Sunday, March 31, 2002

I Hate Your Gut

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

Bombs go off in restaurants and grocery stores in Israel, teenage girls find themselves with such rage and so little hope that they cheerfully put an end to their own lives, Arafat is surrounded but somehow personally inviolate (that man has nine lives; he once surivived an airplane crash -- mechanical failure, of all things, and he walked away). Anything we might say today about "hamatzav" ("the situation," which is apparantly what some Israelis have been calling this unprecedented string of attacks and fear and tension in their lives) will be outpaced by events tomorrow.

And our own lives march on, in our families, in our community, in our congregation, almost in disconnect mode, Kafka-esque to those with an eye on both home and homeland.

An early Zionist leader once asserted, correctly in my opinion, that "Judaism will be Zionist, or it will not be at all." Israel plays a central role in our identity as Jews, in how we see ourselves, and in how others see us. Whether we welcome it or not. Whether we acknowledge it or not. Our fate and our faith are tied up with what happens on a distant shore. As Americans schooled in the notion of near absolute individual liberty we may be loathe to admit this, but our future as a people, as a community, is as linked to what happens far away as it is in our own hands. We are almost as dependent on the decisions and actions of others as it is on the choices we make ourselves.

And yet our silence -- indeed, my own silence -- has been deafening. Is it a distancing of destiny? Are we forgetting how bound up we are with what goes on in Israel? We have completely put away the active anti-Zionism of our pre-World War One Reform Jewish past. But do we now witness a creeping non-Zionism, a simple indifference? Is it possible that we do not think that what happens "over there," matters very much to us, over here.

Perhaps there is one other possibility. It is helplessness. The fact that we simply do not know what to say.

Oh, plenty of American Jews do know what to say. They say it at the top of their lungs, and spend time shouting at each other over perceived policy differences. The other day I heard someone refer to Americans for Peace Now, a Jewish, pro-Israel, pro-peace process group, as traitors he wished were dead, and that he would rather deal with a non-Jewish anti-semite than a Jewish one any day. The rhetoric of
those who are involved is so shrill, the words are so hot because the stakes are so high: each side (pro-Oslo and anti-Oslo) thinks the other is playing fast and loose with the very survival of the Jewish state. How quickly that argument descends from passionate disagreement, to questioning the patriotism of dissent.

But I would argue that those who are not shouting right now, some of us, are silent not from disengagement but out of sheer frustration. We do not know what to say. And we do not know what to do.

We read in the Torah that Moses, confronted on a number of occasions with a problem he could not solve himself (e.g., the ridiculously radical request of the daughters of Zelophead that women be allowed to inherit land, when there was no male offspring), uttered a great and powerful response. "I don't know," he said. "I'll go ask."

But then Moses had a luxury we do not. It was direct communication with the Creator of the Universe. (I am a religious person. I do believe that God speaks to us as human beings. The difference between me and Moses -- and, indeed, between me and modern day fundamentalists of any flavor -- is that while I believe that, clearly, God speaks to us, they believe that God speaks clearly. I believe, quite differently, that all of our lives are a struggle, or a journey, to figure out what it is that God wants of us.)

And so, in the midst of uncertainty, frustration, with pain and anger, still, I want to share a couple of my thoughts on hamatzav, the situation in the Middle East, as it stands as I write these words. Knowing it will be out of date already by the time you read this.

This is "a time to be strong." The only problem is: Jewish history and tradition give us two very different models of what being strong means. There is the model, long supressed, of the fighting Jew. Judah Maccabee. Simon Bar Giora. Bar Kochba. Ben Gurion. Then there is the model of the Talmud. "Who is strong?" we read in Pirkei Avot. "One who conquors his instincts." Where response is not just reaction. It might equally well be restraint. (To muddy the matter even more: a tale is told of Sigmund Freud. He was told by his father that once, a bully had knocked off his hat, pushed him off the sidewalk and said: "Get out of the sidewalk, Jew." Freud asked his father what he did. The answer crushed the future inventor of analysis. His father said: "I stepped into the gutter, picked up my hat, and went on my way." Years later, confronted by three antisemitic bullies, Freud himself chased them away with his stick. But Freud -- and not his father -- is the one who lived at a time when he had to flee his country.)

But there is a danger in restraint. There is a law of unintended consequences. I believed at the time, two years ago, that the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon was the right thing to do. It saved lives. But. The sight of retreating Israeli soldiers is cited throughout the Palestinian population as the inspiration for this current intifada. What was the right thing to do for ourselves nevertheless sent the wrong message to others.

The mathematics of the conflict remain the same as they did two years, and twenty years ago. If Israel is to remain a strong, viable, democratic and Jewish state, it cannot continue to rule over so many Palestinians who want their own government. If it does so, it will either cease to be Jewish (through a Muslim demographic "victory in the bedroom"), or cease to be a democracy. To the vast majority of the Jews in Israel and around the world, either alternative is unacceptable. So a way must be found to give some of this territory back.

Right now, there is no one to whom we can give this territory back. Arafat has proven again and again to be duplicitous beyond belief. He has had enough opportunity to do the right thing. But as Abba Eban once said about the Palestinians, noting that they had and still have perhaps the worst leadership in the world, "they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Our own leadership is somewhat suspect. While there can not be any moral equivalency between an obstructionist and a murderer, between a settler and a slaughterer, between Sharon and Arafat, nevertheless I believe... that Prime Minister Sharon has played every card, pushed every button, ordered gratuitious humiliation and acted with enough provocation that the Palestinians have reacted to him, and not in a way that was in their own interest. One might say that he has brilliantly revealed their true colors, by "mild" pressure. The only problem with that statement is... that it might be true.

In other words, sometimes that which is "justified" is not always "wise."

This is an existential crisis that Israel faces not because it can lose in the field of battle, but because it can loose in the face of slick operatives and gullible American audiences with short memories and a penchant for easy answers.

The other day I spoke to a large gathering of Fulbright Scholars, graduate students from around the world, who had come together in Washington, D.C., for a seminar on Tolerance and Pluralism as American Values in the Wake of the Tragedy of September 11. There, on the panel, with a Protestant, a Catholic, a Muslim, and me, where we were supposed to be speaking about American values (as Durban was supposed to be about racism), the Middle East overwhelmed the program. (Are the Palestinians the only people in the world who are suffering from anything???)

The Muslim speaker was terrific. He was warm, charismatic, friendly, and polished. He lives near me; he is already a friend of Rabbi Serotta's, and I look forward to getting to know him better.

He represented Islam well, with a human face, and a humane heart. But when asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he sounded so "reasonable" I just about cried. He revived the call for a bi-national state. With equality under the law. Liberty and justice for all. Freedom and democracy, with no one religion favored over any other. Such nice values. And everyone applauded.

So I took the microphone next. And I decided to call a spade a spade. Because, look. I think a Jew who is going to criticize a Muslim state had better be willing to apply those same values, and those same criterion of criticism, to Israel. And (call me a radical) I also think that a Muslim who is going to say that Israel should live up to certain standards of behavior and reflect certain values... had better be willing to stand for the same things in Muslim countries.Justice and democracy, freedom and equality, with no religion favored over any other. Sounds so wonderful. But if you call for those things in Israel, you'd better be willing to demand them... in Iran. And Iraq. In Saudi Arabia. And Afghanistan.

Because if you are not willing to do so, then you are saying, by that, that all the other religions in the world have a right to have lands -- more than one apiece, by the way -- in which their religion can have a favored status, but one religion in the world cannot have that.If that is what you are saying, I told these Fulbright Scholars, then you are supporting oppression and predjudice and bigotry and hate, rather than freedom and democracy, and, that is what you just applauded.

There was a stunned silence. I know. Speakers usually complement and coddle their audiences. They don't challenge them. They don't ask them to look at themselves in the mirror.

Israel is losing the PR war. And we are all in trouble because of it.

We need a radical change of heart. I'm sure that I am no more qualified to be a spokesperson for Israel... than those appointed by the Israeli government (although given how they often come across, I am perhaps no less qualified, either.) I just know that we need some new thinking, to tell our story... and to solve this problem.

Two months ago I attended a different forum in downtown Washington. Hosted by the Brookings Institute, it was a forum on Peace in the Middle East, featuring former Israeli minister Yossi Beilin, and a current minister with the Palestinian Authority.

Someone asked the Palestinian minister what he thought about Israel, and he said something like this: "Look, you are asking me to change my gut. I cannot change my gut. I wish it were not there. But..." and he went on to sound perfectly reasonable about co-existence and justice and the like.

At least Minister Rabbo was honest. But, Ramallah, we have a problem. You don't want to change your gut? Well, I hate your gut. And yes, I do want you to change your gut. Because unless you do, we will never, ever trust each other. And when you do... and when we do... and when we do it at the same time... when you change your gut... then I'll change mine.

Spilling your guts out isn't about therapy in Israel. It's life and death. And hatred is the heart of the problem.

Now why can't the world see what I see? And who in the world can we get, that can make them see it this way?

Ten plagues came upon Egypt. The final plague was one of violence. Like everything else, we can read the message more than one way. First, you can say, that when all else fails to achieve justice, blood will spill. The sword comes into the world, the Talmud says, because of justice denied, and justice delayed. Or, with President Kennedy: those who make nonviolent revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.

But the other way to tell the tale is this. Nine plagues came first. They tried everything else. Everything else. Have we?

Just a few of my thoughts, in the midst of a violent and bloody Passover, an an armchair quaterback, in the game of the Jewish future.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

"When The World Was A Kid"
Finding the right words to help each other

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

On the way in to school last week, my five-year old son Benjamin asked me the following question. "Daddy," he said in all seriousness, "what is your favorite animal... from when the world was a kid?"

When the world was a kid! I nearly drove off the road, trying not to laugh. What a wonderful way of phrasing a question about the early days of the earth. It was his way of initiating a conversation about dinosaurs. But it was a creative and deliciously unself-conscious way around the fact that he just didn't have the right words, for what he wanted to say.

For so many of us, in so many situations, there are times when we are not as creative as we need to be. And when we are painfully self-conscious. There are the many moments in our lives when we want to help, to hug, to hold, to reach out to someone else... but we just don't know what to say.

I just completed one of the most powerful experiences of my rabbinate. It was a four-week, Thursday evening support group, sponsored and organized by the Washington Jewish Healing Network, for those struggling with infertility. Few people in my new congregation are aware of the fact -- and who would know, to look at our five-memer family now -- although long-time readers of this column certainly are, that this is a road we walked for too many years. I remember the feelings. I remember the pain. And I wanted to do something, to give back, to offer some comfort and connections to anyone struggling with such a deep and soul-shaking issue. Or even, in a world beyond words, to just help create a space, for those who wanted, to be together.

The feelings that the members of that group shared are raw, and honest, and profoundly powerful. As I have written elsewhere, there are so many dimensions to the issue of infertility: Married couples who cannot conceive. Singles searching for partners, who yearn for children nonetheless. Gays and lesbians in committed relationships who would make wonderful parents if only they and the world could agree on a way. There are the too common tales of medical hoops, invasive procedures, intimacy set by the clock and not the heart. The monthly wait. The horrible trauma when we hear the beat of life at last... and it does not hold.

But if there was one experience these couples spoke about which I remembered the best, it was of how frequently we come upon the sheer inadequacy of words.

What does one say, when a friend is in pain? Too much? Too little? How can it possibly be just the right thing? Think about something you have gone through, a difficult time in your life. Wasn't it the case -- in any event, it was for me -- that of all the well-meaning support in the world, 99 people said just exactly the worst thing they could say. And one gem of a friend in a hundred hit it right on the head.

What's the wrong thing to say, to someone in pain? There are so many ways to blow it! Oh, it must be happening for a reason; you must have done something to contribute to this. Job's friends, offering explanation above love. For infertility: oh, just relax, it'll happen. ("Just relax!" An oxymoron, and two of the least helpful words in the English language. In the entire history of humanity has that phrase ever achieved its intended result?) About a miscarriage: Oh, it's nature's way.

Indeed, the list of ways in which we can insert our foot in our mouths seems endless. And no one is immune. Just the other day I approached a woman who was about to begin teaching a class, who I know is waiting for important news, and referred to her being in limbo. I winced as soon as the words were out of my mouth. I know that I threw her off stride, that I broke into whatever space she needed to mentally get set for teaching. It is like people who ask how my mother is doing in her recovery from her stroke (better than once predicted, but still not at all what we want, so, generally, poorly I suppose), two seconds before I need to begin leading a service. Even if the sentiment is right, the timing was terrible.

The art of finding the right words is a delicate and difficult task. How often we shy away from reaching out, just because we do not know what to say. We care. But we don't want to intrude. We are concerned. But we don't want to smother.

There is no single magic wand, for a healing touch. Indeed, by the time you read these words we will be approaching Pesach. (No! Not Pesach! We haven't even stopped buying hametz! Too early -- we're not even ready to get ready!) The Passover seder is the original CD-Rom, teaching at many different levels, with sights and sounds, only it adds touch and taste as well. (I say this as I am staring at the CD on my home computer, which is stuck, and stubbornly refusing to open, and while I have been searching for the right magic formula to use --"Speak 'Friend,' and Enter?" -- I confess to having uttered a few choice words which were probably the wrong thing to say.) At our seder tables we will read the story of the Four Children.

For those of you less familiar with the story, there are four children who ask questions at the Passover table. One does so out of a sincere search for knowledge. Another is snide, and mocking. Another is simple, and straightforward. A fourth has open eyes of wonder, but no words to ask at all. Our responses to each of the children -- the wise, the wicked, the innocent, and the one who does not know to ask -- differ; to each according to their ability, to each according to their need.

We know that there are different tacks to take, depending on the personality, the mood, the inclination, of the one we want to help. There is no "one-size-fits-all" way of caring. Indeed, it is possible -- probable -- that no one person can adequately respond to all the needs around him or her. One style is too in-your-face. Another too distant. What is a comfort to some is an invasion of space to another.

But space, in some ways, is what being helpful is about. In a world which does not often support reflection, to find a way to help people... be themselves.

In the end, perhaps, there are no right words. There is just a way... of being there. A stance, and not an answer. A shoulder, and not a solution.

When called to the mountain, Moses was told to ascend, "v'heyai sham, and be there." There is a power in presence, that precedes or transcends any particular position we might take with words. In pain and suffering, for help and healing, we are called to "be there."

May we always provide a place... where time and space can meet. Where the deepest love we share offers a glimpse of eternity, and a window into the soul. And in the midst of the world of words, a place where we can hear, and heal, through the sound of silence.

Insights on life, from a time when the world was a kid.