A slow Shabbat
This week's portion: apart

On divisions in the J-blogosphere, and President Obama's Cairo speech

1. About Haveil Havalim

Most weeks I try to submit something to Haveil Havalim, the Jewish blog carnival. (I hosted Haveil Havalim #36 back in 2005; it's been ongoing since 2004.) It's always interesting to see what is happening in certain corners of the Jewish blogosphere.

I say "certain corners" because it has always seemed to me that Haveil Havalim skews to the right. The Jewish blogs that I read -- Jewschool, South Jerusalem, A Big Jewish Blog, Judaism Without Borders, Mah Rabu, On Chanting, Every Day and Every Night, The Jew and the Carrot, Sustainable Judaism, JSpot, Shalom Rav, Rabbis for Human Rights North America -- don't tend to be represented there. The blog carnival is opt-in only; I guess progressive Jewish thinkers don't tend to submit posts. I don't know why that is: do progressive J-bloggers not know that the carnival is there? Do we not feel represented by it, and therefore not feel inclined to join in? Do we feel awkward about self-promotion? Do we feel uncomfortable expressing our political views in a space which tends not to include the voices of progressive Jews? (That last resonates for me. I only rarely submit political posts to the carnival; mostly I submit Torah posts, because those seem less likely to spark confrontation.)

Anyway, the most recent edition, hosted by Esser Agaroth, dedicated a whole section to "The Big Speech" -- President Obama's recent remarks in Cairo -- which made me realize again that I'm coming from a very different place than the majority of the folks who submit their material to Havel Havalim. Ben Yehuda framed this section of the carnival by comparing the President to Pee-Wee Herman, and suggesting that Pee-Wee knew more about his chosen subject than President Obama does about his. As I browsed the links in that section of the post, I was amazed by how foreign I found most of the responses to the President's speech. Our perspectives differ so strongly that we don't seem to have heard the same words. 

2. The President's remarks

There's much in this speech that I admire. First and foremost, this stance:

There must be a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground. As the Holy Koran tells us, "Be conscious of God and speak always the truth."

Seeking common ground is a guiding principle in both my religious and my secular life. I count it as one of my strongest spiritual values. It was one of the founding principles behind the first (and, alas, to date only) Progressive Faith Blog Con back in 2006. It's also one of the central axioms of my transdenominational rabbinic school, which is founded on principles of respect both between the branches of Judaism (my fellow students, and my teachers, come from backgrounds ranging from Orthodox to Reform) and between Judaism and the other religious traditions with which we share this planet. Reb Zalman teaches that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of humanity: we need each one to be what it uniquely is, and we also need each one to be in dialogue and healthy communication with the others.

The desire to learn from one another and to find common ground with one another is central to my life as a reader, my life as a writer, and my life as a religious Jew. (By the way, for more context on the quote from the Qur'an, I recommend Updated: A Response to President Obama’s Speech in Cairo, an essay by my friend Hussein Rashid which offers a close reading of the speech from a devout Muslim point of view.)

Time and again I heard President Obama arguing that the important work of transforming the world must be done from both sides of our various divides. I appreciate the President's insistence that there is work to be done on both sides: that Americans must fight against negative stereotypes of Islam, and that Muslims must resist negative stereotypes of America. And I heard similar rhetoric at work in his remarks about Israel and the Palestinians:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust. Tomorrow, I will visit Buchenwald, which was part of a network of camps where Jews were enslaved, tortured, shot and gassed to death by the Third Reich. Six million Jews were killed -- more than the entire Jewish population of Israel today. Denying that fact is baseless, it is ignorant, and it is hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction -- or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews -- is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they've endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations -- large and small -- that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For decades then, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It's easy to point fingers -- for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought about by Israel's founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

"But if we see the conflict only from one side or the other" -- in my experience that is exactly what most people do. I admire the President's insistence that each side must learn to see the story through the other's eyes and that each side must do what is necessary to bring the conflict to an end.

I heard President Obama insist that the Palestinians must turn away from violence, and focus on building a new future. Hamas must recognize Israel's right to exist, and Israel must recognize Palestine's. The Israelis must turn away from the policy of building settlements which carve any possible Palestinian state into a block of Swiss cheese (for more on this, read about my day with ICAHD last summer), and must end the humanitarian crisis in Gaza (read B'tselem reports on the situation in Gaza). How remarkable it is for me to hear an American president making assertions like these which resonate with my own understanding and ideals.

I know that there are those on each side who feel that the speech was dissatisfying because it didn't offer them the vindication they had hoped for. There are those on each side who don't want to face the reality that the "other side" has endured suffering, or that their own side might be culpable in co-creating the disastrous situation which has become the status quo. But both sides are culpable, and both sides must do the work of creating a new way of relating to one another. I see the President's remarks as a call to genuine change...may it come speedily and in our days.

I know there are many -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- who question whether we can forge this new beginning. Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress. Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort -- that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur. There's so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years. But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward. And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country -- you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.

"If we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward." In my understanding of my religious tradition, Judaism calls me to believe that we are capable of moving forward and that transformation of the broken world is not only possible but necessary. The President closed his speech by urging young people of every faith to understand that we have the ability to remake the world: is it any wonder that I feel as though this speech spoke personally to me? President Obama closed with three quotes from scripture:

The Holy Koran tells us: "O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."

The Talmud tells us: "The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace."

The Holy Bible tells us: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

The parallelism between the three scriptures implies a universalism which makes my ecumenical heart sing. I deeply appreciate this highlighting of the common ground between the three Abrahamic traditions. I'm delighted to be represented by a President whose stances are so near my own.

3. For the sake of heaven?

On a more internal note: I'm fascinated and pleased that the President chose to draw on Talmud rather than on the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) in those closing lines of his remarks. It takes a nuanced understanding of Judaism to recognize the centrality of Talmud in Jewish life and thought. The Talmud is the beginning of the process of rabbinic Judaism, which reinterprets and reframes Torah teachings through the changing lenses of changing circumstance and understanding. Talmud is considered Oral Torah, which means that the continuing conversations of the rabbis and sages are seen as themselves part of what was handed down at Sinai. In the understanding to which I subscribe, even our contributions to the ongoing conversation may be holy.

It is the nature of Talmud to present opposing arguments side-by-side. As long as the mahloket (controversy) is l'shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), then the argument itself is where God may be found. In the President's decision to draw on Talmud to close his speech, I see an awareness of Jewish text which makes my rabbinic heart happy indeed.

But I wonder: what would it mean for our disagreements about the speech and its implications to be for the sake of heaven? Do we, across the Jewish blogosphere, have the ahavat Yisrael (love of our community) required to be able to respond with grace and generosity to one another's wildly divergent opinions on this...or does the existing polarization of the J-blogosphere suggest that we don't (yet) have what it takes to seek common ground?

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