Sunday, November 18, 2012

How Two Jewish (and One Stoic) Ideas Helped Me Get Through Yesterday's Sermon in Synagogue

Before I left for synagogue in DC yesterday I resolved that I would not sit through a sermon that painted the Israelis as the innocent victims of murderous Hamas thugs. I expected that additional Psalms would be said for those in Israel, and I would say them with more kavvanah/intention than usual. (Some of my children and grandchildren have been in those shelters recently.) But I would try to insist that civilians on both sides be included in the Psalms.

As it turned out, I would have gladly sat in my safe room in my apartment in Jerusalem -- or in a shelter in Sderot -- than have sat through the sermon I heard. The rabbi, who is a  moderate, learned, and decent man, and often quite liberal and tolerant towards other religions,  began by commenting on the intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. He then tied that to the weekly portion, which refers to the enmity between Jacob and Esau, already in the womb of Rebecca. Of course, he conceded that Esau was later interpreted by the rabbis not as Muslims but as Christians, and he also said that the prototypical Muslim was Ishmael and not Esau. But what can you's Torah portion was about Esau and Jacob and any typological enemy will do in the current storm.

As the sermon went on, its message became clearer: There is no hope of peace with Muslims, because their values are simply different from those of us Jews. They believe that heaven is acquired through fighting and dying. They use firepower indiscriminately. They target civilians. We Jews live in a bad neighborhood, getting worse by the growth of fundamentalism (this from an orthodox rabbi, who had just used the Bible as a source for historical inevitability!) He ended with the hopeful comment that, as a rabbi, he has witnessed more and more Muslims converting to Judaism.

As he started talking about Islam,  I felt that I could take it no longer. My blood boiling, I weighed the option of walking out. Since I sit in the front row of a relatively small room,  my protest would have been noticed by everybody, including the rabbi. I knew that this would cause a stir, and, who knows, maybe some good would come out of it. It would have been disrespectful to the rabbi, but our sages teach that "where this is desecration of God's name, one doesn't accord respect to rabbis." Or so I reasoned, in my anger.

But then I remembered two important teachings of our sages:

"Who is a hero? One who masters his passions." It's a passage I had learned with my students only the day before, and it smacks of Stoic influence.  Maimonides writes that one should avoid anger, even when anger is appropriate. All right, I realize that some psychologists may disagree. But walking out in a huff is not a way to influence people. And disrespecting the mara de-asra, the local rabbinical authority, especially one whom I respect on many other matters, and who is a friend and colleague, because of a disagreement, is wrong. At any rate, it's not me. 

And I also thought, what right do I have to cause anybody discomfort, especially since

All us Israel-supporters, even rabbis, are tinokot she-nishbu "children who have been raised among the Idolators" (tinokot she-nishbu). This rabbinic  phrase has come to mean somebody who have been raised in ignorance of the truth. How can I blame any of my fellow-Jews for their ignorance, since they have been indoctrinated since birth with Zionist myths and Israeli narratives. The mainstream media in this country is hopeless "captured" by the Israeli hasbara machine, whether liberal Zionist (NY Times, Washington Post) or chauvinist Zionism (Fox News, the Murdoch papers). Unless you read Haaretz, which now charges a hefty subscription free, you are entirely clueless as to what is going on, and Haaretz, God bless it, also reflects an Israeli perspective. 

After the services I talked with people who were not happy with the Gaza situation, who were not knee-jerk supporters of the Netanyahu government, but who, out of ignorance, spouted the same hasbara slogans that the Israeli spin machine puts out so well, and now on Twitter and Facebook. They receive links from the Jerusalem Post and Fox News? Can I blame them for their ignorance?

The problem is not Hamas violence or Israeli violence; these are only symptoms of a much deeper mindset, or mentalite, which cannot be erased easily, if at all. Talking with my fellow Jews I felt as if I were  talking with some doctrinaire Marxists, or evangelical Christians (or Muslims, Jews, or "Dawkinsians"), whose entire worldviews were the servant of some ideology.

As is my own, I suppose, only in my case the ideology is the American liberalism with which I was raised.

To be fair, my fellow-congregants have also been raised with a lot of that American liberalism. When one said to me, "Don't you think Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks." I said, "Not only a right, but an obligation." But when I countered,  "Don't Palestinians have the right to defend themselves from Israeli attacks, including cross-border incursions and naval blockades?" I was met with a blank stare. If this had been Israel, my interlocutor would have said, "No, they don't." But for an American Jewish liberal, what I had said had completely thrown him off, at least for a few seconds.

It doesn't occur to most American Jews I know, or for that matter, most people I know, that the Palestinians are the primary victims of the Zionist movement, that they were dispossessed by superior force,  and that they are struggling for decades to enjoy the same life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in their land that the Israelis have enjoyed.  Whether they are second-class citizens, or under occupation,  or in the Palestinian diaspora,  they refuse to admit total defeat, and they will never relinquish their claims. They are among the longest suffering peoples since World War I, and their suffering is compounded because some of those who supplanted them suffered terribly during World War II.

A few of the  lessons I take away from yesterday's portion, which focuses on Genesis 27.

Spin and Deception work in the short term. 

(See under Jacob.)

But the truth will out eventually, even for the Israeli hasbara machine

"The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau"

And Israel is willing for the sake of Zionism to fulfill the Biblical prophecy of Esau

"Then Isaac his father answered and said to him,
From the fertility of the earth shall be your dwelling
From the dew of heaven from above
By your sword you shall live."

Only in current Hebrew, this living-by-the-sword is called "conflict management."


Richard Witty said...

"When one said to me, "Don't you think Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks." I said, "Not only a right, but an obligation." "

Thanks for this acknowledgment.

In response to your next statement, the following applies to both Israel and Gaza/Hamas/Islamic Jihad.

According to militants (those that "live by the sword"), safety even is constructed by 90% good fences (defense) and 10% good relations.

According to advocates of civil society, safety is constructed of 90% intentional development of relations, and 10% defense (physical and ideological).

It applies to BOTH Israel and Hamas, and cannot be selectively praised by one side or another. It must be applied.

To the extent that Hamas and Islamic Jihad get a free ride from criticism (including by you) but Israel gets a bumpy ride, then the reality of developing relations to avoid war and maybe actually achieve peace, is boycotted/neglected.

One cannot emphasize BDS over/to the exclusion of election as focus of political effort, and claim that to be the meaning of being a participant in social change.

pabelmont said...

Some people think getting up and walking out, pointedly, is the best thing you can do. If not you, then who? HOW MANY WANTED TO GET UP AND WALK OUT BUT DIDN'T DARE? You coulda been a contenda.

Maybe next time.

And if Obama gets progress on global warming, maybe we can excuse his horrors on I/P.

Unknown said...

I cannot tell you how happy I am that you are "back in the saddle." We need you desperately during times like this. If you haven't yet joined Twitter, please do so. It will give you lots of info right in the moment. You can follow me @chaifeldblum. But more important -- send me an email at and I will send you about 5 people to follow that will give you everything you need. THANK YOU SO MUCH for being here on this space.

pabelmont said...

In the same vein: "There is some considerable degree of truth in the adage that silence in the face of tyranny is complicity in tyranny itself."

Tamar Orvell said...

Another thoughtful post. Speak with your rabbi, educate him that he might educate his flock. You've got the cred, the tools, and the goods. Pleasant and well-intentioned adults like the rabbi and Jews in pews can update outdated childhood lessons and understandings, learn and unlearn, and trade fairy tales for Grimm(er) real-life stories.

Or maybe it's time to switch rabbis. I heard a totally different spin on the parasha in a Modern Orthodox community, in Tel Aviv. Yet maybe you are exactly where you and your rabbi and fellow congregants need you to be, poised for Torah study of another kind/mind.

Last, while your arguments, insights, perspectives throughout this blog are original, courageous, and learned, I wonder why you don't comment on the never-ending victimhood Hamas, Hezbollah, and associates/enablers perpetuate. On why these folks continue to pick at scabs, delivering the drive-Israel/Jews-into-the sea mantra versus making (not taking) a life. It ain't all about Israel as problem cause and solution. If I missed posts where you discuss this, please cite a link or two. I really respect you for your scholarship and work publishing this blog.

pabelmont said...

see these pictures.
Jakarta protest! Wow!

But in synagogue, no? Not even yourself.

Next time, please.

My partner's parents were stalwarts of their local Methodist church in Denver, financed it during the depression, etc., BUT stood up (with their 4 daughters, I suppose in descending heights!) and walked out when they didn't like the sermon.

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this post. Everybody has experienced that choke with culture at times where you have to question what's in your own head and heart and force yourself to keep your eyes open even though everything and everyone around you are trying to get you to close them. Thanks for giving the rest of us courage to stand up for what's right and speak our truth even if it goes against the values of those around us. Thanks for challenging yourself. Thanks for looking deeper. Thanks for feeling the other side. In doing so, you've caused me to do the same.

Yoni said...

I prefer to look to a pasuk later in the parsha for guidance:

" וַיִּשְׁלַח יִצְחָק אֶת-יַעֲקֹב, וַיֵּלֶךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם--אֶל-לָבָן בֶּן-בְּתוּאֵל, הָאֲרַמִּי, אֲחִי רִבְקָה, אֵם יַעֲקֹב וְעֵשָׂו."

Seemingly superfluous words there at the end, that Rivkah was the mother of Yaakov and Esav. I think it's there as a reminder that indeed we are brothers with our enemies. Broken relationships among siblings can be the most nasty and vicious.