Friday, July 15, 2011

Parashat Pinchas - Disillusionment and Demand

Notes from the Holy Land, Part 2.
Click here to see Part 1.

It was a long climb this morning from the Dead Sea plain up to the summit of Masada. I started ambitiously, passing other groups, trying to demonstrate a brisk pace to the 14-year old. But somewhat later, drenched in sweat and plodding up the Snake Path — step, gasp, step, gasp — it dawned on me that the last time I climbed Masada I was 28. I also did it at 19 and at 16. Now - step - I'm - gasp - 50 - step, gasp. It dawned on me that this would be the last time I'd attempt this. I smiled to myself, despite my body's desire to curl up in a ball right there on the spot. And while (who knows?) if my body remains compliant and the opportunity arises I might not in fact hold to that resolve, I felt a small surge of pleasure. Being here at 50, trying to climb as if I were 20, and not failing completely, I felt like I'd at last earned my future cable car rights.

Climbing, one would pass other groups and later be passed by the same ones, as our comparative levels of fatigue and suffering leapfrogged their way up the mountain. One group of Israeli teens got separated into two with considerable distance between them, and took up the habit of shouting down (or up) to each other, while those of us for whom pre-dawn hikes in the Holy Land have a certain mythic quality winced at the noise and got jarred out of our meditative states. "Geez," I couldn't help thinking, impatient with their loud excitement, "why can't they just use their cell phones like everyone else?" Which shows, I suppose, how hardened one becomes after just two weeks here.

The truth is, there is nothing as disillusioning as a trip to Israel. When I return home, it takes months — no, years — for my romanticism to re-accrete on the skin of my sense of Israel. Like many Americans, like many Jews, I go to Israel seeking. Not seeking anything specific, but seeking some validation of who I am as a Jew. At home I engage in personal and community ritual in which the name of this land and its people of old are uttered again and again and again. I breathe Israel in and out. I imagine it and it grows beautiful. So I imagine it to love me back. But then, in the same way that upon a lover's return after a long absence their face is somehow not exactly as you remembered it, a visit to Israel brings on a certain reckoning and re-recognition.

This always involves loss. For instance, I am forced to acknowledge that who I am as a Jew, how I relate to Judaism, how I practice my Judaism, how I hold the idea of Israel, are all part of a spiritual worldview that is born in America, and bound to its soil and its air and its peculiar dream of liberty and individualism. I think about how I (and we) am (are) constantly at play with our tradition, turning it over lightly and carefully, searching for the intent that feels true, and then, at our best, re-shaping our actions to carry that intent forward in vibrant, creative ways. We do it without rabbinic rulings. We do it with a limited 21st Century American Jewish literacy. What we do would be met in Israel alternately with "no!" and "huh?" and "but why?"

Who I am as a Jew is almost never reflected back at me when I'm in Israel.

But I think it is worth resisting the temptation to feel dispossessed. Judaism is our inheritance too; it is there for us to claim. And in this matter, I feel spurred forward by the heroes of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas. The parashah contains the unforgettable story of the daughters of Tzelafchad. Their father had died and they had no brothers; this in a culture in which inheritance passed exclusively through the male line. There was no law given at Sinai to address this situation. So the daughters of Tzelafchad sued. Unlike the daughters of Walmart, they got certified for a class action suit and worked their way to the nation's highest  authority: God. They won their suit, albeit with some limitations. But their willingness to claim — to demand — what was theirs in the name of justice, in the name of authenticity, was noteworthy enough to grab the attention of the Holy One and correct an inequity that was handed down at Mt. Sinai.

I love that even before the Five Books of Moses have run their course, torah misinai — the divine law — is already emended. And so this is perhaps what we have to learn from the daughters of Tzelafchad — Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah. Holding and owning our Jewish spiritual and moral presence earns us our inheritance. We might not be feeding into the single great future of the Jewish people that we have dreamed or imagined, but are instead creating one of the many authentic Jewish futures that lie ahead.

I'm down with that. While it would be awfully nice to be reflected back by all Jews, in Israel and in the Great World, we won't be and we don't need to be. In moving forward with integrity and authenticity in our Jewish lives, we are demanding our inheritance — and Sinai is being rewritten in our names.

We do not need to be loved by the Orthodox men who rule the "mays" and "may nots" at the Western Wall. Nor do we need to justify our love of Jewish ritual and spirit to the Israeli secular world. The inheritance is ours as much as it is theirs. No apologies needed, and 'nuf said.

As I huffed and puffed and kricht up the Snake Path this morning, I turned once to my husband and said, "I'm sorry I'm not at my best today." He looked at me, almost surprised. "But you are at your best. You're climbing Masada. What could be better?"

Friday, July 8, 2011

Parashat Balak - a Tale of Two Cities

Notes from the Holy Land.

This week in Torah we read the story of Balaam and his donkey. Recap: he is the seer hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the encampment of Israelites crowding the Moabite outskirts. Balaam reluctantly takes the gig, promising to prophesy at the border but with no guarantee of the prophecy's content. Still, his journey is born of the king's wish to do harm and God, acting through angels, interferes with Balaam's progress. His she-ass is thrown off track, and he strikes her, at which point she famously opens her mouth and defends herself in human speech against her rider's maledictions.

So I'm feeling like Balaam a bit. I am back on Israeli shores, an outsider, though not completely so. I am awaiting what my judgment will be, because everyone who visits here is expected to pass judgment. Many Israelis and American Jews would like us to pronounce the place beautiful and redeeming. The Left in America, including the Jewish left, would like to hear our condemnation of Israeli policies. I observe and fear to open my mouth, lest I make an ass out of myself.

Shabbat is drawing close and I am in Tel Aviv, a concrete and steel-sheathed modern city offering a nearly Viennese gemütlichkeit to its population. Cafés and boutiques abound; you have to look hard now to notice the stone memorials listing the names of coffee-sippers of ten or fifteen years ago, blown up with the cafés that hosted them. In the years since, the people of Tel Aviv have persevered. They've endured explosions and sealed rooms and assassinations. A slice of cake and a cappuccino is, for them, not devoid of a certain defiance. They have become more cosmopolitan and, arguably, more snobbish. While their view of most of Israel is not dissimilar to that of a San Franciscan pondering Riverside, their view of Jerusalem contains a particular venom.

For them, Jerusalem has ceased being Israel altogether. While Tel Aviv seems a logical outcome of the Zionist experiment - a bit of fin de siecle Europe rooted and flourishing in sandy soil - Jerusalem is inexplicable. From the start Jerusalem was a city weighed down by history. Every emperor wanted to conquer it, and nearly every emperor did. Jerusalem continues to suffer from an overburden of symbolism. Besides being a holy city for three powerful religions (or two powerful religions and one that perhaps just likes to act that way) it has for millenia signaled ultimate hope: of return, of salvation, of Messianic bliss. No earthly place can or should have to fulfill this level of religious promise.

But it is this very promise that draws so many of us - the curious, the seeker, the Chasid, the Jewish Renewal hippy tourist, the fundamentalist Christian rapturist. Still, despite the wide variety of its petitioners, Jerusalem has chosen its favored child, increasingly nurturing a fiercely non-pluralistic religious population that grows faster than any other segment of Israeli society. The city spreads outward to house its acolytes and devotees, overtaking land that isn't now and wasn't ever empty, pushing Palestinian villagers and farmers and academics and activists back behind a meandering and impenetrable green iron ribbon of fence.

The people of Tel Aviv fear Jerusalem and what it has come to represent. They fear the impending theocracy that has already produced a Jewish state in which marriages and conversions conducted by Reform rabbis are of no legal worth; in which women can't carry a Torah or wear a tallit at our people's holiest site. The Tel Aviv crowd resembles us - they are 1.5-child families. They foresee being overtaken by the religious within 20 years, and you can hear in the back of their minds the click-click of their escape plans forming. The people of Jerusalem long for Jerusalem even now, the long longing of our people. The people of Tel Aviv apply for EU passports.

I had my first view of Jerusalem in seven years yesterday. I'd studied there in my youth and it remains beloved to me. But now I am 30 years older and so is the State that claims it. I stood on the new tayelet - the scenic overlook - in the Talpiot neighborhood, from which I could see the Old City and the Dome of the Rock on my left, and the immense security fence on my right. I had to explain it to the 14-year old I'd brought with me from America, who himself pointed out the repetition of walls in this particular view - a Herodian wall, an Ottoman wall, and now this newest one. I realized that while the Western Wall might for many of us still symbolize longing and hope, the security wall is hopelessness made concrete. It is despair; a great Israeli shrug of the shoulders. A fatigued decision not to solve a problem but to wall it out of existence.

I stood on that height and felt a bit like Balaam, wanting to open my mouth but in the dark about what would come out. Mah tovu ohalecha, said Balaam when his time came. "How good are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, O Israel."

I see the tents too. They are beautiful and they are ugly and then they are beautiful again. The sky is rosy gold, the air warm and dusty, smelling of rosemary and sweat. Shabbat falls. I feel underneath my sadness a deep hope for peace, for rest, even for just one day. I breathe it in deeply - through my nose, letting my mouth stay, for the time being, shut.