Saturday, July 26, 2014

Reflections on the Holy Land during Unholy Times

Resolute.  Resurgent.   Depressed.

Allow me to identify for you three states of mind that describe the interested parties in the latest skirmish in what has become known, simply, as “The Conflict.”

 The first term, “Resolute,” refers to the mainstream attitude of the Israeli people.  According to their narrative, Hamas is the sole aggressor in this battle, having provoked the fight by rejoicing at the capture of three Israeli teenagers, lobbing rockets indiscriminately at Israeli land, and refusing the Israeli invitation to stop the bloodshed early on.   The Israelis have long stopped waiting for international support for their plight; quite the contrary, they expect to be condemned internationally simply for acting in self- defense.   And this means that they feel the need to be supremely focused on that very task.   Such focus is seen as especially important in this latest round of violence.  Israelis cannot help but notice how difficult it has proven to locate and destroy Hamas’s tunnels.  But the fact remains that the IDF continues to have the upper hand when it comes to military might.  So the Israelis have steeled themselves to a lengthy conflict in which the tunnels are destroyed, one by bloody one, at whatever the cost.   The mood of Israel will remain resolute until its government has satisfied itself that it has eradicated the short-term threat from these tunnels and has a plan in place to deal with Hamas as a long-term threat.    

The second term, “Resurgent,” refers to the attitude of the Palestinian people and especially their sense that ultimately, they will come to control the land formally known as Palestine.  When polled, the majority of Palestinians report that they are “winning” the war against Israel, and very few believe they are actually “losing.”  Just as the Israeli partisans are shell-shocked about how difficult it is to uproot the tunnels, the Palestinians are thrilled that their forces are putting up such a formidable defense.   What’s more, Palestinian partisans believe that they are winning the public relations battle around the world and are actually beginning to make inroads with the American media, perhaps for the first time.  According to the Palestinian narrative, the IDF is mowing down children and other non-combatants at a ridiculous rate, one that is completely out of whack with the threat that Israel is facing from the Palestinians.  As more and more pictures of dying children are covered by the media, the Palestinians feel that their cries for freedom are beginning to be heard.  It is just a matter of time, they believe, until they are liberated and so is the land known to them as Palestine.

The third term, “Depressed,” refers to the attitude of those among us who seek a two-state solution in which a majority Jewish state will survive adjacent to a majority Palestinian state in peaceful co-existence.  At present, that prospect seems unlikely.   We look at the situation as it stands now and envision a new generation of Israelis and Palestinians who are raised to hate each other and can think of nothing more ennobling than fighting in a war against their Semitic “enemy.”   We look at the extremists on both sides, and ask ourselves: how are we ever going to have a two-state solution if they are constantly doing their best to destabilize it?   We see all the passion on the ground for a solution in which either one people or the other will control the disputed land – and both sides appear to believe that their side will carry the day.  And then we listen to the advocates for the two-state solution, and they seem so measured, so lifeless, so … what is the word? … depressed.  

My friends, we are approaching a very critical point in this conflict.   Are we looking at a situation where the two sides become increasingly extremist, militant, and willing to incur deaths and casualties in support of the “greater good,” and where ultimately we will know peace only after witnessing a war of Biblical proportions?    That outcome is certainly the expectation of Hamas – don’t take my word for it, read their Charter:

Or are we looking at a situation where the moderates of the world come together and accept that paying casual lip-service to the idea of a two-state solution won’t get the job done?  Rather, they must become passionate advocates of such a solution.  And that requires replacing the tired rhetoric that two states represent the only FEASIBLE solution with arguments that two states represent the only JUST solution.   In other words, the two-state solution must become the preferred choice of the young, vibrant set – those who are passionate about justice and fairness -- and not merely that of their war-weary parents and grandparents.  This will only happen if enough young people from the two sides are able to engage in ongoing dialogue opportunities with one another.   Difficult?  Yes.  Impossible?  Not at all.

As long as the support for two states is tepid and grounded in mere pragmatism, we as a species will continue to get what we’re getting now – heartache for the would-be peacemakers, and blood and machismo for the partisans.  Once, however, we begin to equate two states with justice, then and only then will peace have a fighting chance.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Prayer

I wrote the following prayer and delivered it at the Interfaith Iftar held at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C. on Friday, July 19th.  I hope it speaks to you.


We come to you tonight humbled by Your presence and Your transcendence.  You are the one God.   The one in whom our Holy Torah directs us to love with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might.  And yet our sages tell us that what You demand from us, above all else, is that we love our fellow human beings and work to repair Your world.

Adonai, we come to you tonight as representatives of a fledgling movement, a mere baby, called the Interfaith Movement.  While so very proud of our respective faiths, we also recognize that no one faith has a monopoly on truth.  Inspire us to remember that when we dialogue with each other, we come to deepen our ability to love and understand You. Inspire us to remember that when we dialogue with each other, we come to embrace the ways that we are different, not to ignore them or to fear them.   But most importantly, inspire us to remember that when we dialogue with each other, we come to recognize that we are all family – all human beings, religious and non-religious.  We all have a precious and unique role to play in repairing and nurturing Your world.

Adonai, this is a time of special stress for the Jewish people, my people.  But it is also a time of special stress for our first cousins, the people of Palestine.  May we reach the point as soon as possible where Israelis and Palestinians come to appreciate each other as family, not as enemies.   And may the love of Your Unity inspire all of us to work for peace and reconciliation throughout the world.  Adonai, may we someday realize my vision of living in a world where every Jew will look at a woman in a Hijab and say “That is a Daughter of Abraham, my people,” and every Muslim will look at a man with a yarmulke and say “And that is a Son of Ibrahim, my people.”

Adonai, may we honor you with our hearts, with our minds, and above all, with our conduct.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Book is Born

In 1799, Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote a short book called On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.  Religion was the hero of this little book, and Schleiermacher’s aim was to reveal the essence of his hero, which he obviously viewed as the path to virtue and truth.  “To have religion,” he concluded, “means to intuit the universe, and the value of your religion depends upon the manner in which you intuit it, on the principle that you find in its actions.   … [I]n religion, everything strives to expand the sharply delineated outlines of our personality and gradually to lose them in the infinite in order that we, by intuiting the universe, will become one with it as much as possible.”  Schleiermacher went on to say that the way in which the people of his day conventionally viewed immortality is “completely irreligious” and that religion has “nothing to do with the existing and commanding God” – meaning the deity worshipped by fundamentalists.  Clearly, this man, who is often known as the “Father of Modern Liberal Theology,” was an impassioned critic of organized religion.   And yet, as we can tell from his book’s subtitle, he passionately strove to refute the perspective of religion’s “Cultured Despisers.”  In short, he wanted to clean out the bathwater of religious orthodoxy, but only as a means of preserving and venerating the baby.  

Lovers of Spinoza could detect more than a bit of the old master in Schleiermacher’s words.  And indeed, like so many German intellectuals of the late 18th century, Schleiermacher adored the man whom he labelled “the holy rejected Spinoza.”   In one of many tributes to the “rejected” philosopher, Schleiermacher argued that “The high world spirit permeated him, the infinite was his beginning and end, the universe his only and eternal love; in holy innocence and deep humility he was reflected in the eternal world and saw how he too was its most lovable mirror; he was full of religion and full of holy spirit; for this reason, he also stands there alone and unequaled, master in his art but elevated above the profane guild, without disciples and without rights of citizenship.”  

Au contraire, my dear Sir (allow me a few words that are just as flowery as Schleiermacher’s);  methinks that you should be counted among Spinoza’s disciples, as well as Goethe, Einstein, Santayana … even Nietzsche.  Truth be told, Spinoza has had many disciples.  It’s just that few of them want to create a cult in their mentor’s name. We don’t think of him as a Son of God, a Prophet of God, or even as a supernaturally-inspired exemplar of God’s moral law.  To be sure, we see him as a teacher and a moral exemplar, but one who is flawed like the rest of us.   Mostly, Spinoza inspires us to dare to philosophize – to follow the truth wherever it leads, and if it leads to a rift with the Orthodox, on the one hand, and religion’s “cultured despisers” on the other, so be it.

This week, 215 years after Schleiermacher published “On Religion,” Cascade Books published the work of a neurotic Jew from Bethesda, Maryland.  This new book also concerns religion.  And once again, the book is generally an attempt to respond to religion’s “cultured” critics.   But today, these critics don’t so much despise religion as dismiss it.  Frankly, my dears, when it comes to religion, the cultured men and women of today couldn’t give a damn.  

Like Schleiermacher, the author of this new book is passionate about speaking back to religion’s opponents.  The dedication page reads, “For all who wage war against both religious apathy and fanaticism.”  Normally, one doesn’t find “fanaticism” and “apathy” linked together, and certainly not as objects of war.   It sounds like the author is calling for a jihad and in a sense, he is.  The “greater jihad,” Muslims will point out, citing the hadiths of Muhammad, refers to a non-violent spiritual struggle.  And the struggle that the author invites involves two independent, yet related, activities, both of which would be pursued with vigor:  (a) identifying and confronting the “bathwater” of religion, which he summarizes by the term “religious fanaticism,” but he could have also added such words as “dogmatism,” “chauvinism” or “exclusivism;” and (b) venerating the “baby” of religion, which requires first and foremost a willingness to give a damn.

So what is that “baby”?  For me, it starts with an attitude of piety, which entails generally treating the individuals and institutions that came before us with respect.  Great men and women over the centuries have dedicated their hearts and minds to one or more gods – indeed, that has been the rule, not the exception.  So piety requires us to recognize religion’s historical importance, investigate whether it is worthy of our own devotion, and, regardless of whether we remain skeptical, at least keep the pilot light flickering.  Personally, I spent most of my youth believing that “God” was a fiction and “religion” largely a nuisance, but my heart and mind never closed altogether.  I was never religiously apathetic, and I always recognized in my childhood atheism that I could very well be missing something profound. 

By contrast, so many of religion’s “Cultured Dismissers” have turned off their pilot lights altogether.  They don’t seem the least bit remorseful about it.  I must say, I find that attitude to be almost as alienating as religious fanaticism.   John Lennon once asked us to “imagine no religion,” but it was Paul McCartney who wrote “I’d love to turn you on,” and that is my dream – to approach religion’s Cultured Dismissers with a different perspective that ultimately can actually turn them on to religion and God.  Those domains, when considered through a non-dogmatic lens, are far too beautiful to remain moribund among large swaths of our educated classes.   

In case you can’t tell by now, the new book I’m referencing is my own.  While it’s my third book, it’s my first work of non-fiction – meaning that when it came time for me to write about something real, as opposed to imagined, this book’s topic was the one I chose.  Some would call that ironic, given the title and subtitle:  Liberating the Holy Name: A Free-Thinker Grapples with the Meaning of Divinity.   But I’m fine with whatever jokes you’d make about the idea of writing a “non-fiction” book about “God.”  Jokes I can handle.   Not caring a whit about religion to the point where one’s mind and heart are as closed as a bank vault?  That, I can’t.  For one thing, I can’t look such people in the eyes and honestly tell them that they would enjoy my book.   Rather, I write for those who are open to searching for that which is transcendent and  mysterious.   My God, you see, is infinitely more mystery than man.

So far, I have said little about the substance of the book.  For example, I haven’t even mentioned what is meant by the need to “liberate” the Holy Name, and how such liberation could possibly help us in waging a war against religious apathy and fanaticism.  If you’d like a substantive overview, go to my newly revamped website,, and you can find all sorts of info about the book, including numerous endorsements from prominent religious or intellectual leaders and even a promotional video.  If you’d prefer to get the book on the cheap – and who doesn’t? – go to and use the code “Spiro.”  Excluding shipping, copies can be had for $16.80.  That’s probably a half-penny in Schleiermacher’s day.  

To an author, books truly are like babies.  They take a lot of tender loving care to get them anywhere close to their ultimate form,  but we never know until long after the process began whether they will be healthy or stillborn – and we don’t really feel like we’re in control of the process.  

Why then do people write books when the odds that they will “succeed” (i.e., make a difference in the lives of readers) are so much less than the odds that, say, a human baby will survive and be happy?  The answer is because we have something to say and an irresistible passion to say it.  That was certainly the case for me in this book.   If you enjoy this blog, I hope you will check out Liberating the Holy Name – even if that means buying it, leaving it on the shelf for a while, and then weeks, months or years down the road, looking at it and saying “The hell with my apathy.  I want to go on this voyage.”  One thing I can guarantee you is that this book will never become antiquated.  Our kind will be arguing about this topic until the Sun becomes a Red Giant and burns us up, or until our apathy about the Big Issues causes us to destroy our planet before its time. 

Some would say that part of the reason we’re not bothering to nurture the planet is because we’re so busy thinking about God instead.  In this book, however, I explain how once the bathwater is dumped and the baby preserved, it can help us solve many of our most profound earthly problems.  Don’t take my word for it; ask Schleiermacher.  His body might be gone, but his spirit thankfully survives … in his books. 

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Two Peoples, Two Sets of Delusions

The Holy Land is a scary place these days.   We’ve seen kidnappings.  Public celebrations of kidnappings.  Murders.   Public vows for vengeance after the murders.   Name calling.  Rock throwing.  Rocket firing. Hatred galore.   

All of this is happening just a few months before one of my daughters expects to move to Israel for a year where she will continue her rabbinical studies there.  Do the events of the past fortnight scare me for her sake as well as for the sake of eight million Israelis and Palestinians?  You bet.  That place is many things right now, but “stable” is not one of them.

Surely, I must be crazy to find a silver lining in such madness, but that is exactly what I see amidst all the despair and anger.  The silver lining goes by the name of realism.  You see, over the last several years, each of the two peoples in that region has been living under a very bizarre set of delusions.  I’m not saying those sets of delusions will disappear.  But thanks to the unveiling of the primal hatred that has dominated that area for some time, though largely under the surface, perhaps realism will have a fighting chance.   Perhaps both sides will realize that the respective paths that they’ve been walking are no longer tenable.

Let’s examine these two sets of delusions.   They’re easy enough to understand when the situation is examined from afar.  But can the combatants put aside their denial and their stubbornness and recognize that they themselves have been fundamentally deluded?  If there is to be peace, the answer to that question had better be “Yes!”

The Israeli Delusion

Avraham Burg, a former speaker of the Knesset, analogizes his country to a “lazy elephant, sprawled across the road” with “no motivation to budge.”  Now I’m not saying that analogy is perfect, but it isn’t far from the truth.  Israelis have decided that as bad as their relationship is with their Palestinian neighbors, it’s as good as it’s going to get.   Thanks to the Israeli Defense Force and the Wall, the Israelis figure that they have the tools in place to keep Palestinian terrorism to a minimum.   Israelis recognize that they might earn some international goodwill by scaling back the Settlements in the West Bank, but “look at what happened when we did that in Gaza,” they point out.  “It only earned us Hamas rule and a regular barrage of rocket fire.”   From the Israeli perspective, destabilizing the situation isn’t an option, so they might as well content themselves with the status quo and go about their business as if the Palestinian “genie” is safely controlled in its bottle.

In response to this perspective, some might point out that Israel doesn’t have to contend only with the Palestinians but also with world opinion.  Yet to those who contribute to Israeli’s “lazy elephant” policies, world condemnation is simply the latest indication that the Jewish people will always be faced with anti-Semitism from far and wide.   Given the economic ingenuity of the Jewish people combined with the fact that the people now has its own state, the argument continues, Israel will be just fine, regardless of how many anti-Semites want to condemn her in France, Poland, Syria or even, God-forbid, the USA. 

So where’s the delusion?   For starters, it’s in the idea that the IDF and the Wall can maintain Israeli security no matter how the Palestinians feel about their plight.   The reality is that the ebb in the number of terrorist attacks against Israel is partially a function of the Palestinian non-violent resistance movement.   Make no mistake – if that movement should stall and the Palestinians decide to fight back in the old-fashioned way, Israelis would face many of the same mortal dangers that they faced during the first and second Intifadas.  Does the IDF make Israel more secure?  Sure.  How about the Wall?  Again, the answer is yes.   But while they are necessary for Israel’s short-term security, they are not sufficient.  Palestinian cooperation is needed as well, and I for one don’t take that cooperation for granted.

The “lazy elephant” attitude is also delusional because it ignores the internal Israeli fissures that are ever-expanding as a result of the gulf between Zionism in theory (the Zionism I love) and Zionism in practice.    When folks in my generation and that of my parents became Zionists, we generally envisioned a solution in which, eventually, Jews and Palestinians could live next to each other in two peaceful, viable states.  Our assumption was not that the Israeli government would succumb to right-wing pressure and seize increasing amounts of Palestinian land, thereby turning Palestine into something like a small gerrymandered congressional district in Texas.   For many Israelis, the settlements are simply breathing space for an ever-growing democracy.  For many others, however, and I find myself in this camp, they are corroding the moral claims of the Zionist project and threatening to associate Zionism with imperialism.  The result is that the same polarization that is infecting the American political process is beginning to swallow up the emotional heart of Israel. 

As much as the Netanyahu government would hate to admit it, there is nothing stable about an Israel that is coming to be known primarily as an “occupier.”  It risks losing the support of major segments of the Jewish people, and the risks it faces from Palestinians are too horrible even to think about.  You can easily imagine why the Israeli mainstream is in denial with respect to the latter.  But how can they deny that even among the Jewish base, the love for Israel isn’t what it used to be?   The answer is when you live in a polarized society, it becomes de rigeur to demonize and dismiss your ideological opponents, as if somehow they don’t even count.  To Netanyahu, I suspect, the only folks who count are the right-wing and center-right Jews who have given him a majority in recent elections.  The fact that the remainder of the Jewish people, all of the Palestinian people, and a large fraction of the rest of the world are becoming increasingly alienated from the entire Zionist project is a tragedy that Netanyahu is apparently willing to live with.  No doubt, he lacks either the imagination or the courage to envision any preferable alternative to his present policies, so he is forced to delude himself into thinking that all must be well.

The Palestinian Delusion

When I focus on the Palestinians, I inevitably keep asking the same questions.   Over and over again, they talk about how horrible it is to live under the boot of the Israeli oppressor.  And yet whenever the time comes to make meaningful yet purely symbolic concessions at the peace table, they always have the same response:  “Hell No!”   So what am I missing?   If the conditions of “occupation” and “apartheid” are so awful, why won’t they compromise in order to change them?  Why won’t any prominent Palestinians publicly declare, for example, that they would recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” beside a Palestinian state?   If the Israelis were one-tenth as powerful as the Palestinians always claim they are (when it suits the narrative that they are mere victims of the Israeli Leviathan), why are the Palestinians so cocky that they eventually will overcome?

The answer is that they are counting on the factors discussed above not only to corrode the moral heart of Israel but to eviscerate its very ability to survive.  In other words, they are counting on Israel to completely implode as a Jewish State and give birth to a Palestinian-controlled nation “from the river to the sea.”   Accordingly, they see no need to make meaningful concessions to the existence of a Jewish State, even if that is the price they would have to pay to live with Israel in two separate, peaceful countries.  

The Palestinians are deluded.  The Jewish State may lose its moral luster, but it is folly to suspect that it will allow itself simply to cease to exist.  Israel may be a lazy elephant, but at least it’s the elephant in the room, not the mosquitoes.  What’s more, this elephant might be “lazy” when it comes to geopolitical concessions, yet it’s anything but lazy when it comes to economic production and high-tech production in particular.  That and a strong military will sustain a country for a long time – all the while, the Palestinians will be waiting for Godot and suffering through the very Occupation that they love to publicly lament.

A recent poll by the middle-of-the-road Washington Institute for Near East Policy puts the lie to the notion that the Palestinians are truly clamoring for a two-state solution and have simply been hampered by their leadership.  The reality is that the Palestinians are harboring the illusion that the future lies in a one-state solution in which the Palestinians, and not the Jews, would have the upper hand.  Read the results and weep.   They include, for example, that when asked “the main Palestinian goal for the next five years,”  10 percent of the Palestinians said that “the goal should be to work for a one-state solution in all of the land, a state in which Arabs and Jews will have equal rights in one country from the river to the sea,” 27 percent said that “the goal should be to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to achieve a two-state solution,” and 60 percent said “the goal should be  to work toward reclaiming all of historic Palestine from the river to the sea.”   If, in fact, the Palestinian leaders were able to negotiate a two-state solution with the Israelis, only 32 percent of the Palestinians polled thought that “this should be the end of the conflict with Israel,” whereas 64 percent said that “resistance should continue until all of historic Palestine is liberated.”

In these polling results, you can see Netanyahu’s predicament.  You can see exactly why the Israeli mainstream has argued that they do NOT have a partner for peace.  (That is not to say that the Israelis have acted as such a partner either, but we are focusing for the moment on the Palestinians.)    If even a negotiated “two-state solution” agreement won’t result in peace, but merely a second stage of the “liberation” process, what is in it for Israel to reach such an agreement?  And if they aren’t motivated to fight for a two-state solution, how can the Palestinians expect to get their own state, let alone one that extends from the river to the sea?

Well, with enough delusions, your expectations and your hopes have a tendency to come together.  And I gather that is exactly what is happening on the streets of Hebron, Ramallah and Gaza City.

My friends, I haven’t lost hope that this conflict can ultimately be resolved.   You shouldn’t either.  Eventually, great leaders will arise that will talk sense into their respective peoples.  And when such leaders come to power at the same time, we will have a moment for peace.  For now, let us hope that as much calm as possible can reign over the streets of the Holy Land.  And if we must grasp at straws in terms of causes for hope, let us remember that delusions tend to have a shelf life, and as the cards in the region are now getting shuffled, perhaps more and more folks on both sides of the Wall will come to their senses.  They may not like what they see, but acceptance of the situation is always a painful first step.   Remember – we’re still just talking about a family feud.  Eventually, all the children of Abraham are bound to realize that reconciliation is our birthright.