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.