Sunday, February 13, 2011

In Praise of Dissent

A recent CABI guest speaker, Yishai Fleisher, of Israel National Radio, began his talk with a plea for Jewish unity. With passion and eloquence, he urged us to set aside our differences and stand together, behind Israel in general and the West Bank settler movement in particular.

I strongly and unequivocally support Israel. Love of Zion is at the heart of my daily life, permeating everything from my morning prayers to my regular perusal of the on-line Israeli press. I, too, therefore, recognize the need for unity. When we face existential threats, as Israel often does, there is great value in doing so undivided.

But I do not believe that criticizing particular policies of the Israeli government and the settlers is tantamount to aiding and abetting the enemy, any more than I hold that my American patriotism requires me to support everything that our nation does. Indeed, I believe that the right to dissent, out of love, is a greater virtue than unity. Integrity is an end in and of itself. Unity, by contrast, is only a means: whether it is good or bad depends entirely upon what we are being asked to unify around. All too often, calls to unity are bandied about as a weapon to stifle dissent. This happened all too often after 9/11, when it was not-so-subtly insinuated that if you were not with us (the administration and its policies), you were against us (America).

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we find another concrete example of unity’s dark side. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, he finds the people celebrating as one—dancing around the Golden Calf. There is unity in abundance—but a serious dearth of integrity. Midrash even suggests that at least one brave person, Moses’ brother-in-law, Hur, did dare to speak out—at the cost of his life at the hand of the unified angry mob.

In the end, calls to unity almost always favor the status quo. Most great social movements, by contrast, begin with acts of dissent. Disunity, by definition, launches the revolutions that change the world. If people had always chosen unity over integrity, we would have had no civil rights or gay rights movements. Women would still be locked out of the workplace. The state of Israel would not exist. And there would be no Reform or Conservative synagogues. Tikkun olam—healing what is broken in God’s world—often requires the courage to break with the established order and ignore the reactionaries’ calls to unity.

I love Israel. I also believe that annexing the West Bank and ruling over hundreds of thousands of Palestinians denied citizenship as “resident aliens” would poison the Jewish soul of our homeland. Contrary to Jimmy Carter’s anti-Semitic posturing, Israel is not an apartheid state—but if it followed this course, it would become one.
Part of Israel’s remarkableness lies in the fact that it embraces disagreement and gives voice to its critics. I see this as a strength, not a weakness.

If this be disunity, consider me a proud and patriotic dissenter.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Being There (Portion Tetzaveh)

Long before rabbis, the leading figures in Jewish life were the cohanim—members of the priestly class descended from Aaron. They were responsible for offering up sacrifices on behalf of all the Israelites, first in the portable sanctuary that we carried on our journey through the wilderness, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.

This week’s portion, Tetzaveh, presents a job description for the cohanim. It describes their assigned tasks, their special garments, and the design of the tabernacle in which they will serve. It is, therefore, filled with intricate and sometimes (at least for us) esoteric details and lists: pure pounded gold, aromatic incense, yearling lambs, ritual libations, fringed tunics, fine linen, olive oil for lighting, and lots and lots of cubits.

Interestingly, after taking note of all these concrete measurements and materials, the Rabbis of the Talmud veer off and pose a curious theoretical question: If a priest’s body is inside the tabernacle but his head remains outside, is he considered to have entered the sanctuary, and may he perform his priestly service? (Zevachim 26a)

What conditions might create such a scenario? Why would a priest take up his sacred work with his head still poking out the tent flaps? Might he be gazing at something unrelated to his priestly service, perhaps checking out the weather, or the goings-on in the camp?

Surely this not so hard for us inveterate multi-taskers to imagine. I long for the all too rare occasions when my head and my body are, metaphorically speaking, in the same “space.” We check our calendars, text on our cell phones, and type on our keyboards at the same time—all in the course of meetings or meals or classes (or, God help us, driving).

Yet the Talmud warns against this compulsion to take on too many things at once. It rules: unless the priest is totally within the tent, he does not fulfill his duty. In other words, our Sages teach: you have to have your head in the game, to do your job with proper intention and concentration. Any serious task worth doing is worth doing well.

The contemporary Buddhist teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn echoes this advice in his book, Wherever You Go, There You Are. He suggests: “At multiple times during the day, just stop whatever you are doing and ask: “Am I awake now?” After all, the present moment is, really, all we ever possess.

God says very much the same thing to Moses. In calling him to receive the Torah, God commands, “Ascend to the mountain, and BE THERE—v’heyey sham.” Well, duh. If Moses climbs the mountain, where else would he be? As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner notes, God is essentially asking Moses to be there not just in body, but with all of his mind and heart and soul, in full attentive awareness.. In other words, as he sits on the mountain listening for God’s Voice, Moses must, metaphorically speaking, keep his head inside the tent.

Although the priestly service ended long ago, God still dwells in our midst, everywhere and always. But if we are constantly preoccupied with our telephones and i-pods and laptops, scrambling from task to task to task, we experience nothing.

This week try, like Moses, to heed God’s word: “V’Heyey Sham—Be there.”