Reality: “I Only Killed Three People”

Sunday, April 19, 2015

To say that the situation in Israel is “nuanced” is expressing things extremely mildly. Well thought out moral, ethical, political and philosophical positions sometimes dissolve in an instant given certain realities. Today was one of those days for me. Do you know that expression, “I SO did not see that coming!”? That was my day.

Today we went up into the Golan. The first time I was there was 40 years ago, only a short time after the Golan had been taken by the Israelis in the Six Day War. Several times since then I’ve been up there. The guides always take you to the same spot where you can see Lebanon, Syria and Jordan all at the same time. There’s no better way to understand the proximity of Israel’s neighbors and enemies (Israel has a peace treaty with Jordan).

This time was different. We were taken to meet a Golani tank unit and met and spoke with a couple of the young men who are members of the unit. They call themselves “The Guys”. They’re kids. So young. They are very matter-of-fact about what it is that they are doing. They know they are Israel’s first line of defense from an invasion from the north. One of the young men (21 years old) with whom we spoke served in Gaza last summer. “I only killed three people,” he said. “I guess that’s better for my conscience.”

Sometimes it is so hard to grasp Israel’s reality. Of course, that’s easy for me to say. I don’t live here and the lives are my children are not on the line the way the lives of these kids are. It just makes me want to scream. Israelis can’t afford to scream. They LIVE this reality.

I haven’t given up on my hopes for peace. I can’t. I won’t. And yet, I know these young men and the young men who will replace them, will need to be there for many years, vigilant, always ready, before peace is a reality. In the meantime, I don’t want them to die and I don’t want them to kill. Rather than merely accept their reality I will all I can to change it. My experience on the Golan makes these words from Deuteronomy (30:19) more urgent for me than ever: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live…” We must choose life. Now and always.

Not Alone (Not about Life on other Planets or God Watching Over Us!)

It’s important to me to facilitate a Shabbat evening celebration that I,myself, would attend. I try to offer a Shabbat whose foundation is joy-filled music, woven with thought-provoking musings and meditations, is warm, welcoming, informal, creative, inventive, flexible, edgy, interactive, present and immediate. My community, Beth Shir Shalom of Santa Monica, does that in wonderful ways. In a addition to any contributions I might make, we are blessed with a wonderful Cantor and a cadre of volunteer musicians that I feel are amazingly talented and passionate about what they bring. To be able to celebrate Shabbat this way with a community that means so much to me is a fabulous gift.

Yet, whenever I’ve gone on vacation, I haven’t been able to find a congregation that generates the kind of feelings we do – until this past Shabbat.

This past Shabbat I had the privilege of sitting with the community (couldn’t call it a congregation – way to formal!) of Beit Tefilah Yisraeli in Tel Aviv. Rabbi Esteban Gottfried is the spiritual guide, along with several incredible musicians, of a group of enthusiastic and passionate participants of all ages and backgrounds. The music was beautiful – everyone sang, the dancing was freilach and free – almost everyone danced, and Esteban’s (everyone knows and honors him as the rabbi and everyone calls him Esteban) bridge commentaries are gentle and insightful. I finally felt like I was praying at Beth Shir Shalom except I was in Tel Aviv! They even sang V’shamru to the Beatles Norwegian Wood! And it worked so well!

What did I learn? I learned that what we are doing at Beth Shir Shalom – our music, our style, our comfort zone, our constant search for sincerity and meaning, our joy – is not an isolated expression but rather part of something larger and completely wonderful! I also learned that at Beth Shir Shalom we’ve been dancing in our hearts. Now we need to dance!

From Our Mirpeset

My wife and I just landed in Israel. Today was a beautiful morning in Tel Aviv. We stepped out on the mirpeset,our balcony, directly over the beach. Some people were out early on the sand in the water. And then, an air raid siren split the air. It wasn’t an emergency or an attack. It was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. When those sirens go off, everything in Israel comes to a halt. Everyone stops what they’re doing. Cars stop in the middle of the street. People stand absolutely silently. One has to feel it to understand it. I’ve felt it before but never from a balcony, eleven stories up, watching it happen and participating at the same time.

Israel certainly has its challenges figuring out what it is to be and act like a Jewish nation, but not during those sixty seconds of silence. When I’ve been in Israel previously, I’ve often felt that, because of the Holocaust, each person here is holy. Of course, most Israeli’s don’t feel it that way, even on Yom HaShoah. It’s a regular business day here (except that some restaurants and businesses close early the night before when the memorial day begins and schools have special programming). But during those sixty seconds everyone feels it…and knows it. They know their “holiness” and the special responsibilities that come along with it.

That is why the occupation of Palestine stands as such a complete moral injustice. Certainly, in the general sense of most commonly accepted international mores the Occupation is wrong. But, for the only country in the world that recognizes the Holocaust as at least part of its raison d’etre, the Occupation is a moral obscenity. Adding to that Israel’s current treatment of African refugees and Israel’s ethical quagmire is thicker and deeper than ever.

None of this takes away from Israel’s right to be and the its right to be Israel, a state struggling mightily to be both Jewish and democratic, the only place that stands in silence to remember and honor the millions who were murdered for no other reason than because they were Jews and to say, “NEVER AGAIN!” in their memory.

The balance between Israel’s obligation to be the official inheritor of the persecutions of Jewish history and her self-imposed mandate to act based on Jewish ethical values is not yet achieved. It is a constant part of my personal agenda as a Jew that I must do what I can to help Israel make that balance a reality. But during those sixty seconds…I am silent.

Indiana, Arkansas and an Orange on the Seder Plate

Many years ago, Dr. Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was told a story by a college student. The student said that she asked a Rebbe whether there is room in Judaism for a lesbian. The Rebbe responded, “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate!”

For the next Passover, Dr. Heschel toyed with putting a crust of bread on the seder plate to honor gays and lesbians in our communities but thought that it would be completely wrong for two reasons: 1) it would make everything on the whole table, in fact the whole house, unkosher for Passover and, more importantly, 2) instead of honoring Jews who are LGBT the crust of bread would say they are unclean and unacceptable – tainting the entire Jewish people.

Instead, Dr. Heschel decided to put an orange on her seder table saying, “I chose an orange because it suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life.” Clearly, this year, an orange on the seder plate is more meaningful than ever in light of Indiana’s and Arkansas’ attempts to pass legislation that would open the door for people to deny services to lesbians and gays on “religious” grounds.Even their amended Religious Freedom Restoration Acts will amount to legalized discrimination against lesbians and gays. Religious freedom in this country is doing just fine and doesn’t need to be “restored”. Religious freedom in this country has never been interpreted to mean the denial of civil rights or the denigration by one American of any other American.

So, not only do I urge you to put an orange on your seder plate, I urge you, after Passover, save your save your orange(s). Purchase another if you only do one seder and then join me in sending an orange to Governor Mike Pence of Indiana and another to Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas. Let them know that our read of their vile laws isn’t a misinterpretation. They were caught putting into writing what they really feel and what they really believe. Who looks like the real Americans now? Who looks like those practicing religious and social freedom – gays and lesbians who just want to live their lives in peace or the bold-faced bigots of the Indiana and Arkansas legislatures, their governors and their constituents who were waiting for these laws to make their bigotry legal?

As Jews, we know that moves to concretize such mean-spirited and discriminatory attitudes into law is the first step to ostracizing and enslaving a group of people. Dr. Martin Luther King counseled us: “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

Have a sweet and meaningful Passover or a happy Easter or a few good days in which we all do something to fix the world!

ripe orange with leaves on white background