Monday, March 31, 2008

Two Jews, One Opinion

The Stamford Advocate 04/03/2002

A story is told of a Jewish congregation where half the people stood up for that seminal prayer known as the Shema, while the other half sat. The two sides bickered endlessly about what was the proper practice, until the rabbi finally appointed a committee to investigate the matter. The committee went to a nearby nursing home to interview a 98-year-old resident, the oldest surviving member of the congregation. Each side made its claim to liturgical correctness, but in each case the old man said "No, that's not the original tradition." Then the rabbi lost patience and exclaimed, "I don't care what the original tradition was. Do you know what goes on in services every week? The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting and the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing."

"That was the tradition," the old man said.

In the wake of the Passover massacre and other acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians, it is time for Jews around the world to express an unprecedented degree of unity. Jews have long taken pride in their cultural proclivity for argumentation. Since Talmudic times, it seems, the standard quip has been, "Two Jews, three opinions." But the current crisis requires a falling-into-line that will seem to many dangerous and unnatural.

Awkwardly, with not a little trepidation but with an even greater fear of the alternative, I raise the new banner: Two Jews, One Opinion.

I say this as long-time dove and critic of Ariel Sharon. I cheered the Handshake on the South Lawn and bristled at the folly that was the War in Lebanon. I've labored effortlessly for equality for Israeli Arabs and I cried when Yasser Arafat paid a condolence call to Leah Rabin. But now I see the need to set aside parochial concerns and the dreams of yesteryear. I am ready to throw unquestioning support to Israel's unity government and await my marching orders.

I am not proposing that all Jews become mindless automata. Fat chance of that happening anyway. Jews are innately too wary of absolutism to place unlimited trust in human beings. Even the ultra-Orthodox do not follow their sages as blindly as one might think. Just before Passover, a story was circulating in Israel among religious Israelis that in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of B'nai Brak, at the home of a revered rabbi, a toilet seat broke. When the rabbi's wife was seen at the local hardware store purchasing a new seat, large numbers of his disciples assumed that their mentor was promoting a new, stricter way of removing all traces of leaven from the home. Instantly, toilet seat sales boomed in B'nai Brak.

Whether this actually happened is secondary to the idea that religious Israelis were joking about it. For while traditional Judaism does advocate unyielding obedience to the Torah, it never promotes blind submission to the will of another human being. For Jews, the mind is an impossible thing to waste.

In fact, Judaism and Jews are at a severe disadvantage in this war. A faith that espouses reason and reveres the sanctity of life must confront a cult of suicide that glorifies martyrdom. A tradition that encourages conscientious objectors to flee the battlefield must deal with those who are bringing the battlefield to every cafe in Tel Aviv and pizzeria in Jerusalem. A people that has spent decades ripping apart its own leaders, most especially the one currently occupying the Prime Minister's office, must face a nation that has blindly followed its larger-than-life patriarch into this most foolish cataclysm.

I am not a tribal Jew. I am a Jew with a universal vision of peace, with a desire to share with the world the highest values of my faith. I long to have my passport stamped in a neighborly Palestinian state and to sip Turkish coffee with Arab friends in Jericho and Ramallah. But right now, I recognize that Judaism's message will be rendered irrelevant if I am incapable of first responding to the blood of my brother screaming from the earth. For this is what Jewish tradition would call an Obligatory War, a war of survival, the one exception to the rule that encourages conscientious objectors. For the Jew right now, there is no alternative but to become completely engaged on behalf of Israel.

In the book of Numbers, two and a half of the twelve tribes were given the right to settle outside the land of Israel, under the condition that they extend complete support to the fledging nation. I am from among that privileged group, living in prosperity far from the carnage. But last week as my family in Connecticut comfortably prepared to reenact the departure from Egypt, innocent Jewish blood was being spattered all over the collapsing door posts of a Netanya hotel. God may have passed over that atrocity, but I will not. Neither will I allow the Jewish people again to become the world's paschal lamb. I am now a foot soldier in this needless war that Arafat has wrought, and I will voluntarily exercise my God-given right to shut up. There is a time to argue and debate and a time to simply do what needs to be done.

And so, Mr. Sharon, tell me what I must do.

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