On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

new

Chancellor Arnold Eisen Says L’Chaim! to Conservative Judaism in the Jewish Week

Chancellor-9_resize-approved“I’ve spent the better part of my adult life as a scholar of American Judaism, with a special focus on figures at the center of Conservative Judaism, and I’ve spent most of those years enjoying the benefits of Conservative Jewish institutions, conversations, and communities. Consider this short list: Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, California, where my wife and I davened for 21 years and where we celebrated the b’nai mitzvah of our children; Camp Ramah, which my daughter attended as a camper for two summers and where my son worked on staff for three; repeated experiences of emotional and spiritual support from clergy and community at moments when my family and I most needed it; a pattern of ritual celebrations and holiday observances that I shall treasure as long as I live; a kind of Talmud Torah-reverent engagement with Jewish text and history, in the context of broader ideas and learning-that to this day remains distinctive to Conservative Judaism; a fervent but critical Zionism that is no less distinctive; and, last but never least, a fulsome sense of what it is to serve God in this time and place with an open heart as well as a totally engaged mind and an enraptured soul.”

Continue reading “Let’s Drink a L’Chaim to Conservative Judaism” in the Jewish Week. 

Conservative Judaism: Observations and Expectations

As JTS graduates continue to take their place in the professional world and put Torah into action, the conversation that has been Judaism for millennia expands exponentially. Does what they see in the world relate to their Jewish lives—and to the current statistics they’re reading in the newspapers? How can Conservative Judaism continue to offer free, honest, open, and passionate discussion in contemporary terms?

Please enjoy a few moments of my recent conversation with Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen (RS ’02), director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC in Manhattan, as we continue our discussion on the recent Pew Research Center study on US Jews.

Watch “Conservative Judaism: Observations and Expectations”:

Conversations on American Judaism

I’m always heartened by my conversations with our JTS graduates. They are substantive and meaningful, and highlight the difference that Jewish learning makes in the world when brought to bear on important contemporary issues. Our alumni include world-class leaders who do us proud in every community and profession.

Please enjoy just a few moments of my recent conversation with Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen (RS ’02), director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC in Manhattan, as we discuss the recent Pew Research Center study on US Jews.

 
Watch “Proud to Be Jewish”:

Watch “‘Religious’ vs. ‘Spiritual’”:

The Meaning of This Moment

I’m honored to be here today as JTS’s chancellor to celebrate the 100th anniversary of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s activism in building Jewish communities in North America, and I’m truly excited to join you at this moment, in the midst of dynamic organizational change at USCJ that is putting us in the position to build and strengthen Jewish communities for many decades to come.

Let me confess that I asked you all to stretch a moment ago not only to wake us all up a bit more before my address. Stretching is exactly what we have to do a lot of in coming years, you and I, each of us individually and all of us as a group—stretching of heart and soul and mind—if we’re going to make our kind of Judaism compelling to more and more Jews at a time of unprecedented challenge and change. We know that absolutely nothing can be taken as a given anymore when it comes to Jewish life on this continent. Individuals and families are making choices, opting in or out of Jewish life, almost on a daily basis. The members of United Synagogue Youth sitting in the room today will encounter opportunities and choices that we and they can barely imagine today. We need to stretch to meet them where they are and will be in a set of new ways. I’ll describe three of those ways, every one a stretch, in a moment.

But before I do, I want to declare without embarrassment and without the slightest fear that someone will look back on this moment 10 or 15 years from now and snicker at my optimism, that I believe this is a great moment of opportunity for Conservative/Masorti Judaism and for the vital religious center of which we are the core. Our way of teaching and living Torah is not about to disappear—quite the opposite. I read the same news reports you do, pore over the same demographic data, share the Jewish proclivity to worry about our people’s future, and of course am not pleased at shrinking numbers and shuttered institutions. I do not in the least minimize the obstacles we face. The very last thing I want to encourage is complacency.

But remember—looking utterly soberly at the matter—we are here today as Jews, three millennia and more after the Jewish project began, one hundred years after the formation of United Synagogue, doing much better than any rational prognosticator had any reason to believe we would. The meaning of this moment is that millions of Jews on this continent are searching for meaning, and many hundreds of thousands of them already find it in the communities and conversations—the profound joy in a life of mitzvah—that we at our best provide as well as, or better than, anyone else.

Read the rest of this entry »

Chancellor Eisen in Haaretz: New Pew Report, “Reengaging American Jews—Before They Drift Away”

I was warned a few weeks ago that the Pew Research Center survey of American Jews would be cause for depression, if not alarm. The warning reminded me of the old Jewish joke about the telegram sent by one Jew to another: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” Now that the details of the study are in front of us, there is certainly cause for renewed concern about the Jewish future in this country. The Pew findings do not come as a surprise, but they certainly constitute an urgent wake-up call.

The first step, of course, is to identify what is wrong, and to my mind it is not the growing percentage of Jews who identify themselves as having no religion (22 percent, similar to the figure for religious identification in the American population as a whole) or the smaller number of Jews who currently join a synagogue (under 40 percent) or even the significant spike in intermarriage. The problem is the rising number of Jews drifting away from any substantive Jewish attachment whatsoever and deciding not to raise their children as Jews. The question is whether this trend can be reversed and how.

There are several grounds for optimism. The great bulk of American Jews (94 percent) say they are proud to be Jewish. Seventy-five percent say they have a “strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” Seventy percent remain “strongly” or “somewhat” attached to Israel. What is more, if the negative trends on view in the study are proceeding more quickly and powerfully than we had expected, the reason is in part the vast changes taking place in every aspect of American life, and in part the Jewish community’s slowness in adapting to those changes. The fact is that while some Jews are fleeing the community, others are joining it. Many synagogues are bursting with new members, especially young families. Some camps and schools are at full capacity, with waiting lists for admission. The past few decades have seen a spurt of innovative programs and initiatives. This gives promise that more such efforts and others as yet untried, reaching more Jews with passion and depth, have the potential to stem or reverse the present decline.

In several areas, our institutions have not yet absorbed lessons that have been staring us in the face for some time. I will address two of them: the declining interest in Judaism as religion, and the exploding numbers of intermarriages.

If Jews do not want to define themselves by religion, let’s meet them where they are and recognize that they are in good company. Mordecai Kaplan wisely insisted 80 years ago—as did every Zionist thinker I know of—that we stop thinking of Judaism exclusively as a religion, and instead conceive and live it as a civilization or culture. The greatest religious thinkers of our day (Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Abraham Isaac Kook, for example) have likewise insisted that Judaism is meant to be lived in this world rather than apart from it. One does not serve God (or embrace Judaism) by withdrawing from the so-called “secular world.” Many American Jews have not gotten this message. They have never experienced high-level and exciting Jewish learning or reaped the tangible benefits of strong community or seen Jewish wisdom shaping social policy—all blessings that came my way via Conservative/Masorti Judaism. They think the point of Judaism is to be “more religious,” and have too often experienced religion as boring and removed from the life they lead. That language, and the focus on prayer, chases them away. We need more synagogues with vibrant prayer and a range of communal activities beyond prayer. And we need institutions that offer what Kaplan called “maximalist Judaism” in nonreligious forms.

We also need a new way of thinking about intermarriage. My concern on this subject is not so much that Jews marry non-Jews, but that so few young Jews are involved with Judaism and Jewish life enough to insist that the person with whom they share their lives share that commitment. I worry, too, that so few couples—whether inmarried or intermarried—want Jewish tradition and community for themselves and their children. The only means of persuasion is Jewish experience of meaning and joy, whether in camp or school, synagogue or JCC, Shabbat table or text study, in service to the neighborhood or in support of Israel. We spend too much time counting Jews, I think (numbers have never saved us), and too little time (and money) making sure that high-quality Jewish experiences are widely available in forms attractive to millennials and baby boomers, singles and couples, Jews who want spirituality, and Jews engaged by pursuit of social justice. Let’s also not be embarrassed to direct major resources toward helping Jewish 20-somethings meet one another in contexts where they fall in love with being Jewish at the same time as they fall in love with one another.

My father often repeated the witticism, “They told me to cheer up because things could be worse. So I cheered up—and, sure enough, things got worse.” The Pew report is not occasion for cheer. But neither should it cause despair. Let it remind us, once again, that old strategies will not suffice in circumstances that are unprecedented. We need a degree of resourcefulness worthy of our tradition and our people. The next population study might well bear the mark of our success.

Originally published in Haaretz.

Bridging the Secular/Religious Divide in Ourselves and the World

The Yom Kippur liturgy holds out a special welcome, which I want to reinforce, to the tens of thousands of Jews who will attend High Holiday services this year, and perhaps fast all or part of the day despite complex and ambivalent feelings about religion and uncertainty or outright skepticism about belief in God. If you are among them, let me urge you not to be put off from fully embracing the opportunity this day affords by the fact that the liturgy seems to assume a year-round regimen of practice in which you may not engage, and makes assumptions about life and death that you may not share. Let me confess that one of the most important moments to me in the history of modern Jewish thought—my scholarly field of expertise—is the one in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book Man is Not Alone, when Heschel follows a gorgeous and moving page describing personal religious experience of God with a chapter titled in boldface headline, “Doubt.”

I want to build on that juxtaposition of faith and doubt for the next few moments, in the hope of helping all of us take maximum advantage of the 24 hours ahead. I want to challenge the assumption that the purpose of Yom Kippur is to get us to be more religious, in the sense in which that word is ordinarily used these days—religious as opposed to secular. In my view, we are not meant to go forth from this hall at the end of Ne‘ilah and forswear life in the secular world in favor of a putative religious existence in some other realm. Most of us live our lives in the secular world, and have no intention of abandoning it. We treasure science and technology; culture and the arts; the free exchange of ideas; the fabric of daily existence with family and friends that we share with other participants in modern times. If I thought that the purpose of Judaism, and so of Yom Kippur, was to get me to leave that way of life behind—as some forms of Judaism maintain—then my position on Judaism would bear the same title as that chapter in Heschel’s book: doubt.

Thank goodness the very opposite is the case. The Judaism I have been taught all my life—the JUDAISM of the Bible and the Rabbis—has no interest in the religious/secular dichotomy. Jewish tradition has never fit comfortably inside the notion of religion. Fasting and prayer are two among many hundreds of commandments meant to guide Jews to a good life and a better world. The Hebrew Bible includes lengthy legislation and narrative concerning politics, economics, social justice, and the arts; profound philosophical ruminations and moral insights; one of the greatest love poems ever written; and bloodcurdling tales about kings and their intrigues that highlight the limits, use, and abuse of power. Major sections of the Talmud and subsequent legal codes likewise cannot be contained inside any narrow definition of religion. They remind us that the Torah does not command Jews to be religious. It commands us to be holy, to pursue justice, to walk humbly with our God. That requires action outside the sanctuary more than inside it; seven days a week, and not just one.

Read the rest of this entry »

Belfast and Jerusalem: “Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall”

On the day a couple weeks ago that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Washington DC to resume the long-stalled peace process, my wife and I toured Belfast, site of another intractable conflict that long seemed beyond resolution. We learned that—15 years after the “Good Friday Agreement,” which brought a formal end to the conflict setting Protestants versus Catholics—the reality on the ground falls far short of peace, let alone reconciliation, even if it also marks a vast improvement over the warfare and terror that had raged before. One cannot help but ponder the lessons of the Belfast situation for the peacemakers resuming work this week in Jerusalem, and for those who want to support their efforts. I offer the following reflections.

First: separation walls have their uses in promoting peace, but are not always helpful in securing reconciliation. Not having studied the situation in Northern Ireland before our brief visit (and by no means an expert now), I was shocked to come upon a wall, 25 to 40 feet high and half a mile long, dividing a Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist neighborhood from a twin Catholic-Nationalist-Republican neighborhood on the other side. It is one of 99 such barriers or buffers in Belfast alone. Houses on the Catholic side abutted directly onto the wall. On the Protestant side, there was a large open area of vacant lots and overgrown weeds between the wall and the nearest houses. I could not get over the sight of a Catholic home, adorned at the front with flowers and satellite dish, with the back windows and patio enclosed by heavy metal fencing. It remains my dominant image of Belfast. No less disturbing was the fact that, with the consent of both sides, gates to the two neighborhoods are locked every night. No one can get in or out: a heavy price to pay for protection from the other, and from oneself.

Our two guides—Issac, a former member of a Protestant paramilitary group, and Tommy, once part of the Official (as opposed to the Provisional) Irish Republican Army (IRA)—were of course beyond shock at the reality that so upset me. Their depression seemed tempered by full awareness of how much better the present situation is than the one that preceded it. Tommy told us of the time British soldiers caught him in a Protestant neighborhood where he had been visiting his girlfriend, pushed him against a wall, and broke both his hands as a warning never to come back. Between puffs on chain-smoked cigarettes and with understated eloquence, Issac described the brutality and senseless violence of “The Troubles,” including murderous rivalries and killings, Mafia-style, among the various Loyalist militias. Our two guides had much in common, and knew it (a fact driven home to us when we shared a meal after the tour and they both ordered an “Ulster Fry”—ham, eggs, and toast—downed with black coffee and cigarettes).

Issac recounted the moving story of how his imprisoned brother (a member of a Loyalist paramilitary, also named Tommy) one day heard the voice of a childhood friend—in jail for IRA military activity—from an adjoining cell. Both were naked except for blankets, a protest against the British decision to treat them as common prisoners and issue them regulation convict garb, rather than treat them as political prisoners, who are permitted—in accordance with that status—to dress in street clothes. Both had grown long black beards. The two former friends and rival gunmen lay prone on the floor of their cells to talk, taking advantage of a narrow opening at the bottom of the wall. “How did we come to this?” they asked one another. Thus, according to the story, began a major personal breakthrough, and a vow to stop young people from going down the same path. Our two guides, together and separately, now work on conflict resolution with groups from Northern Ireland and other world trouble spots; one such retreat brought Israelis and Palestinians together in Belfast. Only face-to-face, person-to-person relationships, they believe, will move Northern Ireland past its history. “Power sharing” between political factions will not suffice. “Things are never going to change so long as it’s a matter of separating the two communities and dividing spoils between them,” they said.

Lesson number two: symbols matter. One part of the separation wall, on the Protestant side, was adorned with murals and messages devoted to the effort of getting Belfast beyond conflict. A visiting Israeli had scrawled “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” the title of the anthem of the Israeli peace movement. We translated the words, and explained their significance to Issac and Tommy. As uplifting as this stretch of wall was, it was outnumbered by others nearby that bore quite different messages, and by flags and parades that asserted identity and ownership. One cannot stay long in Belfast without encountering Protestant parades of men and boys playing fifes and drums. On the Catholic side, one finds memorial gardens and plaques to people who had died for the cause going back almost a century. Murals are everywhere. One, set in a Nationalist neighborhood, features endorsement of the Palestinian cause, the legacy of cooperation between the IRA and the Palestine Liberation Organization. A prominent Protestant mural has a militant brandishing a machine gun that uncannily remains pointed at the viewer no matter the angle from which it is approached.

Symbols are better than violence, of course, but these don’t seem to be advancing the cause of lasting peace and genuine reconciliation. There are no unifying symbols, to my knowledge: no flag beyond those of the Irish Tricolour and the Union Jack; no days to celebrate or imagine an era beyond hostilities or coexistence, reflecting the lack of any such option at present, real or imagined. Will Israelis and Palestinians one day trade guns for in-your-face marches through East and West Jerusalem? Will we rejoice at the sight of rival flags, appreciating how much better it is than the sight of bombed out pizza parlors and coffee shops? Or will we manage to find rituals and symbols shared by the two sides, expressing interests and convictions that are truly mutual?

Final lesson: there is no one factor that causes the conflict, and no one factor that can resolve it. Again and again, our two guides stressed that “The Troubles” were sectarian rather than religious, by which they meant that the two communities are not divided primarily by faith, but by ethnic identity and sense of nationhood. Religion continues to play its part; however, clergy cannot help but bless and help to maintain conflicting identities, even if they work against violence. Politics continue to be a major factor, whether as contested division of spoils or the basic question of who has the power to make decisions affecting people’s lives. I was struck by the degree to which the conflict seems to have heated up in recent years with the cooling of the Irish economy. The separation walls divide working class neighborhoods from which Catholics and Protestants alike move up and out with educational and economic attainment. Other areas, such as the one around the university, have a far more normal feel. To some extent, the latest installment of “The Troubles” resembles gang warfare in the “’hood.” The sectarian problems of Belfast likely won’t be solved until job opportunities can be provided to a generation of young people who currently lack both employment and hope.

“They have nothing now,” Issac lamented about those on the dole. Once they were fighters and respected for that. Before that, they had steady, decent jobs in industries that have long since moved away. Now they can’t even find anyone to listen to their stories from those days, let alone someone to hire them for honest work. Disappointment at the Good Friday Agreement is fueled, in part, by absence of the promised “peace dividend”: economic benefits to ordinary citizens. Rabble-rousers exploit poverty in Belfast as they do elsewhere, accusing neighborhoods and politicians on the other side of grabbing more than their fair share. Investment dollars matter a lot to the success of peace, our guides agreed—another lesson for Israel; one of which American promoters of an Israeli-Palestinian accord have long been aware.

I left Belfast sobered by the reminder that peace—difficult as it is to achieve—is not an event but a process. One key stage is reached when the two parties put down weapons and agree to resolve all matters henceforth by democratic means. That is hard enough to accomplish—and it is not sufficient. Despite huge differences between the two conflicts of concern to me in this essay, Robert Frost’s warning in the poem “Mending Walls” seems to apply equally in both cases. On the one hand, “Good fences make good neighbors. It’s simplistic to believe one can entirely do without walls in a place like Belfast. But Frost was wise, and not merely sentimental, to note as well: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Do we really need the separation fences once violence ceases? One “ask[s] to know / What I was walling in and walling out / and to whom I was like to give offense / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Peace, for example.

Jews of the Wall

When I met with Natan Sharansky in May to discuss the compromise solution he was proposing for prayer at the Western Wall, I thought the plan he laid before me was ingenious and well worth supporting. I told him that his plan had significance beyond the conflict between Haredim and Women of the Wall. It offered a chance not only to defuse antagonism, head off violence, and alter the landscape of Jerusalem, but also to change the entire configurations of Jewish religious practice in Israel. Sharansky’s plan was so momentous, I remember saying, it was probably too good to be true; certainly the enemies of Jewish religious pluralism would make sure that his compromise never moved from proposal to reality.

Now, less than two months later, pundits and activists on all sides of the debate are wishing or pronouncing the Sharansky plan dead—killed by a set of forces more diverse and complex than any of us could have imagined at the time. Archaeologists don’t like the digging that the plan would entail. Muslim officials of the Waqf fear it will undermine the foundations of the Temple Mount. Advocates of giving part of Jerusalem back to Palestinians in return for peace fear that development of the Western Wall Plaza will preclude such arrangements when the time comes. Most important, a district court judge has given women the right to pray as they see fit on the women’s side of the Kotel. The police have turned from arresting women wearing prayer shawls at the Wall to protecting them from Haredi taunts and stones. “Suddenly there is almost no pressure to enforce the expensive and ambitious compromise proposed by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky,” wrote Yair Ettinger in Ha’aretz. It’s difficult to argue with that conclusion.

That’s too bad, I think. The Sharansky plan should not be abandoned, for a number of reasons.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Tribute to David Hartman

The Jewish world, both in Israel and the Diaspora, lost a great teacher, thinker, and institution builder yesterday when Rabbi David Hartman (z”l) passed away in Jerusalem after a long illness. Many of us also lost a good friend. I happened to be in Florida this weekend, and was talking with Rabbi David Steinhardt on Shabbat afternoon about how much David Hartman meant to each of us, how he had touched our souls and inspired our minds. Sunday morning, we consoled one another for his loss. My friend David Ellenson and I did the same a few minutes later, fighting back tears. It was so with many rabbis, lay leaders, intellectuals, and public figures, including many Gentiles. We will miss David Hartman greatly. We already do.

This is not the moment for full-scale evaluation of David Hartman’s legacy. That will come in time. Today, we are still too close to the man and to the shock of his death. But I do want to reflect briefly on why David was, and will always remain, so important to me and to many others.

One factor is the sheer power and force of his mind. David was a brilliant thinker. Ideas flashed through his brain so fast that he did not always have time to process them before sharing them with the rest of us, and we, his students, did not have the time to consider them before straining to keep up with the next insight David presented. He was famous for speaking in two or more languages simultaneously and not finishing sentences in either of them. I first encountered this as a graduate student in the 1970s at Hebrew University, where I had the good fortune to take a course on the halakhic and philosophical issues surrounding the concepts Children of Noah and ger v’toshav (resident alien). It helped me a lot that a Hartman class, though officially conducted in Hebrew, always featured a good measure of English. It helped me even more that I, who had come to Israel both for academic reasons and to deepen my relationship as a Jew with Judaism and with Israel, had a teacher who embodied those commitments. Talmud and Maimonides, for David Hartman, were not subjects in a curriculum, but challenging guides for individual and collective Jewish lives. Never was a teacher more passionate. Few could command the material as David Hartman could—and command his students by means of the material. He made it speak to their hearts and souls as much as to their minds. David took me aside more than once that year for conversation, and then never stopped taking me aside. He did this for countless people. Our devotion to Judaism and Israel are inseparable from our relationship to him.

That is so, in large part, because of David Hartman’s message. Just look at the titles of several works in English, so expressive of the man and what he stood for. In 1978, he published Joy and Responsibility: Israel, Modernity and the Renewal of Judaism. Every single article in that collection both teaches and preaches. The learning is marshaled to the cause of moving the reader to accept the challenge of making Judaism come alive in a sovereign State of Israel and a Diaspora where almost every door is opened before Jews. He envisioned halakhah not as a set of dos and don’ts, but as the “ground for creating a shared spiritual language.” He warned of the tensions between “Sinai and Messianism,” a matter of great urgency, given the rise of Gush Emunim. He wrote about and personified “The Joy of the Torah.” The closest thing to a Hartman magnum opus is perhaps A Living Covenant (1985), which bore the Hartmanian subtitle The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism. Once again, Hartman exposited halakhah in a fresh, dynamic way, drawing upon his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, but applying his methods—and applying them to Israel—in ways that the Rav had not done. The book is deep, honest, piercing. It wrestles as much as it asserts. That is all the more true in two more recent collections: A Heart of Many Rooms: Celebrating the Many Voices Within Judaism (1999; the title says it all, I think) and The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition (2011), as direct and powerful a dose of Hartman as one could hope for.

I conclude with a final aspect of the gift that was David Hartman, one I will try to capture with two reminiscences. The first is Hartman on stage before thousands at a General Assembly of the Federations in the 1980s or early ’90s. He stood far away, on a dais, yet touched people as much during the lecture as he did before and after when he moved through the crowd and literally put his hands on hundreds of shoulders. The glasses came off and on, the talk was punctuated with laughter and—it seemed—tears. I felt like the man on stage was talking to me personally and, from the faces all around me, I inferred that others too felt this way. How David Hartman did this again and again I do not know. I saw him reach people even more directly in smaller rooms of 50 or 100: same effect, same remarkable ability to move people and get their minds working at the very same moment.

And this was the David Hartman that we got to know one on one, and to whom I last spoke in his living room this past November: the man who not only loved the Jewish People in general, wished so much for it, was so frustrated at what it could achieve but failed to achieve, but who also loved individual members of the Jewish People (and many others too). David always wanted the most from the people he befriended—demanded it by urging them on—and gave us the charge to give all we could to the task, lest we fail those who count on us and fail ourselves. I was not privy to the medical details of David Hartman’s illnesses in his final years (though I did hear enough to get me worrying about his survival), but I do know that he was a man who just did not hold back. He threw everything he had into the projects he built in Israel (often in the face of concerted opposition from Orthodox authorities), just as he threw himself into every class, every speech, every conversation. He was larger than life because he poured all of his substantial gifts—his nefesh, his life force—into being David Hartman.

May his family and all who mourn him find comfort among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, on both of which he has left a substantial mark. May all of us who care about the life of the Jewish People, and the vitality of Torah, strive to do our best for those causes, and so not let David down.

 

Lights Against the Darkness

The news about the school shootings in Connecticut reached me just before Shabbat, the seventh day of Hanukkah. Candle-lighting seemed more needed than usual that evening. It must have meant a lot to our ancestors, who lived in darkness so much more than we do, to have light in their homes eight nights in a row. If money was scarce, they might not have spent it on oil and wicks had they not been commanded to do so. We moderns feel the need for light keenly when a tragedy like the one at the Newtown school plunges our spirits into darkness. I think we are commanded in its wake to do the equivalent of lighting candles, even if the cost is great. We need to think together, as we grieve together, about what that means.

Rituals like Hanukkah are wonderfully simple in their directives. That’s the beauty of ritual. Say the prayers, light the candles, put them in the window, and you’re done. We treasure ritual in part because we have the chance to get it right—unlike life, which is so complex that we sometimes feel hopeless about the chance of getting anything right. Can we figure out how to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who cannot be trusted to use them properly? Can we get troubled minds and souls the care they need? Can we cure ourselves—especially, it seems, our young men—of the violent streak that, according to the Torah, is as old as humanity itself? Questions are many, and it’s difficult to sort through the answers proposed.

It’s clear to me that we can’t protect ourselves and our children from every danger and expect them to grow into independent adults. It is also clear, however, that we must do something—obligation is heavy in the face of murdered children—and are prohibited from throwing up our hands in the face of the task’s enormity. Moses, facing his own imminent death, tells the Israelites that he has set before them life and death, blessing and curse, good and evil—and commands them to choose life. I believe that Moses knew that such choices are often the very opposite of simple—and yet his Torah commands us to make them, and Jews have struggled to do so for many centuries.

Ours is a tradition that has always prized life, valued every single life, taught that if we save a single life it is as if we save the whole world. We need to figure out, as individuals and communities, how to do so in each individual circumstance. We will not find definitive answers to tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School, much less to the profound questions of morality, social policy, and even theology (“where was God?!”) that it provokes. But we know too, as truly as we know anything, that saving one soul makes infinite difference.

I offer three suggestions—three imperatives for communal and social policy—that seem to me to emerge from the Torah.

First, let us redouble our efforts to perform the two actions at the very heart of our tradition: building strong face-to-face communities and filling them with Meaning to live by. Community has the ability to hold us tight in the face of suffering. It overcomes the isolation that is often one of the ingredients that leads to violence. Meaning with a capital M sustains us when heartache seems too great to bear. It has proven capacity to ward off despair. We should extend these gifts to one another without stint in coming weeks. There is no better way to heal broken souls than to gather them together in bonds of solidarity and reach out to them with ageless Truth and wisdom. Let’s offer testimony in word and deed that one choose good, choose blessing, choose life.

Second, let’s do the hard work on social policy that will allow us to figure out how to take guns—and especially assault weapons—from those who should not have them. I believe, along with President Obama and many individuals from across the country and the political spectrum,  that we as a society can find a way to respect the proper use and possession of firearms for hunting and defense and still make it harder for individuals with a history of violence or mental illness to get hold of them. Jewish tradition requires us to secure the conditions that allow for proper functioning of society, and the American Constitution too orders us to “provide for the common defence and promote the general Welfare.” Weapons laws should not remain a matter of right vs. left, urban vs. rural, Republican vs. Democrat. Honest national conversation on this matter at this time stands a good chance of leading to an outcome that saves lives.

Third, let’s provide treatment for those whose vulnerability in mind or soul makes them more prone to violence. I know that our understanding of mental illness is woefully incomplete. I recognize that our resources are too few to care for everyone who needs medical care for body, mind, or soul. I certainly do not mean to imply that every violent crime results from illness or neglect. Our sages teach that there is evil in the world that we need to punish and from which we need to protect ourselves. They also instruct us that the matter is not simple. That said, it does seem that in case after tragic case in America of late, signs of severe disturbance have been ignored and cries for help have been ignored.

I don’t think that the Torah has an answer to the question of “where God was” at that school that day in Connecticut. But it does suggest directions for human answers to such tragedies, and commands us to work at finding and implementing them the best we can. Action of this sort is its own comfort at moments like this one. We owe it to the kids who perished and to those who are back at school.