Saturday, August 21, 2010

Body Versus Soul

Last week, I returned from Israel and have some thoughts about what I saw and the direction in which the country is going.  It was a trip of great contrasts.  I traveled with 17 ministers and rabbis on a JCRC study tour.  (If you want to learn more about the trip you can read its blog at We toured the Christian holy sites, examine the political and historical aspects of the country and talked a lot about the competing narratives that impede the development of the state of Israel.  Not that it's not developing but imagine what state would be like if it were able to achieve peace with its neighbors.

This post is dedicated to my friend Ari Alexenberg who left JCRC on Friday.  Ari worked since 2008 as the director of the Israel Action Center.  We often discussed trends in the Jewish community as well as Israel.  Last week as he was wrapping up our time together we talked about the root causes of the internal conflict within the Jewish community between our right and left wings.  He described this as a conflict between body and soul – the right being so concerned with our physical security, "the body", that it is willing to sacrifice the ethics of the "soul".  On other hand, the left is so concerned about ethical dilemmas that it overlooks the fact that one cannot have an ethical state when security is constantly at risk.  This of course, is a simplistic view of this complex internal conflict.  If you talk with people on our right or on our left they would argue that one must emphasize one of these concerns or otherwise you wind up with nothing.
While in Israel 2 weeks ago, I had a lot of opportunity to think about this.  We talked with people who represent these 2 approaches – albeit not from the extreme sides of the equation.  What I heard, for the most part, was a basic understanding of the trade-offs that are being made.

I believe that Israel will never have peace until it solves this very important existential conflict within its own community.  That having been said, I believe that there always will be – and should be – tension between these viewpoints.  Without it, I believe the intellectual and moral dilemmas that are being faced will not be adequately addressed.

However something else is of great concern these days.  Throughout the trip, one of our rabbis continually raised the issue of the recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism in Israel.  While, in my view, it probably wasn't the best time to raise this issue – given that we were on a trip with non-Jewish clergy – it was on my mind as well as we listened to Israelis, read the press and absorbed what was going around us.  In the time period close to when we were there a woman was arrested at the Western Wall for carrying a Torah.  In addition, I heard several stories about people who are having difficulty marrying in Israel because of issues of personal status including being questioned about their parents and grandparents wedding ceremonies.  Some were even asked for the marriage contract of their parents and grandparents and were told that without them they would not be permitted to be married by Israel's chief rabbinate. 

However last night really took the cake.  I had a wonderful dinner with some close friends who were celebrating their wedding anniversary.  Around the Shabbat table we sang a great deal.  And for those of you who know me personally, you know that this is one of my great joys in life – singing the Shabbat songs on a Friday night on a Saturday afternoon.  I believe that it is one of the reasons that I've stay connected to Jewish life for all of these years.  Clearly, I have many questions about ritual and adherence to Jewish law.  However my connection to the music and the ancient songs touches me in a way that I can't really describe.  I guess it is about as close as I get to a spiritual experience – as hard as it is for me to admit that.

During dinner I discovered that the twentysomething son of my friends' guests attended the same yeshiva in.  Israel that I did.  Even though he attended 20 years later than I did, I felt a kinship with the young man. As alumni of the same institution we knew many of the same songs and I listened to him saying and in some ways heard my own voice.  After dinner we had a chance to talk and I found out that his experience in the school was not as good as mine had been.  While I've heard that it moved significantly to the right after I left, I never imagined that I would hear what I heard.  Apparently, during the time that he was there some of the students found a box of prayer books from the conservative movement at the Western Wall.  They took them and asked their Rabbi if it was permissible to dispose of the books since they included the name of God.  To my horror he told them that it would be permissible to burn the books, and they did.

Something in me died at that moment.  Having just visited Yad Vashem and seeing the video of Nazis burning Jewish books I couldn't help but be disgusted and shocked and deeply saddened.  The Rabbi that made this ruling was someone that I had almost a transcendent respect for – even all these years later.  In my view he was a pious man.  During my 2 years at the school I spent many hours sitting in the front row absorbing his teaching, hours at his table in extracurricular study and was even invited to his Passover Seder.  Ironically, I chose not to attend that Seder because at that time, unbeknownst to my teachers, I was dating a conservative girl and chose to go to the Seder with her and a number of her friends.

I was very happy to hear that this young man left the school a short time after this incident happened.  Having been raised correctly – in my humble view – he could not abide being in a place where people so brazenly used their religion in an immoral way, devoid of open-mindedness, and appreciation for what's right and, even if they felt that it was somehow justifiable to act in this way, willing the ignore our tragic history.

To me, this embodies the ultimate desecration of the soul for the body. Or, as my Christian friends might say, the substitution of the letter of the law for the spirit of the law.  These people apparently believe that adherence to ideological purity is so important that it justifies the denigration of others and the most horrific of actions.  To me, burning a book is pretty much tantamount to burning a person.  I believe that there is some aphorism or quote from a famous person that says something to that effect.

Sometimes when I'm in Israel I struggle about whether or not to wear my kippah.  I don't want to be lumped in with these folks.  I don't want people to think of me as intolerant, or boorish, or extremist.  But yet, this is where I come from.

I'm not sure where to go with this at this point. But as I approach the high holidays with my own sense of introspection I can't help but hope that some of these people – particularly the Rabbi – thought about their actions in advance of the holidays that year and knew somewhere in their hearts that what they had done was terribly wrong - a desecration of God's name.

Because of stories like this, the arrest of the woman at the wall, the refusal of Israel's rabbinic establishment to recognize liberal branches of Judaism, and this terrifying anecdote about horrible and amoral actions, I return to my search for the sensible center. 

On Tisha b'Av – the Jewish day of national mourning – we read a poem that begins: "for these things I cry out" – these are the things I cry out about.  I hope someone is listening.


  1. Thank you Alan for contributing powerfully to my entrance into a season of reflection. Your courage to make these observations publicly speaks to the depth of your convictions but also of your character. Both MLK and Jack from "Lost" (and surely the Rabbis too) said we learn to live together or die alone. There tends to be trite consensus on this wisdom but sharp divergence on what the definitions are of "we" "learn" "live" "together" "die" and "alone" are. Thanks for using the privilege of your leadership position to challenge us and for using the depth of your personal experience to move us toward deepening our own.

  2. As the daughter of a Conservative rabbi, I'm utterly disgusted by this story. But unfortunately as a graduate of an Orthodox day school (which has also continued to move to the right)I'm not as shocked as I wish. (though still - burning Jewish books? with God's name? How can anyone in his/her right mind not see that act as a fundamental chilul...)


About Me

Brookline, MA, United States
Thought provoking discussion or musings of a kid from the other side of the tracks...