Monday, April 23, 2012

Rabbi Gordis shows what's wrong with Peter Beinhart (and J-Street)

J-Street has always struck me as a noble idea (a pro-Israel/pro-peace alternative to the mainstream zionist movement) which is consistently off base in its reality - sometimes dangerously so.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis' harsh critique of Peter Beinhart's (founder of J-Street) new book expresses exactly why that's so. 
It's fine to criticize Israel - it's more than fine, actually. But, when you saying, for example, that the ONLY difference between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli terrorism is the government's response to it, you've probably left the realm of reasonable discourse:
Then, unbelievably, Beinart has this to say: “But what distinguishes Palestinian terrorism and settler terrorism is the Israeli government’s response.” Really? That’s all that distinguishes Palestinian and Jewish terror? How about the fact that there have been very, very few incidents of Jewish terror, while the Palestinians have turned it into a cottage industry? How about the fact that Israeli society detests the Jews who do this sort of thing, while Palestinian society lionizes them? Why does Beinart not mention those enormous differences? His sort of accusation and absurd misrepresentation is what one would expect from the enemies of Israel, not someone who professes love for the Jewish state. 
All Zionists (and everyone else) has the right, maybe even the responsibility to criticize Israel. But, that doesn't mean that all criticism of Israel is fair or right. Anyone who thinks that Israel is perfect is crazy. Anyone who thinks that it's as evil as, say, Hamas (or Syria, or...) isn't really paying attention.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Power of lowness

Came across an article asking an interesting (and, to some, provocative) question: why did the Jewish Renewal Movement, a movement founded with the serious mission of reinvigorating the spiritual life of Judaism, become so shallow? I'm not sure that the article is really being fair to the movement, but I'll leave that to others to debate. What I find most interesting is an underlying assertion which the author makes:

One of the ultimate concerns of that tradition is to actualize the image of God latent in human beings—women and men, Jews and non-Jews alike. And one of the ways the tradition does this is by constantly putting before us the commanding heights of perfection by which we should strive to evaluate and order our own lives. If, in the light of those heights, I know that mine is a "low" life, at least I know where I stand—and also that, if I so will it, and if I put in the effort, I can rise upward. In Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life, by contrast, everyone's life is understood to be already suffused with the "always-flowing force of light and energy," thus neatly reversing the poles of judgment. Now the measure of all things is "I," and all "I's" are equal.  

It expresses very well a reason that I'm uncomfortable with what's often labelled as "New Age" spirituality. There are some forms of spirituality which focus almost exclusively on making people feel good about themselves. It may seem strange to critique that approach -- what could be better than feeling good about ourselves? But, the potential downside of feeling good about ourselves is that it makes it much less likely that we'll improve.

Change almost always begins with dissatisfaction.

That's a big part of why sin and chastisement has always been a big part of Judaism, and of most religions. It's not to make us feel bad, per se. It's to make us feel bad as a motivational tool for growth. We hold up God as an ideal source of holiness, and we look to others (even if only through mythology) as humans who have reached a higher level than we have. And so, we give ourselves a goal, and a feeling of urgency in reaching that goal.

Of course, it has to be balanced with a sense of satisfaction (if we're always miserable, we're likely to give up) and joy. We don't spend all day, every day, beating ourselves up, literally or metaphorically. But, if we begin with the assertion that everyone is equally holy, and everyone is equally good, then it makes one wonder why we need to worry about religion or spirituality at all - just go about your merry way, satisfied with who and where you are in life.

Rabbi Simcha Bunum teaches us that we should always carry two slips of paper with us, one in each pocket. When we feel too low, we read to ourselves the one which reads, "The whole world was created only for my sake." But, when we feel too proud, we read the one which says, "I am nothing but dust an ashes."

And, the truth, as always, is found in the balance between those extremes.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

How Many Rockets Are Needed?

I know that this article is one-sided, and that there are surely some nuances missing. Nonetheless, it makes the central point very clear: Israel is under attack, and has to have the right to defend itself:

Think about that: Palestinian terrorists have fired more than 8,000 rockets at Israel since its mid-2005 pullout from Gaza, along with thousands of mortar shells; even in 2011, a "quiet" year, there were 680 rocket and mortar launches, almost two a day. A million residents of Israel's south live in permanent fear, punctuated every few months by more intensive bouts of violence that, like the one in mid-March, close schools for days and empty workplaces of parents, who must stay home with their kids. In Sderot, the town closest to Gaza, an incredible 45% of children under six have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as have 41% of mothers and 33% of fathers; these statistics will presumably be replicated elsewhere as the rockets' increasing range brings ever more locales under regular fire.

When someone tells you that Israel has no moral choice other than to end the Occupation, remind them of this. The last time Israel pulled out of an occupied region without a peace agreement already in place, this was the result.

By contrast, look at the West Bank:

where the IDF has effectively eradicated terror: Israeli fatalities originating from the West Bank fell from over 400 in 2002 to 9 in 2011; shooting attacks fell from 2,878 to 9; and not one rocket has ever been launched from there. But this was achieved only by reoccupying all Palestinian-controlled territory in 2002 and not leaving.

I'm not suggesting that it's good for Israel to be there, or that I want the occupation to continue indefinitely. My point is that when someone says that Israel has to pull out of the West Bank now, then we have to ask why we'd expect it to be any different this time? 

To paraphrase, the Occupation is the worst possible thing. Except, possibly, for ending the Occupation right now.

Pray for the peace of Jersualem.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Intelligent Confusion

Every now and then (and, not nearly often enough), I listen to a podcast called “Intelligence Squared.” It bills itself as “Oxford style debating in America.” Basically, they take one interesting issue and frame it as a proposition. For example, I just finished listening to an episode entitled, “Obesity is the Governments Problem.” Then, they get two experts from the pro side and two from the con, and have them debate it out. It's always intelligent, and usually far more civil than anything you're likely to hear in the wider media.

There's one part about it which I hate, though. Just before each debate, they ask the audience to vote on how they feel about the proposition. Afterwards, they vote again. The “winner” is the team which gains the most percentage points. I don't mind the overall idea—“winning” as defined by moving opinions. What I dislike is the vote, itself. I dislike having to pick* whether I agree or disagree. Because, for me, anyway, it's usually both.

*I know that, as a listener to a podcast, I don't actually have to vote, so it shouldn't matter to me. But, clearly, that's not how my brain works.

Sometimes we're uncertain about some topic because we don't know enough about it. For example, I can't tell you how I feel about the efficacy of drugs versus surgery for heart conditions, or about the best place to eat in London. I know nothing about them.

But, sometimes were uncertain about a topic because we know a lot about it. And, in knowing a lot about it, we come to realize that there isn't a single answer. The best place to eat in Tampa, for example*. Or, whether the government has a role to play in obesity in America.

*  although, I would have to admit that that's a simpler question that would be in, say, New York!

The arguments in this particular podcast were fairly straightforward, and fairly predictable. One side argued that obesity is a national health epidemic, that the country would benefit, as a whole, in several ways, from improving our nation-wide weight problem, and that various “let the free market/society/individuals solve the problem for themselves” arguments don't take into account the poor and otherwise disadvantaged who don't have equal access to information or opportunity.

The other side argued that, in fact, our “obesity epidemic” has been greatly exaggerated, and the consequences of said epidemic even more so. That government involvement in an issue almost invariably, over time, leads to creeping government control of that issue, and thus to an incremental, but significant, loss of freedom. And that, even if we felt it was important to solve this problem, government simply can't do it—we (society) don't have the faintest clue how to “cure” obesity (everything we try more less fails), and the government messes up everything it tries to do (one of the presenters had with him the safety sheet that comes with birth control pills. It was so long as to ensure that no one would ever read it. In trying to cover every possible safety issue, he argued, the government failed to meaningfully address a single safety issue. Is that who we want trying to solve something as complicated as obesity?). What evidence is there that the government could possibly have a positive impact on this problem? Better it should just stay away.

I have a very strong suspicion that just about everybody reading this has a counterargument to at least one of the points above. I'm sure that some of them (I know who you are, and so do you) are borderline fuming over some of them. That's not the point. Almost every single thing said during the debate had merit, and also had a counterpoint. And that is the point.

After hearing the debate, I feel have a much better grasp of the issues. I could talk more intelligentally about them. But I don't feel I have a better grasp of the answer, at least not when framed as a “yes or no” question. Both sides of the debate really do have some merit. And, I don't think that's a bad thing.

I once heard someone refer to “informed ignorance.” It's the kind of ignorance that comes from knowing a lot. The understanding that learning (almost?) always leads to greater complexity, rather than greater surety. That truth reveals itself as layers of nuance and complication, not as absolutes.

I am, frankly, so tired of all of our debates being framed as absolutes. As if one side has all the answers, and the other is bereft of anything of substance. Truth is almost never simple. Never black or white. Learning to listen to the debate, understand all the various arguments, and admit to a fundamental confusion is not a flaw, a sign of weakness, or a sign of intellectual impotence. Actually, I would argue, a sign of great intelligence.

I still think that one of the, if not the single smartest thing I've ever said (not counting the 99% of the time I'm just quoting someone else) is that whatever you think on any given issue, someone smarter than you thinks you're wrong.

And, the same goes for them, too.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

I am not the do-er

Rabbi Ethan Franzel, who was our scholar-in-residence this past weekend* long ago taught me a kind of mantra. "I am not the do-er." When someone over-criticized you, you say to yourself, "I am not the do-er." When someone over praises you, you say to yourself, "I am not the do-er." What this person is (over-)reacting to is not what you did, but something else. They are acting out some other issue on you, because you, and your action, got to close to their "real" issue.

* and who, it must be said, was awesome

Of course, Rabbi Franzel is a mystic, and so he believes that this is not just true for over-reactions (although it's most useful there, perhaps). It's really true of everything that we do. Even the things we do, we didn't really do them.

It's a farily esoteric idea, and not one I can do justice to. At least, not in a quick blog post written when I really should be prepping for Passover. But, here's one hint of an explanation. From the New York Times, of all places.

Nicholas Kristof wrote an article about the origins of our political ideologies. What makes me a liberal? Why are you (if you are) a conservative? And, if you've read any of this kind of thing before, you know that the answer lies almost entirely outside the realm of logic and rational choice. I am not, for example, in favor of Universal Health Care because I have rationally looked at the pros and cons of the issue and come to the conclusion which best suits the data. I am in favor of Universal Health Care, independent of rational reasons, and then I unavoidably construct an argument in favor of that view. It takes quite a bit of counter-data to shake me off of my instinctively arrived at position. And, this isn't just about me, or about this issue, of course. This probably applies to everyone of us, on almost every issue about which we care.

But, it gets even kookier when he talks about some other experiments. It seems that, at least in some cases, it's not hard to influence people's views in subtle, but distinct ways:

A University of Toronto study found that if people were asked to wash their hands with soap and water before filling out a questionnaire, they become more moralistic about issues like drug use and pornography. Researchers found that interviewees on Stanford’s campus offered harsher, more moralistic views after “fart spray” had been released in the area.

That's right. The views which I hold so dear, which make so much sense to me, which I can't understand why anyone would disagree with, they are so right, is malleable under the influence of soap or farts. 

It makes you wonder if you actually really believe anything at all.

There's plenty in the article interest, and probably offend, most of us. That's well and good, but that's not the point of this blog, at least. The point of the more spiritual one: my views aren't “mine” in the way that I think they usually are. They aren't something which I have attained by myself, for myself. They, like probably every aspect of my personality, happened to me. Or, to put a little differently, I don't have opinions, opinions have me.

Trust me. I am not the doer. And, neither are you.

Passover, Racism and Other Hidden Slaveries

Yesterday, I was watching a TV segment about a (relatively) famous controversial interview. In honor of the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Ted Koppel did an interview with Al Campanis, General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. During the interview, Koppel pushed Campanis on the issue of ongoing racism in baseball. He asked why, despite there being so many African-American players, there were none to speak of in front office or managerial positions. He said that many believed that smacked of a underlying racism among “baseball people.”

Campanis responded that he truly didn't believe it was racism. It was, instead, the simple fact that blacks didn't have “some of the necessities” to succeed in those positions.

That's right. It's not racism. It's just that blacks are inferior.

People were shocked to hear Campanis say this. Not for the obvious reason that it's a shocking thing to say. Not for the almost as obvious reason that it shocking that he would let himself say it (the article, and the segment I was watching, talks a lot about why, and how greatly, Campanis was disoriented during the interview. Essentially, his guard was completely down, and he said something that he never would have said, even if he thought it, under normal circumstances). No, people were shocked because Campanis was exactly the type of person who'd be expected to not believe this kind of claptrap. He was with the Dodgers, for cripes sake—the very team with which Robinson played. He had been a personal friend—roommates, even—with Robinson. He was one of the first players to publicly support Robinson.

He was a good guy. People who knew and loved him rushed to defend him as such. It was unfair, they said, to call him a racist, because so much evidence pointed to the fact that he was nothing but.

So, how could it be that this good guy, this representative of non-racism, could be spouting this kind of garbage? How could it be that he was a racist, after all?

My opinion? This points to the problem with defining someone as “racist.” What I mean is, there's a problem when we define “racism” as a single quality, and assume a person either has it, or doesn't. Either person is a racist, or he/she isn't. Clean and simple.

But, that's not how the world works.

Racism isn't one thing, and it's not an all or nothing thing. Racism is a quality, a flaw, that all of us possess, in some quantity or another. There are some people who are quite obviously extremely racist—Nazis, Klansmen and the like. There are some people who are all but devoid of racism. Most of us, I'm pretty sure, are somewhere in between those two poles on the spectrum. We harbor racist biases, prejudices, and so on, to some degree. Many of these, maybe most of them for most of us, are subconscious, and we may not even be aware that we have them. So, when someone accuses us (or someone we love/respect) of being racist, we angrily reject the accusation. “I'm not racist, and I can prove it.” If I can provide a strong counter example—evidence that I'm not racist, examples of my open-mindedness and tolerance—then it proves that I'm not a racist. But, in reality, it doesn't prove that. All that it proves is that I'm not a frothing at the mouth, extremist racist. It doesn't prove, not one bit, that I'm not racist at all.

And, frustratingly, it derails the conversation. Now it turns into a ridiculous back-and-forth of “You're a racist; I can prove it” followed by “No, I'm not; I can prove it.” And thus, it prevents a real, meaningful, potentially helpful discussion about actual racism. About what racism is, and how it affects us. About how we identify it in ourselves, and in others. About how we can end it.

I can't help thinking that this same discussion is incredibly important in relation to the Trayvon Martin case. On the off chance you don't know what I'm talking about, you can read about it here, but the salient point is that an African-American teenager was killed, and the evidence seems to show (although many dispute this claim) that he was guilty of nothing except of being black.

I've read some pretty upsetting things, some of them by people I know, and who I frankly expect to know better. And, some of them have been upsetting, at least in part, because they make the claim that this isn't, at all, a racial issue. Race had, and still has, nothing to do with this.


Look, I'm not claiming I know exactly what happened. But, if a white man kills a black man, especially one who is unarmed, and he isn't arrested for it, then it's impossible to say that race is not a part of this. We don't have to assert that racism was the only reason the white man killed the black man. We don't have to assert that racism was the only reason that the police didn't arrest that white man. We don't have to assert that racism is the only factor which drive those who call for his arrest, or who support him.

But, do we really have to argue whether or not race and racism is a part of this?

Do we really want to pretend that this situation is nearly as likely to happen in a world which is free of racism? Do we really want to pretend that our own views on this are not inherently and unavoidably influenced by our own racism, however mild it may be?

I called this post “Passover, Racism and Other Hidden Slaveries.” After I wrote it, I realized that it's easy to assume that I meant that racism is the way in which we still keep African-Americans enslaved. That's not what I meant (although, it may well be true). What I meant is that racism is, among other things, a slavery which binds us all. It is something which enslaves me, and almost certainly you, as well. I am much less racist now than I was years ago. I hope to be free of all racism, someday. But it would be arrogant folly of me to claim I don't have any racism in me. I'm not proud of it—in fact, I'm quite ashamed of it. But I am proud of the fact that I recognize it, and I actively work to minimize it.

The first part of solving any problem is, of course, recognizing that the problem exists.

And that's what brings us to Passover. There are two well known spiritual approaches to Passover (actually, there are many—but I'm only focusing on these two). One is to understand that Egypt, which in the Hebrew (Mitzrayim) actually means “the narrow place” or “the confining/constricting place” does not refer simply to a single empire which lived and died thousands of years ago. It refers to anything which constricts us. Anything which keeps us from being who we truly want to be. Anything which enslaves us.

And, the other approach? That teaches us that the worst kind of enslavement, the enslavement in which the Israelites found themselves after hundreds of years of servitude, is not even knowing that you're a slave. Is not even realizing that there's something better. that there's a freedom which awaits, if only I'd try to get there.

Racism is, clearly, just one example. But, it's one which has been in the press, as always, quite a bit. And it's one which has been on my mind. And, sadly, it's one which probably applies to all of us. Acknowledging the racism that we see is not the same as calling someone a Nazi. And, we should react as if it was. We can never be free unless we know what we need to be freed from.

This year, we are all slaves. Next year, may we be free.