The Virtues of Ambivalence

The following is my sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashanah, 5771 (September 9, 2010) at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation.

Just a few weeks ago, in the same hospital in Haifa, Israel where she was born, my niece Talia gave birth to her first child, a boy. My parents became great grandparents, my brother Dan and sister-in-law Roberta became grandparents, and I am now a great uncle – I guess. From my self-centered perspective that is just plain weird; I mean, what is going on here? But truly, as new generations arise, we should all live and be well and marvel at time’s passage.

My parents, who are, thank God, quite well, flew right over to Israel for the bris. The little boy’s name is Ido – Israelis have their own taste in names. Great-grandpa (or in Hebrew, “Saba Raba” – isn’t that great?) Herb was the sandek, which means he held the baby while the mohel did the job. 30 years ago, Great-grandpa Yosef had been the sandek in Jerusalem at the bris of Danny and Roberta’s first son Eitan. Now, all the generations had moved up in line, in a fortunate symmetry – fortunate that we are alive and able to appreciate the richness of “l’dor va’dor”, from generation to generation.

My mother pointed out another remarkable feature of this simcha. Little Ido had 3 great grandmothers present. Of these three women, one was born in Russia, one was born in Iraq, and one was born in Brooklyn. When they were born, the Holocaust still couldn’t be imagined, and the idea of an independent Jewish homeland was a crazy glint in David Ben Gurion’s eye. Yet here these three women stood in the land of Israel, around their shared great grandson. Such has been this last Jewish century, full of dislocation, inconceivable tragedy, and wondrous rebirth. Who could imagine that these three women from different corners of the globe would ever meet each other, let alone become mishpocha? The ancient prayer before the Shma Yisrael becomes prophetic: “V’havieinu l’shalom mearba kanfot haaretz vtolichenu komimiyut lartzeinu…gather us together in peace from the four corners of the earth, so that we might walk upright into our own land”. And since some of that prophecy has come to pass, may the prophecy of peace also arrive soon and in our days.

I plan to meet Ido in just a few weeks, in October. I will be in Israel as a participant in an annual bicycle ride from Jerusalem to Eilat. (Can great-uncles do that?) The bike ride raises funds and awareness for the Arava Institute, based at Kibbutz Ketura in the far south of Israel. The Arava Institute trains environmental activists from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and other countries. The vision of the Arava Institute is brilliant, in my opinion: environmental issues transcend national boundaries, and can bring people together from neighboring territories around a shared cause. With great tenacity, the Arava Institute has for many years managed through thick and thin to maneuver through all the diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles and bring young, motivated Israelis and Arabs together for a year of study and activism. Their work is so impressive, yet the Arava Institute is only one of many determined grassroots efforts in Israel to foster peaceful coexistence. I love to bicycle – I have always wanted to take a ride like this in Israel. I promise a full report.

I am also going to bring my family over to meet their new little cousin at the end of December. At that time I will be leading our next congregational trip to Israel. I am pleased to report that a group of 30 of us will be engaging a 10-day intensive tour. This will be, I believe, the fifth such trip I have had the privilege to lead with our congregation. After the tour ends my family will stay a few extra days and get to know Ido.

As you can tell, I visit Israel every chance I can get. I love the place and the people so much. And as you can tell, I’m talking about Israel today. This is an unusual step for me, as on Rosh Hashanah I try to keep us all focused on the work of refining our own souls. But I feel compelled first to frame some comments today about our relationship with Israel, and then also see what lessons we each might personally glean from my words.

Talking about Israel in recent years has become so fraught that we have at times here at the WJC actually called moratoria on debate about Israel. Emotions have run so high as to make meaningful exchange almost impossible. I have watched friendships strain and even snap over these passionate disagreements. And who needs another screaming match?

But I feel that our congregation has matured greatly over the past few years (as hopefully have I), and that we are now capable of these kinds of discussions. I want us to talk more about Israel. I think it is important not only for the improvement of our own ability to dialogue with one another. I think that as the debate about Israel becomes ever more polarized in the public discourse, it becomes increasingly imperative for us to model the ability to think with complexity and to show that it is possible to be both passionate and civil at the same time.

On one end of the political spectrum, efforts to utterly delegitimize the State of Israel – which until now have been the provenance of Israel’s enemies in the Arab world, along with the political fringes of Europe – have been gaining traction in ever widening circles. The idea is that Israel’s existence as an independent Jewish nation, among all the nations of the earth, is uniquely born in sin, and that Zionism, rather than being the national liberation movement of the Jewish People, is a code word for irredeemable racism and imperialism.

Anyone familiar with the history of anti-Semitism should be able to recognize these positions for what they are: frightening metastases of classic anti-Semitism. The modest remission of virulent anti-Semitism that we Jews have experienced since the global spasm of horror following the revelations of the Nazi Holocaust may be ending. The essence of anti-Semitism is to scapegoat the Jews, and blame them for your difficulties. Thus there is a so-called “Jewish Problem”, the solution to which is the disappearance or degradation of the Jews, solving your problem. It is a very neat formula, has always been untrue and is untrue today. The elimination of the Jewish State will not lead to peace and justice in the Middle East, as its proponents proclaim, any more than expelling Jews in the Middle ages ended the bubonic plague, or murdering Jews in Nazi Europe ensured the purity of a Master Race. I don’t fully understand why the Jewish People occupy this historic position as scapegoats, but we must be vigilant to recognize and counter anti-Semitism in all its forms, including today’s.

To my mind, therefore, it should be obvious that the Jewish People have as much right to national self-determination as any other self-described national group – including the Palestinians. How are these two groups ever going to accommodate each other’s valid claims and reach a peaceful compromise?

This is the real challenge, much messier and challenging than the slogans of the far left or the far right. For just as there are those, as I just described, who propose that the elimination of the Jewish State is the solution, there are those who advocate for the expulsion or continued degradation of the Palestinians as the only path. Many of these folks, Jews and Christians, frame their positions in two-dimensional, quasi-religious, messianic ideas. They brook no dissent. I find this trend quite as frightening as the efforts to delegitimize Israel. Humans crave simple answers, and usually there aren’t any.

That is why, despite my own very jaded view of the “Peace Process”, I am pleased that George Mitchell has somehow persuaded the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the negotiating table. My mantra remains, “You never know!”

Judaism has much to teach us about the inherent messiness of life, and how to navigate it. I want to turn my attention now to the guidance that essential Jewish wisdom can offer us for negotiating our lives, both on personal and national scales. Judaism does not offer a simple answer, for life isn’t simple. Judaism presents us with an essential tension of being alive, and demands that we embrace that tension:

On the one hand, national and self-preservation, independence, and self-determination are an absolutely central mitzvah, precept of Judaism. How can we fulfill the divine commandments if we are not alive and free? The Torah repeats this instruction many times. Yet on the other hand, there is a commandment that the Torah repeats at least 33 times, more than any other: do not oppress the stranger. “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been oppressed in the Land of Egypt.”

As Jews we are taught to carry a double-sided identity: a free people who remember what it is like to not be free. Judaism teaches us to be ambivalent about power. Judaism enshrines the memory of powerlessness in our very origins, and insists that we remember the inherent dignity and worth of every human being, especially the stranger, the non-citizen, those under our control. Judaism enshrines and embraces a healthy ambivalence. Judaism demands both empathy for the other, and concern for oneself.

Who here feels ambivalent about being Jewish? Well, mazel tov, and welcome to the club: you are being good Jews! Ambivalence, in its common usage, means having mixed feelings or contradictory opinions, and can imply a wishy-washy quality. I wish to redeem ambivalence, and to speak of its virtues. Ambivalence means having two valences, in other words, being able to see both sides of a question. One of the gifts of Judaism to us and to the world is that the ability to perceive multiple perspectives has been nurtured as a Jewish talent and virtue. Judaism promotes a healthy skepticism about unbridled power, knowing that power corrupts (think Pharaoh!) Jewish law insists that we give tzedakah to the poor – it is not an option – but also insists that we not give so much as to impoverish ourselves. The Talmud always preserves the minority opinion, even after it has been voted down. Judaism is preoccupied with interpersonal ethics: all human beings bear the divine imprint, and therefore how we treat the others in our sphere directly reflects our relationship with the Creator of all.

After 2,000 years of statelessness we Jews have been given the opportunity to build a nation once again. If this state is to be founded on the teachings of Judaism, then two things will be true:

-We will at all costs defend ourselves and our right to exist, and

-We will at all costs consider the needs and inherent dignity and worth of every human being, including the stranger, the alien, and every non-citizen who is under our control.

Is this impossible? In any fixed or final form, it probably is. But we can pursue it, with holy fervor.When Moses states a commandment in the Torah, it is almost always accompanied by the simple phrase “do it”. Interestingly, there are two commandments, and only two, that we are instructed to pursue, rather than “just do it”: justice and peace. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” “Seek peace and pursue it.”

There seems to be an understanding in these mitzvot that true justice and peace only exist as ideals, and that the best we can do in this world is to continually pursue them. That pursuit is a constant balancing act of the needs, rights and dignity of self and other. Justice and peace can only be approached by those who can be ambivalent, and see both sides.

Nobody ever built an empire by being ambivalent. But Judaism has never been about empire building. Judaism is about how to infuse life with moral purpose. This is what makes Judaism the great and holy teacher that it is.

Because we are taught to recognize multiple viewpoints, every situation brings up much to debate: what is the proper balance of self and other in this situation? Where is the balance of justice here? What is the most peaceful solution? This is the necessary and healthy tension that is at the heart of Judaism. That’s why we argue so much! But, if this tension of self and other is not our concern, then as Jews and as human beings we are in trouble. In the debate over Israel, extreme views only take one point of view, whether that viewpoint is solely in favor of Israel or solely in favor of the Palestinians. In their lack of healthy ambivalence, these positions have abandoned the Jewish discourse, the difficult, unsatisfying, risky and ennobling Jewish discourse.

Thank God our Jewish tradition refuses simple formulas and answers. Thank God for ambivalence.Thank God for three steps forward and two steps back, move left, move right, as the situation demands. Think of it not as stumbling, but as nimble, responsive dancing through life, different steps with different partners – or adversaries, as the case may be – aware of self and other. Dancing, instead of marching in lockstep, or retreating from the field.

I think I can sum up my thoughts today by reminding us all of perhaps the most famous Jewish aphorism. It is famous because it is true, because it embraces the paradoxical and complex nature of life. It is famous because it is so simple in concept, yet so difficult to enact, and embodies the wisdom of Judaism. “Rabbi Hillel taught: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

In this New Year, in our own lives, in our families, in this precious Jewish community, in our towns, in the life of our United States of America, in the life of the State of Israel, for all who dwell on earth, and for our precious planet may we embrace this holy path of ambivalence, of concern for ourselves and for others. We are now going to hear the shofar, and let its cry awaken us to our holy work. And if not now, when?