Monthly Archives: October 2018

The Blessing of Debate 

When reading Talmud or various Jewish commentaries, one thing is clear, over and over again: Jews love to argue. The traditional mode of Jewish study maintains an emphasis on dialogue and disagreement. Jews often study in havruta-in pairs with each member of the havruta challenging and asking questions of the other. A person who walks into a traditional house of study is struck immediately by the noise level-havrutot (plural of havruta) read the text aloud and often argue at some volume, pushing one another to come to a better understanding of the text at hand.

One of the rules of this argumentative style of learning is to always respect your study partner. One is not locked in debate with a fellow learner in order to prove who’s smarter. The experience of havruta is embraced for the sake of heaven. To put it another way, arguing different positions with respect and honor is considered a sacred act performed with God’s urging and God’s blessing.

It used to be that within the Jewish community this foundational belief that there is a multiplicity of opinions on virtually anything was paramount and entirely accepted. The resilience of the Jewish tradition has been in its ability both to foster dissent of thought and encourage consensus of action. That does not mean that every community acts in the same way, but that communities while acknowledging disagreements, can still mobilize to do important work together.

Of course, Jews have been known to vituperatively go at it with their fellow Jews. History books include many examples of loud and painful schisms. Medieval rabbinic Jews vs. Karaites. Followers of Shabbetai Tzvi, the false messiah vs. Jews who did not accept him. The Hasidic movement beginning in the 18th century and the mitnagdim who bitterly opposed them. The Orthodox community and the first Reform Jews of the 19th century. The Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto who called for an armed uprising, and the Jews who were vehemently opposed.
These internal struggles throughout our history have been deeply scarring. It can take a very long time for the wounds of opposition to heal.   Whenever we can hear perspectives that are not ours, and strenuously disagree, while still valuing the notion that we share a deeply personal bond, this is success. And whenever we disagree and disrespect each other, belittling the thoughts and the essence of the person with whom we disagree, then this is failure.

The sacred roots of havruta are being lost. There seem to be ever-wider rifts between us. There are few conversations and debates now, and more finger pointing and anger. I specifically don’t remember the subject of Israel ever being so dominantly divisive amongst American Jews.

Part of this is surely the “new normal” of political rallies. We see and hear people being insulted and booed at, accused of being liars and cheats, pointed out as being un-American because they believe differently than the party in power. We also see the use of the “us” vs. “them” paradigm, who’s on the right side and who is on the wrong side. In such an atmosphere there can be no constructive dialogue, just endless and tedious name-calling.

We have to listen more carefully to each other within our family circle. We have to support a true diversity of opinions and also unite when we collectively agree that something is harmful or dangerous. We have to work hard at bringing down the temperature of our differences and acknowledge what we can do together and what we cannot do. This is tremendously difficult, but not impossible.

On October 23rd at 7pm at TBA, we will be hosting a havruta: Mike Makovsky, President and CEO of the Jewish Institute of National Security of America, and Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of J Street. Jeremy and Mike are on a speaking tour, modeling civil discourse and respect for each other’s commitment to the same goal – a secure, democratic homeland for the Jewish people in the State of Israel – while discussing their different approaches.

This discussion is a true model of what we can accomplish – respectfully. We can loudly disagree without calling each other names or accusing the other of being an antisemite or unpatriotic, or anti-Israel, or a fascist, and so forth.

This is how peace comes. This is how understanding comes. One conversation at a time, spoken in words of dedication to the truth and not to the sharpest arrow. Come be a part of this effort to listen and to understand, to agree and disagree, as the case might be, for the sake of heaven. For the sake of our children.

The Seasons

 

The primary indicator of Autumn’s arrival is all about the tree outside the Administrative entrance to our temple. It starts to turn colors – glorious colors! – at least 10 days before all the other trees. This is at least partly due to the halogen light that shines through the leafy boughs, speeding the transition.

As I walk towards the entrance, I see it, as if for the first time. And it’s always such a shock and surprise. It resonates with almost the same intensity as the first day of school, or when I sound the shofar. We’re here, for the first time – again.

For all the encounters of a lifetime and the new experiences that are often so exciting, there is something about the cycle of the year that I love. The cycles of life are reassuring: so definite, so clearly demarcated. To know something about what’s coming – the next holiday, the solstice, an anniversary – is solace for living in a world where we can know practically nothing else about the next day or even the next hour.

The regular rhythms of life keep us rooted. It’s one of the themes in Marc Chagall’s work. If we don’t have an anchor, we might float away!

The cycles of life are not just anchors. They actually provide opportunities to engage in the sacredness of life itself. Not just the big moments, like b’nai mitzvah or weddings, but moments like seeing the Fall foliage for the first time. Or the first time you pull out a sweater to wear. Or after your annual physical. Or carving your pumpkin.

The point is, we return to these moments again and again. As much as we may have changed over the past x years of our lives, these things stay the same; comfortable, familiar, blessed. By acknowledging them, paying attention to them, we give thanks for still being around to appreciate them.

In the Jewish tradition, there is the custom of reciting 100 blessings a day. For Jews who daven every day, this really isn’t so hard. In fact, the Aish.com website breaks it down mathematically. But for post-modern Jews, it’s a lot more challenging. The fact is that looking at the common things that cycle through our lives gives us opportunities to reflect, show gratitude, and then give thanks:  for the miracle of our senses, the capacity to love, to age in health, to be cared for, for life itself.

The leaves are falling, and soon the trees will be bare. The winds will howl and winter will come: cold, snowy, slippery. And just as you begin to despair you will see a crocus, daring to show it’s tiny, fragile bud. And you will say, thank you; thank you for reminding me that the world continues to turn, the seasons change, and that I am blessed to be a witness.

Kavanaugh

I know good old Brett. I never met him, but I recognize him from a mile away. He is the quintessence of the frat boy, one of the guys. Brett’s a poster child for the clean-cut white American, borne to privilege, borne to the assumption that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants to do it. Why shouldn’t he? He has money, brains, class, culture, and power. You know why he was such a petulant, tantrum-throwing brat at the hearing? No one says no to Brett. Not a lawyer. Not a coach. Not a terrified young woman. Not Senator Klobuchar — especially not a woman! How dare anyone call him on his behavior? He can do anything he wants! He was coached well by Trump and associates.

Brett is an insecure guy, a manchild who hides behind his race and his religion. He was bred for success. And succeed he has. Brett has convinced enough Americans and their elected officials that he deserves a seat on the Supreme Court. And, by God, he’s going to get it. The status quo stills breathes, still destroys anyone who might disagree or offer another interpretation of the truth.

I know Kavanaugh, the one who mocked the guys who weren’t athletes, who didn’t go to prep schools, who weren’t white and Christian. He was the one who rated the girls, who drank the beer, who puked and screamed. He was the one we always knew would be a hotshot at the country club, making coin, acting like the self-righteous snob that he is.

Shame on the people who would look at him — with awe, envy, admiration — and see a Supreme Court judge. See him for what he is: a man capable of lying about his life, under oath, without hesitation or compunction. But lying — bold-faced lying — is now the sine qua non of our president; why not his latest nominee?

Brett — you’ve won again. Have a beer.

Trump — what have you done to my country?

 

Hic Sunt Dracones

At the New York Public Library, amongst the various exhibits and artifacts in their collection is a little, 5-inch globe: the earliest surviving engraved copper sphere from the period immediately following the discovery of the New World. The Hunt-Lennox globe (about five inches in diameter), is among the first cartographic representations of the Americas known to geographers. Of the two continents in the Western hemisphere, only South America is represented, appearing as a large island with the regional names Mundus Novus (the New World), Terra Sanctae Crucis (the Land of the Holy Cross), and Terra de Brazil (the Land of Brazil). Cuba appears as “Isabel,” and the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti (Hispaniola) appears as “Spagnolla.” North America is represented as a group of scattered islands.
On the globe the creator engraved the following words: Hic sunt dracones; Here be dragons. Apparently it’s the only known place those words are written down on a map or globe. Which is very surprising. We just assume it says “Here be dragons,” on every old map.
Maybe we assume it mentions the imminent danger of dragons everywhere because we’ve seen maps decorated with etchings of sea monsters filling the vast empty spaces around the real and imagined land masses. Just seeing the words, even in Latin, brings a true sense of peril and fear.
Our ancestors looked out there at the endless oceans and felt so puny and insignificant. Who and what’s on the other side and what we might bump into was more than just free-floating anxiety. The unknown loomed with true malevolence.
Today one can go online and look at the pictures of earth taken by astronauts and the Hubble telescope. One can watch Yves Cousteau specials and see lots of things, including great white sharks and killer whales and narwhals… But there aren’t any dragons; or are there?
Hic sunt dracones. Here be dragons. Maybe not animals that breathe fire or swallow ships. There are, however, frightening phenomena lurking in our line of sight. Take your pick: global climate change, the spread of terrorism, the growing possibility of deadly pandemics, antibiotic resistance… and I haven’t even gotten started. We could go with a new virulent antisemitism, the rise of the alt-right, the slow crumbling of democracy here and in Israel, and more – so much more.
There is no antidote to the fear, to the imminence of scary things. There is no relief from not knowing what may happen next. All we’ve got is each other. In solidarity with our community, there is a greater sense of safety and comfort. Once we know that we don’t have to face the dragons on our own, we can be a little less anxious.
That’s why having a group, an affinity group, is such an important act. Being a temple member is not just about sending our kids to Hebrew School. It’s rather about connecting to and with others, about facing the vicissitudes of life knowing that one is supported and understood by others. It’s emerging from crises with the helping hand of a friend. It’s about social justice in a broken world.
The doors are always open, and the lights are always on. There’s plenty of room on this ship. So jump on board. We will fight the dragons together.