December 2010


Greetings from Emek Refaim, the main drag in South Jerusalem. I’m camped out here for a few days doing doctoral research and meeting up with former students and current friends and colleagues.

Avigdor Lieberman & Ted Kennedy:

Who are two people you wouldn't think to put in the same sentence?

The big news in Israeli politics right now is the showdown taking place between two parties in the governing coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. (Haaretz version here, Jerusalem Post verion here.) Yisrael Beiteinu is the party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose core constituency is Russian immigrants. The party was at the heart of the big conversion debate last summer. Its general aim in this arena has been to create ways for the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who are not recognized as Jewish according to halakha (traditional Jewish law) to become halakhically Jewish.

The current debate is over a bill submitted by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem that would grant government recognition to conversions performed by rabbinate of the Israel Defense Forces, independent of review by the Chief Rabbinate. The IDF has engaged in a Jewish education campaign for the last decade or so, and thousands of soldiers have undergone halakhic conversions as part of it. Yet the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has largely reacted to this process as it has to other conversion processes that have been taking place outside the auspices of the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate: by questioning or dismissing their legitimacy.

Yisrael Beiteinu has decided to make this its fight, and has threatened to withdraw from the coalition unless the bill comes up for a vote. Shas, the sometimes pragmatic, Sephardic-Haredi party, has objected, siding with the Chief Rabbinate, and threatening to withdraw from the coalition if the bill goes through. The cabinet is set to debate the bill on Wednesday.

In talking through the situation today over coffee with a former student, it occurred to me that the debate here bears some striking parallels with the discussion in the U.S. right now about the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who serve in the army or go to college. The situation of many Russian immigrants in Israel is roughly analgous to that of illegal immigrants in the U.S.–they have grown up in Israel, speak Hebrew, and fight and die for the Israeli army. And yet they are not recognized as Jewish by the state of Israel for the purposes of marriage and burial. In both cases, the proponents of the bills are motivated by a desire for tikkun olam in its most original sense, that of rectifying an inequity in the law. And the message in both bills is the same: if you serve your country, if you become a contributing member of society, we want to find a way to include you.

What is most striking to me about this, however, is that those who promote the DREAM act in the U.S. tend to be on the left. Yet those same lefty Jews would never be caught dead in ideological bed with Avigdor Lieberman, who on foreign policy and defense issues is more hawkish than Prime Minister Netanyahu. But such is the complexity of life in Israel that the equivalent of Dick Cheney on military matters is a parallel to Ted Kennedy on this particular issue of civil rights.

Earlier this week I was privileged to host a retreat of 16 Jewish educators and two master teachers from beyond the Jewish community, Parker Palmer and Marcy Jackson. Parker has spent the better part of the last 40 years writing, speaking, and teaching about issues of education, particularly the inner life of the teacher. He and Marcy co-founded the Center for Courage and Renewal, which has trained nearly 200 facilitators and 35,000 participants in methods of uncovering and recovering our “inner teachers,” the still, small voice of truth within.

There are more things than I can say in a blog post about what transpired and what happened. Some of us knew each other before this gathering, but even I–the organizer–was close with only a few of the participants. Yet over two days sitting in a circle, reading poems, sitting in silence, and speaking openly and honestly with each other, we enabled one another to be transformed.

In choosing the dates for this gathering, we followed the lead of Parker and Marcy. It turned out the best dates for them were November 30-December 1, meaning that our gathering concluded just as Hannukah began. And so, after sitting quietly in our closing circle, offering up our sense of gratitude with a spirit of renewed integrity, we took the candle that had been burning in the middle of the circle and used it to light a shamash, the helper candle that lights the actual lights of Hannukah. We sang the blessings, and we spontaneously broke into song and dancing.

It was a remarkable moment. For at its root, Hannukah is about the purity of Jewish life. It is about the struggle to maintain a unique language and culture within a globalizing movement that seeks to eliminate difference. In its origins, Hannukah is a violent holiday, commemorating a war. Yet here we were, a group of educated and committed Jews, who enabled ourselves to be held by and learn from our rebbeim and chaverim, our teachers and friends, from another tradition. And it was completely right, it was shalem (complete), and it was shalom.

The symbol and perhaps the essence of Hannukah is light–fragile, gentle, and yet immensely powerful, capable of both great good and great harm. Ner Adonai nishmat adam – “The lamp of God is the soul of man” (Proverbs 20:27). The soul, the inner teacher, is the lamp of God.

The laws of Hannukah state that the Hannukah lights are not to be used in any way–we are only allowed to look at them. We have to honor their integrity, to give them the space to be uniquely them. And yet we know that in this real world we inhabit, nothing truly exists in isolation. And so, brilliantly, we light the shamash, the helper candle–a candle that enables the Hannukah candles to maintain their integrity and uniqueness while mixing with light that can be used.

Like the lights of Hannukah, our souls need helpers, our souls need a shamash. We need people and environments where we can hear our souls. It is possible, as the last two days remind me. It is not in heaven, it is not beyond the sea. But it is hard work, and it is miraculous.

Hannukah Sameach – Happy Hannukah.