Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chayei Sarah: Rabin, Ben Gurion and the Question of Sovereignty

"And an ongoing dispute arose between the shepherds of Abram and the shepherds of Lot. And the Canaanite and the Perizzite then dwelt in the land. (Bereshit 13:7)

"An ongoing dispute arose" - Lot's shepherds sent their flocks to graze in the fields of others. When Abram's shepherds rebuked them for this thievery, Lot's shepherds responded, "The Land has been given to Abram, whose sole heir is Lot; thus, we are only taking what is rightfully ours." Yet the Torah comments: "While the Canaanites and Perizites were still resident in the Land".
(Rashi / Bereshit Raba 41:6)

Like many other North London Jews, the night of Rabin’s murder found me at a fireworks party. My first response was to assume the shooter was Arab and that Rabin was only injured (two assumptions that temporarily reduced the cognitive dissonance of the event). It was only hours later that I realized the horrifying truth. That an elected Prime Minister – someone present at every major juncture of the state’s history – had been murdered by a Jew believing he spoke in God's name, someone who, like me, wore a knitted kippah.

Last week, to mark his anniversary, my colleagues at Reut discussed Rabin's legacy and style of leadership. We held the discussion in the context of Harvard Kennedy School Professor Ron Heifetz’s theory of leadership, on which Reut’s own thinking is based.

Rabin was an impressive leader in many ways, and was arguably ahead of his time in realizing Israel had to separate from the Palestinians for its own national interest. However, the fact he was assassinated is actually testament to a major failure – his inability to bring the country with him.

In fact, Rabin failed to properly manage what Heifetz terms the ‘Holding Environment’, an environment that balances the stress levels, or 'temperature,' of those required to adapt their values and priorities in light of a new policy.

According to Heifetz, if stress levels are too low, no one is forced to adapt. If stress levels are too high meanwhile, things spiral out of control.

Unfortunately, Rabin failed to employ several measure that may have theoretically ‘lowered the temperature’ amongst those in Israel finding it hardest to come to terms with his plans to divide the land.

He could have slowed down the peace process, or promised to bring any agreement to a popular referendum.

Additionally, rather than calling them ‘propellers,’ Rabin could have shown greater sensitivity to the beliefs of those who viewed the West Bank as part of their religious heritage.

Ultimately, the failure of all sides to keep the level of stress at a level Heifetz calls 'tolerable' had tragic consequences.

- - - - -

The same weekend that thousands gathered in Rabin square to mark the 15th anniversary of his assassination, thousands of others flocked to Hebron to mark the ‘anniversary’ of Avraham buying the Cave of Machpelah (and to indirectly support continued Jewish presence in the city).

Visiting Hebron has become popular with many in the Anglo Olim community. But this year, some friends of mine attended an alternative Shabbaton in Sde Boker, Ben Gurion’s final resting place.

While my Shabbat was spent in neither place, I did take time to think about what Hebron and Sde Boker represent, and how they signify contrasting responses to one key question integral to our future, an issue too little discussed by those on both the right and the left - do we distinguish between territory we feel belongs to us, and territory we want to exert sovereignty over?

Those in Hebron and their supporters say no. Because the Jewish people have a religious and historical connection to the city, the State of Israel needs to apply sovereignty there. This position is similar to Lot, who contended that because his (uncle’s) family had been promised the land, he could allow his sheep to graze wherever they wanted.

In other words, connection equals sovereignty.

Ironically, despite being on the other side of the political map, Rabin also made no distinction. For him, absence of sovereignty meant absence of connection, and anyone who disagreed could could 'continue to turn like a propeller.'

David Ben Gurion and Avraham Avinu took a different position.

Ben Gurion's acceptance of the 1947 UN Partition Plan didn’t contradict his belief that all the land ‘belonged’ to the Jewish people. He just didn’t believe that ownership needed to be translated into political sovereignty.

Avraham was the same. He too understood the importance of distinguishing between theoretical ‘ownership’ (which he and his progeny had acquired due to God’s promise) and current control or ‘sovereignty’ (which needn’t necessarily be implemented).

Neither believed that there had to be a connection between what is ours and what we control.

- - - - -

Fifteen years on from the fireworks of that fateful night, the schisms in our society haven’t healed and we are still failing to maintain a tolerable range of stress in discussing the country's future.

Yet perhaps one component in the healing process is to draw a line that both right and left too often fail to portray.

Perhaps, following in the footsteps of our Jewish and Zionist founding forefathers, we should emphasize that not everything we feel belongs to us has to be 'grazed' on.

And that not every territory we may ultimately decide to withdraw from means disengaging from our emotional, historical or religious attachment to it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jerusalem Shiur: Avraham and the Birah Doleket

What happens the moment immediately before God speaks to Avraham for the first time, and tells him to leave his land. What is it that Avraham sees or does that convinces God to enter into dialogue with him? Does it provide us with any clues as to how we can encounter the divine in our own lives?

The Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah brings an analogy of a man who sees a Birah (castle or palace) Doleket, and curiously wonders who the person responsible for it is. Following this question, the owner of the building makes himself known to the man.

The key to understanding the meaning of the story revolves around the word Doleket. Does it mean illuminated or in flames (or something else entirely)?
And how do the different options related to different theological or philosophical ways of encountering transcendence?

The discussion included ideas from Rambam, Jonathan Sacks (Judaism does not begin with an answer, but a question, not harmony but dissonance), Dean Hamer (the God gene), Richard Rubenstein (God is dead) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (God in search of man)

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

Monday, October 25, 2010

Vayera: Sdom, Akeida and the Breaking of Paradigms

Avraham takes two very different forms in Parshat Vayera. On the one hand, he brings his subjective moral intuition into a discusison with God about destroying the city of Sdom. On the other, he seemingly submits silently to carrying out the command to sacrifice his son at the Akeida.

Contemporary theologians disagree as to the significance of these stories. Whereas Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Joseph Soloveitchik see the Akeida (and therefore restraint and obedience) as the ultimate expression of religious worship, David Hartman sees the model of Sdom (assertiveness, and autonomy) as the proper paradigm for understanding our ideal relationship with God.

Finally, we looked at a position from Jerome Gellman that suggests that rather than strengtheing the idea of paradigms, the stories of the Akeida and Sdom actually come to break them.

Click here for the audio recording and the source sheet.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lech Lecha: Between Self Identification and Self Worship

Despite his being the father of Judaism (and monotheism), the Torah tells us very little about Avraham's background. This week we focused on different ideas that seek to explain Avraham's origins and what made him 'merit' encountering God's voice.

We looked at three main ideas. One revolves around a Birah Doleket, a castle / mansion which - depending on how one translates it - could be lit up or in flames. A second view comes from the Rambam, who describes Avraham as a type of Socrates who autodidactically finds God at the age of 40. The third story is that of Avraham in his father's idol shop.

All of these readings provide an opportunity to consider how we should read sacred texts, and how we can maintain the balance between reading text through our subjective, personal ideology on the one hand, and being authentically true to what it actually 'says' on the other.

Rather than being created in the image of God, is it possible that sometimes we create God (or the text, or Avraham) in our own image?

What is the line between self-identification and self worship?

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

Monday, October 11, 2010

Noach: Babel and Totalitarianism

Despite being only 9 verses long, the story of the Tower of Babel plays a significant role in reflecting the dangers inherent in building human societies.

Using the Netziv, Jonathan Sacks, Isaiah Berlin and Malcolm Gladwell as guides, we discussed whether the builders of the tower actually do anything wrong, whether God's actions in dispersing them are proportionate and what the story can teach us about two key issues of the 21st century - ensuing the proper balance between the individual and the collective; and safely moving between the competing poles of tribalism and universalism.

A variety of sources suggest that the problem with the Tower was not its rebellion against God but rather the uniformity of the society, and the problematic nature that such uniformity produces (whether that be murder of those who are different or simply the stultifying of the creative energy found in diversity).

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

(Click here for the full video of Malcolm Gladwell discussing spaghetti source and how diversity is connected to happiness)

Monday, October 04, 2010

Bereshit: Cain, Abel and the Origins of Fratricide

The story of Cain and Abel is the first recorded murder in the Torah. But the text itself is surprisingly vague about the circumstances surrounding it.This week we studied different perspectives on the story, which reflect how the Rabbis understood violence and the responsibility for preventing it. Hundreds of years before Marx, Spinoza and Freud, the Midrash presents an interesting angle of what leads to murder. It also provides some radical positions on whose responsibility it is to prevent it.

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