Tuesday, September 11, 2018

RH Journal 5779

In keeping with the tradition of self-assessment at the opening of the Jewish year, I want to follow up on a piece I did three years ago. This piece, like that one, will start off as a journal and then morph into a cri du coeur about Israel. Such is the nature of things. 

In my spiritual life I've more or less continued on the path I laid out in the previous piece. My Jewish practice is mostly oriented around year-cycle: We just had a family dinner on Rosh Hashanah, and I will fast on Yom Kippur and then build a sukkah. My daily practice is mostly Buddhist-ish: every morning I read an inspirational passage, meditate for 20-25 minutes, and conclude with a brief prayer. I've been pretty consistent with that; my Insight Timer says I've done it over 1100 times since I started doing it three years ago. And of course I consider my political work part and parcel of my spiritual life. All in all I'm pretty satisfied with where my spiritual path is right now.

Our Shabbat practice is casual, to put it that way. I recently decided that bullying my way through my kids' reluctance to cooperate in weekly Shabbat dinner was no longer worth the effort. We probably do a full sit-down Shabbat dinner once or twice a month now, when the stars align and everyone is home and in the mood for it. Less has turned out to be more in this case. I don't take work commitments on Friday night and Saturday morning is usually spent at the park and library.

I only rarely go to synagogue during the regular year. I'm tutoring bnai mitzvah students at the Temple, so I go to their events; if there's a special service that we're involved with (Boy Scout Shabbat, for instance) we'll go to that. I read haftarah a couple of times a year. Once in a while I'll think about going (or making the kids go) to synagogue once a month, but I never do it, mostly because I don't really want to go.

A while ago I posted on Facebook a list of my favorite podcasts – mostly political/left casts with one recovery cast and a couple of Buddhist ones. My friend Daniel said simply, “Nothing Jewish?” Instead of saying “pshaw” or unloading my resentment on him, I asked him which ones he would recommend. He gave me a couple but of course I never listened to them. (I do listen to 2 Jewish podcasts now: Treyf, which is mostly Jewish leftist politics, and Judaism Unbound, which is more spiritually oriented and which is sympathetic to my viewpoints, both political and spiritual.)

For the most part I keep a healthy distance from the Jewish community. I like to think it's by mutual decision but that's probably flattering myself. I pay my modest, partial-scholarship dues to the synagogue we still belong to. I don't donate to the Federation and no one ever asks. I haven't had any kind of pulpit or official Jewish leadership role (aside from the tutoring) since I lost my job in Lawrence in 2015. At some point I “put out into the universe” that I wanted a High Holiday pulpit, but I haven't gotten one. This year there was a holiday posting that came up late because their previous rabbi had to pull out; I applied for it and interviewed, but didn't get it. Because of this late near-miss I'm more melancholy about this (non-)aspect of my life than usual. It seems clear that my pulpit rabbinic career, such as it was, is over, and while I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing now if I weren't a rabbi - and I'm happy doing what I'm doing now - in my weaker moments I wonder why I went $65,000 into debt for a career that I basically had for 3 years (my one and only full-time pulpit.)

And, as ever, the other factor that's interfering with my ability to find my place as a mainstream Jew -- the elephant in the room -- is Israel. Since I talked about this three years ago, Israel has continued down its dark path, becoming more autocratic, making common cause with the most horrible right wing leaders in the world, and continuing its violent repression of the Palestinians – this past summer's sniper target practice being only the most extreme recent example.

Of course, just typing the phrase “continued its violent repression of the Palestinians” is enough to make one unviable in mainstream Jewish community. Post it on social media and you'll get 100 responses about how Netanyahu is bad but that's not “Israel” or about how the dead protesters had it coming because some of them flew burning kites into Israel or about how (I'm not kidding) this is all the Palestinians' fault because they didn't accept the UN partition plan in 1947. I look at this aghast, as what seems to be to a clear-cut moral issue (Israel shouldn't shoot unarmed protesters, and Americans shouldn't defend it) is treated as, perhaps regrettable, but necessary self-defense. You can say it's necessary defense, and you can sort-of say it's regrettable (but still necessary self-defense), but if you say it's a war crime (as it is) you're pretty much out of the communal tent.

Parenthetical explanation of a concept: I'm re-reading a book by Jonathan Smucker about organizing called Hegemony How-to. In it, in discussing the accomplishments and failings of the the Occupy Wall Street encampment, he explains at some length the differences between two models of activist-group dynamics: prefigurative politics, and strategic politics. To make a 50-page story short, the former is focused on a) developing and maintaining the identity of the group, and b) living as if the revolution (as it were) had already taken place -- that is, prefiguratively; the latter looks to expand the effectiveness of the group in the real, existing political context, so that it can attain political goals, i.e. win something. He claims OWS' main failing was too much a reliance on prefigurativeness. In reality the two need to be balanced: too much reliance on group cohesion and idealism will make it impossible to act effectively when and if the opportunity arises; too much reliance on strategizing and practicality can lead to the jettisoning of even the most deeply held values when they appear to get in the way of effective action.

Smucker points out that when a group is out of power, or has no chance of influencing events, it will be (understandably) more likely to focus on building the cohesiveness of the group and articulating an idealized philosophy. (End parenthetical explanation.) It is this that I think makes it pertinent to a discussion of Judaism and Israel. When the Jewish people existed in a state of powerlessness, it was necessary for us to focus our efforts on group cohesion and stability, and it was possible, or even necessary, for us to idealize our beliefs and practices: to promulgate an ideology of righteousness. When we “returned to the world stage,” as the Zionist locution had it, we moved over time to the other extreme, a radical pragmaticism that has now led to the situation we find ourselves in. In other words, we jettisoned the ideal – the values that formed the core of Jewish identity for all those centuries – for the sake of the realized practical. (Although Israel and its defenders often use the idealistic explication of Jewish values in defense of its actions – the defense of continuity and thereby, Jewish values – it's rather a call-back to values rather than the values themselves.)

In other words, we've sacrificed something core to the Jewish project and irreplaceable – our ideals, our Jewish moral center – for the sake of the pragmatic statecraft of (what has turned out to be) an unjust state of Israel. That's why I say that the Zionist project is not only calling itself into question but is threatening the continued viability of the Jewish project itself.

This summer, in an attempt to dip my toe back into Jewish thought, I started reading Heschel, perhaps the greatest Jewish theologian of the second half of 20th century. A few pages in I read the line, “Judaism teaches us that beauty which is acquired at the cost of justice is an abomination and should be rejected for its loathsomeness." And immediately I have to put the book down, for I am hit by one thought: What about Israel? All this wonderful Jewish theology, this godliness, this “you shall be holy for I am holy” - how does it stand up next to the major historical Jewish project of the era, the state of Israel? When our ideals are realized, what happens? The Palestinians are destroyed, individually and collectively, that's what happens. Heschel, and other theologians, are working from a theological premise that does not include the state of Israel – or at least does not include it in its full, current, decrepit form. The idealism of Jewish theology, the fullness of the prophetic tradition, the true beauty of the Jewish ideology (admittedly, developed in powerlessness) is devastatingly undermined by three simple words: What about Israel?

The single most important question facing Jewish individuals, communities, and theology today is how to respond to the reality of an unjust Israel. Some (most, apparently) will support it, some will oppose it (and be excommunicated for their troubles), and some will try to distance themselves from it and pretend it is no concern of theirs. I don't think that last is really possible, both because Israel – the reality of Jewishness in state power – calls into question everything we were taught to believe was important in Jewish ideology, and because it remains the main political aim of official American Jewish-dom to support Israel, whatever its behavior, whatever its crimes. We can't absolve ourselves of that by distancing ourselves from either Israel or the mainstream Jewish community, for we are part of them, and they are part of us.

As Heschel also said: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

1 comment:

  1. "Of course, just typing the phrase 'continued its violent repression of the Palestinians' is enough to make one unviable in mainstream Jewish community."

    Well, yeah. For now, anyway. And probably for the foreseeable future.
    I beliebe we are witnessing the recoil of Jews with money, political and social capital as they recognize that the comfortble lives they've lived for so long are under attack, especially by generation of young people who are daring to ask the hard questions out loud and in public. You and I will not make a career in "mainstream" Judaism. (Although it looks like I'm an up-and-coming artist, don't be fooled. Most big shuls aren't interested in what I bring or, frankly, how I present in the world. And the older I get the more okay I am with that.)

    So I foment little rebellions in smaller shuls and call it good.
    Have a sweet year and thank you for your honesty.