28 September 2016

The People Are Not at the Wall

The latest campaign by leaders of the Reform Movement of American Judaism to galvanize support for equal access prayer at the Western Wall, Judaism's "holiest site," is a morally worthy goal that for the vast majority of American Jews. Given the remarkable degree of religious freedom enjoyed by the vast majority of Americans, an idea encoded in our very Constitution, it is indefensible, inconceivable even, that a site of such longing and historical significance should not be open to the prayers of all.  

Unfortunately, the strategy for ensuring religious freedom in Israel by zeroing in on who controls the Western Wall Plaza is the wrong campaign for the wrong time. It would be far more productive in the long run to eschew the Wall for the tens of thousands of those who daily are seeking lives of meaning and substance far removed from the weighted symbolism of an ancient site which in truth represents an obsolete religious expression that no reasonable person would dare want to return to.

Let me begin by stating my deep and abiding admiration for the leaders of American Judaism's most liberal and open movement.  As one ordained by Hebrew Union College in New York City, I am always proud of having been educated to be a rabbi by the most open of Jewish institutions.  Such openness is essential, I believe, for the ongoing growth and development of an increasingly diverse American Jewish community.  Among leading American institutions, the Reform movement was the first among its peers to welcome children of interfaith marriage as Jews; to ordain gays, lesbians and transgender Jews as rabbis; to espouse and model a vibrant and relevant Judaism with social justice as a core principle of Torah and the Divine voice; and to consistently support alternative models of Jewish practice to the staid state sanctioned practice of Establishment Political Haredi Orthodoxy, which is, really, the only way to describe official state religion in the Jewish state.  

After all, while contemporary Israel leads the world in economic, technological, agricultural, and social innovation, religion, ironically, seems at times to lag more than a century behind.  Openness to Jews of all backgrounds, horizontal organizing platforms, tolerance, robust inter-faith dialogue, multi-vocal tropes of interpretation, gender diversity in leadership--these are all hallmarks of American Judaism that Israelis have striven to emulate from their American religious peers.  While Zionism's great achievement of the past century was building a Jewish national home and reviving the Hebrew language, American Jews have practiced an open and vibrant Judaism that is more expressive, more creative and more diverse than any other era of Jewish history.  This is an enormous achievement for both Israeli and American Jewry.

Which is precisely why I believe that the Western Wall, the Kotel, long a symbol of sacrificing, loss, yearning and return, is simply not the appropriate or inspiring locus for a coordinated American religio-political campaign.  While it is historically significant it is religiously and spiritually irrelevant--unless we actually yearn, collectively, for a return to animal sacrifice.

Perhaps a generation ago, when the world was a "simpler" place and differences among world Jewry were best understood as quaint battles over such weighty matters as theology, prayer and revelation, a Jews' purported "rights" at the Western Wall was a matter of grave concern for the mass of Jewry.

But who really cares now? It feels more like a symbolic rather than substantive fight.

Let's face it.  The Western Wall Plaza is one of the strangest places to visit as a Jew.  Cleared out (with bulldozers) of any remnant of Arab life in East Jerusalem following the Six Day War, it's a place in time devoid of history; or rather, one might say, configured to tell only one story, which seems like a decidedly un-Jewish approach to a remarkable site of archaeological interest. There is a kind of psychic whiplash which occurs when one time-travels two thousand years with virtually no story of what came between 70 AD and 1967. That's just educationally unsound.

Let me be clear.  I greatly admire Israel's justified victory in the Six Day War.  I consider it to be one of the most stunning achievements in all of Jewish history that the Jewish people and a young Jewish army, a mere twenty years after the Holocaust, beat back an attack from a united Arab front and conquered historically Jewish land that had not been in our possession for nearly two thousand years.  This was nothing less than astounding.  

But it wasn't miraculous.  It was the achievement. more accurately, of what Winston Churchill may have described as "blood, toil, tears and sweat."  It was a human achievement nearly unparalleled in history.  

Which is precisely why the rather macabre and bizarre transformation of the Western Wall Plaza into a Disneyland-like playground of blind-faith, right-wing, political triumphalism ought to be so offensive to the mass of non-Orthodox Jewry (and a whole lot of Orthodox Jews as well) as to make us turn away in embarrassment.  

Which generally is what I do.

And which is precisely why the leaders of the movement that ordained me as a rabbi are wrong in taking up the cause of liberating (again) the Western Wall Plaza from extremists--in this tragic case, Jewish extremists.

I say:  Let them have it.  It's not as if liberal Jews yearn longingly for the Temple Mount and the re-institution of animal sacrifice, is it?  Since Reform Judaism has nearly dispensed with robes and organs, it's hard to imagine we want to return to a Priesthood-centered Jewish life.  

Zionism, my teacher George L. Mosse taught his students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was "a revolution against the rabbis."  And as his colleague Gershom Scholem, another refugee from Berlin taught, Zionism was the opportunity for the Jew to return to History.

"History" here ironically connotes the Present.  The here and now.

And whenever I am in the Western Wall Plaza, I feel very disconnected from Jewish questions and Jewish responses to the here and now. Unless the "here and now" relates to which "return to Judaism" sect of Orthodoxy cajoles young ones to attend Shabbat dinners with glamorous views of a romantically lit ancient wall or triumphant taunts of Muslims with threats of marching on the Temple Mount to assert Jewish dominion.

Outside of the Plaza is a Jewish state grappling with borders and safety and terror and an ever-changing Middle East; outside of the Plaza is a Jewish state inventing and reinventing modes of economic and technological innovation which have allowed Israel (non-existent a century ago) to be one of the most important actors and influencers on the international stage;) and outside of the Plaza is a Jewish state of more than 8 million citizens--Jewish and Arab--who are striving to live lives of meaning, connection, fulfillment and even prosperity.

The Kotel is as the Kotel does.  And does it really matter? So how about a different campaign altogether.  

With more than forty Reform congregations in Israel--from the Galilee to Tel Aviv and from Jerusalem to the Negev--thousands of Israelis in dozens of communities are engaging in a contemporary Judaism that is far in spirit and outlook from the sentimental and over-wrought nostalgia of the days of Temple sacrifice.  Learning, good deeds, community and a sense of personal fulfillment--these are the values that animate Jewish life today.
But life outside the walls of the Old City, where urgent questions of life and learning and achievement and loss animate the existence of each and every citizen of Israel's complex and dynamic experiment, that is where our energies ought to be.  A campaign to strengthen liberal synagogues and community centers across the country; a campaign to champion tolerance, dialogue, openness and understanding; a campaign so successful and optimistic as to bring down the walls of division, I dare say miraculously, as Joshua's troops, with the blast of horns, was able to make walls tumble down.

Perhaps the best way to take down the walls of intolerance at the holiest site in the holiest of cities for the Jewish people is to retreat to the perimeter, to build a vibrant and relevant Judaism, and let history, and the people, take care of things from there. It worked for Yohanan ben Zakkai two thousand years ago; it ought to work for us as well.

06 September 2016

Talking to Malcolm X

One of history's great fascinations is that we experience time, for a time, in reverse, looking back in order to look forward.  In that regard, the past is a great teacher, rich soil in which to plant seeds of inquiry, grow heroes, learn from them and then, painfully but lovingly, lay them back to rest.  

At least that's how it goes for me.  

I was born into the past, conscious of a lost world.  A pallor and depression hung over my grandmother, it followed her to the grave.  My dad would never explain it.  And then he died, not having made sense of it and leaving me with an inheritance of inquiry.  

My mother wept every year on the anniversary of her murdered father but his death brought few explicable lessons and instead represented for her a performed, but genuine and silent martyrdom.

It wasn't until my trip to Germany and Belarus this summer, stumbling over "tripping stones" in Berlin and listening to words pour from the mouths of second and third generation penitents of National Socialism; or walking on the obscene bloodlands of Minsk and finally discovering just how many members of my family were killed in one day in 1942--until a response to the questions I've been asking my whole life began to emerge from the fog of the past.

Those questions propelled me, yet again, back in time.  

I was talking to a friend and recalling how during our freshman year in college (1981 for those counting) we had decided to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  I don't exactly remember what prompted this exercise.  In the early 80s there was an odd mixture on campus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison of 60s nostalgia, a Reagan-esque trickle-down, preppy patriotism, and another emerging consciousness, new and unformed.  Congress had proposed a national holiday for Martin Luther King that year and President Reagan had opposed it (eventually signing it into law in 1983.) Black students on the Madison campus were increasingly vocal about low student enrollment numbers and a lack of support, especially as some members of the Langdon Street Greek system were hosting infamous King celebrations in blackface, serving Hi-C punch and fried chicken.  Talk about privilege.

So maybe we were just pissed off.  And Malcolm's literary militancy was to be a salve from the zeitgeist of insensitivity as our generation stumbled along, in search of a way.

We were both enthralled by the telling of life, the trouble, the awakening into Islam, the re-creation of a man, and again his second transformation after Mecca as he moved away from Elijah Muhammad; and crushed by his death, as we were by the knowledge of the assassination of others in history.  

We were coming of age as Jews, digging deep into the wells of American history and Jewish history to forge our paths and despite Malcolm's anger at and militancy toward Jews and Israel, he spoke a truth about race in America that resonated nevertheless.  We didn't forgive him his anti-Semitism. But we did try to at least understand it; put it into a context; even argue you with him, as if he had lived and kept up his own inquiry.  Among many of history's humbling lessons, it seems we owed him that.

My pal finished school and went off to serve in the Peace Corps in Niger, taught English and French in a remote village, worked on irrigation projects, and became a "global citizen," long before the invention of the internet.  He used to sign his long letters back home as "Detroit Red," Malcolm's nickname during his checkered and adventurous youth.  It was our acknowledgement to one another that sometimes we finish the day differently than how we awoke.  It happens.

Maybe that's why Malcolm might have found it interesting to know that his story was one of a few that propelled me to Jerusalem in 1985.  Just as his bildungsroman testified to his black awakening, it would be among a number of books that compel me to my Jewish awakening.  I identified with his fierce embrace of a claimable past.  After all, Malcolm's mentor, Elijah Muhammad, had begun his own awakening following Marcus Garvey, who we might call a Black Zionist for his embrace of a return to an African homeland.  

So it was that a couple weeks back I rode the train up to 165th and Broadway to visit the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was killed.  

It's a mournful place.  And not only for the horrible murder that took place there but for the meager way the story is told.  The Audubon Ballroom is a shell of a memory, underfunded and inadequately supported in its endeavor to be what it ought to be:  a place of critically important civic conversation about the matter of black lives.  The story of the building's preservation alone is an interesting one. Columbia University was interested in tearing it down to build a biotech lab; Mayor David Dinkins, New York's first black mayor was in favor of the project for the jobs it would bring to Harlem; and it was Malcolm's widow Betty Shabazz and Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, a Jew, who ensured that the facade would be saved a memorial built to the slain leader.
Inside the front entrance is a statue and up on the second floor, where he was killed, are photographs, a mural, and one of the most modest memorials I've ever seen.

Even in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska (before he was Detroit Red) there is a state historical marker.  New York has no such thing.
We build and build and build in this city but rarely take time to remember, so much in a rush are we to escape the past and forge on into the future.  Observers of this city far more accomplished than I have theorized that this drive is what "makes New York great."  Sometimes I think the opposite:  that we when walk all over the past, we silence the stories needed to teach and even redeem us.

So it was, in a mournful mood, that I went to visit Fairlawn Cemetery in Westchester County, where Malcolm X is buried alongside his wife Betty.  Fairlawn is also the Forever Home to James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, Thelonious Monk and, for good measure, Judy Garland, Harold Arlen, and many others.  

Wouldn't you know it?  After touring my kids around and telling stories about and playing the music of these great people, we come upon Malcolm's grave to find that someone has adorned it with a Palestinian flag.  What projections are heroes are, eh?
And so the conversation begins again:  Malcolm's coming of age; his critique of capitalism; his anti-Semitic diatribes against Zionism and "dollarism" and his insistence, wrong I believe, that Zionism was colonialist and a foreign, European implant to Muslim lands; his trips to Ghana and Gaza in 1964; and his life cut so short that no one really knows what he'd say today about anything but wouldn't it be interesting to know. 

One of my kids was so mad she wanted to remove the flag; the other cautioned that we should leave it there because it provoked a lesson in history and drew us into an ongoing argument about the past. My heart skipped a beat in militancy but my mind won out and so we left the flag.  And maybe, because it's there, because we can visit the grave, it affords us lessons to live by.

Part of preserving the past is not so we can agree with everything it represents; but rather, so we who are here can keep talking to those no longer here and possibly light the way forward for a better world.