Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Can There Even Be A Perfect God?

I've talked before (heck, I talk a lot) about how I don't believe in the "traditional," Biblical image of God. Yoram Hozony, has written an article taking on that image of God in a different way.

First of all, what most people think of as the "Biblical God" isn't:
The second problem is that while this “theist” view of God is supposed to be a description of the God of the Bible, it’s hard to find any evidence that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) thought of God in this way at all. The God of Hebrew Scripture is not depicted as immutable, but repeatedly changes his mind about things (for example, he regrets having made man). He is not all-knowing, since he’s repeatedly surprised by things (like the Israelites abandoning him for a statue of a cow). He is not perfectly powerful either, in that he famously cannot control Israel and get its people to do what he wants. And so on.
And, philosophically speaking, the very idea of a perfect God might be borderline nonsensical:
What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.
The whole idea of there being some "being" who is "up there" hasn't really made sense to me for a long time. I agree with Hozony who seems to be saying that it's well past time for us to be thinking about God differently. As he says, would it be so bad to talk about a God who actually make sense?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

No Slippery Slope For Same Sex Marriage

The Catholic Church has again weighed in against same-sex marriage using the old slippery slope argument:
If not, why not contemplate also freely chosen polygamy and, of course, not to discriminate, polyandry?

Rather than take the time to explain why this is such a ridiculous line of argument, I'll just defer to Jay Michelson:

Same-sex marriage is meaningfully different from the other examples always mentioned:
we do not as yet have any evidence of millions of people whose sole path to emotional and physical intimacy is polyamory. We do have that data for gays and lesbians. ...There may be some polyamorists who feel the same way, but we haven’t heard from them as we have from millions of gays and lesbians who have pleaded for equality in public squares, courts, and churches. To analogize the visible to the invisible, the real to the unreal, is absurd—and thus offensive.
Slippery slopes aren't, usually, all that slippery:
Societies often permit one thing while prohibiting another similar thing. Driving 55 is legal—75 or even 85 on one Texas highway—but driving 95 is not. There are differences in degree, not in kind; and yet, societies sit on the slippery slope all the time, and don’t slip. 
And, let's also remember that this is simply not about religious freedom, because we're talking about civil marriage, not religious marriage:
No one is telling the Church what to do within its magisterium (misleading rhetoric about “religious freedom” notwithstanding). I would appreciate it if it would stop telling New York what to do with ours.
Programming note: I'm going to be a guest on the "Sunday Simcha" radio show this Sunday at 12:15  to talk about the Tampa Rabbinical Associations statement in support of LGBT rights. 88.5 FM in Tampa; I don't think they stream on the Internet, but it will be archived later at http://www.wmnf.org/programs/sunday-simcha.

We're Not All The Same

Recently, my friend in teacher Dr. Joel Hoffman blogged about a common, but ultimately incorrect, belief: the belief that we are all, at our core, similar:
Obviously, there were differences: financial, cultural, religious, and more. Some people owned private jets and others couldn’t afford dinner. Some children grew up with families in homes and others on the street. Some religious leaders worshiped one god and others worshiped many or none at all. Some languages and cultures demanded formality while others all but precluded it. And so forth.
But I thought that when it came to what really mattered, most people were certainly like me. And — the other side of the same coin — I thought that I could figure out the differences without leaving my home.
I was the modern anthropological equivalent of the 19th-century armchair scientist.
As he points out, as violence continues in and around Israel, it's especially important to remember this: not everyone is the same, deep down. I'm not claiming that it's genetic — that one group of people are inherently, irrevocably different (or better) than another. But, whatever its source, reality seems to be that some of us are deeply, fundamentally different from others. The feeling that, at our core, we're all alike, and that if we could just sit down and talk to each other, we could always get through our differences, might be noble. But it might not be true. And, if it's not true, pretending that it is can have real, life-threatening consequences.

That same point was made, more explicitly, in a recent op-ed by David Horowitz (someone who, it must be noted, is generally seen as pro-peace) in The Times of Israel. The members of Hamas are not like us. They are not generally good people who, driven by hopelessness, do terrible things but who, if only given a chance, will gladly see that we're all brothers, and will make peace.

They are evil.

I try not to use that word lightly, ever. But, it's hard to argue that it doesn't apply to Hamas:
Actually, we are grappling here with people who have lost “tzelem elohim” (the image of God), who have spurned the divine gift of life, rejected the sheer joy of drawing breath on this planet. The terrorists of Hamas and others like them – inspired, armed, funded and trained by the ideologically and territorially rapacious rulers of Iran – do not ultimately seek to live and let live. They strain to kill and be killed.
It may be difficult to accept, but the evidence is everywhere. It was clear when Hamas killed its own people while seizing power in Gaza in 2007. It is clear in a terrible history of suicide bombings against Jewish, Christian and, again, Muslim targets. It is clear in Hamas’s ruthless deployment in Gaza – its savage readiness to open fire from right next to mosques and schools, and to take children out with its rocket crews in the cynical appreciation that its decent, humane enemies might then hold their fire and thus enable it to continue to wreak destruction.
Every decent person wants to see an end to violence in and around Israel. Every person I know, however much they love and support Israel, would love to see an end to the fighting, and a drawing back of Israel's troops from the border with Gaza. But, suggesting that, if Israel's and Hamas's leaders would just put down the guns for a moment, have a cup of tea together, and share their stories, somehow this will lead to peace — well, that just sounds na├»ve. And, frankly, if Hamas's leaders are evil, then that's exactly what they'd want. Because, that's exactly how the keep getting away with acts of terror.

I'm not saying it as well as Horowitz — but give his article a read and, in all sincerity, tell me if there's a flaw in the thinking. Because, this is one of those times when I'd love to be wrong. I'd love to go back to a world in which I could believe that, deep down, we're all good. Because, I really can't look at Hamas, and other similar terrorists, and believe that.

As always, I want to be perfectly and explicitly clear — I don't think that every Palestinian is evil. And I believe that the death of every single innocent, whatever side they may be on, is a tragedy. It breaks my heart to see pictures of people suffering in Gaza, especially knowing that the immediate cause of that suffering was Israeli military power. But, wishing and praying that the fighting may end is not the same as thinking that Israel is wrong to fight. Despite pithy slogans to the contrary, sometimes it really does make sense to fight for peace. Sometimes, it's the only possible way to peace:
For anybody who genuinely seeks to preserve innocent lives,everybody‘s innocent lives, should long since have faced the fact that doing so requires marginalizing and ultimately defeating Hamas and its ilk.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Responding to a critic of Israel

Sarah Posner is a writer for Religion Dispatches, a blog/e-letter I read. Today, she criticizes Israel for its actions in Gaza:
Obviously Hamas’ rocket launches into Israel are unacceptable. But so is the occupation, which Yoffie conveniently fails to mention in his homage to war. What’s more, as Haaretz reports this morning, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin was close to negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas. The Israeli government knew it, but assassinated its leader Ahmed Jabari anyway:
She criticizes former Union of Reform Judaism President Eric Yoffie for his belligerence:

Yoffie, though, seems to revel in Israel’s aggression, writing that “Israel came into being so that Jewish children would never again have to huddle together in fear, terrorized by enemies of the Jewish people.” Do Gaza’s children huddle in fear, in Yoffie’s view? Are they hungry, without jobs, without economic possibilities, without a future, and fearful of Israel’s military might?
I responded on the blog (and, I'm unfortunately awaiting the vitriol which seems inevitable on the web). Here was my response:

Ms. Posner makes some valid points, but she also leaves out very relevant information.
Yes, Palestinian deaths and casualties have been, and continue to be, higher than Israel's. That sounds quite damning for Israel. But, we must account for two factors:
a) Israel has avoided many casualties through its "Iron Dome" anti-missile system. The low casualty numbers have nothing to do with Hamas' "fairness" or some such, but with Israel's ability to defend itself. Do we praise Hamas because they haven't figured out how to kill more effectively, yet? 
b) Hamas deliberately hides its operations in dense civilian centers, thus guaranteeing civilian deaths in any response. These civillian deaths are a direct (and possibly deliberate) result of Hamas' policies. 
As for Baskin and the possible truce on which he was working with Jabari, Ms. Posner reverses the blame. She asks, "Why did Israel attack when they were close to a truce?" Instead, we must remember that Israel's actions were a reaction to unprovoked hostility from Hamas in Gaza. What we should be asking is why Hamas chose this time, as a truce was being worked on, to start shelling Israel. And, once they did, what was Israel to do, once the shelling started? Trust that Hamas, despite the attack, was actually, finally interested in peace?
I am sorry if the leaders my movement seem to "revel" in Israeli defense (which Posner calls "aggression"). I don't think that's the case. But, in a world in which every Israeli act, however justified, is vilified in the press and the wider world, it's important for our leaders to be full throated in standing up for Israel.
Finally, Posner refers to the "occupation" and implicitly balances it with the shelling - the shelling from Gaza is wrong, but so is the occupation. Tit for tat. Of course, she doesn't point out that there is no occupation in Gaza. Israel pulled out in 2006. The result was a strengthening of Hamas' position in the region, and the beginning of a constant assault on civilian centers in Israel's south, notably Sderot. It was Israel pulling out of Gaza which led us here; it makes clear what is explicit in Hamas charter - their goal is not the end of the occupation, but the end of Israel.
I honestly and deeply believe that every civilian death, on either side, is a tragedy. As soon as Hamas stops seeking the destruction of Israelis, and of Israel, they can be safe. I pray for that day.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tired, cranky and grateful

My connection isn't good enough to find and link to it, but if you've never seen it, Google "Louis C.K. And everything's great." Hysterical, and a really important point to remember.

I'm exhausted. I just figured out that, by the time I get home, it will have been just over 24 hours since I left for the airport in Tel Aviv. Almost no sleep. Bad food. Achy body.

But, you know what? I just got to spend an amazing 10 days in Israel. I got to tour around on a comfy bus, and sleep in nice hotels. And, my "long" trip is nothing compared to what people, just a generation or three ago, would have had to put up with to get to Israel.

So, I'm tired, and I'm cranky, and I'm dying to be home already. But, I'm also feeling very, very lucky.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Israel - The North

Today was one of those days where, when you look back at the start of the day, you can't believe that it wasn't a week ago.

We started out from our (very lovely) kibbutz hotel, and headed up to the Golan Heights. I've been up there many times, but it never, ever fails to take my breath away. There's something about the terrain - the hard, rocky land, covered in brush; the rolling hills; the gorgeous valley, visible end-to-end - which leaves me near tears, every time. Plus, there's no better way to understand what security is really all about -- looking down on the valley, seeing how narrow, how fragile, how in-reach it is, really drives home how scary life in Israel can be.

We went to a couple of different locations, and so we got a couple of points of view (literally). When you can easily see Lebanon and Syria, pretty much at the same time, well...

I think that contrast - the natural beauty tied to the existential fear - is part of what I find so powerful up here.

Then, we got to do something really special - something I've never done before. The other Rabbis on this trip, Rabbis Flip and Laurie Rice, have a connection to "Friends of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces)," an organization dedicated to supporting the Israeli soldiers. They arranged a meeting with a tank squad. We got to see the tanks up close, got to see a tank driving by (pretty impressive!), got to talk with the soldiers (all of whom seemed, to these old eyes, to be about 12 years old. Except the commander - he must have been a least 14), and we even got to get into a tank (pictures to come, of course). It was fun, but it was a strange kind of fun. We were tourists. They were taking a break from preparing for the ever-present reality of war.

Again - it's that contrast of reality. Were these kids American, most of them would be thinking about college. Instead, they're all toting around M-16s and teaching gawking Americans about the difference between this shell, which is normal, and this shell, which is armor-piercing. There's so much more I want to say about that, but I really don't know how to begin. But, I hope you understand what I'm trying to say.

And then, we got to go to Tz'fat (or Sefat, or Safed, or however you want to spell it). It was, in a way, the hardest and most disappointing part of the trip for me. Don't get me wrong - it was still wonderful. But, we had to be in and out in a couple of hours. We got to see the synagogue of the Ari - the Rabbi who created Kabbalah. We got to see the artists shops in the Old City. We got to see the sun set. But, it was like only having an hour to spend with a long-lost friend -- there was so much more, and I longed for it. But, my biggest worry was that what we saw wouldn't be enough for the people on the trip, that they'd be disappointed. I shouldn't have worried -- they were all wowed by one of my favorite places on earth, so I felt great about that.

After a long day, and another delicious dinner, we gathered for some debriefing -- a chance to share, in just a few words, a thought or impression from the trip, so far. People talked of feeling connected to the land. Of being amazed at how complicated it is. How beautiful it is. About how moved they were by the kids from yesterday's youth village, or today's soldiers. About how amazed they were that artillery shells could fall in this country (which they did earlier today), and life could just continue -- about how much courage and love of country that must take. And, something someone said reminded me of a poem I love. Through the magic of Google and Wi-Fi, I managed to find it on the spot.

I read it first in Rabbinical School, but I don't know that I've read it, or at least really thought about it, since having a son. Like everything in life, it meant so much more this time:

An Arab Shepherd Is Searching For His Goat On Mount Zion

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion

And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.

An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father

Both in their temporary failure.

Our two voices met above

The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.

Neither of us wants the boy or the goat

To get caught in the wheels

Of the "Had Gadya" machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,

And our voices came back inside us

Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been

The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

-- Yehuda Amichai



On our itinerary, we're officially on day 5 of our Israel trip. But, not really. Day 1 was travel, and because of the overnight flight, day 2 was mostly travel, followed by dinner and sleep. Day 3 was a lot of fun - exploring Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

But, day 4? On day 4, this trip really started.

I don't have time to go into detail (I hope to, soon), but suffice it to say that every bit of geek in me (especially the geek-who-loves-Judaism) gets going when we go to places like Caesaria. Caesaria was an ancient Roman city (and, I learned/was reminded, the capital city back in Roman times). It's right on the Mediterranean sea. So, you can sit in the theater (which is not, I learned, an amphitheater - know the difference?) and look out at the water. You can walk past the floor of King Herod's palace, with its mosaics and (honest!) fresh-water pool. You can stand within the hippodrome*. You can walk on Roman streets.

* Where I, while knowing that a hippodrome was for racing, not fighting, nonetheless felt compelled to spread my arms and yell, "Are You Not Entertained?!?"

I'm sorry, but I never get tired of this. To stand in an actual Roman city? To, as I keep saying, step on the same stones where, long ago, men walked in togas - without any irony! That it, to me, mindblowingly wonderful.

Today, we're off to meet a tank battalion, tour the Golan heights and then head of to Sefat -- one of my favorite places in the whole world. A good trip just keeps getting better.