Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Ma zeh "Distancing"? Framing the Israeli-American Jewish Debates

A presentation delivered at the Wexner Alumni Summit April 2016, Rabbi Mishael Zion 

“What is American Jews’ relationship to Israel?” is a topic of much debate, discussion and handwringing in recent year. Words like crises, distancing, occupation, religious freedom, BDS and assimilation often follow (though usually not from the same people).
Leaving the conversation at that question alone is a mistake. Two important questions must be engaged more seriously: the touchier “What is American Jews’ relationship to Israelis?” and the all-but-ignored question: “What is Israeli Jews’ relationship to American Jews?”
A few weeks ago I was asked to speak at the first Wexner Alumni Summit on the topic of Stronger Together: [Re] Imagining the Israel-North American Jewish Community Relationship. My (somewhat scary) job was to address these questions in front of a room of some of Israel’s top civil servants and North America’s leading lay leaders. The process helped me clarify in my own thinking how much these two communities have contradicted and undermined each other from day one, and how they also need each other and complement each other. I tried to pull apart the various debates and arguments about whether American Jews’ are distancing from Israel and Israelis, and to address head on the way Israelis never cared about American Jews’ and why this is changing today. I believe the tension between these two communities is an important asset in ensuring the survival – or perhaps even the flourishing: morally, spiritually, Jewishly - of these two strange and unique phenomenas of Jewish history.
As Israel celebrates its 68th year of existence I share my remarks online, in a hope that some people still have patience to read something longer than 800 word op-eds.

Intro One: A Poem and a Seafaring metaphor
The poem was written some 600 years ago, by a French Jewish merchant who returned from from a business trip in Germany, and spent Shabbat among the German Jews of Alsace. Deeply disturbed by the type of Jews he met there, he eternalized his criticism in meter and rhyme, writing the following poem. See if you can follow the Biblical pun, which allows him to claim that “לא אלמן ישראל” - The Jews of Allemand are not part of Israel:

Anonymous (late Middle Ages?)
The Day That I Went Out from France

The day that I went out from France
And towards German lands made my advance
I found cruel people at first glance
Like ostriches in the wild plain
For Israel is not Alleman [=forsaken] 
What has straw to do with grain?

I had hoped to find salvation
A day of rest and relaxation
Yet their offerings lacked consideration
My heart was cleft in twain
For Israel is not forsaken
What has straw to do with grain?

I searched the breadth of all Alsace
No man knew its worth I came across
Oh, would that its ways were not such chaos —
Overriding men, the women reign
For Israel is not forsaken
What has straw to do with grain?
I’ve grown utterly sick of Ashkenazim
For each one is fierce of face, I deem
Even their beards like goats’ beards seem
Heed not their words, all said in vain
For Israel is not forsaken
What has straw to do with grain?
משורר עלום שם
יום מצרפת יצאתי
יוֹם מִצָּרְפַת יָצָאתִי
אֶל אֶרֶץ אַשְׁכְּנַז יָרַדְתִּי
וְעַם אַכְזָר מָצָאתִי
כַּיְעֵנִים בַּמִּדְבָּר
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
צִפִּיתִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה
יוֹם נֹפֶשׁ וּמַרְגוֹעַ
וּמִנְחָתָם בְּלִי שָׁעָה
לְבָבִי הָיָה נִשְׁבָּר
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
חִפַּשְׂתִּי אֶלְזוּשׂ אָרְכָּהּ
וְלֹא יָדַע אֱנוֹשׁ עֶרְכָּהּ
לוּלֵי שֶֹלֹא כְּדַרְכָּהּ
הָאִשָּׁה עַל אִישׁ תִּגְבַּר
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?
קַצְתִּי מְאֹד בְּאַשְׁכְּנַזִּים
כִּי הֵם כֻּלָּם פָּנִים עַזִּים
אַף זְקָנָם כְּמוֹ עִזִּים
אַל תַּאֲמֵן לָהֶם דָּבָר!
כִּי לֹא אַלְמָן יִשְׂרָאֵל
מַה לַּתֶּבֶן אֶת הַבָּר?

Even more so than the Jews of France and Germany, we live in a time of two divergent Jewish communities. Can we envision a Jewish future which is diverse, yet deep, divergent yet in dialogue –
between American and Israeli Jews?
Our poet is one model, but when I think of a Jewish model for a healthy
Kovner's Sea of Halakha
relationship between two communities, I think of the Talmud’s “Nehotei”. In the Sea of Talmudic Halakha, the Nehotei (whose means literally “the descender”, or those who “get down”) were the way-farers, the bold travelers who went back and forth between Bavel and the Galilee, those two fabled centers of the Jewish Talmudic world. They always transmitted what was going on in the other community. If you follow their sayings closely, you realize their statements are usually game-changers. Until they walk in, the whole discussion goes one way, but once they’ve contributed their perspective, the debate goes in a whole new direction.
 In many ways, you – the alumni of the various Wexner leadership programs in Israel and North America, are a room of Nehotei – each bringing ideas back and forth between the two communities. What we’ve come together here to do is to become better Nehotei together.

Intro Two: Patience, and lack thereof
We’re here to study “Talmud המביא לידי מעשה –learning that brings about action.” My job is to offer some new frames for what we all already know, to give a shared language with which we can shorthand our conversations; and to frame some of the machloket – disagreements that perhaps exist in the room, and stir up the pot a bit so that we can bring the power of this room to bear…
One disclaimer: I’m not the expert in the room. People here have written books, led initiatives, organized mifgashim, work full time or during ungodly hours after work towards these issues – some of you have been doing this since before I was born. Instead my role here today is to provide a scaffolding upon which we can rest the coming two days of conversations.
Since I believe we learn best when we discuss ourselves and not just listen, I’ve structured the second half of our time together  around three hevrutot - 1:1 conversations with a pre-assigned partner, where we will ask three questions:
  1. Who Cares? Assessing this moment in Israeli-North American Jewish relationship
  2. What are “We”? Examining metaphors of connections between the communities
  3. Going Beyond Mifgash: Lessons Learned and Best Practices

But before we launch into the conversation, wWe each have a story of how we became Nehotei – and I want to start by briefly sharing with you mine:
I was born in Jerusalem – but spent three years of elementary school in US public schools where I picked up a wonderful American accent. I now work in a community that bridges both communities, constantly going back and forth. But in preparation for this summit, I realized that one pivotal moment in my story determined where I am today.
Growing up in Israel, I saw the relationship between Israel and America as a one-way street. Americans were great, but I mostly met them as tourists in Israel, not in their home setting. Their job was to be the “good uncle from Amerika” - support Israel financially and politically, buy Israeli products and go home. Maybe their kids would make Aliyah (most would not), and that would make me happy, but only if they shed their accent and funny clothes and become “true Israelis.”
I come from a family that’s been going back and forth between Israel and America since before the creation of the state. My grandfather made Aliyah in 1947, and fought in the Hagana, before returning to serve as a rabbi in Minneapolis for 25 years (a story that I told in this ELI Talk called “A Tale of Two Zions”). My father made Aliyah after 1967, and has trained a generation of teachers and educators in both countries. Together we authored haggadot in Hebrew and in English that have changed the way Jews in both countries celebrate their Passover Seders, influenced how Jews in both countries tell their key identity stories.

Until I realized that the things I thought that Israeli society needed most could be learned from the American Jewish community, and vice versa. This happened to me on both a national and personal level.
I had wanted to study to become a Rabbi for a few years – but was displeased with the Israeli Orthodox training which only taught laws and not leadership and community skills. I heard about a new Yeshiva which had opened in New York – Chovevei Torah – and called up R Avi Weiss to ask if I could apply. He rejected me, saying they trained Rabbis for the American Jewish community, not the Israeli one. The rejection made me want to come even more. “Teach me how to be an American community Rabbi – I’ll already do the translating to the Israeli scene…” I said. My wife received a post-doc at Columbia University, and we were on our way
But really what was going on was a desire to shake off israeli cynicism that had set in; and a nagging feeling that encountering the American Jewish community could teach me something valuable about being Israeli.
The summers of 2005-2006 were hard ones in Israel, The expulsion from Gush Katif, the second Lebanon war hitting the following summer, we felt it was hard to believe in big dreams anymore. My wife and I realized we wanted to travel to America to drink up some of the koolaid of American naiveté, of the belief in “Tikkun Olam”, seeking a place where we can dream again – but not as a turning of our backs on Israel, but as a way to return to Israel.
What we always found funny was how we were constantly asked to choose sides. “You’re coming back, right” – the bookseller at the second hand book store in Jerusalem demanded before taking my books. “So you’ve chosen Israel over us?” asked our friends at our Upper West Side synagogue when we left New York; “תגידו את האמת, איפה יותר טוב?” – “Tell me the truth, where is it better?” demanded that passport woman at Ben Gurion…

So before we go any further, I want – with your permission – to say a few things I have no patience for in this conversation: I have very little patience for the either/or mentality of Israel versus North America;  for the “where is it better” insecurities, for the competition to see “who will be the first to fail”. I have very little patience for the way people in both communities project unto the other one that everything is either “great” or “horrible” about the other community (or about their own ); I have very little patience for awkward “mifgashim”, for sticky talk of “peoplehood” and for “we are one” fluffiness, for the superiority complex of liberaler-than-thou Americans and the hubris of macho Israelis who know what “real” danger and sacrifice are like.
I could go on, but here are some things I do have patience for: I have patience for these two far-from-perfect communities, this dysfunctional family with a tendency for self-delusion, to develop their discord into the amazing machloket that it could be, to find the ways in which we can learn from each other and teach eachother – and make the most of this unique moment in Jewish history.

The “Jewish Normal” Living in Generations of Rapid change
Invite to the 8th Zionist Congress in the Hague, 1907
Just over 100 years ago, summer of 1907, in the tiny town of Eibergen (Dutch for Eggtown) a curious Manuel Zion, my great-grandfather, rides his horse and buggy from his small Dutch town to the Hague. He had heard that the 8th Zionist Congress was to take place in the city, and since he carried the unusual name of “Zion” he decided to find out what all this Zionisten thing was about.
When he returned home to Eibergen, excited if skeptical of the grand ideas and programs that were thrown back and forth in that room, he finds a letter: “You are hereby disinvited from the Jewish community’s dinner and dance – there will be no place in our community for Zionists.”
I think of this story often when I am looking for some context about how we got here and where we might be 100 years from now. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to get disinvited from the community dinner and dance on the way to a grander vision.
I’ll bet each one of us in this room has a “Manuel Zion’s story” of some kind in our ancestry, not too many generations back. These stories serve as a reminder that there is nothing “normal” about Jewish existence today. In fact, what i s so un-normal is how “normal” everything feels to those of us born into these realities. There is so much we take for granted which was not even imaginable for our ancestors.
1848 – 11 million Jews, of which less than 100,000 Jews live in Israel or America
1939 – 17 million Jews
1948 – Back at 11 million, but a Jewish state is founded by less than 7% of the Jewish people; meanwhile – a third of the Jewish people live in America;
2016 – 40% in each country, 20% in the rest of the world
2050 - projections of 8 million Jews in Israel, steady 6 million Jews in US?
So this is all very new. I say this to caution us against doomsday predictability scenarios, and also to inspire hope that paradigms shift and change, pendulums swing and social initiatives do matter (although perhaps not as much as social, economic and political factors).

Two Homes: Different, Contradictory or Complimentary?
There is one very important characteristic that is shared by the 2 communities that are the majorityof the Jewish people, and which differentiates us from the other 20% of World Jewry:  both communities are very much at home, both have arrived.
That in itself is not your “Jewish normal”. If the ongoing dichotomy of Jewish existence has been exile or redemption, we now face a third option: arrival. It is not quite the messianic redemption, but it definitely feels like a final destination. In both Israel and America, a majority of the Jewish people feel that they are “at home” in the country in which they reside. And I believe that fundamentally understanding how “at home” the Jewish people are in the two homes, their two “Zions”, is extremely important to reframing the work between the two communities. You might not agree with me on this point, or you might feel that this is exactly where the problem lies. But questioning the assumptions of various Jews on “where home is” is exactly the place where I believe the conversation should start, for our two homes are extremely different from eachother:

Lets count the ways:
1.  Languages: the two communities speak different languagues, Hebrew and English, ont only as their day-to-day language, but as their Jewish language. A person can be considered wholly literate without knowing much of the other communities literary cannon.
2.  They define their Jewish lives very differently – the two largest groups in each community define their Jewish lives very differently, even if their practice is relatively similar: Reform/Conservative in North America vs. Hiloni/Masorti in Israel; this also means that the Haredi and Dati/MO groups in both communities find it easier to be together than the other groups, and are more often those more concerned about the relationship.
3.  Political views are viewed very differently: a majority of US jews are left/liberal, majority of Israeli jews are center and right (left is a brand in severe crises in Israel); they view issues of settlements and attempt towards peace very differently;
4. The basic organizing ethic of the two communities is very different: Israel is based in a culture of obligation – מצווה, שוויוןי בנטל, אין ברירה while American Jewish community is voluntaristic – both as a practice and as an ethic. This is not a judgement, but an observation – it effects where power lies: think of the type of leadership in this room – civil servants vs. volunteer lay leaders…  The Wexner Foundation mode of identifying the core leadership in each country led to very different paths, because the power and prestige lies in two very different forms of service.
5. Separate base experiences are different: ongoing threat vs. prosperity and gratitude
a. Neighborhoods: Middle East/North America –  Jews in Israel aer the majority, but in their neighborhood they feel like the “Middle Eastern other” in a way that recapitulates us being the European “other” for so many centuries. But in the US, Jews are not the other, but in fact, mostly white and privileged. They are accepted as being part of the majority, yet have a self-understanding of themselves as a minority.
6. Most interestingly, Israeli and North American Jews view the threats to Israeli life very differently. 39% of Israelis think the most important long-term problem facing Israel is economic problems. American Jews – 1%. (Do any Americans recognize the name Guy Rolnik or read “The Marker”?)

Either way, it thus makes sense that the “relationship” between these two communities should be so fraught, simply because of the huge differences between them.  And yet we are not simply two “different” communities, we are actually two contradictory Jewish projects that by their very nature repudiate eachother:
a. The Israeli project is about creating a Jewish “State”; its underlying assumption is that  Jews will only be safe if living on their own land and organized politically. The project includes redefining what Jewish means – Judaism exists primarily in the public space; and for generation the project also included Judaism being super-ceded by Israeliness, weakening the tie to non-Israeli Jews. Its central challenge is that of being the majority. It’s blessing is also a cruse: the unique challenge of power being colored “Jewish”: maintaining a Jewish military, Jewish sovereignty, a Jewish foreign policy…
b. The North American project on the other hand has a very different kind of power. It’s central goal is proving that a prosperous Jewish Diaspora is possible, that we can be a safe and vibrant minority within a democracy which is truly welcoming of minorities. The success of North American Jews disproves Herzlian Zionism on a daily basis – Jews can indeed live safely while being a minority. The energy of the project seemingly is that of remaining Jewish – but really the project is that of being American, and ensuring the America is welcoming to minorities such as ourselves. Jews came to America and discovered they are not only good at becoming Americans, they are good at telling Americans what the American story actually is (and if Jewish helps that, great).

In these ways and others, these two projects undermine eachother, but perhaps they are also complimentary – perhaps each community is only possible because of the other community? perhaps ONLY POSSIBLE because of the other community?
Would Jews be allowed to live in Westchester NY if not for the Jewish state? Would Israel have American support if not for the organized Jewish community?
Can this implicit complementariness, played out in social and political currency, also become an overt one, in a mutual exchange of ideas?

Returning to the Origins of the Relationship: The Blaustein-Ben Gurion Agreement
Ben Gurion, Blaustein and Golda Meir, 1950
Before we examine the various answers given in your applications to these questions, I’d like to return to one of  the seminal moments of the relationship between the two communities, as it shows that it was always a fraught one. On August 23, 1950, on invitation of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, the President of the American Jewish Committee and US industrialist Jacob Blaustein visited Israel.The Prime Minister and Mr. Blaustein issued statements expressing their mutual understanding about the relationship. We must remember that at the time, Americans supplied about 30% of Israel’s GDP, so its not clear how beholden Ben Gurion felt to Blaustein:

David Ben Gurion: The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel. The State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens, and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country. We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad. The Government and the people of Israel fully respect the right and integrity of the Jewish com munities in other countries to develop their own mode of life and their indigenous social, economic and cultural institutions in accordance with their own needs and aspirations.

Jacob Blaustein: We shall do all we can to increase further our share in the great historic task of helping Israel to solve its problems and develop as a free, independent and flourishing democracy… But Israel also has a responsibility in this situation — a responsibility in terms of not affecting adversely the sensibilities of Jews who are citizens of other states by what it says or does. American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile. American Jews — young and old alike, Zionists and non-Zionists alike — are profoundly attached to America.
To American Jews, America is home. There, exist their thriving roots; there, is the country which they have helped to build; and there, they share its fruits and its destiny. They believe in the future of a democratic society in the United States under which all citizens, irrespective of creed or race, can live on terms of equality. They further believe that, if democracy should fail in America, there would be no future for democracy anywhere in the world, and that the very existence of an independent State of Israel would be problematic. Further, they feel that a world in which it would be possible for Jews to be driven by persecution from America would not be a world safe for Israel either; indeed it is hard to conceive how it would be a world safe for any human being.

Yet a few years after these statements, Ben Gurion was found back to his previopus antics, undermining the legitimacy of the North American Jewish community:
In his address to the World Zionist Congress in December 1960, Ben Gurion declared: “Since the day when the Jewish state was established and the gates of Israel were flung open to every Jew who wanted to come, every religious Jew has daily violated the precepts of Judaism and the Torah by remaining in the Diaspora. Whoever dwells outside the land of Israel is considered to have no God, the sages said… In several totalitarian and Moslem countries, Judaism is in danger of death by strangulation; in the free and prosperous countries it faces death by a kiss — a slow and imperceptible decline into the abyss of assimilation.”
The same tones heard today – a sense of mutual undermining, a threat of assimilation versus that of dual loyalty, a myth of possible distancing, declarations of co-dependency alongside “get off my turf”-ness, where there from the begininng.
Then why is there a current sense of crises, and where does it emanate from? Many of you wrote about a crises in your applications, but you disagreed on what the crises is. I’d like to share a few of the machlokot that exist in this room (and in the wider world):

Let's start with the North American perspective. Many claim that there is “Distancing” – that a younger generation doesn’t care about Israel as much as their parents did. If it exists, why? And is it a bad thing, or perhaps a good one?
1.       Seminal memories – the generational gap emanates from very different seminal memories:  not the Israel of 1967 which re-shaped the way in which American Jews saw themselves. Israel is experienced not as a confidence booster to American Jews, but as a liability.
2.       This in large part has to do with differing views over the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
o   Majority of American Jews blame Israeli Policy for the current situation and resent Israeli leadership that is cynical about peace efforts. This generation doesn’t remember 1967 or 1994, but a local superpower fighting against guerilla warfare and local uprisings.
o   Israeli majority feels stalemated: it supports a two-state solution on paper but doesn’t believe it is possible to achieve. Israeli society is swerving to the right, with the left crumbling and the seminal memories of move people under 30 is of ongoing Intifada.
3.       An opposite reading – also heard loud and clear in the applications - sees the distancing of young people from Israel as the result of a campaign and a broad sentiment on college campuses, BDS initiatives and the bundling of various other progressive agendas with the anti-Israel cause.
4.       A different approach locates the challenge in the lack of religious Pluralism and freedom in Israel. In the American Jewish community, where the Reform movement makes up the largest denomination, and core American values are also seen as core Jewish values – pluralism, religious tolerance and freedom of religion –it is hard to get excited about an Israel in which women can be arrested for reading Torah at the Kotel or where their Judaism is not recognized.
5.       The flip side of this argument can be seen in the claim that it is the rampant assimilation in America which is the problem and the greatest threat to the relationship. The “vanishing American Jew” that has also disconnected from values of Jewish solidarity and obligation is eroding the bond between Israel and America

But this has been from an America-centric perspective. What happens when we look at distancing of Israeli Jews from American Jews? Not a myth of a better time, but an understanding that Israelis never quite knew what to do with American Jews.
Hebrew identity – erasing previous identity; Negation of the Diaspora – AB Yehoshua as a paradigm: diaspora is a neurosis, an unhealthy split personality; only way to be full Jew is in Israel.
What gets headlines in Israel is “Vanishing American Jews” – which fits the paradigm mentioned in Ben Gurion’s 1960 quote above. What Israelis think of Americans is: דוד מאמריקה (Uncle from America); Aipac supporters, רפורמים (“Reformim”) = “weird Jews”; תיירי תגלית (birthright tourists). They hardly ever get to encounter American Jews “at home” and thus never understand their ethos, communities and lives in context.
When do Israelis learn about Diaspora Judaism? In Poland! Israeli Education about Diaspora Judaism is state-sponsored Poland trips – and despite many exchanges, the over-arching frame of Auschwitz or IDF continues to be a powerful frame.
The challenge to my mind is that both communities seem to assume an Israel-centric frame.
What caused this frame is that while in 1948, American Jews like Blaustein perceived themselves to be at home in American, in 1967 Israel’s amazing feat allowed American Jews to feel more at home in America than ever before. As Boston’s CJP President Bary Schrage put it: Until 1967, I would often be called a “yellow, little Jew” on my way to school in Brooklyn. After June 1967, that never happened again. Israel saved American Jewish identity once in 1967, and in some people’s mind, its doing that again today, with Birthright.
Yet on the other hand, since 1977 Israel stopped being “David” and to some it became “Goliath”. Israel’s success as a modern economy and a “StartUpNation” meant that it mostly outgrew the need for financial aid from the American Jewish community. 

2015: Year of Realignment?
On a strategic level, over the last twenty years we’ve seen a significant shift in the way the relationship works. If in the past the expectation was that American Jews lend their financial capital to Israel, increasingly American Jews are using their political capital to get their government to support Israel.
This has met with much success, but recently was pushed to the limit when the PM of Israel expected to see both political and communal Jewish institutions bend their support against a sitting president. There are many ways to tell this story, but it represents a watershed moment, as it brings back the old challenge of Jacob Blaustein – that of dual loyalty.
At the same time, we’re seeing American Jews becoming more unabashedly interventionist in Israeli society. The most popular newspaper in Israel is owned by an American Jewish billionaire with a very clear political agenda. Organizations like the NIF on the left and Elad on the right raise US funds to further their vision for how Israel should look.
Most recently, the Federation system and the AJC have swung their support towards political endeavors relating to freedom of religion in Israel. On the other end, the minister of Diaspora Affairs has been seeking to lead a major initiative about the Jewish identity of North American Jews – and to overthrow the Jewish Agency’s power over Diaspora politics.

There are new trends, showing a tectonic shift that is not only of distancing, but of growing closeness and intervention in the other community.
-          Many young Americans are distancing from Israel at a rapid rate, while many other Americans want to celebrate their Symbolic Particularism in Israel. Yet by doing so they are undermining the liberal values that 70% of them believe in. as long as American Jews feel more at home in Israel than Arab citizens of Israel, we are weakening Israel as a democracy. The Law of Return seems to be getting in the way. On the other hand recently we’ve seen a rise in awareness of the American Jewish community: women of the wall, the Federations stepping up; issues of Jewish pluralism being tied to lending political support to Israel.
-          Many Israelis still need to believe it’s Auschwitz or Tel Aviv, not NYC. On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are living or have lived in North America, and have a renwed appreciation of the value of American Jewish life.
So the dyanmics of the relationship are not as simple as one of “distancing”, and never have been. Rather, there is a distancing of some and an intervention and closeness on the other hand.
I order to better effect this relationship, and understand its effect on us, we must also examine the words and metaphors we use in reference to it.
Many of you mentioned the need for a new covenant, a new paradigm. Words like partnership, non-utilitarian relationship, family, and “we need to decide to be one people.”
Metaphors have power. Each metaphor is a theory of change, it’s a strategy, implies an ethic. Being mindful of these metaphors is important.

I leave you with four questions:
1.       How do we build a mutually generative relationship between two “arrived” communities that have divergent and contradictory Jewish experiences?
2.       What are the tipping points, pressure points, bridges, disruptors and translators needed for such a relationship?
3.       What method should be embraced: popular connection, leadership to leadership, peer to peer?
4.       What are the current assets, challenges and future trends that should be taken into account?

Ending: Jewish People in Bundles
There is often much talk of a need for unity, yet I believe, like Yishayahu Leibowitz, that “No good idea ever came out of a call for unity”. Rather, a rigorous debate, an awareness of our differences, and the ability to leverage those differences in order to strengthen the connections between us, is what we aer called to do. The following Midrash displays this tension with a unqie metaphor. Do we want to build one ship, or do we want to tie many small boats together?
"ויהי בישרון מלך בהתאסף ראשי עם יחד שבטי ישראל" (דברים לג:ה)
כשהם עשוים אגודה אחת , ולא כשהם עשוים אגודות אגודות
וכן הוא אומר "הבונה בשמים מעלותיו ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה" (עמוס ט:ו).
רבי שמעון בן יוחי אומר: משל לאחד שהביא שתי ספינות וקשרם בהוגנים ובעשתות והעמידן בלב הים ובנה עליהם פלטרין כל זמן שהספינות קשורות זו בזו פלטרין קיימים פרשו ספינות אין פלטרין קיימים כך ישראל כשעושים רצונו של מקום בונה עליותיו בשמים וכשאין עושים רצונו כביכול אגודתו על ארץ יסדה.
“The LORD became king in Israel--when the leaders of the people assembled, when the tribes of Israel gathered as one” (Deutoronomy 33:5) – When they are gathered as one bundle, and not when they are divided into bundles and bundles, and so says the verse: “He who builds his upper chambers in the heavens and founds His bundle upon the earth” (Amos 9:6).
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says: This is like a person who brought two ships and anchored them together and placed them in the middle of the sea and built upon them a palace. As long as the ships are tied to eachother – the palace exists. Once the ships separate from eachother – the palaces cannot exist.
So are Israel – when they are fulfilling the will of the Omnipresent – “He who builds his upper chambers in the heavens”, and when they are not fulfilling his will – it is as if “His bundle is upon the earth”.

As the seafaring “Nehotei” that we are, we each ride very different ships. Trying to turn them into one boat would be a bad idea. Rather, if we can – like Shimon Bar Yochai suggests – tie many boats together, then we will find ourselves living within a much richer – and stronger – two communities. The waters are treacherous, lets hope this way we can ride out the current storms… and perhaps kick up some new ones.

[1] T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, 2006 | Translation: SoulandGone.com
[2] Jeremiah 51:5
[3] Jeremiah 23:28
[4] Genesis 4:5 – God ignores Cain’s offering

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Hard Conversations: Playing Chess Esther Style

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Purim 2016

Anyone who has initiated a difficult conversation knows that moment just before, hand hovering above the doorknob, trying to discern what exactly should be said to gain the desired outcome. Rehearsed lines feel empty, and a chasm yawns between what we know must be said and the zone in which we don’t know what will happen next. It is this moment that is captured in the crucial conversation of Megillat Esther.

The scroll of Esther loves conversations. There are sixteen of them in the scroll (twelve of which are with the king), and each one lasts for no more than two or three exchanges. These exchanges resemble less dialogues and more moves on a Chess board, deft strategic movements in a longer campaign. Fittingly, the game of Chess came to us through Persia, the Persian "Shāh Māt!” - Persian for "the king is helpless" - is our “Check Mate”. Like chess, in the Game of Esther the king is weak, the queen versatile, and the early moves end up determining how the end game is played out. In the crucial campaign, a pawn named Harvona makes a fateful move, while and the opponent is caught trying to capture the queen…
The longest conversation of the book is the exchange between Mordechai and Esther which takes up the bulk of Chapter Four. Mordechai begins in commanding mode, forcing Esther out a defensive position and into engagement. Esther pushes back, fortifying her protective stance. Mordechai then plays his trump card, getting Esther to switch from passive defensiveness to full offense. But when she does enter play, it is on Esther’s own terms. The chapter ends with Mordechai doing “as Esther commanded” (read the full dialogue here).
As someone who hates playing chess but loves reading the chess column in the newspaper, I’d dare to summarize the five-part conversation into three crucial moves. One leitmotif recurs in them, evoking the key theme of the Megillah.

Move 1: “And Mordechai Knew”
The Chapter opens with Mordechai “knowing”:
And Mordechai knew all that was done.
Mordechai ripped his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes.
He went out into the midst of the city,
and cried with a loud and a bitter cry (Esther 4:1)
וּמָרְדֳּכַי, יָדַע אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר נַעֲשָׂה,
וַיִּקְרַע מָרְדֳּכַי אֶת-בְּגָדָיו,
וַיִּלְבַּשׁ שַׂק וָאֵפֶר;
וַיֵּצֵא בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר,
וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדוֹלָה וּמָרָה. (אסתר ד:א)

Like God at the beginning of Exodus, Mordechai knows. Now he is in search of his Moses to redeem the people from their oppressor. We later find out he has a copy of the edict itself, and perhaps even some inside information from the corridors of power regarding how this decision was made. We’re not surprised: Mordechai is, after all, the epitome of the court Jew, the insider. Just as he knew before that two of the King’s guards plan on assassinating him, so now he “knows” when it is his nation that is about to be killed.
Mordechai’s response s intense: he dresses in sackcloth, paints his face in black ash, and lunges straight for the palace square – a place which is a second home to him, but in which it is well known court protocol that one many not enter in such provocative and dishonorable garb.
What is Mordechai thinking? Is this a political move of demonstration in the public square to appeal to the ruler to change his verdict? Is this a religious act, fasting and mourning, appealing to the King of Kings to do what he did in Egypt so many generations ago? Or is this perhaps a mortified Mordechai who realized that his own stubborn insistence to not bow down before the King’s new darling vizier has now doomed his entire people. Is proud Mordechai now penitent?? We don’t know, but Mordechai does.
One person, however, doesn’t know. Esther. Hidden in her harem, shielded from the news and masked from any association with the Jewish people, she’s described as enveloped in a world of courtesans and eunuchs, oblivious of the world around her. International headlines and backroom politicking are beyond her, but Shushan fashion and court protocol make their way to her room instantly. When reports of Mordechai’s severe break of protocol (or civil disobedience) reach her, she is hysterical (to be read with full Freudian and critical feminist evocation), and immediately demands to know “what is this and on what this is?” Her reaction suggests that perhaps Mordechai was not trying to impress neither King nor King of Kings, but rather was aiming at his niece, the Queen. He knew, and he knew she didn’t want to know, so he found the best way to grab her attention. But now that he has it, well, now what??

Move 2: “Everybody Knows!”
Mordechai commands Esther to go to the king and beg to him on behalf of her people. He is asking the world of Esther – to reveal that which she has sought to hide, to interfere in the matters of the court, to turn from a pretty face into an advocate of a minority whose execution has just been ordered. But Esther’s response does not dwell on these issues. They key words in her response to Mordechai’s knowledge is another sort of knowledge:
“All the king’s servants, and the people of the king’s provinces, know, that whosoever, man or woman, shall come unto the king into the inner court, who is not called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death…” (Esther 4:11)
כָּל-עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וְעַם-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ יֹדְעִים, אֲשֶׁר כָּל-אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר יָבוֹא-אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל-הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִקָּרֵא אַחַת דָּתוֹ לְהָמִית, לְבַד מֵאֲשֶׁר יוֹשִׁיט-לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת-שַׁרְבִיט הַזָּהָב, וְחָיָה; וַאֲנִי, לֹא נִקְרֵאתִי לָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ--זֶה, שְׁלוֹשִׁים יוֹם... (אסתר ד:יא)

Mordechai might know something about his people, but in the process he forgot what “everybody knows”. Even Herodotus knew that about the Persian King (Herodotus I 99). Did Mordechai not notice that this empire works on adherence to strict protocol? Does he not recall that Vashti was killed because of her disobedience? Esther sees no point in getting killed in the process.

Move 3: “Who Knows?”
Mordechai’s final move on the chess board is a fascinating one. If he’s read his Bible well, he knows that prophets and messengers in the Bible never accept the mantle of leadership and action lightly. Moses, Jeremiah, Gideon, Ezekiel – they all pushed back when God told them to step up. God’s response is always to invoke his own knowledge (“Before you were born I knew you”, or “here is the sign that you shall know that I am with you”). But Mordechai takes a different approach. Something has changed. From acting out of a place of certainty (“Mordechai… commanded her to go to the King…”) he invokes a place of doubt and uncertainty:
“Who knows if for a moment like this you reached greatness” (Esther 4:14)
וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ--אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת
Who knows indeed. Mordechai’s words can be accepted by Esther when he offers not knowledge and certainty, but rather recognizes the uncertainty. There is no clear calling, there is no pre-destiny. Who knows. Once that is embraced, action can be taken.
Mordechai’s winning move on the chess board is an indecisive one, and in that lies its power. From here on in Esther takes over the board, leading a complex strategy that only she understands, thinking four steps in advance and setting into motion a play that will lure Haman into a trap that will end with his demise. Who knows if she would have succeeded if other things hadn’t happen by chance (or covert miracle). What is clear at the end of the chapter is that by surrendering herself to the uncertainty, and being willing to accept the worst case scenario of her actions, she can eventually prove that indeed, there was a calling to her rise to greatness.

“Who knows” מי יודע remains the cri de coeur of the Book of Esther. It is the modus vivendi for life in exile. Not necessarily the exile of the Jewish people, rather, it is a world in which God is in exile, certainty is in exile. Knowing is not enough. Accepting the fact that all our actions are “who knows” moments is the one that can allow us to reclaim agency and change the status quo. We might even find out why we reached greatness after all…

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Esther Now: A Call to Read the Megillah, 2016

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Purim 2016

Chapter Four. A man walks through the city streets, wearing sack cloth and ashes. His entire people have just been sentenced to death by the Grand Vizier. They are to be killed in a day of public violence - in an empire that prides itself on its multiculturalism. And in a twisted way, it is his fault. A long, bitter scream emits from his mouth.
Chapters Eight & Nine. The same man walks through the city streets, dressed in blue sash and organdy, himself having become the Grand Vizier. He is celebrated by all, much loved and appreciated. This time it is his people who will be performing the public violence, killing all those who sought to destroy them. 
And we celebrate all this in two days of costumes and noisemakers. No wonder Martin Luther declared that Jews “love the book of Esther, which so well fits their bloodthirsty, vengeful, murderous greed and hope.” (“On the Jews and Their Lies” 1543)
Luther’s anti-Semitic criticism of Esther and of us, her people, is ridiculous and chilling, precisely because Esther is a tale of power and powerlessness writ large. Esther is unafraid to play out two pathologies of power: the pathology of total disempowerment of a minority vulnerable to violence in Chapter 4, and the pathology of total power turned into minority-inflicted violence in Chapter 9 (thank you Yehuda Kurtzer for this succinct distillation). These two chapters make battle in our public discourse constantly: are we living in Chapter 4, the year is 1939, and an Iranian Haman is out to get us while world leaders are busy getting drunk? Or, alternatively, are we living through a new version of Chapter 9, with Jewish power reigning like never before both in our majority-land and our minority-empire, allowing us to get away with questionable moral actions in the name of self-defense?
And just like that, this silly children’s fable has pulled us into dealing face to face with our deepest, darkest fears. Be it violence, power, exile, sex, gender, drink – Esther lures us in with its fancy costumes and silly pranks until we find ourselves talking about the most pivotal issues. As I am in the process of writing a cultural commentary about the Scroll of Esther, its becomes increasingly clear to: Esther Now.

Esther Now
More than the grand tale of leaving Egypt, more than the human moments of Abraham and Sarah, more than the grand visions and rebukes of the Prophets, it is Esther that is the most relevant book of the Bible.
Esther Now because it is the book of Jewish power and politics, and of Diaspora and disempowerment. It is the book of getting a seat at the table – and the prices we’re willing, or unwilling, to pay for that seat. It’s the book where the personal is the political and the political is the physical. It’s the book of gender, identity, political violence, sexual violence, success, individualism and calling. It is also the book of unknowing (but that’s for next week’s essay).
Esther Now because hers is the last book of the Bible, conceptually and chronologically; the scroll that bridges between the God-infused world of the Bible and the God-vacant world of our reality. No wonder the Rabbis read it as a “second Sinai”. It is the closest Biblical book to our contemporary reality. “We are all servants of Ahasuerus now” (Talmud Arakhin).You are free to read God into the tale if you want, seeing providence and prayer and calling as real agents in the world, but even then, you are a servant of Ahasuerus.
Esther Now because we are living through the tale of the greatest Jewish Diaspora to ever exist, in an empire of 50 states with its political pageants and Jewish courtesans. That other Jewish Diaspora, with its 127 states, places a funhouse mirror through which we can reassess ourselves.
Esther Now because the story is a farce, a parody, a carnivalesque fast paced streaming series of beltway politics of the type that has become so popular of late. But it is through farce that elephants in the room can be unveiled.

Who will Esther 2016 Be?
Arthur Szyk drawing himself with Haman
Each year, Purim invites the pundits to compare the current political reality to the story of the megillah. Last year it was all about Iran, with its Persian echoes. This year its going to be the Presidential Candidates (although I’d love to see a thoughtful comparison to the Supreme Court, contrasting Shushan’s farcical court of seven advisers who “know all rules and regulations” and who step in when a dispute arises between the bodies of power in the Capital to the nine wise-people of DC (oops, eight…)).
Theoretically, DC couldn’t be further afield from Shushan. If anything, DC is Shushan after Mordechai’s rise to power. Of the four (current) front runners in the presidential campaigns, one is Jewish, the other sees zealous support of Israel as a central tenant of his faith, and two have Jewish sons in law. We’ve never been closer to the king, who himself celebrates Jewish rituals in his home.
On the flip-side, we’ve also sensed how a surprising candidate out of left field, touting ego, money and race-baiting can turn a whole empire on its head. We’ve felt the chilling realization that it can happen here too (but not in Canada). Perhaps as minorities, our situation is more precarious than we are willing to admit to ourselves. Maybe Chapter 4 is not just history, perhaps it is a most probable future, if not to our minority than to those around us.
On the flippity flip side, perhaps it is in our unprecedented and quite sudden power that the greatest threat resides. Not the threat to the Jews, but the threat of us as Jews, or our brethren, using power to make others cower, bow and prostrate.
Flip side again, perhaps this attempt to translate a 2000 year old political metaphor into contemporary reality is a futile experiment.  Let’s stick to a close textual reading, and see what we can make out it. It is those close readings that remain real in the long run, even as the political envelope keeps going topsy turvy.

All this should be sufficient to say that Esther merits a close reading this year, one which I hope to share with you in the coming weeks. To be continued…