On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

Posts Tagged ‘Arnold Eisen’

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.

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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.

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.

Leadership

24 Sivan 5772
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen

Children of Israel have not always been kind to their leaders. In last week’s parashah, Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’s marriage and his unique relationship to God. This week, we read about the gloom-and-doom report of the spies that thwarts the plans laid by God and Moses for conquest of the Promised Land. Worst of all, perhaps, is the full-scale rebellion fomented thereafter by Moses’s cousin, Korah, and 250 of the tribal princes. “You have over-reached,” Korah tells Moses. “All the people are holy.” God has to intervene in every case—and in other cases too—to establish authority and restore order. Such tales are immediately recognizable to leaders of any sort in any age among any people. The Torah’s first lesson to prospective leaders seems to be that popularity and leadership rarely go hand in hand.

I’ve had numerous occasions to reflect on leadership in the past few weeks. The Commencement at The Jewish Theological Seminary sent 103 future lay and professional leaders out into the world bearing talent, idealism, and heartfelt hopes for their success. Several of the women recently ordained as rabbis by JTS have shared their concerns in this blog space about unequal working conditions, respect, and prospects. I have held dialogues about leadership with the governor of Michigan and the mayor of Chicago. Hebrew Union College President David Ellenson and I spent a moving evening in conversation with fourth-year rabbinical students from our two schools that have studied and acquired professional skills together over the past three years, thanks to a grant from the Schusterman Foundation. And, of course, I got to visit the White House on May 29 to speak with a president under siege from many quarters, including Jewish quarters. I thought of Bemidbar (In the Wilderness) and Moses at that moment—and wondered if the President did too.

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