Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Thought About Gun Control

Another mass shooting, this time out in California. 6 Dead.

Yesterday, two groups get into a fight on Clearwater beach, not far from me, and 2 people got shot in 3 separate shooting incidents.

3 dead in a shooting in Lakeland, a bit east of here.

This morning, I've seen a few posts from the father of one of the CA victims, and the man has an intense, burning anger mixed in with his grief. He's furious that, after all of the previous shootings, nothing has been done--really, basically nothing at all--to try to address the scourge of gun violence in this country. He's convinced that his son is dead because our politicians, either in bed with or afraid of the NRA, did nothing.

Look, speaking from a far calmer, less grief-striken place, I know that the world isn't that simple. There wasn't any law that could have been passed post-Sandy Hook which would have guaranteed that this man's son would now be alive. We can't draw a straight line like that.

But, for God's sake, we haven't even been able to close the gun-show loophole, and institute universal background checks. So many dead children (I can't bring myself to look up the exact number) in Newtown, and not one piece of legislation passed which even attempts to stem the tide (although, there have been plenty of laws passed which expand or protect gun-rights). Which even attempt to make a difference in the right direction. A gun dealer--a gun dealer--received death threats because he had the audacity to try to sell smart-guns. Guns which might--might--reduce gun violence without taking away anyone's right to own a gun.

I really do understand that there aren't simple solutions. Banning "Assault Rifles" is often more of a P.R. stunt than an actual safety measure, because it's so hard to define what, precisely, an Assault Rifle is. Opinions are divided as to whether magazine capacity limits would have any meaningful effect. Background checks can be circumvented in any number of ways. I get it. I really do get it--every proposed law has a problem, a weakness. Many of them have consequences and side-effects that, depending on your point of view, may not be worth the (potentially dubious) benefits of the measure.

But, I'm so tired of hearing that we can't do anything. That anything that we try to do, from outlawing the most dangerous guns, to making guns safer, to trying to keep them out of the wrong people's hands, is always the first step towards a full revocation of our rights and an inevitable slide towards a Nazi/fascist regime which is just dying to take away our guns. That guns are always the solution, and anyone who suggests otherwise is just a Commie Bastard who should stop trying to ruin America.

I hate fanatics of all stripes, and that included gun fanatics. I'm more than willing to defend the 2nd amendment, and your right to own guns. But, those who are firmly in the pro-gun camp have an equal responsibility to engage in sane, adult conversation about how to make our society safer. About how to reduce gun deaths. About how to make our world safer.

About how to keep one more parent from burying a child who didn't have to die.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Rational Mysticism

This is on the "topics I really want to start blogging about, but can't seem to find the time to do it well" list. But, I came across another oldish article I wanted to blog about, so it's giving me an excuse to at least dip my toe into this. I really hope I can get more out there, soon. But, let's begin...

To most people, mysticism is, almost literally, the opposite of rationality. I'm pretty sure that it was my teacher Dr. Larry Hoffman who said that most people's working definition of mysticism is, "weird religious things that other people do, but I don't." "Mysticism" conjures up images of people in flowing robes, burning incense and claiming to have access to alternative dimensions. Lots of swaying and fingerbells, mixed in with a healthy dose of pseudo-metaphysical talk. Not exactly my cup of tea, to put it mildly.

But, what if that's not what mysticism really is. Or, at least not what it has to be? What if there is a mysticism which is, in fact, quite doggedly rational? What would that look like?

Many of you reading this know that I have an intellectual crush on Rabbi Art Green and, especially, his book Radical Judaism. Well, in that book, and in that recent article I came across, Green tries to explicate a new vision for Judaism, one which is based on a modern, fully rational mysticism. Here's how he explains it in radical Judaism:
"The sacred" refers to an inward, mysterious sense of awesome presence, a reality deeper than the kind we ordinarily experience. Life bears within it the possibility of inner transcendence; the moments when we glimpse it are so rare and powerful that they call upon us to transform the rest of our lives in their wake.… When that mask of ordinariness falls away, our consciousness is left with a moment of nakedness, a confrontation with a reality that we do not know how to put into language. (Radical Judaism, page 4)
There's nothing esoteric about this. He's describing an awareness and an experience which most of us have had, to 1 degree or another, or the very least can understand. He isn't making any claims about the underlying nature of the universe, or of the independent reality of supernal realms. He simply talking about the natural, human ability to sense something transcendent in the world around us. That sense that we get, often when standing at the sea or the edge of the Grand Canyon, that there's more to the world than we can really take in or comprehend.

Or, as he says a bit later in his book (page 18), he simply believes that the whole world "is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts" and that "this [reality] is accessible to human experience." Put even more simply, the world is radically more Awesome and, if you're willing to use the language, Holy, than we tend to see on a daily basis, but there are ways that we can attune ourselves to see that Awesomeness and Holiness more regularly. In the article I keep referring to, he offers a pretty great summary of a Judaism based on this neo-mystical vision:
A Judaism that will speak to the emerging twenty-first century generations is only beginning to emerge. In contrast to Kaplan’s era, its point of departure will be the Jewish mystical rather than the rationalist tradition. A radical spiritualization of Judaism’s truth, begun within Hasidism some two hundred years ago, needs to be updated and universalized to appeal to today’s Jewish seeker. It offers the possibility of a religious language that will address contemporary concerns while calling for a deep faith-based attachment to the essential forms and tropes of Jewish piety. Mystical religion by its very nature shifts the focus of attention away from the positive/historical and inward toward the devotional/experiential. The question is not: “Do you believe that God created the world, and when?” but rather “Do you encounter a divine presence in the natural world around you?” and “What does that encounter call upon you to do?” We are not concerned with “Did Israel hear God’s word at Sinai, and how much of the Torah was given there?” but rather “Can you feel yourself standing before the mountain as you hear the words of Torah?” The “events” of Israel’s sacred narrative are read here as myth rather than history, but their voice is made more powerful rather than less as they call forth deep personal engagement and commitment. The God of this religion is not the commanding Other who rules over history, but rather the still, small voice from within that calls upon us to open our hearts and turn our lives toward goodness, even in the face of terrible human evil and the inexplicable reality of nature’s indifference to our individual human plight. This sort of new mystical or Neo-Hasidic piety turns toward the natural world as a source of inspiration, seeing existence itself as an object of wonder and devotion. It finds the miraculous in daily life and tends to focus its religious energy on the building and celebration of human community.
What if there is a way to be fully rational, to not have to abdicate one iota of our intellectual capacity, but still find Awesome transcendence in the world? What if it's possible to have the faith of the mystic while maintaining the mind of a scientist? What if I could actually say in polite company that I'm a mystic, without having to feel like I need to apologize for that? 10 years ago, I would have laughed at the idea. Maybe even a lot more recently than that. But, not now. Now, it's seeming more and more clear that it's the truth.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Israel, Apartheid and Antisemitism

A few weeks ago, I posted an article on Facebook about how Roger Waters, musician and former member of Pink Floyd, had once again been accusing Israel of being an Apartheid regime and so forth. I can't find the exact posting (why, oh why, do you make finding these things so hard, Facebook?), But if you search for it, it won't be hard to find something of the sort. Waters is a long time opponent/attacker of Israel, and he's lobbed around the Apartheid slander before. The article and my comments about it referred to Waters as an anti-semite. One of my most thoughtful friends wrote me privately, asking about that.

He had done some searching of his own to find out what Waters really believed and stood for. And he found that Waters claims that he isn't the least bit anti-Semitic, but that he vigorously opposes Israel's various racist policies. Isn't it possible, Waters claims and my friend asks, to be a critic of Israel, even a harsh critic, while not being anti-Semitic? It's a reasonable question, and I responded to him briefly in private messages, but promised a bit fuller of a response. Well, better late than never…

It's important to start with some understanding of the overall situation, because that frames the larger discussion. Although Israel, like probably every single country in the world, most certainly including the United States, has issues with discrimination, calling it an Apartheid state is simply ridiculous. Michael Oren, Israel's former ambassador to the United States, wrote a fantastic op-ed about this recently. He reminds us that Apartheid was a systematic legal framework intended at keeping a white minority in a place of political, social and economic dominance over the black majority. It was a pervasive system of segregation.

Compare that to the State of Israel. Arab/Muslim citizens of Israel have full rights. They can vote and form their own parties (and they often do). I believe it is still the case that there has never been a Knesset (Israeli Parliament) without representatives from those parties. There have been (and, I'm pretty sure, currently are) Arab judges on the Israeli Supreme Court. And, of course, Arab citizens are allowed to petition the court in the same way that any citizen would be, and they use that right to great effect (which is a very good thing, by the way). The Israeli Basic Laws (their rough equivalent of a Constitution) guarantee religious freedom and that freedom has been well protected (if not perfectly so) by the Israeli government. Here's one example: when Jordan controlled the Old City of Jerusalem, Jews were forbidden from entering it. But, when the Israelis recaptured it in '67, one of the first acts of the government was to declare that the Muslim holy sites, including and especially those on top of the Temple Mount, would remain accessible to Muslims. When, in the late 80s and early 90s, there started to be large amounts of conflict on the Temple Mount between Muslims and Jews, the Israeli government took the extraordinary step of banning Jews from going up there, and so preserved the ability of the Muslims to pray peacefully on the Mount.

I could go on, but I think the point is fairly clear. Calling Israel an Apartheid regime is nothing less than ludicrous. Of course there are counterexamples — of course there have been instances were Israel has acted in ways which do not reflect equality and religious freedom. Many times, Muslims have used the Supreme Court to find redress against such policies, and they've often been successful. I'm not claiming that Israel is a perfect icon of openness and acceptance; I am claiming that Israel is a vibrant democracy in which its Arab and Muslim citizens quite literally have more rights and freedoms than they would have in possibly any single other country in the Middle East.

I'll also admit that the situation gets muddier in the Occupied Territories, which have been so occupied since that '67 war. Reasonable people can debate whether Israel has acted largely fairly in those territories, or in which instances it has or hasn't done so. But, I maintain that Israel finds itself in a completely untenable situation — it occupied territory as the result of a war which it didn't start. And, although it's settlement policy admittedly hasn't made the situation better, there has never been a clear path for Israel to get out of those territories — there's never been an honest partner for peace, or a safe, sane way for Israel to withdraw. Israel hasn't been a perfectly moral occupier, but I'm fairly sure that such a thing isn't even possible. Israel has been far, far more moral than most countries would have been in this situation. Criticisms of Israel and its policies are legitimate, but labeling them as Apartheid is not — it's an attempt to delegitimize and demonize the country by analogizing it to one of the worst, most immoral regimes in our lifetimes.

And that brings us to the question of anti-Semitism. As I've said, of course it's possible to criticize Israel and/or its policies without being anti-Semitic. I've certainly been critical of some of those policies, as has just about every Zionist I know (when and how we are willing to air those opinions is another matter). But, when I say that we have to think about the larger context, what I mean is that we have to be aware that Waters' comment was not an isolated one. Israel is, seemingly on a daily basis, accused of Apartheid. Accused of genocide. Accused of human rights abuses. And so on. Israel, far and away the most moral, rights-based country in the Middle East, is portrayed in the public sphere as the pariah of that region. The United Nations General Assembly has made a hobby of condemning Israel at an extraordinary rate — at some point in its history, Israel has been the target of more official condemnations than the rest of the world, combined. Either Israel is actually worse than China, North Korea, Sudan, and all the rest of the vicious, human rights abusers in the world, combined, or Israel is being treated unfairly.

And so, if it's obvious that Israel is being treated unfairly, then we have to ask why it is being treated that way, and why so consistently? Why are press reports so often slanted against Israel (I can't tell you the number of times I've seen a headline such as, "Israel attacks refugee camp," only to have to read to paragraph 13 in the article to learn that the attack was in response to multiple rockets being launched from the camp)? I'm really not the type of person who finds anti-Semitism in every dark corner and under every rock, but I'm pretty sure that anti-Semitism has something to do with the ongoing horrifically unfair treatment of Israel in the wider world.

It's always tricky to jump from the big picture to a specific instance. Like I said, I firmly believe, and can easily defend the view that anti-Semitism plays into Israel's unfair treatment, writ large. And, it seems clear to me that Roger Waters' comments about Israel fit into that larger pattern. But, I do have to admit that I have absolutely no way to know whether Roger Waters is truly anti-Semitic, in his heart. Is it possible that he has simply been misinformed about many of the actual facts of the situation? Is it possible that he does know the facts, but has a radically different interpretation of them than I do, for reasons which have nothing to do with his overall view of Jews? Of course, it's possible. It would be ludicrous of me to claim otherwise. I've never met the man, and most assuredly never will. I do not know him at all. So, on one level, it's fair to criticize me for calling him anti-Semitic; how can I possibly know such a thing?

But, fair or not, I'll maintain my strong suspicion. When someone repeatedly uses the same arguments in language that the more obvious anti-Semites use, it certainly makes me suspicious. When someone attacks Israel in ways which are so clearly disproportionate to any misdeeds it may have done, using heinous language (such as calling them Nazis), it makes me suspicious. When someone continues to single out Israel over other countries which deserve the criticism so, so much more, it makes me suspicious.

No, I don't really know whether Roger Waters is anti-Semitic. But, I know that his views are. I know that his words are. And, that's probably the more important thing to know.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Objectifying Your Subjectivity

This is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me (if for no other reason then I'm really trying to get back on the horse, blogging-wise).

I read an article a few weeks ago. It discusses the discovery a little while back that much of what scientists thought were ingrained, unalterable features of human thought were, in fact, quite culturally dependent. Tests and games which had been well established as providing consistent, predictable results would produce very varied results when run on other cultures. What scientists thought was "human tendency" was actually just "Industrialized Western tendency."
At the heart of most of that research was the implicit assumption that the results revealed evolved psychological traits common to all humans, never mind that the test subjects were nearly always from the industrialized West. Henrich realized that if the Machiguenga results stood up, and if similar differences could be measured across other populations, this assumption of universality would have to be challenged.
The article goes on to talk about how many parts of human cognition were once thought of as universal, but were later revealed to be very, very particular. Even some optical illusions were perceived differently, based partly on your culture, something which I found deeply fascinating, just from a scientific point of view.

But, from a religious/spiritual point of view, it's incredibly important. Because (quite unfortunately, in my opinion) so many religious people make the mistake of thinking that their valid, subjective beliefs, opinions are worldviews are actually objective reality.

If I have a religious experience, then that experience is absolutely true. For me. It really happened, and I really experienced it. But, that experience is not valid for someone who never experienced it. To use a very clunky metaphor, if I see a movie and love it, then that movie might be, to me, the best movie ever. When I tell you that, I'm expressing my experience of that movie, not an objective fact about it. If, however, you go see that movie, and hate it, then that's your honest experience. My experience of it being awesome no way negates, and is in no way negated, by your experience of it being terrible.

Like I said, it's a terrible, clunky metaphor. But, it's getting at something. Let me try another angle.

People from all cultures and backgrounds have had mystical experiences. And, in some ways, those experiences are described in remarkably similar terms (a sense of oneness with everything, a sense of peace, a sense of great joy). But, the form of those experiences can vary, greatly. A devout Christian mystic is very likely to see, for example, a clear vision of the Virgin Mary during such a moment*. A Buddhist might see the Buddha or (probably more accurately) not have a particular, physically-based vision at all.

* I learned about this from one of the best books I've read in recent years, Why God Won't Go Away.

Here's the thing. That Christian really did see the Virgin Mary. That was an accurate description of his/her vision. But, it would be a totally inaccurate description of the Buddhist's vision. And, it would be an equally inaccurate description of objective reality. It might seem like objective reality to the meditator, just like the awesomeness of Star Wars might seem like an objective reality to me*. But, it's not**.

* Bad example. Star Wars actually is objectively awesome.

** Yeah. It is.

To me, religion is at its best when we acknowledge and celebrate the reality of our own, and each other's, religious experiences.

Religion is often at its worst when it (when we) insist on the objective reality of our religious experiences.

What's interesting is that the work that I've been doing with Spiritual Practice has led me to the same understanding. Spiritual Practice--meditation and the like--is in large part about trying to separate from the world as we see it, from the world as we conceive it, and to just experience it, as it is. To stop constantly putting our own understanding on the world around us, and try to apprehend it on its own terms, even if only for a moment.

It's not possible to truly do. At least, it's not possible for a novice like me. My own biases and preconceptions are too strong. Much too strong. But, frankly speaking, it's nice to try. It's nice to take a quiet moment, breath deeply (literally and metaphorically) and try to let the world exist as it is. And, to acknowledge that my understanding of that world is exactly that--my understanding, not the world itself. Everything I see, everything I think, everything I understand is filtered. It's true, to me. And, maybe, not to you.

And, that's good. It might even be true.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

J-Street and Dissent

This is my column from the Jewish Press which just reached mailboxes today. The original can be found (at least for now) at http://www.jewishpresstampa.com/current/Rabbinically_Speaking.

More than rightness wins the argument
By Rabbi Jason Rosenberg
Congregation Beth Am, Tampa

It’s a favorite quote of so many rabbis: elu v’elu divrei elohim chayim — These and these are the words of the Living God.

First found in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 13b), it’s God’s response to a debate between two rabbis’ schools. And, rather than simply announce which rabbis’ students had the right answer, God begins by telling them that, on some level, they were both right. They were both saying something with which God agrees. Since their opinions were, at least on the surface, mutually exclusive, one of them was going to have to carry the day. But, God wasn’t going to let them know which one it was until each school understood that the other side had something valuable to say, as well.

As I said, most rabbis I know love to quote this passage. But, it seems that we may have to quote it at least a few more times.

On April 30, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted to not admit J Street into their ranks. The Conference describes itself as, “the preeminent forum where diverse segments of the Jewish community come together in mutual respect to deliberate vital national and international issues.” It is, or it hopes to be, a place where the major players in the Jewish world can come together to talk about our most important issues. And, as you probably know, J Street is a political advocacy group, founded in 2008, which describes itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace.” And, since its founding, it has emerged as a strong, and often controversial, voice that finds its support in large part (although, certainly not exclusively) among the younger members of the Jewish community.

I believe that the Conference has made a huge mistake in not accepting J Street as a member.

Let me be clear about something — I’m not a fan or a supporter of J Street. Although I agree with most of their self descriptions that you can find, for example, on their website (there’s little there with which anyone can disagree, I’d wager), when they speak up on any particular issue, especially in opposition to AIPAC or other similar organizations, I rarely like what they say. I think that their views are often Pollyanna-ish, at best, and they’ve often shown distressingly simplistic thinking, especially when they talk in terms of cycle of violence and moral equivalencies (I’m a firm believer that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not a conflict in which both sides are equally culpable). So, I do not support their inclusion because I agree with them, or because I like them. I support their inclusion because, whatever I think of them, they represent a large, often passionate, pro-Israel segment of our community. And, as such, they deserve to be heard.

Many like to deride J Street as being anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitic. That’s a shameful canard. I believe that J Street has at times expressed opinions which, if followed, would do harm to Israel. I believe that J Street often finds itself aligned with the opinions of those who do hate Israel, and I sincerely wish that they would consider the implications of that fact. But, I know many people who are ardent supporters of J Street, and all of them are Zionists through and through. They love Israel, and they only want what is best for our homeland. We obviously differ on what, exactly, that is. We differ quite passionately, in fact. But I will not let my disagreement with them become permission for me to slander them as haters of Israel.

It’s also worth recognizing that marginalizing or dismissing J Street is a very bad strategic decision, as well. As I said, J Street finds a great deal of its support among the youngest members of our community, and these are exactly the Jews that we should be working hard to keep engaged, rather than ostracizing them from the larger community. If we tell them to go away, we shouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what they do.

The rabbis of old asked why, in that ancient debate, the school of Hillel won out over the school Shammai. It’s because, our sages teach, the students of Hillel were kindly and modest. And, they took their opponents views seriously and respectfully. That, more than the rightness of their arguments, won the day.

Elu v’Elu—there are many words of the living God. I pray that we can learn to hear them all.