Friday, July 24, 2015

Our Sect, Our Choice

                At the beginning of the final book of the Torah, God deems the Israelites worthy in their fortieth year of wandering in the desert. Although God's words are somewhat belligerent, this portion speaks of the Israelites growing in unity and righteousness. After many years b’midbar, in the wilderness, the Israelites gain the necessary strength and the appropriate discipline to earn God's support in crossing the Jordan River. Finally bestowing this blessing, God provokes a spiritual change in a people that emerged from slavery, providing the protection and resources for lifelong fulfillment. Likewise, while Reform Jews experience varying levels of comfort in North American society, the majority under the URJ’s umbrella enjoys a comfortable lifestyle very much like the one guaranteed by God for the Israelites in parashat D’varim. More than any other Jewish organization in North America, the URJ possesses significant monetary, political and spiritual influence, yet the potential misuse of this wealth brings Reform Jews to a perilous void of having reached the Promised Land and having yet attained nothing but a desert within themselves.
                In an age of modernization, Reform Judaism was a rebellion against non-compliant traditionalism. For the first time, Judaism spoke to certain non-Hebrew speakers via a growing musical character and supplementary text written in the mother tongue. Like a large tent, Reform Judaism allows all who seek a role among the Jewish people to enter, and in welcoming modernity, Reform Judaism stakes its tent in the realm of public life. Allowing secularism to permeate the walls of synagogues, Reform Jews can have an open-minded debate about how to work religion into a world where it seems increasingly negligible. Rather than parse religion and the ever-changing state of daily life, we incorporate what it means to be essentially Jewish into our humanity, transcending laws and sustaining an individualized Jewish experience.
                In doing so, however, Reform Judaism confronts a history of appropriation and assimilation that all immigrant-groups and their descendants have faced in North America. At the most classical Reform synagogues, services seem to mimic those at cathedrals only a few blocks south.  Where is the line between the temple choir and Christian rock or the commemoration of the birth of Jesus and that of the Maccabee victory against the Greek and Assyrian armies?  We risk adapting Judaism to the point that it becomes a religion of empty buzzwords, and we face the threat of equivocating what it means to be a good Jew versus a simply decent human being. The tent of Reform Judaism may embrace anyone who comes into its midst, but when the tent is so inclusive, does standing for everything really mean that Reform Judaism stands for nothing?
The temple experience and contextual Jewish surrounding can not be about manufacturing thirteen year olds who have undergone the process of Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Rather, it should simultaneously distinguish itself from and entangle itself in the daily, fast-paced rhythm of the present in a way that reflects this week’s Torah portion. In Parashat D’varim, God grants the Israelites permission to accept the covenant of their ancestor and be a chosen people. Instead of rising above all nations as God's shining jewel, we should avoid pretension and entitlement, embracing our unique character while living among the other nations.  Even in D’varim, God speaks of the nations that will be unassailable, such as the descendants of Esau, affirming that they are as entitled to a subset of land as the Israelites.  Thus, in North America and around the world, Reform Jews must recognize their seat of power not as a people selected to rule above or blend with other nations but to call for action upon them.
                Foremost, Reform Judaism requires individual effort. In order to achieve outer peace on Earth, we must learn to be introspective, sorting through difficult emotions. Unlike members of other sects, Reform Jews sift through the Torah’s practices and laws in order to determine which ones are still relevant or useful for the present day. Torah requires intention so that challenging Biblical text forms a practical, individualized ideology. Reform Judaism is a process of evaluation, planning, and self-actualization. Refusing to be Kosher, for instance, is an acceptable practice in Reform Judaism, but the individual who chooses to do so must first and come to understand how the history of dietary laws and how they may be useful to someone else. The greatest enemy of Reform Judaism (and possibly Judaism in general) is laziness. If we do not actively agree or disagree with the Torah’s teachings, then indeed, we are appropriating Judaism for the modern world, but skepticism may be one of progressive Judaism’s most powerful tools. To wield it properly, we must first divulge ourselves in the rich history of the past. We cannot call upon the experience of centuries-ago rabbis for worship but rather personalize every part of the prayer service in whatever language as a source of peace or conflict that leads to the ultimate goal of holy self-actualization.
Reaching God, then, is not grasping for an omnipresent authority but searching for the innermost idealism within each of us, and Reform Judaism, thereby, requires a collectivist mindset. Our monotheism, in this sense, exists in multitudes as every Reform Jew interprets tzedek  (justice) and chesed (kindness) in a personalized context. The amalgamation of these reflections allows for understanding what it means to be a chosen people. The oneness that is at the core of Judaism may not manifest itself as the mighty God on high for many Reform Jews, but we can work together as a movement toward the reclamation of Jewish values and revelation for one another. Across the spectrum and around the world, both religious and non-practicing individuals emphasize peace, love, and friendship. On the contrary, by pairing these values with tangible mechanisms of action or intention, Reform Judaism can disprove the notion that it is as ideological as a children’s program on PBS. Returning to the tent analogy, we welcome any individual who wishes to come into our midst but in doing so, we should warn them that Reform Judaism is contentious and strives for more questions before it reaches conclusive answers. We should challenge our more conservative partners to evaluate a particular stance on Israel and Palestine or income inequality, determining where our dominantly individualized economy and society diverge from our core Jewishness. As I noted earlier, the so-called tent is beautifully staked in public life, and with this position, we can not wallow in the privilege that surrounds so many of us. When reduced to its most fundamental tenets, each individual within a Reform Jewish community is seeking to lessen the gap between the realized and holy selves, and the richness of synagogue life in North America allows Reform Jews to support one another’s endeavors and project this introspection into making a more wholesome society.
                No one said defining or reaching God was easy living. The word “reform” means to take meaningful steps to create change. We are not “Radical Judaism” or “Revolutionary Judaism”, but day by day, we can participate in the work of creation, that is creation of a better self through study and personalized prayer and then a better world via community action and comprehension of one another. The choice is ours as we stand on the brink of promise like the Israelites in parashat D’varim. Perhaps, we can emerge as a reviving, liberal voice for Judaism, proving that people that can still help one another in a world that sinks into nauseating selfishness and diminishing connection.

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Worst Decision for All Involved

            Recently, I watched the season three opener of The West Wing in which President Jed Bartlett delivers a speech to launch his reelection campaign.  White House staffer, Josh Lyman, is preoccupied throughout the episode with FDA approval of a new birth control drug that he does not want to “dominate the news cycle.” More than any other topic of debate, more than taxes and the size of the federal government, abortion and reproductive rights politically and emotionally divide the United States, and this debate encourages a range of futile attacks on both sides from boisterous, talk-show squabbling to violent protests around Planned Parenthood clinics. Currently, abortion is still the most sensitive, contentious issue facing the United States. However, without the vigilance of American and Israeli Jewry, House Republicans may very well drive a wedge through a fundamental, bi-partisan issue, for House Speaker John Boehner’s unprecedented invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu indicates danger for all parties involved.
            America’s equivocated aid for Israel, diplomatic, economic, and military, though, is not designated as a free grant for Israel to obliterate hopes of a peace process and eventual agreement for the sake of security. Rather, the US funds Israel so that we, as developed democracies who both face grey area over human rights and pressing concerns for self-protection, can learn from and improve one another, and a formative relationship with Israel provides strength for democracy in the Middle East. For Jews, American support of Israel protects our freedom to pursue self-determination, and after centuries of exiled from one anti-Semitic country to the next, we finally feel as though we have two established safe havens, one physical and one symbolic. Dismantling this relationship, then, pits liberal and conservative-minded Jews in direct conflict with one another. Just as what happens with any issue that results in partisanship, debate on Israel would stagnate as the majority offers its view and the minority stalls in protest. If the Camp David Accords faced the same divisiveness as Roe v. Wade, for instance, Carter would be waging a peace process on two fronts. When one focuses on the domestic qualms over a foreign issue, all prospects for resolution dissipate. Even for Jews who agree with Netanyahu and Boehner then, this decision will only weaken the degree to which America and its allies can help Israel.  Politicians tackle the abortion issue by doing one of the following: stroking their party’s base by taking on an extreme view or tip-toeing their way through the ambiguous “middle ground”. Either way, campaigns spend countless funds and hours over a topic in which they only sustain polarization. Birthright trips to Israel and summer camps would also have to tackle the issue in a new, exhausting age of political correctness.  In a neighborhood that seems to sustain itself on crises, such a decision would leave the American people and Jews all over the world helpless to establish a stable, meaningful connection to their homeland.
            Still, the Palestinians suffer as well. Granted, the factitious bodies of Hezbollah and Hamas will most likely benefit from the Netanyahu speech, using it as propaganda for the ignorance of the Israeli state. The majority of Palestinians, however, who face subjugation will either a.) be drawn to extremism and ultimately endure the continued hardship of war or b.) experience societal pain at the fault of the larger political forces on both sides that manipulate their daily lives. Partisanship in the United States creates a void for a mediator, one that comprehends the interests and obstacles of both sides as well as the promise of democracy. This vacuum not only spurs the conflict that inevitably wastes so many valuable lives but also reinforces systematic oppression that goes against American and Israeli ideals. In this invitation, Boehner and Netanyahu simultaneously withdraw their voice from the peace process, issuing a blank check for Hamas to wreak havoc on Israelis and Palestinians alike.
            Evidently then, Israelis lose most in this deal. In a contentious election, America’s vagueness over its relationship with the state boosts Netanyahu’s numbers. When the country focuses on securing itself, though, it ignores the root cause of the conflict itself, its own policy over the West Bank and Gaza particularly regarding the status of East Jerusalem and the construction of settlements. Moreover, Israelis will elect a vocal, religious right, projecting to the rest of the world its disregard for the fundamental rights of its founding. Israel will cede its biggest ally in the US and all of the nations that fall under American influence. Israel was once the most stable, promising democracy in the Middle East, but in its means of achieving a false version of that and in shielding its eyes to its own atrocities, Israel has betrayed itself and the world that brought it into being. By purposefully antagonizing Iran at a time when it is most willing to negotiate its nuclear program, Netanyahu merely provokes extremists throughout the region to support nuclear arms over energy. Instead of coordinating with the rest of the world to promote safety for Israel, Iran, and the region, Netanyahu has decided to sidestep diplomacy and place his countries needs over that of a country of 77.45 million. Granted, Netanyahu has a right to raise concerns about Israel’s security with a nuclear Iran, but he could do so while working in conjunction with all of Israel’s traditional allies.
            Without a change in course then, Israel would gravely suffer as a result of this speech. I can only imagine that West Wing episode with Lyman begging the State Department to avoid announcing its Israel policy so as not to plague a democratic president’s reelection campaign or provoke too much debate. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Speaker John Boehner, if you care about international stability, the condition of American Jewry, or your own legacies as politicians, please revisit your decision to replace an opportunity for bilateral compromise with partisan bickering

Friday, January 16, 2015

Expanding the Box

            Over the past week, the news media erupted with reports from France and Belgium, citing incidents of terror against free speech and the Jewish people. Foremost, I express my condolences for anyone who has suffered as a result of these incidents. Still, the unified response against this affront, even as it is symbolic today, will only serve to divide Jews and Muslims and the East and West.  Media attention, or rather sensationalism, and widespread reaction towards this event detrimentally affect prospects of world peace, global security, and the basic principles of democracy. 
            Right now, the world appears aligned with the victims of the attack. What happens, though, as both politicians and radicals capitalize on the world’s attentions for their own ideological gain? Already gaining strength in recent weeks from anti-immigration sentiment, the reactionary, neo-Nazi National Front party surged in French polls this week. The party whose leader previously described the Nazi invasion of France as “not particularly inhumane” is favored by about 30% of the electorate. Likewise, the attack allows Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to emphasize the need for greater security and occupation as we approach Israeli elections in March.
Acts of terrorism, in their current fashion, require policy change in the eyes of the public and politicians alike, but by reacting in such a way, we engage in irrational thinking. Even though an enhancement of airport security might protect the American public against a potential threat, terrorists constantly work outside of established barriers to accomplish their goals. Security and intelligence, for the most part then, are more elusive constructs than logical measures to protect the American people.  
Perhaps most ironically, this type of response actually empowers terrorists to accomplish their goals throughout the world. New policy measures (i.e. greater Internet surveillance, more TSA full-body searches) can not only elicit widespread “Islamaphobia”, which extremists use as propaganda for new recruits, but also attack the same freedoms targeted at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Terrorists win not by destroying buildings or killing civilians. Rather, they force us into an ideological box, parameters for which ideas are to be accepted in a democratic society and which are to be considered a “threat.”      
            After these attacks, however, the expansion of this “box” serves the long-term interests of the West. Today, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron jointly spoke to the press. They challenged the European continent to confront nativism, adapting to an integrated, pluralistic future. In this sense, the leaders responded to grievance and destruction with creative reconciliation. Rather than positively reinforce the accomplishments of terrorists with additional policy, Obama and Cameron laid the foundation to work within the balance of security and liberty, shaping European society into one that is unprecedentedly inclusive to Muslims, Jews, and the like.
On the contrary, the Prime Minister and President adjoined this sentiment with plans to embattle extremism that has become typical in the post 9/11 era. As Cameron expresses his intention to fight against “poisonous ideology”, I would warn him to reconsider the criminalization of ideas. All ideas, from the benign frustration of The Lego Movie’s Oscar snub to hate-inciting approval of a neo-Nazi agenda deserve a place in a democratic society. Although Nazism and terrorism prove to be extreme, the presence of these ideas enables active discourse and a societal progression of belief that is truly the will of the people. To truly protect the American and British people then, these governments must pursue threats and actions rather than subvert belief.
            Admittedly, this system may allow for terrorism to persist well into the twenty-first century, but in the larger course of history, humanity will have protected itself against preemptive intimidation to preserve or pursue a particular idea, also known as terrorism.