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Archive for the ‘Peacebuilders’ Category

Music and the Obama campaign have occupied me entirely for weeks.
There’s been chant and sacred music in synagogue for the spate of services for holidays that fill the Jewish calendar at this time of year (Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah to come), and choral rehearsals for an imminent series of performances Berlioz’ dramatic symphony, Romeo et Julette (1839).  And there have been long hours in the campaign phone bank, recruiting legal professionals and others to volunteer as poll monitors on election day, and hours and hours of data entry alongside friends and family to generate the lists for other phone bank and canvassing efforts.

Sometimes the rush of the schedule eclipses the basics.  What a special surprise to be reminded why I fill each day this way when I recently crossed paths virtually with an old friend, one with whom I share both musical and political commitments.   Jim Papoulis, a friend from high school (so long ago), is a musician and composer in NYC working in and recording a wide variety of musical idioms in his studio at Amphion Music.  With his late wife, Stephanie Martini, Jim established the Foundation for Small Voices, through which his music has contributed to the empowerment of children internationally.  Jim and musical colleagues big and small have produced an anthem in support of Barack Obama that captures the importance of political participation even – and especially – for children, whose young voices communicate powerfully their need for the change the Obama campaign represents.

Jim’s work includes numerous inspirational songs for children, gospel-infused anthems like Stand Together and When I Close My Eyes, dance-inspired works like Oye, and complex pieces like Panta Rhei (“all things are in flux”), based on the philosphy of Heraclitus (also a favorite of mine) (listen here to the performance by the Young People’s Chorus of New York on PBS’s From the Top ). Visit Jim’s Listening Booth to hear these and more, and consider making contribution to the Foundation for Small Voices, to continue the peacebuilding work of its founder Stephanie Martini.

Thanks Jim (and Caryl, Claire and Demitri), for sharing your special vision of the change we can believe in.

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Chagall, Elijah Touched By An Angel & Elijah Carried Off to Heaven

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to celebrate Passover (Pesach) without discomfort. Initially, the challenge was trying to reconcile historical and archeological knowledge I’d been studying with my Hebrew school education and my life experience at the seder table. I was deeply troubled by the gap between the archeological record and the fictions of Jewish tradition — unfortunately, in spite of the considerable efforts of both Christian and Jewish biblical scholars and archeologists, little positive evidence exists to support one of the central narratives of Jewish identity: the Passover Maggid, the retelling of the Passover story of Israelite liberation from slavery from Egypt. My discomfort increased along with the harsh Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories and continued (settler) abuse of Palestinian civilians.

This has been more than a slight predicament. Like most American Jewish children of the 1960’s, I’d seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. So I knew about Moses and the burning bush, his threats to Pharoh to “let my people go” before each of the ten plagues was inflicted on the Egyptians to persuade them of the superior power of the Israelite god, and how the Israelites baked their bread before it had risen in their haste to leave Egypt. And I’d watched the Red Sea part to enable the Israelites’ escape, and then engulf the Egyptian army. I knew the Passover story backwards and forwards Memories of Passover seders during my childhood were among my most powerful and positive. Year after year I’d sat at the seder table with family and friends to retell the Exodus narrative and eat matzoh (“unleavened bread”), the holiday’s primary symbol (of the hasty departure from Egypt). So as with most of the non-fundamentalist Jewish community, Passover was one of my most significant connections to Jewish identity.

I grew up with the Reform community’s familar gray Union Haggadah, but my lifelong passion for Jewish history and book culture had led me to create a respectable collection of facsimiles of medieval, early modern and modern haggadahs. The internet enabled me to acquire copies of the Birds Head Haggadah (13th c.), the Golden Haggadah and Kauffman Haggadah (14th c.), the Rylands Haggadah, Sarajevo Haggadah and Ashkenazi Haggadah (15th c.), the Copenhagen Haggadah and copies of early modern printed haggadahs (17th & 18th centuries) and modern examples like Arthur Szyk’s post-war haggadah, Shalom of Safed’s folk art haggadah, and Leonard Baskin’s distinctively-illustrated version (many images here). My collected haggadot were precious threads of contact with a Jewish past; their visible signs of seders from the distant past – wine stains, drops of wax, soiled page corners – offered me powerful contact with the continuity of a tradition dating to the second century of the common era. (Contrary to popular misunderstanding, both Jewish and Christian, the formal, haggadah-directed seder post-dates the life of Jesus and destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem).

Like other Jewish mothers, I’d carefully and lovingly prepared seders for my family and participated in seders with other families to insure transmission of Jewish identity to the children at table. I rehearsed the Four Questions with my sons, and prompted the children to tell The Story year after year. I began my own serious study of the archeology of the Exodus when my children were nearly grown, and was able to process the limited evidence in the context of more sophisticated conversations at the seder table. Texts such as Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence, ed. Frerichs, Lesko & Dever (1997) (a fine review here), and James K. Hoffmaier’s Israel in Egypt (1999) (available in preview here) offer the basics on the principal controversies involved in the debate – whether the Exodus happened, was there a substantial Israelite population in the region at the time, who built the pyramids, etc. (A similar controversy exists regarding the Dead Sea Scrolls (see Nathan Golb’s, Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (1996), which describes the scholarly and political suppression of evidence regarding the authorship of the scrolls).

For some, the implications of the absence of archeological evidence (NYTimes article, 4.3.07) prompted a crisis of faith and/or identity. Many responded with the traditional “mantra” that the “absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence,” so the fact that archeologists have never found evidence of Israelite life in the Sinai does not mean they (we) were not there. Rabbi David Wolpe succinctly stated, and answered, the problem – at least for rabbis:

Not piety but timidity keeps many rabbis from expressing what they have long understood to be true. As a scholar who took me to task in print told me privately over lunch, “Of course what you say is true, but we should not say it publicly.” In other words, tell the truth, but not when too many people will be listening. […] There are three primary reasons this is important to talk about: 1. A tradition cannot make an historical claim and then refuse to have it evaluated by history. [… ] 2. Truth should not frighten one whose faith is firm. […] 3. Knowing the Exodus is not a literal historical accounting does not ultimately change our connection to each other or to God. … The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy, but rather for truth. The story of the Exodus lives in us

My concerns about the absence of evidence of the Exodus have to do neither with faith or identity – my Jewish identity comes from my relationship to a human community tradition of considerable duration, even if not as aged or well-documented as some would like to believe. No, my issues with Passover are entirely parental and political: how to tell the story of Passover responsibly, in a manner consistent with reality (and evidence) rather than community fiction, and how to teach my children to relate to the modern state of Israel in light of the evidence (after all, I ask them to use evidence carefully in all other aspects of their lives).

I cannot ignore the archeological record (or lack of it), and therefore I am unable ethically to make claims to territory on the other side of the world on the basis of such a narrative, even a treasured narrative. Israel’s 40+ year abuse of Palestinians (and its own indigineous Arabs) so challenges me that I redouble my effort to draw universal meaning from the traditions associated with Passover.

The Exodus as a metaphor – and the extensive history of Passover observance – speak volumes to me about Jewish experience of living in the world, about a history of anti-Semitism, and Jewish response to it. I can connect to Passover tradition as a creative response to the challenges of persecution since late antiquity. And it is this meaning I have tried to share with my family, and which I sought to explore as I prepared for the holiday this year.

So I’ve begun a rather ambitious new project, a (tikkun) “knitted seder” … As I researched the iconographical tradition of the familiar ritual symbols of the holiday, I was inspired to use this tikkunknitting project as the point of departure for a broader exploration of the ways in which holiday traditions and meanings are created.

I’ve begun with the tradition of Elijah’s Cup. With the continued conflict in Israel-Palestine, it seems appropriate to initiate a tikkunknitting project with Elijah’s Cup, the material expression of hope for an age of peace.

As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes eloquently (source), Elijah is a complex figure in Jewish tradition, raising challenging questions about the role of criticism and nature of leadership. Describing the rituals of Elijah’s cup at seder, Rabbi Burton Vizotsky observed in his Pesach message to Americans for Peace Now, “Reject Hate, Embrace Hope, Recommit to Peace!,”

Traditionally, we fill this cup to welcome the Prophet Elijah, who heralds the start of the Messianic era. For centuries, we have recited Psalm 79:6-7: “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know you and on the kingdoms that do not call upon Your name. They have devoured Jacob and made desolate his dwellings.”

In the Middle Ages, Jews invoked this fantasy of divine retribution as a poultice for the wounds inflicted during our long history. This bitterness was understandable, if unproductive. Now we live in a time that we are ostensibly free, yet the nations who actually invoke God’s name continue to desolate one another. God’s Holy Land is riven by terror and revenge. Jacob’s forbears, Isaac and Ishmael, remain gripped in the medieval mind-set. Despair makes us yearn for the arrival of Elijah.

We cannot bear to wait any longer. We cannot endure endless war. Elijah seems but a faint hope, not a solution. Tonight, we open the door to our neighbors, to dwelling with one another in quiet and shared delight. As we open the door we raise our fourth cup in a toast to the fresh breeze of renewed commitment, to the rejection of hate, to embracing hope, and to the hard work of making peace. And, we raise our glasses to life. We pray this “LeChaim,” will bring us the longed-for redemption. Let this be the way we welcome Elijah.

When my family opens the door at the end of seder this year, we will look hopefully to the virtual arrival of the prophet Elijah and the real fulfillment of the prophecy of peace – for all peoples, but with special hope for Jewish commitment to an end of the Israeli occupation of the occupied Palestinian territories and its concomittant abuse of Palestinian people, and end to the cycle of violenc, and the arrival of Jewish commitment to a just peace between Israel’s Jews and her many Arab neighbors.

More information about the pattern for this knitted Elijah’s cup will be available when it is added to my collection of knitted Judaica and Patterns for Peacebuilders to support co-existence and peace-building efforts taking place between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

Eliahu hanavi
Eliahu hatishbi
Eliahu, Eliahu
Eliahu hagiladi

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Regardless of one’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, all American Jews who support Israel should understand the affects of Israel’s continued occupation and/or blocade of Palestinian territories (the West Bank and Gaza) on Israeli society.

It is astonishing how many Americans do not realize that Israel does not claim – and has never claimed – sovereignty over the occupied territories since taking control of these areas in 1967. This is precisely why they are called “occupied” rather than Israel (except for the extreme fundamentalist Jews who continue to claim these territories as “Greater Israel”, or Judea and Samaria). So, Israel’s occupation of these Palestinian lands for the past 40 years is the longest military occupation in modern history – supported by the majority of American Jews, of all stripes (as well as our government).

While Americans are increasingly aware of the consequences of this occupation on the Palestinians (though more of us should make themselves aware of this), we seldom have the opportunity to consider how this extended military occupation has affected Israeli Jewish citizens — Fortunately, more than 500 Israeli Defense Force (IDF) veterans have joined together to communicate their experiences in a project called Shovrim Shtika/Breaking the Silence. Anyone concerned for the well-being of Israel and its citizens should take a few minutes to have a look at this exhibit of photos, interviews and testimonies of Israeli Defense Force veterans of the Palestinian occupied territories available in part online and currently making an American tour (Philadelphia, New York, and Boston).

Shovrim Shtika/Breaking the Silence (click here to go to the website)

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What would happen if the moderate majorities in Israel and in Palestine demanded results from their leaders – if, with one voice, they called for ongoing, immediate, and uninterrupted negotiations toward a two state solution, to be reached on or before a given deadline – December 12, 2008? from, One Million Voices

What if moderate American Jews supported the moderate majorities in Israel and Palestine, and demanded results from their leaders – if, with one voice, they called for ongoing, immediate and uninterrupted support for ongoing, immediate, and uninterrupted negotiations toward either a one- or a two-state solution, to be reached on or before a short deadline, acceptable to the moderate Israeli and Palestinian majorities? What if.

To find out more about that moderate majority in Israel and Palestine, check out: One Million Voices.

Learn more about the One Million Voices Campaign
More on OneVoice’s Platform & Methodology

Fortunately, there are a number of American Jewish groups attempting to support Israeli efforts to build peace with Palestinian citizens and neighbors, including Brit Tzedek v’Shalom.

What if we could break the silence? What if we could join the choir singing for peace?

In addition to joining this encouraging campaign, I’ll be trying to make my needles sing for peace shortly, by making a pair of fingerless mittens match the One Million Voices logo –

Anyone interested in “singing” along will find more information about this tikkunknitting project here.

rev’d 2.21.08

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I’m learning that Torah study does not always take a clear and straight path. Of course one can always walk in others’ footsteps, but I’m looking to avoid the potential ruts created by the tread of centuries of learned feet. This year, I hope to widen somewhat my path to understanding Genesis.

Parshah Chayei Sarah closes the story of Judaism’s “first (nuclear) family”. Sarah dies and Abraham buries her in a cave in Hebron purchased from the Hittites (Genesis 23). Isaac acquires a wife, Rebecca, from the family “in the old country” (Gen. 24), the divinely-supervised love story that typically gets all the attention. But the portion takes a turn seldom examined – it returns to consider Abraham’s “other” family, or families.

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran and Jokshan and Medan and Midian and Ishbak and Shuah. And Jokshan begot Sheba and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were the Ashurim and the Letushim and the Leummim. And the sons of Midian were Ephah and Epher and Enoch and Abida and Eldaah. All these were the sons of Keturah. And Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac. And to the sons of Abraham’s concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still alive and sent them away from Isaac his son eastward, to the land of the East. … (from Parshah Chayei Sarah, Genesis 25:1-6), The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp. 127-32)

Except for one other similarly brief reference (1 Chronicles 32-33), this passage of Genesis is the only description of Keturah and her sons, the only information provided about the remainder of Abraham’s intimate life (which extended over a considerable time, producing six sons). Who was Keturah? What is the legacy of her union with Abraham?

Our text continues to relate the life of Ishmael, with whom Abraham appears (in spite of the gaping silence in the text since the expulsion in Gen. 21) to have managed to maintain a continued relationship. Upon Abraham’s death, Ishmael and Isaac together bury their father in the cave of Machpelah, and Ishmael’s 12 sons – 12 chieftains in their own rights – and their progeny people the land as far as Egypt (Gen. 25:7-18). But Keturah is a marginal figure. Indeed, she is nearly absent from tradition, as she is from our pictorial history. Even a cursory search turns up countless images of Sarah and Hagar, but only a single image of Keturah, in the Venice Haggadah of 1609:

Keturah and her six sons, along with Hagar and Ishmael, are relegated to flanking the “first family”, Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. And even here Keturah is only partially in view.

Rashi erases Keturah entirely by conflating her with Hagar via a contorted reading, restricting her status to concubine rather than wife since she had no wedding contract (Gen. Rabbah 61:4). This approach is mystifying; there’s no mention of wedding contracts for any of Abraham’s wives in Torah (unlike Isaac’s), although Sarah has priority in the text as a first partner. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the U.K., is a familiar and welcome voice of tolerance in interfaith matters. But Rabbi Sacks, in his own exploration of the connections between Judaism and Islam raised by the parshah, relies on Rashi and “the sages” to slip past Keturah and focus instead on the midrash of Abraham’s role in Isaac’s choice of his second wife (Fatima) (Rabbi Sacks’ commentary can be found here). The D’var Tzedek commentary on Chayei Sarah by Rabbi Dorothy A. Richman, featured this week by the American Jewish World Service (located here) takes on the rabbinic debate about Hagar-Keturah’s identity. Yet even this progressive commentary grounds itself on the meaning of Hagar’s name – “stranger” – and suggests that Jews look to the fiction of the “strangers” of our world (such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Monica Ali and Khaled Hosseini) as well as midrash to “enlarge our sense of possibility and encourage us to identify with the stranger”. I agree with this view of the importance of a varied diet of good fiction, but even here Keturah is absent.

So what of Keturah, whose name means “fragrant”, with whom Torah tells us Abraham chose to spend his final years, who bore him six sons? How might a modern American Reform Jew make sense of the narrative of Abraham’s extended family and the implications of its web of relationships?

“Where Nature Knows No Boundaries”

My own search for Keturah turns up only bits and pieces. I am intrigued by a referencer to the “Yakult Midrash,” which suggests that each of Abraham’s three wives descended from a son of Noah: Sarah, a daughter of Shem; Hagar, a daughter of Ham; and Keturah, a daughter of Japheth. How tidily this medieval midrash connects the entire family which survives the Flood with the entire family of tribes who people the mideast; how remarkably generous, how “modern”. I suppose I am not surprised to find that the approach of this midrash is similarly employed in the roughly contemporaneous map of the world contained in the 15th-century Nuremburg Chronicle, in which Noah’s three sons support the perimeters of the (known) world.

A little more effort reveals a genuine surprise: Keturah “survives” in the Negev, transformed into the green oasis known as Kibbutz Ketura. It seems fitting that Abraham’s third and final partner, another woman from outside the tribe, should be the namesake of a kibbutz whose progressive policies towards religious pluralism have garnered national awards for religious tolerance, an intentional community that is also the home of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which co-sponsors with Hazon the Ride for Peace, Partnership and the Environment.

Reports that Arava’s diverse student body is often challenged by Israeli governmental profiling of Palestinian and Arab students and scholars are disturbing (information here); I’m relieved that Israel’s Supreme Court has rejected such discriminatory practices, since it matters to me that Israel be a just society. The efforts of Arava’s alumni to launch their own peace and environmental projects through the Arava Peace and Environmental Network (APEN), and its blog (“Where Nature Knows No Boundaries”), are also encouraging. APEN’s steering committee includes Arab and Jewish alumni, who continue to meet in various locations in Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territories, and Israel. Since 2005, APEN projects have included Negev Bedouin Education, Galil Organic Farming, Acco Rain Water Harvesting, Aqaba Urban Planning and West Bank/Israel River Restoration, and similar peace and environmental projects in the West Bank and Jordan. These projects, grounded in an understanding of the shared interest in the environmental integrity of Israel and its neighbors, are wonderful examples of the peace-building visions of the post-Holocaust and post-independence generation of young people. That they are taking responsibility for an environmentally just Israel is something to celebrate.

Arava’s website is an amazing network of links between mid-east environmental & peace projects and organizations. Among these is a link to the Shalom Salaam Network, which offers the following guidelines:

We should look for things that we have in common and unite us, and not those that divide us
We should not defend positions, but aim to explain things others find incomprehensible
We should not accuse each other, but understand that members of the group don’t make political decisions for their group or country
We should aim to close gaps, and not open them

These help me make sense of the complications of Abraham’s lives (and wives), and the intricate dynamics of the Abrahamic “family”. I have a more complete picture of Keturah now.

 

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Sometimes the Jewish calendar is a complete mystery to me – the complexity of the efforts to coordinate the cycle of lunar months and leap years with traditional observance has kept Jewish scholars, astronomers (1, 2 ) and astrologers (1, 2, 3) busy for centuries …

Carved on stone tablets, paved on ancient synagogue floors, illuminated, or printed, surviving images of the Mazzaroth (Zodiac), charts, tables, moveable wheels testify to our predecessors’ zealous search for the new moon and pursuit of the exact measurement of time for practical, ritual and mystical use. (A click on any of the images above should lead to their sources).

A recent explanation of the calculation of leap years by way of reference to the Western musical scale (major mode), while intelligible to the musician in me, leaves me doubtful on the spiritual front.

What does register is the sense of “space” I feel in the month of Cheshvan. Sometimes called “the empty month”, Cheshvan is the only month in the Jewish year with no holidays. The “emptiness” of Cheshvan is welcome not just as a respite from the concentration of holidays during the month of Tishrei (Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur, Succot, Simchat Torah), nor the extra time I have to indulge my taste for Jewish iconography, but primarily because the energy committed to finding meaningful paths to observance during intense holiday season can now be devoted to the renewed study of Genesis.

This year, committed to studying the connection between tradition and social action, I am especially interested in the the language of action – what the biblical characters do, and what circumstances do to them. I am listening also to the ways in which Torah describes what God does, in particular, how God engages in a range of relationships with all mankind (not just with the Israelites).

 

Lech Lecha: call and response

Noah’s story may be central to the education of children, but Abraham’s is one of the defining narratives for Jewish adults:

And the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth [lech lecha] from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and those who damn you I will curse, and all the clans of the earth through you shall be blessed.” And Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him …. Bereshit 12:1-4 (from Parshah Lech Lechah, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp.62-63)

Richard McBee‘s The Call of Abraham, (1980), expresses the ability of Avram of Haran to hear “the still, small voice” calling to him. Avram acts, following divine instruction to “go forth”. Gathering his wife, nephew, and extended household, Avram sets out on the open road. This journey is geographical, eventful, and spiritual. Avram and his household travel through Canaan, into Egypt, and back.

Along the way, Avram:
– persuades his wife Sarai to allow herself to be taken into the Pharoah’s harem as a wife (for which the Egyptians are punished with plagues and Avram is enriched greatly) (Gen. 12:10-20)
– parts ways with his nephew Lot following a dispute over grazing land (Gen. 13:1-12)
– battles the four kings of Canaan, and makes peace with Melchizedek, king of (Jeru)Salem (Gen. 14:1-24)
– performs the Covenant Between the Pieces (Gen. 15)
– fathers his first son, Ishmael, by his wife’s servant Hagar (Gen. 16:1-16)
– executes the covenant of circumcision on himself, his son Ishmael, and all the other men of the household (Gen. 17).

An event-filled journey, but with profound spiritual consequences. Throughout the trip, Avram continues to hear the voice of God, who reiterates a set of similar promises. In Haran, Avram is promised land and successors (Gen. 13:14-18). Later, Avram is promised the land and descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15). Finally, God promises to multiply [him] greatly’, for righteous conduct and circumcision, and Avram and Sarai are thus transformed into Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch (Gen. 17).

I wonder why these repeated promises are necessary. Recognition that Avram’s journey is, from the outset, uncertain and full of risk is a commonplace in traditional interpretation of this week’s portion. Rashi addresses the triple blessing God promises Avram at the first call in verse 2, “And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing”:

2. And I will make you into a great nation. Since traveling causes three things: 1) it diminishes procreation, 2) it diminishes money, and 3) it diminishes fame (lit. name), therefore, he required these three blessings, namely that He blessed him concerning children, concerning money, and concerning fame.

But why so many promises, why the repetition of rituals of covenant? A traditional answer is that Avram’s journey is one in which, like that of all Jews, traverses the path from (immature) loyalty to family to (mature) personal loyalty to God (ie. Rav Avraham Fischer, discussing Rav Levi’s midrash Bereshit Rabbah 39:11, in”Leaving or Going?“).

 

On the Road: risks and rewards

John Strotbeck, from Congregation Or Hadash, PA, slips sideways from this narrative of Abraham’s spiritual transformation; he compares these circumstances to “Let’s Make a Deal” (Behind Door #1, 2003, TorahQuest).

Abraham’s predicament seems to me more like ‘The Lady [Patriarch?] and the Tiger”, in which uncertainties are reduced at each stage in the journey, but the stakes are raised, made more personal, and more physical. For the departure from family and homeland, Avram is promised the abstract blessings of fame, land, and progeny. The promise becomes more specific in the context of dealing with the “family business” of sheep herding: share the land (for now) with Lot, have it all, and progeny (this numerous) later. Matters are most concrete and immediate following the birth of Ishmael: walk with Me now, circumcise all males now, get your son now, father the nation. Uncertainties are resolved, for the time being.

What strikes me is that each of these encounters follows Avram’s engagement with “others”: his family and neighbors of Haran, the Egyptians and Canaanites, the Egyptian concubine Hagar. Author Ken Goffman sees Abraham as a countercultural dropout, a “divine dissenter” (Counterculture Through the Ages, Villard Books, 2004, Radical Torah). But it seems to me that Torah sets him up as a pragmatic pluralist, negotiating the tension between living with multi-cultural reality and maintaining a personal relationship with God. This tension is never resolved: to his death, Abraham is challenged to deal with both the real and the ideal – his world must be grounded in relations with “outsiders”, even to the level of sexual relations; he shares his wife with the Egyptians, and shares a sexual relationship (and first, long-awaited parenting experience) with an Egyptian concubine. Intimacy with his non-Israelite neighbors, his “others”, seems to be an integral part of the journey to which Abraham is called.

This intimacy between Abraham and his neighbors is a special model for the challenges of our time. I’d thought first to explore recent reports of the relationship between the Fayetteville, Arkansas Jewish community and Fayetteville’s sole Palestinian-American contractor, collaborating to build the town’s first synagogue (1, 2, or 3). But the visit to Philadelphia by Naomi Chazan on October 17, 2007 offered a more pressing opportunity.

Brit Tzedek v’Shalom: the covenant of justice and peace

Chazan, former member of the Israeli Knesset (representing the Meretz Party), scholar of political science, advocate of women’s rights, civil rights, religious freedom, and pluralism in Israel, spoke at the Philadelphia Constitution Center on behalf of the New Israel Fund (NIF). With extraordinary clarity, Chazan addressed the four challenges she identifies for the future of Israel:

  1. The challenge of identity … to create a multi-cultural ethos for modern, multi-cultural Israel, and to inject into this identity what makes multi-culturalism truly productive: respect for others, tolerance, human dignity, pluralism, and genuine belief in equality
  2. The challenge of development … to curb the growing economic disparities within Israeli society, to maintain a middle class, to develop economically with social sensitivity, recognizing the connection between social justice and societal cohesion
  3. The challenge of democracy (or government) … to build on the real democracy undergirding Israeli government, but limiting the effects of corruption and endemic political instability; to create rules for coexistence that enable Israelis to live together rather than struggle against one another
  4. The challenge of “the state” … a challenge of citizenship, or confidence … to respond to the growing mental and physical disengagement of Israelis in political life by creating better policies, policies which can provide the moral spine of the state and a genuinely civil society.

Chazan candidly asserted that Israel’s efforts to meet these challenges could not be separated from its conflicts with indigenous and neighboring Arabs. She acknowledged the ‘humanitarian nightmare’ of conditions in Gaza and the West Bank, and suggested that – like American approaches to homelessness, even on the steps of the Constitution Center – Israel must relieve the distress of Palestinians in the occupied territories at the same time as efforts are made to change the political and economic conditions that contribute to such distress. Chazan stressed unequivocally the urgency of the need for peaceful resolution of “the conflict”, expressed her confidence in the possibility of success of the approaching peace conference, but proposed that “peace is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for a just and normal society.”

If Abraham’s journey on his open road is to teach anything this year, it will be how to juggle engagement with the diversity of the world with the pursuit of a singular relationship with Judaism. If Jewish Israeli and Palestinian militarists can put down their weapons and work together for peace (Combatants for Peace), if bereaved Jewish Israeli and Palestinian parents can comfort one another and work together to end the violence that claimed their children (Parents Circle), if Jewish Israeli and West Bank women can work together to produce and distribute olive oil, soap, and needlework (Sindyanna of Galilee), if Jewish Israeli and Palestinian children can study together in Jerusalem (Hand in Hand School), or in the village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, if the New Israel Fund can commit its human and financial resources to the development of a just society with a moral spine, and if a prominent female Israeli scholar and politician can challenge an American Jewish audience to confront its own issues of identity …. then surely there will be a path to my engagement with “others”, and I’ll look to share this trip.

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With formal Rosh Hashonah observance concluded only a few hours ago, I’ve been working on knitting grapes for the sukkah.

 

While I experiment with layers of bobbles, a rabbi’s sermon rings in my memory: her encouragement to use the period between Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur (and to Sukkot, and even Chanukah if necessary) to not only seek forgiveness for offenses given, but also to shed the weight offenses received – to forgive – even if not asked to do so. If Rosh Hashonah means anything, it is the opportunity to begin the process of “choosing life” (as tradition tells us). We are led to this choice in the Torah parsha preceding the holidays, Netzavim-Vayelech:

This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live. Deuteronomy (Devarim) 30:19

Tradition considers this choice the essence of Torah. The Reform community understands this choice as the essence of freedom, of authentic engagement with the business of living.

The symbol of the choice of life is, surprisingly, the grape. Genesis narrates the first coincidence of a free choice for life and the grape in traditional texts: Noah chose life, having followed divine instructions in order to survive the flood, and upon reaching dry land immediately begins to plant vineyards (Genesis 9:20). Perhaps the special value of this choice is also expressed in the Hebrew word for grape, “Ah-nav”; with only a minor adjustment, the word means humility (“ah-nav”, or a humble man). Both grape and humble person have the capacity, when tested (squeezed, or crushed?) to express their best, to choose their proper “life”.

In antiquity, the grape was not only a symbol of spiritual freedom, but also of political freedom. During the the multiple Jewish revolts against the Roman empire in the first and second centuries of the common era, coins were often minted with images of grapes and their vines, representing the freedom of the community (Bar Kokhba (2nd) Revolt, 134 -135 CE; left). Not surprisingly, the first modern Israeli coin with modern Hebrew legends (minted 1948, nearly two thousand years later) copied the cluster of grapes (and included legends in Hebrew and Arabic)(right).

Seeds of Peace: settlement sewage and mines to vines

Given the importance of the grape as a symbol of the gift of life in the long history of the Jewish people, it is profoundly disturbing to learn of modern Israeli destruction of Palestinian vineyards. One example was recently described in a report by the well-respected NGO Global Exchange: the sewage facilities of the West Bank (Jewish) settlement of Gush Etzion have been piping contaminated water directly into the vineyards and orchards of the adjacent Palestinian village of Beit Ommar. The village’s crops of grapes, plums and apricots have been destroyed in this manner since the creation of the sewage treatment plant, depriving the farmers of their livelihood (Global Exchange’s full discussion of this deplorable situation is available here). In the West Bank village of Al-Khader, Israeli construction of the separation Wall separates civilian Palestinian farmers from their vineyards. (sources here,

and here); these farmers, “armed” with bunches of grapes from fields they can no longer harvest commercially, have attempted to publicize their situation by distributing the grapes along Israeli roads. Their non-violent efforts have been met with violence.

I share the concerns of many others about the continued political and military stalemate between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon in 1996 attempted to end shelling of northern Israel by Hezbollah (Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs report); but this and similar reprisals strategically employed a degree of force which compromised the most basic living conditions of Palestinian civilians (NGO reports from Amnesty Int’l, Human Rights Watch). From the continuation of the occupation and scandalous conditions in Palestinian refugee camps, Gaza and the West Bank over half a century, Palestinian extremists are now reaping “grapes of wrath”, a new generation of violent militarists fermented in the climate of abject poverty, violence and degradation. I am ashamed. I am outraged. I grieve.

Yet there are reasons to hope for the continued vitality of the grape. A symbol of the gift of life, the grapevine is also an ancient metaphor for peace. I am curious about the recent film Grapes and Figs are in Season, a documentary about a Palestinian woman’s recollection of the Ramallah life of her childhood; this film is reportedly humorous and hopeful, and I wonder how to see it or screen it locally. I am encouraged by the work of a small organization, Roots of Peace, which has initiated a “Mines to Vines” projects, giving farmers in minefield-infested countries such as Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Iraq, assistance with returning the land to productive agricultural use. The project works to replace the “lethal harvest of bloodshed” with “the planting of indigenous crops and the employment of landmine victims in the cycle of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.” As described by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Roots of Peace has “turned mines into vines by replacing the seeds of death with the seeds of life.”

As I start each new row of knitted “grapelets”, I am reminded of the depth of meaning carried by the grape in Jewish history. An American Reform Jew preparing for Sukkot, I’ll begin each bobble with a groan for the vineyards of Beit Ommar, blackened by Jewish settlement waste, and finish it with a grin for the Afghani minefields-turned-vineyards, newly greened by their seeds of life. Though Sukkot is still on the other side of Yom Kippur, I choose to dedicate my harvest of grapes this year to peace in the life of the West Bank.

You’ll find updates on the progress of the sukkah and its knitted fruits and vegetables here (click this link)

Update Sept 26th, 2007

Pattern alert: The pattern for the cluster of grapes is now available here.

 

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