Friday, May 27, 2011

Get this blog via e-mail

If you love this blog (or, if you just like it, I guess), but you hate having to check the website to see if I've posted anything, then have I got a solution for you! You can now subscribe to an e-mail feed - just fill in your name on the left side of the screen, and you'll be signed up.

Get your friends to sign up, too. I have ambitions of becoming the most read Former-Computer-Programmer-Turned-Rabbi-Blogger out there.

Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis takes on J-Street

You know, I've been posting quite a bit about Israel these past few days. No big surprise - I'm just back from a compelling trip, and there's a whole lot going on there! I'm trying as hard as I can to remain open-minded and centrist - I always think that's the best way to learn things. But, it occurs to me that, based only on the blogging and e-mailing I've been doing, I may be coming across as extremely left-wing. Now, in general, I am very left wing - no surprise there to anyone who knows me. But, when it comes to Israel, my views tend to be what most would consider (I think) to be just to the right of center*. I support the creation of a Palestinian State. But, I also think that it's utterly ridiculous to expect Israel to make peace with an organization (Hamas) which is openly and explicitly dedicated to its total annihilation. I think that the majority of the struggles of the Palestinian people are the result of (most likely purposeful) decisions made by their leaders; I think Israel should get very little blame, on whole. And, although I've never questioned their sincerity or motivation, I've never liked or supported J-Street.

If you don't know J-Street, it's a left-leaning lobbying group which was created to offer a more liberal voice in Zionist/American politics. Essentially, they felt that AIPAC, the long-standing voice of American Political Zionism, was too far to the right, and too monolithic, so they wanted to create an alternative. I've always thought that their motivations and high-level ideology were laudable. But, I think that the actual implementation of their ideas is terribly, terribly flawed.

* I usually hate it when someone says something like, "I don't even know what those labels mean" It's usually a pretentious way of trying not to apply an obvious label to yourself. But, in this case, I really don't. I THINK I'm just to the right of center, but I'm not really sure. And, I guess it depends on which society/sub-group I'm in. It gets awfully confusing.

One of my favorite writers about Israel is Rabbi Daniel Gordis. He's a Conservative, American-born Rabbi who lives in Israel, and he also writes from the right-of-center. But, he does so without hatred or vitriol, and always with extreme thoughtfulness and clarity. And, his latest posting is about an encounter which he had with J-Street. He is also no fan of theirs, to say the least, but he eagerly agreed to speak with a delegation from J-Street, and he offered strong words to them. Again, partially I love it because it's clear that he really, really doesn't like their views or their approach. But, he refuses to question their Zionism or their character. We could probably use more of that. But, he does question their positions, and their statements:

“Obviously,” you say, “reconciliation reduces the obstacle [to a peace treaty].”  But I would caution you against ever using the word “obviously” when it comes to the Middle East.  Nothing here is obvious.  If you think that something is obvious, then you simply haven’t thought enough.  Why is it obvious that Fatah’s signing a deal with Hamas, which rejects Israel’s very right to exist, reduces obstacles to peace?  Isn’t it just as plausible that it makes peace impossible, or that signing a deal and returning large swathes of land to a group still sworn on our destruction would be suicidal?  I suppose that reasonable minds could debate this matter, but how is it “obvious” that this is good news for peace?

And then you go on to say that “skeptics of a two-state agreement have immediately stepped forward to say that a deal is impossible with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas.”  There you go again, telling us that if we don’t agree with you, then we’re not serious or honest.  If we think that the Fatah-Hamas deal is terrible news for peace, then we’re just “skeptics of a two-state agreement.” In your worldview, there’s no possibility that we’re just a bit more nervous than you are, that we do not want to make a mistake that will turn our own homes into Sederot, that we are frightened of restoring the horror of 2000-2004 to our streets, buses and restaurants.  No, that possibility doesn’t exist, because anyone who doesn’t agree with you is by definition a “skeptic of the two-state agreement.”  I’d suggest that if you want to convince those of us still deciding whether you’re part of the big tent that you are “in,” that you drop this sort of condescension.  It’s arrogant and intellectually shallow; it doesn’t serve you well.

I am pro-peace. Deeply so. If it were up to me, then tomorrow there would be a Palestinian State. Not (I've said this before) just because it's good for Israel, but because it's the right thing to do. But, all of us who yearn for peace, all of us who want Obama to help negotiate a peace, all of us who get frustrated with Netanyahu's often strident intransigence and the far-right's insistance on clinging to dreams of "Greater Israel" have to remember some very basic facts.

Hamas wants us dead. All of us. All Jews, that is. Certainly all Jews in Israel.

In the past few decades, Israel has pulled out of two areas, without first establishing a durable peace: Lebanon and Gaza. Both have become breeding grounds for terrorists and launching pads for rockets. Rockets which are usually aimed at Israeli cities, with the intent of killing civilians. 

The current situation - Israel as long-term occupier, several neighbors working for her destruction - is terrible. Truly, truly terrible.

Making a peace with someone who is only making that peace as a tactic in a war of annihilation? That's worse.

I hope that Obama keeps working with Israel to find a way to make a just, lasting and true peace with the Palestinians, and with all of the Arab nations. But, I hope that Obama also remembers that, here in the US, we didn't try to make peace with Al Qaeda. Israel can't, either.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is Obama a friend to Israel

I'm continuing to try to read everything I can, from all over the political spectrum, trying to understand what's been going on in Israel over the past week or so. There are still those who claim that Obama has completely betrayed Israel, and has put its very existence in jeopardy. Then, there are those who claim that Obama has done nothing out of the ordinary - simply restated long-held US , and Israeli, views. As per usual, there seems to be some truth to both sides.

On the one hand, it's beyond clear that a return to a modified version of the '67 borders, and a creation of a Palestinian state within those borders, has been accepted as the basis of peace by all major players. In fact, I heard overwhelming unanimity on this point while I was in Israel. In a country where people can't seem to agree on whether it's day or night, nearly everyone, outside of some fringe groups, seems to acknowledge that peace will only come through the creation of a Palestinian State, created in what is now considered Occupied Territory, with land-swaps for settlements, security and the like.

At the same time, there are some who complain about some nuances of Obama's speech (I've recently been introduces to Barry Rubin's blog. He seems to me to be a very thoughtful, level-headed critic of Obama and his policies towards Israel. Take this article, as a good example) - he changed the language of land-swaps a bit, leaving some to think that he's not going to push for as much settlement-inclusion for Israel. More importantly, some say that he made the negotiating mistake (and, some claim it wasn't a mistake, but a purposeful, anti-Israel move) of putting Israel's final position on the table at the beginning, thus guaranteeing that Israel will get less than that. 

I agree that those are real concerns. But, I've still been a bit flustered by those who take those concerns, and assert that, based on them, and more like them, we now see that Obama is an enemy to Israel. That he has, in the most popular phrase of the moment, thrown Israel under the bus, and betrayed her, completely.

Then, I was reading a posting from a friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Fred Greene. Rabbi Greene was also on my trip to Israel, and his posting reminded me of something we heard which surprised many of us

There is something else to share that exists beyond the headlines: The diplomats that I met with last week in Israel’s Foreign Ministry made it very clear — Israel has not has such a strong partner in an American President in decades. One diplomat after another shared how there is more cooperation on security and diplomatic levels between the United States and Israel now than ever before. Every week, there is a high-ranking representative from the Foreign Ministry or our State Department visiting the other country since the Obama Administration started. 

We really did hear that from several different people - the current administration has been an unbelievable friend to Israel. The impression one gets from the press and other reports here in America is that Bush, and the Republican Party in general, have always been the strongest supporters of Israel. Democrats, and Obama in particular, are shakier. I've bought into that myself, somewhat - I often said that his weaker support of Israel (although I never thought he was anti-Israel) was what worried me most about Obama. But, that's not the picture we got from those we spoke to.

Could you argue that they were toeing the party line, and trying to put on a happy face, to keep relations positive and so on? Of course. But, we noticed (unsurprisingly) that, in general, the higher-titled the person presenting to us was, the more we got a stock, sanitized-feeling talk. The lower level people, the bureaucrats and the experts were much more open, and much more revealing. And, it was from those people that we heard this pro-Obama position.

Does that end the conversation? Does that answer every question or complaint? Of course not. There are still important discussions to have about what Obama said, and whether it was good and fair for Israel. But, when pundits and politicians claim that he is an enemy of the Jewish State, take that with a big grain of salt. 

And, by the way, when they claim that Obama has done something terribly new, something which Bush, in all of his Israel supporting ways, would never have done, show them this:

The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.

I share with these two leaders the vision of two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. Both of these leaders believe that the outcome is in the interest of their peoples and are determined to arrive at a negotiated solution to achieve it.

Achieving an agreement will require painful political concessions by both sides. While territory is an issue for both parties to decide, I believe that any peace agreement between them will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous. I believe we need to look to the establishment of a Palestinian state and new international mechanisms, including compensation, to resolve the refugee issue

It is vital that each side understands that satisfying the other's fundamental objectives is key to a successful agreement. Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interests of both parties.

Sound familiar? Well, it's a speech given by George W. Bush in 2008. You can see the video (juxtaposed with some Obama bits), or read the transcript.

I'll continue to try to keep an open mind, and to keep reading. And, I'll continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Can Hamas be a partner in peace?

One of the larger issues that has been swimming about since the latest round of speeches from Obama and Netanyahu has been that of Hamas. If you didn't know, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have recently entered into an accord, which has made Israel, and its supporters, very nervous. Hamas has been, from its inception, against the very idea of a Jewish state (indeed, dedication to Israel's utter annihalation is the very reason that Hamas was created).

Rabbi David Kaufman has written a blog entry exploring this issue, and it's a very clear, cogent summary of what's going on. On the one hand, Obama asserts that Israel can't be expected to negotiate with Hamas:

And I indicated on Thursday that the recent agreement between Fatah and Hamas poses an enormous obstacle to peace. No country can be expected to negotiate with a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction. We will continue to demand that Hamas accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements. And we once again call on Hamas to release Gilad Shalit, who has been kept from his family for five long years…

Moreover, we know that peace demands a partner – which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist, and we will hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions and their rhetoric.

But, at the same time, he calls on Israel to negotiate with the PA, despite their alliance with Hamas:

And yet, no matter how hard it may be to start meaningful negotiations under the current circumstances, we must acknowledge that a failure to try is not an option.

While I've been defending Obama and his speeches, I've never claimed that they were perfect, and this is one example. There's a contradiction (or, at least a strong tension) here. Either Israel can't be expected to negotiate with those sworn to its destruction, or it can, right? 

Rabbi Kaufman tries to reconcile these two ideas:

I can understand what President Obama is saying, namely that while Israel may not want to negotiate toward creating a Palestinian state with Hamas playing a role, he believes it is in Israel’s interests in the long term to work toward the creation of a Palestinian state. That is what he means by “failing to try is not an option.” However, the long term is irrelevant if the short term cost is too high. A Hamas controlled Palestinian Authority would mean significant suffering both inside the Palestinian Authority and inside Israel at a minimum through terrorism and rockets and at worst the likelihood of warfare that would make previous battles pale by comparison and could threaten the existence of the state of Israel. For Israel, negotiating with Hamas as it is today would be “trying to fail.” 

Work to set the groundwork for negotiations, and for a Palestinian state. But, all along, refuse to work with Hamas, or anyone who only exists to see us die. It might be an impossible balance, in which case we're back to where we started - long-term occupation, and no real peace. But, I'm not sure that careful, cautious negotiations can leave us much worse off than we are now. So long as our friends remember that we really can't be expected to negotiate with those who don't recognize our right to exist...

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Israel, Obama and the Peace Process

I had an extremely strange experience leaving Israel last week. As I was heading to the airport, Obama was giving his much-anticipated speech about the Israeli-Palestinian situation. At the airport, it seemed that everyone on line was frantically trying to get information about it, and process it. We were all desperate to know what he had said, and whether it was good for Israel. I was standing with another Rabbi who was on a post-speech conference call with the White House, and he was filling me in on details as he learned them ("he talked about two states...he said that Hamas sharing power with Fatah was very problematic..."). It was a bit like watching the news come in - too slowly - over a old-fashioned ticker.

The general consensus of those of us in our little group, and others I talked with that evening, was that Obama's speech was incredibly positive for Israel. He repudiated Hamas. He said (in a personal favorite line) that Israel has to have the right to defend itself, itself. He said that you can't expect Israel to negotiate with someone trying to wipe them off the map. And more. All in all, we agreed, it was great - a real win for Israel.

So, imagine my surprise when I arrive in Tampa, some 16 hours later, to find out that Obama was now a villan - the biggest enemy of the Jews and Israel since...well, since who? You can fill in your own inappropriate, out of proportion comparison, if you'd like. He "threw Israel under the bus," I heard again and again. "I can't understand why any Jew would vote Democrat," was thrown about more than once.

It wasn't easy trying to sort through the news. Even if I wasn't terribly jet-lagged, the back and forth in the press was terribly confusing. I started reading everything I could to answer what seemed to be one simple question: what, exactly, was so awful in what Obama had said?

Two states, living side-by-side? It's been the basis of negotiations for 10-15 years. Everyone talks about the '67 borders, modified through land-swaps, just like Obama did. Rabin, Barak, even at one point Netanyahu negotiated about it. Polls in Israel show overwhelming support by the population for the idea. It's both morally right (the Palestinian people really do deserve a country, no matter how evil some of their leaders may be), but it's also pretty clearly the only possible path to peace. There's simply nothing new here, and nothing particularly controversial.

Palestinian Unilateralism? One of the biggest worries from the Israelis I heard from was the Palestinian plan to seek unilateral recognition of statehood from the UN. Israel is in a near panic over the idea. But, Obama clearly and forcefully repudiated it, and given the US's veto power, that means a lot!

The idea that Palestine will border on Jordan? Admittedly, there is some disagreement here, as Israel has maintained that it needs to be in charge of that border, to stop infiltration of terrorists and arms from Jordan. But, that doesn't seem like a show-stopper, at least at this point. It's a difference to be worked out in negotiations.

Jerusalem and the Right of Return? Amazingly complicated and controversial issues. Obama decided to kick that can down the road. You can criticize that decision, but I think it was the right call. It certainly wasn't viciously anti-Israel!

I read a lot of articles which condemned Obama, but none offered any actual reason which I could find. I found a bunch like this one that I'm writing now, which pointed out how non-radical, how non-novel Obama was being. Jeffrey Goldberg said it in the Atlantic. Peter Catpano said it in the New York Times. Over and over I read what I had first thought: In large part, Obama did nothing more than restate previous American positions, and/or say what everyone knew.

I'm now of the opinion that nearly all, if not absolutely all, of the sturm und drang about this is political, in the basest sense. It's about scoring points, there or here, for one party or another. It's about Bibi (Netanyahu's nickname) looking strong to his coalition, and the Republicans trying to make Obama look bad, especially to the Jews, who have been overwhelmingly Democratic voters.

I'd love, on some level, to think it's more than that. It's hard for me to watch base politics take over on an issue about which I care so deeply (not that it surprises me). Maybe there are real issues here. If someone is reading who can name them, I sincerely, sincerely request that you do - I'm trying to stay open-minded, to keep reading, and to keep thinking. But, for now, I find myself believing that what Obama did is exactly what we needed him to do. I still don't really believe that there will be peace in my lifetime. At least, not real peace. But, I may be wrong. And, if I am wrong, then this might be exactly what it's going to take to make me wrong. I deeply, deeply hope so.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. 



Surviving the crash

I just watched this short, powerful testimony given by one of the survivors of that famous Hudson River crash-landing. He talks about the lessons he learned during and after that near-death experience.

On the one hand, the lessons are fairly obvious:

  1. Enjoy lfe's moments - don't put off happiness
  2. Don't waste time on things that aren't important
  3. Be a good parent - love your family

Fortune cookie material? Maybe. But, also clearly some of the most important lessons that can be learned. And, not surprisingly, these are some of the exact same lessons that Judaism is trying to remind us of, constantly. Life is best lived by focussing on that which really matters, and really sustains, while doing our best to ignore, or get rid of, everything which makes life painful, or vapid. That doesn't mean that we're supposed to be hedonists - to do whatever we want, whenver we want, because it feels good. There's a difference between pleasure and positivity (that's not the right word, but it's close enough for right now, I think. You get the idea). Focus on what really matters.

Rabbi Larry Kushner once taught me that the purpose of a spiritual life is to live each moment as if you just walked away from a car crash, unscathed. You get that heightened sense of awareness, and of appreciation. You understand, fully, about the difference between what really matters, and what doesn't. Religion, spiritual practice, is supposed to give us that sense, without the absolute horror of actual impending doom.

If you have a quiet couple of minutes today, do yourself a favor and watch that video. Simple, obvious and unbelievably powerful.

And, a hat-tip to Janice, for sending the link!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Basketball in Sederot

This won't get posted until later, but right now, I'm on my bus, in Sderot, sweating. Why am I sweating? A few of us played basketball at the lovely indoor playground here.

It's a beautiful day - mid 70's, sunny,breezy. So, why were we playing inside? That's the only court. They had to build an indoor playground, because it's fortified against missile attacks.

Since Operation Cast Lead, two years ago,it's been quiet. Only a few hundred missiles in these couple of years.

Did I mention that there's a play area for infants and toddlers in this fortified playground?


Today, we met with the mayor of Sederot. You may have heard of this city - it was the target of a vicious bombing campaign - starting in 2001, Hamas started launching missiles, regularly, into the city, hoping to hit - well, to hit something. The started launching missiles just before and after school times, hoping to hit a bus. It went on for 8 years and 8000 missiles, until Israel finally launched Operation Cast Lead, hoping to put an end to the attacks.

Israel was condemned by much of the world for having the audacity to kill Gazans.

When I've got more time, and a better keyboard, I'll write more about this, but I want to pass on one quick story from my visit with the Mayor. I asked him what he would tell the Prime Minister, if asked for advice about how to proceed with Peace Talks and the Palestinian negotiations. He answered with a story.

A man goes to his Rabbi and tells him of a problem. "I have 100 chickens, and a few of them died last night. What should I do?"

"Do you feed them a lot or a little?"

"A little."

"Feed them a lot."

The next day, the man comes back. "Rabbi, last night, 20 chickens died. What should I do?"

"Do you give them a lot or a little to drink?"

"A little."

"Give them a lot."

The next day..."Rabbi, now 30 died last night."

"Are they free range?"


"Let them roam."

The next day? "Rabbi, now they're all dead."

" Oy. I'm really sorry to hear this. I had a lot more advice to offer you!"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Loving Israel

So, as some of you know, I'm in Israel right now. I was lucky enough to get picked for an amazing training mission, being run by the WZO* and Israel's Foreign Ministry. They're training Rabbis to be better advocates for Israel.

* the WZO is the World Zionist Organization, the group which was founded by Theodore Hertzl, the founder of Zionism. It's basically the official body of Zionism.

I've been learning and seeing SO much, and I want to try to pass some of it on here, but we've got almost no down time, and we're all fried from long sessions, so it's hard to form a coherent thought. There's so much to say.

So, for now, let me say just one thing. It's not new, but this trip has re-confirmed it for me. Zionists like myself, especially those of us who teach, try to explain why we should be Zionist. Why we need to support Israel. In the end, I think we fail, because I CAN'T explain my Zionism to you, any more than I can really explain to you why I love my wife. I can list lots of reasons (for either) but they'll miss the point. They aren't the real reasons; they're just after the fact explanations.

Why I really love because I love Israel. I love the look of the hills, and the buildings. I love cabbies who are both rude and friendly at the same time, and I love sitting outside while I wait too long for my dinner. I love the Supreme Court (more on this later; I really love it), and I love the cheesy city center. You can never really explain love, can you? You just do it.

Maybe, if I write and speak well, I can help you feel some of this. But, ultimately, it's personal. Everyone has to have their own love affair with Israel, if you're going to have one at all. Trust me - it's worth it!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Is Personal Choice enough?

Rabbi Leon Morris has written a fascinating article in which he claims that Reform Judaism has to stop seeing "Personal Choice" as it's core (and, some would argue, only) principle

For many, many years, Reform has embraced autonomy as the foundation of our form of Jewish life. That embrace came about not so much because we thought it was a good idea, but because we thought it was true. In other words, no one said, "You know what would make an effective, powerful basis for religious observance? Autonomy!" Rather, we accepted the reality of autonomy. We knew, based on then-cutting-edge scholarship, that the Torah, and the rest of our sacred tradition, did not get handed down, directly and literally from God. Where they did come from, and what that means, is a very, very long discussion. But, one very large implication was that we could no longer say that "we have to do X, because God said so." Religion was now, like it or not, based on something else. And, ultimately, that meant that we had a choice.

You see, when we believed that "God said you have to do X," then not doing X was a really big deal. It involved dissapointing God or, even worse, angering God. But, now? What does dissobedience really mean? If I choose to not keep kosher, or give tzedakah, or anything else, then what line have I crossed? Where is the authority behind that law?

It's a complicated discussion, and I'm giving it short-shrift, to say the least. But you get the idea. When you take a literal commanding God out of the equation, and you don't have some other source of authority, then what you have left is some form of autonomy - I do this because I choose to. So, Reform Judaism, I believe, embraces autonomy because it acknowledged autonomy - anything else feels like a lie, even if it's intended to be a sacred lie.

But, that doesn't mean that it's a good, or effective system.

Autonomy may be real, so Reform Judaism may be "true," in some large, philosophcal sense (I think it is). But, that doesn't necessarily mean that it makes a good basis for a religious life. It's possible that, by focussing on autonomy, we've created a system which is better in theory than in practice. That, I think, is what Rabbi Morris is getting at:

But trying to build a movement on the basis of this term is like trying to build a nation around the assertion that “it’s a free country.” Of course, we would say, but there is so much more that follows. A 21st century Reform Judaism can no longer afford to have “personal choice” as its core principle because it eclipses other more central Jewish values that are needed now more than ever. Rather, personal choice must been seen simply as a given and the starting point for a variety of commitments we make.

Personal choice is a seductive motto because it can confer a seemingly ideological veneer upon the most haphazard and unreflective religious decisions. Convenience can easily be masked as commitment. In addition, personal choice undermines the notion of standards of any sort, making anything defensible and everything an equally valid choice.

I've heard this argument before, and I think it has a lot of merit. What I don't think I've thought about (at least, not much) is the tension that we've built around education. We claim, as a movement, that education is now even more important. How can you make Informed Choices (that's the preferred term in the movement) if you aren't well-informed? But, again, there may be a divide between theory and practice here:

Finally, personal choice may sound as though it is predicated on a high level of knowledge to be able to make such decisions. But the impetus for learning is greatest when one feels claimed by what one studies, and when there is a degree of engagement that joins the hand with the heart. While impossible for we post-modern Jews to read a classic text without a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” we are unlikely to do much serious learning without an accompanying “hermeneutic of embrace.”

The problem is that Rabbi Morris does a very good job of pointing out some of the limitaitons and failings of autonomy/personal choice. He doesn't really suggest how to replace them, or with what. The greatest virtue of Reform Judaism, and our commitment to autonomy, is that it's also a commitment to truth. I can claim that God insists, or more obliquely, that "you have to." But,what does that really mean?

To put it differently, what if autonomy isn't good enough, but it's all that we really have?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Does God make mistakes?

You know, I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who can make a cogent, rational, calm argument about an emotional issue, especially one which is a big hot-button. I still believe deep down that we'd be so much better off as a society if we could speak strongly but quietly about the most important issues. So, I was deeply impressed by the compelling, measured comments made by Minnesota rep Steve Simon about homosexuality:

But, I was also impressed, more specifically, by his religious argument. It's one I've used, but I don't know that I've ever expressed it as well as he does.

There are a lot of homosexuals in our world. A lot. Millions. Probably hundreds of millions.

Does God make that many mistakes?

I mean, if God really hates fags, why does God make so many of them?

Seems like an important question to me. Especially to those of us who claim to be religious. 

I wish that those who are so sure of what God wants, and what God thinks, would be a bit more careful with their surety. Maybe God is telling exactly what S/He wants, when S/He makes it so.

Dancing and Singing about Bin Laden

At this point, it almost feels like old news: Bin Laden is dead. Over the past few days, the news sources, blogs and just about every other source you can think of has been filled with various takes on this momentus event. And, far and away, the Jewish sources (mostly blogs) that I've been reading have had one repeated them: Jews should never, ever celebrate the death of an enemy (I've seen this from non-Jewish sources, as well, naturally).

The most common prooftext offered for this opinion is a famous Midrash (Rabbinic story) about the crossing of the Red Sea. When our people were freed from Egypt, we famously were saved, in part, by God splitting the Red Sea, and letting us walk across on dry land. Once we were through, God let the Egyptions cross, too, but He closed up the sea on them, drowing them all. In response to this, our people burst spontaneously into song, celebrating this great victory, and also explicitly celebrating the death of our enemies. 

That much is in the Torah. The Midrash expands on that story, though, and has God offering a chastisement. "How dare you sing," God rebukes, "while My people are drowning?!?" The Egyptions may have been our enemies; they may have been our opressors. Many of them may have been evil. But, they were also people. They were, each and every one, created betzelem elohim - in the image of God. They were each a human life which, our tradition teaches us, is of infinite value. To celebrate the death of a person -- any person -- is a sacrilege, and an affront to God. We are allowed to fight back; we are never allowed to celebrate the death, or suffering, of our enemies.

There is one big problem with this teaching, though. It's incomplete, and it's often misquoted by Rabbis. God does not chastise the Jews for singing in joy at the death of the Egyptions*. God lets us sing. Twice, in fact (once the men; once the women). But, then the angels start to sing, and that's when God steps in. God chastises them, not us.

*In fairness, I should say that this is true in the most famous version of this Midrash, as it's found in Midrash Rabbah. But, there are often variant versions of any Midrash, and it could be that there is another version which goes against what I'm saying here.

The lesson? It seems fairly obvious to me. It's reasonable for people to celebrate the deaths of their enemies. But it's not ideal. It's not holy.

Our tradition is trying to be nuanced. It's so easy, as always, to be a bit extreme, to see the world in black-and-white. Either it's acceptable, or even laudable, to dance in the streets when an undeniably evil person like Bin Laden dies. Or, it's wrong, and it's something we should never do, and it's somewhat shameful when we do (I've seen more than a few blog postings which take a, for lack of a better word, condescending tone towards those who celebrate).

The best take I've seen on this yet? It might be from a decidedly non-Jewish source - a blog that my wife pointed me to, named Girl's Gone Child:

Because it IS complicated. Because I want more than anything for my children to understand that everything is. Even this. Especially this.

No one in their right mind is sad that Bin Laden is dead. But, should I be celebrating? Reflecting? Thinking pensively about the nature of the world? Honestly? I want to do it all. Some may not reflect the best parts of me, but they're real. I've got a bit of angel in me that's just sad about the whole, tragic thing. There's part that wants to dance in the streets, since one of the most evil men in the world is gone. 

It really is complicated, isn't it?