Thursday, July 27, 2017

Living in the Present

Echoes of Eden

Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat D’varim – Tisha B’Av
Living in the Present
(published in “In Jerusalem July 21st 2017)

Tisha Bav is upon us once again. For some, the three-week period from the Seventeenth of Tamuz through the Ninth of Av is a time of angst; for others, it is just a part of the summer months. Either way, we would all do well to use this time as an opportunity to ask ourselves some hard questions, as individuals and as a society: How are we doing? How far have we come? Are we there yet?

For over two thousand years, our ancestors dreamed of Jerusalem – not a theoretical or mythical Shangri-La but a city of stone and light that both encapsulates and symbolizes our peoplehood, our sovereignty, our shared history, and aspirations. Today, there are those who wonder – justifiably -  why we continue to mourn the destruction of the first and second Jewish Commonwealths. The Jewish People have returned to the Land of Israel, and today Jerusalem is a beautiful, vibrant, growing city, home to a unique mixture of religious and secular life, at once ancient and modern, young and old. And yet, although so much of our reality reads like the fulfillment of biblical prophecy - Jewish sovereignty, the ingathering of the exiles, the reawakening of the land, the resurgence of Israel as an international power - we cannot deny that the “finish line” still lies far beyond our grasp.

In so many ways, we have made no progress at all: The malady that brought about the loss of our sovereignty and the dispersion of our nation continues to ravage our newly-rebuilt commonwealth. We are not only a divided People, we are a divisive People. The tragic stories we read in the Talmud of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza – who may well have been a father and son locked in a dysfunctional family dynamic - pale in comparison with some of the sectarian battles that rage among us today. Although we have many sophisticated and enlightened tools and terms to describe the factors that break us apart - nature, nurture, culture, psychology, psychosis, personality, and of course religious beliefs – we have made very little progress over the thousands of years of “time out” to which we were banished. We are ideologically schizophrenic; distancing ourselves from the “other,” yet in times of need we rise above the pettiness, and become almost absurdly generous with our time, emotions and resources. Some of our rabbis seem to suffer from cognitive dissonance: They regularly rule that soldiers and police officers may violate the laws of Shabbat to fulfill their holy task of saving Jewish lives, yet they spearhead protests that condemn these same courageous lifesavers and those who support them, and call them names that Jews should never use.

We label ourselves: At first, Orthodox and secular were sufficient, but now we need ever-more limiting categories of division: Secular, religious, traditional, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, open orthodox. Among religious Zionists alone there are at least three groups who tend not to see eye to eye: Hardalim, “mainstream” and “Dati-lite,” not to mention the warring factions among the Hassidic and Lita’i communities. In a feat of self-righteous self-justification that is absolutely breathtaking, each faction see itself as the true students of Hillel – and considers those to the right (wherever that may be) as adherents of Shammai’s intolerant and closed brand of Judaism; those to the left are simply dismissed as illegitimate, lacking religious conviction.

Some of the issues we debate are very important, but many are not. While many take issue with Mota Gur’s famous proclamation, “Har HaBayit be’yadeinu” (“The Temple Mount is in our hands”), pointing out that we do not exercise sovereignty over the holiest sites in Jerusalem, for better or worse (something which is itself hotly debated) we do not have control of the Mount. Moreover, the holy areas we do control have become the source of an unholy “tug of war” that is nothing short of a desecration of God’s Name. Anyone familiar with the history and geography of the Old City of Jerusalem knows that the area people are fighting over is never mentioned in the Talmud, and may have no innate holiness whatsoever.

Some of our most firmly-held beliefs have been formed by our attempts to distance ourselves from those we don’t want to be, rather than well thought-out definitions of who we are. Far too often, we back ourselves into intransigent positions simply to differentiate between “us” and “them.” We have so many reasons to believe that we are right, that we have found (or have been born with) the “truth,” and we have every reason to believe that others are wrong – yet the lines of division we draw are often so subtle and insignificant that they are indiscernible to outside observers. Will even the most sensitive and talented historians or anthropologists of the not-too-distant future be able to make sense of the divisions we have created?

This is not only true of the situation in Israel or the Jewish community (which, in our hubris, we refer to as the “Jewish world” – failing to realize that in respect to the larger real world we are at most a small neighborhood). The climate in the United States is as divisive as I can remember, and national political divisions have become a major fault-line within society. Each side sees the other as dangerous, sinister, evil. The fact that citizens of the United States see their President and his supporters in such a polarized fashion makes governance impossible, and threatens the very foundations of civil society. Salena Zito, in an insightful comment that appeared in The Atlantic on Sept. 23, 2016, explained that “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Here, too, factionalism overrides shared interest. The lines have been drawn, and reality is interpreted through the prism of these divisions. Each faction believes that it is the sole owner of truth and the sole guardian of public welfare.

There are many people whom we like. We take them seriously. We often sub-consciously forgive their mistakes and missteps, because they’re “one of us.” There are others we dislike. We do not take them seriously; we do not believe they have anything of value to say and we judge them for every perceived indiscretion because they are not “one of us.”

How can we stop this cycle? How can we change what we see when we look at “the other side” of the lines we ourselves have drawn? How can we learn to appreciate the sincerity of those with whom we disagree?

Let me offer three suggestions: First, we should preface our analysis of the opinions of others with an honest attempt to see the sincerity and even the holiness of their position. Taking others seriously - and not as a grotesque caricature - is the first step.  

Second, don’t live in the past. Stop fighting yesterday’s war. Stop looking at the current situation through the lens of history. Remember that the lines of division are porous; we prove that in times of crisis, and should be able to remember it when no imminent threat hangs overhead. Remember that sometimes the most bitter disagreements indicate that the two sides have become far closer to one another than they were in the past. A prime example is the fact that today’s Reform movement has any interest at all in Israel and the Western Wall. In the not-too-distant past, voices in the Reform movement expressed opinions not only against the return of Jews to Zion, but against any mention of Zion or the Temple in its liturgy.  Today’s Reform Movement is looking for a place to pray in Israel; it is in search of proximity to the heart and soul of Jewish holiness. Yesterday’s war against, is no longer relevant.

The third suggestion is that we shift from a “zero-sum game” to a “non-zero sum game.” The conflicts within our community cannot be about “winners” and “losers.” The success of others does not necessarily have a negative impact one’s own success or happiness. Very often, all that is required is a shift in attitude. If we learn to take pleasure in the happiness of the “other,” acting less like adversaries and more like members of a family, we can create a win-win situation. Although emotions and dynamics within a family are often fraught, challenging, complex – and at times infuriating, within the family we generally are more apt to forgive, to take pleasure in one another’s happiness, to take one another seriously, and not always literally. As a family, our shared past can inspire and motivate us, as we build a greater future – in which the great prophetic vision of our personal and national destiny is fulfilled.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

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