On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘Arnie Eisen’

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.

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.

Chancellor Arnold Eisen Reports from Jerusalem: A Week in Israel at War

At Eshel Avraham in Beersheba (left to right): Dr. Ehud Zmora, Dr. Irit Zmora, Rabbi Mauricio Balter, Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Yizhar Hess, and Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary

I am leaving Israel for America in a few hours, along with JTS Executive Vice Chancellor Marc Gary. We have spent the day visiting Masorti communities around the country, including Masorti Congregation Eshel Avraham in  Beersheba, capping a week that for me included the usual round of JTS meetings and time with old friends, but now against the background of Israel at war. I feel relief to be heading home later this evening, but also strong regret at no longer being a direct part of what is happening to my people in the Land of Israel at a time of trouble. I am full of admiration for the discipline, confidence, and good spirit with which Israelis are handling the latest matsav to come their way. Marc and I have not encountered much jingoism or bluster this week, just recognition that missiles must be stopped from raining down on Israel, and pervasive sadness that the suffering and casualties are mounting on both sides. When will it end? The news today is about continued exchanges of both fire and negotiators. Hillary Clinton is on her way to the region. It might be that on this, the seventh day of the current conflict, Hamas will agree to cease from the work of destruction and permit an interval of rest. Like many Israelis, I am hopeful. But like all we have met, I do not count on it.

On the drive to  Beersheba, we get instructions from our Eshel Avraham host, Rabbi Mauricio Balter, president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, about what to do in the event of an air-raid siren. Park the car, and run to the nearest structure to take cover. If on the open road, lay flat on the ground with hands over head to protect from shrapnel. We get to  Beersheba not long after a missile had penetrated the Iron Dome, mercifully with no loss of life. We would learn a couple of hours later that another rocket had landed not long after our departure.

The news on the car radio features interruptions every few moments announcing where in Israel the sirens are sounding. One announcer reminds us to follow instructions, and assures us that with God’s help all will be well. Even sober newscasters, reporting missiles that fail to injure life or limb, add the words todah la-el (thank God). This is Israel at a moment when the normal boundaries between dati and hiloni are meaningless. Schools have been closed in  Beersheba all week. Stores are closed. The streets are eerily empty of pedestrians, there is almost no traffic, and inside shuttered homes parents are comforting children and one another, making sure TV or radio are playing loud enough to keep track of what is going on elsewhere in Israel—but not so loud as to muffle the sirens. Sixty seconds only to reach a safe room. Mauricio himself had a narrow escape several days ago, crouching under cover of a truck as the rocket soared straight overhead. It’s a serious time for the people of Israel.

Respite at Eshel Avraham

Marc and I made this trip to be with Mauricio, to stand with him physically, so he would not doubt the fact that Israeli Jews do not stand alone. The hug he gave me—and I gave him—carried more than the usual message. He thanked us for being there. I thanked him for being there, and not just for a visit. Two American Jews, accompanied by the head of the Masorti Movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, reinforced the conviction among the members of Mauricio’s family and his congregation that there really is a Jewish People out there and a Conservative Movement that cares for them. One by one, they tell us the stories of being under fire, having children and grandchildren under fire, comforting teenagers who seem to be taking things especially hard. A bar mitzvah is cancelled because of the matsav. A mourner is denied a shi’vah minyan. A vibrant synagogue that normally teems with life is empty. It was not a time for speeches, but for presence. Marc and I were proud to bring the JTS family with us to the Eshel Avraham family. Later, we went with Mauricio and two members of his congregation to a hotline-shelter in which they are volunteering—a center that is getting far more calls than usual, most of them the direct result of the conflict. Post-traumatic stress. Difficulty coping with kids who cannot leave the house for a week. There, too, we did not give speeches, but simply thanked the staff, composed largely of volunteers, for their hard work. They thanked us for coming. At normal times the exchange would count as pleasantries. Not this time.

In Kfar Saba, our next stop, the street outside the Masorti congregation of Hod Ve-Hadar is bustling. Kids boarding busses from school. Stores open. Not quite normal, since everyone has family in a place of danger. Sirens again today in Jerusalem and no doubt soon in Tel Aviv. But not the same as in the south. Two weeks ago, there were two Manhattans, north and south, and now there seem to be two Israels, north and south. I finish this letter at Kibbutz Hannaton in the Galilee, where the quiet at sunset is truly remarkable. “Desert to mountains in one day,” says Yizhar. War zone to quasi-normality. Except that the radio and TV take one live to the front. It is a small country. I get the sense that Israelis are hopeful something will soon change in the rhythm of the conflict, but they don’t know what, and are not really sure what to hope for.It has been quite a week. Here is a brief day-to-day account:

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