Sunday, 6 November 2016

How to talk to someone you disagree with

Trump Tower was completed in 1983 with the help of 200 undocumented Polish immigrants 

We just read about the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:2 “they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another …come let us build  us a city, and a tower with its tops in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we will be scattered all over the world” ( JPS translation)
Here mankind in a valley decide to build a massive man-made structure and their efforts are thwarted by god who makes sure the people speak different languages and so they can’t understand each other anymore.

The Talmud, which is the source of all things wise and wonderful, considers this:  why were they standing in a valley if they wanted to build a tall tower?  (B. Sanhedrin 109a).  Why didn’t they give themselves the advantage that building a tower at the top of a mountain gives you?

And I think the answer is this. In a valley, looking up, you don’t think you know the whole picture. At the top of a tall man made structure, it’s easy to think you see the whole picture.

The Tower of Babel tells of this fundamental distinction.  Before the Tower of Babel, in a valley, we all understand each other perfectly.  There is no difference in language between what is said by one person and what was understood by another. There is perfect understanding and no gap between what you want to say and how it is heard, between speaker and listener, between writer and reader; there is no interpretation of a message needed.  There is always perfect communication.

Pre-babel, when one person said anything, everybody understood the same thing. But then, to stop us trying to get too big for our boots, god made us all speak different languages.  Now we wouldn’t be able to understand each other at all, and not just because I speak English and you speak Japanese.  There’s also the gap between me speaking as a woman and you hearing as a man or me as Jew and you as a Christian or me as a Hilary fan and you as a Trump fan or me as a Pro-choice fan and you as a pro-life fan, for example.    As much as I want it to be true, not everyone in this world sees things like I do western, liberal Zionist, feminist that I am. 

The best experiences I’ve had is when I’ve switched from post-babel standing at the top of the tower thinking the limits of my understanding of the world are the limits of the world, to pre-babel thinking which is a knowing that I don’t see the whole picture, I can’t see the whole picture and that no one else can either.  

For example, I didn’t know that different religions use the same word in different ways – I didn’t know until I listened to a Christian person on a long train journey once that the word faith in god for him is like an either/ or proposition. You do or you don’t.  To me as a Jewish person, it was more like trust; sometimes you feel it more or less than other times.  Who knew? it was exactly the same word understood in two completely different ways! I didn’t have to stop believing what I did and he didn’t either. It was a great conversation because neither of us where trying to convert the other, we were just saying what we understood in the valley.

And then there’s the god idea.  I’m not talking about a simple difference in signs like Adonai, or the eternal and infinite thing, or what will be will be, or Allah or Deo or nkosi as we say in South Africa, but what that sign signifies to each user is almost impossible to explain.  Any name we give god is not god.  To believe that what you understand by the term god is universal is definitely post-babel.   All words separate, including the word for god.  Every time we name god, we fracture the infinite and bind it to a separated form.  We can’t see the whole of the moon.

Happily, we can get back to the pre-babel place for an instant when we feel safe enough to talk honestly without being judged and when we listen to each other the same way.  When we listen not to argue or to wait for my turn to speak or to evaluate the other person, it’s when we listen seeing that this is the limit to my understanding and allowing for the separate space of the other person’s understanding. I’m not talking about self-denial; I’m talking about a movement of self-transcendence.

I tried it with my children once. One at a time, I listened to them without judgement or needing to correct them or to harp on about my agenda; I listened to them in a pre-Babel, whole-hearted way. And it was magical.

We can listen and talk like this to family, friends and even taxi drivers. We can get back to pre-Babel when we say and hear the Shma, when as a community, we all participate in the way I understand god - in the experience of listening and speaking as part of the whole, in solidarity, self-transcendence and in peace.

Potentially I could even enjoy a conversation with a Trump supporter, and really understand how they see the world without trying to convert them.  But it would have to start with neither of us on our lofty perches, and both of us in the valley.  Anything is possible.

Shabbat Shalom                                                                                                         

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Life is Change-Parashat Behar

I had a very strange childhood, probably very unlike yours.  I grew up in Apartheid South African and there was no TV and if you didn't like sports, there wasn't much to do except read.  My sisters and I pretended we were the Bronte sisters and we would recite poetry for fun.  One of the poems we really liked was this one by Yeats:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

It felt like that in South Africa then to us.  It felt like we had to hold tighter, run away or hide.  Dialogue or change didn't seem possible then, but who knew that behind the fear, it was there all along.   

Although I still feel echoes of the Yeats poem occasionally, I see there’s another way to see life, rather than as a centre that cannot hold. 

Life is change.  Despite how it looks, it’s not frozen in time like frames in a movie.  It’s a slow gradual process powered by a force that we have no control over.   

That’s the theme in the portion we read this week, that life can change for any of us at any moment- you can be very rich and powerful,  and then lose it all, but always be kind because it could be you, and it was never really yours anyway.   I wonder about Donald Trump if he looks at his good fortune and believes he’s earned it and that he’s entitled to it, instead of seeing it as dumb trust-fund luck.

In our tradition too, there has been so much truth entitlement, and so much change -
From a tribe of whining ex-slaves marching around the desert for 40 years, receiving the Torah at Sinai, and finally getting to Israel, we build the first temple, it goes down, we build the second temple; it goes down too, all is nearly lost.  Good bye Essenes, Sadducees, proto-Christians, hello Pharisees.   We smuggle the essence out in a coffin, thank you Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, and then we write the Mishna, then some of us go into exile where we write the Babylonian Talmud.  In the Babylonian Talmud (and in the Jerusalem Talmud) many changes are made to the laws given at Sinai.  The Babylonian Talmud wins out.

Then some of us reject the Babylonian Talmud entirely, goodbye Karaites.  We don’t follow that line.  Our people take it with them along with the Mishnah and the Torah and march around Europe, Asia and North Africa arguing about God, faith and reason, Thank you Maimonides for making things so clear, although God knows you annoyed the believers in magic.

In the 18 century, we cross a very narrow bridge but the main thing is not to be afraid - thank you Rav Nachman of Breslov, thank you Hasidim.  Mitnagdim object to Hasidim and they fight like crazy.   I believe there were all kinds of battles going on in Germany too with the birth of the reform movement and modern orthodoxy as a response to that, and there is more fighting involved. But  unconcerned with the entire western European enlightenment, my line are the Mitnagdim from Lithuania who go to South Africa where we sang the national anthem Die Stem at school but we also sang Hatikva because later my people up North were assigned the state of Israel in 1948.  Anything is possible I tell you.

Many years after leaving South Africa, I stand here today with you.  I love it here, the people are lovely, the Kiddish is good and because from what I can tell, our rabbis are particularly outstanding people who see the big picture.  I wish it would stay like this forever, but I have no doubt there’s more change on the way, but we’ll be ok.  I have hope.

Like life itself that finds a way, Judaism is a living breathing thing that has evolved slowly. Halacha evolves at the speed of a glacier, Takana after Takana, adapting to life’s needs as it progresses, but it happens so slowly we don’t even notice. 

I think of the priests in the Temple that blew their trumpets at the end of Beit Hashoeivah, a fun-filled festival at the end of Sukkot that sadly we don’t have any more. It sounded like a blast.  The Mishnah describes how the priests blew their trumpets at the upper gate and then down the steps and then through the court of women, blowing their tekiah and truah all the while, and then on to the East gate where they said “our eyes are turned towards God”  

Those priests must have loved their procession and were probably not happy when it ended.  But it did.  Things took a different turn and we carried on the procession in a different way.  Our temple is no longer the literal temple encased in walls, and we no longer celebrate with harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets, but we keep finding new ways to sound the notes and proclaim our place in the scheme of things.   We don’t go backwards, we go forwards.  Our eyes are still turned towards God.

What doesn’t change in this Judaism project of ours?  What is the essence, the one core value?  The prime directive?  It’s something I think about a lot.  Here are some thoughts…

1.     Maybe it’s related to the full range of the human experience Jewish practise supports, from grief to joy to desire and to belonging
2.     Maybe it’s related to the power of the Talmud that holds a kingdom of conflicting opinions where no one human is allowed to own the entire truth.
3.     Maybe it’s related to emunah, the flickering experienced and felt trust in a force bigger than myself.   In this imagined place, any moment is suspended between two sky hooks, the creation of the universe in the past and the possibility of an ideal future that we help create. 
4.     One final possibility is suggested at the end of Behar, the torah reading this week, although I’m open to any other ideas.   The main thing is not to make any idols to worship and all the implications of human responsibility that radical monotheism demands.

Not to believe there is more god in some things than in others   
Or to believe your way has more god in it than the other ways 
That your land is more blessed by god than any other land 
That your good fortune is an indication of your special privilege, instead of seeing it as just on loan. 

Sometimes we get to be the ones who look after others and sometimes we have to be the one who needs a little help from their friends.  

This I know for sure, that in the moment of listening to another person without judgement, or being really heard by another person, and in the moment of love and surrender, I've felt part of the intact, infinite space I call god.  There is no action, no land and no language that is not part of that.  It is a safe, shared, sacred space.  It is a place of hope and possibility. 

It is the only centre that holds and goes on holding…the rest is just to point the way.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Shabbat Zachor 1941

There’s lots about this week’s Torah and Haftorah reading I don’t like – I’m not such a fan of the sacrifices discussed in the torah portion, and there is so much in the Haftorah story I find abhorrent. I don’t believe God told Samuel to tell Saul to kill the men, women and children and all their animals. I don’t believe bad things happened to those innocent children and the animals because god told his prophet to tell his king to authorise his soldiers to kill them. In front of the pyres of burning children, I’m not pointing fingers at god; I’m pointing fingers at humans. It's humans that need to learn to behave better, not god.

In fact, in the whole dividing line in Judaism between love of god and fear of god, I’m more in the former camp.  I’m more about the chesed or lovingkindness than the din or law. I prefer Hillel to Shammai, statutes to codes, the Talmud to the Shulchan Aruch.

But as I get older, I see there is great value to the law part too, to deprioritising your personal rights to eat anything anytime, to keeping Shabbat, and to sanctifying life.  The ultimate code of Jewish law is the shulchan aruch.  It was written in Israel, by Yosef Karo in 1563 and published in Venice two years later.  That means it was written just in time for the revolution of the printing press to carry it on its wings to small communities everywhere. There was probably a copy in my great grand-parents community in Lithuania. There was certainly a copy in my parent’s home in South Africa when I was growing up.  It has been the most widely consulted source of Jewish practise for the past 500 years.

Here are two laws from the Shulchan Aruch that apply to us today particularly:
“There are those that maintain that the reading of Parshat Zachor and Parshat Parah is a Torah obligation.  Therefore, people living in an area in which there is not a congregation are obligated to come to a place that has a minyan for these Shabbatot.  This is in order to hear these Torah readings that are Torah commandments.” (Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 685:7)                                                                                                                        
And also
“A minor who has reached the age of ''Hinuch'' (5 or 6 depending) and he knows to whom one is blessing, and knows how to pronounce the letters correctly, may receive the Aliyah of Maftir on Shabbat and a Festival, except for the portions ''Zachor'' and Parah”

These laws are based on the assumption that it is D’oreita to read the Amalek section because it says directly “remember what Amalek did to you” It is a basic one of the 613 mitzvot. There is even the assumption in very orthodox circles that women are also obligated to hear these words.

It’s a really important law because it roots a long story of persecution, devastation and survival to the original story of persecution, devastation and survival.  It makes a certain aspect of Jewish history a joined-up story rather than meaningless, random sad stories.

Because we are commanded to remember, and we have been commanded for so long, via the laws of the shulchan aruch, and because of the power of the printing press, I can be sure that every year for hundreds of years back, Jews in Spain, in Germany, in Lithuania, in Poland, in Egypt, in Palestine, in Syria and in Iraq, men and women, heard these words, and the ones that survived Chleminicki and other pogroms, the blood libels, the expulsion from Spain and England and the crusades, were the remnant that heard these words and remembered the suffering of those who didn't make it out alive.  

We remember for ourselves, not for the dead.   

We remember to remind ourselves that any personal story of suffering can be mixed into a bigger story of suffering, and that there will be no unseen, unremembered suffering.   It gives shape to pain and comfort from the hope that while I won’t make it out of here alive, some else will.

Someone who didn't make it out alive was my great grandmother, Agnesia Steinman.  Yad Vashem records note she was murdered in the Shoah.  She was shot in the forests of Lithuania alongside her daughter, and four of her grand-children.   There is no documentary evidence of her last moment. No-one recorded her last words. It’s horrible to think that like for the millions that died in the forests and in the trucks, in the ghettoes and in the crematoria, her last moments in front of the guns with her family around her, knowing they were going to be killed, were  unseen and un-witnessed.

Instead, I prefer to imagine I go back in time, to 1941 before they were taken, to where she is standing in shul on Shabbat Zachor.  We stand together behind the mehitza.

I can see her strong, intelligent face listening to this portion next to me, and I put my arm around her and I say to her:

 “I will remember what Amalek does to you. Your suffering will be remembered, and because I am alive to remember, all will not be lost”