Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Real Peace Process

On this blog, I try my best to steer clear of politics. However, the defense of Israel is an existential issue - not a political one (or at least it shouldn't be). Following their recent meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to President Barack Obama why Israel cannot accept some of his administration's demands. Whether it's the return to the 1967 borders or dealing with the Palestinian refugee problem, Israel cannot be forced to commit suicide.

The "peace process" that is often imposed on Israel is completely disingenuous. There can't be peace if one side in the conflict remains committed to destroying the other side. While this continues to be the central impediment to Israeli-Arab relations, there's a different peace process that has nothing to do with Arabs. It should go without saying, but we can't pit ourselves against fellow Jews to the point where we are out to destroy one another. Otherwise, peace among Jews will be just as impossible as peace with our enemies. Luckily, life and goodness are central to Jewish culture, so the building blocks are there. We just have to cultivate those values.

During each of Israel's wars of survival, individual Jews figured out a way to overcome their differences for the sake of the Jewish people. In 1948, then in 1967, then again in 1973, and yet again during other perilous times, we came together purely for the sake of our brothers and sisters. Religious and political differences were irrelevant. Personal gripes and grudges were cast aside. And then the unity ended . . . until the next war reared its ugly head. There's a pattern here.

It appears as though we're heading for yet another difficult predicament. It's only a matter of time. Most of the world remains against Israel, and some radical groups are actively pursuing the destruction of the Jewish people. So what exactly are we waiting for? Our own peace process should begin long before circumstances on the ground put us in a position where we have no choice. And this time around, our character has to be strong enough to sustain the peace long after the most recent threat to our existence subsides.

The importance of peace is not only logically compelling, but can also be found throughout Jewish literature. Shalom, the Hebrew term for peace, is ubiquitous in Jewish life. Every major prayer ends with it. Every decent person yearns for it. Among other things, shalom is used:

- to conclude the Oral Law

- in the final blessing of Shemoneh Esrei

- to end Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing)

- to end Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals)

- as the essential word in our greetings to one another (e.g. "Shalom Aleichem")

- as the last description for the different times of the season (Ecclesiastes 3:8)

Peace must be more than a word. It must be a value we try to inculcate into our lives. It means striving for tranquil interactions with each other - even those with whom we strongly disagree. Differences of opinion are not the primary obstacle; acting indecently because of those differences is. If you happen to find it difficult to overcome a particular disagreement with another Jew, you don't have to force yourself to love them. First, avoid hostility by exercising some self-restraint. Then, over time, work on a more positive attitude. It's a peace process.

Our tradition has it that every nation on earth is designated with a guardian angel - except for Israel. God Himself is the guardian of the Jewish people. While members of the Israel Defense Forces deserve tremendous credit and gratitude, Israel exists "not by might nor by power" (nor by the generous support of the United States), but "by the spirit of God" (Zechariah 4:6). Peace in the Middle East is certainly a laudable goal, but it remains a task that is beyond the scope of any particular government or human being. So what are we, as Jews, to focus on instead? Aim to please an audience of One. And nothing pleases God more than seeing His children at peace with one another.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Halacha is Not Enough

One of the reasons for the destruction of ancient Jerusalem was that fellow Jews held to the letter of the law. Furthermore, they tried to get whatever they could out of each other legally. As the Talmud states (Bava Metzia 30b), we were exiled because fellow Jews failed to raise their standard of behavior lifnim mishurat hadin - beyond the letter of the law. In other words, people wouldn't cut each other any slack. This is something that God cannot tolerate among His children for very long. Focusing on technical legalisms can destroy a society. Adherence to halacha (Jewish law) is extremely significant, but it cannot become the be all and end all. Something can be legally justifiable and not morally correct.

I know a man who helped bring a secular Jewish woman back to the faith. When they bumped into each other some time later, she told him that she was no longer ritually observant. Surprised, he asked her what had happened. She explained that shortly after becoming Orthodox, she was attending synagogue on Shabbat with her young child, who happens to be mentally handicapped. After the services were over, she walked outside with her son in her arms. A rabbi who passed by told her that there was no eruv in the neighborhood and that she could not lift her child. She was deeply offended by his lack of sensitivity. Was the rabbi halachically right in his observation? Yes. But was he morally right in his conduct? Absolutely not.

There is a famous rabbinic teaching which states "Derech Eretz Kadma La'Torah" - the commandment of good manners preceded the Torah. One interpretation of this phrase is that while the revelation of the Torah occurred at Mount Sinai after the Exodus, the obligation to act with courtesy and civility toward other people dates back to the dawn of humanity. Furthermore, the Ramban comments on the verse "You Shall Be Holy" (Leviticus 19:2) that it's possible to be a Naval Birshut HaTorah - a degenerate within the confines of the Torah. The letter of the law alone is not enough; the spirit of the law must also be considered. As Jews, we are supposed to strive for the highest standard of behavior. Doing what is right often means upholding the values of the Torah beyond its explicit laws, thus sanctifying ourselves and being a blessing to those with whom we come into contact.

Judging other Jews solely by how much they adhere to halacha will only tell you how much they observe halacha. However, reserving judgment solely for the ethical behavior of fellow Jews will tell you a great deal about their character. We can feel passionately one way or the other about halachic observance without regarding with contempt those who don't do so to our satisfaction. Bein Adam La'Makom (the relationship between man and God) is extremely significant, but one's level of ritual observance is the choice of the individual. On the other hand, Bein Adam La'Chaveiro (the relationship between man and other people) must follow a more universal ethical code.

While following halacha is certainly prudent, it does not magically make a Jew a good human being. So what is one to do? In This Is My God (first edition (1959), page 45), Herman Wouk provides some words of wisdom:

"The sensible thing is to use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way, whether many other people do or few do. If a Jew concludes to enter upon his heritage and make it part of his life, he does an obviously reasonable thing. The chances are that–at least today–he will seem a mighty freakish non-conformist in some neighborhoods; but that is changing too, and anyway, what does it matter? What matters is living with dignity, with decency, and without fear, in the way that best honors one's intelligence and one's birth."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Zionism and Jewish Unity

I hope the rendition of Hatikvah in the video above was as inspiring for you as it was for me. Yet, not all Jews are inspired by the Jewish State, let alone its national anthem. For an outsider, this seems absolutely preposterous. But for Jews, it's all part of being an opinionated family.

As Israel begins its 63rd year of modern existence, the debates of the founders still echo in the hearts and minds of Jews worldwide. Jews of all persuasions continue to argue over everything from domestic policy to whether Zionism itself should be allowed. For the sake of clarity, Zionism is a term meaning that Jews have the right to live in their ancestral homeland of Israel along with the resumption of Jewish sovereignty. This idea should unite us unlike anything else, but so often it does not. For both political and religious reasons, certain factions of Jews have rendered Zionism a bad word.

Many secular Jews who get their history solely from college are completely inundated with anti-Israel sentiment. Over time, this has had a disastrous effect. When they start believing all their professors' attempts to delegitimize the Jewish State, they inevitably overlook the fact that Israel has been a beacon of freedom among a sea of tyrannies. Similarly, there are many religious Jews who are not fond of Israel's largely secular founding, and a small number vehemently oppose any Jewish sovereignty in Israel until the Messianic era. This has inevitably led to a lack of gratitude for the modern state, despite the fact that Torah learning in yeshivot and seminaries has thrived in the country.

Israel's creation and continued existence is a miracle that is all too often taken for granted. It needs to be better appreciated. While there will always be religious and secular purists who stand against the state for one reason or another, those voices don't speak for the vast majority of Jews. As imperfect as Israel may be, it was, is, and always will be the Jewish homeland. It's neither a secular nor religious utopia, but it has produced great benefits for Jews of all stripes. Perhaps some of its citizens lack in spirituality or appreciation of its founders, but that will come in time.

I'm sure there are some readers who disagree with parts of this post, but that demonstrates the beauty of Judaism in general and of Israel in particular. From religion to politics to family life, there are significant disagreements among different Jews of goodwill. But the very fact that we feel so comfortable expressing our individual points of view shows just how much of a family we are. Two siblings at the dinner table might shout at each other during a conversation, but in the end, the family unit is one. In fact, a native-born Israeli is often referred to as a Sabra (a "prickly pear" - hard on the outside, soft on the inside). They might be in-your-face and opinionated, but when push comes to shove, they'll save your life.

The irony, of course, is that when we stop dividing each other so much, the land will stop being divided and return to its highest spiritual state. Then the rebuilding of the final Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) can ensue - what religious Jews most want, along with world peace - what secular Jews most want. The fulfillment of the Messianic era is a process, often taking longer than we would like, but a process nonetheless. Major historical events don't happen by accident, let alone in the holiest place on earth.

Rashi's commentary on the very first verse of the Torah explains that the account of creation set the moral basis for the Jewish inheritance of Israel. God has the ultimate authority over every claim of land, and He will vouch for Israel's legitimacy. Thus, it can be argued that God was the original Zionist. This all leads to my theory about the founding of Israel: God allowed mostly (though not exclusively) secular Jews to establish the modern state as a way of telling us that we are all important in His eyes. It is God's land, and He decides who can prosper within it. He chose the Jewish people - all the Jewish people - charedi (religious), chiloni (secular), and everything in between.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Fight Against Evil

Thank God, the world's most renowned terrorist, Osama bin Laden, has been killed. This man was directly responsible for the murders of thousands of innocent people, including fellow Americans and Jews. As important as it was to kill him, this is not the end of evil by any means. The radical Islamic ideology he preached continues to thrive. Just ask any Israeli affected by Palestinian terror. As important - and correct - as it was for Israel to take out terrorist leaders who targeted their civilians, it did not end the threat; it was simply transferred to other people. The very fact that Hamas has rendered bin Laden an "Arab holy warrior" shows how deep this problem is. From before Hitler to after bin Laden, neither anti-Semitism nor mass murder ended when these figures died. And it won't end until the Messianic era.

One of the first entries I ever posted on this blog was about the two great evils all good people must combat at this time. The first kind was mentioned in the previous paragraph; the second kind will be dealt with now. It's about fighting the evil inclination - the yetzer hara - in our individual lives, especially with regard to interpersonal conduct. It's great to take pride in any personal triumphs over our yetzer hara. However, as important as it is to overcome the inclination to act indecently toward each other in a particular situation, the battle does not end there. Similar scenarios will continue to arise, and we have to stay on our toes if we are to win the war.

Here's the bottom line: evil in all its forms will continue to affect us until the day God obliterates it from earth. As bothersome as it is to constantly stand against it, we must find the moral courage to do so. Remember, "Ohavei Hashem Sinu Ra" (Psalms 97:10) - those who love God must hate evil. Both radical Islamic terrorists and the yetzer hara do not give up in their fight; neither should we. It's frustrating to deal with, but we must persevere. With every day that passes, we inch closer to the day all people of goodwill hope for - the Final Redemption, along with its reign of true peace on earth. Until then, the fight continues.