26 October 2014

Stam Ish - I'm Just One Ordinary Person

Recently, I have imagined myself living in the nexus of a multi-generational debate over an interpretation of a passage in the Torah.  My teacher at HUC in Israel, Rabbi Ben Hollander (z’l), brought us the text of a pivotal moment in the Joseph story.  Joseph is sent by his father to seek the welfare of his brothers, who are off with the flocks.  Joseph arrives in Shechem and they are nowhere to be seen.  A helpful stranger asks Joseph what he seeks and, hearing he seeks the missing brothers, reveals that he has overheard that they have moved on to Dotan. (Gen. 37:12-17)  Without this stranger, who happens to be in just the right place at just the right time, Joseph would not find his brothers; they would not cast him in a pit; he would not be sold to slavery in Egypt and therefore not be able to save his family during the famine, nor set the events in motion that result in the Exodus, and thence the Israelite people standing at Mount Sinai - all because of this one man.  Early in Jewish history, the Targum (translation) Onkelos translates the Hebrew of the Torah text (which says ish or “a man”) as the angel Gabriel disguised as a man.  A thousand years later, the great Torah commentator Rashi agrees with this interpretation.  Such an event could not have been left to chance; the angel whose role was to protect the Jewish people stepped in to direct the course of history.  But, as Ben Hollander showed us (in my favorite commentary on a Torah text), Rashi’s contemporary Ibn Ezra says, stam ish “it’s just a person”.  At the time, I was impressed by ibn Ezra’s rationalism: Just read the text as it is written.  If the Torah says it’s a person, then it’s a person.  

A few weeks ago, a small group of rabbis attempting to form a New Jersey division of Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, met with a family in need of help.  Catalino Guerrero had lived and worked in the United States since the 1980’s.  Early on, he unknowingly received some bad legal advice and was unable to regularize his status, though he worked and paid taxes.  Now older and with children and grandchildren, he is ill and the United States has been attempting to persuade him to voluntarily return to Mexico, leaving his home and family.  With help from a local group from the national community organizing group PICO, he was trying to receive a new stay of removal to avoid being deported the following week.  We were asked to call the New Jersey office of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and let them know that we knew about Catalino’s plight and that he had community support.  The next day, several of us called and left messages or spoke to a helpful officer in the department.  However, Catalino still had an appointment early that Monday morning, and, late Sunday evening, we were asked to show our support by attending that meeting with him and his family.  I was conflicted and would probably not have gone, had my wife not, serendipitously, been watching a social justice video created by my colleague, Rabbi Rob Nosanchuk and his congregation, Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Cleveland.

So, I went. There was a small press conference.  Catalino spoke, as did his daughter, and representatives of other organizations.  Later I went in with Catalino and hand delivered a letter from the NJ-ROR rabbis to the helpful ICE officer.  Although I was told that my presence, as a rabbi, made a great difference, I felt that I had been more helpful by providing a chair for Catalino when he needed to sit, than that I influenced a vast government bureaucracy.  In the end, there was good news for Catalino and his family - he received a one year stay.  Since then colleagues have told me what a hero I am, and how great that I spent a few hours in the heat in Newark, but, I say, stam ish. I’m just one person, and I’m not sure that I did so much.  Joseph - or in this case, Catalino - is the real hero.  I’m just an extra in this scene.

Since then, however, I have been thinking.  I still do not know whether my presence, or the phone calls and letters of my colleagues, made a difference, or whether the facts of Catalino’s story would have led to the same result.  Much as others may think (and we may secretly wish) there is no powerful “rabbi card” that one can play to suddenly redirect the forces of the US government.  When I first read Ibn Ezra’s commentary, I thought it was a tour de force of rationalism; an argument not to mistake coincidence for Divine intervention.  Further reflection has changed my interpretation of what Ibn Ezra might have been teaching.  Lawrence Kushner (in Honey from the Rock) imagines that each of us carries not only the pieces of our own puzzle, but, unknowingly, the pieces needed for others’ as well.  In that chance encounter when we provide that piece, we are “a messenger of the Most High”.  What I learn from Ibn Ezra is that each of us, normal human beings, may be going about our own business, and, yet, unknowingly be the catalysts in the stories of others.  I hope that we were able to help Catalino Guerrero and his family.  I know that our presence made a difference to him, personally - and that is enough.  I do not need to play a greater, more heroic role.  Stam ish - I’m just one person.  So are you.  Maybe that is all that is needed.

26 August 2014

haTikvah - Don't Lose the Hope!

A member of the congregation challenged me to read this OpEd by Antony Lerman in the New York Times Sunday Review.  I was telling her that I thought her views on Israel were probably very close the mainstream of the congregation.  She said that she had read this article and had felt great sympathy with its point of view and therefore was probably out of step with our suburban New Jersey Reform congregation.  I replied that while some of the more outspoken members of our congregation were probably farther to the right on Israel, there was a large group who felt confused, alienated, and afraid to speak or even think about Israel at such turbulent times.

I agree with Mr. Lerman through much of this piece. I think the liberal Zionist voice is caught as the public voice of Israel becomes more restrictive, as recent polls show that Israeli children are sounding racist (mainly, I would opine, because they no longer encounter Arabs in their daily lives), as the reality of terrorism and reaction erodes the possibility of the emergence of moderate Palestinians. He says:

Liberal Zionists must now face the reality that the dissenters have recognized for years: A de facto single state already exists; in it, rights for Jews are guaranteed while rights for Palestinians are curtailed. Since liberal Zionists can’t countenance anything but two states, this situation leaves them high and dry.

But, I disagree with his defeatism and that the idea of a two-state solution is gone for all time. Perhaps it reflects the eternal optimism of the liberal, but I am not yet at Mr. Lerman's state of hopelessness. I do believe Israel can be not only a state of Jews, but a Jewish state, reflecting Jewish values about treating the stranger among you as the citizen.

I am fearful, however, of the weakening of the Israeli-Diaspora connection and nod as Mr. Lerman (and, as often, Peter Beinart) state:

Today, neither the destruction wreaked in Gaza nor the disgraceful antics of the anti-democratic forces that are setting Israel’s political agenda have produced a decisive shift in Jewish Diaspora opinion. 

I agree that the current situation actually pushes us further apart, rather than closer together.  Fear is a temporary glue.

He concludes with a message that I do find hopeful:

In the repressive one-state reality of today’s Israel, which Mr. Netanyahu clearly wishes to make permanent, we need a joint Israeli-Palestinian movement to attain those rights and the full equality they imply. Only such a movement can lay the groundwork for the necessary compromises that will allow the two peoples’ national cultures to flourish.

While I join in his hope for the like-minded of both sides to come together, I do not agree with his next statement:

This aspiration is incompatible with liberal Zionism.

I hope it isn't.  I hope there is still a place for liberal Zionism.  Herzl, who held together the largest open tent of Zionists in history in order to build the dream of the land of Israel, would have had it so.  Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah. If this is something we truly desire, then it will not remain a fantasy.

25 July 2014

Israel - What I Know and Don't Know - with credit to Rabbi Donniel Hartman

Other than from the bimah at services, or when people have asked directly, I have not made any public statements about the current situation in Israel, but I have come to the conclusion that sharing my thoughts may help members of the congregation, who are also concerned, to validate that there are others who are disturbed, concerned, confused, etc., about what is going in Israel, the land that we also call our homeland, for which we carry love and bear some responsibility.

There have been many worthwhile articles and commentary around the regular and social media.  One of the people whose words I often turn to is Rabbi Donniel Hartman, of the Sholom Hartmann Institute (You may remember that I often quote his analysis of Israeli/Diaspora relationships.)  His latest column in the Times of Israel is another attempt to take a step away from the rhetoric and focus on the reality of the situation and the long-term moral effects of the actions that are taken out of necessity.

In commenting on Rabbi Hartman's editorial, I would also like to share what I know, and what I do not.

I know that it is difficult for us as American Jews to connect to what is going on one-third of the way across the planet, even if we mention that tiny nation as our homeland at every religious service.  It is difficult for us to understand what it means to live in a nation long surrounded by enemies pledged to erase it from the map, and yet still strive to have peace, not only with the nascent nation of Palestine, but with the individual Arabs who are neighbors.  I do not know the moral impact of wanting to live in peace, but having to not only train, but to engage in war - both hot and tepid.

I do know some of the frustration felt by Jews in Israel and around the world when Israel is expected to live up to a standard of behavior which no other nation on earth, except occasionally the United States, is expected to achieve.  I know this because I, too, expect Israel, my homeland, the light among the nations, to be a standard bearer for all I believe that Judaism teaches is right and just.  I cringe when I see an image of innnocents killed or wounded and comparison is made to out of context quotations of the Torah.

I know the frustration of listening to the media when the Palestinian spokesman says that all that needs to happen is for Israel to end the occupation, and the BBC reporter does not follow up by pointing out that Israel ended the occupation of Gaza, removed all troops, and every Israeli citizen, and the Palestinians not only failed to give credit but, more tragically, failed to take advantage and begin to build a strong, independent, and viable state.  I do not know what can be done to encourage Palestinians to find cooperative economic solutions, rather than those which are violent and self-destructive.

I know that Israel needs to destroy the tunnels which we have discovered were the result of all the cement that the world insisted Israel allow into Gaza to build schools and hospitals.  I do not know who will step in to build those desperately needed schools and hospitals.

I know there are times when Israel is wrong and there are times when the Palestinians are right.  Those times may not coincide, but no one has a monopoly on good conduct, and no one is correct all the time.  And I believe, strongly, that humanity is not evil, and there is no group that does not have at least the redeeming feature of trying to make a good life for itself and its children.

Finally, I know that it is easiest for us Americans and American Jews to shut our eyes and ears to what happens in Gaza, in Syria, in the Ukraine, in the Sudan, in Kenya, in China, and around the world, because we cannot imagine that we can help.  I know that is not true.  And, even if I don't know what the solution is, I know that our caring and our action might not only make a positive contribution in those places, but that it is necessary for us, if we would call ourselves human beings.

Hillel said, "B'makom she'ein anashim, histader l'hihiyot ish."  This is usually translated as "In a place where no one is acting humanely, try to be humane."  I would rather read this in a way that does not exhort us to be like Noah - only relatively good in our generation, and to dehumanize those who surround us, but rather - "In a place where no one is acting humanely, strive to bring humanity."  Let as act to our ideals not to be better than others, but to help us all better ourselves.

I know this is a difficult time.  I know that in difficult times, we are called to do more. I do not know how else to ask.