Monday, January 20, 2014

Did You Hear the one about 12 Cardinals and a Bunch a Rabbis walking into a Beit Midrash...?
That, and my First Day of School

So I walk into school this morning and as I'm waiting for the elevator, a bus load of very frum looking people walk in the door. They were all wearing ones. And by the looks of the big crosses hanging 'round their necks, I figured they weren't new students trying to find out where registration was.

Like any nosy Jew, I start trying to find out what's going on. Anytime you see a lot of cardinals in one place, you think they're coming to elect a new pope. Perhaps Rabbi Lamm? Pope Norman I?

Seeing as Rabbi Lamm probably wouldn't look that great in a white robe (the whole Jesus thing might've been a little problematic, too), I guess they decided they wanted to see what Jewish learning was all about. So around 10:30 this morning, Rabbi Lamm and Rabbi Charlop walked into the main Beit Midrash along with the cardinals and their entourage. Most of the guys learning looked a little confused, but the majority went on learning. The galachim all seemed to be very impressed. Apparently, they found it very inspiring that young people in the modern world, living in one of the most decadent, materialistic cities, would spend their morning poring over ancient religious texts. It's funny how we take that for granted often. Some times you need someone from the outside to remind you just how incredible you are. Rabbi Blau even mentioned how one of the cardinals said to him, "if our students only learned like yours, we wouldn't have as many problems as we do."

I even got to shmooze with one the cardinals and a Parisian priest. We talked a little bit about the difficulties of communicating across cultural gaps, and I mentioned how yeshiva students are often capable of speaking the languages of many different worlds. We also talked about how there are things that we can talk about, but that there are also topics we have to agree not to talk about at the outset (a la the Rav's approach to communication in "Confrontation"). It was interesting that the cardinal echoed what I said, and that he seemed to implicitly understand what I was talking about. One of the difficulties I've found with Habermas and some other liberal thinkers is that they don't seem to recognize that their are limitations in communication across a cultural gap. You can learn a lot from dialogue and learning from different communities, but you also have to understand clearly what the fundamental differences are between the different cultures and which gaps can and can't be bridged.

With the Parisian priest I talked a little bit about differences between Jewish and Christian approaches to marriage and divorce. Actually, he started talking about the topic when I asked him what were the biggest difficulties his parishioners had with religion. Were they intellectual issues, like belief and faith in doctrine? He said the biggest difficulties he had were more practical and had to do with cases where people got divorced and then remarried and felt that they needed to leave the Church and had difficulty confronting their priest because of feelings of guilt and what not. I didn't say this at the time, but I thought it was very interesting how we have the notion that even if someone transgresses a prohibition, they're still a part of the community and that there is always room for tshuvah. Yes, Halakhah is meant to be kept but,כי אדם, אין צדיק בארץ--אשר יעשה-טוב, ולא יחטא (Eccles. 7:20). And on Yom Kippur, the first thing we say is "אנו מתירים להתפלל עם העבריינים."

So that was my morning. Shiur was pretty good. We started a new perek. Unfortunately, my chavruta is sick, so I would like to wish him a refuah shlemah.

In my college classes, I had back-to-back Wyschogrods. I really liked them and am looking forward to the semester. With Dr. Edith, we did a introduction to Phenomenology, giving a brief overview of Husserl, Heidegger and Levinas (we sort of skipped Sartre). I was really impressed by how clear she was at presenting their general approaches to studying consciousness. She also really knows her stuff, which is very cool.

Her husband, Dr. Michael, who is teaching Philosophy of Religion, was also very good, though a little slower. He gave a good introduction discussing the differences between the ways analytic and continental philosophers approach the study of religion. We also got off on to a whole tangent concerning Natural Theology.

I also mentioned to both of them that I'm doing a thesis comparing Rav Soloveitchik's and Emanuel Levinas' contributions to social and religious philosophy, and they both seemed interested and willing to offer their advice, which is really good. I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts on the topic, so feel free to comment; of course I will cite anyone who helps as a reference in the final draft. I'm also interested in trying to apply Levinas and the Rav to the whole communitarian critique of John Rawls. One of the problems I find with Rawls is that he doesn't giving compelling reasons (in my mind) as to why people should feel any responsibility to one another or morally bound by any form of social contract. I feel Levinas is very good at filling in this gap. Also, I'm interested in how Halakhah (or the "philosophy of Halakhah" to use the Rav's term) balances the relative relationship between the individual and the community, especially in economic matters. Prof. Aaron Levine has written somewhat on this topic; Prof. Twersky also wrote an interesting article on Jewish attitudes toward the welfare state. Another interesting article I found recently was one by Suzanne Stone in Harvard Law Review on the emergence of Halakhah in postmodernist legal theory (an interesting topic in and of itself).

Monday, September 23, 2013

Do Not Desecrate the Name of Our Father Abraham/Ibrahim

Jews and Arabs of Hebron -
Look to Father Abraham/Ibrahim!
!שמעו שמים והאזיני ארץ
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth!
!שמעו אחי ובני דודי
O hear, my brothers and my cousins!

Terror strikes me as I write these lines. Before my eyes I see rivers of blood. This is the holiday of “"ושאבתם מים בששון, “with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). The drawing of water, the source of all life. With Friday’s murder of Tomer Hazan and the sniper attack yesterday in Hevron, this holiday has already witnessed enough death.

If the reports are correct, yesterday's sniper attack was deliberately meant to be a provocation. Do not take the bait. Repeat, do not take the bait!
It is laudable to “not give in to terror”, but it will also be tempting to 'show who's in charge'; people will shout 'Death to the Arabs.' The world media will be waiting to watch you do it. Don't play into the hand of your provocateur. If there is ever to be real peace it will be when we come to recognize why this place, Hebron/al-Khalil, which means “friend" in both Hebrew and Arabic - is so important to us.
As historic victims of prejudice, we know that not all people are the same.
These are Bnai Yishmael (Children of Ishmael), monotheists. There are at least 10 righteous people among them (cf. Genesis 18:32). It is true that most of them, but not all of them, hate you. Don't give them even more reason to.
To my Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, and Christian cousins: what you want is an end to military occupation. You want the army out of your lives and to govern yourselves as a free people. But, it won't happen tomorrow.
Understand that Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs is a place that is holy to us. The closest parallel in Islam would be the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad, Al-Masjid al-Nabawī, in Medina.
In ancient times, the Children of Israel made two 7 day holiday pilgrimages to Jerusalem, one at Passover and one at Sukkot, the holiday that we are currently celebrating. The term the Torah uses for the holiday is “the Hag”. If it looks familiar, it's because it is.
You know that we are Semites. This is our Haj. It is our custom to visit holy places during this period. You want to be respected during your holidays. So do we.
My Jewish brothers and sisters don't believe Islam has respect for Judaism. Show them that they are wrong. Risk your lives for peace.
Tell your brothers and sisters that you have had enough of blood. Be courageous and brave for peace. If not for our sakes, then for your own. Will it really matter 'who started it' when you go to bury your child?
One thing we all agree on is that our leaders are failing us. But that doesn't absolve us of responsibility. Be the change you want to see in the world. Many of us are working on alternative plans to resolve the conflict—alternatives to the unfeasible plans currently on the table. Here is the link to an article I wrote two months ago ( Is it perfect? No. But, is there hope? Yes.

If there is anything that we learn from Abraham it is faith and hope. Kindness to the foreigner and the stranger. Our Torah states that Ishaq/Isaac and Ismail/Ishmael came together in Hebron at the end of Abraham's life to bury him next to his wife, Sarah.
We are destined to be neighbors. Neither of us is going to disappear.
Love your neighbor as yourself. God/Allah was serious about that.
Shalom Aleichem - Wa ‘alaykum al-salaam.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The CommonWealth of Abrahamic States

As the latest round of peace talks begins, the feeling in the air is one of optimism, skepticism, cynicism and pessimism. John Kerry and Martin Indyk are hoping that they will be able to overcome the obstacles and sound determined to give it everything they've got. Perhaps the greatest fear is that they could succeed.

But the question remains - how do we determine success? Is it just the signing of a piece of paper proclaiming "peace in our time"? The mutual distrust - and very often hatred - between Israelis and Palestinians will remain, independent of any peace accord. The Oslo agreements of 1993 were supposed to usher in a new wave of peace. Things have certainly changed on the ground since then, but the lack of peace hasn't been one of them.

The reason I am not optimistic about this round of talks succeeding is that whatever the Netanyahu government and the United States are offering the Palestinians, it will be less than what they think they will get if they pursued the path of the United Nations and internationalization of the conflict. There are no indications that Palestinians are getting ready to end their struggle. On the contrary, they see the BDS movement and the apartheid accusations gaining strength. And most importantly, even if they get their demand of 1967 borders - which itself is highly unlikely - it will not end the conflict, because the conflict has never been about 1967. This is still a conflict over the events of 1948 and the mutual claims of both parties over the entirety of the land between the river and the sea.

Yet there is an even greater issue that has essentially been ignored since the very beginning of the process. Has it ever occurred to anyone how absurd it is to try to resolve the conflict without addressing the matters of religious symbolism? For Heaven's sake - pun intended - it's the Holy Land! The general presumptions have been that the religious on both sides are extremists that simply need to be rolled over to get to an agreement. 

This has been a fundamental paradigm flaw from the very beginning. Religion has always been viewed as part of the problem, rather than as a potential part of the solution. Part of this has been a result of Western, secular biases against both Judaism and Islam. The most powerful messages of the sanctity of human life, justice and peace have always come from the Abrahamic religious sources themselves. 

The roles of symbolism and honor have also been neglected to a great extent. In certain ways, this is a conflict over which flag will fly over the land and which cultures and languages will be dominant. For Jews and Israelis, the meaning of the words "the Jewish State" are matters of deep, internal conflict. The meaning of the word "Jewish" has been deliberately left undefined. Yet the symbols of the renaissance of Hebrew as a spoken language, the Star of David upon a blue and white flag, and national independence in the ancient, ancestral homeland, are powerful forces that unite Israelis and Jews around the world.

Likewise, for Palestinians, whose flag is the flag of the Arab Revolt of 1916, these Jewish symbols represent the usurpation and colonization of "Arab" land, and the nakba, or catastrophe of their loss in the war of 1948. Pan-Arab nationalism has transformed over the years into Palestinian nationalism, yet the argument essentially remains the same: Western imperial powers stole Arab land and handed it over to the Jews who are basically foreigners in the region. There are varying degrees of willingness to come to terms with the reality and facts on the ground, but Israel's very existence and subsequent history are still sources of deep pain and disgrace.

Most of the negotiations over the course of the years have been conducted like the worst and most bitter divorce proceedings in history, each side arguing vehemently over who gets what and who started what with whom. The model is the British model of Partition, which is really the antithesis of anything Solomonic in wisdom (the nuclear weapons that India and Pakistan have pointed at each other should be argument enough). The land only truly belongs to the party that refuses to see it split! Yet there is another model that also involves the allocation of assets between parties, also often familial and containing vehement disputes. This is the model of inheritance.

My argument is that rather than looking at resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict as a divorce proceeding, that we look at it as an inheritance dispute. For that is essentially what is.  Both sides often jokingly refer to each other as "the cousins". It is impossible to deny the relationship between Arabic and Hebrew as "cousin" Semitic languages, and both Christianity and Islam recognize that Judaism is the older "sibling". Jews recognize that their ancestral father Abraham is also the "father of many nations". Muslims recognize themselves as the children of Ishmael/Ismail and Jews as the children of Isaac/Ishaq, or Banu Israil, the children of Israel.

Abraham as a unifying thread, is such an obvious symbolic choice that the wonder is why it hadn't been thought of before. Part of the problem is that the "Abrahamic Solution" was hiding in plain sight. Those who would easily dismiss this are seriously misunderstanding the power of symbolism in the region. Not only does Abraham as a constant reminder encourage more tolerant attitudes between Muslims, Christians and Jews, it also encourages more peaceful attitudes between Arabs and Muslims themselves. Most significantly, it provides a symbolic marker in a term easily understandable in the region as to why the Jews are there in the first place. The importance of this last point cannot be overstated.

Jews and Arabs already share the land between the river and the sea, and the Palestinian economy is heavily dependent upon Israel's. It is conceivable that at some point in the future, both Jordan and Lebanon could express interest in such an association. While a federation or confederation would probably be too strong a political union, the British Commonwealth of Nations could be a more appropriate structural model. (Indeed, as former British Mandate territories, Israel/Palestine are  also eligible members of that body). From the Commonwealth's charter: 

the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent  and equal sovereign states, each responsible for its own policies, consulting  and co-operating in the common interests of our peoples and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace, and influencing international society to the benefit of all through the pursuit of common principles and values.

The term "common wealth", is in fact the most appropriate phrase to describe the "ownership" of the land between the river and the sea. While no name is set in stone, an entity named "the Commonwealth of Abrahamic States" ("Artzot Brit Avraham" in Hebrew) could actually have a chance for bringing peace. It is also one of the few - or only - ideas that could have a chance for moderating extremism and attracting religious groups to invest in its future success.

Like New York and New Jersey; Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC; or France and Germany, each state would have its own flag, its own government and its own legal system. The political status of Washington DC could also serve as a working model for the city of Jerusalem. Bodies similar to the Port Authority of NY/NJ would need to be set up. Clearly, it is impossible to solve all problems or foresee all future challenges. Negotiations would obviously still be necessary. But such a model could provide a framework for mutual cooperation and a sense of interdependence between the parties rather than conflict.  

And is it really any worse than the current model? Is the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes really the way to make peace? Hasn't there been enough expulsion and destruction? The insistence on the arbitrary "1967 border" (really the 1949 armistice line) is a strait-jacket meant to insist that - as a matter of principle (!) - Jews have no right to dwell in cities in the Biblical heartland. The greatest and saddest irony is that the name of the city of Hebron (al-Khalil, in Arabic), where our common father lies buried, comes from the root word for "friend" in both languages.

What would Father Abraham say?

Dedicated to the memory and spirit of Rabbi Menachem Froman (pbuh), who ascended to the mountaintop and showed us the way forward into the Promised Land.