Friday, December 8, 2023

Living With the Ands

I’ve spent a significant amount of my career in engagement with the interfaith community. I firmly believe that I am called as a Jew l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai—to perfect the world in partnership with God, according to God’s original design. In order to fulfill this mission, we must strive to build harmony and understanding and cooperation amongst all peoples. I often say, in my conversations with those of other faiths, that we need to accept that there can be multiple paths toward finding Truth. Now, when I say that, I’m thinking of spiritual Truth, with a capital “T.” Empirical, measurable truths aren’t up for debate; two plus two equals four in a base-10 system, the Texas Rangers won this year’s World Series, vaccines save lives. If you’re a Diamondbacks fan or are suspicious of modern medicine, you might be disappointed by those last two facts. But there is definitive data to prove the truth of each of those statements. Spiritual Truth, on the other hand, is more subjective. Those of us who are religious have our own personal convictions about what is True. Perceptions of this Truth may even vary among practitioners of the same faith. But at the end of the day, if you are guided toward spiritual fulfilment by the teachings of Jesus, or of the Prophet Mohammed (may peace be upon Him), or Bahai’ullah, and I am guided by Torah, we’re all hopefully on the same journey: to bring goodness to ourselves and others through our practice of our faith traditions, as we make our way along the path of Truth. What’s happened, however, is that humanity (at least in the Western world) has lost its way. We’ve lost what Sikh author Valerie Kaur calls “curiosity;” what African traditions refer to as “ubuntu,” or interdependence; what some Christian traditions call “Agape,” the highest form of love. We seem to be unable, or at least unwilling, to put ourselves in another’s shoes. We seem to have abandoned basic empathy. Throughout what we’ve experienced of the twenty-first century thus far (and one could argue, beginning even earlier), pundits and politicians have tried to portray most societal choices and affiliations only on a binary scale—either you belong to group A or group B. Either you support this cause or that cause. Either you’re fer us, or agin’ us. I believe that we can—we MUST—make space for a middle ground in certain situations. We need to make room for AND. I can believe with all my heart that Judaism is the faith that makes the most sense for me AND I can continue to be in relationship with my neighbor who understands that their only path to salvation is through Jesus Christ. I can support freedom of speech as enshrined in the Constitution of the United States of America AND understand that speech has consequences and should not be used to foment bigotry and xenophobia. Earlier this week, the conflict in Israel and Palestine marked the ignoble milestone of having raged for thirty days. Many have highly impassioned opinions about how the war is being fought, and the actions of the myriad players involved. Now, there are certain empirical facts about the conflict that cannot be disputed and should not be ignored: Hamas is a terrorist organization that broke a cease-fire on October 7 to enter Israel and engage in a brutal massacre of more than one thousand Israeli civilians, engaging in rape, torture, and burning victims alive. More than 240 individuals were taken hostage in Gaza; Hamas has prevented International Red Cross officials and other aid workers from seeing them. Hamas has used both Israeli hostages and Palestinian citizens of Gaza as human shields, and has commandeered stockpiles of fuel and food intended to provide relief to impoverished and suffering Gazans. Hamas is not mounting a resistance on behalf of the people it claims to govern; those people instead are being used as pawns to enable the organization’s true endgame: the complete elimination of Israel. If and when, God-forbid, they accomplish this, they’ve set their sight on Western institutions. A number of Muslims maintain that nevertheless, because of Hamas’ position as the defacto governing authority of Gaza, they remain the Palestinian’s best hope at self-determination. But in casting their lot with them, and failing to repudiate them, they tacitly endorse their murderous behavior. Hamas’ actions are contrary to the teachings of the Holy Qur’an, and are leading to gross misrepresentations of the actual tenets of Islam within the eyes of the public. But you’re being unfair! some will now proclaim. You’re blaming everything on one side; not everything that Israel has done in response is defensible. I accept this (though we may disagree on which specific actions of Israel, her military, and her government we are troubled by). The difference, however, is that Israelis, along with diaspora Jews, are freely able and willing to offer critique. Indeed, for more than eight months leading up to the horrible events of October 7, Israelis regularly took to the streets to protest against the government, the attempted dismantling of the judiciary, and the weakening of progressive measures that had begun to build a more progressive society to secure Israel’s future. Even in the moments of incredible angst and sadness that wartime brings, I believe there are nevertheless some AND moments to be found. I can want a cessation to fighting, for instance AND demand that it be preconditioned on the release of hostages. I can believe that it is essential for Jewish survival that Israel continue to exist as a democratic homeland for my people AND I can advocate for self-determination for the Palestinian people. I can mourn for the terrible causalities that Israel has suffered—more Jews were killed on October 7th than on any single day since the Shoah—AND my heart can break over the deaths of Palestinians. I can hold tight to my conviction that Jews have ancestral ties to this holy land AND I can believe that settler activity in the West Bank is dangerous and a deterrent to lasting peace. I can decry the corruption of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his racist, xenophobic cronies AND I can believe that the idealized vision of the nation, enshrined in her Declaration of Independence, can still someday come to fruition. This week, we read in the Torah from the portion known as Chayei Sarah. According to rabbinic tradition, Torah portions are named for the first significant word or phrase in a portion. Had the rabbis relied more strictly on that convention, they might have called this portion Vay’hiyu, which we might translate colloquially as “and there were.” We might be reminded, through this turn of phrase, of the myriad ANDs that exist in our world. Not every argument or conflict has two (or more) equally defensible sides. But it behooves us, from time to time, to try to walk the mile in the other person’s shoes—to seek ways to live with the ANDs. The name the Torah portion did wind up with is Chayei Sarah—"The Life of Sarah.” The word for “life” in Hebrew is an interesting one. It’s almost always written with a conjugation that we understand as plural—“chayim” (or the compound construct “chayei” that we see in the name of the parsha). Pretty much the only time we see the singular “Chai” is on necklaces or charm bracelets or posters. Perhaps there’s a message here, as well. Sarah is said to have lived multiple distinct lives—as a wife, a mother, the matriarch of a new theological concept. In a similar manner, each of our lives are an entanglement of complexities. We manage to juggle our various identities, most of us fluidly switching between the demeanor we have at home, the persona we occupy at work, and so forth. If we can manage these sometimes contradictory facets of our personalities, surely we can find space for the ANDs. As we mark Sheloshim- thirty days of mourning those lives lost on October 7, we also note that this week marks 85 years since Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass that took place in Germany in November of 1938 and was a precipitating event for the Shoah. These horrible milestones remind, us, sadly, that our lives as Jews are never fully secure. Throughout the generations, there have been those who have sought to denigrate us or destroy us. I, for one, prefer to remain an optimist. I prefer to believe that kindness and decency will prevail. I prefer to believe that if we continue to reach out to our neighbors to build bridges of peace, love, friendship, and understanding, we can root out the pockets of hate that are corroding the fabric of our world. I, for one, am willing to open my mind and my heart to others in this manner. I am willing to live with the ANDs. It will begin to heal us from being prisoners of despair, and allow us to continue to be prisoners of hope.