Friday, July 31, 2015

The Torah Drug (thoughts after violence at Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and arson/murder in Nablus)

How do we make sense of two terrible acts of violence in Israel yesterday, perpetrated by murderous Jewish extremists in Jerusalem and Nablus?

The Talmud interprets a verse from this week's Torah portion of Va'ethanan - a well-known verse that is recited every time the torah is lifted: 'Ve-zot ha-torah asher sam moshe lifnei b'nei yisrael.'
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי מאי דכתיב (דברים ד, מד) וזאת התורה אשר שם משה זכה נעשית לו סם חיים לא זכה נעשית לו סם מיתה (יומא דף עב עמוד ב)
"Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught: what is the meaning of the verse, 'This is the Torah that Moses placed [before the people of Israel]'?
[The Hebrew word 'sam,' meaning 'placed,' can also mean 'drug.'] For one who has merit, the Torah becomes a drug that sustains life. For one who does not have merit, the Torah becomes a drug that brings death.' (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Yoma 72b)
The rabbis knew that a powerful drug can bring healing when used as directed, but that same drug can wreak terrible havoc on someone's life and even kill when used irresponsibly. The Torah is such a powerful drug. The same Torah that most of us try to use as a positive force in the world is wielded by others as an instrument of violence, repression, and even murder. (And such is true about the teachings of many other religions, that sustain life or hasten death depending on who is wielding them.) For those of us who love the Torah, it is painful to be reminded that the Torah has such a value-neutral quality. But when we forget that the Torah can be used to promote evil, we cease to be appropriately vigilant against the evildoers in our midst.
Today we pray for healing and comfort for innocents injured and bereaved by Jews using the Torah as a dangerous drug of death, in Jerusalem and Nablus. And we unite with what we pray is the overwhelming majority of Jews in committing ourselves to the use of the Torah only as a substance that promotes life, health and peace.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

thoughts on the Iran nuclear agreement

My letter to members of my congregation regarding the Iran deal:


Dear friends,

Maybe like many of you, I have spent the last week consumed by news of the Iran nuclear deal.  It is an issue about which I have many passionate feelings, for many reasons including my strong commitment to Israel, my hope that my children and grandchildren will inherit a safer world, and my Jewishly-reinforced desire to promote values of peace and justice in the world.

What follows is adapted from my comments to the congregation from this past shabbat. As usual, I expect that whatever your perspective, you will find something in what I have written with which you will disagree -- and you will also find something with which you will agree.

I have no special expertise in global affairs or the science and politics of nuclear arms negotiations.  If I can claim any special expertise that has bearing on this global situation, it is in the variety of distinctive ways that Jews approach the world.

Israelis and Americans sometimes don’t see eye to eye, to put it mildly.  Some of the reasons for this phenomenon are observable in my own family.  I grew up in the United States, and I have cousins who grew up in Israel.  And who grew up where was largely the result of some decisions that were made in the lifetime of my great-grandparents in Eastern Europe a little over one hundred years ago.  Some family members came to the United States; some family members went to Palestine,  the land of Israel, to pursue the dream of rebuilding the Jewish homeland there.  Some family members stayed in Eastern Europe.  Of those who stayed, most were murdered.  And of those who survived, most ended up as refugees and went to the new State of Israel which was one of the only places to take them in.  So when I contemplate what the world looks like through eyes of Israelis, I know that the roles very easily could have been reversed.  It could have been my great-grandfather who had gone to Palestine instead of New York.  Or it could have been my great-grandmother who stayed in Ukraine, who had a child who survived the war and then made it to Israel.   All families’ stories are different, but my family’s stories are quite similar to the stories of most American Jews of Eastern European origin. Seeing the world through the eyes of Israelis is not only something I do out of ideological and historical commitment. It’s something I do out of an understanding that we are, in a very literal sense, part of the same family.

Clearly, the world looks different when you look at it from Israel’s perspective.  The civil war in Syria, perhaps the bloodiest war in the world at the moment, is  right over the hills.  Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon are right across the border. The radical and authoritarian Hamas stronghold in Gaza is just a few miles away. ISIS, the most bloodthirstily terrifying fighting force of the moment, controls territory that is as close to Israel as New York is to Philadelphia. And other even larger threatening powers are not far away, like Iran.  When a Middle East issue comes up, it might feel different when it’s discussed in Washington and when it’s discussed in Jerusalem.  Understanding this may help us to see not only why people who are passionately connected to Israel might be more likely to hold particular views on the Iran deal, but also to see why the deal may have a particular emotional resonance for people who are passionately connected to Israel.

In my comments on Shabbat, I gave a quick summary of what appear to be the best arguments in favor of and against the deal.  Rather than reproduce those here, I encourage you to read http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/07/iran-nuclear-deal-goldberg-frum-beinart/398816/, especially if you feel you have not encountered a serious presentation of the range of perspectives about this deal.  This Atlantic debate between Peter Beinart (on the left), David Frum (on the right), and Jeffrey Goldberg (in the center) is a respectful presentation of some of the best arguments in favor of the deal and against it, and a model of how to conduct a discussion on a contentious topic.  I am posting additional links to thoughtful comments on this issue on my Facebook page.

Some are regarding this deal as President Obama’s very greatest foreign policy triumph, and some understand it as a tragic mistake - even as the biggest disaster in American diplomacy.  One commentator even suggested it will be regarded as the biggest disaster in world diplomacy.  My own understanding of this deal is a more nuanced perspective. I had the opportunity to be on a conference call for rabbis last week with Robert Satloff, the Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an authority on Middle East Affairs.  While he  expressed some strong reservations about elements of the deal, he also implored us to have serious conversations about it in our communities.  This deal includes benefits, which are significant, as well as costs and risks, which are also significant.  A serious investigation involves weighing these benefits against the costs and risks.  The non-serious investigations either focus entirely on the benefits, or entirely on the costs and risks, depending on the prior position of the speaker.  According to Satloff, it is not a slam dunk either way.  (Satloff wrote an op-ed in the New York Post that was titled “What’s wrong with the Iran nuclear deal,” but it includes the line, “Perhaps, even with all these problems, the deal will achieve what the Obama administration promised it would achieve — to block Iran’s multiple pathways to the bomb for at least the next decade. And perhaps achieving that goal is worth the many sacrifices and concessions Washington made along the way.”)

It does appear to me, though, that there are some matters of consensus among both serious supporters and serious opponents of the deal.

It appears to me that even supporters of the agreement concede that this deal absolutely would make life in Israel much more difficult in the short term.  The agreement says nothing about Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist organizations.  Once Iran’s assets are unfrozen, it should not be surprising if Iran uses some of these funds to which it newly has access - over $100 billion - to further support terrorist organizations.  Eventually, when conventional weapons sale bans are lifted in about five years, it should not be surprising if Iran would purchase more advanced weapons to give to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.  This is why the entirety of the Israeli political spectrum has spoken out against this deal, and why opposition leader Isaac Herzog of Israel’s left-of-center Labor Party is coming to the United States to speak with lawmakers about his concerns about the deal.  At the risk of stating the obvious, please note that Iran's belligerence towards Israel is not a result of policy disagreements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The current government of Iran simply does not believe that there should be Jewish dominion over any piece of real estate anywhere in the Middle East.  There is NO policy about the Palestinians that Israel could pursue that would be acceptable to the current Iranian government.  And living with a strengthened Hamas and Hizbollah on your doorstep is truly very difficult.  Those who give full-throated support to this agreement, I think, have to come to terms with this likely result for Israel.  

It also appears to me that both serious supporters and opponents of the deal agree that the question “what is the alternative?” is a question that needs to be confronted.  Especially at this stage, the question remains: what is the most likely next step if the deal were to be voted down?  What would happen next?  Many of those scenarios may actually be more scary than the scenarios with the deal in place.  Without an agreement, Iran was just a couple of months away from having a bomb.  There are indications that the international sanctions regime was likely to collapse anyway.   Even the most optimistic estimates of the effect of American or Israeli military responses are that they would set back Iran’s nuclear program by only a few years.  The burden is on those who would oppose this agreement to lay out a scenario - not in the ideal world, and not in a hypothetical alternative history, but in the actual world - that would make the world safer.

The Talmud instructs, 'Teach your tongue to say the words, 'I don't know.' " (Berakhot 4a).  This doesn't mean that we should say "I don't know" all the time, but it does mean that we should develop a realistic understanding of what we know and what we could not possibly know.   A third matter of consensus is that there are plenty of people seeking to exploit this situation for political aims -- whether in support of the agreement or against it, whether in the United States or in Israel or elsewhere in the world.  (Of course, this is true about everything that happens in the political sphere, but the more passionately that we feel about an issue, the less we may realize it is happening.)  Was this the best of all possible deals?  Would a different foreign policy strategy have yielded a significantly better result?  Would different negotiators have achieved better results? It's fine to theorize, but clearly there is no one who can know the answers to these questions conclusively.  And some of those who claim that the answers are obvious -- whether they are coming from the right or the left -- are exploiting the situation, rather than contributing seriously to the conversation.

Making the world safer is both a matter of prudent self-interest and one of the most important imperatives of Jewish values.  Protecting the world and the Middle East from Iran is key to creating a safer world, as well as a safer future for the Jewish people.  May we make wise decisions to promote the safety of our people and our world.