As I look out on the world from my vantage point in relatively safe and protected Teaneck, I am often reminded of these lines by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the worldâ€¦”
Here, in the United States, we seem less united than at any time since the Civil War. In much of the Arab world internal sectarianisms and a return to tribalism seem to hold sway. Within the Jewish world we seem to have splintered into ever smaller, more closely defined, exclusive and exclusionary fragments. Even in Teaneck, we are deeply factionalized.
In Teaneck, in the Jewish world, in the American world, in the world as a whole, we seem to inhabit separate bubbles, socializing and exchanging ideas only with those who are like-minded. When we do venture beyond our comfort zone it is all too often to speak, rather than to listen.
Let me start with a mea culpa. Most of my news comes through my daily, usually quick, perusal of the New York Times and Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily that serves as my browser home page; most often they confirm my perspectives. Seldom, if ever, do I venture as far afield as ynet; never to the New York Post. Most of my friends and family members occupy bubbles similar to mine. As for the ones who don’t – and some of them are among my nearest and dearest – I generally avoid the issues that divide us. Life and love are more important than ideology.
In her poem “Bubble of Air,” the American Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser lists woman, American, and Jew as her “three lions of heritage.” Let’s avoid the divisive question of ordering and assume that the three are equal, constituting the three legs of her unshakeable foundation. Would they suffice to define my heritage? Would I not have to say something like egalitarian, right-wing Conservative, Zionist Jew, left-leaning Democratic American liberal, and second-wave feminist woman? It’s analogous to the way that the nine-digit zip code narrows the scope of our addresses.
It was a chance encounter on the eve of Thanksgiving with the mashgiach [kosher supervisor] at a local supermarket that set me thinking along these lines again. The conversation took an unexpected turn to the place of that holiday in the American Jewish calendar. After we touched on some menu issues, he said that as he had moved to greater levels of Jewish observance, he stopped observing Thanksgiving because it is not a sacred Jewish festival. For me, on the other hand, Thanksgiving always has been a day on the American civil calendar that reflects Jewish values, including gratitude or hakarat hatov. It is a day that honors our connection to our country, which welcomes Jews into its highest levels of authority and outlaws discrimination on the basis of religion.
Growing up in Boston, I felt a special connection to early American history and Boston’s prominent role in it. We felt part of that history, despite the fact that our grandparents had all immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe – one set had even been chalutzim in Palestine on the way. There were parts of America that felt distinctly “other” to me. Hearing Cardinal Cushing intone the Lord’s Prayer on the radio every morning when I had to get up early to check the “no school announcements” was “other.” Christmas was the ultimate “other.” Thanksgiving was mine, as clearly as the ride to Aunt Yetta and Uncle Al’s to join with our father’s family for the occasion. “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go” – really aunt and uncle’s. “The horse” – really a Plymouth – “knows the way to carry the sleighâ€¦”. Indeed the way was often beautiful, covered with “white and drifted snow.” And how could anything be more Jewish than “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessingâ€¦”? I really wanted to ask the mashgiach whether his disconnect from America would also prevent him from voting, receiving Social Security, and so on – but the hour was late.
This seasonal concern was overshadowed by the news from Israel. As I write these words, the Israeli government seems to be further alienating centrist Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews – both in Israel and beyond – by refusing to rescind a law punishing any rabbi who is not approved by the chief rabbinate and performs a wedding in Israel, along with the bride and groom, with a two-year prison sentence. Only weddings whose officiant is an agent of the chief rabbinate are legal under Israeli law. Many Israeli Jews who resent the chief rabbinate, for a multitude of reasons, get married elsewhere in a civil ceremony, which is accepted in Israel. Some of them also have a Jewish wedding with an officiant who is not under the aegis of the chief rabbinate.
Of course, many Jews of all denominational persuasions are deeply disturbed by the ever-expanding settlements in the West Bank, as well as by the way that Israeli Arabs are treated. For many of us, by undermining a two-state solution, those policies jeopardize, rather than strengthen, Israel. Israel’s increasing isolation in the world community also is a threat to its future. Further, the stereotyping racist epithets applied to Arabs and Muslims both here and in Israel threaten to erase the tselem, the very image of God, in which all humans are created.
My thankfulness for the many blessings we share pushes me to think about whether things could be different.
Not so many years ago Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood had the courage to reach out both within his Orthodox movement and to the Conservative and Reform movements to convene a tri-alogue group called Shvil Hazahav, the golden mean. We met on a fairly regular basis for a number of years, building the trust that enabled us to tackle some of the hard issues that divide Jews. It was a small group – fewer than 20 participants, chosen by each of the three coordinators. I was privileged to coordinate the Conservative group. Our goal was not to resolve our differences, but to respect them, to listen to other positions, and freely ask enough questions to understand them. We engaged tough issues, including conversion and prayer at the Western Wall. For those who participated it was also an opportunity to develop relationships. It was a wonderful experience.
Suppose we were able to do that, both here and in Israel. To establish small groups to explore the issues that divide Jews, the issues that separate Muslims and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, African-Americans and Jews here in Teaneck, Democrats and Republicans – the list could go on and on. When those who hold intensely different positions do not communicate with respect, the results are clear – they often communicate with violence. Is there a downside to trying to stand united, not by unanimity, but by mutual respect? Would that we were willing to take that chance; we might have something else to be thankful for.