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.  

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Taking the Path to Empathy: Killing the Inner Stork

It always amazes me what we don’t know about each other, what we don’t really want to know about each other and the tragedy that creates when in critical moments we are left unable to empathize with one another. We mock each other’s fear, we mock each others dead, we mock each others grief. A few days ago, in a moment of pain and worry, I tweeted out “Three Yeshiva boys kidnapped between Hebron and Jerusalem. #BringBackOurBoys.” The response surprised me. “You mean SETTLERS don’t you?” “They are teenagers, fair targets.” “Probably just kill them but best case scenario a prisoner swap.” “What about kids in Gaza?” “Who cares, the IDF uses Pali kids for target practice.” It went on like that. My twitter following, which happens to be overwhelmingly Muslim, seemed not to empathize at all. The Israeli-ness or the Settler-ness (one kid is American and I don’t know that the other kids are “settlers”, only that they go to a Yeshiva High School run by a prominent Rabbi on “the other side of the green line”) so totally trumped the reality that these are teenage kids, somebody’s sons and brothers that even the fact that they were likely to be hurt very badly, tortured or killed was essentially irrelevant. I was shocked. How is it possible that so many bad people had been listening to me for so many months, even years now? Where were the tears? Why can’t they get this? What is wrong with them? What is wrong with me?

 The obstacles to empathy are many. I said “YESHIVA BOYS.” Most of my Muslim friends have no clue what that means to me. These are kids who are studying Torah. To religious Jews , they are symbols of innocence, piety and dedication. They represent all that is not threatening or violent in this world. It means they are doing the “right thing” by serving the God we all believe in full-time. Bad things are not SUPPOSED to happen to them.

 They are teenagers. We don’t know what to do with teenagers. They are simple-minded and can be as sweet as little children or as vicious as the most twisted adult. The can be Yeshiva boys, Madrasa students, hafiz qur'an, kids who love their mother and play with their little brothers and sisters and/or Palestinian terrorists or Settler “price-tag” exacting thugs. Sometimes innocent, sometimes culpable, both gullible and cunning, they defy our black and white thinking just enough make us reinforce it. We paint them black and white, though they are often gray. 

The obstacles to empathy are shared. A few minutes of soul-searching and its clear its not just THEIR problem. When between 89-318 Palestinian children (IDF gives the low number, B’Tzelem the high) were killed in war on Gaza a few years ago, my Jewish friends did not cry. The pictures of Palestinian mothers weeping at gravesites, didn’t much move them. When Palestinians complain of their teenagers being hauled off to jail , beaten and interrogated for little reason, we turn a deaf ear. We are not much interested.

 I can’t name a single Palestinian innocent killed in the conflict. I have never reached out to an Arab family that lost a family member. Never sent a card or an email to express my pain and outrage because in spite of my best intentions, I never allowed myself to feel that. Not because I am a cold-hearted jerk. I am not. The lack of names, itself a quiet strategy of dehumanization is second nature. I am a decent man but in the language of Rabbinic symbolism, I am a “stork.”
 I will explain.
 We are all storks. *
 In Hebrew the stork is called a “chasida” and the Torah tells us that it is a non-kosher bird. Chasida means “Kindly one”. How could a bird with such a nice name not be kosher? The Rabbis explain, it is called “kindly” because it is exceedingly kind to its own, its own family, children, even other chasidas. But let an outsider come, and they are vicious.. We are storks. We are nice people. We are great to the people around us. We are chock full of the values of mercy and kindness and generosity until we are faced with “the other.” Then all bets are off.

 We, all of us, have been MADE into storks, trained into a lack of empathy. Training can be undone. Here are the steps I am undertaking for myself, as an Observant Jew living in an observant community with friends and grandchildren in Israel to begin to undo my training. I hope other people will join me and suggest more and better steps. Whether you are Jewish, Muslim or Christian, I urge you to join me in this discipline. Choose whoever is “the other” to you and do it. Challenge yourself to see humanity in a new way. I can’t ask you to do what I am unwilling to do. It is not a lot but if I make a start, I hope you will too.

 1) I want to know the names of Palestinian people (in particular but no exclusively) who face harm or have been hurt and killed, to know them as human beings. I want to know them as parents, children and friends.

 2) I will count on my friends to help me reach out to families that might benefit from my comfort and concern.

 3) I will not tolerate around me disparaging talk about Palestinians or anyone else. 4) I want to offer my friendship, openly to all those who want it and are willing to respect it and me for who and what I am.

  When attempting to start something worthwhile never say “I am the only one.” Say rather, “ I am THE FIRST!” - The Chazon Ish. 

*I thank my friend Rabbi Zalman Kastel for an earlier essay in which he made this point.