Thursday, January 28, 2010

The State of our People's Disunion

So I sit here an hour after President Obama’s first State of the Union address, thinking. I should be thinking about America. About the president’s ideas and words. I found him as inspiring as ever, even if I don’t have a firm opinion on each and every proposal. And I am. But my wife has said for as long as she has known me that I see the world through schmaltz-colored glasses. I can’t watch Avatar at the theater and just be taken in by the wonderful storytelling and be blown away by the effects. No, in addition to all of the enjoyment, I find myself almost unconsciously identifying ways to use the film in my “All my Jewish Values Come From the Movies” class.* It’s just the way I am.

So I will leave the analysis of the speech and it’s possible impact on our country and world to wiser heads, or at least to limit those thoughts to other fora. This is a blog about Jewish Education. At the beginning of the speech he said:

“So we face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds, different stories and different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same. The aspirations they hold are shared. A job that pays the bills. A chance to get ahead. Most of all, the ability to give their children a better life.

You know what else they share? They share a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity. After one of the most difficult years in our history, they remain busy building cars and teaching kids; starting businesses and going back to school. They’re coaching little league and helping their neighbors. As one woman wrote me, 'We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged.'

It is because of this spirit – this great decency and great strength – that I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it’s time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.

And tonight, I’d like to talk about how together, we can deliver on that promise.”

I cannot hear this call to civility for the common good without looking at how we Jews sometimes treat one another. And then we wonder why so many of the marginally connected keep walking the other way, hoping not to be noticed – at least not noticed as being with the rest of us.

I read about the
Women of the Wall and I want to scream. Audrey and I were at their second gathering. Women were asked to bring their men. They formed a prayer circle in the Ezrat Nashim (women’s section). We formed an outer ring facing outward in all directions. We were a barrier to the shouts, phlegm and steel chairs that were hurled at them. A Haredi man stood inches from my face shouting “BOOS! BOOS!” at the top of his lungs, spitting on my face. He had recently feasted on some kind of very garlicky sausage. We refused to fight back, merely serving to protect the women who were trying to praise the God we all shared with the words of the siddur and sefer Torah we all held sacred. Before they could finish, the police ordered everyone to disperse and then fired a tear gas cannon at us all. That was in 1988.

Two weeks ago, three teachers from my school (visiting Israel as part of Legacy Heritage: Israel Engagement Innovation Grant) and some HUC students were brought by Doctor Lisa Grant to visit with Anat Hoffman. Her fingers were still stained by the ink used to fingerprint her by the police when she was arrested for inciting women to wear a tallit next to a retaining wall that holds up the mount where the Temple once stood.

“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The disputes between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”

– Pirkei Avot 5:17

And there is no shortage of intolerance of one another on all sides. Although none of the rhetoric or actions generally reach the outrageousness of what is happening in Jerusalem right now, it is hard to justify the way we speak to and about one another as being like the disputes of Hillel and Shammai. I am sad that our friend Lorna felt pressured to leave her home in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. She was the last secular Jew there, having cast the only vote in that precinct for Teddy Kolleck in his final election.

I am sometimes asked about the Steinsaltz Talmud in my office. I bought it with the money I received from friends and family as gifts when I graduated from HUC in 1991. I study as often as can (e.g. not enough), and Rabbi Jim Prosnit and I lead a Talmud group for lawyers every month. They ask because they don’t expect in the office of Reform Jewish educator. I am not even a rabbi – that, at least, they would understand. When asked, I explain that it is our Talmud too. This Shabbat, I will be taking 27 Kitah Vav (6th grade) students, their teachers, some madrikhim and my friend and song leader Shawn Fogel (of the LeeVees and Macaroons!) to Eisner camp for a retreat. We will have fun and explore what this whole Bar/Bat Mitzvah thing is all about – for them. Among other things, we will study Sanhedrin 68b from the Babylonian Talmud. That is where we learn about becoming a Jewish adult. They know it’s there Talmud too!

I want us to raise Obamas in the Jewish community – people that will remind us that we all stood at Mt. Sinai. I want my sons to become men who will teach us all that when the Tower of Babel was toppled and languages were babbled, we Jews all ended up speaking Hebrew! When I was a kid, the UJA campaign for years was build around the slogan “We Are One.” Not sure that would rally the troops right now.

So I take hope in the words of our president. And I take more hope in the words of my sons and all of our students. They will fix things. But like the president said, we can’t leave it to them. We have to show them we are read for them to lead, by leading ourselves.

I love the way he phrased the call for energy efficiency and green technology: “I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.”

We don’t have to agree on whether the Torah was letter for letter given at Sinai to recognize that we are one people and to remember to act like it. We don’t have to settle every difference to agree that we are all created B’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image. And the prayers of one group need not prevent the prayers of another from ascending to the Divine Presence.

I am blessed to be part of the
Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows of the Lookstein Institute at Bar Ilan University. Our small group covers most of the Jewish spectrum (not all, but most). And I am struck by the efforts we all make to respect one another’s religious needs. I pray that as we begin to bring others together into communities of practice, that considerate, thoughtful approach continues and spreads. Kein Yehi Ratzon – may it be God’s will.

And the president’s proposals? Gam Kein Yehi Ratzon.






* There were at least two – As Jake Sully becomes enculturated, falls in love and ultimately becomes a Na’vi is great study in interdating/marriage and conversion (and let’s not even get into the linguistically interesting name of the Pandoran natives, i.e. Na’vi = prophet in Hebrew); and the whole issue of two groups whose claim to the same land leads to inevitable conflict, particularly if one or both parties believes that sharing is not a desired outcome. This may be a difficult but possibly interesting way into a discussion if the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

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