Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: Purim and Religious Coercion

In contrast to those stories that emphasize the romanticism surrounding the Israelites acceptance of the Torah, the Talmud in Shabbat 88a relates that God lifted Mount Sinai above the people and threatened to kill them unless they accepted it (like a shot gun wedding or as the Maharal claims, 'Divine rape').

In this case, questions Rav Acha Bar Yaacov, how can the Law obligate us, seeing as we only accepted it under duress?

The response provided by Rava – that the Jewish people accept the Torah and renew the covenant in the days of Purim (kiymu vekiblu) – is intriguing and raises as many questions as it provides answers. What does this mountain metaphor signify? What is unique about Megillat Esther that it's specifically chosen as a prooftext for why we voluntarily (re)accept the Torah? And what makes an individual today obligated to fulfill Mitzvot?

French philosopher Emannuel Levinas brings a beautiful idea regarding the mountain metaphor, explaining that certain things in life – such as the moral imperative towards the other – are imposed on us, whether we like it or not. According to Levinas, the idea of ‘Torah or death’ means the only alternative to accepting the Torah, to accepting the claim the Other makes on me, is ultimately violence.

Several commentators discuss the uniqueness of Purim.

David Hartman compares the Exodus / Sinai model (first part of the sugya) with the Purim model (second part), explaining that while the former encapsulates the manner in which history impressed itself upon the Israelite community in the past, the latter accords better with the Jewish historical experience in the Talmudic period and into the present. This is why it is chosen as an example of reaccepting the covenant – it reflects real life.

Norman Lamm argues that Purim is mentioned as it reflects a situation that facilitates authentic moral choice of whether to accept the covenant, as such choice only arises when its unclear as to whether God is present or not (for example, when God is so clearly present at Sinai, there isn’t really a choice).

Yitz Greenberg takes this one step further, writing that the Jews' reacceptance at Purim is done with greater knowledge and thus greater maturity than at Sinai, seeing as they (we) now accept the Torah "knowing that destruction can take place, that the sea will not be split for them, that the Divine has self-limited and they have additional responsibilities."

Finally, we discussed Esther Chapter 9 (the source text for kiymu vekiblu, the Jew's renewal of the covenant) and the question of what obligates us to continue to keep Torah. Rather than a top down argument of 'because God said so' (as represented by the mountain metaphor), I wonder whether the Gemara is subtly suggesting that there is another model for obligation – that of a grassroots bottom up process originating not with God or elected leaders, but with the people, who – even before Mordechai commands them how to celebrate the festival – have already begun to create customs themselves.

Click here for the source sheet and audio recording.

Chag Sameach

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Discussing Israel in San Francisco: Staying on a very narrow bridge

San Francisco…The inspiration for Arik Einstein and Scott McKenzie; an unplugged laid-back city of rolling hills, calm water and fantastic wine; where environmental awareness and recycling is all the rage, yet car-pools are defined as only two people, (and even then the lane is mostly empty).

For the past nine days, Eran and I have engaged with dozens of people across the political spectrum within the Jewish community here, in order to better understand the dynamics of the debate surrounding Israel.

Some of our meetings haven’t been easy. Many we spoke to rejected our suggestion that Israel’s legitimacy would be strengthened by ‘widening the pro-Israel tent’ to include any individual willing to take a strong stand against delegitimization of Israel (denying the Jewish people’s right to self determination), even if that person has strong criticism of specific government policies.

Between meetings, I popped into one of the many San Francisco bookstores, treating myself (if that’s the right word in this context) to Avrum Burg’s controversial book – The Holocaust is Over – We must Rise from its Ashes.

Burg’s book isn’t an easy read, brimming as it is with criticism of the Israeli / Zionist establishment – of how nationalism hasn’t been good for the Jews, and how Zionism wrongly replaced the exilic spiritual Jew but with the militaristic Sabra.

Yet despite deep disagreements which much of his thesis, I did identify with some aspects of Burg’s analysis, notably the idea that we remain traumatised by the shadow of the Holocaust, and that this trauma not only negatively affects our ability to trust the international community (we feel that ‘the whole world is against us’), but also creates a paradoxical situation in which citizens of the region’s only superpower continue to feel an existential angst about their future.

In fact, I think the easiest way to understand the opposition towards ‘widening the tent’ on behalf of both the Israeli Government and some within the San Franciscan Jewish community is through Burg's analysis of our fear of Israel's potential destruction.

My most interesting meeting came with Director of Berkeley Hillel, Adam Naftalin Kellman. Berkeley is renowned as a historic center of anti-establishment radicalism, and last year experienced an attempt by the Student Council to pass a motion divesting from Israel. In this context, Adam finds himself between proverbial rocks and hard places – between radical students pushing the narrative of Israel as an apartheid state, self defined progressive Jewish students highly critical of Israeli policies, and ‘whole-hearted Zionists’ promoting the line of ‘support Israel warts and all’.

Amongst this sea, Adam discussed his wish for the students to create a deep, meaningful, significant and mature relationship with Israel, even if that includes criticism of its policies.

However the question he couldn’t answer was how to facilitate such a process without simultaneously strengthening those voices undermining the country’s existence.

I also can’t answer this question, but I believe the issue doesn’t just apply to discussing Israel at Berkeley, but is pertinent to all sensitive, thoughtful, Israel supporters today.

How can we maintain context when engaging with the complexity that is modern day Israel?

How can we encourage nuance on an issue known for facilitating radicalism, or discuss intricacies when others deal in slogans?

How can we criticize without worrying that we are betraying our people, or that our criticism will strengthen the current Tsunami that sometimes undermines the country’s existence?

And how can unease regarding specific Government policies be harnessed towards constructive, rather than destructive ends?

While I'm still struggling with this, the challenge reminded me of part of Obama’s book - ‘Dreams of my Father’ - in which he describes his first trip to Kenya, his father’s birthplace.

“For a span of weeks or months, you could experience the freedom that comes from not feeling watched…

You could read about the criminal on the front page of the daily paper and ponder the corruption of the human heart, without having to think about whether the criminal or lunatic said something about your own fate….

Here the world was black, and so you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie or committing betrayal.”

Reading Obama’s description of his feelings, thoughts and fears, I can’t help wondering what our ‘freedom from being watched’ might look like, where our ‘Kenya’ might be…

Is there a place where we can be liberated from past historical trauma to 'ponder the corruption' of some aspects of the Israeli heart, where we can discover our own feeling towards our homeland...where we can just ‘be ourselves’?

There isn't a clear answer, but this is clear:

That if we fail in this challenge, we won’t just be pushing too many committed yet critical Jews away from Israel all together.

We will also be doing a disservice to our own tradition that values discussion, debate and disagreement.