On taharah before cremation
Welcome your extra soul, and irrigate the thirsty world

The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and

OldcityI always try to hold on to the both/and. To see things from both sides. To celebrate what is wonderful without ignoring what's problematic: in Torah, in the literary sources I read, in my relationships, in my life. This is one of my central life-values. And I also try to live out this value when it comes to the contemporary Middle East.

"Which Israel?" wrote my friend and teacher Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan earlier this winter [see Which Israel?, On Sophia Street.] "Mediterranean get-away? Holy land? Zionist dream? Occupying power?" My simplest answer to her rhetorical question is: E) All of the Above.

How to describe this place which has such a profound hold on the American Jewish imagination?

The Israel of lofty ideals [see its Declaration of Independence] and beautiful music, of open-air markets and communal farms, where our holy language of prayer is revived on the modern streets, where people live according to Jewish rhythms, gathering to share coffee and dreams for a transformed future?

2641379402_2b16d4ac47_nOr the Israel of violence toward African migrants, imprisonment of refugees [see Detained African asylum seekers in Israel, +972 magazine], occupation [see Reason #12,807 that I hate the occupation, In My Head] and separation barrier and checkpoints?

Most of the public discourse focuses on one of these visions, ignoring (or attempting to discredit) the other.

I'm always feeling at least two things when I think about Israel. This is why I assembled that Complicating Israel Reading List a few years ago. Trying to hold these contradictory truths in my head and heart is never easy, but the alternative -- choosing to view Israel only as good or only as evil -- seems insufficient to me on both intellectual and spiritual levels.

It is tempting for some American Jews, when thinking of Israel, to see only the good. The regal beauty of the Negev desert, Jerusalem's limestone pinked by sunset light, Tel Aviv's cosmopolitan beaches and night life [see Tel Aviv declared world's best gay destination, Ha'aretz]. Extraordinary water-saving agricultural practices [see Kibbutz Lotan]. Glorious new liturgical music [see Nava Tehila]. Pioneering social justice work which aims to protect and uphold the rights of those on the margins. [See NIF: The Social Justice Fund.] For two thousand years our liturgy spoke of the yearning for Jerusalem, and now Hebrew flows once again in those ancient streets -- who could fail to rejoice?

MarketIt is tempting for others to see only the bad. The pernicious system of checkpoints [see מחסום Watch] and the system of privilege which allows some people to move freely while others cannot [see Queue Jumping, Bethlehem Blogger], the practice of home demolitions and the separation wall which often divides Palestinian villages, Palestinian children rousted from their beds at night [see Detained: Testimonies from Palestinian Children Imprisoned by Israel, +972 Magazine.]

Both of these visions of Israel are true. Neither of them contains the whole picture. I believe that a mature relationship with this place requires me to hold these competing truths in balance.

When I am fortunate enough to be able to travel to the Middle East (and when I'm at home, reading blogs and newspapers as widely as I can) I try to stay open to the tension between these truths. I try to remember that the reality is always more nuanced, more beautiful and more painful, more complicated, than any of the easy stories anyone wants to tell.

What this means for me in practice is that I'm always thinking "yes, but..." I read one friend's account of an amazing sojourn of hiking and prayer and community, and I think yes, but don't forget the occupation. I read another friend's account of a harrowing sojourn as a witness to injustice, and I think yes, but don't forget the beauty of the dream fulfilled.

SunsetEarly in this post I linked to my short essay about loving something while acknowledging what's problematic about it. That can be a difficult tension to maintain, but I think it is among my most valuable spiritual practices. Holding on to my love for something even as I recognize its serious flaws. Not allowing the flaws to erase the love; not allowing the love to cover over the flaws.

I'm not interested in the simplistic narratives which make either side (Israel or the Palestinians) into a persecuted innocent or a pariah with no conscience. I'm far more interested in the ideal of "resilient listening," which allows a person and/or a community to live with tension and to hold multiple perspectives at the same time. [See the communication guidelines at Encounter.] This is hard work. It's rarely comfortable. And I think it's vitally important.

I recognize that this is a position of privilege. For those whose children wake crying in the night (in fear of Palestinian rocket attacks and suicide bombings, or in fear of Israeli shelling, arrest, interrogation practices), what I aspire toward may sound impossible or naïve (or both.) I come to this as a Diaspora Jew, from the safe distance (usually) of thousands of miles. And yet, I truly believe that learning to live out this nuanced balancing act matters.

2699288340_d80d284774_nI believe that learning to hold conflicting truths in tension is part of how we grow as spiritual beings. On the Israel front, for most of the people I work with, that means learning to see (and then work toward healing) Israel's flaws and injustices alongside the rosy vision we were reared to cherish. For others, it means learning to see (and then work toward celebrating) Israel's ideals and beauty alongside the mistrust and anger they already carry.

When you love someone, it's easy to see only the best in them. Conversely, when you dislike someone, it's easy to see only the worst in them. I know that it's not easy to choose to complicate one's understanding of Israel in the ways I'm suggesting. (It's also hard for many rabbis to suggest doing so -- see A Third of Rabbis Afraid To Speak Honestly About Israel, The Jewish Week -- or for a more heartfelt and personal take, my Rabbis Without Borders colleague Rabbi Justin Goldstein's The Status Quo Is We Don't Speak About the Status Quo, Sh'ma.) But I think that making our sense of Israel more nuanced and complicated is spiritually worthwhile, no matter what our existing views.

2715162042_e1f0ff4069_nI believe that Israel is beautiful and extraordinary -- and also in ardent need of increased justice and transformation. And: I know that one of my challenges as a rabbi is creating a container which can lovingly hold people who aren't, or aren't yet, able to wholly follow me into this balancing act. To invite those people into the spiritual work of discerning: why am I comfortable seeing this side, but not comfortable acknowledging that side? What is it in me that pushes back against that other perspective? What am I afraid will happen if I allow my perspective to be complicated?

Sometimes saying "it's complicated" can be a way of papering over uncomfortable tensions. [See "Jerusalem is Palestine" and other reasons why I love Israel, The Jerusalem Post.] Saying "it's complicated" isn't an endpoint to the conversation or to the work which needs doing. But (especially for American Jews) I think there's value in moving beyond either/or into the tension of multiple perspectives. Israel is always this and. Beautiful and flawed. Problematic and worthy of love. For many of us, this is a difficult spiritual wrestling match to take on. But that wrestling is the central act for which our patriarch Jacob, and our entire religious community, and for that matter also this nation-state, are named.


All photos are my own: Old City; separation wall; market; sun setting; hospitality; valley of the gazelles. Most links in this post go to my own posts from earlier months and years; links to other websites are so noted, in square brackets.

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