Saturday, September 25, 2010

Yom Kippur and Bereshit: Teshuva, Creation and the Search for Absolute Truth

This week, I presented a Shiur in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on the subject of Teshuva, Creation and the Search for Absolute Truth. It including discussing the creation story in the first chapter of Bereshit, the end of Sefer Yona and the thought of Isaiah Berlin.

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Negotiations: A New Type of Talk

This opinion piece written by me appeared today in YNET. It is based on some of Reut's thinking about the structure of the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Much ink has been spilled on the direct talks between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority and their chances of success.

Ironically, agreement between the sides regarding re-starting direct negotiations for the first time in 18 months seems to have been followed by disagreement over almost everything else, including over which subjects the sides will negotiate. While the Palestinians reportedly want to begin by discussing permanent borders, Israel insists on focusing on security arrangements and its recognition as a Jewish state.

In fact, while the issues to be discussed are highly significant, what is more noteworthy is the way those issues are grouped together in clusters for the negotiation teams. As the typology of issues predetermines the division of labor among negotiation working groups, and because each group usually performs a ‘give and take' in order to create an internal 'package,' the way in which these negotiation issues are divided has a systemic impact on the deal reached.

The current division of negotiation issues includes borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, water, and economic arrangements. The 'Jerusalem cluster' covers questions of sovereignty over the Temple Mount and security and municipal cooperation between the sides in the capital. The 'Territory cluster' includes questions over borders, settlements, and Palestinian safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank.

The 'Security cluster' meanwhile includes issues such as the border regime, Israeli use of Palestinian airspace, demilitarization and early warning stations. The 'Economic cluster' negotiates topics such as trade and taxation or damages to the Palestinian state for Israeli occupation. Water rights, or plans for a desalinization plant are included within the 'Water cluster'. Finally, the 'Refugee Cluster' examines legal, civil and declaratory aspects of the Palestinian refugees.

However, this typology of issues is not geared around creating stable state-to-state relations between Israel and the future Palestinian state. In fact it is drawn from the same model as that used by the Lausanne Conciliation Commission following the 1948 War between Israel and the Arab states.

Yet the 1949 Lausanne talks didn't envisage the establishment of a Palestinian state. They were primarily dealing with an Israeli-Arab conflict, not an Israeli-Palestinian one. And unlike today, they had no need to take into account the asymmetry between the two sides.

Therefore, the current typology is structurally irrelevant for today's issues between Israel and the Palestinians.

A more relevant negotiations agenda typology would be designed around the clusters of those issues that are likely to shape Israel's relations with a future Palestinian state. Such an approach may also make it easier to actually reach and implement a deal.

Rather than borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem, water and economic arrangements, Israel might consider a new division of 'intrusive issues', 'conventional issues', 'personal security issues', and 'historic issues.’

This re-division would change which group discusses each issue. Rather than being divided into different clusters, as per the current division, municipal arrangements in Jerusalem, or maintenance and operation of water sources would be negotiated in the cluster of 'Conventional Issues.' Arrangements on movement and access within Jerusalem or the Holy Basin, or agreements for movement through the entry and exit points between Israel and the Palestinian state would be dealt with in the 'Personal Security Issues' cluster.

Additionally, the question of final borders, refugees, sovereignty over the Temple Mount, and damages for the occupation would all be discussed in one group, that of 'Historic Issues'.

Finally, the question of a safe passage between the West Bank and Israel, or Palestinian access to the Israeli port at Haifa – issues that 'intrude' into Israeli sovereignty, could be discussed together with Israeli requests to 'intrude' into Palestinian sovereignty, namely control over Palestinian airspace or demilitarization.

By regrouping issues in this way, the existing tendency to “close agreements” within each working group can be better leveraged. This, in turn, will help achieve a different systemic outcome. For example, linkage between different issues – such as the Palestinian demand for a safe passage and the Israeli demand for control over Palestinian airspace – can be used to create a balance of interests that may lend itself to greater stability. Alternatively, compromises by one side over Jerusalem or borders may be linked to compromise by the other side over refugees.

Israelis and Palestinians disagree deeply on issues that touch the core of their national-religious-historical identity, and changing the typology of negotiation issues won't suddenly solve them. However, it would make it easier for the negotiating teams to achieve a stable two-state reality that offers both peoples a better future.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Rosh Hashana, Teshuva and the Akeida: The one about the professor, anthropologist, Hasidic Rebbe and several Jewish philosophers

For several years now, I’ve felt uncomfortable with the reading of the Akeida story on Rosh Hashana.

Its not that I haven’t heard the traditional explanations – that Avraham’s pure commitment towards God then, should serve as merit for us now.

It’s not that I don’t see the importance of making ultimate sacrifices for values I believe in. I do (at least in theory).

It’s just that as I sit in Shul, trying to reflect on the world, religion and where I fit in, the story disturbs me…in a very deep way.

And I’m often unsure how to nurture that feeling, how to turn it into something constructive.

At Reut, we’re heavily influenced by the writing of Harvard Kennedy School Professor Ron Heifetz and his thoughts on leadership. His major work, Leadership without Easy Answers describes two types of challenges, one technical, one adaptive. Technical challenges are those problems in which knowledge of a solution already exists, and the responsibility for ‘fixing’ it lies with a figure of authority – like someone’s car breaking down and them going to a mechanic.

An adaptive challenge meanwhile requires what Heifetz calls ‘adaptive work’, a change in basic priorities, values and behaviour by the relevant individual, community or society, rather than by the authority figure. Examples include having to make fundamental changes in one’s life in light of moving country or falling ill.

Another book in the Reut ‘Canon,’ Collapse, is written by anthropologist Jared Diamond and brings historical examples to demonstrate the main sources for the collapse of societies. From studying the Maya in Mexico to the Norse in Greenland and many others in between, Diamond argues that the primary reason for societal extinction is their inability to adapt to a changing reality.

Yet Diamond’s real innovation is perhaps his most worrying; that it’s often those very values that historically maintained and strengthened a society that – when reality changes and the behaviour doesn’t – ends up bringing its demise.

For the Norse struggling against freezing temperatures in Greenland, their ‘value’ was their Christian culture which initially strengthened them against difficulties, but ultimately – when it caused them to isolate themselves from the Innuit and their hunting methods – ended in mass starvation and disaster.

Those more politically inclined may wish to consider whether the settlement movement is currently playing the same role for Zionism…

Yet as we approach Rosh Hashana, the interesting aspect of Messrs. Heifetz and Diamond is that the required process they describe is exactly what the Rabbis call Teshuva.

Because what is Teshuva if not Heifetz’s adaptive work – working out which priorities, values or behaviour’s we should maintain in the coming year, and which we should change?

What is Teshuva if not identifying which of cultural DNA to conserve and which to discard?

However, what makes this behavioural DNA sorting even harder is the fact we can’t rely on the choices we made last year to guide us today. As Diamond shows, sometimes it’s those very values that proved so useful in the past that are now the very problem which need to be changed.

We’re left with a blank canvas, with few anchors to guide us.

And surprisingly, it’s the story of the Akeida which provides an outline to this canvas.

Much ink has been spilled discussing the story’s relevance. Amongst other things, it stands at the center of a theological disagreement as to the best way of worshipping God. Some modern thinkers, like Soloveitchik and Leibowitz promote the story and Avraham’s apparent submission to God’s unknowable majestic will as the ultimate paradigm of religious service.

Others like David Hartman suggest that a better religious paradigm is reflected in the tale of Sdom, in which Avraham brings his ‘intuitive sense of justice’ into discussion with God. For Hartman and those like him, moral autonomy isn’t an expression of hubris, but is integral to religious consciousness.

In short, some argue that worshipping God entails subsuming our morality and rationality.

Others claim it requires emphasizing it.

But despite their differences, Soloveitchik, Leibowitz and Hartman are united on one thing – our ability to create paradigms that can model how we should behave vis-à-vis God.

But what if instead of representing a paradigm, the Akeida comes to break paradigmatic thinking altogether?

One of the most interesting commentaries on the story comes from a Hasidic Rebbe known as the Izbicer. The Izbicer understands Avraham’s test as having to deal with his uncertainty as to whether he is being commanded to kill Yitzchak, or to simply symbolically place him on the altar.

His struggle is therefore how to act without clarity, in the face of ambiguity.

Yet the concept that really puts the Hasidic cat among the Halachic pigeons is what the Izbicer calls ‘Sinning at God’s Behest’ – the idea that sometimes, when God enlightens a person directly, he is permitted to act even against the rules of the Torah.

This isn’t something we should all try at home. But the concept itself should open us to the possibility of sometimes having to act differently – even contrary – to what we’ve previously been taught; that we need to be prepared to depart from what we ourselves once thought was sacred truth.

Avraham at the Akeida goes through this exact same process.

He receives a command and then has the command changed.

He has a sacrifice, and then suddenly has no sacrifice, then just as suddenly has a different sacrifice again in the form of the ram that he releases from the thicket in which it was entangled.

In other words – the question emanating from the land of Moriah (and which should continue in synagogues today) revolves around whether we are able to conceive of ourselves as having been mistaken, of having misunderstood or having failed to comprehend all aspects of the context in which we live and act.

Do we cling desperately to our values, beliefs and traditions come what may? Or are we open to hearing the small, still, Divine voice from within ourselves?

That, for me, is the ultimate question.

And its one worth emphasizing on Rosh Hashanah, when we should all be involved in the painful process of sorting out which values further our life goals and which ones need to be left behind.

Shana Tova

Previous Rosh Hashanah Posts

Rosh Hashanah 5770: The Duality of Being Human
Rosh Hashanah 5769:
Values in a Changing World
Rosh Hashanah 5768:
A Message against Despair
Rosh Hashanah 5767:
Wanna Live like Common People