Posted tagged ‘hope’

The Egg as a Symbol of Hope and Hate

April 4, 2010

I love symbols.  They possess the power to concretize concepts.  They can make the abstract far more tangible.

Yet I find great irony in how there are times when the same symbol can take on different, and even divergent meanings.  In the past week, much to my chagrin, I experienced an example of this phenomenon.

The symbol in question is the egg.  During our local Pesach/Passover celebrations I have made a point of explaining to my congregants both the symbolism of the egg on the Seder plate and its ideological connection to the far better known egg symbol of this time of year – the Easter Egg – as well as to its symbolism within the ancient pagan Spring festival.  For in all of these holidays, the egg symbolizes the beginning of life; both birth and rebirth.  For the pagans, they were celebrating the rebirth of nature after the death of winter.  The Christians celebrate the the rebirth – resurrection – of Jesus after his death on the cross.  While we Jews celebrate the rebirth of the Jewish people after the death of slavery in Egypt.  For all three belief systems, the egg is a symbol of hope, potential, and significant new beginnings.

Yet last night I also experienced the egg as a very different symbol.

If you have been reading my blog of late then you know that I have been engaged in a local controversy over whether or not a governmental agency – in this case the city government of Davenport – should be declaring religious holidays as “official” holidays; whether by doing so, the government is in violation of the First Amendment.  The controversy, as you probably have read, arose when our local Civil Rights Commission recommended to our city government that they change the name of the paid holiday on their calendar from “Good Friday” to “Spring Holiday,” and the city administrator complied.  The city received an immediate and harsh reaction from several city employees.  As a result, the city administration buckled under the pressure, abandoned the principle of governmental agencies needing to remain religiously neutral, and changed the name back to “Good Friday.”  And the debate over the issue has been raging ever since.  To those who know me, it should be no surprise that I have been one of the vocal proponents of promoting communal respect for religious diversity and maintaining a high wall of church-state separation.

This brings us back to the egg.  Last night, I took my teenage daughter and her best friend to a late night movie.  Her friend had driven to our house and had parked in front of it.  When we returned home, we found that her car and our driveway had been “egged”.  I checked around the rest of our block and found no evidence of any other home being “egged.”  From that I deduced that this “egging” was not just some youthful prank pulled on our neighborhood but was a directed attack on my home.  I further assume that it was probably in response to my public statements about the Good Friday vs. Spring Holiday controversy.

There is a certain irony, considering the symbolism of the Easter Egg, that there would be those who would turn that egg around and use it as a symbol of anger and hatred against someone of another faith, simply because that person does not share their faith and does not wish to have it imposed upon them.  It would seem that such people have missed the point of the very Easter they believe they are defending.  I am confident that most of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus do not believe that he rose from the dead so as to encourage others to egg the homes of those who choose to adhere to a different faith.  It would seem to me that the perpetrators of this act of vandalism have not celebrated a Happy Easter but rather a Hateful one!

My Response to an Excellent Article on Middle East Peace

March 30, 2010

Lady Gaga Versus Mideast Peace

Are settlements more offensive than pop stars?

By BRET STEPHENS

Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?
If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom, now jointly defined by Pat Buchanan and his strange bedfellows within the Obama administration.

What is that wisdom? In a March 26 column in Human Events, Mr. Buchanan put the case with his usual subtlety:

“Each new report of settlement expansion,” he wrote, “each new seizure of Palestinian property, each new West Bank clash between Palestinians and Israeli troops inflames the Arab street, humiliates our Arab allies, exposes America as a weakling that cannot stand up to Israel, and imperils our troops and their mission in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Mr. Buchanan was playing off a story in the Israeli press that Vice President Joe Biden had warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “what you’re doing here [in the West Bank] undermines the security of our troops.” Also in the mix was a story that Centcom commander David Petraeus had cited Arab-Israeli tensions as the key impediment to wider progress in the region. Both reports were later denied—in Mr. Biden’s case, via Rahm Emanuel; in Gen. Petraeus’s case, personally and forcefully—but the important point is how eagerly they were believed. If you’re of the view that Israel is the root cause of everything that ails the Middle East—think of it as global warming in Hebrew form—then nothing so powerfully makes the case against the Jewish state as a flag-draped American coffin.

Now consider Lady Gaga—or, if you prefer, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe, Josephine Baker or any other American woman who has, at one time or another, personified what the Egyptian Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb once called “the American Temptress.”

Qutb, for those unfamiliar with the name, is widely considered the intellectual godfather of al Qaeda; his 30-volume exegesis “In the Shade of the Quran” is canonical in jihadist circles. But Qutb, who spent time as a student in Colorado in the late 1940s, also decisively shaped jihadist views about the U.S.

In his 1951 essay “The America I Have Seen,” Qutb gave his account of the U.S. “in the scale of human values.” “I fear,” he wrote, “that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of her people.” Qutb was particularly exercised by what he saw as the “primitiveness” of American values, not least in matters of sex.

“The American girl,” he noted, “knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it.” Nor did he approve of Jazz—”this music the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires”—or of American films, or clothes, or haircuts, or food. It was all, in his eyes, equally wretched.

Qutb’s disdain for America’s supposedly libertine culture would not matter much were it not wedded to a kind of theological Leninism that emphasized the necessity of violently overthrowing any political arrangement not based on Shariah law. No less violent was Qutb’s attitude toward Jews: “The war the Jews began to wage against Islam and Muslims in those early days [of Islamic history],” he wrote in the 1950s, “has raged to the present. The form and appearance may have changed, but the nature and the means remain the same.”

Needless to say, that passage was written long before Israel had “occupied” a single inch of Arab territory, unless one takes the view—held to this day by Hezbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah and every other jihadist group that owes an intellectual debt to Qutb, including significant elements of the “moderate” Palestinian Fatah—that Tel Aviv itself is occupied territory.

Bear in mind, too, that the America Qutb found so offensive had yet to discover Elvis, Playboy, the pill, women’s lib, acid tabs, gay rights, Studio 54, Jersey Shore and, of course, Lady Gaga. In other words, even in some dystopic hypothetical world in which hyper-conservatives were to seize power in the U.S. and turn the cultural clock back to 1948, America would still remain a swamp of degeneracy in the eyes of Qutb’s latter-day disciples.

This, then, is the core complaint that the Islamists from Waziristan to Tehran to Gaza have lodged against the West. It explains why jihadists remain aggrieved even after the U.S. addressed their previous casus belli by removing troops from Saudi Arabia, and why they will continue to remain aggrieved long after we’ve decamped from Iraq, Afghanistan and even the Persian Gulf. As for Israel, its offenses are literally inextricable: as a democracy, as a Jewish homeland, as a country in which liberalism in all its forms, including cultural, prevails.

Which brings me back to the settlements. There may well be good reasons for Israel to dismantle many of them, assuming that such an act is met with reciprocal and credible Palestinian commitments to suppress terrorism and religious incitement, and accept Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state. But to imagine that the settlements account for even a fraction of the rage that has inhabited the radical Muslim mind since the days of Qutb is fantasy: The settlements are merely the latest politically convenient cover behind which lies a universe of hatred. If the administration’s aim is to appease our enemies, it will get more mileage out of banning Lady Gaga than by applying the screws on Israel. It should go without saying that it ought to do neither.

Write to bstephens@wsj.com

Dear Mr. Stephens,

I just want to compliment you on an excellent article.  Your message is right on target.  There are many reasons, other than our country’s relationship with Israel which have led many in the Islamic world to consider the U.S. the “Great Satan” while it considers Israel only the “Little Satan.”  As troubled as they are with the status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are far more troubled by Israel’s very existence in their region.  And what troubles them most about Israel’s existence in their region is that they view it as an infection, threatening to spread, of Western values, ideals, principles, and culture.  For them, Israel personifies all that they utterly detest about the West, and especially about America.  Indeed, in your terms, Israel is Lady Gaga; that seductive temptress of Western values and lifestyle.

How soon all the Israel critics, including Pat Buchanan and General Petraeus, forget about the violence that followed the publications of the Danish cartoons.  Now the Islamic hatred of Denmark had absolutely nothing to do with Danish support of “Israeli expansionism.”  One cannot even speak definitively about Danish support of Israel, period.  Yet all this hate was directed at them.  Why?  Because in the West, people are allowed to express their opinions, even if their opinions are critical of Islam and of the use of Mohammed as a rallying point for terrorism.  Israel had little, if anything, to do with it.

I fear that the time will come when the U.S. will decide to abandon its one true friend in the Middle East, Israel, buying into the mythology that our troubles with the Arab world center around our support of Israel.  If we let Israel go, then those troubles will go away.  Yet, once the dirty deed is done, and Israel is destroyed, the same “good people” who pushed for Israel’s abandonment will shake their heads and speak of how tragic it all was.  Like so many of those who stood opposed to the American rescue of Jews from the Holocaust, after the fact they will become mourners of the dead.
Yet it will not be long before, much to their surprise, even with Israel wiped off the map, jihadist rage will once again be turned against our nation.  But this time, they will not be able to justify their violence by pointing accusing fingers at Israel.  Finally, the truth will out; that in their eyes, a state of war exists between our two cultures.  More “imperialistic” than Israel ever was in terms of its territorial expansion, America has been “imperialistic” in terms of its culture, its values, and even its food.  For them, the devil is to be found in MacDonald’s, Wall Street, and Hollywood.  All will not be right with the world until all the world is governed by Shariah Law.  Granted, this is not the view of all Muslims, and more likely than not, even of the majority of Muslims, but it is the view of those who encourage others to blow themselves up in the name of Allah, while they remain safe and sound, some distance away; that is until some Israeli agent takes them out, only to cause Israel to be castigated as a villain by the world rather than recognized as our first line of defense against such terrorism.

Once again, thank you for an excellent article!

Sincerely,

Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Davenport, Iowa

Responding to a Call for an International Unilateral Establishment of a Palestinian State

February 25, 2010

Purim is just around the corner!  One of the ways that Jews engage in the joviality of Purim is to engage in the fine art of spoof.  Of course, Purim plays and Purimspiels are the primary examples of such satire, but not the only ones.  Very often, synagogues, for example, will issue parody editions of their own newsletters.  Parody is truly a Purim prank.

I share this with you because I cannot make up my mind whether or not the author of the NY Times Op Ed piece below – apparently a Jew, based upon his name – was writing a serious proposal or merely engaging in a Purim parody on the debate over the establishment of a Palestinian state.  I pray that it is a Purim parody, the humor of which the folks at the Times failed to grasp.  For if it is meant to be a serious proposal, it shows how we have moved into the realm of the absurd.

At first glance, I thought that if this essay is serious, then it might have been written by a raving pro-Palestinian.  However, as I delved into the text, I found the author proposing how liberating it would be for Israel if the international community would simply take it upon itself to out-of-hand declare and recognize the existence of a Palestinian state, without conferring with either Israel or the Palestinians.  That, according to the author, would leave Israel completely free to close its borders to all Palestinians – as is the right of any state to close its borders to the nationals of another state.  The issue of the supposed Palestinian “right of return” would be moot, since they now would be citizens of the Palestinian state.  As the author states:  “Within the context of statehood, this difficulty is somewhat eased as it is largely untenable for any state to demand that millions of its citizens should be allowed to become citizens of another state.”  He also states that this would settle the matter of terrorism.  As with any state, there can only be one state sponsored military establishment.  It the terrorist groups continue to pursue their military operations, it will be up to the Palestinian state authorities to eliminate them.  Here the author states:  “A government’s maintenance of a monopoly of force within the area of its claimed sovereignty is one of the basic requirements of statehood.”  And so the article goes on, including the author’s denial that such an international recognition would have to include a recognition of borders.  Personally, I cannot imagine how one can declare a recognition of a state without at the same time recognizing the legitimate borders of that state.

The one thing this author did not point out is that should the international community actually take this action and unilaterally declare a legitimate Palestinian state into existence, then they would most certainly be setting the stage for an almost immediate war; a war between states, and not between one state and shadow insurgents, as the conflict stands now.  A war in which the State of Israel could legitimately claim that continued terrorist attacks constitute nothing less than acts of war, and therefore serve as grounds for a formal declaration of war.  In such a case, there would – at least theoretically – be do difference between a Hamas missile attack on an Israeli civilian population center and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  At that juncture, Israel could employ all its military might against the Palestinians until their either formally surrender and agree to Israeli imposed peace terms or their state is totally destroyed and dismantled, with extreme measures employed to finally effectively put an end to terrorism.

The consequences of such a decision to unilaterally declare Palestinian statehood under the present conditions of instability and violence are profound and frightening – even more for the Palestinian people than for Israel.  That is why I cannot wonder whether this article is indeed a Purim parody on the calls for such immediate statehood.  To consider it otherwise, is to consider it as a dark and devious plan, the ultimate agenda of which is to bring the Palestinian people to the point of truly reaping the bitter crop which has been sown for them by the terrorists within their midst.

Rabbi Henry Jay Karp

February 24, 2010

I.H.T. Op-Ed Contributor

Declare a Palestinian State

By JEROME M. SEGAL

France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has alarmed the Israeli government with his recent statement that “one can envision the proclamation soon of a Palestinian state, and its immediate recognition by the international community, even before negotiating its borders.”

Israel fears that this will develop into a full blown European Union initiative and has warned that with this approach the Palestinians will have no motivation to resume negotiations. But this argument is not convincing. Were the international community to recognize the State of Palestine, it is likely that it would do so without specifically recognizing the claimed borders of that state, just as the international community does not recognize Israel’s claimed borders.

For instance, the United States has never accepted Israeli claims to sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. Moreover, international recognition does not end the occupation, nor does it solve the refugee issue, nor the problem of Jerusalem. All of these issues will require negotiations, but early statehood, would put such negotiations on a state-to-state basis, and this would be valuable in a variety of ways.

Of most importance in future negotiations is the issue of security, whether Palestinian forces can prevent attacks on Israel, either suicide terrorists, or rockets fired from the West Bank. If they cannot, then Israel will not withdraw from the West Bank, regardless of what the international community says.

Over the last year, praise has been heaped on the performance of Palestinian security forces, trained under U.S. auspices, and operating under the authority of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. However, without progress toward genuine statehood, what is today viewed as “successful security cooperation,” will in time dissolve as it comes to be viewed as Palestinian collaboration, with its security forces having become “the police of the occupation.”

Under early statehood, Israel’s refusal to allow non-state actors to operate militarily from the West Bank is on a much stronger footing. A government’s maintenance of a monopoly of force within the area of its claimed sovereignty is one of the basic requirements of statehood.

Early statehood will also contribute toward the resolution of the issues of refugees, Jerusalem and borders. On refugees, it is clear that very few of the six million Palestinian refugees will ever return to Israel. This however, is extremely difficult for the Palestinians to absorb politically. Within the context of statehood, this difficulty is somewhat eased as it is largely untenable for any state to demand that millions of its citizens should be allowed to become citizens of another state.

With respect to borders and security issues, the Israelis have often been tone-deaf in previous negotiations, failing to realize how demeaning to Palestinian dignity were their demands to control Palestinian airspace, or to have land swaps on an unequal basis.

In the context of state-to-state negotiations, there will be some natural evolution toward the symmetries that typified Israel’s negotiations with Jordan and Egypt. Similarly with Jerusalem, the state-to-state context will also be supportive of the need to find a way to share control of the holy sites and to make Jerusalem the capital of both states.

In addition, early statehood offers a way to reduce the likelihood that Hamas will undertake steps to derail negotiations. This can be attained if Hamas is assured that the international community will respect the results of Palestinian democracy, unlike 2006, when following its victory in legislative elections, Hamas was denied the ability to govern. Instead the international community laid down conditions that Hamas rejected. So far there has been no resolution.

Fortunately, the state-to-state context offers a way to deal with the problematic conditions of the Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Thus, the demand that Hamas provide prior recognition of Israel becomes instead one of mutual state-to-state recognition, and the demand that Hamas accept previous agreements negotiated by its P.L.O. rival becomes the standard requirement of continuity of international treaties between state entities, when new governments are elected.

With early statehood there is a chance that the Palestinians will be able to put their house in order, and have a government with sufficient legitimacy to bind the Palestinian people through negotiations.

Finally, it should be noted that for the Palestinian leadership, achieving international recognition of the State of Palestine, without Israeli permission, will be an act of assertiveness that will enhance their ability to make difficult concessions in the negotiations.

For all of these reasons, while international recognition of Palestinian statehood prior to an agreement with Israel is not a magic solution, it is a highly constructive idea that may make successful negotiations a genuine possibility.

Jerome M. Segal directs the Peace Consultancy Project at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is co-author of “Negotiating Jerusalem.”

Hints of a Post-Partisan Universe

February 11, 2010

Partisanism (if that is indeed a word) has become the bane of contemporary American life.  More and more it seems that people are taking sides, one against the other.  If one side says that something is white, the other side immediately claims it is actually black.  And so it goes on and on and on.  More than people are concerned about the issues we must confront, we tend to be more concerned about our maintaining ongoing conflicts with the “other side.”

Of course on the contemporary scene, one need look no further than our own government to witness the devastating effects of such partisan thinking and behavior.  In Congress, practically every issue is addressed according to party lines.  If the Democrats want to do X, the Republicans are lined up to  diametrically oppose X, and uniformly support Y; which, of course the Democrats unanimously reject out of hand.  Rare is the politician who thinks for him or her self.  They all toe the party line.  None of them really judge the matters in front of them purely on their merit, in light of their personal opinion of what would best serve the American people.  Is it no wonder that in spite of the fact that for all too many years, the American people have been clamoring for such significant changes as health care reform and election finance reform, yet in spite of the expressed will of the people, absolutely nothing has been accomplished, nor probably will be accomplished given to current state of affairs.  To watch the State of the Union address on TV – any State of the Union address during these past many years – is to witness a physical manifestation of such partisanship.  Regardless of whatever party the current President happens to belong, you can watch as the members of his party applaud those key moments in his speech while the members of the opposition party sit with their hands folded across their chest; that is unless their party leaders give them the signal that it is permissible at some points to applaud.  For it matters not what the President says.  It only matters to which political party the President belongs.  It is all very sad, and infantile, and it cannot help but leave all cognizant and concerned Americans with a profound sense of hopelessness.  Ultimately, no matter who the President happens to be, the State of the Union remains clearly the same:  deadlocked and immobilized.

What is true for the realm of American politics unfortuately is just as true in the realm of American religion.  Here, too, we have drawn our battlelines.  Yet these battlelines are not necessarily determined by what would seem to be the obvious; the major divisions of faith – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.  Rather, our battlelines have been drawn according to whether one identifies as a religious conservative or as a religious liberal; as a fundamentalist or as a progressive.  Once those lines have been drawn, we tend to be as dismissive of the other, as the Democrats are of the Republicans and visa versa.  If the religious conservatives stand on one side of an issue, you can be sure that the religious liberals stand on the other.  One’s black is the other’s white, and neither will even consider the possibility of the existence of shades of gray.  And just like the political parties, very few among us feel any urgent desire to talk to the “others” in hopes of finding some resolution to our differences and perhaps even some common ground.

As a rabbi who has found value in connecting with Christian conservatives when it comes to addressing issues involving Israel, I have experienced this partisanship up close and personal, with much of its ugliness.  Through our local Jewish Federation, I have worked hand-in-hand with an organization of Christian conservatives named CUFI – Christians United For Israel.  This group is populated by many of the very same people with whom I have crossed swords on a number of social issues, such as women’s reproductive choice, separation of church and state, and same-sex marriage.  Yet when it comes to Israel, we share a common view of the importance of the continued existence of that nation and the protection of her right to exist, as well as her citizens’ rights to live without the threat of terrorism.

Yet my work with CUFI has not been without its speed bumps.  Right off the bat, I had to endure the challenges put to me by my mainstream Protestant friends; my dearest and closest allies on so many social issues.  “How can you, in all good conscience, work with those people?” they would ask.  Even more painfully, the very fact the these conservative Christians support Israel has driven so many of these liberal friends to stand against her.  If the “Religious Right” claims that the actions of Israel are justified, then the “Religious Left” feels a near sacred duty to denounce Israel’s actions as grossly unjust.  The circumstances are of no concern to them.  As Mark Twain once put it, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with the facts!”  All that seems to matter is that it is inconceivable for them as liberals to share any common ground with the conservatives.

That is not to say that the CUFI conservatives do not also demonstrate such blind partisanship, for they most certainly can, and sometimes do.  I have found myself criticized for having offered prayers at CUFI “Night to Honor Israel” events in which I have stated that God loves all people, regardless of what faiths they profess, or that God exists in a special and unique relationship with each and every religion.  To some of these folks, God can only have a special relationship with Christians, and especially those who profess their brand of Christianity, with God having provided the Jewish people with a singular exemption to policy.  I have had to challenge some CUFI speakers for speaking derrogatorially of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the Pope.  Just last year, there were a number of conservative pastors and congregations which withdrew from the “Night to Honor Israel” event because of my having officiated at a same-sex marriage, regardless of the fact that the “Night to Honor Israel” is completely separate and distinct from all the other issues which may divide us.

The bottom line is that on the landscape of the American religious scene, there is more than enough partisanism to go around.

However, within the last few weeks, we have been afforded a small glimpse of the possibility of a post-partisan world, at least within the universe of American religious groups.

Soon after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Quad Cities Progressive Clergy group held one of its regular monthly meetings.  At that meeting, we discussed the possibility of putting together some unified faith community program of support for the earthquake’s victims.  Since each of our national and international faith umbrella organizations had set up their own programs of response, we agreed that whatever we did, we should be encouraging congregations to support their own denominational relief efforts.  In the end, we decided that our best course of action was to pool not dollars but figures; to compile and make public a record of all those congregations that have been active in promoting Haitian relief, and how much money had been collected through the various faith communities in this cause.  In so doing, our goal was to place before the public a message of how universally caring faith communities are, and how significant an impact they can have in making this world a better place for all people.  What we wanted to show our fellow Quad Citians was an image of the world of religion at its best, rather than at its bickering worst.

As I write this, the congregational responses are still coming in.  As of now, we have some 30 congregations and faith organizations which have reported to us, with the funds raised totally over $116,000.00.

As I review the list of participating congregations, I cannot help but feel a certain uplift in reading the names of conservatives congregations right there beside liberal ones.  Names that would never appear next to each other on so many other lists, stand side by side on this list; on the list of those whose hearts have gone out to the people of Haiti; on the list of those who wish to do something to ease the plight of their suffering fellow human beings.

I read that list and I am filled with hope; hope that someday we may actually achieve a post partisan world.  I read that list and I see in it a remarkable testimony to the fact that no matter how sharp we choose to draw the lines which divide us, there are still those things – those very important things – which unite us; those significant values which we share in common.  As much as we, in our blinding partisan perspectives, resist facing that truth, it is there and it is undeniable.  Perhaps someday – and I pray that someday will come soon – we will open our eyes, and more importantly our hearts, to acknowledge such truth.  Having acknowledged it, we might even summon up the courage to act upon it by reaching out to each other in hopes of building a relationship based upon the foundations of that which we share rather than fueling our animosity with that which keeps us apart.

My mother of blessed memory was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”  Whether it has been in the realm of American politics or the realm of American religion, we have yet to learn that lesson.  But perhaps one day…

The Conversational God

January 29, 2010

This evening I participated in an interfaith study session at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois.  The theme was Abraham in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures.  Each of the presenters had to select an Abraham text from their sacred literature for us to share and discuss.  The assembled study group was an interesting mix of students and faculty, from various faiths.

The text I chose is one of my favorites – Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  My reason for choosing it was because it presents such a non-traditional image of both God and prophet.  Here, not only does Abraham have the audacity to argue with God, but Abraham actually bests God with the logic of his argument.  He establishes a principle and then uses that principle to argue God down from the need to find 50  righteous people in order to save the cities to 10.  Here we have in Abraham someone comfortable and confident enough to contend with the Almighty, and a God who is bound to abide by the same rules of conduct as that God imposes upon humanity; the rules of justice and compassion.

While we did discuss those very aspects of the text, yet one of the participants – a Jewish faculty member – threw in another issue; a hot one at that.  This individual posed the often asked question:  “If God spoke to Abraham, how come God does not speak to us today?”  The scriptures – and it does not matter whose scriptures you are talking about – are filled with reports of God talking to people, whether they be Abraham or Moses or Jesus or Mohammad.  Yet as talkative as God seems to have been in those days, God appears to have remained silent for quite some time.

But has God truly remained silent or have we just turned deaf?

Many years ago, I heard my mentor, Rabbi Jack Stern, Jr., tell the following story.  It touched me so then and it continues to touch me.

It was about 5:00 p.m. on a weekday in downtown Manhattan; on Madison Avenue to be exact.  Offices had just closed for the day, their workers crammed the sidewalks and the streets, rushing to go home.  The air was filled with the sounds of honking car horns and shouting people.  In this hubbub of noise and in the crush of people pushing and shoving, two old friends who had been separated for years happened to bump into each other.  Instantly recognizing each other, they stopped and embraced.  All around them people were bustling by while they stood their ground, savoring their sweet reunion.  Then suddenly, one of the men said to his friend, “Listen!  Can you hear it?”  “Hear what?” the other replied.  “Don’t you hear the little bird caught in that bush in that window box over there?”  When the friend turned to look, he saw that the window box in question was maybe fifty yards away.  “Do you expect me to believe that you can hear a little bird chirping in that window box, all the way over there, in the midst of all this noise and chaos?” the doubtful friend replied.  “Come.  I’ll show you.”  And with that, they walked over to the window box.  The friend who claimed he heard the bird bent over and with the back of both of his hands, he parted the branches of the bush.  As he did so, a little bird flew out and flew away.  The other friend was absolutely astounded.  “How could you possibly hear that little bird as such a distance, in all this noise?  You must have Superman hearing!”  No.  Not really,” replied the friend.  “Let me show you something.”  With that, he stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a quarter, which he then proceeded to drop on the sidewalk.  The minute the coin hit the concrete, maybe twenty people stopped, turned, and looked around, searching.  As the man bent down to retrieve his quarter, he turned to his friend and said, “You see.  It all depends what you are listening for.”

Is it that God no longer speaks to us or is it that we are not listening for God or that we are listening for other things?  That is the real question before us.  Have we become so self-involved and so pseudo-sophisticated that we have become incapable of conceiving of a God who actually speaks to us; that God could be shouting into our ear yet we would not hear even a Divine whisper?

I happen to be one of those who believe that not only does God still speak to us but that God is speaking to us constantly.  The only thing that stands in the way of our hearing God is ourselves.  I know that there are those who, upon reading this, will instantly proclaim that only the insane believe that God speaks to them.    To such a claim I must respond that it is only the spiritually pathetic who would cling to the belief that God is incapable of speaking to them.

Now for my confession.  I speak to God quite often and God answers.  God speaks to me.  So grab that straight jacket and reserve a bed in the psych ward.  But I have to warn you:  All the psychotherapy in the world will not change that reality.  For that is what it is; reality not fantasy, experience not illusion.

What makes such a claim so difficult for so many to believe is to be found in the manner in which we conceive of how God communicates with humans.  The scriptures of the various faiths talk about God saying this and God saying that, and we take those texts so very literally.  When they report that, “God spoke; God said”, our vision is that of a God who speaks words, like we human beings speak words.  We envision that thundering voice from heaven.  And so we become spiritually jaded, for such a voice has not been heard in quite some time.

There is a certain irony here.  For you see, when we apply this type of thinking to God, we postulate a God who is not greater than us but rather more limited than us.  For when we communicate with others, we do not restrict ourselves to mere words.  We also employ the tone of our voices, the pace and volume of our speech, facial expressions and body movements.  When we communicate with others we utilize every tool in our communication toolbox in order to get across our message.  We use tools which are not available to God as long as we apply to God that literal verbal communication model.  Do we really choose to believe that God has less tools in the Divine communication toolbox than we have in ours?  I don’t think so.

Even when we consider all the communication tools we possess, we have to admit that still, our communication skills are extremely limited.  What human being has never experienced the frustration of trying to get across a particular message to another person, yet has failed, attempt after attempt after attempt, to get their point across?  We all have.  Just take a look at literature and song and you will see how meager are our communication skills.  Countless are the individuals who, having experienced the powerful joy of love, wished to share those ecstatic emotions with others.  So they wrote love poetry and love songs, hoping to bottle what is in their heart and fills their very being.  Many have failed.  Some have succeeded, but only partially.  Throughout the ages, no one has succeeded fully.  No one has written that love poem or composed that love song to which every human being can point to and declare, “That is exactly how I feel when I am in love!”  At best, we have chopped around the edges of describing love.  No one has of yet captured its true essence.

The point here is that human communication, at its best, is extremely limited.  To postulate that the God who created the universe would be restricted to such a limited form of communication is simply illogical.  It does not take a science fiction writer to arrive at the conclusion that a higher form of being would possess far more sophisticated communication skills.

God does speak to us but does so by means far beyond the limits of the spoken word.

So how does God communicate?  In the writings of the Hebrew prophets we encounter a recurring imagery which I believe is a key to understanding God’s communication techniques.  We continually hear of prophets “being filled with the spirit of God.”  What does that mean?  It sounds like God’s presence fills their very being.  God has somehow or other gotten inside of them and they find themselves so filled with God that they feel they could burst.

What’s that all about?  I believe we have a word for it.  We call it “telepathy.”    I believe that what these prophetic texts were describing was the receiving of a telepathic communication from God.  While we can debate from today till tomorrow whether or not there are humans who possess the ability of mental telepathy, I hold that God most certainly possesses that ability.  I believe that God can telepathically transmit to human beings, not just words, but emotions and images as well.  God can get inside of us so that we can think God’s thoughts and feel God’s feeling, and even see what God sees.

Now it does not have to be an all or nothing affair.  God can control how much or how little we receive.  Not every one who receives a communication from God has to become God intoxicated, as were some, if not most, if not all of the classical prophets.  Indeed, very few have achieved such an intense link with God.  Yet all of us have the ability to be touched by God; to feel God’s presence and to “hear” God’s voice speaking directly to us.  I firmly believe that anyone can experience this if only they would drop their defenses and open themselves up to the possibility of connecting with God.

Earlier I stated that “I speak to God quite often and God answers.”  In truth, I do not consider myself an especially spiritually endowed human being.  I am not by any stretch of the imagination a saint.  Far from it.  I have more than my fair share of human flaws and foibles.  Even though I am a rabbi, I do not believe that my ability to establish a connection with God is the product of my rabbinic status.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  It was my desire to connect with God which led me to becoming a rabbi and not my becoming a rabbi which enabled me to connect with God.

The first time I can accurately claim that I had such a God connecting experience was back in 1970.  I know it may sound cliched but it happened in Israel; at the Western Wall, the most sacred site on earth for the Jewish people.  At the time, my soul was in turmoil.  I was deeply unhappy with my life.  I was in my first year in seminary.  I was spending that entire year studying in Jerusalem.  It was not only the first time that I visited Israel, but it was the first time that I ever flew on an airplane.  Until then, I never traveled farther than an automobile could take me in less than a day.  As a result, I was not handling very well such a dramatic transplant of my life.  One night, for reasons I cannot fully explain, I was so distressed that I felt compelled to go to the Western Wall.  So I left my dorm room and walked the dark streets of Jerusalem into the Old City, and then to the Wall.  Standing there, alone – for there are not that many people who pray at the wall at about 11 o’clock at night – I placed my forehead against its cool stones and in a practically inaudible whisper I poured out my heart to God.  I have no idea how long I stood there, sharing my thoughts, my feelings, my anguish with God, but somewhere along the line, a feeling of great peace and tranquility took hold of me.  Once again, I know it sounds cliched, but a great weight was lifted from my heart.  I was filled with a sense that everything was going to be all right, more than all right, just fine.  I most certainly did not bring that sense with me to the Wall that night.  Far from it.  But there it was nonetheless.  I had somehow or other been given a gift.  There was not the slightest question in my mind where that gift came from.   It came from God.  It could have come from nowhere else.  I left the Wall and headed back toward my dorm, but I was a different person, changed not just for the moment but for life.

What I discovered that night in Jerusalem was nothing more than a piece of wisdom which I later learned was passed down to us by one of the early Hasidic rabbis.  He was asked, “Where is God?” to which he answered, “Wherever you let God in?”  The trick to plugging God into our lives – to connecting with God – is as simple as that.  We have to be willing to let God into our lives.  We have to be willing to drop our defenses and reach out for God.  And if we truly reach out for God, more often than not, we will find God reaching out for us.

I do this and I do it often.  However, I have to admit that I usually do it in private.  After all, I do realize that even though I know that I am in dialogue with God, to any casual observers it can very well appear as though I am some sort of lunatic, muttering to himself.  When do I do this?  One of my prime times is when I go for walks; for exercise.  Other people feel that they need partners when they go on such walks so as to make their walks more palatable.  For me, God is my walking partner.  They talk with their friends.  I talk with God.  And not unlike my experience at the Wall those many years ago, I pour out to God what is in my heart and on my mind.  Whatever  issue I am struggling with at the time, I share it with God.  And somehow or other, more often than not, as our conversation progresses God tosses in a thought here, and idea there, a perspective I had never even begun to consider.  Often, not always, but often, God has helped me to see things in a new light.

There are those who would claim that God has nothing to do with this; that I was just processing my thoughts.  But I know differently.  Not, I think differently, but I know differently.  I know differently because there are so many times when the insights I receive have come from so completely outside of myself.  They are definitely not my thoughts.  They are definitely not my words.  I could not have created them, but once they have been placed before me, I am more than willing to adopt them as my own.  Indeed, as a rabbi, I have to admit that some of my most “successful” sermons were not really mine, but God’s.  While I, with my ego, surely enjoyed the praises they received, I also felt a pang of guilt for taking credit for that which was not mine.

God is my confidant.  God is my most trusted and sage adviser.  I am still far from a perfect human being, and I do not always travel the road to perfection efficiently, but at the end of the day I know that I have been blessed.  For with God as my companion, I live with hope and with the promise that I am capable of growing into my potential, if only I choose to do so.

The God I discovered that night in Jerusalem; the God with whom I travel down the path of my life, is most certainly available to every one of us.  The power to connect with such a God is in our hands, far more than it is in God’s.  For this God eagerly awaits our call.

Connecting With Others

January 27, 2010

I have been writing this blog and sending my thoughts out into the possible void of cyberspace, never really knowing whether or not I was reaching anyone other than my family and friends; people who occasionally read this blog more out of an act of kindness to me than out of any curiosity or compelling interest in what I have to write – mercy subscribers!

Then it happened!  The other day, I received my first comment from a total stranger – or at least someone who I believe is a total stranger – for they signed in as “Me”, with an email address I did not recognize.  Indeed, I found their comment in the spam filter.

It is hard to describe my feelings at receiving that comment.  I was so thrilled that my words, sent out into the void, somehow or other found their way to the attention of another human being; someone removed from my circle of intimates.  Through the miracle of the internet, I connected with some total stranger, and neither of us were trying to sell or scam the other.  We were just interested in entering into dialogue.  I do not know whether or not it will ever happen again, but the very fact that it happened even this once makes all the effort worthwhile.

This experience lead me to reflect upon why I do this and why this person happened to stumble upon my text.  The answer, of course, can be folded into one word – COMMUNICATION.  We all hunger for communication.  We want to be in touch with others.  The more we widen our circle of communication, the more we come to recognize how connected we are, and more importantly, can be, with our fellow human beings.  It is in such connectedness that our lives become all the more meaningful.  For as we touch others, and let others touch us, our world both grows and shrinks simultaneously.  It grows in terms of the number of people who help define our lives and it shrinks in terms of the distances which separate us from others.  Our world becomes more intimate, the more we connect with others.

For the longest time, I have held  to what most people would consider to be an unattainable ideal.  It is the ideal of the coming of a day when every person on the face of this planet comes to feel and experience in a very real way a true sense of connection with every other person.  I know how absurd and childlike that sounds.  I would almost be embarrassed to admit it except for one truth that I have discovered in my life.  That truth is that, with very, very few exceptions, all the people I have encountered are fundamentally good at heart.  I may not always agree with them.  Indeed, we may disagree with great energy.  But if we separate the people from the issues, we find that they possess the same needs as do we.  They want to be happy, secure, appreciated, respected, and loved.  The same things with make us smile, make them smile; which make us frown or cry, make them frown or cry.  We are just like them and they are just like us.  The only thing that is missing is that we have never gotten the chance to know each other.  We remain strangers, and as such, alienated one from the other.

No place have I witnessed the truth of all this more than in that most contested of lands, Israel.  To read the newspapers and to listen to so many of the commentators, one can easily be led to believe that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is irresolvable; that they are blood enemies, neither of which could ever be satisfied with anything less than the total destruction of the other.  Yet, as I have visited that land, time and again, I have found that some of my most pleasant experiences have been my interactions with Palestinians.  I have found them to be just as humanly driven as am I.  They could just as easily be my friends as my enemies.  True story.  Several years ago, I was with a tour group in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The tour guide warned the members of the group to make sure to protect their purses and their backpacks for, if given the slightest chance, the Palestinians would rob them blind.  I was walking next to the 20-something son of a friend.  He immediately flinched and went to check his backpack.  I told him, “Don’t pay too much attention to what that guide said.  I have met far more nice Palestinians in this section of Jerusalem than bad ones.”  He did not seemed convinced.  A little ways down the road, he felt a tap on his shoulder.  As he turned around, he found himself confronted by a Palestinian teenager.  The young boy said to him:  “Excuse me, mister, but your backpack is open.”  I could not pass up that “I-told-you-so” moment.

People are people.  We are yearn for approval and for relationships.  Having positive connections with others fulfills our lives.  It invests our lives with greater meaning and purpose.  What we all too easily forget is that in those desires we are far from alone.  Every person, regardless of race, nationality, creed, gender, gender orientation, and political ideology, shares those desires and needs in common.  We all want it.  We are all open to it.  We all appreciate it immensely when we find it.  The trick is letting ourselves be open enough to give others a chance to connect with us.

This can be one of the great benefits of the internet, for it allows us to reach out to total strangers and transform those strangers into friends, even when we do not know where they live and what they look like and a laundry list of other characteristics.  For those characteristics turn out NOT to be defining ones.  What is most defining about us is that we are human beings who wish to share some portion of our lives with others; who wish to connect.

In Hebrew we have a saying – “Ken y’hi ratson! – May this be God’s will!”

Commenting on the NY Times Article: For Israelis, Mixed Feelings on Aid Effort

January 22, 2010

Below is a New York Times article about the reactions of Israelis to Israel’s efforts to aid the suffering people of Haiti.  Following the article is a letter which I sent to Ethan Bronner, the author of the article.

January 22, 2010
FOR ISRAELIS, MIXED FEELING ON AID EFFORT

JERUSALEM — The editorial cartoon in Thursday’s mass-circulation Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot showed American soldiers digging among the ruins of Haiti. From within the rubble, a voice calls out, “Would you mind checking to see if the Israelis are available?”

A week ago, ahead of most countries, Israel sent scores of doctors and other professionals to Haiti. Years of dealing with terrorist attacks combined with an advanced medical technology sector have made Israel one of the most nimble countries in disaster relief — a factor that Western television news correspondents have highlighted.

But Israelis have been watching with a range of emotions, as if the Haitian relief effort were a Rorschach test through which the nation examines itself. The left has complained that there is no reason to travel thousands of miles to help those in need — Gaza is an hour away. The right has argued that those who accuse Israel of inhumanity should take note of its selfless efforts and achievements in Haiti.

The government has been trying to figure out how to make the most of the relatively rare positive news coverage, especially after the severe criticism it has faced over its Gaza offensive a year ago.

“Israelis are caught in a great confusion over themselves,” noted Uri Dromi, a commentator who used to be a government spokesman. “There is such a gap between what we can do in so many fields and the failure we feel trapped in with the Palestinians. There’s nostalgia for the time when we were the darlings of the world, and the Haiti relief effort allows us to remember that feeling and say, you see we are not as bad as you think.”

“Now They Love Us,” was the headline Wednesday on the column of Eitan Haber, a close aide to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the 1990s and a Yediot columnist. “In another month or two, nobody will remember the good deeds” of Israeli soldiers, he wrote. “The very same countries and very same leaders who are currently lauding the State of Israel will order their representatives to vote against it at the United Nations, proceed to condemn I.D.F. operations in Gaza, and again slam its foreign minister.”

Israeli journalists flew into Haiti with relief teams. And while the contours of the catastrophe have been well described, inherent in the coverage is the question of what Israel’s performance says about it and its place in the world.

Much noted has been the absence of rich and powerful Persian Gulf countries in the relief effort, a point made here when the 2004 tsunami hit large parts of Asia and Israeli relief teams swung into action there as well.

Many commentators argued that the work in Haiti was a reflection of a central Jewish value. Michael Freund, a columnist in The Jerusalem Post, wrote on Thursday, “Though a vast gulf separates Israel from Haiti, with more than 10,500 kilometers of ocean lying between us, the Jewish people demonstrated that their extended hand can bridge any gap and traverse any chasm when it comes to saving lives.”

But on the same page, another commentator, Larry Derfner, argued that while Israel’s field hospital in Haiti is a reflection of something deep in the nation’s character, “so is everything that’s summed up in the name of ‘Gaza.’ ” He wrote: “It’s the Haiti side of Israel that makes the Gaza side so inexpressibly tragic. And more and more, the Haiti part of the national character has been dwarfed by the Gaza part.”

Early in the week, Akiva Eldar, a leftist commentator and reporter with the newspaper Haaretz, made a similar point: “The remarkable identification with the victims of the terrible tragedy in distant Haiti only underscores the indifference to the ongoing suffering of the people of Gaza.”

MY LETTER TO ETHAN BRONNER

Your article about the mixed feeling of the Israelis on the Haitian aid effort was indeed disturbing on several levels.

First of all, from my “liberal” perspective, it presented a disorienting turn around in that the right wingers endorse this relief effort, and it is the left that criticizes it.  For me, when the right supports humanitarian actions and the left opposes them, I feel I have either entered the Twilight Zone or some alternative universe.

Secondly, I simply cannot understand why those on the left have chosen to frame this as an “either-or” situation.  Why should they, who have compassion for the people of Gaza, choose to demonstrate that compassion by refusing to have compassion for the people of Haiti?  Would it not make more sense – and be far more consistent – to point to the efforts in Haiti with great pride and then say something like, “We need to show similar humanitarian zeal for the suffering people of Gaza”?  Is it just because I am an American Jewish liberal that I see it that way?

Thirdly, I do not understand how the Israeli left can fail to make an important distinction between the people of Haiti and the people of Gaza, that distinction being that the people of Haiti have not been firing rockets and mortal shells at Israeli communities and have not followed leaders who adamantly insist upon the total destruction of the State of Israel.  Yes, the people of Gaza are suffering, and suffering greatly – though still, their suffering cannot be compared with what the Haitians are going through at this time.  However, Gaza is still ruled by Hamas, and Hamas has continued to wage war on Israeli civilian centers and continues to refuse to consider a negotiated peaceful solution to its conflict with Israel.  As for the people of Gaza, we have only witnessed demonstrations of their support of the Hamas terrorism; never their opposition to it.  I know that they themselves can be terrorized by Hamas, but still, no one from Gaza speaks out about peace.  No one from Gaza proposes that there can be a better way to resolve their differences with Israel.  There is a strong argument that silence equals assent.  The bottom line here is that Gaza is at war with Israel.  Haiti is not.  How can you compare the two when it comes to Israel’s responses?

Does this mean that I do not support the idea of Israel providing humanitarian aid to Gaza.  ABSOLUTELY NOT.  I do support it and support it vigorously.  I support it on two levels.

First, this is what Jews do and have always done.  When we see others who suffer, we feel commanded to intervene to help relieve their suffering, and we act on that feeling.  We act quickly.  We act compassionately.  We act generously.  As we have so acted in Haiti, I believe we need to so act in Gaza, even though we continue to be engaged in an armed struggle with Hamas.  Along those lines, there is a famous midrash (rabbinic story) that states that after the Red Sea closed in and drowned the Egyptian army, while the Children of Israel were singing and dancing on the redemptive shores, the angels in heaven joined the Israelites in their celebration.  Witnessing this, God rebuked the angels, crying, “How dare you dance and sing while my children are drowning!”  Even though the Palestinians of Gaza are our adversaries in this armed conflict, we cannot forget that they, too, are God’s children, and as such, worthy of our compassion.

Second, from a purely political perspective, I believe that the State of Israel would make more progress down the road to peace by treating the Palestinian people with humanity and kindness than they ever will through force of arms.  Sometimes the military option is unavoidable, as it was in both the Gaza War and the Lebanon War, for a nation cannot stand by passively when others are raining missiles on their citizens.  But the military option is only a last resort and it is rarely, if ever, a complete answer in and of itself.  The most effective path to peace is by transforming your enemy into your friend.  In the case of the Palestinians, this needs to be done by helping to lift this people up out of their poverty and degradation.  The more Israel works to bring the Palestinian people into a higher and finer quality of life, the closer they draw to a time of true Shalom – peace complete and pure.