Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tuesday Tel Aviv Torah: Responding to Tragedy

Having spent the last 2 weeks looking at why bad things happen to good people, this week we focused on our response to suffering and tragedy (the what now).

Through studying and discussing a wide range of positions – from Job, to saintly Rabbi Akiva, arch-Talmudic heretic Elisha Ben Abuya, Hasidic master Levi of Berditchev and Auschwitz survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl – we tried to better understand the tapestry of opinion that makes up the Jewish tradition.

Click here for the audio recording.

Click here for the source sheet.

Comments welcome

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Jerusalem Shiur: When Reality and Tradition Clash

Click here for the audio recording. Click here for the source sheet.

I would rather tell you a story. It’s about a man who stumbles in his prayers. Day after day, every time he is about to say אהבה רבה אהבתנו [with a great love You have loved us] he must stop. He Must.

Every word turns into an obstacle. He feels a shadow enveloping his gaze and weighing on his breath. He feels pain and the pain makes him sad, profoundly sad, and his sadness overwhelms him with memories and nostalgic images and tunes, bringing him back a vanished world, his childhood, and the fervently innocent prayers of that childhood. His pain increases and, for a moment, he feels trapped. No matter what he would do, what he would say, it would be a lie, a betrayal…the existing prayers are inadequate, or to use a modern cliché, irrelevant.

How is one to proclaim and extol divine justice, divine mercy in the century after Majdanek and Treblinka? אהבה רבה and Aushwitz? חמלה גדולה ויתרה [much pity and compassion] and Belsen?

How can one say these words without turning them into lies, into blasphemy?

How can we pronounce words that have been denied before our own eyes?

A thousand communities uprooted and עמך אהבת [You loved Your people] ?

One million Jewish children massacred, some of them thrown into the flames alive and אתה בחרתנו מכל העמים? [You chose us from amongst all the peoples] (Elie Wiesel)

Tuesday Tel Aviv Torah: The Question of Evil in the World

This week, we continued to discuss what Jewish sources have to say about reward and punishment, the question of evil, and the role of God in the world.

Click here for the audio recording. Click here for the source sheet.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lessons from the Shoah and our Psychological Legacy

We spent part of our morning yesterday at Reut standing in silence for the victims and discussing personal stories.

Of those who saw the danger early and left.

Of those who stayed yet survived against the odds.

Of those who stayed and didn’t.

And of the type of psychological legacy they've left us. After all, most of us come from families who were either paranoid enough to leave Europe before the unspeakable horrors of the war, or traumatized enough by living through them.

There is a famous story that in 2003 Israeli pilots (descendents of Holocaust survivors) flew F15 fighter jets over Auschwitz in commemoration of the victims.

Less well known is the response of the Auschwitz museum which criticized the plan arguing the site was "a place of silence and concentration" and that the demonstration of military might was an "entirely inappropriate way to commemorate the victims."

In many ways, that disagreement reflects different lessons that can be taken from the Shoah.

For many in Israel, Holocausts happen when people are weak. To prevent their recurrence we must ensure our strength (thus the F15s).

For many in Europe, Holocausts happens when countries are too strong (and nationalistic). In order to prevent their recurrence, we must curb our strength (and sovereignty).

Another story I thought about yesterday involves the family of former MK and head of the Jewish Agency Avram Burg. Having lived in Hebron for seven generations, half of them were brutally murdered in the Arab riots of 1929. The other half were saved by their Arab landlord.

Ever since, the family has argued over who is the 'genuine' Arab – the one who killed his family or the one who saved them.

Meanwhile, the best article I read relating to Yom Hashoah came from Yair Lapid, son of survivor and former MK Tommy Lapid. Discussing the day, Lapid junior argued that "The Holocaust dismantled everything human beings knew about themselves, and then taught us two unforgettable lessons"

"The first one is that we must survive at any price, that we can't rely on the world to protect us…that we must always prepare for the worst case scenario, because otherwise it will materialize."

"The second one is that we must be moral."

Interestingly enough, the national commemoration service at Yad Vashem reflected both ideas.

The survivors spoke about the importance of treating humans with respect.

The politicians – Bibi, Barak and Peres to a man - discussed the Iranian threat.

What none of our leaders seemed able to discuss was the question Lapid termed the biggest challenge of all - what to do when these two lessons contradict each other, when ensuring our existence at all costs means carrying out morally questionable acts.

Yom Hashoah thus raises more questions than answers.

Is the archetypal 'goy' he who stood by as we were slaughtered, or he who put his family's life on the line to save us?

Should we enhance our strength, or curb it?

Emphasize security or empathy?

Become particularists or universalists?

Distrust the world, or open our hearts (and doors) to the stranger?

And how can we – with our questionable psychological legacy – authentically and honestly engage with these questions and work out the correct balance between them?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Pesach Thoughts: Our Freedom, An-Other's Pain

On the holiday when we went out from slavery to freedom, we have to know how to safeguard that freedom, and not allow anyone else to dictate how much and where to build (MK Tzipi Hovotely, during Pesach rally in Hebron)

My children are drowning, and you want to sing praise? (God to Angels, Sefer HaAgadda)

Remember always that beneath every cry of freedom on Pesach lurks an Egyptian cry that does not find its place. (D'yo Ilu Yamey blog)

Last week's 20,000 strong rally in Hebron reminded me of an argument I had a few months back with a friend.

She had planned a trip to the divided city for the weekend of Parshat Chayei Sarah, the ‘anniversary’ of Avraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpelah.

I had felt uncomfortable with it.

She had argued that all Jews have a right to go, that we have a religious and historical connection to Hebron, and that the heightened weekend curfew over the Palestinian inhabitants was a ‘proportionate price’ for them to pay.

I had countered that not everything which is right in theory should be acted upon in practice, and that we should always remain sensitive to how our actions affect others.

Exhausted by several days of arguments, we ultimately agreed to disagree.

Another disagreement - although far less emotional - takes place annually around our Seder table regarding whether we should dip or pour out our wine while discussing the 10 plagues.

Apparently such controversies originated in disputes between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, but I never really paid much attention. Guided more by my davka-nik streak than my Hasidic stock, I decided to join my father in pouring.

At work, the Reut team just brought out a paper about the Delegitimization of Israel’s existence in the international arena. All in all, the document received pretty good media coverage and led to various meetings with government officials. Those less content with our analysis were those marginal groups - primarily centered in academia, campuses, and civil society in general - who view Israel as a colonial racist implant which practices apartheid.

(I guess we shouldn’t have expected anything else. Delegitimizers rarely see their own actions as problematic.)

Meanwhile, in preparation for my weekly Tuesday Tel Aviv Torah Shiur, I found a Midrash I’ve been mulling over ever since.

The text relates a discussion in the heavenly court as to whether to drown the Egyptians in the sea. At stake is whether God should prioritize His characteristic of justice (by drowning them) or mercy (by sparing them). The coup de grace condemning the Egyptians comes when God is brought a brick from Egypt that an Israelite child had been immured in.

While the image is disturbing, it deftly sums up the subjugation the Israelites suffered (if in recent times, our children were turned into soap, in Egypt they were turned into bricks).

If the Midrash ended there we could satisfy ourselves with the importance of destroying our enemy.

But it doesn’t.

Instead, the text describes God criticizing the angels who want to mark the Israelite’s escape by singing His praises. ‘My children are drowning’ God tells them, ‘and you want to sing?’

Strangely enough, while I had learned both parts of the text before, I had never realized that they were part of the same story.

There are two main views I often hear in discussions about Israel-Palestine. The first – primarily prevalent at the Friday night dinners I frequent and indicative of the argument over visiting Hebron – says that because we have a right to independence, we need not be overly bothered by the suffering of the other (we suffered more than them anyway).

The second – now prevalent on the campuses I used to frequent – says that if one’s independence comes at the price of another’s pain, it is inherently illegitimate.

I believe the Midrash suggests something different.

Sometimes pure justice and pure mercy clash.

Sometimes (perhaps always), a people’s battle for independence causes pain and suffering to the ‘other’.

That doesn’t make their freedom ‘born in sin’ or undermine its legitimacy.

It doesn’t mean we should apologize for our national aspirations, for our state, for the dream of becoming an Am Chofshi Be’Artzenu.

But nor does it mean that just because we suffered greatly, we can ignore the suffering of the other side.

It doesn’t mean we can forget the cost of our independence, or let our justified cry of freedom completely drown out the cry of the Egyptian, the ‘other.’

The least we can do is to make that cry more, rather than less heard.

If not by dipping or pouring our wine, then at least by thinking about it more often.

Chag Sameach