Monday, February 26, 2024

In This Moment: Becoming Jewish; Humash with Rashi? How About "Israel with Joshi"


In This Moment

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It's been more than a week since my last dispatch, a break that was quasi intentional. In part, it's just been a very busy week for me, one that took me to Chicago for the funeral of my cousin, Ken Avick. Ken, a superb artist and kind and gentle soul, died at the age of 78 of ALS. Despite his many misfortunes, he never dwelt on the "why me?" Instead, he brought hope to many people through his courage and eternal optimism. I officiated at his funeral, just as I did for his twin brother Jeffrey, who died of AIDS in 1999 and was memorialized in our sanctuary. Jeffrey spoke here in 1993 about his coping with HIV. He said, "The God that I learned about in my home was a God of love, understanding, mercy and reason. That God has given me real strength...His love for us is not measured by the absence of hardships. His love for us is the life he's given us."

But even had I not had an unexpectedly chaotic week (which included a quick visit with my sons, always a good thing), I still would have preferred to put the proverbial pen down for a few days, especially regarding Israel and Gaza. We all need to do that once in a while, as we strive to absorb what is happening and filter out some of the noise. From the beginning, I've cautioned people not to succumb to knee-jerk reactions, and it is now easier to do so than ever. We've taken our positions and held our ground. We've seen how so many of Israel's so-called friends have themselves fallen into old patterns of blame, but how Israel itself has not been entirely blameless - however justified in its pursuits.

So I took a few days away from my proverbial pen to absorb what’s been happening. And now I want to share some quick takes on where I think things stand now, in Israel and back here in the US. I model these terse bullet points after the most concise wordsmith of all time, the great medieval commentator Rashi, His comments on the Bible and Talmud were a veritable Twitter feed of key takeaways from any given verse, minus the grandstanding and hate-infested toxicity you routinely find on social media. In most traditional Yeshivas, no one studies the Torah without reading it through the prism of this commentator’s wisdom. Even in my Conservative Hebrew school, it was never just plain “Humash” (Torah); it was always “Humash with Rashi.”

So now, here’s something new for your virtual Jewish bookshelf. In addition to “Humash with Rashi,” I give you “Israel with Joshi.” Doubtless you will not agree with all of my points, but that's OK. Let's have a conversation, bullet point by bullet point.

  • A ceasefire would be good. Even a lengthy one, but unless it includes two items, the war cannot be considered over.

  • The two items are: a release of all the hostages and Hamas relinquishing control of Gaza.

  • Those two items should be enough for Israel to declare "Mission Accomplished." That means the other stated Israeli goals, such as completely destroying Hamas or degrading 100 percent of its military infrastructure, may not be possible. To cling to those would be counterproductive, because Israel needs US support and Biden has political problems, not just among Muslim voters. Many Americans have become increasingly uncomfortable with the demonstrable suffering of the innocent people of Gaza.

  • Yes, Israel is held to an unfair double standard, but in this case it has been given an enormous degree of latitude to conduct this war as it sees fit. We do not really know the extent to which the military plan has been executed successfully, but it's troubling that the results are not yet conclusive. We'll know Israel has won when the Egyptians, Saudis and Qataris show Hamas the door.

  • It is increasingly clear that almost no one outside of the Iranian orbit (and American college campuses) likes Hamas or tries to justify the crimes that Hamas has committed. That increasingly includes the people of Gaza.

  • So the goal of removing Hamas from power and release of the hostages should be doable - but only if Israel shows a real willingness to consider long-term political solutions that include two states. I don't think anyone has the right to expect Israel to agree to a concrete timeline or any other specifics at this point - just not to dismiss it out of hand - and please God, to stop all the talk about resettling Gaza.

  • Prime Minister Netanyahu has done just the opposite. It almost seems like he is playing to his old cronies in Washington in trying to make things more difficult politically for President Biden, while also trying to boost his own street cred among right wingers in his own country. Where have we seen that before? Even though Bibi has been scorched by Trump, he feels he can manipulate him with flattery and will do anything to get him back into power. Autocracy loves company. Too bad for him that the GOP is not in a position to boast about its unconditional support for Israel when they are the ones blocking Israel funding as we speak, and when they are hoping to foster tension between Biden and people of color while at the same time courting people of color (in the most offensive ways imaginable).

  • Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to be replaced as soon as possible. Here's a Joshi exclusive: I actually agree with some of his current positions. If the non-political IDF assessment is that Israel needs to go into Rafah to degrade Hamas leadership and further the war aim of removing Hamas governance, and can do it with minimal civilian casualties, I agree with Bibi that they need to do it. If a narrow buffer zone in Gaza will enable Israelis to return to their homes with a little more security, I'm all for it.

  • Bibi needs to go because everybody hates him, and he's become an easy excuse for people to express contempt for Israel. The problem with "It's Bibi who's bad, not Israelis," is that when Israel pursues legitimate military goals, the point person explaining them cannot be someone with zero credibility who is clearly looking foremost at own political survival. If Ganz and Lapid were speaking on behalf of Israel right now instead of Bibi, Smotrich and Ben Gvir, Israel's case would be getting a much fairer hearing. Even on 60 Minutes, where this week's feature on Gaza was very disheartening, given the degree of human suffering that has undeniably occurred there - no matter who is responsible - and the fact that Israel can't evade all responsibility for it.

  • To state unequivocally that there will never be a Palestinian state, in the face of decades of consensus, is inflammatory political grandstanding unworthy of a serious world leader.

  • I also think that this is the wrong time to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state, which would be seen as a reward for terrorism.

  • But unilateral US recognition could be a carrot for a series of actions that would permanently sideline Hamas, demilitarize this state militarily AND ideologically (education, no celebration of terrorism, etc) and return all hostages, along with the Saudi initiatives and a regional Marshall Plan.

  • This war is the worst thing that has happened to the Jewish people since the Shoah in large part because Israel can no longer be seen as a safe haven and bulwark against antisemitism. That aura of invincibility that has protected us at least since1967 has turned out to be an illusion. And as soon as that discovery occurred, the crazies came out of the woodwork, there, here, everywhere. Yes, hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews are enmeshed, even if it is also true that not all criticism of Israel is antisemitism. We've seen the truth and it is terrifying. Not as terrifying as the 1930s, but as bad, at least as the late 19th century. Pogroms in Russia, the KKK here, Dreyfus in Paris: Theodore Herzl took one look at it all and realized that the Jews needed a state of their own. He was right then and that same is true today.

  • To thrive, or perhaps even to survive at all, the Jewish people needs both a strong, secure Israel and a secure, independent - and strongly Zionist - diaspora.

  • This means that deterrence must be restored, ASAP. That means Hamas cannot be governing Gaza when the fighting stops. Hostages should be home. Everything else chould be on the table - buffer zones, security forces with or without Israeli boots on the ground, Palestinian governance, and West Bank coordination too.

  • Then the Saudi-US-Israel plan could bring much greater stability of the region and stand up to Iranian disruption. Which is where we were heading on October 6.

  • Yes, for the betterment of the Jewish people and the world, Israel, the Saudis and US need to be a bulwark against Iranian and Russian nihilism.

  • That nihilism has sadly metastasized here in the form of Trumpism. For that reason, Trump and his enablers may profess support for Israel, but in truth they only support Israel's far right wing, and primarily for Christian nationalist purposes. That is among the many reasons why a Trump return to the White House would be an existential threat to Israel, the US and democracy throughout the world, and why the Ukraine - Israel - Taiwan aid package must be passed, in some form (and of course humanitarian aid to Gaza is important too).

  • The term bulwark is found in the Bible in reference to the citadels of Jerusalem, for instance in Psalm 48:13.

"Walk about Zion, and go round about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark well her BULWARKS, (armenoteha - אַרְמְנוֹתֶיהָconsider her palaces; that you may tell it to the generation following."

  • I believe that Israel, at her best, can be a bulwark against the ills that afflict our entire world, through technological, cultural, military and economic innovation and the unsurpassed resilience of her people. That has been proven perhaps more than ever over the past year. Israel showed us how to defend and preserve a democracy by organizing and taking to the streets, and how to nurture a traumatized populace faced with an existential war. We can only be awestruck at what the Israeli people have done. Now its current leadership needs to make way so that a new group, one worthy of the people it serves, can generate consensus on the hard decisions that need to be made.

  • If that can happen, a brighter future lies ahead, for Israel, for the Jewish people and for the world. We need to redouble efforts now so that "we may tell it to the generation following," that out of one of the great disasters in history, a brighter future emerged.

Here ends this edition of Joshi's Commentary.

Becoming Jewish

Ari Linder's life journey as been extraordinary, and that journey took them to the mikva a couple of weeks ago, to become a Jew by Choice. Thee conversion essay they wrote was so extraordinary that I asked them to share it with the congregation at services a few weeks ago. What follows is an edited print version. Below is an excerpt - see the whole essay by clicking here. Mazal tov to Ari!


I can’t remember if it was Friday or Saturday, but I remember that I cried. Newly dating instead of being friends, I decided to join Leo in attending weekly shul services via Zoom. Leo asked me to turn away at a certain part (the amidah) when they’d need to do “prayer choreography”. They didn’t want to feel self-conscious. I turned away, thinking I’d take a moment to talk with whatever higher powers exist, and started with, “Hey G-d, it’s me….” And then I cried. I wasn’t expecting it. I’d prayed recently, sure, but only when following a specific prompt or attending a formal religious service. G-d and I hadn’t shared small talk or unstructured conversation in at least a decade. I felt like suddenly something bigger had turned its invisible body fully toward me, paused everything else it was working on, and given me its undivided attention. What do you say in that moment, early COVID-19 pandemic, when you suddenly feel like a kind energy entered your space? It felt both comforting and scary. I decided to keep carving out time for a personal spiritual connection and see where it went.

Pandemics are apparently great for learning about a new religion. Zoom services let Leo and I talk deeply about the content without bothering anyone. I could ask stupid questions. I could spend more time on a section without anyone knowing I didn’t turn the page. I could write down notes without learning that people don’t write at shul on shabbos. Zoom also made services into my own unique delight as Leo sang harmonies to Cantor Kaplan’s melodies. I had a private Jewish music concert twice weekly in our living room. Who could blame me for falling in love with both Leo and services?

It's perfect to remember now, one month before my wedding, the first dvar topic that hit me hard. Rabbi Hammerman asked us to examine if that day’s pandemic emergency “Break the Glass” feelings might actually have some positive “Breaking the Glass” components, like when we symbolically smash glass under the chuppah. I didn’t know what the wedding smash represented before then but the idea of reframing an emergency, seeing bittersweet instead of just bad, stuck with me. Relatable connections seemed more common in Jewish services than I remember experiencing when I explored other religions.

Childhood’s Catholicism taught me to strive to be like Jesus, a legendary, god-like human. “What would Jesus do?” But I feel the opposite of god-like most days. That perspective wasn’t relatable. What did it mean if I couldn’t be just like Jesus? My Jewish G-d feels more like a spouse or partner. We’ve dated. We decided where we both stand on different issues. I understand what G-d likes and G-d understands what I like, we compromise on many points, but we’re both happier together because we’re passionate about the same important things.

Judaism couldn’t ask me to be perfect because not even G-d is perfect. We can read about times when G-d got it wrong, or G-d overreacted, or G-d listened to a good human argument and changed Their mind. (And yes, that last reference to G-d used a gender neutral pronoun because being Jewish means my G-d isn’t exclusively male.) My Jewish G-d isn’t an angry grandfather in the sky monitoring my moves to see if I’m worthy. My G-d is someone who offered me a special relationship, negotiated what that will initially look like, and we’re both committed to growing this bond together.

Jewish leaders helped feed my growing spiritual bond. The Jewish rabbis and cantors I’ve met are so beautifully different from the other spiritual leaders I’ve known. Rabbis and cantors aren’t kept separately from society. Our leaders are allowed to be spouses, parents, partners, and (typical shul politics aside) normal humans like the rest of us. Jewish rabbis are committed to being our teachers. The great ones can prompt us to think, engage in the texts and writings, and form our own relationship to the material and our world. The best ones are skilled teachers who also listen and care and occasionally learn from us, too. Rabbi Hammerman invites community members up to share their own dvars. He even complimented 13-year-old Ethan on his bar mitzvah dvar, saying Ethan’s perspective was impressively new and worth sharing. Religious leaders praising a newly-minted adult for religious perspective? Ordination clearly wasn’t something that separates the best idea-havers from the rest of us.

So many Jewish community customs make sense for us not-god-like humans. There are important Jewish laws, but almost every law can be broken if human life is at stake. There are traditions for grieving, for being recognized as someone in grief, for supporting that person through grief, and for making sure they’re with other people every year on that grief-filled anniversary. Compare that to Catholicism’s two day grief process, or the 0-2 workplace bereavement days you’re lucky to get, and Judaism feels so much kinder. 

Judaism doesn’t recruit (probably because others typically punish us for it) but I bet we’d be popular in a universe where we could. There can be something for everyone here. Our shul, and the one where Leo was raised, both allow children to play and be their spontaneous child-like selves during services. Kids don’t need to restrict themselves unnaturally into perfect mini adults. Jewish law entitled wives to certain respects and pleasures from their husbands. Ancient Jewish societies describeroles for every person – even atypically gendered folks like tumtum or androganos. Passover bravely embraces different people by highlighting 4 different “children” reacting to a story, and lovingly tells us how to adapt ourselves to their different needs. Even our heroes aren’t god-like. Sarah was considered too old to bear children, Issac became too blind to differentiate his sons, and short-tempered Moses had a speech impediment. But those respected leaders carried our people forward.

Click here to read the rest.

Recommended Reading

  • To Invade or Not To Invade: Rafah (Jewdicious)- Invade Rafah, or stop now? That’s the question. It is variously interpreted in Israel to mean, seek victory, or accept defeat? Obtain peace and security or live with fear and regret? Return the remaining hostages by force or by negotiation? Establish a true new order in Gaza, or leave Hamas in power? These questions are looked at in a binary way. The rest of the world has no such dilemma. Easier to stay; “Stop the invasion as it will inevitably result in a human catastrophe.” Pretty simple. Who cares if Israel loses? I do. Millions of Israelis do. We were massacred, we fought back and we want to eliminate the enemy. If it takes invading Rafah to achieve our aims, then we must do it. See also How Israel will invade Rafah (Unherd)

Army Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi wrote to all Army commanders. Halevi’s correspondence opened with:

We have been fighting for four months, and a long road still lies ahead. The nature of the war is evolving. From a difficult and painful beginning to a rapid and determined recovery, which has led to an assault whose results are noticeable – in striking the enemy and rescuing some of the hostages. Our actions are developing and adapting to the different stages of the war and its duration. I meet with you, the commanders, in the field: I see you are determined and mission-oriented, infused with the spirit of victory, leading the charge of your troops from the front. You are conducting maneuvers under tough conditions and at high risk, executing tasks qualitatively and over time. All these factors lead to impressive results, for which you deserve all the praise. We will continue to dismantle Hamas and do everything to rescue all of the hostages from Gaza and ensure the residents of both the south and north can return to their homes in safety.
A very important message that should have been emphasized earlier in the conflict pertains to the ethics of warfare – The Torah portion “Kedoshim,” includes the commandment “Do not curse the deaf.” This is perplexing. Why must we refrain from cursing the deaf if they cannot hear? The answer is straightforward – when you curse, you tarnish yourself. Our conduct on the battlefield differentiates us from our adversaries; we preserve our humanity. It's imperative that we use force only when necessary, doing so distinguishes terrorists from non-terrorists. We must not take anything that isn't ours – a souvenir or a weapon. In addition, do not film revenge videos. Our mission is not one of indiscriminate killing, revenge, or genocide. We came to win and deal a decisive defeat to a formidable foe, deserving of bitter defeat. We must avoid mistakes that could grant the enemy victories on the international stage. A true warrior is one whose values do not waiver in the face of challenging reality, a warrior’s values are strong and do not sway according to the direction of the wind.

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