Saturday, August 2, 2008

Our right to defend the Land of Israel?

?זכותנו להגן את ארץ ישראל

As I mentioned in my last post, we had our second biblical archeology "field trip" on Thursday, and this time we really started getting into the history (and non-history) of the bible. We focused on Jerusalem and talked a lot about the state of Jerusalem before the Hebrews inhabited the land of Israel and whether and how King David made Jerusalem the capital of the Israelite kingdom.

One of Professor Joel Duman's main points is that it's extremely difficult if not impossible to verify the existence of David and Solomon's "United Kingdom" and even the biblical account of David's siege of Jerusalem is nonsensical language (to such an extent that the author of Chronicles has to reword it). [One version of] our national myth holds that Jerusalem was a powerful Canaanite stronghold (neither the tribe of Judah nor the tribe of Benjamin could take it) that fell to the warrior King David, who selected the site as an independent capital of a newly-united Israel and Judah. There's no archaeological evidence to dispute that account, but neither is there any evidence to support it - and the prevailing notion (from various angles) is that the biblical account is biased and Jerusalem-centric.

On our tours around Jerusalem, then, we had a chance to view firsthand some of the archaeological sites that were the sources for some corroborating and complicated historical evidence. It was fascinating to see the remains of a millennia-old home and to walk through the water tunnels that were so important in Jerusalem's history. At the end of the day, though, we were asked: Does being here make it any more important to you? Does standing along the ramparts of the area that used to be the outer wall of Jerusalem make its previous existence more meaningful? And how much does it affect your theology that historical evidence is hard-pressed to verify everything in the bible (though some accounts are supported with startling accuracy).

To me, I think it's very interesting to learn about ancient Israel and stand in the same place where those lessons originally took place ... but I don't think it affects my theology too much. However, that's not because I'm discounting history but rather because I never really counted history in to begin with. I'm much more concerned with Now than with a mythical Then ... and the Now is just as real whether you base it on a historical, spiritual, or mythical understanding of origins. That is, I feel a connection with other Jews because ... well, because I feel a connection with other Jews. That connection isn't based on a shared history but rather on a mutually-participated-in relationship. Of course, I believe that a place like the Western Wall (or a synagogue or a library, etc.) can facilitate that relationship and draw me closer to other Jews, but the significance of the Kotel to me isn't that it was the outer wall of the Temple but rather that Jews have hallowed it over the centuries and my participation in that hallowing is a performance of my relationship with those Jews.

All that having been said, history is very important to many people here, and I do feel it's important to address and attempt to understand. Do I believe that, based on a historical series of events, the existence of a Jewish state of Israel is justified? I do, and I point to anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust as the primary historical justification for a legal Jewish sanctuary. Do I also believe that, based on a historical series of events, some Jews in Israel have abused their political independence to perpetuate violence on the previous inhabitants of the land (as well as non-physical violence and oppression of all kinds, some of which I've already written about in this blog)? I do, and I point to the miserable condition of many Palestinians (and the strongarming of the religious right in this country) as the primary justification for a necessity of reform.

Now, I like to try to have all my ducks lined up in a row before getting into a conversation about the state and State of the Jewish people today. Are we having a theological/ethical conversation, or are we having a historical/political conversation? It frustrates me when people hastily conflate the two. And here's a perfect case in point.

This morning, I attended Moreshet Yisrael, a Conservative congregation in Jerusalem that mostly serves American Conservative Jews. At first, I didn't like the service because it was what I have come to associate with "standard Conservative." The hazzan would mumble through prayers that most people mumbled to themselves with a page number being announced every once in a while. Not my way to pray. However, after the first part of the service, a woman led us through prayers, and she sang loudly, clearly, and with the rest of the congregation. I loved it. The Torah service was great (the leader had an incredible voice), and the Haftarah was meaningful. And then we got to the sermon.

Rabbi Adam Frank highlighted a very forceful part of this week's Torah portion (Masei). In particular, he focused on these verses:

In the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites, and say to them: When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their figured stones, destroy all their cast images, and demolish all their high places. You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess. You shall apportion the land by lot according to your clans; to a large one you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small one you shall give a small inheritance; the inheritance shall belong to the person on whom the lot falls; according to your ancestral tribes you shall inherit. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides; they shall trouble you in the land where you are settling. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them (Numbers 33:50-56).

Now, nestled snugly and minimally in Rabbi Frank's sermon was the message that Israel has failed in its responsibility to provide for its Arab citizens (never did he use the word "inhabitants" or "residents" when talking about due rights). He did say that certain inequalities need to be addressed by the Israeli government ... but the rest of the sermon focused on the bolded selections above.

More or less, Rabbi Frank affirmed that since God told Moses and the Children of Israel to take the land and destroy anything and anyone who was in the way, then Israel has a right to exist today and to defend itself from its "Enemy." Anything that Israel does to protect its children, its women, its seniors (I'm using the rabbi's language here) is justified because God gave us this land, and if we don't protect it, our Enemy will continue to "trouble" us with attacks. Therefore, we have to remain vigilant in destroying those who would destroy us so that we may remain safe. He quotes Rashi, and claims that he is both prophetic and brilliant in his treatment of Num 33:53: "You shall vacate it of its inhabitants, and then you shall ' settle in it.' Only then will you be able to survive there, but if you do not do this, you will be unable to survive there." According to Rabbi Frank, Rashi knew 1000 years ago that if we don't fight to protect ourselves, we won't be able to live in this land.

Now, naturally, I disagree. Violence begets violence. That's a short and simple sentence, but there's not much that you can add on to it. Is someone being violent to you? If you're violent back, it will beget violence. If you want peace, you need to be peaceful. Eradicating your enemies is not only wrong, but it's ineffective. Not to be crass, but if the Nazis couldn't eliminate the Jews of Europe, what makes anyone believe that we can win the "War on Terror" by killing all the terrorists?

Aside from this point (which is my strongest and yet hardest for most people to understand), there's also the fact that Rabbi Frank is mixing history and theology in a way I believe to be unjustified. He's claiming the Numbers text as historical justification for our being in the land of Israel (which, by the way, is defined geographically ambiguously in this very portion), but simply reading Numbers as history doesn't cut it - not for me, and not for a majority of Jewish tradition.

For example, look at this part of the same parsha:

But anyone who strikes another with an iron object, and death ensues, is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. Or anyone who strikes another with a stone in hand that could cause death, and death ensues, is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. Or anyone who strikes another with a weapon of wood in hand that could cause death, and death ensues, is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. The avenger of blood is the one who shall put the murderer to death; when they meet, the avenger of blood shall execute the sentence. Likewise, if someone pushes another from hatred, or hurls something at another, lying in wait, and death ensues, or in enmity strikes another with the hand, and death ensues, then the one who struck the blow shall be put to death; that person is a murderer; the avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when they meet. ... These things shall be a statute and ordinance for you throughout your generations wherever you live (Numbers 35:16-21, 29).

Just as the earlier verses appear clearly to enumerate God's wish that the People of Israel annihilate their enemies in the land of Israel, so too do these verses seem to advocate for capital punishment for murderers. However, in the Talmud, so many restrictions are added on to the topic that capital punishment is virtually impossible. This article explains clearly and succinctly the thought processes behind the rabbis' treatment of the death penalty; I'll quote only a few particularly apt points here:

"It is ruled that two witnesses are required to testify not only that they witnessed the act for which the criminal has been charged but that they had warned him beforehand that if he carried out the act he would be executed, and he had to accept the warning, stating his willingness to commit the act despite his awareness of its consequences. The criminal's own confession is not accepted as evidence. Moreover, circumstantial evidence is not admitted."

"Who would commit a murder in the presence of two witnesses when these had solemnly warned him that if he persisted they would testify against him to have him executed for his crime?"

"A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: even once in seventy years. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon say: had we been in the Sanhedrin none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says: they would have multiplied shedders of blood in Israel" (Misnah Makkot 1:10).

This clearly shows that traditionally, these verses of Masei, which are "a statute and ordinance for you throughout your generations wherever you live," are considered inappropriate for decent human relations and are therefore curtailed from ever being practiced.

Therefore, Rabbi Frank's quoting Rashi about dispossessing the original inhabitants of the Land of Israel just doesn't justify imposing the death penalty on Israel's enemies. I believe that the Torah is a guide in every sense and can shed light on mysteries of history ... but it is not a history book as we have come to be accustomed to them. It cannot be relied upon as a proof-text for our self-governance in this land, and it certainly shouldn't be cited in defense of life-taking violence.

So, I suppose all I have to say in conclusion is that I'm looking forward to the opportunity when I'll have a chance to write a sermon about Masei.


Jeff H. said...

The complicated relationship of American liberals and reform Jews to the state of Israel and to traditional biblical teachings gets in the way of feeling the "weight of history" in Jerusalem; at least, that's what I felt when I was there. One part of me wanted to say "yes," but there was always this other part of me that was saying "yes, but." I did feel very powerfully the weight of OTHERS' belief, both at the Kotel and at the Via Dolorosa.

Jeff H. said...

By the way, I wrote a comment on your Sexism post, but it seems to have gotten lost in the ether. (Some Blogspot sign-in trouble.) The gist of my thought was that your attitude in attending sexist services might need to be similar to that you recommend to the Haredi who ride mixed buses. That is: Know your own values. Then deal.

To me, the issue is similar to that of whether to visit theocratic Iran, authoritarian China, or totalitarian North Korea. The opportunities are too good to pass up, and very worthwhile, as long as you are confident in your own beliefs (or are willing to reexamine them in light of new evidence).

Daniel said...

You make an interesting point about holding myself to my own standard re: visiting an orthodox service. I hadn't thought of it that way.

Megan/Ninja said...

Jeff H: This is just my two cents:

In general, I think it is easier, especially when one is not a member of the group being oppressed, to say that "I am not sexist/racist/classist/etc, but this is just the culture, and I should respect where I am and deal." Which is fine, I guess, if you are visiting for a day, a week, or even a month.

However, if one is truly living in a place, and if the culture has any sort of claim to propagating any sort of injustice, I think it is always better and nobler to actively engage in any subversive undermining of the injustice at hand than to shrug ones shoulders.

The best example I can think of is a Canadian woman, Irshad Manji, who is one of the few North American Muslims to truly address Middle Eastern and Muslim sexism in a straightforward way, without excusing it as a cultural difference. Sexism, racism, classism - all types of prejudice are not things that should be protected by the blanket idea of culture. In the west, America, etc we too have a culture. Should we throw up our hands to violence or elitism or whatever the injustice du jour may be and say "That is just American culture?" I would always say no, because as an American I feel it is my responsibility to fight to make our country a better place.

Similarly, as a Jew, I feel that it is too easy to excuse veiled services, stricter dress codes, and restriction for females praying at the Western Wall as just a culture difference. But unless Jews who actively disagree with this voice their opinion it is unlikely to ever change.

I am not well versed enough in Israeli Orthodox customs to know how most Orthodox women feel about this—in fact, I haven’t yet visited Israel—but as a Jewish women I am angered at the knowledge that my experiences in Israel will, simply because of my gender, be markedly different than that of a man.

It is my belief that violations to human justice should always be addressed; We are more of a global village than anything, and I don't feel I could ever visit a "totalitarian North Korea" and simply gloss the ugly parts for a "great opportunity."

I am not trying to implicate anyone of sexism or prejudice, just throwing this out there as I found the idea of “just dealing” extremely jarring. Personally, I think the last acceptable thing for a socially conscious person to ever do is "deal."

Megan said...

Also, this was from a month ago I just realized that - lol, I couldn't remember the host for your blog so I googled it from my friends comp and clicked it

So yeah, old news.