, there’s us. Or worse, the silent people, who do nothing, think nothing: nothing, because they think nothing can be done.
How are people handling it? Here is what I’ve observed or heard: Better living through chemistry for some, perhaps. Ridicule of the stupid people, exotic travel, summer homes, winter homes, watching The Voice, channel flipping, and for me and my friends at Pardes, studying ancient wisdom in challenging languages (Hebrew and Aramaic). We’re all dealing with it the best we can. Fighting our tears, or the bureaucrats, or posting cartoons, black and white statements, half-truths or lesser truths on Facebook so we can feel like we’re doing something, anything.
Tis’ the season, though. One of my fellow learners posted something on Facebook this week that got my attention. She seemed to have had an “ear worm,” (an ear-worm is a song you hear then can’t get out of your head): “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
I thought about it and wondered: What does that mean, to let peace on earth begin with me? Has there ever really been peace on earth? And where on earth did that song come from anyway?
First the easy answer. Written in 1955 (the same year that both I and Disney Land appeared on earth), “Let there be Peace on Earth,” was written by Jill Jackson Miller as a theme song for the International Children’s Choir of the Granger Dance Academy of Long Beach. Subsequently adopted by all manner of religious and interfaith friendship circles, it has remained an enduring anthem to express to the idealistic hopes of generations yearning to build a more peaceful world. So how do we begin?
According to the second verse of the song, the moment is now: “With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow/to take each moment, and live each moment/with peace eternally…” (There are many versions on YouTube, including the Harlem Boy’s Choir, but this one by Gladys Knight is my personal favorite, if you can ignore all those uptight white folks with their arms crossed.)
The Sages of the Talmud explored the issue of דרכי שלום darchei-shalom (the paths of peace) extensively. Oddly enough, much of their wisdom is found in the Babylonian Talmud in Masechet Gittin, which is the section generally (and ironically) detailing laws and stories about divorce.
So corporations are people, huh? Why is it that I imagine you as a bloodsucking Dracula in the guise of a white guy with a tie with the soul of Hannibal Lector? Alright, alright, tis the season. Let’s settle for Mr. Potter from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The selfish rich nasty Scrooge whose interest in making money trumps his humanity.
That’s really what I think of you, and I wanted to dump you, I really did. One year of your insurance coverage post Obama-care could have been called “un-surance.” I paid you a premium of over $600 a month, but with a deductible of $3,600, with no benefits for prescription drugs until the deductible was reached. While you pocketed money from customers for bad coverage, you might have at least negotiated better drug prices for us–isn’t that part of what we pay you for? If you did negotiate with anyone, you couldn’t prove it by me, and according to my pharmacist, you didn’t do half as well as other insurance companies. Not only did you not negotiate, you then had the nerve to deny coverage for one of my prescriptions because it wasn’t part of your formulary. No, the word on the street among healthcare providers was that no one who bought into you was happy.
Then, I left the country for four and a half months to study in Israel. I asked and you answered that while abroad, you wouldn’t pay any of my healthcare expenses unless it was for an extraordinary emergency. So I bought a temporary policy in Israel, and guess what? My one time premium for 4 and a half months was $400. Yes, that is $200 less than I pay you in a single month. When I developed a kidney infection, I didn’t pay a shekel for a lab test or a doctor’s visit. My antibiotics cost the equivalent of about $6.00–less than a co-pay for a generic drug in the U.S. And I didn’t have to deal with bogus emails feigning concern for me, I didn’t have to think about it, and I didn’t have to deal with you.
It was nice until the sign-up deadline drum started rolling. Emails from our insurance agent started coming with news trickling out–it’s going to be different, they said–drastically different. At the tenth to eleventh hours, they weren’t even sure what was going to happen. They would keep us updated, they promised, but at that time they knew as much as we did. I wanted to return to Blue Cross Blue Shield because in Texas at least, they’re not publicly traded. I became of the opinion that when health insurance companies like you Humana become more answerable to shareholders like than consumers, it’s a losing proposition all around. But then, I saw a friend’s photo on Facebook of a cut-up card BCBS card. Apparently, they pulled the same shenanigan you pulled on me–declaring that you would sell nothing but HMO plans.
That old inertia set in–and in a state not of denial so much as as bad case of, “Who wants to deal with this?” we sat on it long enough that you renewed our policy without asking. We received your letter saying that our previous year’s dreadful program had been cancelled and replaced with HMO. And oh by the way, you said, my new doctor would be So-and-So. And Dr. So-and-So was not the name of my doctor.
But wait, there’s more. You gave us a few days to absorb your totalitarian approach–to go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression…then just as we’re about to accept your Hannibal cannibalism, I received another letter confirming the rumor circulated by the insurance agents who sell your crummy product. It began ever so audaciously: “Dear Cathy: I think you’re going to like this…”
Who the hell do you think you are Humana? Cheeky! Who told you that you could call me by my first name? And secondly, how do you know what I like?
Second to our mortgage, health insurance is our biggest monthly expense, and yet, it doesn’t buffer against the high cost of healthcare at all. Who ever though that at my age, anyone would yearn for the next five years to pass
This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, begins in the aftermath of one of the most X-rated acts in the entire Hebrew Bible. An Israelite man, Zimri, has sex in the Holy of Holies with a Midianite princess, Cozbi, before a crowd that was at once both wailingly mournful and shocked. For this, G-d rewards him with a covenant of peace. As for Pinchas’ zealotry–let’s just leave it with the idea that centuries of Jewish sages and thinkers have pondered his act, and his reward for it, a topic for another day. The point is that this reward for zealotry opens this week’s parasha, or weekly Torah portion.
After this incident, a census it taken. Within the context of the census, somewhere in the middle of the portion, we receive the first telling of the story of the daughters of Zelophchad. In summary, the father of the five sisters–Mahlah, Chaglah, Noa, Milcah, and Tirzah–has died. He didn’t participate in the rebellion of Korach, rather, as the girls declare, “He died of his own sin.” Tradition teaches us that it was Zelophchad who was stoned to death for chopping wood on Shabbat, but no matter. For our purposes now, it is only important to know that he is dead. Based on discussions between Moses and G-d so far, women have received no rights of inheritance when they enter the Promised Land. It is this injustice that the five daughters address as they go together, as a unit, to take their case to Moses, the chieftains and the entire congregation.
“Should our father’s name be lost because he has no sons?” they ask. Given no answer to this rhetorical question, they then state their demand in no uncertain terms: “Give us our portion.”
Self-disclosure: My fascination with this story is such that I have written the first draft of a novel about the daughters of Zelophchad. (I know, I know…I’ll get back to it…) Why the fascination? First of all a question for female readers with sisters: Can you imagine agreeing with your sister(s) on anything long enough and fiercely enough to go before 613,000 people and Moses himself to make your case? If one or two sisters are difficult, can you imagine having four sisters?
Just saying, though that isn’t the point either.
Rabbinic tradition endows these five sisters with the traits of wisdom (because they chose to speak at the right time); intelligence (they knew how to craft an persuasive argument that could not be punctured, as least not by G-d, who ultimately agreed with them); and virtuosity (since they married men who were worthy of them).
Obviously, the demand for “our portion,” connects to the historical moment we experienced last night, as we watched the first woman in American history accept the nomination of a major party to become president of the United States. The fight for equal rights for women in politics, the pulpit and the workplace has defined and shaped my adult life and the lives of whole generations of women. Don’t even ask me how annoyed we sometimes become with young women when they take it all for granted. “They have no idea,” we say among ourselves, no idea how far we have come in one hundred years, in forty years or even the last twenty. Or how frustrating to have to fight the same battles, like the right to make choices about our own bodies! How maddening, the misinformed misogynistic hypocrites, who won’t regulate guns or pollution, yet constantly spend their days figuring out how to pick apart a woman’s constitutional right to choose. How infuriating, their assault not only upon our rights, but on our intellect.
In this holy work of literature, named men far outnumber named women. Which makes it all the more striking that six named women appear in this week’s Torah portion: the five daughters of Zelophchad–Machlah, Noa, Milcah, Tirtzah and Chaglah– plus Cozbi. Cozbi, too, had a father named Tzur. The incident of the skewering (literally) of Cozbi and Zimri (of the tribe of Shimon) came occurred as Moabite women infiltrated the Israelite camp and brought their cultic practices along with them. From Mespotamia to Canaan, cultic sex with a sanctified woman for the purpose of appealing to the gods was not uncommon, and in the Israelite camp, it became endemic. However, Cozbi was no cultic prostitute; she was, in fact, a Midianite princess. Moses’ own wife was a Midianite, and Moses’ relations with his father-in-law and brothers-in-law had been friendly, even helpful at times. So why would Cozbi the Midianite princess do what she did?
Aside from the sacrilege before the Holy of Holies, the problem with Cozbi was political. Her sexual relationship with Zimri potentially represented a sort of treaty between one Israelite tribe and a local tribe. Such arranged marriages between tribal leaders commonly occur to create a treaty by family bond. The tribe of Shimon was part of the the southern flank of the tent-nation, and a marriage with a local princess could have threatened to open the entire nation to infiltration. While the sexual act of Zimri and Cozbi in the Holy of Holies was a shocking profanation, it is also not unlikely that a high-level marital match between children of tribal leaders could be perceived as a deliberate weakening of the whole community by creating both a ritual power struggle and a vulnerability to attack. If Tzur, Midianite king and father to Cozbi, formulated an end game to infiltrate in order to attack, he deliberately placed his daughter Cozbi in the position of using her sexuality to gain political power.
For Hebrew pun lovers: Cozbi’s name in Hebrew is spelled כזבי–from the root כזב, which means, “to lie.” In what ways have women had to lie to themselves, their partners, or friends and family, when using sexuality to gain power? We have only to look at the outpouring of stories of the women who have worked at the Fox network to see what they lost in the way of either money or self-esteem and self-respect, by working in a culture of constant and sanctioned sexual harassment.
Contrast Cozbi’s use of her sexuality to gain power with the daughters of Zelophchad, who use of their wisdom, intelligence and virtuosity to create a righteous demand that not even G-d could deny. I have imagined the whole preparation scenes: five sisters, aggrieved at not only the loss of their father, but the loss of his protection. They look to a future with no inheritance, and so they determine that rather than using their bodies to get what they need to survive, they will use their five diverse brains. Surely of the five there must have been the Beauty, the Brain, the Party Girl with the biting sense of humor, the Lover who has already fallen in love forever and just wants out, the Special One who is deaf or blind or a diviner of water. Undoubtedly, they proposed amongst themselves many possible arguments: Who will say this? Who will say that? How will we approach? What tone of voice should we use? Shout, whisper, or sing? Should we cry? Make them laugh? Pout? Surely they said things to each other that were maddening, hilarious, sad, crazy. And just as surely, they filled their tent full of great ideas both subtle and in-your-face, and discussed late into the night issues of right and wrong and weak and strong. At the end of all the arguing, their plan succeeded. When they made their demand–give us our portion–Moses had no answer. He turned to G-d, and was answered: Their demand is just.
Yesterday, Hillary Clinton claimed her portion and in doing so, the portion of all women who have strived and somehow come up short because they were a woman. Coming up short has happened to me and more women than I care to discuss. One of my daughters sees gender inequality in her workplace to this day. After all this and all that, white male privilege has not gone away. Yet, watching Hillary claim what she has worked so hard to achieve, not just in this election cycle but over a period of forty-plus years, filled me with tears of satisfaction and hope: if she can claim it, so can I. If I can, so can my daughters, and so can anyone who works hard and never gives up their core values: justice, human rights, equal rights, or commitment servant leadership to create change.
Say what you will about Hillary Clinton–you can trash gossip about her marriage, bla-bla-bla parrot the same old Fox news bla-bla-bla about her emails or Benghazi; you can made snide remarks about her pant suits, or her charisma. I say that all of that pales in comparison to her consistency and endurance over so many years. Like the daughters of Zelophchad, she has never given up against the odds or because of the nasty and often untrue things people say. Instead of bitterness and cynicism (to which she would have every right and would not be convicted by a jury of her peers), she has endured her struggles and humiliations with a grace that has filled her with wisdom and intelligence, and yes, virtuosity. What she claimed last night is what she has earned.
Watch your step now. Beware the shards of glass all over the floor. I will sweep up the glass, then fly off on my broomstick. If you see me writing a message across the evening sky as Shabbat descends on your city, the words won’t say, “Boo!” Rather, they’ll say, “Don’t boo! Vote!”
We pay a considerable vanity tax and it irritates me. I first realized this when I had to pay $100 extra for bifocals without visible lines on the lens. There are many such indignities that are skin-deep, but among the most irritating of all these vanity taxes is what I pay to dye my hair. Denying the reality of aging costs money. It takes time and time is evermore precious. Ultimately, this act self-subterfuge turns looking in the mirror to a lie, and I harbor intense distaste for liars.
Along with Talmud, Hebrew, Rambam and Halachah, one of the important things I am learning at Pardes is that this “graying” as I age also applies my certainty about my political frameworks. As I grapple with the horrors of Syria and Iraq by the sheer evil ISIS, and the rock-throwing, stabbing and car-crashing in Israel prompted in part by their incitement, I look in the mirror of long-held political beliefs old ideas and realize that none of them fit exactly to reality as I grow older. I have always believed that all wrongs could be righted if everyone had equal rights for a decent public education, full voting rights and equal access to opportunity. Unfortunately, this does not answer every act of rage by a disenfranchised teenaged boy with access to Internet incitement, and possession of guns or knives. Good, ethical and right does not always overcome the very real forces of evil that blow like weeds across our planet. Like Nazism, ISIS presents the kind of evil that cannot be dissuaded ethically; sometimes, unfortunately, war is the only answer. As I plumb the depths of “the matzav” here in the coal mine of the veritable canary, within many of my encounters both in and out of the beit midrash (house of study), I find my old ideas blending with pragmatic new realities to create the same emerging gray as my true hair. There is not enough dye in the world to highlight it or change the color of truth.
Tuesdays at Noon at Pardes
On Tuesdays at noon at Pardes, we encounter the “matzav,” through the eyes of a variety of scholars. This week, four of the resident faculty sat in a panel discussion to share their very diverse ideas about the current eruption of violence. These co-workers sat together at a table and presented a range of ideas that in American parlance might be described as “A-Z, soup to nuts, far right to far left across the political spectrum.” And if I were in America, I would probably prejudge with certainty which “side” I would take, based on my typical black and white framework. Here, what I observed in a very profound way was that with total civility, open ears, devoid of name-calling or even naming, blaming or defaming, every person on the panel said something with which I agreed, and something with which I disagreed. At the end of the day, regardless of their individual focus, they had more in common with each other than their political positions or their chosen places of residence might represent. (Two lived in Jerusalem proper, two in what we might call the West Bank, or the other side of the Green Line).
In a nutshell, the most “liberal” of the four expressed a profound concern that the current government does not offer hope to either side. Lack of hope and frustration with the idea that nothing will change (therefore, what do I have to lose?), contributes to a lack of change in the situation. This person’s greatest heartache is the memory of going door to door as an IDF reservist and the ethical conundrum he faced when confronting frightened Arab families in an effort to root out terrorists without killing civilians. His heartache was the knowledge that his teenaged son will soon have to do the same thing. The ache for his child and lack of change frustrated him as he questioned, “What kind of leadership offers no hope?” We need new leadership.
Another expressed her strong opinion that just as we tell our children how we expect them to behave in public as a reflection of our family values, regardless of what other kids may be doing, she expected the leadership to lead and press action that aligned with our values as Jews. How can we leave the Arabs of East Jerusalem, she asked, without voting rights or the ability to return if they marry someone from the territories or Gaza? I don’t care what they do; I expect us to respond within the framework of our Jewish ethical values.
Another, whose sons had also had to go door to door in Arab villages, shared that her family’s dinnertime conversation always includes the lesson of treating the other with dignity. They should go out of their way not to frighten little children; they should not yell, but speak gently. She has had tea with her Arab neighbors in her own home; unfortunately it is not safe to go to their villages. If they can’t behave lawfully, maybe they should leave or be sent away.
The other person who lived in a West Bank community told stories of his many associations with Arab workers and contractors, and how they respond well to being treated and paid fairly. He strives in all his interactions to behave towards them ethically. All Israelis should behave this way in day to day social and economic associations with our neighbors. He is less concerned with systemizing this than self-protection. As long as there is incitement to hate and violence, our first priority must be to protect ourselves from those who want to kill us.
At the end of this passionate and sincere and painfully open panel discussion, I was bewildered by the realization that single every person on the panel said something with which I agreed, and something with which I disagreed. My old black and white frameworks blended to a shade of gray like the hair in my mirror. I realize with deep sadness that this kind of complexity and thoughtful discussion has been lost in the polarized politics of the U.S. The respect and civility of my teachers refreshed me as profoundly just as the lack of any “absolute truth,” frightened me with its many divergent directions and possibilities and impossibilities.
Facing Moses’ Worst Fear
A few weeks ago, Dr. Micah Goodman, a philosopher of Zionism, posed this question: What one word would you use to describe Jewish history in the 20th century? (I might have asked for a phrase, because it cannot be stated in less than two words). In essence, the words he used were: Destruction. Survival. (Decimation. Renewal. Genocide. Genesis. Can anyone out there think of one word that encompasses both? If so, I’d be interested to know it!)
The Jewish people made a quick move from being powerless to powerful, reflecting the fear of our teacher Moses. As he neared death, he became terrified with the certainty that the people would violate the covenant as soon as they crossed over into the land. He feared they would either return to Egypt or become Egypt.
Dr. Goodman related a midrash regarding Jacob as he prepared for his fateful meeting with Esau. He sent spies who returned with the news that Esau would be accompanied by 400 men, and feared that Esau would seek revenge for taking the blessing from him. The midrash describes Jacob’s fear with two words: ירא — the natural biological sense of fear that he might die– and יצר — the ethical fear of dying, or I might add, the idea of having to respond by killing his brother.
“A Jewish warrior carries both fears,” says Dr. Goodman. He continued by describing the Code of Ethics of the Israel Defense Forces. First of all, “chaye adam”…the life of each person is sacred and the security of each soldier is a promise to their mothers. In other words, taking any unnecessary risks would be a breach of ethics on the part of the commanding officers or fellow soldiers. Another he mentioned specifically is “tahor ha’neshek“, or the “purity of arms,” that is, that every soldier is bound to minimize casualties among enemies. Between these two–the security of each soldier and the effort to minimize casualties among enemies, creates a radical tension between the two.
“These are not theoretical principles in today’s Israel, and it is extremely disturbing,” said Dr. Goodman. “For example, what if you have intel that someone in Gaza is building a bomb with the intent to blow up a building in Tel Aviv. The principle of chaye adam, the security of each person, obviously necessitates foiling his plan by any means possible. However, what if he is building a bomb in a house where he is surrounded by others, women and children? How do you prioritize?”
He gave an example from the 2002 Intifada in which these conflicting principles were put to the test. Over 1000 Jews were killed in terrorist attacks such as bus bombings, or the hotel bombing in Netanya during a community Passover seder, acts which left a population of 7 million Israelis terrified. Thus, Operation Defensive Shield was launched. In Jenin, a terrorist hub in a West Bank city very close to populous northern areas, a decision was made to send troop from house to house to root out individuals rather than bomb the town. Forty Palestinians (including 20 terrorists) and 13 Israeli soldiers were killed for the effort. The outcome of living by the ethical principle of “tahor ha’neshek“? The world press generated a mythical massacre of over 500 Palestinians. In the meantime, in Israel, the question was raised about why Israeli soldiers had to die protecting their civilians?
My cousin Alon was among the reservists who had to do the hand-to-hand combat in Jenin. At that time, the father of two young daughters expressed a bitter bewilderment that the world fell for the story of a “massacre.” He had personally witnessed Palestinians “playing dead,” being loaded into ambulances in front of television cameras, in ambulances that drove around the block, where they jumped out and rejoined the line of corpses to be buried.) This type of “battle,” that is, lying to the press, has become an integral part of the “new war,” one in which our values are used against us. Citing Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, “The End of History,” Goodman reflected that with the end of the Cold War, subscribers of western civilization thought we would never again be attacked. But terrorism has changed all that.
Terrorism introduces a new war, one in which our values are used against us. “This ethical asymmetry balances the imbalance of power. Unethical offense and defense creates a challenging situation.”
The complexity of this reality and confusion about the best ways to ethically battle the unethical was the ultimate concern of every member of this week’s panel. Parents worrying that children and grandchildren will continually fight the same wars over and over–balanced against the Jewish ethic that prohibits the construct of a society to perpetrate the kinds of inequality and discrimination faced by Arabs in East Jerusalem, and to a lesser extent by Israeli Arabs; balanced against the daily reality of living peacefully with neighbors who will not disappear or like us on demand, balanced yet more by the sectors of that population bent on murder, mayhem, anarchy and destruction–is enough to turn anyone’s hair gray. The kernels of hope I heard rested strongly in the one common self-expression of every single soul on the panel, each of whom preceded their statements of belief like this: I believe to the core of my being in the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland. I love my country.
At the end of his lecture, a student asked Dr. Goodman said what he thought American Jews could do to. To my surprise and delight, he offered an answer I had never heard. “We need your partnership in working to solve our problems,” he responded.
Here, for the first time from among the hundreds of lectures and “briefings,” and situational analyses I have heard, an Israeli influential asked not for money, or weapons, but for our human capabilities. He invited us to join our Israeli brothers and sisters in the challenge of problem-solving in what seems to be an intractable conflict. Not just our fundraising “rah-rah,” (though Israelis love to be loved, no doubt), not just our political influence (though it helped Israel achieve Iron Dome, thus saving thousands of lives). These things help to survive the conflict, but do little to help solve it.
Which returns us back to Moses’ core concern: do we want to return to Egypt or become Egyptians? Or do we want to give our time or treasures to efforts that will help our Israeli brothers and sisters solve problems in ways that are the best expression of our Jewish values?
At the end of these long days at Pardes, I always call Eddie to discuss what I’ve learned that day. We talked for a long time about Dr. Goodman’s thought-provoking words. How might this framework impact how we allocate our charitable resources and time? We’re still talking about it. But of one thing I have certainty: the complete futility of applying our absurd American politics of polarization to Israel within our Jewish organizations. If we are to achieve peace in our times, or help bring it about for our children or grandchildren, we need to hold up this diamond and look at its seventy faces, and work at accepting that there is not enough dye in the world to cover or highlight the reality of all these shades of gray.
In a three way Skype call with my daughters Julia and Molly this past weekend, Julia announced her intention to travel to Oaxaca in December.
“I don’t want you to go to Mexico now,” I said. “It’s too dangerous.”
My irreverent daughters burst out laughing. “Mom!” they said, almost simultaneously. “You’re in Jerusalem …. Right now, you’re in the most dangerous city in the world…. How can you say that?”
Funny, it doesn’t feel all that dangerous, relatively speaking anyway. A cursory online survey of the most dangerous cities in the world for homicide, drug lords, gangs and street crime revealed a whopping nineteen cities in Brazil, ten cities in Mexico, several in Columbia and Venezuela, a few in South Africa and four in the United States (Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, and St. Louis). As a resident of Texas, I am closer to Ciudad Juarez (Number 1 on at least one list) than I am to Kabul or Bagdad, which is about as close to Jerusalem as dangerous cities get.
Failing to earn the questionable distinction of a most dangerous city, however, doesn’t diminish the significance of what has happened in this latest round of violence.
“Now we have children killing children.”
In case your local newspaper hasn’t fully covered the recent violence in Israel, here’s the unhappy summary: In response to how-to lessons from anonymous ISIS-inspired videos on social media, incitement by Gaza mullahs calling for people to become heroes by stabbing Jews, and silence from Palestinian leaders, Israel has experienced the specter of grisly acts of random violence. The cold-blooded murder by gunshot wounds of parents in front of their four children ages nine and under; stabbing deaths of a fathers and husbands and soldiers; a grandfather hit by a car, then stabbed to death. Rock-throwing and cars crashing with the intention of running drivers off the road. And of course, the old terror trick of attacks on public transportation, including a Jerusalem bus not a half mile from where I attend classes all day. Among the gallery of some thirty or so recovering victims: A few 70-year olds run over at a bus stop. A Dutch-born Christian foster mother in East Jerusalem. A young mother and her 2-year old toddler. (Yes, someone stabbed a two-year old toddler.)
A 13-year boy who is to become a bar mitzvah next month, stabbed by another 13-year old boy as he rode his bicycle. “Now we have children killing children,” noted one friend.
With some pundits declaring a third intifada, Jerusalem closed into itself. Since government cuts had taken away school security guards in many places, parents, teachers and students reduced school days to pressure the government to restore school security to the budget. Empty buses ran down empty streets. Nighttime Jerusalem, usually full of people walking, playing, eating in sidewalk cafes, children riding bicycles and scooters, became a like a ghost town. Restaurant owners saw business go down by more than half. A friend who works at an Old City museum said the tours were beginning to cancel, and people were avoiding the museum. If it wasn’t an intifada, it certainly felt like one. I was here during the second intifada, and a closed and inward Jerusalem is not completely unfamiliar to me.
Israeli friends and family tell me that this time, it feels “different.” Why? Most of the Jerusalem stabbers are not Palestinians of the West Bank or Gaza; they are Israeli Arabs who reside in East Jerusalem. These aren’t Hamas fighters firing rockets at ambiguous, unseen targets. These are neighbors, or the children of neighbors, who harbor a rage so intense that they are capable of making hand to body physical contact required to stab someone to death.
Iron Dome may be smart enough to save cities from mass casualties from rocket fire, but it can’t anticipate a random face in an ordinary crowd with the rage and the will to stab a random Jew.
My American Numbness
If I were watching this spectacle from my comfy home in Austin, I would be worried and appalled. Oddly enough, I didn’t know what I felt until I heard one of my American classmates say she, “felt numb.” That was it! It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t denial…it was…nothing. Numb, except for the irritation for interrupting my daily routine — especially because I rely on public transportation. What’s with the persistent drone of helicopters circling overhead? They’re drowning out the endearing neighborhood sounds of children laughing and playing and bawling when a siblings hurts them, parents barking orders, babies crying, horns honking, the serious daveners at the little Na-Nach synagogue across the street. I thought, screw it! From my comfortable distance in Austin, I’ve always admired the plucky Israeli ability to survive terror attacks by getting on with life. Haven’t we always heard that to stop living in the face of terror hands the perpetrators a victory?
Perhaps stupidly, I decided I would not be scared to do what I want to do, day or night, despite the empty streets. Then one night, looking to the left and right and behind my shoulder, I felt a twinge. How did I get to be so good at night walking? My old Houston days, or nights in New York City in the crime-plagued late 1970s? The 1980s dusk walks on Austin’s Town Lake after a plague of rapes? All those focus groups with victims and perpetrators of violence against women in the 1990s? Urban Americans know violence, we see it all the time on television and the news.
For just a little moment, I tucked away away Jerusalem’s troubled history, with its multi-layered religious cultural context. If I thought of it like any other city experiencing a violent crime wave perpetrated by misguided young people, it didn’t seem so dangerous. The numerical odds would be in my favor. Seven people killed out of over 800,00 in the greater Jerusalem area; what’s that compared to 10 in one day in Roseburg, Oregon, population approximately 22,000? Skip the political, social, emotional motivations for a moment: what makes this singular crime wave any worse or different than the one created by an epidemic of misguided (mostly) young men? Incited by the Internet, fed by mental illness, poverty, joblessness, hopelessness and frustration–guns, knives, what’s the difference? Whether in a community college classroom or a bus stop, movie theater or house of worship, it seems the perpetrators have a lot in more common with each other than their random victims.
At the end of my little moment, I am present; in Jerusalem it can’t be that simple. With its sirens, helicopters, checkpoints and young soldiers guarding buses, mall entrances and busy street corners. After week or so at Hadassah Hospital, the bar mitzvah thankfully woke up from his coma; just down the hall on that very same day, his 13-year old stabber, injured in his attempted to getaway, was released and promptly arrested. He retracted his original confession in which he said his 17-year old cousin, shot dead by an armed bystander, had invited him to tag along, stab some Jews. He pleads not guilty, he’s just a kid. Can there by any doubt that two sets of Jerusalem parents returned that day to their separate Jerusalem neighborhoods, relieved their children are alive, aggrieved at their fate, and undoubtedly wondering, as we all are, when and how this can ever end.
I met a nice couple today from Marin County who spend extended periods of time every year in Israel. Like us, they come for long enough to pretend they live here; they attend different kinds of synagogues to experience new ways, network with various people and have friends and family here. Israel is a home away from home. There are many like us not only from the U.S., but from England, Australia, South Africa, and Canada; in Israel we are called “Anglos” because we speak English (though not in any other context would I ever describe myself as “Anglo”). I asked them how they felt about what was happening, and every answer they offered quoted an Israeli or American-Israeli friend or relative. While they didn’t describe the same numbness I have felt, like me, they take social and emotional cues about “how to express feelings about the matzav”, or “situation” as it is called here. By and large, my new friends agree with me that the overwhelming aura here is one of a deep, sighing (but not yet groaning) sadness.
How do Israelis deal with it? They leave the country for vacations or to visit friends and relatives in other countries to take a break from the stress and the news. Some move to other countries. Most heavily sigh and go on with their lives. They watch TV, and the news; popular Israeli talk television hosts give tips to parents on how to talk to children. After a few days of calm, people return to normal life albeit with more caution and suspicion. A few of my ever-hopeful friends march in solidarity rallies with Arab neighbors to show that they won’t bend to hate. Mostly, there seems to be tacit agreement that, “Even if the Arabs hate us, we must keep trying, even though many continue to believe they will eventually drive Jews ‘back to where we came from.'”
“I’m not going back to Poland, that’s for sure,” says one.
“I have nowhere else to go,” says another.
“We have always been here, why should we go anywhere?” says my own family.
“Why do they hate us so much?”
“I can’t believe that my friend so and so really believes that we are occupiers like the British or the Ottomans. She really believes that one day, we too will give up and go away. I just don’t get it.”
Among most of my friends and fellow-students, there is deep antipathy to the ultra-Orthodox and that directional tilt in Netanyahyu’s government. I have heard bitter criticism about bad public policy regarding settlement in the West Bank from some of the most patriotic Israelis. Israelis complain with good reason about the unreasonably high cost of housing in desirable areas, the lack of government funding for interior Israel infrastructure in the north, budget cuts for school security, and gross errors in handling “the matzav. ” Has destruction of the homes of families of terrorists worked in the past? When they put up concrete blockades in East Jerusalem to create checkpoints, they effectively shut off ordinary Israeli Arabs from going to work and school within any reasonable timeframe. Suddenly, the “undivided capital of Israel” became divided, and many people screamed loud enough about it that the strategy was abandoned.
A Lamed on the Car Roof
In the past few days as a tentative calm has returned, the student drivers are back on the streets. Learner cars all tote a big ל on the car roof for the Hebrew word for “Learner,” making them hard to miss. I noticed that one thing that both Israeli and Arab and probably most student drivers have in common is how they clutch the wheel tightly with both hands and keep their eyes intently on the the road. When I saw the students today, I thought that it’s too bad their leaders aren’t as cautious as they are. They are neighbors, after all.
I think of my neighbors in Austin, and the importance of those relationships in the day-to-day pleasantness of our lives. Our relationships with our neighbors are of primary importance because we share a yard, a roof, a pool, a road. To have healthy relationships with neighbors (or anyone for that matter), we have to listen to each other’s story even if it conflicts with our own. Equally, we have to acknowledge that there will be conflicting but equally valid points of view, and that everyone’s point of view will be, by definition, self-serving. The practice of self-restraint, listening, sharing, and empathy … these are lifelong quests in all close relationships.
Compromise can’t be harder than violence, can it? No doubt compromise can be uncomfortable, but can it be more uncomfortable than mourning dead relatives, or hospitalizations for knife and gunshot wounds, or the wounds to so many souls living with continuous strife?
As a 40-year veteran in the Israeli world of social justice, Levi Lauer said in a lecture this week, “Doing nothing is no answer. Saying ‘I don’t know what to do,’ is no answer. Saying Hashem will answer is foolish. It is not feasible to believe that 4 million people will like you or disappear at your will. We have to synthesize emunah (faith) with human action and communal discipline. It may be uncomfortable, but we have to engage with our discomfort if we are to have collective salvation.”
What kind of action do you think will help? What will hurt? What can we do? Let me know your thoughts.
Last November, Tablet Magazine published an article I wrote about President’s Lyndon Johnson’s dedication of the new synagogue building for Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin. Today, in honor of President’s Day, Tablet reposted the article, this time including the audio file of his speech. Whatever your thoughts about LBJ’s politics or personality, this was an incredible speech that offered a window into where he would lead us.
President Johnson’s participation in the life of my synagogue remains a source of pride in our history. I have had the privilege of interviewing many congregants who participated in the planning, cooking, speaking and arranging, and for them it was a defining moment as American Jews. We had a President who loved us, who listened to us and honored us with his presence. The move itself represented a move “Uptown” from downtown both physically and spiritually. After all, not even Cyrus the Great, who released the exiled Jews from Babylonia to return to the Land, loaned us his convertible to carry our sacred Torah scrolls.