Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Day the Prayers Died

Last night at synagogue, my rabbi made several brief references to a certain incident that occurred on Tuesday morning.  But only once did he mention the city where it happened, Jerusalem.  Hearing that name, I broke down – quietly of course.  I simply put my hands over my face so nobody could see the intense pain that the mere mention of the name had given me.  And there I kept my hands for a couple of minutes, while the rabbi went on to talk or sing about something else.  I had stopped paying attention.  For truly, to be Jewish this week is to think that any topic is difficult to focus on when the alternative is to think about Jerusalem.

Yes, the city had seen violence for weeks prior to Tuesday.  Things haven’t been the same since the lead up to the Gaza War this summer.  But Tuesday was a game changer.  The scene was a synagogue.   Men were at prayer, and not just any men, but teachers, leaders, scholars, rabbis – one in particular was as close to Jewish royalty as anyone in the world.  Then, suddenly, their prayer was interrupted by two cousins who were also fellow cousins of Abraham.  These cousins entered the prayer-room carrying weapons galore.   And in no time at all, the synagogue turned into a scene from a Tarantino movie.  There was so much blood that one person slipped, fell down a flight of stairs, and broke a bone.  He was one of the fortunate survivors.    

In his classic, “American Pie,” Don McLean sang about “The Day the Music Died.”  Tuesday in Israel was “The Day the Prayers Died.”  They were replaced by images of blood, guns, axes, knives, and above all else, human reactions.   Oh, how I am haunted by those reactions.  Hamas, the duly elected government of the Gazan people, officially referred to the event as “an appropriate and functional response to the crimes of the Israeli occupation.”   On the streets of Gaza, passers-by handed out sweets and wielded axes of their own as a tribute to the men who did the deed in Jerusalem.  Street celebrations were also held in the “little town of Bethlehem.”   And on Palestinian radio, the heroes du jour, Rassan and Uday Abu-Jamal, were referred to as “martyrs.”

Another reaction, that of Jordan’s Minister of Parliament Hussein al-Atta, was to read a Qur’anic prayer in the memory of Uday and Rassan.  Al-Atta went on in his facebook page to call the attack “a natural response to the Zionist occupation against our people in Palestine.”  Note the similarity between al Atta’s reaction and that of Hamas: both place the blame for this slaughter on the “Occupation.”  

I’m sorry, folks, but that explanation is not going to cut it.   The men who were killed on Tuesday weren’t “occupiers.”  They weren’t soldiers.   They weren’t politicians.  They were Jews who were worshiping on the western edge of Jerusalem.  Nothing in what they were doing or in what they represented should have been controversial – unless of course you simply think that Jews should die because they are Jews.

Now yes, I understand the way many in the western media would like to depict the victims in this story.  According to the conventional western picture, these victims weren’t simply ordinary non-combatants; they were members of that exotic sub-species of humanoid known as the “Orthodox Jew.”  Some reporters even went as far as to depict them as “Ultra-Orthodox Jews,” as if the word “Orthodox” alone didn’t properly convey how bizarre, anachronistic, and unenlightened these men were.  

But I’m not buying into the relevance of that distinction.   To me, it matters not if these were Orthodox Jews praying in an Orthodox yeshiva or Reform Jews praying in a Reform rabbinical school.  They were Jews at prayer.   And according to what appears to be a significant fraction of the Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian people, that alone is a capital offense.

Do all Palestinians support the position of Hamas here?  Not even close.  But if you’re a young Palestinian, and if you recognize the legitimacy of both the Jewish and the Palestinian claims to the holy land and you’d like to see a two state solution, what can you do to work for this goal?  How are you going to take on the ruthless lords of Hamas?   Or the Islamic Jihad?  Or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine?  How vocal do you dare get in showing empathy for the plight of the Israeli people?

It’s easy for Jews to sound off against “the Occupation” and announce their sympathy with the Palestinian narrative – for they can do so without fear of physical retribution and find organizations of Jews (like Jewish Voices for Peace) who support their every word.  Life is not the same for Palestinians.  There, you have a choice: violent resistance or non-violent resistance.  But both involve resistance – and not just to the Occupation but to the very existence of a Jewish State.

One of the things that died this week is the myth that “this conflict is not about religion, it’s about politics.”   Those Jews were killed because of their religion.  And the killers, allegedly, were motivated by the threat that the Israeli government was going to jeopardize the Muslim monopoly over what the Muslims call “al-Haram ash-Sharif” and the Jews call the “Temple Mount.”  That piece of real estate is so important to Muslims that Mahmoud Abbas, the so-called “moderate” Palestinian leader of the West Bank, had previously called for a “day of rage” because of perceived Israeli threats to al-Haram ash-Sharif.  

We’ve seen that rage, alright.  We’ve seen it in the work of Rassan and Uday Abu-Jamal.  But again, don’t focus too much on the rage.  Focus on the reaction.  Look at the pictures of the celebrants on the streets of Gaza.  They didn’t seem enraged at all.  They seemed to be calm, joyful, even serene.  For them, it was just a nice day to be alive.   

The banality of evil, indeed.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Time to Twin

We are now smack dab in the middle of November.  And that means we’re at the heart of Twinning season.   The “Twinning” I’m referring to involves interaction among Jewish and Muslim congregations.     Twinning started several years ago as the brainchild of an organization called the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.   FFEU’s website indicates that this phenomenon has now spread to 30 countries and is especially active here in the United States.  

I am proud to say that my hometown of Washington, D.C., is one of the world’s most active “Twinning” cities.  This weekend in D.C., a number of Jewish and Muslim congregations will be getting together.  I plan to attend one of those events in the morning at the Bethesda Jewish Congregation.  In the afternoon, I will be in Boyds, Maryland, where the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington, D.C. (JIDS), will be bringing together teenagers from various Jewish and Muslim congregations around the area.  The teenagers will be removing invasive vines from a public park and will be engaging in a dialogue activity that has been designed and will be facilitated by the teenagers themselves.   Next Sunday, the 23rd, the pro-Twinning forces are planning a summit meeting of sorts.  That event will be held at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, the city’s largest Jewish congregation, and will bring together Washington area imams and rabbis for the purpose of convincing clergy and congregants to place a higher priority on deepening Muslim-Jewish relations. 

Twinning may sound like it exclusively involves Jews and Muslims, but that is not the case.  JIDS, which I have coordinated since its inception in early 2009, has a number of dedicated members from a number of faiths, including different Christian denominations as well as the Baha’i and Unitarian-Universalist movements.    They come for the same reason that heterosexual people show up at gay rights activities: because they are allies.  In the case of Jewish-Islamic dialogue, these “allies” care about the need for Jews and Muslims to reconcile, work for peace in Israel/Palestine, and help to usher in an era in which religion can be a unifying rather than a divisive force in our world.  

As long as the planners of a Twinning event take care to engage the participants at a high level, the event can be inspiring.  It will remind all who attend that when members of different faiths truly encounter one another, they learn not only that our common ground dwarfs our differences, but more importantly, that once our differences are embraced and accepted, rather than feared, they can be a source of tremendous enlightenment.   I would never have been the Jew that I am today had I not been exposed to faiths like Islam, Christianity and Hinduism.   

No matter where you live, even if it’s a place like New York or D.C. where Twinning is relatively active, your community is surely just scratching the surface when it comes to Jewish-Muslim reconciliation.    The Interfaith movement is essentially a small child that still needs to be nurtured and that easily can be overwhelmed by more powerful forces.   But the good news is that this is a cause in which each of us can make a difference.   All we have to do is walk into a Twinning or other Interfaith meeting, and no matter who we are or what community we represent, we’re likely to be embraced as a member of the Interfaith family.  And if there is no Twinning event or Jewish-Islamic dialogue society in your town, then you can start one.   Just find yourself a “twin” or a triplet.   The need is there.   You can help fill it.   If not now, when?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Life after the Midterms

I’ll keep this short and sweet.    Here are ten post-Midterm thoughts.

1.    “We may be feckless and cowardly but at least we’re not crazy” isn’t a winning slogan for a political party.

2. If the U.S. Government is seen as totally dysfunctional, the Democrats will tend to do poorly, since they’re seen as the party that is more supportive of big government.

3. If the GOP stands for bad ideas and the Democrats stand for no ideas, the Democrats will tend to do poorly, because at least their opponents will have passion on their side and Americans don’t vote for political candidates who lack a pulse.    

4.      Mitch McConnell actually does have a pulse.  People shouldn’t mistake his lack of charisma for a lack of political savvy.   However, what the dude has most of all is chutzpah.  How does he get off preaching bi-partisanship after the election?  His tenure as minority leader has been all about making the President and the Dems look bad, Now that he’s succeeded, they’re supposed to compromise with him?   Stay classy, Mitch.
5.  Mitch may be old, but his party has a lot of young people near the top of their leaderboard.   Contrast that with the Democrats, who’s idea of an exciting young leader is someone in his/her late 60s.   Where are the young Democratic leaders?  What positions of power do they hold?   It’s time to tell the Pelosis and the Reids to step aside and give some younger blood a chance to get a seat at the big table.
 6. In 2008, Obama had America excited about politics again.  Now, six years later, all that excitement is gone.  Most Americans didn’t bother to vote, and I suspect that those who   did show up at the polls were mostly there to vote against someone, not for anyone.   With all that said, democracy is still the best form of government available to our pathetic little species.
 7. I’m still in a state of shock that my beloved Maryland, one of the nation’s bluest states, elected a GOP Governor, and that Illinois and Massachusetts followed suit.   I guess you can say that at least with respect to Blue State Democrats, they frequently vote for the “person” not the “party.”  Can the same be said for Red-State Republicans these days?
8. I’m all for the end of political polarization, but Obama had better be careful not to compromise too much.  He has to hold the line on anything that is going to make the absurd economic inequalities in this country even worse.   “First, do no harm,” Mr. President.
9. I can’t wait for the 2016 Presidential campaign. Just from the standpoint of political theatre, this one could be setting up for a true knock-down-drag-out brawl.   We all know Hillary can bring the brass knuckles, but consider that whoever runs as a Republican will have the whole talk-radio/Fox News attack dog machine behind him.   (Yes, I’m assuming it’s a “him.”)  Something tells me that the bi-partisan talk that’s all the rage at the moment won’t last any longer than a New York minute.  Washington is about to turn into an octagon, and everything – biting, hair-pulling, you name it – will be fair game.  At least that’s my prediction.   I think we as a society are determined to lose any semblance of political civility, and only after hitting rock bottom will we push for an improvement.

 10.  But maybe I’m wrong in that last assessment.  Every now and then, something happens to make me question my cynicism about the American public sphere and to imagine the prospects that we will actually be able to work together.  Yesterday, the White House announced that it will nominate Loretta Lynch to serve as the next Attorney General.   This is a woman who doesn’t come from the world of politics.  She’s not an old-time Obama crony.  She’s just a worker bee – a person who has twice headed up a prominent U.S. Attorney’s Office.  Loretta was in my class and my 1-L section in law school, and while I don’t know her especially well, she always seemed nice and … what is that word again? … oh yeah, classy.  I expect her nomination to sail through, and I expect her to do a good job once she’s confirmed.  If her selection is any indication of the decisions the President makes over the next two years, we may have found our “hope and change” after all.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Atheism, Old and New

When it comes to the religion-versus-atheism debate, I confess to being solidly on the side of the former. But it wasn’t always so.  As an adolescent, I looked at religion largely as a bunch of poppycock, a domain that has much to teach us in the realm of ethics and much to deceive us in the realm of theology.   I looked at clergy as professional bullshitters, devout believers as ignorant saps, and Scripture as ancient storytelling masquerading as timeless truth.  

In those irreverent attitudes, I had many teachers.  My parents were among them.  So was an American popular culture that was becoming increasingly anti-establishment.   Finally, I could point to literary geniuses, like Nietzsche, who were tired of the political and cultural power of the priestly class.   Even after I became a “believer,” I still maintained an appreciation for skepticism when it comes to the traditional teachings of religion.  And then I fell in love with Spinoza – a man who expressed his undying love for “God” but not without conveying his undying commitment to heresy.  I came to oppose atheism for myself, but had an appreciation for why intelligent skeptics might indeed adopt that perspective for themselves – because, after all, once you start letting in rays of doubt, delight in “free-thinking,” and submit Scripture to the crucible of reason and evidence,  you open a whole world of possible philosophies.  Who was I to look down my nose on someone else simply because their chosen perspective differed from my own?  

But that was then, when atheism was grounded in skepticism.  That was the old atheism -- the kind that seemed grounded in humility.  Yeah, I know, Nietzsche didn’t write like he was humble.  But if you read between the lines, you see in Nietzsche the mind of a seeker – a restless, even tormented, soul who wants to explore the inexplicable and find unity in the infinitely diverse, yet somehow get a peaceful night’s sleep.  You didn’t have to agree with everything he said to relate to his predicament.   You didn’t have to find rationality in his every word to recognize him as an authentic philosopher.
Yes, Nietzsche was a thinker’s atheist.  Santayana was another.  Some would call Spinoza a third – or his disciple Einstein.  Spinoza would certainly disagree with that assessment, as would Einstein, though the latter did accept the term “agnostic,” which many claim to be more or less the same thing.  (“You either have adopted an affirmative belief in God, or you are a functional atheist,” argue those who equate atheism with its more refined sibling, agnosticism.)

Those were men who make atheist thinkers proud and religious thinkers respectful.  They were old school.   But now, we have the new variety of atheist.  The in-your-face, “movement” atheists.   The kind that inspire atheist clubs, write best-selling screeds, and love to engage in “debates” against anyone who dares speak on behalf of religion.  

Bill Maher is of the new variety of atheist.  His movie, Religulous, was a non-stop mockery of anything and everything religious.  Nietzsche spoke about “philosophizing with a hammer,” but in the hands of Maher, the hammer isn’t used to philosophize but merely to ridicule.   Sometimes Maher’s ridicule is logical, sometimes it isn’t.  Sometimes his barbs are hateful, other times they are simply dismissive. Yet throughout the movie, there is a common thread that creates a sense of coherence.  Maher, you see, wants us to know that he is not an old-school skeptic.  He’s the new breed of atheist – a self-assured, balls-out critic, who has no fear whatsoever of offending anyone and no doubt whatsoever that this whole religion business is just an opiate for the gullible.  For a guy like Maher, this is a culture war that must be fought with all hands on deck, and the only way to win it is to flush the whole domain of religion down the toilet without even a second thought that some of what you’re flushing might actually be valuable.  

How does Maher accomplish this tour de force?   By turning religion – God, the church, the rabbis, you name it – into a laughing stock.  Mock, ridicule, trivialize, and flush.  That’s his MO.  If you’re a religious, you’re either a violent person in which case you’re an enemy, or a non-violent person, in which case you’re an ignorant fool.  In either case, though, you’re a punch line in waiting.  

Maher is a mainstream celebrity.  His heroes, the “New Atheists” who merely write books, rather than star on TV shows, are less well-known. Yet they share his same basic characteristics.  In one “New Atheism” book after another, religion ceases to be spared from cover to cover.   The reader is told not only to dump the traditional conception of God but to attack that word altogether – for the Biblical literalists are said to have patented the term and any effort to “reclaim” it will only lead to confusion.  The New Atheists treat the word “God” like it is the center of a dart board.  For them, this is a game, and he who does the most damage to that word is the winner.  There’s little more to this enterprise than that.

Not surprisingly, the New Atheists have adopted a term for themselves that is affirming, for they don’t want to see themselves simply as attack dogs – they want to celebrate their own humanity.  Their chosen term is “brights.”  Brights are rational, brights are intelligent, brights are realistic, brights are sophisticated.   You can see why their chosen form of interaction with the “other” is the debate – presumably, it will show off all of their virtues.  And if the debate doesn’t reveal brights to be terribly compassionate, that’s OK, because remember: this is a (culture) war that they’re waging, and when you go to battle, you sometimes have to put your compassion aside for the greater good. 
Richard Dawkins is the patron saint of the New Atheists.  Schooled in Oxford, Dawkins now has more honorary degrees than I have fingers.  In a 2013 poll commissioned by Prospect magazine, he was voted to be none other than the world’s top thinker.  

When Dawkins was given a dart and told to give it a rip, he penned the phrase “The God Delusion,” made it the title of his book, and watched the work take off to the top of the charts.  Now, it’s a must read – even if you believe in God, you owe it to yourself to peruse Dawkins’ self-satisfied vitriol, because if nothing else it has become culturally important.  When I consider The God Delusion and other examples of its ilk, I’m reminded of that feminist icon, Mary Richards.  You know – the character played by Mary Tyler Moore back in the 70s.   At the beginning of each show, you can see Mary throw her hat into the air – not once, not  twice, but three times – as the singer remarks “You’re gonna make it after all.”  The New Atheists claim to be serious people, and Mary was a comedic character, but despite their obvious differences, they both seek to be liberated from tradition.   

Think of Mary’s throws of the hat in the New Atheist context.   The first stands for religion.  The second  for God.  And the third for traditional piety (including such virtues as treating others with respect).  Who needs that crap?  Chuck it.  And rest assured – you and your movement, the brights, are gonna make it after all.  

Doubt?  Gone.   Self-torment?  Gone.  Ask Mary – self-torment might have worked for Nietzsche, but it isn’t sexy.  Throwing off the hat and smiling from ear to ear is sexy.   And besides, doubt and self-torment don’t sell books and now that the Borscht Circuit has shut down, they don’t do much for comedians either.   It’s time for atheists to be loud, proud, and unrelenting.  This is no longer a hobby of lone intellectuals.  It’s now a movement.

Today, I read an article about the movement’s Patron Saint.  It rang true to me, but I’m not a Dawkins biographer, so I can’t assure you that it’s 100% accurate and balanced.  But in the spirit of Dawkins, who likes to shoot first and ask questions later, I thought I’d forward it to each of you and ask you to give it a look.  Here it is:
As I think you’ll agree after reading this article, Dawkins may claim to be anti-religious but he and his fellow travelers have taken on the essential characteristic of religion at its worst: dogmatism.  Personally, I prefer the non-dogmatic atheists.   Then, again, I prefer non-dogmatic religious people.  When it comes to the topic of God, you see, doubt is every bit as necessary as faith, no matter what side of the spectrum you find yourself.