Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Lonely Man of Questions

On both Twitter and Facebook I shared a piece by Shira Lipkin on her struggle to reconcile her attachment to Judaism and the Jewish people with her distaste and disgust for the violence she now sees in Gaza and the negative attitudes she now sees permeating both societies, Israeli and Palestinian, Jewish and Muslim.
http://www.salon.com/2014/07/26/israel_is_not_my_birthright/

Several people have expressed wonder as to why I would post such a thing. This is the start of an answer.

While I am surrounded by people who seem so certain, I am find myself questioning. Throughout the past two weeks, my questioning has been understood as "breaking ranks" with one or another side. My moral exploration and reflection has been dismissed as seeking "moral equivalency". From where I sit (and I think Shira Lipkin experienced the same thing) I am engaged in a genuine struggle. It is a moral struggle and a spiritual struggle. It is a struggle with myself, with my faith, with my sense of the world and sometimes with friends and family.

Here are a few of the things I struggle to understand:

  • How my friends, neighbors and acquaintances so quickly manage to get their opinions in line with each other when I can not.

  • How is that people who live in a pluralistic society here in America, who profoundly benefit from that society and its values of tolerance can so completely abandon those values to the extent that any kind of coexistence with "others" is unimaginable or even anathema to them?

  • What God's promise of a "Promised Land" means when the grip on that land must be held through a violence that can be both oppressive and brutal

  • How does what is happening in the Land of Israel relate to the Torah's "conditional use permit on the land" the promises of security in the land if we are righteous and absolute insecurity if we are not. How much of this is US, how much is THEM, how much is God? 

  • How much of what people say about THOSE PEOPLE is true? The claims are so black and white and exaggerated. "Palestinian mothers really hate us more than love their children. Palestinians are content to be used as human shields. Palestinian children a fed on a childhood diet of pure hate. Israelis are racist haters who won't be happy til every Palestinian is gone. Zionism is Naziism." The world is awash in these messages. What do you DO with all that besides say everything WE say is true and everything THEY say is a lie?

  • How the same people who could quote hundreds of ahadith demonstrating the gentleness of Muhammad, and may be very gentle in their private lives can be so harsh in the context of strife.

  • How is it that in conflict so many of us who LIVE great values in our interpersonal lives somehow drop them when we are in conflict? Polite people become rude. Merciful people start to sound cruel. 

  • How to square my fierce love for Judaism, Torah and the Jewish people with Rabbis and others (who may know much more than I do) who increasingly de-emphasize the Torah of kindness while promoting a Torah that endorses military force even against "civilians."

  • How what are for ME deep and difficult questions have been replaced by hashtags, memes and slogans that seem to discourage any creative thinking. 

  • What does peace mean? Everybody seems to want it and nobody seems to want it. 



I have lots of questions. These are really just a few of the greatest hits. I am too mentally exhausted to write a complete inventory.

So, if I seem confused, I am. Some of you wish I wasn't. I kind of wish you were.

A quiet and questioning voice of sanity.

My daughter Sara posted this on Facebook before shabbat (the sabbath). I share it as a quiet voice of personal struggle for sanity in an insane world of competing perspectives reduced to hashtags, memes and slogans.  

"Briefly breaking my promise to myself to not talk about this on Facebook, and I apologize to be commenting at all as an American not on the ground. I realize it's not my right. But why does choosing to 
#supportGaza and choosing to #supportIsrael have to be a binary? And why do we reduce these issues that are so complex and deeply personal to hashtags and memes? Let's support civilians. 

May there come a day soon when not a single one, on either side of the Gaza border, has to live in fear of rockets or bombs. Shabbat shalom le'kulam - A peaceful shabbat to all (G-d willing)"

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Prayerful Goodbye to the Social Media War

May Hashem/ Allah (swt) grace us all with purified hearts to serve Him in truth!

It is with sadness and resignation that I will not be reading any more posts or contributing to any more posts on the conflict in Israel/Palestine on social media. There is no way for me to measure and certainly no way to express my disappointment at friends, family and acquaintances for an inability to see beyond the narrow confines of one side or the other to the human realities of the conflict; the reality of Israeli families hunkered down in bunkers with sirens wailing over their heads as rockets rain, the reality of families in Gaza with no place to go facing bombs, destruction of homes and a rising death toll which inevitably includes many who are innocent.  I deeply believe that our Creator will judge us for our refusal to grant humanity to one another. I will continue with my work in Abraham's Tent and I will continue in my personal life and my personal mission as "Jihadi Jew" to try to create love and connection between Muslims and Jews.

To speak what is in my heart. I want to share a prayer from Rabindranath Tagore.

"Give me the supreme courage of love, this is my prayer — the courage to speak, to do, to suffer at thy will, to leave all things or be left alone. Strengthen me on errands of danger, honor me with pain, and help me climb to that difficult mood which sacrifices daily to thee.

Give me the supreme confidence of love, this is my prayer — the confidence that belongs to life in death, to victory in defeat, to the power hidden in frailest beauty, to the dignity in pain which accepts hurt but disdains to return it.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Is there room for pacifism in Judaism and Islam?

A Quaker can be a pacifist on the basis of his religion. Maybe a Christian can too “Turn the other cheek.”  Jews and Muslims can not be.  It is quite clear that our scriptural and legal traditions view violence as a reasonable and often unavoidable  means of resolving human conflict. Both traditions set limits on who you may hurt, when you may hurt and the conditions under which you can hurt them.  Both traditions are very realistic about recognizing the ugliness that violence raises in its participants, the possible abuses that place in time of war. Both traditions strive to manage that.  They create limited room for dividing the spoils (which in ancient times certainly included humans as property) and for the harm of non-combatants who happen to be in the way.  Judaism and Islam both decry the intentional attack on innocents and the wanton destruction of property.  We are not pacifist religions in principle. In practice though, I wonder however whether the nature of violence in the modern age, may not call us to be pacifists, in practice.

The scriptures, narratives, examples and legal precedents upon which both Jewish and Islamic legal traditions base their rulings on war and violence are largely ancient and medieval and nature.  They speak of a time of  relatively small scale warfare.  Armies lined up against other armies or perhaps small groups of insurgents fought guerilla wars with larger armies. Combatants were clear and well-defined.  Weapons were smaller. There were stones, knives, hatchets,  swords, bows, long-bows, cross bows and eventually cannon and muskets. These  short range weapons required a virtual face to face engagement with the enemy.  Even in the heat of battle, it would be hard to forget the humanity of your opponent. Though tragic, such wars were necessarily limited in scope and damage. They were wars that could be won. Territory could be conquered and successfully held.  In one to one engagement with the enemy, the killing of non-combatants was certainly possibly but not likely.  Commanders fought at the head of their troops.  When those in power face the same imminent danger as their troops, it can create powerful incentives to make peace (or accept submission).

In modern warfare,  we move further and further from face to face engagement. The incentives for peace are largely gone. The war makers are in boardrooms far removed from their battlefields. Aerial bombings and the use of unmanned drones alienate even the soldier from the heat of battle, reducing the enemy to pixels on a screen. The  drone soldier who prowls the plains of Afghanistan for his targets from the air-conditioned comfort of Las Vegas knows nothing of the ancient “nobility” of war or has any reason to avoid its savagery .  Big powerful weapons from assault rifles to cluster bombs make “collateral damage” the killing of innocents and absolute certainty.  As human beings crowd themselves into denser and denser population centers, war begins to look more and more like shooting rats in a barrel. Collective punishment also becomes a certainty. Nuclear and biological weapons make the wanton destruction of environment an inevitable consequence of pulling those triggers. There is little face-too-face engagement to humanize the enemy. The horrors of war make less impression on minds and hearts awash in endless dramatized violence.
The limitations that our religious traditions put on the practice of violence have effectively become meaningless today. If war was ever noble, it can’t be now.  Jews carry the image of the God-commanded struggle to conquer The Land in the time of Joshua. Muslims see the glory days of Islamic expansion, the violent struggles of the early Muslim community.  Americans fantasize about the conquering of the West, the brave cowboy.  I have come to believe that  F-16s, drones, assault rifles, bunker-busters, cluster bombs, phosphorous weapons, and biological weapons have rendered all of that a quaint fantasy.  The goals and values that our religions teach us can no longer be furthered by modern war. 

If the facts on the ground make the limitation on violence an impossibility, we have two possibilities;  to obliterate those limitations or to embrace some kind of collective practical pacifism. The movement has clearly been to do the former.  The definition of non-combatant becomes more and more narrow. Scholars will find reasons to consider children and women as “legitimate targets.”  They dig deep into our complex traditions to find texts to defend the indefensible We invent euphemisms like “collateral damage” to cover up our wanton destruction of human life and human environment.


I am not really a pacifist. I recognize that people sometimes have to defend themselves. I would use violence to defend myself, my family, or others from harm.   I am not prepared to argue that somehow it would have been better not to fight the Nazis.  (The inevitable challenge.) I humbly recognize that my faith acknowledges the legitimate use of violence and I take that very seriously.  At the same time, I can’t ignore the growing disconnect between the kind of warfare we see in the real world and any possibility of building the  world that both Judaism and Islam envision, a world devoted to the service of God in peace.
 
I am struggling  and now sharing the struggle with you. I look forward to your reasoned, polite, heart-felt thoughts and comments.

Monday, June 30, 2014

In Mourning for Three Young Men and For All of Us.

I join with the entirety of the Jewish people and with our many friends in mourning the senseless murders of  Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaer.  It is only right that we mourn for our own. At the same time, we mourn for a world so broken that the murder of children has really become a commonplace. If we are sensitive to the cries of mothers who look and sound like us, maybe one day will be respond to the cries of mothers who don't.
Those of us who believe ourselves to be faithful, decent people need to raise our voices, not in cries of vengeance but in prayer and words of peace. We need to own up to the fact that we are creating a world so rife with violence that it is virtually unlivable for many of its inhabitants. We are failing at our mission to be God's viceroys and stewards on earth.

Three Jewish boys dead.  Five Palestinians. Hundreds jailed. The rationalizations, the recriminations, the calls for revenge, the clamp-down, the resistance, the clamp-down on the resistance are soon to come. We can take the well-worn and easy route and spiral ever-downward or we can seek to climb the steep ladder that ascends to friendship and peace.

We do have choices. Every time we claim that we do not, we belittle the great gift of moral choice which is the common inheritance of all mankind.  When we choose good, when we choose peace and compassion we honor that same gift.

Master of the World! Please help us give the world the comfort of our best choices.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Giving Our Muslims Friends a Break.

Just how are you supposed to respond when someone acts hatefully in the name of the religion you love? I have no idea.

The rise of ISIS and the recent outburst of sectarian violence and the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers have put Islamic extremism on the front pages again. It has also put Muslims in the now familiar position of having to defend their faith or remain silent.  Either choice seems to result in a no win game. 

If you remain silent you run the risk of being accused of assenting to the violence. You are silent not because there is nothing much to say to people who will not listen but because you secretly agree with the evil agendas.  On the other hand, if you defend your faith too loudly, you may be accused of being edgy, nervous and defensive.  If you defend too articulately, you may be accused of cleverly lying to cover up the truth. If you defend too sincerely, it may be mistaken for naivety and stupidity as if, being a western Muslim, you may not even know the evils of Islam first hand. Whether you speak or whether you are silent, you are an accomplice to crime you did not commit.

Whether Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist we have to be boldly honest with ourselves and with others about the atrocities which are done in the names of our faiths. In the world, at this moment, that responsibility falls disproportionately on Muslims. I will let the sociologists, anthropologists, historians and political scientists explain why that is.  There are reasons why at particular times, some groups will use religion to justify violence and cruelty. "Islam" is not that reason.  Anyone who has taken the time to study Islam in any depth or detail will understand that there is not some evil hidden in the DNA of Islam that makes this inevitable. These are rather choices, evil choices that can even strip a beautiful faith of much of its beauty.

Muslims are not the only ones making those kinds of choices. We live in a world where Hindu nationalists march with spears, Jewish settlers sit on hilltops armed to the teeth fueled by an intolerant messianic ideology, Christian preachers frame the “War on Terror” as a new crusade, and goon squads of Buddhist monks burn mosques in Burma. It is clear that Islam has not cornered the market on violent ideologies, and that many of these other violent ideologies are headed in their direction. We, non-Muslims also have a responsibility to address the dangerous ideologies now growing in your own communities and perhaps in our own hearts.


Above all, we have a responsibility to give our Muslim friends and neighbors a break. It is simply not fair or reasonable to hold them responsible for the horrific behaviors of people they cannot control.  Instead of making them come to the defense of Islam, or critiquing their silence, maybe ask them what it feels like to watch the faith you love and cherish dragged in the mud. Ask them what its like to explain to their children, that the faith and tradition they want them to value can be and is horribly misused.  I have been involved with the Muslim community and I have seen their pain and their struggle in dealing with this. I have learned to talk less and listen more. I have learned to listen not just with my mind but also with my heart.  I have no clever answers to the challenge of terror and extremism, not for my Muslim friends and not for concerned non-Muslims. My best answer is to stop looking for the best answers and start looking for the best questions.  My best answer is to share the struggle against evil as best as we can, as friends.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Thoughts on "Moral Equivalency: "Apples and Oranges or Chicken Pox and Shingles?

Both Jewish and Islamic spirituality link our understanding of the human spirit to our understanding of the human body.  Great thinkers like Maimonides and Imam al Ghazzali speak of diseases of the soul or diseases of the heart. They see religious practice as a medical regimen to cure these diseases administered by righteous scholars who are, in effect, doctors of the soul.  So it is fair, I believe, to use medical analogies to understand how the human spirit works.

Consider the case of Chicken Pox and Shingles. These are two very different diseases. One, Chicken Pox, affects children as an itchy but relatively painfless rash over much of the body, The other, Shingles, affects older people (most people over 85 will get it) as an intensely painful thick rash over a small area of the body.  They are two very different diseases., one clearly worse than the other.  Or so it would seem.

In fact, Chicken Pox and Shingles are both caused by the very same virus, varicella voster. The virus contracted in childhood lies dormant in nerve cells after the pox-like symptoms are long gone.  Triggered again in adulthood, that virus presents as Shingles.  Are they equivalent?  They certainly don’t feel equivalent but there is no escaping the fact that their etiology, their origin is the same.

This is a commonplace of the diseases of the heart and soul.  The self-same disease of "anger" gives rise to wanting to tell lies about someone and to punching them in the nose, or even to murdering them. The same "self-loathing" can lead to simply letting our bodies go to waste through neglect or G-d forbid shooting ourselves.   Some manifestations of these diseases are more benign and some are less.  Without addressing the root pathogen, though,  neither disease can be cured.


Is sitting around your living room and talking disparagingly about an individual or a group the same as taking pot shots at them with a rifle?  No.  Are they “morally equivalent?”  No. There are better and worse, more and less violent, more and less harmful ways of being and behaving in this world and it is our job to foster the better and do what we can to curb the worse. 

For the doctor of the soul and/or their aspiring patient that may be less interesting and less useful than knowing the root of disease. For those of us, whose faith moves us to seek the higher ground , it is crucial and important to know, that the pangs of anger, jealousy and greed that we attend to in our moments of solitude are the seeds of some very bad things both great and small.  Its important for us to look under the microscope at our own spiritual viruses and know that there are many patients out there with the same virus. Some are better off than we are, some are worse off, and some seem to be suffering from something so severe that it bears little relation to us.  But it does.  In the moral universe, it does not allow us to excuse the extreme breaches but it allows us to understand them from the inside out, to seek a cure and to help others seek a cure.

It may not be fair to compare apples with oranges but any doctor who failed to compare Shingles to Chickenpox wouldn’t be much of a doctor.