Convergences of Summer Reading: Overcoming The Desire to Dominate Nature

Any reading that happened this summer happened despite my cat.

Hello dear readers! It’s been a while. I’ve been busy with rabbinical school, but I want to do a little more writing for my blog. This post gets a little more jargony than most of my posts. For that I am sorry. I’m trying to make sense of a book that — trust me — is much more jargony than this post.

I began this summer reading what I thought would be two completely unrelated books. Coming off a semester of studying modern Jewish history in rabbinical school, I decided to read the mid-20th century classic of social criticism Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while — following my blog post on scientific racism and the Enlightenment a couple people recommended Horkheimer and Adorno’s classic critique of the Enlightenment. Written by two secular Jewish thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, I knew before reading it that Dialectic of Enlightenment argued that the Enlightenment led to nazism, and I knew based on my favorite philosophy podcast that this would be dense and difficult reading. 

So I decided to pair Dialectic of Enlightenment with an easier-to-read and ostensibly unrelated book, Richard Powers’ The Overstory. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the stories of 10 people and their relationship with various trees. It was a delightful read, and in addition to describing the magnificence of trees and nature, it seemed at times to transcend a human perspective. The book had a quality of both empathy toward its characters and an appreciation for the shortness and instability of human life that made it feel like it was told from the viewpoint of a redwood tree looking down on humans. Or at least that’s what it seemed to be trying to accomplish and, aside from occasionally feeling like it was longer than it needed to be, it succeeded.  

While The Overstory was more or less what I thought it would be, Dialectic of Enlightenment really surprised me. I was expecting the book to mostly be social criticism focused on the era of the Enlightenment and its links to nazism. But the book turned out to be a more profound critique of civilization beginning with the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Greeks — and most surprisingly, I understand the book to be very much within the Continental philosophical tradition, despite its interdisciplinary nature. This link to the philosophical tradition surprised me because I knew that as participants in the mid-century Frankfurt School, Horkheimer and Adorno would be critical of classical philosophy, that they would be critical of the idea that there are enduring truths. 

But in their dense and disorganized writing, Horkheimer and Adorno make a profound argument that Western civilization went off track in its origins with the Hebrew Bible and the Greeks. The two German-Jewish thinkers argue that Western civilization began in a fundamentally problematic way because of its desire to subjugate nature. “What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men,” Horkheimer and Adorno write toward the beginning of the book (p. 4). As civilization progressed, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that this desire to rule over and instrumentalize nature becomes a myopic and consuming affair until “All that remains of the adaptation to nature is the obduracy against nature.” (p. 181) This “obduracy against nature” makes itself manifest in the consuming hatred of nazi antisemitism that is ultimately what they call a “morbid expression of repressed mimesis” (p. 187). (As I understand it, “repressed mimesis” here refers to a repressed desire to imitate nature.)

To be clear, I doubt very much that Horkeimer and Adorno would like The Overstory. As I understand the mid-century thinkers, they argue not for anything like an ethic of environmentalism, but for something like an ongoing civilizational self-awareness that roots out the will to domination. Horkheimer and Adorno don’t believe in enduring truths — they believe truth is contingent on history — but I read them as arguing for self-awareness and inquiry. In this way, it seems that they are not at all against enlightenment per se and I see them as being very much advocates for a modern and historically contingent version of philosophy.

Still, it was really striking to read these two very different books in conversation with one another. At their cores they seem to make a similar critique — that by seeking to dominate nature, civilization has made a fundamental mistake. This is by no means an original idea — and it’s one that I used to read and think more about

But seeing Horkheimer and Adorno argue that so many of our problems begin with our will to dominate nature, while at the same time reading delicious prose about the need to live in harmony with nature made me wonder anew about how we relate to nature. If we reconceived of how we fit into this world, would we be much better off? 

As Horkheimer and Adorno suggest with their heady call for self-reflection, this is hard and ongoing work. But my takeaway is that these two books are absolutely correct in their overlap: imagining a better world begins with reconceiving of who we are vis a vis nature. 

In closing, I think it’s worth pointing out that Horkheimer and Adorno are only partly correct in the way they describe Judaism’s fundamental call to dominate nature. The call to dominate nature is definitely present (see Gen. 1:26-28 (although these verses can also be read as a constructive environmental ethic)). But as Rabbi Joseph Solveitchik persuasively argues in his The Lonely Man of Faith, there is another current of thought present from the outset of the Jewish tradition, present in Genesis 2. This is the thread in the tradition that asks us to be in relationship with the divine, that asks us to consider imperatives bigger than ourselves. It seems that the way out of the dialectic Horkheimer and Adorno describe is already embedded in the Jewish tradition. 

The Shattering of Teshuva: What American Jews Can Contribute to the Conversation on Race

A photo I took this summer at at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama,

The Forward published a reflection I wrote on my experiences travelling in the South this summer, and how American Jews can borrow from the Jewish concept of teshuva to advance the national conversation on racial injustice.

When I arrived at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana earlier this summer, a staff member handed me a card with a photo of a statue of a young girl wearing a yellow dress. A quote on the back of the card explained that before this girl, Carlyle Stewart, was freed at the age of seven, she worked in the fields of the plantation.

“They had straps and a whip, and they better not catch you praying to God,” Stewart later told a researcher. “You can’t say your prayer.”

My wife and I were touring the South to learn about the history of racism in our country, and the Whitney Plantation, which memorializes the enslaved people who worked there, was our first stop.

On our tour, I learned new details about America’s brutal chattel slavery; I learned enslaved people who tried to escape had their hamstrings severed, and when pregnant women were whipped, they were partially buried face down to protect their valuable fetuses.

A few days later, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, I learned that the popular understanding of lynching is woefully incomplete. Many of those murdered were black political and labor organizers. Lynching was, among other things, a tool for maintaining a broader white supremacist social order throughout much of this country well into the twentieth century.

As Jews enter the month of Elul and begin the season of teshuva — repentance — I’ve come to understand that I, along with many other white Americans, am collectively in a long process of penitence. Thanks in part to sites like those I visited this summer, mainstream white American culture seems to be finally taking seriously the important work of prominent black thinkers who place racial oppression at the center of this country’s history.

Read the rest on the Forward’s website.

Claiming The Bible (Which Was Written By Human Beings!)

In my previous post, I made the claim that liberally religious people shouldn’t shy away from belief. I’d now like to deepen that idea by looking at the specific issue of how to make sense of the Bible in a liberally religious context (I define this context in my previous post).

When I find myself in liberally religious Bible studies, I often feel that there is an unstated confusion about how to approach the Bible. It seems some people feel pressure to suspend disbelief and operate as if the text somehow comes from divinity. These people feel it is not kosher to bring in modern scholarship about the human authorship(s) of the Bible, despite the fact that they generally accept this approach (even if they might not know much about it). Other people refuse to take on a position of assumed naivete and they deny that there is any sacred about the text. This can lead them to approach morally problematic sections of the Bible by being hostile toward the Bible (and perhaps even religion) more generally. And perhaps the largest set of people believe that the Bible was written by humans who were somehow divinely inspired, but they aren’t sure who these humans were, when they wrote, exactly what their relationship with divinity was — and they especially aren’t sure how the human authorship of the Bible should bear on the text study at hand.  

I think there is an opportunity to cut through this emotionally charged and confused stew by unabashedly putting forth the idea that the Bible is a collection of texts written and compiled by humans. If done correctly, embracing modern biblical scholarship could in fact strengthen liberal religious belief. 

I recently finished reading biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman’s book Who Wrote The Bible? In the book, Friedman makes the case that the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) were written by at least six people. Although the specifics of who wrote which section of the Bible are certainly above my current pay grade, the general approach that different people wrote different parts of the Bible is very convincing. 

In making this argument, Friedman makes the case that the total Pentateuch is greater than the sum of its discrete human-created parts. From my perspective, his most compelling reason for saying this is that by incorporating different perspectives, the Bible creates a theology that none of the individual authors of the Bible intended. Specifically, by including both a personal and a transcendent God, Friedman writes that the Bible creates “a balance that none of the individual authors intended.” He continues: 

But that balance, intended or not, came to be at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. Like Jacob at Peni-El, both religions have lived and struggled ever since with a cosmic yet personal deity. That applies to the most sophisticated theologian and the simplest believer. Ultimate things are at stake, but every human being is told “The master of the universe is concerned about you.” An extraordinary idea. 

In liberally religious settings, identifying how different sections of the Bible have different conceptions of God could strengthen the overall idea that the Bible as a whole offers different theological perspectives that come together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. 

This is just one example of how modern biblical criticism can strengthen analyses and study of the Bible. 

But beyond using modern biblical criticism to strengthen our analyses of the Bible, I think the most compelling reason to embrace modern biblical criticism is simply that this approach to the authorship of the Bible seems to be correct. If we obfuscate around the human authorship of the bible, we risk losing the growing group of people who don’t accept traditional explanations of the origins of the Bible.

Especially in the Jewish tradition, another reason to approach the Bible with reverence is that it is the foundation for centuries of commentary and analysis (some of which teaches against what seems to be the intended original meaning of the text). If we approach the Bible through modern analyses of who wrote it, a modern audience might be more inclined to then open this trove of centuries commentary.

Embracing human authorship of the Bible doesn’t have to mean surrendering the mystery and awe that is so central to religious experience. On the contrary, if we see the Bible as a collection and synthesis of different people’s experiences of divinity and human experience, we can approach the text with reverence and humility. An honest and sophisticated approach to the Bible’s origins could enrich our synagogues, churches and mosques.

Claiming Belief

I had perhaps the most clichéd last few minutes in Israel a Reform rabbinical student could have. As I sat and waited to board my flight home, a good-natured ultra-Orthodox man asked me about my ukulele case. Naturally, our conversation progressed politely from the fact that no, my case didn’t contain a violin, to what I was doing in Israel, to him asking why Reform Jews even call themselves Jewish, to a disagreement about whether the Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

A photo I took last summer in Jerusalem’s Old City

My Judaism is a form of religious liberalism, which means it rejects a fundamentalist understanding of sacred texts, it favors evolution over time and the full inclusion of people of different identities, and it is open to conceptions of God that aren’t the pernicious man-in-the-sky God concepts that are so pervasive in popular culture. 

As I opened my bag for the last security check, I chuckled to myself about how a conversation could so genteelly explode into his dismissing everything I stand for as a Jew. It also occurred to me that if I accept that this man sincerely believes that God dictated the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, he and I both based our religious outlook on belief. 

In general, people associate belief much more with fundamentalism than with religious liberalism. Belief in God, belief in the sanctity of holy texts and belief in the value of prayer tend to be seen as attributes of orthodox belief and not liberal belief. 

But as my flight took off, I found myself thinking that it doesn’t have to be that way. What separates liberal Jewish belief and this polite man’s belief system doesn’t have to be a question of whether to believe, rather it was a question of what we believe. 

A belief that the consistency of science can lead liberally religious people to be pretty darn sure that revelation did not occur in the way that fundamentalists conceive of it. At the same time, beliefs that come out of personal experience can lead liberally religious people to believe that there is something in the world that is awesome and language-defying that we don’t understand completely, but that seems to amount to what is commonly known as God. 

There are good reasons why liberal religion has so often distanced itself from belief. Religious liberalism grew out of Enlightenment rationalism, which was very skeptical of claims that couldn’t be scientifically proven. Thankfully since then Reform Judaism has moved beyond this and accepted that there is much in the world that we can’t understand through a hyper-rationalistic prism and that it’s important to embrace the mystery of religion. 

Belief is also difficult for liberal religions because belief is so much more mysterious and complicated in a non-fundamentalist context. It’s more difficult to say you believe in God if you aren’t sure exactly what that God is. Prayer becomes more complicated when you don’t believe that God can intervene in the material world. And the place of our sacred texts in our religious experience becomes more challenging to understand if we don’t simply believe they come from God.

But, despite these complications, belief from the perspective of liberal religion is just as sincere and important as the belief of fundamentalists. We believe deeply in scientific findings like evolution and the non-existence of divine miracles; we believe deeply in God, even if we aren’t sure how to define God in human terms; and we believe deeply that prayer is meaningful for us within the context of complicated God concepts. 

My conviction is that these liberal beliefs lead to a religious life that is more challenging than fundamentalist religion. I also find these liberal religious beliefs to be more true.

When I parted ways with the polite ultra-Orthodox man to board my flight, he told me that he hoped I found the truth. We should all be humble about what religious truths we can come to over the course of our evolving lives, but I think we liberal believers would be better off if we didn’t shy away from this man’s challenge.

Redeeming my Judaism

Three weeks before I left Israel, I ventured into a French-language bookstore in Jerusalem to hear a talk by a French rabbi I discovered through podcasts a couple years ago. The small bookstore, Vice Versa, was packed, and I found a place to stand behind the speaker, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur.

Growing up going to a bilingual French school in the states, I’ve long associated French with some of the best learning experiences of my life. I remember in my ninth grade French literature class we analyzed a poem with my teacher Frank Bessone. I was so taken by what we studied that I visualized knowledge as a lake high on a mountain. I imagined that when learning was at its best, you could draw water from that lake.

But more than that, I also associate French with the particular world I come from. Growing up attending a French/international school in San Francisco, I associate French with the best elements of the liberal 1990s/2000s multiculturalism of my youth. Although I don’t mean to present this world uncritically (my access to it certainly speaks to my privilege, and its hold on the world has definitely been challenged recently), this was a values system characterized by pride in the word “cosmopolitan,” an affinity for Manu Chao, optimism about the transition from the Franc to the Euro, and excitement about the achievements of the LGBT-rights movement. I remember in eighth grade one of my history class assignments was to design a campaign poster that supported the European Union. My French history teacher said the best poster was one my classmate made with a rocket blasting off and the slogan “l’union fait la force,” unity makes strength.  

But when I walked into that French-language bookstore in Jerusalem, I was rounding out a year in a country that is complicated, but that generally challenges these multicultural values. Where the France-informed San Francisco of my youth celebrates internationalism, speaking multiple languages and liberal values, Israel is diverse, but it tends to celebrate one national/religious group, one language, and values that can be read into ancient text. It’s easy, especially for someone from my background to point out the flaws in how these Israeli values are often being interpreted in today’s Israel. But I do have an appreciation for the rootedness that some forms of Israeli engagement with Judaism can provide and I value how Israel allows for a deep engagement with Judaism and Hebrew.

Still, as I walked into the bookstore, I was weary from the extent to which Israel — and more particularly Jerusalem —  felt dominated by a rigid, conservative approach to Jewish identity that leads to a mistreatment of Palestinians, nationalism, sexism and the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Early in her talk, Horvilleur, who is France’s third woman rabbi, discussed how the story of Jacob and Essau explains how she understands her Jewish identity. In her talk and her book that I later read, Horvilleur draws from rabbinic commentators to point out that Essau, whose name comes from the Hebrew past tense of the word to be, is born completed. In fact, he is covered in hair at birth, symbolizing that he’s already gone through puberty. Horvilleur writes that “Essau is the man whose name is ‘already made.’ He is the anti-embryo par excellence, the man who is already formed and is therefore a non-Hebrew” (my translation of her French). Jacob, in contrast, must become who he is over the course of his life, as is most famously demonstrated by the fact that he receives the name Israel only later in life after wrestling with the angel. Horvilleur argues that Jacob represents Jewish identity, which is always in formation. To be Jewish, Horvilleur argues, means to be becoming.

Horvilleur’s Judaism is also a Judaism of cultural exchange. In her talk, she argued that one of the main reasons Judaism has survived for so long is because of its cultural porousness; Judaism has endured because it borrows from other cultures.

At this point in her talk, I felt a huge sense of relief and excitement. Here was a Judaism that is centered on perpetual self-discovery and cultural exchange. In addition to being compelling, this vision contradicts the rigid approaches I had encountered so much in Israel. Instead, Horvilleur’s approach affirmed positive elements of the values of my upbringing.

And yet at the same time Horvilleur’s conception of Judaism presents useful challenges to these values of my youth. In her talk, Horvilleur discusses the importance of balancing historical progression with traditional custom. Along with an interest in discussing God, this emphasis on respecting esoteric tradition would seem foreign to the world of my upbringing.

Horvilleur also outlines notions of history and text that challenge the culture of my youth and offer decidedly Jewish approaches to life. Like other Jewish thinkers I’ve read, Horvilleur argues that Jewish time is not linear. Horvilleur offers the example of Passover, and the Jewish obligation to reenact the exodus from Egypt every year, as if one is re-experiencing it. By recalling Passover or the revelation at Mount Sinai, Jews are called again and again to fulfill their obligation in the world.

Horvilleur situates the importance of text within this context of a non-linear history — she writes that every generation must learn to read texts anew and writes, “If the rabbis made Jewish children, it’s primarily to make new readers for the book.”

Horvilleur’s Judaism is a Judaism that balances loyalty to tradition with cultural porousness. Her Judaism is feminist and welcoming, while being deeply informed by Jewish understandings of obligation and text. And her Judaism is true to Jewish history, while being progressive.

Walking out of the bookstore in Jerusalem, I was reminded that the worlds opened to me by the French language and the French-San Franciscan environment of my youth are in fact an integral part of what I want to carry forward. I was reminded that being true to Jewish tradition means being both traditional and progressive. Walking out of the bookstore, I felt the excitement that comes with being reminded of why I want to be a rabbi.

D’var Torah: Holocaust Remembrance Day and Kedoshim

Today I had the privilege of offering a D’var Torah on Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Torah portion Kedoshim at HUC-JIR.

This week’s parasha kedoshim puts forth the dramatic claim that our every action can be holy, that our every action can bring us closer to God. The parasha lists key elements of Jewish practice like keeping the Sabbath, esoteric practices like not sewing fields with two kinds of seeds, sexual laws that we must now teach against, and the fundamental principle of loving your neighbor as yourself.

As it presents its laws, kedoshim, and the holiness code more generally, tell us:

You shall be holy, for I, adonai your God, am holy.

קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃

If we borrow from Rabbi Leon Wiener Dow and say that Halacha is an endless effort to express holiness in every crevice of our lives, we can say that the holiness code is a basis of halacha. The holiness code makes the Jewish claim that all our actions can serve the holy way, that everything we do can be part of halacha.

But what does this claim that we can be in relationship with God through our actions mean on a day we are asked to recall the Shoah? Today and everyday, our systems of belief and action should heed the words of Elie Wiesel, who wrote in Night:

Never shall I forget the night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Kedoshim and the holiness code seem to melt away before Elie Wiesel’s words. What is the point of  committing to holiness in a world in which Auschwitz is possible? Why try to be in relationship with a God who would allow Auschwitz or with a God who couldn’t prevent it?

The first response when trying to answer these questions is to acknowledge that there is no answer. There is no solution to the problem of the Holocaust. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg went so far as to write that every theological solution “that is totally at ease with a dominant [theological] option is to be seen as an attempt to escape from the dialectical torment of living with the Holocaust. If you do escape, you open the option that the Holocaust may recur.” We should not seek to feel at peace or comfortable on a day like today, and we should be cautious when we talk about God. Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg once said that in our times everything we say about God should be said in a whisper.

And yet here we are. This week, we were reminded of how unimaginable hate continues in this world, as we saw the second synagogue shooting take place in the United States during our year in Israel. And today we sit in the shadow of the Shoah. As we go forward with extreme theological humility, we still seek some understanding, some sense of what to do next.

I believe our best-suited text for this moment is the book of Job, our biblical text that more than any other directly addresses the problem of theodicy. The book presents the story of Job, a righteous, happy and successful man, who faces a series of calamities. Job’s ten children die, he loses his fortune and he develops horrific skin sores. After Job mourns for seven days, three of his friends try to comfort him by offering eloquent speeches about how God is just and Job must have sinned. This ultimately upsets Job, who becomes sarcastic, irritated and scared. After yet another friend tries unsuccessfully to console Job, God ultimately appears before Job and demonstrates God’s power by describing all God has created.

Job then humbles himself before God. He says, according to the JPS translation:

I had heard You with my ears, But now I see You with my eyes;

Therefore, I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes.

לְשֵׁמַע־אֹזֶן שְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְעַתָּה עֵינִי רָאָתְךָ

עַל־כֵּן אֶמְאַס וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל־עָפָר וָאֵפֶר

What causes this radical and sudden shift in Job’s consciousness? How is he comforted? What does this tell us on a day like today?

In his commentary on the book of Job, Rabbi Harold Kushner makes a distinction between abstract theology and lived religious experience. Kushner writes:

The difference between [theology and religion], one explicator of Buber has suggested, is like the difference between reading a menu and having a dinner. Theology can inform and enlighten, but only religion can nourish us. For thirty-five chapters, Job and his friends have been concerned with theology. With God’s appearance out of the whirlwind, the narrative turns to religion.

Kushner believes this direct experience of God is ultimately what changes Job’s perspective. Kushner writes that “Job is satisfied, not so much by the content of God’s answer as by the contact with God.”

It isn’t an intellectual theological point that we can turn to on a day like today when we stand especially in the darkness of the Holocaust. Instead we can turn to our experience of God and our ongoing relationship with God.

This doesn’t answer theological questions about why the Shoah happened or questions about God’s powerfulness. Kushner points out that in the book of Job, when God appears, God doesn’t directly answer Job’s questions about why bad things happen to good people. These theological questions are important, but there is a significant current in our tradition that tells us that experience of God and practice matter more than abstract theology.

Instead, the best recourse in moments like this may be to turn to your practical relationship with God, whatever that means to you. And it seems to me that our tradition — and this week’s parasha in particular — are telling us that the best way to be in relationship with God is through our actions, through the radical proposition that our every act can be holy. We can turn to the holiness in Jewish traditions like the Sabbath, to the holiness in grand ethical principles like loving your neighbor as yourself, to the holiness in the minute details of our everyday life and even to the holiness of the tefillah we are in right now. By sanctifying our every action, we can be in relationship with God, even on a day like today.

And so, as we recall the Shoah, may we all find what we are seeking through our tradition’s claim that our every action can be holy; May we find guidance, comfort and resiliency through Judaism’s dramatic proposition that our every action can continue our relationship with God.

What Notre Dame Teaches Us As It Burns

I can’t help but think that as it burns, Notre Dame de Paris is teaching us an important lesson. This fire is surely a tragedy, and I don’t mean to detract from that. But something special is also taking place on social media right now. A wide range of people are expressing the deep impact this structure has had on them in a remarkably unified way. Over and over, I’ve seen people use the word “awe” in reference to their experiences of Notre Dame. From Dan Rather to a pop star I probably should have heard of named Camila Cabello, I’ve seen people from very different perspectives offer strikingly similar responses:

It’s special to see people from such varied backgrounds talk about this universal human experience — especially on Twitter, which seldom affords the earnestness and space to breathe necessary for encounters of awe.

It’s as if this 13th-century church is dramatically letting us know it has something to say to us today. Behold, it tells us. I am a colossal relic of a time when people were less jaded and were more aware of numinous mysteriousness. I am a towering monument to awe, and I am reminding you as loudly as I can that you can apprehend the same radical amazement as the people who toiled for two centuries to construct me.

We must move beyond loose spirituality that is afraid to identify itself with millennia of religious wisdom and religion. Traditional religion has become so stale in the popular consciousness that its essence is remembered only on days when its cathedrals burn. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sun shines today also. Today, Notre Dame de Paris beseeches us to remember that.

The Simplicity and Complexity of Israel-Palestine

A photo I took of Palestinian activist Awdah al-Hathalean in Umm al-Khair in August. The photo shows crops the residents of Umm al-Khair had to abandon because of a lack of water. The homes in the background are part of the settlement Carmel.

When I arrived in Israel last summer to study to become a rabbi, I knew I had arrived in one of the most complex regions of the world, but I was prepared for outrage.

I’m a millennial who grew up in liberal circles in San Francisco, and like many people with my background, I have been convinced for a long time that Israel treats the people of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem unfairly.

I believed it was important to hold onto the simplicity of the injustice of the conflict, for the approach of civil rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis had made a deep impression on me.

In a 2017 podcast, Lewis explained his motivation for risking his life for the civil rights movement in a straightforward, relatable way. After he described segregation in the South, including “whites only” waiting rooms and segregated seating on public transportation, he said plainly that he had “tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and he didn’t like it.” Lewis’ explanation of his motivation seemed to illustrate how moral clarity can propel great historic change.

Soon after I arrived in Israel in July to begin my studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, I saw plenty of obvious examples of the injustices Israel perpetrates against Palestinians.

On one occasion, I watched a televised World Cup game in the community center of Khan al-Ahmar, a Palestinian village that was slated to be bulldozed by Israeli authorities because it was built without permits that are almost impossible to obtain. (The Israeli government later backed down from its plans, but Khan al-Ahmar’s long-term status remains uncertain.)

Another time, I went with a few classmates to Umm al-Khair, a Palestinian village south of Hebron. As we got off a bus, we saw a curious collection of mangled pieces of corrugated metal and various other debris scattered around the village’s community center. Despite possessing documentation that they bought their land legally decades ago, the villagers found that every time they built permanent structures on their land, Israeli authorities demolished them. We learned from one of the courageous leaders of the village, Awdah al-Hathalean, that we were looking at what was left of bulldozed homes.

And yet during my time in Israel — and particularly through my studies at HUC — I have been struck by how Israeli perspectives can complicate basic narratives about the conflict. By learning more about the history, I have come to better understand the common view held many Israelis that their country is surrounded by hostile neighboring states.

Read the rest at J – The Jewish News of Northern California

On the Importance of Singing about Death

The California Honeydrops don’t usually sing about death. The band plays upbeat blues-ish music featuring happy brass. Their most memorable line is “I liked you better when it was wrong,” and their lyrics are about love, singin’ all day, and pumpkin pie.

When I went to a show of theirs last week, it was therefore interesting to encounter a song about death.

“Cry For Me” is a heavy-on-the-horns New Orleans-blues-informed song about not wanting to be mourned in sadness:

Video by yours truly

As I’ve written before, I’m often struck by the gall people can display to quite literally shake their hips in the face of death. It’s worth marveling at our capacity to look death in its eyes and spread out a picnic blanket or in this case launch into a trumpet solo.

Perhaps my favorite artistic expression of this attitude is Elizabeth Cotten’s song “Freight Train.” With her distinctive acoustic guitar picking style, she sings in her hoarse voice:

When I die Lord bury me deep

Way down on old Chestnut Street

So I can hear old number nine

As she comes rolling by

In our contemporary American society, singing about death so openly and fearlessly jolts one to attention. From our obsession with keeping bugs out of our houses to our telling our children that they can do anything they want, we remove ourselves from nature and generally seem to operate on the assumption that we will live forever.

I just finished reading the Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann’s spectacular book The Prophetic Imagination. In it, he makes the case for a prophetic (as in the biblical book of The Prophets) outlook on life. This outlook is not only rabble-rousing in the way that social justice liberals tend to read The Prophets. Instead, Brueggemann also argues that a true prophetic outlook means countering the dominant ideology of our society.

Brueggemann writes that the dominant consumer capitalist ideology of selfishness and oppression suppresses any conversation about death. He explains that accepting death “would suggest that we are not in charge, that things will not forever stay the manageable way they are, and that things will not finally all work out.” This sense of things not being okay undermines the dominant way of seeing the world, which wants us to act as though that we are essentially immortal and have nothing existential to worry about.

For Brueggemann, coming to terms with death is part of the larger prophetic project of removing our “numbness.” He argues that facing our own death can open us up to caring about our neighbor’s situation — which can lead to a radical, transformative outlook.

To be clear, Brueggemann doesn’t have hip shaking in mind when he discusses how we should come to terms with death. He describes prophetic “pathos” and the need for mourning. But it still seems like there is a connection to be made between prophetic imagination and the California Honeydrops. When they sang “Cry For Me” last week, it felt like they pierced through the stale ideology that surrounds us. Something radical happens when you riff on your trumpet after singing about your death.

Puny but Important: The Incredible Tension at the Heart of Living

IMG_1639A few years ago, I lived in a poor community in Haiti. One thing that often stood out to me about my friends in Haiti was that they seemed to have a better understanding of the fragility of life than most privileged Americans like myself. The Haitians I got to know saw illness and death more often than people from my background, and some of them regularly experienced hunger. It seemed that because of their understanding of the precariousness of life, they were more open to turning to God than Americans I know. This was apparent in everyday conversation — they would say si bon dieu vle (“if God wills it to be so”) whenever they spoke about the future, and they were eager to learn about my religious background and to discuss God.

I thought back to my Haitian friends a few years ago when I was confronted by a difficult situation in my personal life. When I sought the counsel of a rabbi I trust, he wanted to know if I had asked God for help. I said that I have been praying, but that no, I hadn’t asked God for help. For one I don’t believe in a God who can answer me in human language and I also don’t believe in a God who can intervene in the material world. I asked him what he thought would happen if I asked God for help.

He responded by telling a story from his own life. He was going through a very difficult time and when he was at the end of his rope, he asked for God’s help. Surrendering to the fact that he needed God was a turning point in his life.

Even if we generally don’t believe in a God who can intervene in our material lives, the humble act of admitting how much we can’t control can be hugely relieving. By opening ourselves to how much we are not masters of our own destiny, we can come to the realization that it is not only us who shape our lives. Perhaps this is what the people I knew in Haiti understood. Because of the trials of their lives, they knew to turn to God.

In addition to being psychologically helpful, accepting how much we don’t control seems to be empirically accurate. It is a fact that we don’t determine when we come into the world and when we leave it. It is a fact that many of the trials of life — such as the relatively inconsequential one I was in a few years ago — are out of our control. It is a fact that we are almost powerless when compared to the immensity of the universe.

This leads us to a paradox that I believe creates a tremendous creative energy. Despite the fact that we are puny in the grand scheme of things, our lives and our actions are deeply consequential. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about how our lives have moral significance, whether we want them to or not.

Accepting this paradox is a never ending practice. Soon after I feel powerful, I am reminded of how little I control. When I feel small and meaningless, I am reminded of the huge ethical obligation on me as a human. In the seconds that I am able to hold both of these truths at once, time moves forward and this understanding disappears.

This struggle to understand our place in the universe leads me back to my friends in Haiti. As a privileged American of our generation, I have been largely shielded from the fragility of life. I have experienced death and sickness so much less than the people I knew in Haiti, and I have been told from a young age that I can become whomever I want to be. My time in Haiti reminds me of how little I control, and of the fundamental truth that I am subject to the whims of the universe. Read more