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Exisence As Encounter – Rosh Hashanah

September 05, 2013

Every time that a family schedules their son’s or daughter’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah to be celebrated in the Spring, it comes with the realization that most of the Torah Portions will be from the Book of Leviticus: how festivals are to be observed, a litany of laws about sacrifice offerings, instructions for the Cohanim and Levites, how things that are unclean are to be purified, and the treatment of diseases. Little wonder that families gasp at the thought.

However, if timing is on your side when you schedule your child’s service, you discover that Leviticus contains two chapters {Leviticus 19-20} that are referred to as ‘The Holiness Code’ in the Torah Portion called Kedoshim, from the Hebrew word that means “holy.” Those chapters expand upon the Ten Commandments that are found in the Book of Exodus. One of the most important verses in the entire Torah is found in the ‘The Holiness Code”:

ןְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” {Leviticus 19:18}.

It is a very difficult thing to do.

The ancient rabbis looked at Biblical texts and analyzed words, verbs and phrases. They wanted to know why a certain word was used instead of another, or what was being hinted at rather than stated forthrightly. So it should not surprise us that the first thing they did with regard to the verse “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” was to focus on the words “your neighbor.” They asked, “Who is ‘your neighbor’”? Is it just the person who lives next door to you? What about other people in your neighborhood? The rabbis also thought that since “your neighborhood” is likely to be populated by people who are similar to you in economic status, faith and race, love needs to expand beyond ‘the border of the tribe’ to encompass all people. They also said that you must have a strong sense of self-worth and self-respect – you must love yourself – before it is possible to truly “love your neighbor.”

They then looked at the wordכָּמוֹךָ – translated “as yourself” {“You shall love your neighbor ‘as yourself’”} but it literally means “like you” – and so the rabbis fashioned the verse in this manner: “You shall love your neighbor who, like you, is also created in the image of God.” The Holiness Code tells us to “love your neighbor” because if you try to love those closer to home, it is more likely that you will open your mind and heart to expand outward: beyond your neighborhood, beyond your city and country, to embrace the idea that others quite different from you are “also created in the image of God” and perhaps worthy of being loved.

This drive to connect is what Martin Buber {1878-1965} described as the ‘I-Thou’ relationship. A Jewish philosopher born in Austria, he became a professor at the University of Frankfurt, but resigned in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933. He immediately founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, and under its umbrella Jewish youth and adults studied in safe places before it all came crashing down. He left Germany in 1938 and made aliyah, and became a professor of anthropology and sociology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The lectures he gave during his first semester became the basis of his book The Problem of Man and the titles of books he wrote over the next three decades provide a lens into what motivated and inspired him: I and Thou {1923}; For the Sake of Heaven {1945}; Tales of the Hasidim {1947}; On Zion – The History of An Idea {1973}. He is most closely associated with having formulated the concept of ‘I-Thou’ – intimate relationships – in contrast to ‘I-It’ – utilitarian relationships – or, as he described it, ‘I-Thou’ is all about the significance of “existence as encounter” expressed through “sincere dialogue” and “mutuality.”

As we enter the New Year, I want to explore “existence as encounter,” and specifically how it relates to ‘the other’: how we regard and treat people who are different from us because of their race, faith, ethnicity or political convictions. If we believe that peace will one day come to the Middle East – and we need to believe that – then we have to find a place in our heart that will keep us open to engagement with the very people from whom we are emotionally disengaged. I want to tell you about two of those people. I want to talk about an experience I had this past April in Israel when I spent a day in a place that I never anticipated being: in Hebron, on the West Bank.

I have lived in Israel and I have been there many times, but until I was there five months ago, my points of contact with Arabs were marginal at best. I bargained with them in the shuk of the Old City of Jerusalem, and I passed by them when I explored neighborhoods in Old Jaffa, but I never really spoke with them. This time, things changed.

I was motivated to be in Israel because my oldest son, Jonathan, was on a six-month internship with Ha’aretz newspaper in Tel Aviv. His work hours were, for the most part, in the evening and that gave us significant time to be together during the day. I hired a guide for two of my five days in Tel Aviv to show us places that we had never seen – the Rabin Museum; a new exhibit at the Palmach Museum; the Saronna neighborhood where our guide was raised during the British Mandate; and the Nalaga’at Center where the Blackout Restaurant and its adjacent theatre are staffed by Israelis who were born blind or deaf, or suffer from ‘Usher Syndrome,’ a genetic disorder that causes deafness and gradual vision loss. I also hired a guide for one of our two days in Jerusalem. Initially, we were to have gone with him to the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem as well as the Museum of Underground Prisoners, where those captured by the British during the Mandate Period were incarcerated. However, since you do not really need a guide at those two sites, we decided to go with him to Hebron instead.

I had been there on several occasions in the early 1970s when I lived in Israel, and in the later years of that decade when I traveled there, as well as the 1980s on numerous trips to Israel, and going to Hebron was just a matter of making the time to get there. Since then the landscape has changed considerably, and for reasons of safety one needs to inquire if the road from Jerusalem approaching Hebron is open to visitors or tourists.

Hebron is very significant in Jewish history because it is the burial site of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. In the Book of Genesis we read:

וַתָּמָת שָֹרָה בְּקִרִיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן

“Sarah [Abraham’s wife] died in Kiryat-Arbah, which is Hebron…[and the text goes on to read] Abraham said [to the people there], ‘Sell me a gravesite among you, that I may bury [Sarah] here…Entreat Ephron son of Zoar for me, let him sell me the cave of Machpelah…Abraham weighed out for Ephron the amount of silver that Ephron had named in the hearing of the people, and so Ephron’s land in Machpelah – the field, its cave, and all the trees in the field within its boundaries – passed to Abraham by purchase in the sight of the people and all of the town leaders” {Genesis 23:2,4,8-9,16-18}. To this day, the burial site – not just of Abraham and Sarah, but almost all of our patriarchs and matriarchs – is revered by traditional Jews.

The Hebrew word machpelah in rabbinic literature refers either to a double cave or to the “couples” buried in the caves. The caves are far below a large, imposing structure that is almost 40 feet in height, made of rough hewn stones up to 23 feet in length. It looks like a fortress. Herod built the first structure over the caves, and then as the centuries passed, it was expanded by the Byzantines who built a church there in 614; then Muslims converted it into a mosque {637}, which left Isaac and Rebecca’s tombs inside, while the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Leah were outside the entrance; and then the Crusaders arrived {1100} about five hundred years later, and it once again became a church. Almost a hundred years later, Saladin conquered the area, reconverting the enclosure to a mosque, but allowed Christians to worship there. Two hundred years after that – in 1320 – the mosque was enlarged, and six tombs were created to signify the resting places of Abraham, Sarah, Leah and Jacob – now on the side of the cave where Jews hold services, while Isaac and Rebeccah’s tombs are in the mosque. So the Cave of Machpelah was in different iterations a mosque, then a church and, more recently, since 1968, a place where Jewish services are held next to the mosque. Hebron is the second holiest city in Judaism, after Jerusalem, and is one of the “four holy cities” of Islam.

Hebron is defined by checkpoints beyond the city’s perimeters and in it as well. IDF soldiers are on the ground and in towers. Barricades can be repositioned at any moment to redirect the flow of foot or vehicular traffic. There are approximately 1,500 Israelis living in Hebron, in the midst of 150,000 Arabs who live in and around Hebron. There are 3,000 IDF soldiers in Hebron 24/7 protecting Jews from Muslims, and Muslims from Jews, and I had the feeling that just under the surface is a tension wire that can snap at any time. It is a place saturated with history and blood, defined by different beliefs and barriers that are physical and emotional, fueled by politics and religion.

On August 24, 1929, in what is called “the Hebron massacre,” Arab rioters killed almost 70 Jewish children, women and men, wounded almost 60, and ransacked Jewish homes and synagogues. 435 Jews survived thanks to their Arab neighbors who hid them. There had been incidents prior to that and certainly since – in Kiryat Arbah as well – but 1929 is a year that defines the most horrendous.

Another day of infamy arrived on Purim, February 25, 1994. On that day, Baruch Goldstein – may his name be cursed – an American born physician who made aliyah in 1983, served in the IDF and lived in Kiryat Arbah, entered the mosque that is part of the Cave of Machpelah. He was armed, in uniform, and gave the impression that he was a reserve officer on active duty. He opened fire on Muslims bowed in worship, killing 29 and wounding more than 125 before he was beaten to death by survivors of the massacre. It was his intention to push President Clinton’s call for Israel-PLO peace talks off the track. In the aftermath of the slaughter, Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin said that severing dialogue would mean handing “a prize to someone who not only murdered Palestinians but tried to murder the peace process.”

Rabin vehemently denounced Goldstein. He called Yasser Arafat to express condolences and called it “a loathsome, criminal act of murder,” as did Jewish leaders throughout the world. President Ezer Wiezman went to Hebron to make condolence calls, deploring an attack that he said was “anti-Jewish and anti-Israel.” He called it “the worst thing that has happened to us in the history of Zionism.” It was decried along the length and breadth of the rabbinate in Israel and elsewhere, but not by all rabbis. At Goldstein’s funeral, Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arbah declared that Goldstein was “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust.” Rabbi Yaakov Perrin claimed that even one million Arabs are “not worth a Jewish fingernail.” In the weeks following the slaughter, Israelis and Palestinians died in attacks to avenge the killings.

Goldstein’s grave is in Kiryat Arbah. It is the only grave in a park dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League in America and leader of the political party, Kach, in Israel, founded by him in 1970 and banned in 1994 following the massacre. Goldstein knew Kahane growing up in Brooklyn and became a disciple of his. Let me paint this in bold strokes: in the midst of Kiryat Arbah, home to 7,000 Jews adjacent to Hebron, is a park dedicated to the memory of Meir Kahane. In that park is the gravesite of Baruch Goldstein, and on his grave, etched in Hebrew on stone, are these words: “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah and the nation of Israel, murdered [he died] in sanctification of the Divine Name {nirtzach ahl kiddush haShem}.”

The shock waves of what Goldstein did ripple to this day. Jews cannot enter the mosque side of the Cave of Machpelah {save for ten days during the year}, only Muslims and Christians can do so. Muslims cannot enter the Jewish side of the Cave of Machpelah, only Jews and Christians can do so. This is one of the legacies of Baruch Goldstein, may his name be cursed.

After seeing his grave, we went to the Cave of Machpelah. We visited the Jewish side replete with shelves laden with prayer books and scholarly texts; another room with a large ark in front of which are rows of chairs where worshippers sit and daven; the venerated tombs in adjacent chambers radiate outward from the worship space, the symbolic resting places of two of our patriarchs – Abraham and Jacob – and two of our matriarchs, Sarah and Leah. Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin and is buried in Efrat, south of Jerusalem between Bethlehem and Hebron. Thanks to the intervention of our guide, we were able to enter the mosque and marvel at its beauty: stunning marble with bright, inlaid colors in various patterns; flying arches that dazzle the eyes with their beautiful shapes and colors; and the resting place of our patriarch, Isaac, and matriarch, Rebecca.

Afterwards, our guide encouraged us to meet with the spokesperson of The Hebron Fund. Born in America, he lives in Kiryat Arbah, and the offices of The Hebron Fund are a short walk from the Cave. On its website it says that its “primary goal…is the raising of capital for the improvement of daily life – parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, after-school programs, libraries, summer youth activities, as well as sponsorship of public cultural and educational events in Hebron for the residents of Hebron” – though this does not include Muslims in Hebron. I told our guide that I was well acquainted with this kind of rhetoric and contempt of “the other” and I had no desire to meet with The Hebron Fund spokesperson. However, he thought it was important for us to hear “the other side” to appreciate how deep the tentacles of Jewish fundamentalism run. As you might imagine, the spokesperson was articulate, impassioned and eager for us to understand why a Jewish presence in Hebron is so important. I told him that I appreciate its historic significance, but am distressed about limitations placed upon its residents who are not Jewish – numerous checkpoints through which Muslims must pass – and by the way, I asked, “How do you feel about the fact that Baruch Goldstein is buried in the midst of your city, Kiryat Arbah?”

He responded by telling us that after Goldstein was killed – making it seem as if Muslim worshippers woke up that morning determined to kill an Israeli – weapons were found in the mosque. I told him that I had never read about it or heard of it. He insisted it is absolutely true: Muslims were storing weapons in the mosque and they were prepared to use them against Israelis and the IDF. I said that I do not believe it, but surely he does not condone what Goldstein had done? I was treated to the rhetoric of “Goldstein as martyr.” When we left his office after having spent half an hour with him, I felt exactly the same as when I read about a Palestinian mother whose son or daughter died as a suicide bomber, and she says, “I wish I had more like him {or her}” {see “Mariam Farhat, 64, the ‘Mother of Martyrs,’” New York Times, 23 March 2013, sec. A15}. I wonder on what planet the two of us have a common vocabulary. I felt the same about the spokesperson of The Hebron Fund. His silky smoothness, his cold certainty, and his complete disdain for Arabs were disgusting and alarming.

I left that meeting drained, forlorn and angry, only to see something written on the long side of a RV that is additional office space in the parking lot of The Hebron Fund that depressed me all the more. Emblazoned in ‘blood red’ Hebrew letters – professionally done, in contrast to hastily written graffiti – was a long, impassioned statement about the importance of Hebron to the Jewish people. Toward its conclusion I arrived at words that brought me to a halt, so stunned was I by what I read. It is a warning to the government of Israel that if any effort is made to move one Jew out of Hebron, the result will be “the blood of brother against brother.” This is a call to civil war and the use of deadly force against the IDF.

At that point, our guide asked us if we would like to sit down – undoubtedly to calm down – and have a cup of coffee in a small tourist shop across the street from the Cave of Machpelah. The store is owned by an Arab gentleman he knows and works with in the field of Jewish antiquity. It was in the tourist shop filled with knickknacks that we met Mahmood and his son.

We sipped coffee from small cups and my mood lifted as we talked. After a while, our guide asked if Jonathan and I would like to see the casbah on the Muslim side of the city – its entry point is just past the Cave of Machpelah where the mosque is located – and if so, he would arrange for us to gain access to it in the company of Mahmood’s 23 year-old son. We cleared through the checkpoint and entered a very small shuk, similar to the much larger shuk in the Old City of Jerusalem. The difference is that instead of forty or fifty shops lining each side of long, stone-and-dusty pathways filled with tourists – and paths intersecting paths heading toward different compass points – almost all of them teeming with people walking, talking, shopping, bargaining, and taking photos as they meander along, the casbah had only twenty shops on both sides of a very wide walkway, but almost all of them were shuttered for lack of business, and we were among perhaps five tourists there. Mahmood’s son spoke excellent English and I peppered him with questions about where he was born and educated, what he did for a living, and what it was like living in Hebron. He answers were thoughtful and with the constant refrain of his desire to find a peaceful solution to the current predicament. He spoke about how he tries to get to know the tourists he meets: not just their religious or national identity, but to learn about their families, as well as what brought them to Israel, and then to Hebron. He obviously knew that we are American Jews, and I don’t know if that made him more cordial in the hope of sensitizing us to the burdens he faces, or if his openness is simply who he is.

As we walked in the casbah, I asked him if he felt that he was constantly being watched. He pointed to a tower about 500 yards ahead of us. He told us that soldiers seated behind grey glass observe everything in a 360 degree arc. “Yes,” he said, “we are always watched.” He told us that merchants in the shuk are not allowed to have umbrellas to protect them from the heat of the sun when they stand outside the doorway of their shops to invite tourists in, or to speak with each other. Unspoken was the message that the IDF needs eyes-on-the-ground 24/7. It is the tension of Hebron.

“You shall love your neighbor who, like you, is also created in the Divine image” our tradition teaches. I was reminded this past April of how difficult this can be. I was repelled by the spokesperson of The Hebron Fund: how can I ever feel that he is “my neighbor”? I have little in common with Mahmood’s son: will the day arrive that he and I will see each other as “neighbors”? I hope so. Politics, religion, geography and history make for a volatile mix. I do not have easy answers for myself, and I certainly am not about to suggest what they might be for you.

Hebron is an important piece of a larger puzzle that begins in Jerusalem and extends outward. Many Israelis are concerned that the talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives are likely to be highways to nowhere. Those who used to believe that territorial concessions are crucial and that, once resolved, peace would follow are much more skeptical today. And there are Israelis who are frustrated that steps toward dialogue are stymied by construction bids for new settlements.

The narrative of this morning’s Torah reading, ‘the binding of Isaac,’ is well known to Israelis, and perhaps more than any other Biblical narrative it has become a persistent image in Zionist thought. Many Israelis interpret the binding as metaphor for national sacrifice, and so Isaac stands for Israel’s fallen warriors {Yael Feldman, Sh’ma, A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, September 2011}. Har Herzl is filled with their graves.

I love Israel and I worry for her. I mourn for her sons and daughters who died in wars that arrived like clockwork every decade {listed for information only: War of Independence, 11/30/47-4/7/48; Suez War, 10/29/56-11/6/56}; Six Day War, 6/5/67-6/10/67; Yom Kippur War, 10/6/73-10/25/73; Lebanon War, 6/6/82-5/83; First Intifada {12/87-9/13/93 [Oslo Accords]} and in recent skirmishes and military operations that have erupted with increasing frequency since 2000 {listed for information only: Second Intifada, 9/2000-2005; Lebanon War, 7/12/06-8/14/06; Gaza, 12/27/08-1/18/09; Operation Pillar of Defense, 11/14/12-11/21/12}. I yearn for peace, have found it to be elusive, and wonder what price in blood will be paid to try to secure it.

The world has become weary of Israel and more hostile toward her: not all nations, but too many nations. Secretary of State John Kerry gave voice to that reality. Binyamin Netanyahu concurred, even as he continues to voice his dismay over Iran’s buildup toward nuclear capability. He has every right to be concerned. Nations cannot reach a consensus about how to effectively respond to two years of slaughter in Syria, and yet Israel remains the piñata on which nations are fixated.

When did recent ‘tipping points’ occur? Perhaps with the findings of the Goldstone Report in September 2009 that resulted in a resolution adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning only Israel for violating the laws of war in the December 2008 – January 2009 Gaza War. Perhaps in the aftermath of Israel’s effort to force the Gaza flotilla to the Israeli port of Ashdod for inspection in May 2010, or with the IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 in response to more than 100 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza within a 24 hour period. BDS movements in Europe and America, as well as the drumbeat of anti-Zionism – an echo of anti-Semitism – continue to intensify.

עִם יָבוֹא שָלוֹם If peace arrives, what security arrangements will be put into place to prevent Israelis – men, women, and children – from succumbing to rockets launched from proximate borders, and the West Bank or Gaza?

Can we somehow conjure an Arab leader who will travel to Jerusalem to speak בְֹּשָלוֹם with an Israel that is recognized by all her neighbors and adversaries as a legitimate state with the right to exist? Will charters finally delete the call for her destruction?

Things change, and sometimes for the better. Who knows what these trying times will bring? In Israel, the gulf is symbolized by the distance between Mahmood’s son and the spokesperson for The Hebron Fund: they move past each other, only streets apart, without seeing one another. Can they bridge the divide?

Adin Steinsaltz – Orthodox scholar, philosopher, author and rabbi – said,

“Suffering is a trial.

Suffering can lead to many things.

Some rise, others fall.

Suffering is the test.

Can a person receive it without sliding into hatred?

Can he grow from experiencing it?”

{Adin Steinsaltz, Pebbles of Wisdom: Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2009, p. 184}

We have suffered enough.

May we find peace.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin