Happy Hanukkah! Components of a Religious “Package”

This week I had two remarkably similar conversations, one about Judaism and one about Buddhism, which revolved around the ingredients of religious identity. The first conversation came about when my Modern Jewish Thought class (taught by the one and only Sam Shonkoff) used traditional havruta study methods to study an unusual text: sections 48-49 of the Brandeis Center lawsuit I mentioned here. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

  1. The Jewish people share not only religious laws and traditions, but also a deep
    historical sense of Jewish peoplehood. The Jewish people’s history, theology, and culture are
    deeply intertwined with the land of Israel, the birthplace of Jewish religion and culture, and the
    place to which Jews have expressly yearned to return across centuries of forced diaspora.
    Throughout millennia of exile and persecution, the Jewish people have continued to recognize
    Jerusalem (also known as “Zion”) and the land of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland. To this
    day, Jews pray facing toward Jerusalem. The Jewish calendar, Jewish life cycle events, Jewish
    law, and Jewish prayer reflect the deep historic and ancestral connection of the Jewish people to
    the land of Israel. For example, more than half of the 613 commandments included in the
    Pentateuch relate to, and can only be fulfilled in, the land of Israel. YOTAV ELIACH, JUDAISM,
    ZIONISM AND THE LAND OF ISRAEL 5-6 (2018).
  2. For most Jews, Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Jewish Sabbath
    or maintaining a kosher diet. Of course, not all Jews observe the Sabbath or keep kosher, but
    those who do clearly are expressing critical components of their Jewish identity. Similarly, not all Jews are Zionists, but for those who are, the connection to the Jewish state is integral to their Jewish identity.

There is a lot to unpack here, first among which is the question whether Zionism is part of the Jewish religion or part of Jewish peoplehood or part of something else. Paragraph 49 seems to package Zionism alongside Shabbat and kashrut, and parts of Paragraph 48 tie Zionism to Israel-related mitzvot. But the beginning of Paragraph 48 suggest that, even for non-religious Jews, Zionism is a fundamental part of their identity–if they are Zionist. Which leaves me and, I assume, others, with the question: are there some things that are essential to every Jew’s Jewish identity? It looks like the assorted ingredients change from person to person: a secular Israeli might be completely alienated from Shabbat, mitzvot, kashrut, and all that jazz (perhaps through bitterness over the religious orthodoxy) but has strong ties to Israel and familial heritage. A convert to Judaism as a consequence of marrying a Jew might live in Atlanta or Paris, have no relationship with Israel whatsoever, but has a deliberate commitment to the faith through its intentional adoption. A member of a New York Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva might or might not have a link to Israel but does have the heritage and orthodoxy tie. Is there any ingredient of this package that seems to be at the core of Judaism for all these people? Strip away all the components that any one person might have and others don’t, and what’s left? Judaism becomes elusive and slips through your fingers.

We had a similar conversation today in my Buddhism in the West class, taught by the incomparable Scott Mitchell. Throughout the semester, a big part of what we did was collapse categories often assumed by people about Buddhism, some of which involved a taxonomy of Buddhisms that distinguishes between “Asian Buddhism” (assumed to have been imported from its countries of origins and thus supposedly pure/unspoiled) versus “convert Buddhism” (assumed to reflect modern sensibilities and be practiced by white people, who focus on what the Buddha taught on the basis of a canon of classical texts without “ethnic trappings” like chanting or making offerings). As Natalie Quli argues,

I suggest that, by beginning with an essentialized Asian Buddhist “tradition,” many scholars have become preoccupied with protecting authentic, “traditional” Asian Buddhism from the contamination of Western-influenced “Buddhist modernism.” This simplistic model of Asian versus Western, traditional versus modernist, repeats the stereotype of a passive Asian and an active Westerner, perpetuating the researcher’s inclination to “save” Asian (and by extension, Asian American) Buddhism from the West. Others have used this dichotomy of the passive Asian/modernist Westerner to promote a new, supposedly “culture-free” form of Buddhism in the West that is unlike the traditional, conservative Asian Buddhism against which they paint it.

To more deeply understand Buddhists in the global ecumene, we must abandon nostalgic notions of “pure” cultures and traditions and recognize the presence of multiple and hybrid identities—such as both Asian and American, or Asian and Western. Many Buddhist scholars have relied on an unarticulated Western Self/Asian Other dichotomy, manifesting in a “hierarchy of field sites” that discourages studies of Western Buddhism, including both Asian Americans and non-Asian American converts, continuing to cultivate those old colonial fantasies of pure cultures and pure traditions.

Natalie Quli, Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for “Tradition” in Buddhist Studies, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 16 (2009).

The existence of many hybrid Buddhisms, and the futile quest for unattainable “authenticity,” raises another question: Is there anything at the core of Buddhist identity? Friends in class, who belong to various Buddhist traditions, tried to come up with something and came up rather short. Someone suggested the Lotus Sutra (but what about Theravada Buddhists?); another suggested the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha); another suggested chanting; I proposed the Eightfold Path; someone else said maybe the Bodhisattva vow. Many of these would be familiar to many Buddhists, but the emphasis would be different; and then there are people born to Buddhist families and surrounded by Buddhists, who are Buddhists themselves but do not actually practice. Strip the components that are not shared, and what’s left of a Buddhist identity is as elusive as what’s left of a Jewish identity.

This is an especially important question to those of us seeking a spiritual life in a secular humanistic community. Without commandments, without a God, without necessarily a connection to Israel, what is Jewish about a secular humanistic Jewish congregation? The IISHJ has an answer to this, and here it is from Rabbi Adam Chalom:

Why Be Jewish? Rabbi Adam Chalom

The answer to the question “why be Jewish?” is going to be different for different people. For me, tonight, the answer is lighting candles with my son, my mom, and my partner, singing Hanukkah songs, and finding some extra light in the darkness, especially if it comes from a dinosaur-shaped hanukkiah.

Hail the Return of the Light with Candles

Next week we will celebrate Hanukkah at my son’s school. We come equipped with David Adler’s The Story of Hanukkah, svivonim (dreidels) and, if we can make the trek to the wonderful vegan bakery, delicious donuts. I read online that many Israelis feel such despair that they have no desire to celebrate the holiday; it is a holiday purportedly celebrating a miracle involving a religious uprising and the parallels and antagonisms to the murderous energies, failed leadership, and dread about what’s coming are too painful.

Perhaps folks might find something psychologically useful and encouraging from an alternative reason to celebrate the holiday, which can be found in Bavli Avodah Zarah 8a 7-8. My beloved high school teacher Aviva Sela (in the picture above) taught me this story as she was battling cancer as we talked about witchcraft, ritual, and encouragement (here is an incredible interview she gave at a radio show, which showcases what a one-of-a-kind person she was.) Leave it to her to imbue the holiday with sensitive psychological meaning. In any case, here’s the story:

לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה]. כיון שראה תקופת טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים

When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing, as the days become shorter from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice, he did not yet know that this is a normal phenomenon, and therefore he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven, as it is written: “And to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19). He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer. Once he saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities.

One need not be a serious sufferer of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) to respond to the changing seasons with melancholy. The weather, at least here in the Northern Hemisphere, is getting colder; the days are shorter, and our kids cannot play in the playground as late as they would like; we turn our attention inward and dwell on memories past and fears of the future. The horrid weight of the last two months is compounded by the falling shadows in the afternoon; the darkness of the morning adds to the despair one feels trying to get out of bed. Lighting one more candle each day can serve as a psychological reminder that the light will return, and that we can fight even a small part of the darkness outside with a light we carry within.

Yesterday I attended kabalat shabbat at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. The congregation commemorated the AIDS crisis and the rabbi read out a quote from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be
commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.

So it does for all of us in the East and West.

Brandeis Center Sues UC Berkeley for Antisemitic Discrimination

Yesterday, while on business on the UC Berkeley/GTU side of the bridge, I ran into a colleague who offhandedly mentioned that the Brandeis Center was suing the university for its antisemitism. I swiftly got hold of a copy of the complaint, which you can find here in its entirety:

Brandeis Center Complaint 1… by hadaraviram

Let’s parse out what is going on here.

Much of the complaint walks well-trodden paths I know merely from being a Jewish-Israeli-American academic on both sides of the bridge. Yes, yes, yes, yes, being Jewish, and especially Israeli, on American campuses these days is like swimming through a river of shit. But experiencing distress, ugliness, and hostility in itself is not ground for legal relief. Moreover, expressed opinions, odious as they may be to the listener (and even when expressed in an odious manner), are protected under the First Amendment. So, what is the legal argument being made?

Brandeis’ argument is more or less the following: Beyond the hostile work environment experienced by Jewish students, various law school student clubs (whose activities, notably, are unrelated to Israel/Palestine) have required that their members, if Jewish, (1) disavow Zionism or (2) attend a “Palestine 101” class in which they are told Israel has no right to exist. It looks like the law school clubs are trying to skirt around limitations pertaining to religious discrimination by allowing Jews to join, but only what they consider to be the right kind of Jews: anti-Zionist ones. These limitations extend not only to the students, but also to speakers and to people hoping to publish articles in some of Berkeleys’ law journals. These loyalty oath requirements and reeducation camps preceded the current crisis by at least a couple of years. I vividly remember giving a talk about FESTER at Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society a couple of years ago. The talk, which had nothing to do with Israel or Judaism, was advertised on Twitter by Berkeley’s media team, and some of the commenters replied by tweeting, “but will the students let them speak?” I didn’t encounter any problem that day, but to be fair, I was there by invitation of my colleagues to speak to colleagues, and student clubs were not involved. Because I would never agree to loyalty oaths or gulags, I imagine that some student clubs (including those concerned with prisons or healthcare) would not invite me to speak there, and I also imagine that it’s not worth my time and effort to send papers to any UC Berkeley journals, because they will not be judged on the merits (for those of you scratching your heads, the law review publication market is insane; not only is the article selection not anonymous, but people actually submit their CVs alongside their articles. This explains the bizarre incident a few years ago, in which some student in a law school that shall remain anonymous asked me to omit my military service from my CV so that he’d be able to persuade his fellow student editors to publish the piece. So none of this surprises me in the least.)

[As an aside: Even though most of the stench wafting from this lawsuit emanates specifically from Berkeley Law, Erwin Chemerinsky or the law school are not being sued, and neither are the particular student orgs, which I find curious. I would love to know why, though I suspect it has to do with Chemerinsky’s recent op-ed expressing his dismay about virulent antisemitism and/or with the expectation of having responsible adults as adversaries.]

Berkeley’s counterargument, I imagine, will go something like this: none of the student club behavior, and none of the university’s tacit or explicit endorsement of these rules and exclusions, is antisemitic, because none of it bars Jews from participation. It only bars people who are openly Zionist. And here’s where things might get interesting.

In 2010, the Supreme Court decided Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. The respondent is my colleague Leo Martinez, who was Acting Dean at UC Law SF (formerly Hastings) at the time. The plaintiff was an off-shoot of CLS-National, an association of Christian lawyers and law students, which charters student chapters at law schools throughout the country. Like Berkeley, UC Law SF is a public school with nondiscrimination rules in its charter, and subject to the Bill of Rights. Under this nondiscrimination regime, UC Law SF had an “all-comers” policy for its student orgs: they must be open to participation of all students. CLS, however, required that all its charters adopt bylaws requiring members and officers to sign a “Statement of Faith” and to conduct their lives in accord with prescribed principles. Among the tenets that prospective members had to commit to was the belief that sexual activity should not occur outside of marriage between a man and a woman; CLS interpreted its bylaws to exclude from affiliation anyone who engages in “unrepentant homosexual conduct.” CLS also excluded students who hold religious convictions different from those in the Statement of Faith. In light of these requirements, UC Law SF refused to approve CLS as a registered student organization (RSO), which denied CLS access to university funding.

The Supreme Court ruled against CLS (which led to much rejoicing at the next faculty meeting, as you can imagine.) Justice Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion, found the “all-comers” policy reasonable, and the balance struck with CLS (they can host events as an outside entity–just not allowed to receive money from the school) constitutionally proper.

The situation with the Brandeis lawsuit is a bit different, because it comes from the opposite side: a complaint from students who cannot access these organizations and opportunities. Since Berkeley, like UC Law SF, has an “all-comers” policy, it looks like whether or not these clubs have run afoul of it depends on whether you accept Brandeis’ premise that “Zionism is an Integral Component of Jewish Identity.” At least for some Jewish UC Berkeley students (as recent events have obviously proven), this is not true–one might even say that anti-Zionism is an integral component of whatever identity they have, Jewish or otherwise. In an interview to the Jewish News of Northern California, Dean Chemerinsky estimated that “to say anyone who supports the existence of the State of Israel–that’s what you define as Zionism–shouldn’t speak would exclude about, I don’t know, at least 90 percent of our Jewish students,” though more recent events might suggest otherwise. I don’t know, and neither does anyone at Berkeley, because no one has done a survey, and moreover, in all the disputes about who is and is not a Zionist, one is often hard-pressed to find a solid definition of Zionism (or even any rudimentary education on the subject.) The question remains: Is Zionism “an integral component of Jewish identity?” And it it is to some but not to others, is it to be regarded as religious discrimination if, for Jewish Zionists, it is?

Let’s take a look again at the CLS policy from CLS v. Martinez. Notice that, at no point, did CLS deny membership to gay or lesbian members. Presumably, if you are homosexual and keep your homosexuality to yourself, CLS would welcome you. Or, if you’re riddled with shame about your desires and attractions and your homosexual conduct is “repentant,” you should be fine. I think the point of the analysis is that CLS cannot claim to be inclusive of gay people if it is only inclusive of those of them who remain in the closet and are guilty and conflicted about who they are and who they are attracted to (do some people love sad queers in the same way that others love dead Jews?). But is being Zionist, for Jews, the same as being “out and proud” for gay people? This requires a lot of intricate, hairsplitting attention to the components of each identity.

Assume, for example, that CLS had allowed any and all openly gay people to join its ranks, but only if they (1) disavowed support for same-sex marriage (not every gay person supports gay marriage, some for assorted anti-heteronormative reasons) or (2) attended “family values 101” that would teach them that children with same-sex parents are miserable and deprived. Would that pass muster with the Supreme Court? I don’t think so, but if it would, then we need to ask ourselves whether supporting the State of Israel’s right to exist is more of an “integral part” of being Jewish than supporting same-sex marriage is an “integral part” of being gay.

This brings up lots of complicated questions about the relationship of different Jewish denominations, throughout history, with the aspiration to return to Israel. One documented issue that was repeatedly brought up in debates about Jewish emancipation in Europe had to do with the Jews’ “dual loyalty,” to the emancipating country and to their ancestral land. For this reason, when the newly established Reform strain formed their credo and ethos upon inaugurating the Hamburg Temple, they excised from the liturgy not only the Hebrew language, but aspirations to return to Israel and any messianic content. To their Orthodox detractors, that was tantamount to rejecting an “integral component of Jewish identity.” But to the assimilation-hungry Reform congregants, it was nothing of the sort: it was the fashioning of a new, modern Jewish identity that they could live with and feel well integrated with their surroundings. In other words, what is and is not an “integral component of Jewish identity” means different things to different people in different times and places. There are even diasporist critiques of the centrality of Israel to Jewish life, though as Julie Copper points out in this interesting article, they tend to “prove wanting because they contest Zionism on the terrain of Jewish identity” as opposed to “envision[ing] Jewish political solidarity beyond the confines of the nation-state.”

But if we were to envision such solidarity, what exactly would it consist of, except agreeing that living on American campuses right now downright sucks? If, as various organizations like Bend the Arc or Tru’ah argue, our consensus should form around issues of progressivism and tikkun olam and all that jazz, why does it feel like engaging in these advocacies proves a hollow hope from Jews as it produces exactly the opposite of political solidarity? If you take Israel out of the equation, in other words, what is left (pun intended)?

Finally, in the last couple of months I’ve noticed that American Jews and American Israelis experience the issue of Zionism and anti-Zionism in very different ways. Obviously, when people express academic fascination (theoretically or not) with the scintillating question whether or not you and your loved ones have a right to exist, they shouldn’t be all that surprised to find you an unenthusiastic intellectual partner for that exercise, and you’re not likely to enjoy the debate. In 2018, Bret Stephens wrote precisely that:

All this is to say that Israelis experience anti-Zionism in a different way than, say, readers of The New York Review of Books: not as a bold sally in the world of ideas, but as a looming menace to their earthly existence, held at bay only through force of arms. It’s somewhat like the difference between discussing the effects of Marxism-Leninism in an undergraduate seminar at Reed College, circa 2018 — and experiencing them at closer range in West Berlin, circa 1961.

Which raises another cluster of questions: If, as Berkeley will likely claim, Zionism is not an integral part of one’s Jewish identity, is it an integral part of one’s Israeli identity? If the student club policy cannot be classified as religious discrimination, is it discrimination on the basis of nationality? Is it possible to surgically separate one’s belief that one’s country has a right to exist from being a citizen of that country? And, given that, under the Law of Return, every Jew has a right to return to Israel, the Jewish nation state, is every Jew being discriminated against (on the basis of putative nationality)?

I look forward to seeing how this lawsuit evolves and will post more as developments unfold.

Welcome Home: The Value of a Human Life

The wonderful videos are up and tears are rolling down my cheeks: children hugging their parents, families hugging grandparents. The first hostages are being returned. I wished for nothing more than to live to see these videos and my heart flows with gratitude. I have been watching Ohad Munder’s first hug with his dad again and again, sobbing with joy. But I feel so much inquietude around all this, mostly paralyzing fear for the fate of the remaining hostages. And I fear that some of this dark teatime of the soul has to do with confronting the transactional value of human life.

Recently, I got to read a classic anthropological text from 1923 by Marcel Mauss called The Gift. Mauss marshals evidence from various societies in which gift-giving is common to show that gifts are not spontaneous or selfless; rather, they are surrounded by elaborate social norms that dictate how to give, how to receive, and how to reciprocate. Gifts are an important and thoroughly ritualized social adhesive. At no time is the issue of reciprocity and value-setting clearer than when witnessing a hostage exchange, which makes a transaction out of the gift of human life between parties whose animosity is at its peak. As I read coverage about the Israeli hostages and the released Palestinian prisoners I think, who is being valued more? Whose children are coded as “children” and who are coded as “prisoners,” “Palestinian terrorists,” or “Zionist occupiers”?

The transactional nature of the releases brings into stark relief the range of values that the many stakeholders and parties to this conflict affix to different human lives. A few years ago, I read Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do, where he makes an impassioned argument against parochialism. By contrast to Rashi’s adage that “the poor people of your own town come first,” Singer argues that all lives have the same value and that altruistic giving should therefore eschew parochial considerations and, instead, maximize the good for as many people as possible. I understand, cognitively, what Singer is trying to say, and of course I cognitively comprehend that every life is precious. But I think that, in his admonitions, Singer is being less than responsive to the basic workings of human psychology, which I am observing in my own soul as well as in the souls around me. A Gazan family will be welcoming a released teenager soon with their own joy, adjacent to the Israeli joy but not touching it. The folks online reminding and admonishing and lecturing about how you can feel for both sides are able to host a modicum of generalized warmth because they are not psychologically invested and wound up in one side of this conflict or in another. This is not about who has a heart and who is heartless, but about where people are positioned. And I’m beginning to think that Rashi did not issue an edict so much as offered a description of where people’s natural sympathies flow.

(As an aside, it is such a psychologically bizarre experience to scroll through Facebook posts, finding Israeli and, to a lesser degree, Jewish posters concerned with the fate of the hostages and posting incessantly about them and about the war, while other people post silly memes and their Thanksgiving tables. The folks who post thus are not bad or evil or lacking in empathy. It’s just… not their thing. How many horrific human disasters in faraway lands have I heard about and, while feeling keen sorrow for those involved, moved on with my life, largely unaffected?)

Along these lines: twenty-four people were released yesterday, 11 of which were Thai and Nepalese workers. What a heartache, to be thrusted into the heart of hell in a conflict unrelated to you, because you had to move away to a far away land to make a living; to find yourself caged and tortured, caught between parties in a war zone. Initially, their names and pictures were unavailable, anonymous in captivity and in liberty as they were when trying to make a living in a cruel global economy. This morning I finally saw their picture. I was so moved to see Jimmy Pacheco’s release and how he was embraced by kibbutz members. The man for whom Jimmy worked as a caregiver, Amitai Ben-Zvi, was murdered by Hamas, and Jimmy was kidnapped and manhandled with horrific violence. The world devalues the lives of foreign workers so systematically and deeply. The hug between Jimmy and members of the Ben-Zvi family was a balm to my heart.

And then there are the lists. A huge, painful, never-healing wound in Jewish history involves the Judenrat’s listmaking in ghettos, making horrifying decisions on who must be saved and who must be shipped to the east to be murdered in concentration camps. It is really hard to reckon with the fact that people’s demographics play a horrifying role in setting their price in hostage exchanges. I wake up nightly from horrible nightmares involving the toddlers in captivity, especially baby Kfir Bibas, and shudder when I consider that the monsters who hold them captive understand the psychological value we affix to children. As my beloved late colleague Sherry Colb and her husband, Michael Dorf, wrote in Beating Hearts, there is a special premium on the lives of children. And at the same time, there is a frailty to aging people (which I addressed in several of my works). And I’m so moved by the return of the brave, stoic grandmothers, many of whom lost husbands to sadistic murderers. But this also means that the precious lives of young men are going to be devalued by comparison, and that they will have to withstand captivity longer, and I worry that the calculus of the worth of human lives versus military objectives will change as the war rages on.

Speaking of Colb and Dorf’s book, I also think a lot about the lives of animals brought into this homo sapiens conflict. One brief clip from the horror footage of October 7 keeps sawing through my mind: the murderers and kidnappers drive a truck away with hostages on it, weeping. The family dog chases the truck, barking, running, trying to save his family members. And these evil monsters shoot the dog dead. Why? WHY?! Why the dog? What does the dog have to do with any of this? Is the dog a Zionist occupier? I think about all the families who had to make the tough decisions to leave their dogs and cats outside their safe rooms and shelters. Family members whom they loved and cherished, like we love and cherish Inti and Gulu. What a thing to confront and to reckon with. They were trying to save their children’s lives, their parents’ lives. What choices people have had to make. And what complicated feelings to process amidst the layers of horror and grief.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who is confronting complicated and uneasy feelings about all this. What makes me feel a bit better, a bit more inspired, is an amazing statement made by Yoni Asher, whose wife and two daughters were returned from captivity yesterday. Asher says: “It is okay to rejoice and it is okay to shed a tear, but I am not celebrating and will not celebrate until the last of the hostages returns.”

May we live to welcome them all home.

Shloshim to the Massacre

Today is the Shloshim (“thirty”) of the horrific massacre. More horrors and grief unfold every day. The Hartman Institute has created a beautiful and moving ritual to commemorate those gone and to pray for the safe return of the hostages, which you can adapt for home prayer or for your local community. The special prayer for the hostages, following the traditional Mi sheberach, is in the picture above.

It is also my 49th birthday, which I have chosen not to observe with a celebration. We will all celebrate when the war ends and when the hostages are returned home.

Unknown Unknowns

Then Saul said to his courtiers, “Find me a woman who consults ghosts, so that I can go to her and inquire through her.” And his courtiers told him that there was a woman in En-dor who consulted ghosts.

Saul disguised himself; he put on different clothes and set out with two men. They came to the woman by night, and he said, “Please divine for me by a ghost. Bring up for me the one I shall name to you.”

But the woman answered him, “You know what Saul has done, how he has banned [the use of] ghosts and familiar spirits in the land. So why are you laying a trap for me, to get me killed?”

Saul swore to her by the LORD: “As the LORD lives, you won’t get into trouble over this.”

At that, the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He answered, “Bring up Samuel for me.”

Then the woman recognized Samuel, and she shrieked loudly, and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”

The king answered her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up from the earth.”

“What does he look like?” he asked her. “It is an old man coming up,” she said, “and he is wrapped in a robe.” Then Saul knew that it was Samuel; and he bowed low in homage with his face to the ground.

Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?” And Saul answered, “I am in great trouble. The Philistines are attacking me and God has turned away from me; He no longer answers me, either by prophets or in dreams. So I have called you to tell me what I am to do.”

Samuel said, “Why do you ask me, seeing that the LORD has turned away from you and has become your adversary?

The LORD has done for Himself-e as He foretold through me: The LORD has torn the kingship out of your hands and has given it to your fellow, to David,

because you did not obey the LORD and did not execute His wrath upon the Amalekites. That is why the LORD has done this to you today.

Further, the LORD will deliver the Israelites who are with you into the hands of the Philistines. Tomorrow your sons and you will be with me; and the LORD will also deliver the Israelite forces into the hands of the Philistines.”

At once Saul flung himself prone on the ground, terrified by Samuel’s words. Besides, there was no strength in him, for he had not eaten anything all day and all night.

The woman went up to Saul and, seeing how greatly disturbed he was, she said to him, “Your handmaid listened to you; I took my life in my hands and heeded the request you made of me.

So now you listen to me: Let me set before you a bit of food. Eat, and then you will have the strength to go on your way.”

He refused, saying, “I will not eat.” But when his courtiers as well as the woman urged him, he listened to them; he got up from the ground and sat on the bed.

The woman had a stall-fed calf in the house; she hastily slaughtered it, and took flour and kneaded it, and baked some unleavened cakes.

She set this before Saul and his courtiers, and they ate. Then they rose and left the same night.

I Samuel 28

Many of us remember Donald Rumsfeld’s famous distinction between known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Now that I’ve spent the worst three weeks of my life absorbing people’s espoused online opinions about this catastrophe, I think I have a sense of what’s happening.

Let’s set aside the piles upon piles of opinionated idiots from faraway lands. I’ve said all I have to say to them and all I can add, following Caitriona Reed’s inspiring ritual, is that I’m grateful for the gift that colleagues are offering me by showing me who they truly are, sparing me the need to ever again breathe the same air with a not-insignificant number of people in my professional circles.

Among Israelis, I’m seeing two tropes: the bomb-them-all folks and the let’s-make-peace folks. Both are persuaded that they know what they know. In both cases, people have fallen prey to the Rumsfeld fallacy. They don’t realize–or don’t want to realize–how little they know.

Bomb-them-all Israelis assume that they know a ground offense will successfully finish off Hamas, assume that they know what impact this will have on the hostages, assume that there’s a victory to be eked here (there isn’t), assume that they can assess (morally + strategically) and calibrate the horrid humanitarian price this will exact on Gazans and Israelis alike, assume that the numbers of casualties reported on the other side are exaggerated. They don’t know any of these things.

Make-a-peace-agreement Israelis assume that they know how much support Hamas does and does not have among Gazans, assume that there’s a kernel of good government there that can be cultivated, assume that they can get back the hostages without a ground war, assume that ground offense and hostage recapturing are a zero sum game, assume that the numbers of casualties on the other side are accurate. They don’t know any of these things.

I think people are holding on to these unchecked assumptions for dear life because they feel helpless in the following triple bind:

(1) They cannot accept the fact that this is not about “preventing a catastrophe”, either through a ground offense or through diplomatic channels. THE CATASTROPHE HAS ALREADY HAPPENED AND IT IS IRREVERSIBLE. And we do not have pertinent knowledge that move A on the chessboard will lead to more horror while not-A will not. For any value of A.

(2) We are driven to despair and madness because of how little control we have over the horrific hostage situation. We all want them back and WE DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO IT.

(3) Finally, people are driven to come up with plans because they have zero trust that Netanyahu has one. They’ve seen their poor excuse for a government completely bankrupt and inept. Whatever is happening, it’s being done by volunteers and by competent people from civil society (many of them from the protest movement) who have stepped up. 

All I’m seeing are people grieving, shocked, mourning, terrified, angry, shaken to the core, who are projecting their confirmation biases on an untenable situation. Do I understand why they do it? Of course. We are completely groundless. We’re broken into a million pieces. We want to lead with our hearts, we abhor the loss of innocent life, we are terrified about the hostages (see the above pictured protest on their behalf). So we treat our own typed words, our own convictions, our own confirmation biases, as if they were our personal sorceress, pulling an answer from the cauldron. We cling to it as we tremble, we talk to drown it, lest the ghost of Samuel apparate, telling us that we’re already goners. It’s so hard to accept that we have no idea what is going on or what we’re doing, what the objectives are, what will lead to the least amount of unfathomable pain. But we must accept it. Because, to our great tragedy and horror, the only thing that is true is that we. just. don’t. know.

Is Pidyon Shevuyim – Hostage Negotiation – A Jewish Value Or a Humanist Value?

Today I received an email from T’ruah, an organization I like quite a bit, inviting me to sign a letter from North American rabbis and cantors. T’ruah’s mission is to “bring[] the Torah’s ideals of human dignity, equality, and justice to life by empowering rabbis and cantors to be moral voices and to lead Jewish communities in advancing democracy and human rights for all people in the United States, Canada, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories.” The letter was a call to stop the violence, and it included a denouncement of the murderous Hamas attack as well as a warning about the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. Among other things, the letter said:

Pidyon shevuyim, redeeming captives, is one of the most important mitzvot. Sadly, there is a long history of Jewish communities being forced to practice this mitzvah over the centuries and across continents — from Egypt to Poland to Russia and beyond. We call on Hamas to release the hostages immediately, on Israel to prioritize negotiations for the captives above all else, and on the international community to do everything possible to secure their release. 

I agree with this sentiment completely–you’d have to be a psychopath not to–but as I read it, I wondered: Is it really the case that Judaism prioritizes Pidyon shevuyim? Or, more generally, nonviolent negotiation? Do we endorse the important goal of bringing the hostages home because we’re Jewish, or because we are humans with a feeling, crying heart?

Jewish texts usually credit Abraham with the importance of releasing hostages. This shows up in two important texts from this week’s parasha. The first relates Abraham’s fairly peripheral involvement in what perhaps is the first world war in the Old Testament. The parasha describes a violent struggle between a coalition of four kings and a coalition of five kings who rebelled against them. The four kings resisted the rebellion and pursued the rebels, and here’s what happened next:

[The invaders] seized all the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their provisions, and went their way. They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, and his possessions, and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. A fugitive brought the news to Abram the Hebrew, who was dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, kinsman of Eshkol and Aner, these being Abram’s allies.

When Abram heard that his kinsman’s [household] had been taken captive, he mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. At night, he and his servants deployed against them and defeated them; and he pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people.

When he returned from defeating Chedorlaomer and the kings with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King. And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.” And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything.

Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to יהוה, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ For me, nothing but what my servants have used up; as for the share of the parties who went with me—Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre—let them take their share.”

Genesis 14:11-24.

In other words: Abraham, badass as he was, mounted a courageous military offensive to rescue the hostages, and then declined to partake in the loot.

The second story is also Sodom related. God, appalled by the despicable people of Sodom, determines to ruin the entire city. Abraham gathers the courage to negotiate with him, to ensure that, if there are innocents to be found in Sodom (notably, his own nephew, the aforementioned Lot), he won’t obliterate them–even if there are very few–along with the wicked ones:

And Abraham drew near and he said: Will You also cause to perish the righteous one with the wicked one? Perhaps there are fifty righteous ones in the midst of the city — Will You also cause to perish — and will You not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous ones in its midst? It is profane in You to do such a thing, to kill a righteous one with a wicked one, rendering the righteous one like the wicked one. It is profane in You. Will the Judge of all the land not do justice?

And the L-rd said: If I find in Sodom fifty righteous ones in the midst of the city, then I shall spare the entire place for their sake.

And Abraham answered and he said: I have now willed to speak to the L-rd when I should have been dust and ashes. Perhaps there shall lack of the fifty righteous ones, five. Will You destroy the entire city because of the five [and not add Yourself as a “righteous One” to each district to save the whole]? And He said: I shall not destroy if I find there forty-five.

And he ventured to speak more unto Him and he said: Perhaps there will be found there forty. And He said: I shall not do for the sake of the forty.

And he said: Let not the L-rd be wroth and I will speak. Perhaps there will be found there thirty. And He said: I shall not do if I find there thirty.

And he said: Behold, I have willed to speak to the L-rd. Perhaps there will be found there twenty. And He said: I will not destroy for the sake of the twenty.

And he said: Let not the L-rd be wroth and I will speak but this time. Perhaps there will be found there ten. And He said: I will not destroy for the sake of the ten.

Genesis 18: 23-32

This is often presented as grounding military ethics and, arguably, the edicts of international law, in text. And so, we have T’ruah, and many other progressive Jewish denominations, organizations, and institutions, making a plausible impassioned argument against the impending humanitarian disaster in Gaza, not as an implementation of humanist principles, but as manifestation of Jewish principles.

It just so happened that, just as I was thinking about this, I was reading a terrific article by Amod Lele, called “Disengaged Buddhism” (you can find it here.) Lele’s point of departure is the common tendency, throughout various Buddhist denominations, to practice “engaged Buddhism”, i.e., to interpret Buddhism as requiring political activism, most commonly in support of social justice and human rights. An emblematic articulation of this trend is a statement attributed to Thich Nhat Hahn, according to which “Buddhism is already engaged Buddhism. If it is not, it is not Buddhism.” Lele disagrees, both factually and normatively. His article sets out to show that disengaged Buddhism is a coherent, thoughtful position to be found across a variety of at least classical Indian Buddhist texts. But he also makes normative claims: scholarship and advocacy by engaged Buddhists, primarily Western ones, should not ignore these valid sources advocating for disengaged Buddhism, but rather defend their position. He even signals his agreement with an idea that I’ve always found compelling whenever I spent time in Buddhist or mindfulness spaces: namely, that “engaged Buddhism” in the west is less about Buddhism and more about American lefty culture surrounding Buddhism.

I found this last comment incisive and persuasive. Lele critiques Nelson Foster, who argues (either mistakenly or disingenuously, I think) that “the values that have cropped up in the American sangha are
hardly those that prevail in the population of the United States” (52). To this, Lele responds:

American engaged Buddhists’ values may be at odds with those that prevail in Alabama or rural Michigan, but they are not easily distinguished from the values of their non-Buddhist fellows in Berkeley and Vermont and Boulder. Indeed, some of the characteristics Foster attributes to engaged Buddhists are stereotypically so, like “recycling, gardening, and organic farming”. Such values appear far closer to those of their non-Buddhist neighbors than they do to the values in the classical Buddhist texts we have considered.

I think the same story applies to progressive Jewish organizations. Since this horrid tragedy struck, in an effort to process my shock and grief amidst people who are not hostile/antisemitic, I’ve attended services in various synagogues around the Bay Area. What I see, in terms of scripture interpretation, evinces the same maneuver that Lele identifies: the idea that avoiding horrendous war crimes, seeking hostage release as a priority, and caring for the innocent are quintessential Jewish values. Of course I share these values. But are they really the be-all, end-all of what Judaism has to say on the topic? Or can one scour the Old Testament for counterexamples of massive cruelty? Abraham, the righteous protagonist of the two sections from this week’s parasha that I quoted above, was also an absolute monster (by today’s lefty sensibilities) on more than one occasion: his willingness to sacrifice his own son to cement his covenant with God, his despicable banishment of Hagar and Ishmael, his shameless and self-serving pimping of Sarah when availing himself of food available in foreign lands. Not a uniformly commendable character from a progressive standpoint, I think. So, picking and choosing which Abrahamic behaviors are congruent with human rights perspectives when seeking justification in sacred texts is a quintessentially modernist approach to religion, one we find among engaged Buddhists as well as among progressive Jews.

You might say: well, if one wants to prioritize the release of the hostages, what difference does it make if one argues it’s a Jewish position as opposed to a humanist one? Because positing this position as the only possible Jewish position (a-la “this is not who we are”) is factually misleading, the only honest position is that it is a possible Jewish position (this horrendous government is rife with people who, as Jews, are pushing the hostages down the list of priorities and drowning that, and their own incompetence, in abominable rhetoric justifying all the horrors they want our friends and relatives to perpetuate in Gaza. This is not a true-Judaism-versus-false-Judaism scenario. This is a scenario where each side can dig dip into the Jewish bookcase and find plenty of justifications for and against humanitarian action.

It seems like these organizations believe that there is strategic value in staking this position as a Jewish position, because it is held in a debate among Jews, some of them big believers in messianic, aggressive action in Gaza; these folks would undoubtedly find religious argumentation more persuasive than lefty the-occupation-is-evil argumentation. Still, I very much doubt that Ben Gvir et al. are amenable to a good faith conversation about the theological advantages and drawbacks of hostage negotiation. Which is why, I think, there should be no shame–and plenty of integrity–in saying: A position that prioritizes hostage negotiation is a humanist Jewish position, a progressive Jewish position, a peace-and-safety-seeking Jewish position. And that’s a position I would gladly share if I were feeling calm enough or resolute enough to form an opinion. I’m shaken and horrified to my core by the massacre. I tremble and weep at the thought of further horrors: to Gazans, to our soldiers, and above all, to the hostages. I don’t claim any authoritative military expertise on whether peace or negotiation are still viable, nor am I sure that my personal revulsion at violence toward civilian populations necessarily means that one can obliterate Hamas without obliterating Gaza. I hate this whole thing and can’t see anything good coming out of it. And all I want, all I’m ever going to want, is to live to see a news report in which a little boy like mine is returned, alive and unharmed, to his mother’s arms. I can almost see it in my mind’s eye: the running, the crying, the smiles and the applause and the outpouring of love. Pidyon shevuyim. My dream.

מידע וחומרים לקבורה אזרחית – Info and Materials for Secular Burial (in Hebrew)

חבריםות יקריםות – אם איבדתםן אדם יקר ולא מתאים לכםן חברה קדישא וטקס אורתודוכסי, אולי בגלל שיקירכם או יקירתכם לא היו רוציםות בכך או בגלל שהמשפחה מעוניינת בטקס חילוני, אני מקווה שהמידע בעמוד זה יעזור לכםן. אנא דעו שבבתי עלמין חילוניים קוברים בארונות והמשפחה קובעת מה יהיה בטקס. אפשר לשיר ואפשר להשמיע מוסיקה מוקלטת ולא תצטרכו להקשיב לאנשים זרים מדקלמים בארמית אם אין רצונכםן בכך. ריכזתי עבורכםן מידע בעניין עמותות קבורה אזרחית, סידורים ראשונים שצריך לעשות, וגם תכנים וחומרים ללוויה ולשלושים.

עמותות קבורה אזרחית

מנוחה נכונה באר שבע

מנוחה נכונה כפר סבא

מנוחת עולם בנתניה – בית עלמין אלטרנטיבי

מנוחה נכונה קרית טבעון

מה לעשות

מיד כשיודיעו לכםן על מות יקירכםן או יקירתכםן, לברר היכן הם נמצאים והאם אתם יכולים להתחיל לארגן את סידורי הלוויה. לשאול מיד האם אתם יכולים לקבל רשיון קבורה, כי תיזקקו לו מול העמותה.

להתקשר לעמותה הרלוונטית. הם יתאמו עם האמבולנס הפרטי (בררו בבקשה שזה אכן כך). הם גם יתאמו עמכםן מועד להלוויה. הם ירצו מכםן את התשלום הבסיסי עבור השירות, שמכוסה על ידי הביטוח הלאומי, ואת רשיון הקבורה והטופס לאמבולנס.

איך להודיע

הכי טוב להודיע ברשתות החברתיות ולבקש מאנשים להודיע זה לזה.

אם יקירכםן או יקירתכםן היו בלימודים או בעבודה, או היה להםן ספורט או תחביב עם חברים, בחרו באיש קשר בכל אחד מהמקומות ובקשו ממנו להודיע לכל הקהילה הרלוונטית.

התקשרו לעירייה או למועצה המקומית שלכםן והם יתלו מודעות אבל מטעמם עבורכםן בקרבת ביתכםן.

במודעות אבל לא לשכוח פרטים על בית העלמין, היום והשעה, ואם אתםן מתכנניםות לשבת שבעה- גם הכתובת לשבעה.

אם אתםן לא רוצים שבעה, כתבו ״נא להימנע מביקורי תנחומים״. אם לא בא לכםן תחנת רכבת אבל כן רוציםות לראות חברים, כיתבו ״ביקורי תנחומים בתיאום מראש בבקשה״.

מודעת אבל בעתון הארץ

חומרים להלוויות אזרחיות-חילוניות ולשלושים

קדיש יתום חילוני (אני כתבתי, אתם מוזמנים לשנות כפי שתרצו ולהשתמש)

אל מלא רחמים חילוני (אני כתבתי, אתם מוזמנים לשנות כפי שתרצו ולהשתמש)

רקמה אנושית אחת

שיר ללא שם

משוחררת

עצרו את כל השעונים

עוד חומרים להלוויות ואזכרות חילוניות

מה אחר כך

לצרכים ביורוקרטיים שונים תיזקקו לתעודת פטירה. היא בדרך כלל מגיעה בדואר כחודש-חודש וחצי לאחר הלוויה. כדאי לצלם או לסרוק אותה לטלפון כי תצטרכו אותה.

אם ליקירכםן היתה צוואה, תיזקקו לעורכת דין לשם הוצאת צו קיום צוואה. אם לא, הרכוש מטופל על פי חוק הירושה.

Book Review: American JewBu

The prevalence of Jews among certain American Buddhist communities has provoked lively research and commentary, from Rodger Kamenetz’s classic The Jew in the Lotus to David Bader’s irreverent Zen Judaism which hilariously recounts how “[t]he Buddha’s parents, Max and Helen. . . would describe the miraculous, god-like powers of their ‘little Buddhaleh’” (11-12). Emily Sigalow’s American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change is an innovative socio-historical and ethnographic contribution to this literature, based on extensive archival work, participant observation, and eighty interviews with Jewish practitioners of Buddhism (all detailed in the book’s superb methodological appendix).

Prior inquiries into the Jewish-Buddhist connection examined the appeal of shared values and ideals (a focus on suffering, text-based theology, attraction to intellectual and bohemian pursuits). By contrast, Sigalow examines the JewBu phenomenon sociologically. Reclaiming the concept of syncretism from its conventional usage (a trifling mix-and-match of religious practices found in traditional societies), Sigalow takes syncretism seriously, showing that interreligious exchange between minority communities is “a process shaped by their specific social locations in society” (8), which has allowed “middle and upper-middle classes (including American Jews). . . [to] appropriate and recontextualize [Buddhism]—and arguably exploit as well as fragment it too—in order to commodify it and place it at the service of their needs” (10-11). American Jews and convert Buddhists, she explains, “share a remarkably similar sociodemographic location in society. . . urban, educated, upper middle class, and liberal. . .  thus facilitating the mixing of the two groups” (182). Moreover, Buddhism appeals to Jews as “it [does] not have a legacy of persecuting Jews” (183); and “the flexibility and permissiveness of. . .  Buddhist centers enable [Jews] to maintain and preserve their inherited religion, and take from Buddhism the practices and wisdom that support it” (183).  This multifaceted appeal of Buddhism to Jews is enhanced through the role Jewish pioneers and teachers played in modernizing Buddhism, and through the wide availability of Buddhist teachers of Jewish heritage.

Sigalow’s book begins with a historical-chronological account of the Jewish-Buddhist encounter. This account begins with the conversion of Charles Strauss, a Jew “brought up the liberal way” (20), to Buddhism on stage at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. The first Buddhist convert on U.S. soil, Strauss practiced and promoted what he considered a pure version of Theravada Buddhism, unadulterated by cultural and ritual trappings and entirely in harmony with science, reason, and social justice. Other prominent Jewish thinkers admired and appreciated Buddhist concepts, downplaying Buddhist cosmology and metaphysics and highlighting their compatibility with science and modernist ethics. While some extolled the romantic interest of Jews in Buddhism, and their fascination with Buddhist public speakers, as a mark of intellectual curiosity, others criticized them for seeking spiritual harbor outside their own faith. Sigalow ascribes Jewish interest in Buddhism in this era to Buddhist modernization in general, as well as to Jewish assimilation in urbane, educated, and bohemian circles, facilitated by the permissiveness and openness of Reform congregations.

This romantic interest in Buddhism, which dwindled somewhat in the early 20th century due to rising anti-Asian sentiments, was replaced by the prominence of solo American Jews trained by Asian teachers who participated in Asian Buddhist groups. In Chapter 2, Sigalow follows three such practitioners. Julius Goldwater was a mystics enthusiast whose family’s relocation to Hawaii led him to Jodo Shinshu and, upon his return to the U.S., to ministry and mentorship at the Nishi Hongwanji Los Angeles Buddhist Temple. During the wartime persecution of Japanese Americans, Goldwater advocated on behalf of the Buddhist community and procured essential supplies for people in internment camps. Samuel Lewis studied Zen with Senzaki and Sokei-An, introduced Senzaki to Sufi leader Pir-O-Murshid Inayat Khan, and pioneered an ecumenical art form, the Dances of Universal Peace, which “set sacred scriptures, poetry, and chants from the world’s spiritual and religious traditions to music and movement” (49). And William Segal, a successful self-made magazine executive, studied the Gurdjeff system of thought alongside Zen, and became a prolific artist and Asian art collector. All three, Sigalow explains, “crafted their own modernized versions of American Buddhism that sought to reconcile it with the central liberal religious perspectives of their time: universalism, perennialism, and romanticism” (45), whether by fostering nonsectarian Buddhism or interfaith dialogue.

Chapter 3 turns to Jewish participation in countercultural Buddhist practices between the 1960s and the 1990s. Opening with Allen Ginsberg and the Beats’ flocking to Suzuki Zen, Sigalow recounts Mel Weitzman’s leadership of the Berkeley and San Francisco Zen Centers and Blanche Hartmann’s adaptation of Zen Doctrine to the interests and needs of women practitioners. Jewish seekers on pilgrimages to Bodh Gaya encountered Theravada teacher S. M. Goenka, and some of the attendees of his first vipassana retreat– Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jacqueline Mandell-Schwartz, Wes Nisker, Barry Laping, Stephen Levine, Ram Dass, and Jack Kornfield—established insight meditation traditions in the United States upon their return. Goldstein and Kornfield, extensively trained in Thai and Burmese monasteries, took advantage of the paucity of institutional constraints on U.S. Buddhism, and their innovative teachings “minimized the elements of Buddhism associated with the wider religious tradition of Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhism in favor of the simple practice of seated meditation that they thought would seem less ethnic and more appealing to US society” (64). This period saw the establishment of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts; Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California; and Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, established by Chongyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa’s notable Jewish students included Sam Bercholz, the founder of Shambhala Publications, the foremost publishing house for American Buddhism, and Pema Chodron, author of many books that universalize Buddhist ideas and practices for Westerners. Jewish-Buddhist innovators of this period Westernized Buddhist practices in three important ways: “For one, these teachers elevated the importance of the privatized experience of silence and meditation. Second, they emphasized the ethical pursuit of social justice. And third, they also cast Buddhism with a distinctive psychotherapeutic orientation” (68).

Chapter 4 examines the convergence of Buddhist wisdom seekers with the neo-Hasidic Jewish Renewal movement. It proceeds to discuss the contribution of Jon Kabat-Zinn to the medicalization of mindfulness meditation through MBSR training, and the work of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, an organization “rooted in the Jewish tradition and committed to democratic values and social justice, including fairness, diversity, and community” (86), and its promotion of dialogue between Buddhist leaders, such as the Dalai Lama, and Jewish rabbis and scholars, emphasizing Jewish activism on behalf of the Tibetan people. This chapter—and Part I of the book—closes with the emergence of contemplative traditions and practices within Jewish congregations.

This overview leaves open the question of what, precisely, was distinctly Jewish in these enterprises—or, at least, how the contributions of Jewish liberal intellectuals and scientists differed from those of their non-Jewish counterparts. Much of this history dovetails with more general scholarship on Buddhism and modernity (see here, here, and here, to name just a few examples) and is clearly in line with McMahan’s identification of the three characteristics of Buddhist modernity: detraditionalization, demythologization, and psychologization. Although Sigalow identifies some parallels between the elevation of metta (lovingkindness) and the Jewish tradition of gemilut hasadim, and between the new emphasis on engaged Buddhism and the activist background of many Jewish Buddhist leaders—and although she lists some explicitly syncretic spiritual leaders—she admits that “[i]t is difficult to determine if and how the Jewish upbringings of these Buddhist teachers influenced their decisions to abandon many traditional elements of Buddhism and emphasize the centrality and universality of the practice of meditation” (73).

The second part of the book, however, identifies more salient themes of syncretism. In Chapter 5, Sigalow relies on interviews and participant observations to investigate how meditation teachers diffused contemplative practices into Jewish communities in a way that was “compatible with as well as culturally accessible to liberal American Jewish culture” and at the same time “selected elements from Buddhism that were distinctly Asian” (e.g., no bowing and no Buddha imagery) “and elements from Judaism that were sometimes distinctly Kabbalistic and mystical” (e.g, prayer flags emblazoned with hamsas, language from Jewish prayer as mantra) “so that this new practice of Jewish meditation would feel different, new, and perhaps even exotic or romantic to American Jews” (105-106). The teachers Sigalow interviewed felt empowered to choose elements from Buddhism that they felt benefitted Jews and made them “wiser, kinder, and more compassionate” (117). But beyond these personal factors, the teachers felt that meditation revitalized Jewish communities, and legitimized it by historicizing it within the Jewish contemplative tradition.

Chapters 6 and 7 turn to Sigalow’s interviews with American JewBus. Few of her interviewees identified equally with both traditions (and embracing a JewBu identity was more evident in younger generations), so Sigalow’s findings mostly address two other groups. The first, the “spiritually enriched”, are observant Jews from liberal denominations, about a third of them holding clergy positions, who consider Buddhist practices beneficial but are not officially affiliated with a Buddhist center. These respondents extol the value of spirituality through meditation practice (a shared aspect of Judaism and convert Buddhism). They speak of spirituality as universal and ecumenical. They seek spirituality that is personally nourishing and connected to their hearts—providing comfort, healing, and relief—and Buddhist mindfulness illuminates those aspects in their Jewish practices. Finally, they emphasize the importance of choosing spirituality voluntarily and intentionally. In these spiritual discourses, Sigalow finds echoes of more general themes in American liberalism.

The second group consists of people committed to organized Buddhist institutions who see themselves as cultural Jews. By contrast to traditional scholarship about converts eschewing their former identities, the interviewees retain their Jewish identity and perceive it as innate, through family- and heritage-based connections, connected to the history of the Jewish people and to the experience of being non-Christians in a Christian-majority country; their Buddhist worldview and practices, by contrast, are “an achieved identity” (159): deliberative, reflective, and “welcome[ing] and cultivat[ing] the liberal values with which they were raised” (164).

Sigalow’s reflection on these findings reflects remarkable nuance on the themes of power and privilege. While Jews did not intend to exploit Buddhism, she explains, “their distancing of Buddhism from its Asian cultural systems and ethnic identities—and recasting it in a socially active and psychotherapeutic framework—effectively ‘whitened’ it in order to make it more appealing to a broad American audience. . . a quintessential tactic of colonization” (190). Moreover, “[t]he construction of Jewish meditation thus began with a radical secularization of Buddhism and ended with a resacralization in Jewish forms. One could argue that this was a Jewish appropriation of the cornerstone practice of the Buddhist tradition” (189). Nevertheless, Sigalow observes, syncretism is “an inevitable outcome of sustained religious contact. Religions continually remake themselves in response to changing historical as well as social conditions and interaction with other traditions, adopting elements from each other that enhance their durability, and shedding those that no longer remain compelling or resonant. This process of religious reconfiguration allows religions to survive and carry forward into the future, remaining relevant to future generations” (190).

Within this conversation lies what I think is missing from Sigalow’s sociological analysis: Jews’ marginalized position precisely within the privileged, educated, white, lefty social locus they occupy. Antisemitism is alive and well, and in the context of the progressive milieus that are the socio-political home of many JewBus, it is inextricably linked to strident political critiques of Israel, which tend to lack the nuance these milieus reserve for other “isms”. This can make life in the intellectual left uncomfortable and burdensome for Jews—considerably more burdensome than coping with questions of cultural appropriation for Buddhist converts. This makes the JewBu experience quintessentially American and raises the question of a possible comparison with Jewish-Buddhist syncretism in Israel, where Buddhism seekers, sympathizers, and adopters’ relationship with their faith of birth might be complicated by an Orthodox, rigid, and exclusionary relationship with the state apparatus, rather than with a contested minority status. This Israeli American JewBu would like to read (or write) a comparative piece along those lines someday.

This minor quibble aside, Sigalow’s book paves a fresh empirical path for scholarship on the Jewish-Buddhist encounter. Her survey instrument reflects deep understanding of, and empathy for, her subjects’ spiritual identities and practices; her participant observation reports ring authentic and perceptive. Her conclusions are a valuable reminder that no spiritual, religious, or ethnic community is a monolith, and that religions and customs change and evolve, diverge and converge. These lessons will gain even more importance as the next generation of JewBus—perhaps the children of Jewish-Buddhist families—turn to shape their own identities and create their own meanings.

The Fluidity of Jewish Denominations

Yesterday, in my Modern Jewish Thought seminar, we covered the birth of Jewish denominations, starting with the establishment of the first reform community: the Hamburg Temple. Seeking to move away from what they saw as alienating, distasteful, or removed from their reality as German citizens aspiring to be emancipated, the founders of the new temple changed the liturgy: services would be held only on Saturdays and holidays and would include an organ and a choir. Men and women could sit together. Prayer would be conducted in German, not in Hebrew (then a dead language none of them could imagine would be revitalized). This revolution caused immense consternation, occasioning passionate commentary (all documented in primary sources you can find here), leading to a splintering of the community into what we now understand as orthodox, conservative, reform, and ultra-orthodox denominations.

The excitement of the people who initiated this new mode of prayer was palpable: they were creating a spiritual home in which they could be comfortable, of which they could be proud, to which they could invite their gentile friends. And yet, when we discussed this in class, my fellow students were deeply derisive. I could not understand why, so I asked, and as I suspected–my confusion reflected cultural ignorance. The other students explained that they experience reform Judaism as a namby-pamby, stodgy, assimilationist and flavorless Judaism. They also associated class snobbery with reform.

From a statistical perspective, their position makes sense. This descriptive analysis from Pew shows that, in the United States, reform is the largest Jewish denomination.

Eliminating the “no denomination” folks–there is a huge population of disengaged Jews in the United States, and we’ll talk about them in a different post–Reform encompasses the majority of practicing Jews. More than three times the number of Orthodox Jews. And the edgier, more “ethnic”, more mystical denominations–including Renewal and Reconstruction, which one sees a lot of here in the Bay Area–are quite minuscule by comparison (the data is from 2013, but I would be surprised if things changed much in the last decade).

Understanding the statistics is valuable, because in Israel, the picture of denomination is very different. For one thing, there is a state-sponsored religion: Orthodox Judaism, and now a particularly virulent, xenophobic, messianic version of it. Orthodoxy is the default for the entire Jewish life cycle because that’s what’s on offer by default: Just gave birth and in a fog of joy, postpartum depression, and/or overwhelm? the default is a big party in which a guy with a beard will cut off your son’s foreskin and everyone will enjoy the buffet. What are you going to eat? The accessible foods at your local supermarket are all kosher. In love? Congratulations! To have your wedding recognized by the state without taking a protracted bureaucratic journey, you marry orthodox. Registered as married? Only way out is a gett ceremony at the (Orthodox) rabbinate. Just lost a loved one and are too confused to come up with creative options? Orthodox men in black suits will mumble in Aramaic over your parent or spouse and then hold their palm out to the bereaved for a tip.

Other types of congregations exist and flourish in Israel, but they receive zero acknowledgment by the state apparatus, to the extent that even educated secular people don’t register their existence. Going to a reform service is a novelty. I remember how impressed I was one Yom Kippur when I attended the local reform congregation with a friend and saw that her whole family could sit together. I’m still in deep awe of Women of the Wall and female rabbis in Israel, both of whom are assailed. Had it not been for their heroic efforts, girls would not be able to have their bat mitzvah, complete with Torah reading, at the Western Wall (or anywhere else, for the matter.) It’s easy for my fellow students to deride these efforts in the same way that umpteenth-wave intersectional feminists deride first-wave feminists and forget they stand on the shoulders of the giants whose efforts granted them not only a voice, but a vote.

But this also reminded me that the idea of feeling “at home” “with my people” can be largely fiction if I assume that broader social trends do not influence what “my people” even means. We’re in an identitarian moment; splintering is happening all over the place, as is dumping on those not seen as edgy and interesting. Moreover, Jews tend to occupy an urban, educated, intellectual, bohemian place in American society and, in this milieu, accentuating any part of your identity that makes you “not white” is de rigeur. Since I, too, am a product of what’s happening around me, my own foray into Jewish Studies and the secular humanistic rabbinate comes from a sense that “my people”, whoever they are, need something enriching and affirming, something they can be proud of, as Israel implodes. I can try and put myself in the shoes of my 1818 ancestors, who probably felt the same way. A German churchlike venue is not what I have in mind when I think “comfort” and “feeling at home”, but they did–it’s what was around them at the time.