Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On Religion, Rabin and Easy Solutions

In addition to discussions over politics, Israeli Friday night dinners also have their fair share of arguments about religion. While I am never one to shy away from a bit of theological banter, and enjoy bating religious dogmatists with controversial statements as much as the next person, what I really dislike is the type of simplistic question that punctuated my relaxing Succot Friday night dinner in Caesarea last month; "I’m surprised you're religious – I mean, religion is the cause of so many wars around the world."

Its instructive to note how many Israelis relate religion to two main sectors of the population –
the Charedim, perceived as misogynist parasites who control marriage and conversion, and the national religious ‘settlers’ who are connected with an uncompromising extremism of ‘not one inch.’ When these straw men are complemented by traditional secular Zionism’s view of the galut Jew as the weak, cowardly religious type as expressed by Bialik and Berdichevski, it's unsurprising so many Israelis see religion as an anachronism. Add into the mix a few bigoted or cruel comments from Israeli rabbis, and you have a pretty strong recipe that fuels anti – religious feeling.

That same week, the
Ha’aretz supplement reviewed a book by Chanoch Daum, a formerly religious journalist and writer living in Efrat who discusses a religious upbringing he describes as loveless and unempathetic and the theological and emotional scars it has caused. Divided into four parts, the book is comprised of different personal letters Daub writes to God, his father, his community and his wife.

Strangely enough, the Talmudic rabbis themselves were aware of the potentially destructive power of organized religion, as well as the dissonance between God’s words and the actions of those who purport to speak in His name. Long before the ideas of Marx, Spinoza and Freud or modern complaints about religious coercion, the Midrash suggests that Abel's murder by his brother Cain was due to an argument over either property, religion or women. Another commentary on a verse in Ecclesiastes (which we read on Succot) (4.1) suggests a dissonance between the religious authorities of the day (who interpret God's law without mercy) and what God actually wants.

Secularism in Israel meanwhile, has its own problems. I recently heard Uzi Dayan describe the process of secular Zionism (of which he considers himself a part) detailing the jump from the Tanach to the Palmach and the ambivalence to skipping towards 2,000 years of Jewish civilization in between. From dreaming of creating a new Jew from the ashes of the diaspora, many secular leaders in Israel feel that instead of a generation of heretics, they have raised a generation of ignoramus.

I would have thought that everyone in Israel with all its complexities would realize that
generalizing our problems into a bumper sticker soundbites of good and bad, of fanatical religious or immoral secular, of kapo left wing or fascist right would do little good. Yet it seems that surprisingly few understand Isaiah Berlin’s comment that its not religion or secularism or capitalism or communism that is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals. Instead, it’s the belief that somewhere in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker…there is a final solution, one utopian ideology that will solve all our problems.

Similar to JFK, most Jews my age remember where they were the night
Yitzchak Rabin was assasinated. 12 years ago this week, I was at a party of a friend of a friend in Elstree, old enough to realize that what happened was bad, but too naïve to realize the danger of those who feel their religion or ideology justifies murdering elected officials.

As we mark the Yahrzeit of our former Prime Minister, Israeli society remains divided as ever. And while its difficult to help people understand there’s no magic wand or absolute solution to our problems, part of me feels that those like Chanoch Daum, Uzi Dayan and the Rabbis of the Talmud give us a clue – the need to critique our own community and to rid ourselves of the self righteousness that we are in the position of the absolute truth.

And perhaps most importantly, in a country where there isn’t even a word for subtlety, to start a conversation to help us understand one another better.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Avraham, the Palmach and the issue of Blindness

Last month, Reut took us to the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv commemorating the pre state Yishuv's underground military organization and its national institutions. Apart from it always being a bit embarrassing to be British in these places, it was an extremely interesting morning.

And while, there wasn’t any overly patriotic statements, one come's away with an appreciation and admiration for the sacrifices people made for a cause in which they believed.

I grew up in this type of atmosphere - the importance of living one’s life according to ideals, of being prepared to sacrifice for the greater good. And while I still believe in those values, still feel that if nothing's worth dying for, then nothing's worth living for, a lot of nationalist and ideological values now seem a bit hollow.

While I'm an ideological person myself, I'm simultaneously suspicious of ideology, of the sacrifices it often demands from its adherents.

Next week we read about the Akeida, a story I’ve had difficulty with for years. How can we praise Avraham for being willing to sacrifice his son? Does he act as an example for us? How can someone who so strongly argues against God to save the city of Sdom so readily acquiesce in something immoral?

Although all ends well and Yitzchak stays alive, his relationship with his father is destroyed (they never have a conversation again) and the Rabbis explain that this experience ‘blinds’ him, a disability that later causes his inability to choose between blessings for his two sons, Esav and Yaakov.

One of the best commentaries I’ve read comes from an Israeli educator name Shai Zarchi who argues that Avraham and Yitzchak represent two different generations;

Avraham is reminiscent of great innovators, those who sacrifice everything on the altar of a revolutionary idea. Yitzchak meanwhile, reminds him of his own generation.

Like Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s children who weren’t allowed to interact with other kids because they
spoke Yiddish and not Hebrew (he once bought his children a pet dog and cat to help them practice their masculine and feminine tenses); like the chalutzim who closed their eyes (or were ‘blinded’) to their cultural roots to completely dedicate themselves to the Zionist project; like Mohinder Seresh’s father in Heroes, ‘Avrahams’ follow the logic of ‘either / or,’ either family or reviving an ancient language, either European comfort or malaria in a nascent State; either the love of God or the life of children…

Having seen the painful price paid for either / or, Yitzchak is blinded by his emotions and isn’t prepared to choose between his children – he wants both. Yitzchak prefers what Zarchi terms, ‘gam vegam’ or ‘both one and the other.'

This indeed is our generation. We no longer want to have to choose.

Its not that we've given up on ideology - after all views like those of
Bar Refaeli or Jacko Eisenberg are still marginal, and most of us do see a difference between Israel and Uganda. It’s something more subtle.

It’s getting drafted, but not leaving political views at home.

It’s a film like
'Walk on Water' in which a successful Mossad agent experiences moral soul searching.

It’s stopping an important operation because soldiers get injured or the political echelon is
too sensitive to casualties.

Our generation is still prepared to sacrifice, just not too much.

I find Avraham’s actions alien because he belongs to a different generation… And while I believe its impossible to build a State without them, I want Gam veGam, veGam veGam, to have a western European quality of life but in the Middle East.

To be a part of the first sovereign Jewish experiment in 2000 years but to earn a good English salary.

To see our soldiers protect us from those celebrating death but maintain their sanity and gentleness…

According to Zarchi, both Avraham and Yitzchak are ‘blinded.’ Yet in many ways we are all 'blind' to some things, all forced to ignore parts of reality that cause us too much pain or dissonance, whether that be ignoring the plight of our neighbours 40 minutes drive from the coffee shops of Tel Aviv or in our personal relationships with friends and partners.

Yet the real question - for those who live in an era where Palmach fighters are slowly dying out and believing its good to die for your country is passé - is whether our generation’s ideology is enough to maintain our sovereign presence in this area?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Of Towers and Totalitarianism

This is an abridged version of an article I wrote in November 2001 for a Bnei Akiva magazine (should I have admitted that?) on the topic of Pluralism. It is based on the Netziv’s commentary on the story of the tower of Bavel, that appears in the end of this week’s sedrah.

Once upon a time, in a beautiful land far, far away called Babylon, a group of ingenious people grouped together in a valley and decided to build a huge tower. This tower would be higher than anything else in the world. Having just discovered the revolutionary secret of making cement they decided to put their new found knowledge to constructive use.

The king of the people lived in a big palace full of gold and jewels. He was a very wicked man, whom nobody liked and was known to decree very harsh rules, that all his subjects were forced to obey or risk death! One fine day the ruler decided that every one in the village had to think exactly like him. No one was allowed to think differently. Anyone who dared give a dissenting opinion or who strayed from the norm was to be burnt! The people were not too happy about this but had to obey. From then on, there were no arguments amongst the people as everyone thought the same and the tower continued to be built at a faster pace than ever. This pleased the king greatly and he congratulated himself on the unity (a rare thing) which was apparent in his subjects.

God looked down at the people diligently working on their masterpiece and was both upset and worried. "they are one, and this is what they attempt to do....if things go on like this then anything is possible!!" He didn't fear the fact they were building a tower to fight Him, after all, everyone knows that God can look after Himself. Man throughout the ages has always wished to do battle with the Divine, attempting to replace God as the ultimate being with himself.

God was worried because in a society where there is no room for other opinions or opposition, tragedies can happen. He saw that where individuals do not have the inherent right to disagree, where no one can be a conscientious observer, atrocities can and will take place with no one to prevent them. Individuality is something to be embraced, not restricted. When it is, and people lose their innate uniqueness, they are replaced in importance by bricks. He looked through His books that spanned the whole of time and saw that in the future, there would be systems in the twentieth century that denied the individual his freedom of thought, and also saw that it often led to mass murder in the name of progress.

In his great mercy God therefore decided that it would be much better if there was a diversity of opinion. After all, without argument and discussion, how could these people ever hope to refine their beliefs, He thought. As Nietzsche commented many years later, "rather than making oneself uniform, we may find greater value for the enrichment of knowledge by listening to that soft voice of different life situations, each brings its own views with it. Thus we acknowledge and share the life and nature of many by not treating ourselves like rigid invariable, single individuals."

God concluded that each person has much to learn from the other's unique experience and that it was therefore a positive thing to be open to others' opinions, even if one believes them to be wrong or misplaced. He decreed a Bracha to be made on seeing 600,000 Jews together, because 'just as everyone made in the image of God is unique and no two people look the same, similarly their views are unique and this is something to be thankful for'. He agreed that with Moshe's plea that a leader of the Jewish people should be tolerant towards all the different sets of people in Am Yisrael, talking to each one according to their understanding. He remembered that no two humans see the same event in the same way, and to force them into a rigid framework of belief would be ultimately self defeating, after all ‘only an autonomous morality is worthwhile for a person.’

God therefore decided, in the best interests of the people building the tower, to separate them by changing their language, thus making it impossible for one to understand his neighbour. It is true that never again were they so united as in those early days, but uniformity of thought and action was seen as an even greater evil than the potential divisiveness that their separation caused.

In this way, the people separated, thus destroying the king's evil decree and they began to build individual lives for themselves in different places in the world and all lived happily ever after.