“Charlottesville: Our Streets” A Documentary Film Premier at the Virginia Film Festival

via “Charlottesville: Our Streets” A Documentary Film Premier at the Virginia Film Festival

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Scientific Curiosity

I just finished an article which was a commentary on the weather prognosticators’ inability to predict the precise pathway of Hurricane Irma.  I myself have had similar reactions to the limitations of this science.  But, whereas the writer’s conclusion was that we don’t know everything about predicting the weather, or  medicine and the many other aspects and branches of modern science; my take was that the author stopped way short of where he might have led us readers.  I deduced that he was perfectly at ease with where, at the curb side, he had dropped us, flummoxed by our continued human ignorance.  My conclusions took me much, much further.

If Western humanity has any distinctiveness, it derives from a notion that there is much to be discovered about our universe, and that our purpose in this world to draw back the curtains and discover what makes everything operate as it does. God has implanted with us as a collective specie these abilities to know and unpack cosmic “secrets.”  This is not the time to be throwing our hands up and capitulating to our limitations.  Our weather folks have sophisticated instruments by which they know when and where hurricanes are forming and why.  They can determine and know their intensity, velocity and strength.  They feed all their data into super computers whose powers are little more than a half century old.  That they haven’t yet “broken the code” to decipher precisely the pathway of these storms isn’t something to be lamely accepted, derided and mourned.  It is the proverbial gauntlet, thrown down to us as a challenge to go further, study the phenomena deeper, calculate and fold in even more data, create better machines and models so that, in the future we shall be even more adept at our predictions.

The tragedy of our times is that we are witnessing an anti-intellectual, anti-science, dark age.  It is an unfolding that seeks to gut the funding for the very agencies and programs that have brought us to the level of sophisticated, scientific knowledge that we enjoy at this moment in human history.  This regression threatens the enterprise of discovery and advancement just at the moment when break-throughs in medicine and pharmacology, hydrology, and agriculture, to name but a few areas of modern science, are most critical to our continued well being and futures.

There was an episode of West Wing in which a probe, the Galaxy Five, upon landing on Mars, failed to begin communicating with Earth.  The president had scheduled a closed circuit, educational program with school children all over the United States.  When the probe’s systems shut down, there were those who assumed that so, too, would the T.V. program.  Why have it when the main attraction was not operating?  The answer was that, even…or especially…in failure, it wasn’t a reason to quit.  Rather, there was the challenge to move past what we hadn’t perfected, to discover and to probe harder, smarter, and more astutely.  Failure was the impetus to try harder.

The human thirst for knowledge is one of the greatest gifts of God, and the ultimate blessing is the opportunity to seek and assimilate, and then to continue that seeking.  The never ending goal isn’t to just up and accept our limitations, but to explore and discover, thereby advancing humanity’s capacities, knowledge and capabilities.

One day soon, with the help of satellites and computers, charts and graphs, hurricane hunters and just plain human brains, focus, sweat and grit, we shall perfect our abilities to chart the direction of monster storms and maybe even affect how they are formed, how they move, and how to direct them away from doing the catastrophic damage they do.

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Up is down.  Fact is fiction.  Black is white.  News is fake.  Truth is relative. Might is right. My friend is my enemy and my enemy is also my enemy but is my friend.   There can be no peace without justice but justice is unachievable when the rule of law is compromised and those who are sworn to enforce the law break it regularly and even use it against the innocent, exiling, beating and murdering some while protecting others.  The media gets it wrong as many times as it gets it right, or so it seems when stories lack proper background.  Reporters must have corroboration of their stories.  But what happens when the corroborators are liars?

Reputations are ruined in innuendo and by false accusations based on alleged facts which turn out to be anything but factual.  These false facts are masterfully fabricated in order to bring charges to silence the truth speaker and bring down the innocent victim.

This is no game.  It is a move and counter move struggle learned by students from their master-mentors.  It informs every aspect of life from pulpit to the playground bully.  It has seeped in or poured over every element of scientific and science fictional writings.  It both threatens and bolsters the foundations of society and its waves wash over the battlements and retaining walls, cracking, stacking, inundating, filling, and wrecking most everything in their path and that our senses encounter.

There is little to hold on to if we haven’t already secured our world view and cemented into ourselves the values by which we shall survive.  The temptations to loosen our grips on these life anchoring elements is enormous.  The centrifugal forces throw us up and out, away from our moorings until we feel as though we have entered a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland world and nothing seems to make sense any more.

It all seems life threatening and very, very unbalanced.  Vertigo is the order of the day.

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Hang in There

From a letter I have just written:

We are in total agreement about the way Israelis have and are behaving toward us Liberal Jews, and it has long been and continues to be appalling.  As long as Israelis only think of da’at ( faith or belief) in terms of Orthodox Judaism and the coalition style, governmental structure remains as it is, we shall receive only the short end of the stick if any stick at all.  Truly something has to be done.

My fear is simply this:  many rabbis have done such a good job of criticizing Israel and the matzav (the “situation”) and the allegedly “immoral Occupation” that they have given the generations that follow us an open door to walk away…and they have…by the droves, both from Israel and, ironically, from their Judaism as well.  Statistics tell us that what follows us not only lacks commitment to Israel, they don’t show any concern for her either.  Our numbers are dwindling.  In but a few decades, we are told, we non-Orthodox Jews shall have done a great job in fully assimilating into the American mainstream.

Several years ago, there was a Reform rabbi working for the AJC in Jerusalem who predicted a widening gulf between America’s and Israel’s Jewry.  He couldn’t have been more insightful.  That gulf is both cultural and intellectual.  What Israelis care about, American Jews don’t and visa versa.  We have drifted apart to a point that a certain level of incivility has crept into our relations which may lead to a total break…as you seem to be proposing.

I have family in Israel. They have little understanding of what I did as a Reform rabbi.  They are secularists.  The Orthodox are wise enough not to touch or threaten things that really matter to them, like being able to shop at the Bilu shopping mall (outside Rehovot) on Shabbat and riding their bikes hither, thither and yon.  If they drive to Jerusalem on Shabbat, they know to stay out of certain neighborhoods.

They used to vote Labor, but are wise enough to throw their votes where they now think they can do the most good.  Like most Americans, they ignore what they can and go about doing their jobs and raising their families.  They throw their hands up like we do when confronted with Netanyahu’s Trump-like antics.  But they watch the skies carefully, pay close attention to security matters, and listen intently for the sounds of impending war.

My point here is that I cannot blame them for their inability to change their governmental system, just as I cannot blame my stateside family for standing by and watching Trump despoil America.  You and I know that religion is mixed into Israeli politics as it is supposedly blocked from doing so here in the States (Jeff Sessions, Betsy Devos, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch notwithstanding…and their damage has yet to come to fruition).  That Netanyahu seeks to maintain his power and keep his coalition together works to our distinct and painful disadvantage.  He is the ultimate  pragmatist when it comes to his political survival.  That our representatives didn’t build in stronger sanctions over the Robinson Arch-Kotel agreement and haven’t leverage (other than rhetorical disdain) for the threatened Chief Rabbinate’s conversion takeover is equally condemnatory of Reform ineptitude as it is a revelation of Netanyahu’s duplicity.

I would urge you to define what it is you want from Israel in specifics that would rekindle your ardor for her and avert your turning away.  I ask this because a blanket condemnation may give permission to others who are sitting on the fence to jump off and quit Israel altogether…and that’s dangerous.

Israel’s problems go beyond Reform and Conservative conversions.  The Orthodox have women’s issues, gay issues and a rising aggravation with their men being drafted from their seminaries, their illegal settlements being taken down and with IDF commanders whose orders countermand theirs.  Nonetheless, aside from the Supreme Court, they hold the cards.  IRAC and Anat Hoffman have won some battles through the court system.  These have taken too much time, but they have experienced some successes.  I would urge you to throw support their way.  I would also urge you to act strategically in continuing to separate the existential from the religious arguments.  It is the U.S. Congress that keeps Israel afloat when nearly every other worldwide institution works against her.  I do not believe that you would wish to see Israel overrun or suffer severe damage…and we both know the increased threats Israel faces from both Hezbollah in Lebanon and from Iran which is attempting to establish itself in the Syrian Golan.  I am certain you can envision large parts of Tel Aviv and Haifa destroyed by laser guided missiles and the like.  It would not be an easy thing to handle.

It is easy to say, “I quit.”  It is harder to devise and carry through with strategies and actions that attain what it is we want.  So, I urge you to think with me and others, possibly from AIPAC and possibly from the Reform movement…but, by all means, to stay engaged.

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Throwing Israel Over

To those whose boards are (re) considering dropping the Israeli Bond drives over the forthcoming High Holidays and taking other measures to disassociate from other forms of support for Israel, I write the following:
I grow increasingly disturbed by the notion of us American Jews taking our toys and staying home, no longer lending our support to Israel or bringing what leverage we may have to bear on our government to stand by her.
It seems to me that the Reform movement must share some of the blame for where we have come to today. Given our (pardon the expression) ham-handed support for those political movements and politicians we thought had our ideological interests in mind and by not constantly, for the past forty years, beaten a drum to the secular elements within Israeli society to reform Israel’s political system and to be more aware of the rip-offs they have been victimized by, given the inclusion of the Orthodox parties in the ruling coalitions, we now find ourselves threatened with a de facto excommunication from the Israeli Jewish scene. With pain and no small anxiety, many of our generation are now threatening what the next generation to follow us has already done. They’ve just pulled the plug and walked away.
My hope is that we shall not back off and quit our support, but will 1) redouble our efforts to assure Israel of the best American Congressional support she can have 2) demand of our movement a wiser, more focused, more realistic approach to the realm of Israeli politics. We cannot have this without a concerted outreach to the secularist, Israeli electorate. We need to remind this majority entity through myriad newspaper articles and every other media outlet possible of what they are losing by ignoring the Ultra-Orthodox and their political agenda. We need to awaken their ire just as ours has been. We need to send delegations to join forces, even if, at the beginning, these efforts seem futile. I urge this because to do otherwise is to cut our noses to spite our faces.
I am not willing to throw Israel over because of the religious bigotry of the Chief rabbinate and their Knesset flunkies. They have gone steps-too-far and the Israeli populace needs to know this and to respond by rejecting their attempts to create fissures in K’lal Yisrael. This is not the time to throw Israel over. It is time to rethink our efforts and energies and to advocate, constructively, both for ourselves and for the State of Israel.
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My mother used to rail against anti-intellectualism.  By this I think she meant arguers and their arguments that had no basis in fact.  Or, perhaps, she was pointing to knee jerk reactions that brought little but emotion to any dispute.  Somewhere behind her stance were Shakespeare, Goethe, Mahler, Freud, Einstein, and other great thinkers whose writings and biographies were a part of any Liberal Arts college’s curriculum.

Today we are once again witnessing the rise of what so irritated and alienated my mother.  We see it in off-the-wall claims of voter fraud and fake news.  We see it in climate change denial and the efforts to drop funding for Planned Parenthood.  In Jerusalem, we see it in the Muslim charges that the Waqf has lost control of the Temple Mount on the heels of the murders of two Israeli policemen at the hands of three Israeli Arab terrorists from Umm Al Fahm in the Galilee.  These allegations and any that pertain to Israel’s alleged attempts to destroy the Al Aqsa mosque are meant to fire up the Palestinian and Arab populations throughout the Middle East and the world.  They cause hysteria in much the same way that blood libel charges against the Jewish people have for centuries.  They are based on pure fantasy; but, too often they have led to bloodshed and misery.

Hysterical and unbridled stupidities and absurdities are not limited to those in any one community.  Recently, my wife and I traveled to India where, at that autumn season in the Punjab, farmers were burning the stumble left over from their rice harvest.  When confronted with the fact that the smoke from these fires was adding measurably to the poisonous and noxious air pollution, they categorically denied it, claiming that such allegations were part of a conspiracy that was being promulgated to turn the rest of the population against them.  Their hysterical response only led to more trouble and misery for everyone.

We Jews are not inured from such hysterical assertions and declarations.  Perhaps the most heinous of these came from Ovadya Yosef, the Sephardic Chief rabbi, who blamed the Nazi Holocaust on the Jews of Europe (sic!), claiming that because they had committed sins, God punished them and used the Nazis to accomplish this.  Yosef’s charge has continued to resonate among the ignorant and superstitious.  That anyone would put credence in such statements is both beyond common sense and is a cause of great concern for Truth to reign in the minds of human beings.

My father used to say that nothing is so absurd that some philosopher hasn’t said it.  But, the examples I am bringing of hysterical ideas, theories and falsehoods are far more pernicious than the musings and notions of philosophers who, in their own way, are attempting to make sense of our world.  Hysterical claims and statements are not to be taken as comical in any sense.  As off base as they are, they serve the purpose of creating a false universe, an alternative reality, in which people may say most anything and have dire impacts on others.  It is Joseph Goebbel’s dream world where one may lay out the biggest lie and, by maintaining and repeating it, convince others of its certitude.

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A Better Way

I understand the feeling of being jilted, rejected, criticized and black-listed.  I understand being dissed, spurned and harassed.  One response, and it is a natural one, is to want to strike back, returning hurt for hurt, harm for harm.  But, I believe that there is a better way for us Reform rabbis to respond to indignities we have recently been subjected to. It is to promulgate constructive projects and cultivate attitudes which demonstrate that we are above what our adversaries are attempting to do to us.  This is to say that we would rather relish in winning than to slosh around in pits of derision and proverbial mud.

Rather than detaching ourselves from Israeli politicians, we ought to engage them, making clear what our issues are and advocating for these both verbally and monetarily. Rather than railing against those who have reneged and insulted us, we ought to be selectively supporting those who understand our cause: a more religiously tolerant and inclusive Israeli society, and holding them to their promises.  Rather than pitching for us to do less, thereby possibly widening the gulf that apparently has opened between North American Jewry and Israel, we ought to be challenging ourselves to do more to bridge that gap.

This road we have been traveling is, indeed, arduous and too often bitterly disappointing.  Certainly the victories that Anat Hoffman and IRAC have been achieving through the Israeli legal system haven’t come with alacrity or without intense and deeply dedicated efforts.  A decade or two ago, such successes were wholly unimaginable and unheard of.  But Anat has found ways.  Hers is a positive pathway that is and should be a lesson for us all.

This isn’t a time for recriminations and retributions.  It is a time when our mettle is being challenged.  We need to rise to that challenge in a better way.

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