Image by Neil Mercer
I would like to talk about the L word.
It is a word that went out of fashion many moons ago for many people, but it still lives in our relationships. To Full Post
Mahatma Gandhi once famously said: “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
It would seem that the gusts of wind currently swirling through the Hillel environment are throwing up a similar assumption and a similar question. The assumption is that Hillel is someone’s home which visitors are welcome to enrich but not to change. And there is a hanging question as to what might knock us off our feet?
A fascinating and healthy discourse has emerged over National Hillel’s guidelines for Israel programming on campus. We at Makom have been following the discourse with great interest. As key advisors to the Hillel-Jewish Agency Israel Engaged Campus initiative, as seasoned practitioners of complex dialogue on Israel throughout the Jewish community, and as consultants to Jewish organizations around the world on exactly the same issue of guidelines and red lines – we’ve noticed a few anomalies and a few opportunities. To Full Post
My favorite character from the Chazal period, the Rabbis of the first and second century, is Rabbi Meir. He was a smart cookie. He was married to a strong and smart woman, and was an original thinker. At the same time, his superior intellect made him slightly suspect in the eyes of his contemporaries. It was said, (admiringly or disapprovingly) that he could argue a point of law one way, and then argue it equally fluently the other way. When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.
When you’re talking sacred law, being a master of spin is not necessarily an admirable quality.
Meir’s most famous moral and intellectual choice was in his ongoing friendship with R. Elisha Ben Avuya. Ben Avuya had been the top scholar of his generation until he lost his faith and was excommunicated. In the moral universe of Chazal, to renounce one’s faith was disgraceful. Like being a child abuser in our days. In the Talmud his name was obliterated, his teachings were accredited to “the other”, and no one was allowed to come near him, let alone study with him. R. Meir, my hero, totally ignored this ban. He continued to study with his old friend and teacher, arguing: “When one eats a pomegranate, one can spit out the seeds yet still gain sustenance from the juice.” Quite apart from the fact that this is actually more difficult that it sounds (ever tried it?), it is also more morally complicated than Meir admitted. To Full Post
A Jew is kidnapped, and there is only one way to free him. The community must summon the Prophet Moses to take part in a religious disputation with the Archbishop.
Who on earth can “summon” Moses? The community figures they will have to cheat a little. They dress up the huge bearded Shimon the Butcher in biblical clothes, and push him towards the disputation.
“I may look like Moses,” pleads Shimon, “but I don’t know a thing about religion! How will I be able to debate the Archbishop, of all people? I hear tell he was once a Jew who studied at Yeshiva…”
“Don’t worry, Shimon,” explains the Rabbi, “I will be standing right next to you and I’ll whisper all the answers in your ear.”
But the moment “Moses” arrives at the medieval arena, he is pulled up onto a high platform, separated from the Rabbi by yards of scaffolding. The Rabbi looks up at him, helpless.
“Hear ye hear ye!” cries the adjudicator on the platform, “On my left stands the great Archbishop! On my right stands the Jewish Prophet Moses! Today they will engage in theological dispute! And, since the Archbishop does not speak ancient Aramaic, and since Moses clearly does not speak Latin, this disputation will be conducted in SIGN LANGUAGE!”
The Archbishop begins the mute intellectual duel. He draws a wide circle in the air. Shimon the Butcher points down to the earth. The Archbishop brandishes three fingers. Shimon raises a fist. The Archbishop reaches behind him and lifts up a glass of wine and an loaf of bread. Immediately Shimon pulls out a boiled egg, breaks the shell on his forehead, and begins to eat it.
At that the Archbishop pales. He shakes his head, and signals to all that he is defeated. “Moses” has won, and the kidnapped man is freed into the arms of a rejoicing Jewish crowd.
As they help him down from the scaffolding, the other bishops quiz the Archbishop as to the meaning of the defeat. He shakes his head in awe:
“Genius… pure genius… I signaled to him that the Lord ruled the heavens and the earth. But he replied that more crucially the Lord lives with Man on earth. And he’s right! He’s right… Then I reminded him of the Holy Trinity, but he straightaway pointed out that for all his blessed incarnations, the Lord is one. As a final attempt to escape his massive intellect I showed him the body and the blood of Christ! But he just showed me the egg, the symbol of life eternal, and I knew I was bested…”
At the same time the joyous but confused Jews were asking for Shimon the Butcher’s interpretation of his victory. They found Shimon as non-plussed as they were:
“I dunno what happened, to tell you the truth,” he stammered, “He told me he was going to throw us Jews out to the ends of the earth, and I told him we we’re staying right here. He threatened to poke my eye out with a fork – I told him I’d punch him on the nose. They he got out his lunch, and I got out mine!”
I love telling this story. For some reason, no matter how many times the audience has heard it, or heard a version of it, they still laugh happily at the punch-line. Yet the joke conceals – as do many Jewish jokes of a certain era – a great deal of pain.
A disputation was not a nice thing. The idea that one’s freedom may be dependent upon one’s ability to argue is terrifying to imagine. To lose a theological dispute was not to “lose an argument”, but to lose one’s basic rights. Yet in Jewish folk memory, the disputation is a recurring motif of street-smart trickster Jews outwitting the untrustworthy goyim and winning the day. It’s a feel-good story drawing on one of the darkest periods of Jewish history.
I was reminded of this story a few months back. I was on a fact-finding mission with the Makom team, mapping out the nature of Israel education in the UK, and ended up in a late-night conversation with an old friend. We had grown up together in Habonim Youth Movement, were weaned on the same Zionist heroes, and were meeting up for our annual heart-to-heart. I have been living in Israel for the past 17 years, while he has spent most of this time living in the UK.
He was telling me about “The Inheritance of Abraham”. This was a policy paper issued by the Scottish Baptist Church, about Israel. My friend had been called by a radio show to comment on its contents, which he assumed were highly critical of Israel. He was ready to roll out his usual “yes but” response: Yes, the occupation of the West Bank must stop, but critique of Israel must not spill over into demonization or anti-semitic slurs. But then he read the report.
He was stunned to find that the attack on Israel was not only political: It was theological. Israel was not only accused of maltreatment of Palestinians. The Jews themselves were deemed guilty of overplaying their “chosen people” hand, and were mostly condemned for interpreting their own scriptures wrongly. In short, the critique was that they were not, well, Christian enough. The position paper, which has since been altered quite significantly, was couched in almost classic Disputation language.
My friend had quite rightly pointed out that the Christian church should be the last institution to lecture people on behaving in a “Christian” fashion, but beyond that, a criticism of the religious approach of another is simply out of bounds. “You can’t say that,” was his phrase.
I found myself only half-agreeing with my friend.
“Well,” I found myself correcting him, “You can say it, but you’d be wrong.”
“No,” pushed back my friend, “You can’t say it.”
I was surprised. This, coming from the person who had written a seminal book about Westen traditions of democracy and freedom of speech? There are things that cannot or should not be said? Surely it is okay for the Scottish Baptists to write and publish what they want, just as it is within our rights to tell them where to stick it?
And what about the Jews living in Scotland? My friend asked gently. What must life be like for Jews in Scotland when everyone is looking at them as Christ-killers? You cannot, he went on, separate the statement from the power that stands behind it. The fact is that the Baptists in Scotland have the power to make Jews’ lives miserable. There is nothing free about a discourse held between the powerful and the powerless.
But then, I wondered out loud, don’t we just find ourselves rushing to proclaim our powerlessness rather than dealing with criticism? Can only the weak critique the weak? And who is to judge who is weaker than whom? I was thinking of my Israeli context. Palestinians argue they are weaker than Israel – so Israelis must not critique their behavior? Does weakness free you from responsibility? And Israel – whenever accused of wrong-doing – will often point to the huge threats surrounding us from the entire Arab world. If we see ourselves as weak does this exempt us from critique?
My friend would not back down. He was, in the end, arguing about the moral propriety of the Disputation.
And it was in this realization that we discovered why it was that we found ourselves on two different sides of this argument. Why it was that I was happy simply to dismiss the “findings” of the Scottish Baptists, and why he was keen to deny their right to publish the findings at all.
I have become an Israeli Jew and he has become a British Jew. For our formative young adult years we were both Zionists, agreeing on pretty much everything to do with the Jewish world. Now we found ourselves seeing the philosophical point of the other, but with our guts pointing in different directions.
I, after seventeen years of life in Israel, would seem to have internalized the Zionist revolution: Jews have power. As a result, we can live with critique because we can choose to ignore it. Living in my sovereign state, backed up by army and state structures, I feel that the Baptists’ opinion is just that: An opinion and not an existential threat. Whereas my friend who has lived outside of Israel for all this time, has internalized Diaspora minority-ness: Jews outside of Israel do not have such power. As a result, a word, inadvertently tossed out or consciously wielded by the powerful, can do serious harm.
We’re probably both right. Or both half-right.
Since this conversation, controversies and sensitivities have continued to crop up around the UK. The use of the Y-word in soccer matches, strange upside-down salutes, walled-off churches, and edgy TV satire. Before responding, I find myself reining in my Zionist’s shrug, ready to hear the muffled shout of the minority.
Along with the heart-felt tributes to Arik Einstein, there has been a fascinating undercurrent of emotional hoarding on the part of some Israelis. Assuming that no one outside of Israel has ever heard of Arik Einstein or any of his songs, they then make a further assumption that it is their job to explain what he and his music meant. Yet after this double-assumption, everything closes down. Writes Israeli-born Liel Leibovitz: “I have nothing to say to you about Arik Einstein. I’m sorry to sound like a prick, but you wouldn’t get it.” It’s an extreme comment, but sums up a prevailing sentiment. Those non-Israelis, they won’t get it.
There is something rather beautiful and also sad about this kind of response. The character and the music of Arik Einstein made its impact in the way the best of art should: Through our hearts. His music touched millions, each of whom received it as if created for them alone. This is the paradoxical magic of art. As a result, when feeling his loss, it is a personal emotional loss that – when we are sad – we sometimes fight to “own”. “You wouldn’t get it,” is a perfect way to maintain the purity and unique authenticity of my pain. To Full Post
So while I always get confused about whether we light the Chanukiah from the right or from the left, I never get confused about the cumulative effect. First night is only one candle, second night is two candles, and the final night is the whole dark-banishing lot.
This morning, trying to get my head round the Iran Breakthrough/Deal/Compromise/Capitulation, I was reminded of the old argument about which order we should light the Chanukiah.
Bet Shammai, concerned for the correct and truthful representation of things, insisted that on the first night of Chanukah we should light all of the candles, reducing the number every night until the final night only one candle should be lit. This is in correct and proper representation of the amount of light in the day, which in December diminishes every day. Just as light is falling in the world, so should it decline in the house.
Bet Hillel just could not accept this reasoning. However rational and true, the Shammai ruling was just too depressing. I often like to think that Hillel appreciated the aesthetic side of things: Increasing the light daily is just prettier and lifts the soul. Bringing light to banish the darkness gives us hope.
So here we are on the cusp of Chanukah, with the results of the Geneva talks gradually being assessed and judged. Not being a nuclear physicist nor an international statesman myself, I find myself switching between columnists like one might switch between Shammai and Hillel. Sometimes I see clearly we are heading towards darkness. Sometimes towards the light.
And maybe this Chanukah, as we light ourselves a symbol of increasing optimism in defiance of the reality outside, I might also pray for a miracle.
For two years at the turn of the millennium, I would ask this same question at every school I visited in Israel.
Studying Jewish Educational Leadership with the Mandel School, we would go out on field trips throughout Israel. Dialogical alternative schools, Shas schools, Haredi schools, different shades of Orthodox schools, Jewish/Arab schools, teaching colleges – the lot. And at every school I would ask only one question, the answer to which would tell me all I needed to know about the school.
“What does your school do on Rabin Day?” To Full Post
I’ve been doing a lot of HaDag Nahash recently. As part of my work for Makom I’ve been translating the latest album at the band’s request, and preparing translation projections for their show at the opening of London’s new JW3 building. Lots of bilingualising and cutting and pasting.
Then a couple of nights ago I took my daughter to see a gig of theirs, at the outdoor amphitheater in Binyamina. Standing there, bopping and singing with my thirteen year-old as I had done some 11 years ago with my then-fourteen year old son at Limmud UK, I was struck by three thoughts.
HaDag Nahash have been going a long time, they keep getting better, and their work has helped me live and thrive in this strange and wonderful country. To Full Post
They say you should never try to translate a joke, but I just can’t resist. These memes flying around the cracking facebook page best translated as “Tweeted Statuses” should not be kept from the non-Hebrew reading world. The interplay between modern Hebrew and liturgical Hebrew is a great deal of fun…
There are the ones that just play on the word slicha – סליחה. It means “sorry”, and also “forgiveness”, but sometimes “excuse me” – hence our opening cutey that initially looks like a standard facebook request for forgiveness.
The small print asks “What is the time?” So the re-read of the meme would be “Excuse me, what’s the time?” Tee hee… To Full Post
As we approach the Days of Awe, the process leading from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, I often find myself engaged in questions of forgiveness. From whom I should ask forgiveness, to whom should I grant it, and how prayer and penitence might clear my spiritual slate for the following year. All this busying with my own personal spiritual reckoning sometimes feels like an avoidance of the more scary issue: the Ten Days of Penitence are also played out in the shadow of a looming divine judgment. Forget forgiveness – how shall I be judged?
These days the situation in Syria seems to have focussed the entire world on sin, judgment, and punishment. Governments and nations are asking themselves what is the nature of sin – in what way is the use of chemical weapons more of a sin than the deliberate bombing of civilians? Who has the right or obligation to judge the use of such weapons? And what punishment should be dealt, and by whom?
Sometimes it feels to me that we are so used to referring to our judicial systems, and in so doing banishing the word “judgmental” to the dungeons of poor taste, that we just don’t know what to do when there seems to be no functioning international court of the world.
Such overwhelming questions follow me into synagogue on the High Holidays, as Congress prepares to take on the responsibility that Barack Obama has chosen to share. This year more than many other years, the blowing of the shofar leads me beyond thoughts of personal and communal redemption, and into the darker sphere of judgment, sin, and Syrian agony.