10 July 2013

Love Fertilizes Eggs

It always comes down to the eggs.

There's the old joke, of course, about what came first.

There's the fact that each of us comes from a mother's egg.

And then there are the eggs that are thrown these days in Israel--generally by Haredi men and women--in some kind of protest or another.

The egg:  a generative source of protein and life.

The egg:  the foundation stone, as it were, of the very first step in the process of becoming.

The egg:  useless on its own and wasted when broken on the ground but delicious, diverse, strong and fortifying when manipulated, prepared, cooked and collaboratively added to an orchestra of other foods and condiments and spices.  (Have I gone too far?)

Rather than give in to the temptation of righteous anger and outrage (there's enough of that in this old world) I began thinking of the recent round of Haredi protests as the last gasps of a fundamentalist community recognizing against its will that Time, that inexorable and mysterious Reality of Existence, has finally caught up with the valiantly insular but now ossified culture that like a threatened mother bird kills its young for fear of contamination.  Don't touch a bird's egg, a child learns:  the mother bird will reject it.

But the irony shines forth:  an egg is only good when touched.  A female egg and a male egg make a life.  An egg and a chef make a meal.  Engagement, interaction, combination, and recombination, is the source of all existence.

No man is an island.  Nor is he an egg.

Hasidic and Haredi culture have given the Jewish people some of its greatest teachers; some of its most enduring lessons of Torah, of the life of sacrifice, of the transcendent value of Jewish prayer, of the most profound expressions of love and kindness in community that have ever been known in the history of human civilization.  And, as we know from history, Hasidic and Haredi culture came to be in an historical environment that was often hostile, oppressive, dangerous and violent to the Jewish people.  Separation was not only a religious choice to hold at bay the potential threat of a hostile culture; separation was also imposed upon the Jew, relegating the Jew to the status of the despised and reviled Other of European life.  There was the self-imposed ghetto to be sure; but its dangers paled in comparison to the insidious hatefulness of the ghetto legislated, decreed and imposed upon Jewish communities for centuries.

And what we too often forget (while sometimes focusing on our own personal traumas) is that Haredi cultures carries an enormous pride in having re-populated Jewish life that was obliterated and exterminated and utterly wiped off the face of the earth by Nazi Fascist policies and abhorrent genocidal crimes during the Second World War.  That tectonic tear deep in the alluvial soil of European Jewish life was trauma that would require nearly a century to heal.  Genocide's echoes are heard far and wide.  Those echoes may distort reality, to be sure; but those echoes resound, and give shape to fearful defensiveness that we ought not to be too quick to judge.

When eggs fly through the air at fellow Jews asking for the right to pray freely; or when eggs fly at a Jewish nation asking for mandatory public service of all its citizens, those eggs are desperate fears flung skyward; twisted taunts wrought by centuries of fear and confusion of the contaminating Other, a fear mis-applied, tragically read incorrectly into the prevailing winds of the evolution of the Jewish people.

The dynamism of the militarily strong, Hebraically rich, economically powerful, technologically triumphant, culturally critical Jewish state today was absolutely unimaginable to the first Haredim who donned the dark clothing of masters and rabbis and teachers in order to fortify themselves, in uniform behavior, against a world which sought to remove the Jew from the world.  Such a totally defensive posture is not necessary any longer.   Similarly, the diversity of American Jewish life, along with certain incontrovertible facts--like Jews in government, finance, law, art, culture, academia and on and on is a testimony to a confidence of identity, to a richness of life, to an embrace of Jewishness that while not wholly similar to Haredi life is surely open to an understanding of how Judaism and its three thousand year tradition of Torah, Mitzvot, Values and Community can enhance and enrich one's day to day existence.  These facts--the radical acceptance of Jews--while posing the usual risks generated by the fear of assimilation, are, like Zionism, realities that were again, unimaginable to those first Haredi Jews.

The generative realities of contemporary Jewish life is only limited by its own sometimes prejudicial insistence on painting Haredi Jews in one light.  For any knowledgable observer of contemporary Jewis life knows that Haredim are entering the workforce; they are signing up for the military in Israel; they have been earning advanced degrees and studying psychology and trauma therapy and business in order to slowly but surely learn to bridge the perceived gap between the false construct of the secular and religious worlds.

The greatest minds in the greatest yeshivas during the greatest eras of Haredi and Hasidic thought were clearly minds that were also steeped in the learning and traditions of other cultures.  From the early first and second century sages studying with Greco-Roman thinkers to Hasidic masters learning with Christian mystics, the brave and confident among us would do well to remain humble when faced with the reality of how complex and multi-layered learning, and progress actually are.  It's that things generally go wrong when communities close themselves off, adopt a defensive posture, and, in a most non-generative manner, lash out.

By, among other things, throwing eggs.

It may be that what we are witnessing today in the great egg throwing debacles of 2013 are among the last gasps of a painful loss in the battle for respect and singularity of a specific Jewish culture that prides itself on its ability to create Jewish continuity after centuries of unimaginable loss.  I certainly hope that's true.

And I guess I write this to say to those readers out there:  don't despair.  Don't conclude that all Haredi Jews are terrible.  Or that Orthodox Judaism is medieval and stupid.  Or even that "they" simply hate women.

The greater engagement today--with assimilating Haredi Jews into the army and the workforce; with strengthening the hands of those who want to leave the Haredi world and enter the secular world despite sanction and fear; with dealing with poverty and education and workforce issues in America as well--all of these need our attention and care and love, not our disgust and righteous scorn.

It's easier to hate from a distant than to love up close.  But let's face it:  love fertilizes eggs.

A few eggs flew at the Kotel.  A few eggs flew at police.  But most--like their secular Jewish brothers and sisters--remain indifferent to the vile and divisive protestations of the few.  Most, like you and me, are saving their eggs for brises and bar mitzvahs; for weddings and funerals; or perhaps most simple and most sublime, for nice omelet, with some salt and pepper, a piece of toast, and a nice cup of coffee.

An egg is a great way to start your day.  If you get a rotten one, just shrug your shoulders and move on.

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