Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Back Pages

I spent the weekend in Billings, Montana, as rabbi-in-residence, which was quite serendipitous, because I was a student rabbi there from 1985-1987. That was my first taste of living in the "real West" and I doubt if I would have come to Boise without having had that Montana experience . My time in Billings really "launched" me as a young rabbi-to-be.

Well, returning after a quarter century was much like going to a reunion. I saw lots of familiar faces: how had we all aged so much over the years? One congregant, Liz Barnea, gave me a picture taken at her daughter's baby naming. We were all so young: shining faces, full heads of hair. When I looked up from the picture, wistfully, Liz went on to introduce me to her daughter, Avital--the baby in the picture, now a beautiful 24-year-old grad student. When we live our lives day to day, aging happens so gradually. And then a blast from the past like this reveals the true passing of time. It's a bit of a shock, and makes one want to really value each moment, cliche as that may be.

I have to share one story from the weekend, which was a real highlight for me. On Saturday night, after havdallah, I did a program on Jews and Jewish influences in American rock music. A lot of my focus in this learning is on Bob Dylan, who is the all-time preeminent Jewish rock artist and a personal favorite, almost to the point of idolatry.

As I went on and on about Dylan, a congregant interrupted to tell me that one Billings resident grew up with Dylan's family in his home town of Hibbing, Minnesota. Her family was very active in the synagogue there. So when that small Conservative shul closed up shop a few years ago, this Billings resident asked if they would donate their Torah to Beth Aaron, the synagogue here. They agreed to do so--and as result, it turns out, I read Torah last Shabbat from the same scroll that Bob Dylan (then Robert Zimmerman) used on his Bar Mitzvah! If only I had known before hand, I could have chanted in the proper nasal tone. . .

Ah, but I was so much older then. . . I'm younger than that now.

Friday, January 1, 2010

War and Its Discontents (Idaho Statesman Column for January)

As this new year begins, we are once again sending tens of thousands of our fellow countrymen and women into the line of fire. Over the last twelve months, the Obama administration has presided over some significant political changes, but with their decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan, sadly, the song remains much the same. One thing is certain: even under the best of circumstances, their decision will exact a heavy toll of death and destruction on all sides. Can this terrible cost be justified?

As I wrote seven years ago, before the Iraq war, I am not a pacifist. Jewish tradition abhors bloodshed, but also recognizes that in some exceptional situations, military force is required. In other words, we see war as a horrific evil but also, on occasion, a tragically necessary one. For absolute pacifists, who view all conflict as unjustifiable, the morality of war is clear cut; for the rest of us, it can be painfully complex. How do we determine if any given military action is a just one?

It helps if one trusts the leaders making these life and death decisions, and I have a great deal more faith in this administration than its predecessor. President Obama seems to have deliberated carefully, consulting with advisors on all sides of the issue. His strategy also has the virtue of a well-defined exit plan.

And yet, in the end, I remain unconvinced of the wisdom of Obama’s decision, for just like George Bush, he is committing us to war without a corresponding call for national sacrifice. When President Bush launched the “War on Terror,” his words to those of us on the home front largely boiled down to, “Keep shopping.” President Obama has been more eloquent, but substantively, he has done little better. Like his predecessor, he is asking for everything from our servicemen and women and their families, and nothing from the rest of the populace. This constitutes a form of moral cowardice, for it allows most of us to avert our eyes from the conflict, pretending that all is well even as Americans and Afghanis lie dying overseas and we squander our children and grandchildren’s financial future on military hardware.

One could argue that President Obama is demonstrating political savvy here, recognizing that the American public has no stomach for the kind of real sacrifices that war should compel, such as a universal draft and significant tax increases. To even suggest such measures today would be disastrous to the administration’s governing coalition.

To which I would respond: If this is true—and I believe it is—then the citizenry’s unwillingness to face up to and pay the true cost of the conflict only lays bare its fundamental inadvisability. If a war, and the leaders who chose to engage in it, cannot summon from the American people a true spirit of national sacrifice, then I suggest that it is, by definition, a battle in which we have no business engaging.