Posts Tagged 'Morality'

The Jewish Duty to Take In Refugees

It was hard not to feel a pang upon learning that Germany and Austria would take in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, in addition to the thousands they have already welcomed. While our prime minister says there’s no “demographic depth” that would allow even a symbolic humanitarian step, it seems others have learned the lesson from World War II – especially those who were so concerned about demographics at the time.

Netanyahu can always be expected to choose inaction over action, and his refusal to take in refugees is not surprising. What’s strange is the silence of the rabbis and leaders of the religious world. Strange, because Jewish tradition clearly speaks of sheltering and aiding refugees. It does so not only in the repeated reminders that “ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” and, therefore, the Israeli people are forever duty-bound to take care of foreigners, but also in explicit commandments.

The Torah says,

Thou shalt not deliver unto his master a bondman that is escaped from his master unto thee; he shall dwell with thee, in the midst of thee, in the place which he shall choose within one of thy gates, where it liketh him best. (Deuteronomy, 23:16-17)

It is easy to see the Torah’s emphasis on the slave’s freedom to settle wherever he chooses – "with thee", "in the midst of thee", "he shall choose", "where it liketh him". Biblical commentators link these verses to the preceding ones dealing with war, and conclude that it’s a commandment, a virtue, to take in refugees as well.

Maimonides says the commandment

contains a great utility – namely, it makes us protect and defend those who seek our protection and not deliver them over to those from whom they have fled (Guide to the Perplexed, 3, 39).

He understands the commandment regarding the slaves as the minimal duty, and it is certainly our duty to help those who aren’t slaves but are fleeing danger.

And that’s not all. The prophet Isaiah implores the Moabites to adopt this virtue of taking in refugees: “Let mine outcasts dwell with thee; as for Moab, be thou a covert to him from the face of the spoiler” (Isaiah 16:4).

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi, explained,

When the time of Moab’s destruction came, Isaiah describes the reason for the holocaust. All the nations dwelling on Moab’s border used to cry out over the Moabites’ iniquities … there’s only one way to overcome the hardship – Moab must return to ways of mercy and when he still stands at the peak of his power and his light shines like noon, he will treat wretched refugees with compassion.

It seems that according to Isaiah the kingdom of Moab crumbled because it refused to house refugees.

So where are all those concerned for Israel’s Jewish character? Why don’t they cry out when Israel undermines Jewish tradition like this? Where are they hiding, these deeply religious people who speak so loftily of “Jewish morals” and seeking to strengthen “Jewish identity?” How come their voice isn’t heard loud and clear, crying over our mother Rachel’s sons who are denying their ancestors’ legacy?

I am not naive. It’s clear to me that, like all of us, those who see themselves as loyal to tradition choose which parts of it to observe. That’s fine; we all do that. But it’s important to raise two points.

First, they should understand that their commitment to tradition has clear boundaries – in other words, they choose how to express their Jewishness.

This recognition is important not only because it add some integrity to the world, but also because makes clear that anyone who cites halakha (Jewish religious law) to justify his objection to equal rights for Arabs, gays or women is simply using halakha, not obeying it. It’s not "halakha"; it’s him. He is a racist or a sexist, and because of that he chooses halakhic decrees that fit his views. Anti-assimilationist Bentzi Gopstein attributes to Maimonides his view that churches in Israel must be burned down, but of course we won’t hear a word from him about Maimonides’ command to take in refugees.

The second point is also associated with commitment – not to halakha, but to moral decisions. Because the interesting thing with such decisions is that they require us to make an effort.

Morality is linked to our relations with the other, and the other usually challenges us, doesn’t give us a free aromatic massage.

We should note well which halakhic choices challenge us, take us out of our comfort zone and require us to make an effort, and which choices flatter us, gratify our worldview and give us that indulging massage.

It’s easy to tell ourselves we’re a chosen people, and therefore we’re allowed to discriminate against others. We need voices calling on Jews to take responsibility, to give of themselves, to do the difficult, inconvenient thing.

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, 1929 Riots. Image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID matpc.15716.

Printed in Haaretz

The Idea of a Jewish Tyranny

Five weeks after the election, we can declare the advent of a new genre among those who write about Israel in the international media: the lamentation. It’s hard to find a media outlet, certainly in the Western democracies, that hasn’t given a platform to a writer who will explain, whether with sentimentality or cold didacticism, that in the wake of the shelving of the two-state-for-two-peoples vision, Israel will not be able to continue being both Jewish and democratic.

Examples include Jonathan Freedland, a senior editor and columnist in The Guardian; David Blair in The Telegraph; Bettina Marx on the Deutsche Welle website; Michael Cohen in The Boston Globe; Dana Milbank in The Washington Post; and of course Thomas Friedman in The New York Times. All of them point out in plain language why the demographics between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean will leave two options, and two only, in the future: either Jewish tyranny or binational democracy. The word “apartheid” is also increasingly coming into use in connection with Israel.

On April 13, Vox.com published a long article by Max Fisher whose headline summed up the matter clearly: “Israel’s dark future: Democracy in the Jewish state is doomed.”

Let’s leave to one side the question of how likely it is that these nightmare scenarios will be realized, and concentrate on the present. The approach that is gaining ground right now, which pits Israel’s Judaism against its democracy, is genuine cause for concern. The current situation, in which important voices are eulogizing Israeli democracy and viewing Judaism as little more than a fading ethnic phenomenon, in the best case, and as a license to apartheid, in the worst case, betokens the crisis that has already struck us: the ugly distortion of Jewish culture in the early 21st century.

When our best friends, the countries with which we like to boast that we “share values,” increasingly perceive Israel’s Judaism as an antithesis to the state’s democratic character and a threat to the liberal approach and equality of rights to which Israel committed itself in its Declaration of Independence – it appears that we are closer than ever to having the Jewish tradition relegated to the abhorrent status of communism in the past and of Salafi Islam in the present. We are witnessing Judaism being tarred-and-feathered, and the charges will stick to it more than any anti-Semitic calumny in the past, simply because this time no blood libel will be involved.

In November 1975, when Israeli President Chaim Herzog tore up United Nations Resolution 3379, he was protesting the equation of Zionism with racism. Forty years later, and after an election campaign in which Herzog’s son was defeated in his bid to become prime minister, the Western world is becoming used to thinking that Judaism is tyranny.

Most tragic of all, perhaps, is that not only internationally but in Israel itself the distinction between the state’s Jewish character and its democratic regime is growing more acute. According to data of the Israel Democracy Institute, in the past five years there has been a consistent decline in the proportion of Israel’s Jewish citizens who consider the fusion of democracy and Judaism important. If in 2010, 48.1 percent of Jewish citizens replied that the two elements are equally important to them, in 2012 this fell to 41.9 percent, and in 2014, it was 24.5 percent. At the same time, the proportion of Israeli Jews for whom the Jewish element is the most important rose to as high as 38.9 percent; 33.5 percent of the respondents opted for democracy as most important.

Data and figure from the Israel Democracy Institute. click on picture for source

The story here is not only the fact that for so many, Judaism “outranks” democracy in importance, though that is a disturbing situation in itself. The crux of the matter is that for the majority of Israel’s citizens the belief that the two of them can exist simultaneously is becoming increasingly impossible. The tragedy, then, is that, as in the Western world, in Israel, too, more and more people consider “Judaism” and “democracy” to be mutually exclusive entities.

The debacle here is above all cultural: It concerns the failure of Israeli society to forge a Judaism that is substantively democratic, a Judaism that self-evidently does not contradict democracy but, on the contrary, buttresses it. Instead, Judaism is being shaped as a violent ethnic identity, a Spartan religion of a nation of masters, an atavistic, nationalist entity, which instead of conducting a dialogue with modernity is choosing to divest itself of liberal traits it had already internalized, including some that were always ingrained in it.

This cultural debacle will become a historical disaster if, heaven forbid, Israel truly becomes exclusively “Jewish” in the future. Democracy will obviously suffer in that case, and along with it the population between the Jordan and the sea. A terrible period will ensue, but as with every past tyranny, this one, too, will collapse. When that happens, the true tragedy will be revealed: It will emerge that for the whole world, Judaism has become synonymous with apartheid and occupation, violence and oppression, despotism and subjugation.

Judaism has survived many disasters. This is one disaster it will not survive.

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Published today in Haaretz

About The Indiana Law Allowing Business Owners to Refuse to Aid A Gay Wedding

A new law scheduled to go into effect in the state of Indiana in July, the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, is supposedly intended to protect the freedom of religious faith of the people of the state. However, it has met with harsh criticism as it is seen as a license to discriminate against LGBT people. The law is not intended to allow discrimination against gay people simply for being gay, but will apparently allow business owners to refuse to serve gay couples seeking to marry – for instance wedding hall owners opposed to such an event held on their property.

According to the New York Times’ analysis, the law allows companies and individuals to refuse to provide service that will place a “substantial burden” on their religious beliefs. Should their refusal land them in court, the judge would have to balance the burden upon their religious beliefs and the state’s desire to prevent discrimination. CNN’s legal analyst believes that the law will not allow people to decline to serve individual gay persons, but will probably enable people to refuse to aid in any way the celebration of a gay wedding. The issue has already drawn furious protests by the gay community, and condemnations from various activists and politicians (such as Hilary Clinton). The Governor of Connecticut has promised to sign an order banning trips subsidized by his stte to Indiana, as has the Mayor of Seattle. Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an article decrying the bill, and Ashton Kutcher and Miley Cyrus are tweeting with the hashtag #boycottindiana.

Israeli readers might recall a similar case to come before the Israeli bench. In 2012 Judge Dorit Finestein imposed a 60,000 ILS fine on the guesthouse at Moshav Yad HaShmona, which has refused to hold the wedding of Tal Yaacobovitch and Yael Biran due to their sexual orientation. “The Judge noted that the object of the fine was not only to compensate the couple, but also to educate the public at large in values of equality and human dignity” (from an article by Ilan Lior in Haaretz.) This case had to do with a wedding hall belonging to Messianic Jews, whose faith stood in opposition to the nuptials in question.

Would we accept a wedding hall owner unwilling to rent his hall to a wedding of Blacks/Mizrachis/Jews? Of course not, and in Israel, like in many democracies around the world, there are many laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race. What about a wedding hall owner who won’t rent his hall to an interracial wedding? Of course, those same laws will prohibit that as well. And what of a hall owner who won’t rent his hall to religious people? Or secular ones? I think we would not accept such a reality.

So ostensibly, we are unwilling to countenance discrimination against service seekers. But the matter is not so simple. I think none of us will insist that a private service provider (not a public official or public service) has no right, under any circumstance, to refuse service to a customer. Thus, for example, there have been several cases in which clergymen (not business owners) have been sued for their refusal to marry gay couple – which is completely absurd in my opinion. Must a lawyer accept any client, even those he believes to be immoral criminals? Must a plastic surgeon provide breast enlargement to any woman who shows up at his clinic? How can we force a private person to take on a client whom he or she not only doesn’t want to serve, but ones they believe they must not serve?

But let’s focus on halls and weddings. Consider the following example:

You own a wedding hall. You’re an ultra-orthodox Jew. You have a religious problem with renting the hall to Jews on Friday nights and Saturdays, because you believe that Jews are obligated to keep the Sabbath, and you are unwilling to aid in what to you is a transgression. Likewise, you won’t rent the hall to Jews who want non-kosher food catered. You have no problem renting the hall to non-Jews on the weekends or having non-Jews have non-kosher food catered, and of course you have no problem renting to Jews in general.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. You’re an atheist and a feminist. You have an ideological problem with renting your hall to religious folks who practice gender separation. You don’t want your hall to feature men sitting apart from women, or only male waiters to serve men and only female waiters to serve women. You have no problem with renting the hall to religious people, but not if they practice such separation. The same goes for religious weddings of minors, age 17, let alone 14. That will not happen in your hall.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. You’re vegetarians, or maybe vegans. You don’t offer catering service in your hall, and you allow your clients to hire outside catering services. Although you strenuously object to eating meat, you realize that most people are meat eaters, and are willing to have couples marry in your hall with catering that includes meat. One day a couple comes in wishing to rent the hall. While talking with them you realize that they intend to have catering that serves lobsters. In order for the lobsters to be fresh (and for the added spectacle), they intend to place a giant aquarium in the hall in which the living lobsters will swim, until taken out and thrown live into vats of boiling water. This is too much for you, and you inform the couple that they cannot rent your hall.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. For political and moral reasons, you strenuously object to Israel’s control of the West Bank. You boycott products from the settlements, and won’t rent your hall to people who live in settlements.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Here’s another example:

You own a wedding hall. You strenuously object to marriage between Jews and non-Jews. For you it’s really not a racial matter, but one of religion and tradition. It is important to you to prevent what you view as a destructive process of diluting and even destroying the Jewish people. You won’t rent your hall for weddings between Jews and non-Jews.

Should you be allowed to operate this way?

Not all of these examples are matching, and we should distinguish them from one another. There is a difference between discriminating against customers on the basis of their race/ethnicity/religion and discriminating against customers on the basis of their actions. The difference stems from the fact that a person’s origin or religion are a deep and essential part of their identity, whereas their actions are not usually a part of their identity. A large part of the human rights discourse is based on what we perceive as sources of identity and deep meaning in our lives. The freedom of expression, for instance, is important not only for the existence of a healthy society with a plurality of opinions and a capacity for self-criticism, but also because one’s ability to express one’s opinions is a central part of one’s self-perception, and one’s dignity. Likewise the freedom of religion and conscience, or most simply put the physical wholeness of our body.

Therefore refusing to rent a hall to someone who boils lobsters alive is not tantamount to refusing to rent a hall to Jews. Likewise, one’s desire to keep one’s hall from hosting a violation of the Sabbath, or the serving of non-kosher food, is not an unfair discrimination, but a protection of one’s religious faith.

And what of a boycott against settlers? Here the matter is more complex. There are people for whom living in Judea and Samaria is a deep part of their identity. They’re not just located in the occupied territories – they are settlers. This is how they perceive themselves; it is a central part of their identity. They view it as a high value and take pride in it. On the other hand, it seems to me that the settler identity is weaker than a Jewish or LGBT one. This is an intermediate case. Is it permissible to discriminate against settlers and refuse to do business with them? When the Boycott Law was passed in Israel, banning calls for boycott based on place of residence, many (myself included) saw it as a base and undemocratic attempt to legitimately oppose the occupation. It seems that many people believe that a private business owner (or consumer) should be allowed to boycott settlers just for being settlers.

Now undoubtedly, homosexuality is a matter of identity, and not of sexual activity. Sexual orientation is considered nowadays as a deep element of a person’s identity, and therefore a central dimension of one’s self-perception and basic dignity. This is why we take such offense at discrimination against LGBT’s – because the logic at the foundation of the human rights discourse leads us to the conclusion that they have equal rights exactly for who they are.

Is it therefore wrong for a private person to refuse to provide a service for gays wishing to get married? Let’s say that person is willing to rent his or her hall for a gay or lesbian person’s birthday party. They have no problem with homosexuality in and of itself – they are not homophobes. They question is must we force such a person to rent their hall specifically for a same-sex marriage, which is to say for the performance of an act they hold to be immoral/contrary to the commandments of God.

Let us compare it to a person unwilling to rent their hall for a wedding with gender separation. By so doing he is basically banning from his business all ultra-orthodox people and most national-religious ones. Is this permissible? We may think it isn’t, and that we should force him. Perhaps we also think same-sex weddings shouldn’t be refused, and that we should force individuals for whom this is against their world-view to rent their hall.

On the other hand, perhaps we think one must not refuse a LGBT wedding but may refuse an ultra-orthodox one. I think that is a legitimate stance, but we must understand that it stems from a particular liberal conception and carries a particular liberal agenda. This is about furthering an agenda based upon the growing discourse of rights, with the position being that the point the discourse of rights has reached in our times is the point to which the law must move. One may refuse to host an ultra-orthodox wedding because they harm the rights of women, and one must not refuse to host a LGBT wedding because their right to marry must not be abridged.

From another perspective one may say that what we have in the last example is an agenda of secularizing the public sphere, like the law forbidding covering one’s face with a burqa in France or the law banning the construction of mosque turrets in Switzerland, that is, a law that consciously overrides a certain religious obligation (in this case the prohibition on same-sex marriage) in order to promote a more secular public sphere.

This is not my position, but as mentioned above I believe it’s a legitimate position. What I’d like to stress is that it is a position. Meaning that there is ideological baggage (let’s say, one promoting liberal democracy and/or secularism). Therefore to the same extent we must recognize that there is nothing obviously true here, and that there can – and should – be public debate between this position and opposing ones.

Rejecting religious or LGBT customers because the nature of the weddings they hold is immoral in the opinion of the hall owner will most likely be perceived by the rejected as a rejection of their identity, and is therefore a very harsh act. However, it can definitely be argued that the rejection is not of religious or LGBT people, but only of the specific act they commit in marriage. Of course this act too reaches far deeper into their identity than eating live-boiled lobsters does into the identity of the diner. This is a far more essential expression of “who they are.” And yet, it can be argued that this still doesn’t turn the rejection of their wedding into a rejection of them. The wedding hall owner can claim to have no problem with observant people or gays, but only with the way they marry.

The context also matters here. If the group discriminated against is a small, weak one which is ostracized by most of society, there is cause for the law to protect it. For instance, if LGBT people were rejected by 90% of wedding halls, and had no reasonable option of holding their weddings, there would be reason for a law to protect them and force hall owners to rent them their halls. I believe the reality is opposite. Hall owners unwilling to rent their halls to same-sex weddings are a minority, and the moral-religious position they hold is becoming less and less accepted in the Western society of our time. See above for a very partial list of those protesting the new law in Indiana to get a picture of the forces that are up against its defenders.

I believe that LGBT people have the right to get married, that is to say, that this is a basic right, and therefore I thing the state should be required to allow same-sex marriage by law (I hope to write about the underlying principles of this sometime). On the other hand, I think that under current conditions, where there is no shortage of halls and officiators who would be glad to host or conduct a same-sex wedding, private business owners should be allowed to retain their beliefs and refuse to hold same-sex weddings in their businesses. This is because society has an interest and an obligation to allow individuals to freely preserve and express their religious and/or moral convictions.

This issue isn’t simple. It involves religion and politics, private morals and legal ruling. It also mixes a certain social perception with a certain political culture, and also a contextual analysis of the facts on the ground. The law in Indiana which allows private people to refuse to take part, as business owners, in a same-sex wedding, defends their private notion of what is good, and this is important. It does not relieve them of the need to justify it, if required, in a court of law. It also does not prevent protests, and even boycotts, by the general public against them. I find this to be a proper balance.

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(I Thank Yael Peled for her enlightening comments on a draft of this article. Of course, all opinions and errors are mine.)

Changing the World One Bit at a Time – an Interview with Micha Odenheimer

If anyone crying out "charity begins at home" (From the Talmudic עניי עירך קודמים) would actually try to take care those in need around him, we would probably not have so much misery in the world. Unfortunately this is not the case. I am not denying the simple logic of this sentence – we are indeed immediately responsible and committed to those close to us. The sad fact is this sentence is often used not as an imperative to take responsibility, but as an indictment of what we don’t like in others.

But maybe all this is irrelevant regarding Micah Odenheimer, as he has already shown his care and assistance both near and far. I met him a few months ago as part of a talk I gave to the Tevel b’Tzedek organization, which Odenheimer founded and heads. When I spoke to him about the wonderful institute he set up I understood how sensitive and deep is the thinking behind it. It is not a simple mission of helping the weak overseas, which often is not only patronizing, but simply ineffective. Tevel b’Tzedek, devote their time and energy to help the underprivileged independent. As the cliché goes, they do not hand out fish but teach how to build fishing rods. That they do in the name of Judaism and of the values of the Jewish tradition. I asked him to be interviewed for this blog and I was glad he agreed.

Odenheimer was born in Berkeley, California and is a graduate of Yale University. In 1984 and was ordained as a rabbi, and was a close disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. In 1988 he immigrated to Israel, and since works, writes, teaches and lectures widely on social justice. As a journalist Micah covered topics of poverty, globalization and human rights in many countries, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Burma, Haiti, Nepal, Bangladesh and Indonesia. He wrote for different newspapers, among these the Washington Post, The Guardian, London Times, The Jerusalem Rapport and Ha’aretz. He founded the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, one of the main organizations that assist Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, and still serves as a member of the Management Board. In 2006 he founded the Tevel b’Tzedek to encourage young Jews to take an active role in the fight for social justice globally.

Why and how did you found Tevel b’Tzedek?

I founded Tevel b’Tzedek out of a desire that had been brewing in me for a long time to find a way to connect Israelis, Jews and Judaism to what I saw as the greatest ethical challenge of our time—the marginalization and impoverishment of large parts of humanity in the age of globalization. I was exposed to the “two thirds world” for the first time when I travelled to Ethiopia in 1990 as a journalist to cover the story of the Ethiopian Jewish “Aliya”. I fell in love with Ethiopia, with the immediacy and magic that was alive there, but also was shocked by the vulnerability of the poor—the vast majority—vulnerability to disease, to hunger, to oppressive regimes. One piece of bad luck—almost inevitable—and people could lose everything, could lose so much.

I was there a lot during the course of the year 90-91, and had a kind of epiphany during Operation Solomon. The rebels had surrounded Addis Ababa, were waiting to enter. I had to decide whether to leave on the last plane of Operation Solomon or stay to cover the rebel entry, I was scared but felt I cared about Ethiopia, not just the Jews, so I stayed. So I started covering all kinds of stories after that—Somalia, Haiti, Burma, India, Nepal, even Iraq. It was at a time when globalization was in its fast track, after the end of communism, so everywhere I was seeing the results of neo-liberal economic globalization on the poor—the majority.

Micha being blessdI thought a lot about what Judaism’s social justice message was, and it pained me that Israel and Jews as Jews were not very involved with questions of social and economic justice on a global level, even though we were at the center of the global economy. It seemed to me that economic and social justice were at the center of Judaism’s concern, but were being largely ignored. In 2005 I went on a trip to India for 2 and a ½ months with my family; I witnessed the “humus trail”—all the Israelis in India and Nepal—and thought wow, maybe the love of Israelis for travel in the developing world could be leveraged in to something deeper. That’s when I began to think about creating something like Tevel b’Tzedek.

Who are the volunteers? Can you describe the typical Tevel volunteer?

Now we have three volunteer tracks. Our classic is a four month program, one month study and preparation, three months in the field. We do this twice a year. We carefully vet the candidates for this program—we always have many more than we can take. About 2/3’s of the 22 people we accept each cohort are post army, ages 20 to 25, and one third are post BA or MA, and in their late 20’s or early 30’s. ¼ to 1/3 are Orthodox Jews, although there are less of these now than there were earlier, and we want to get those numbers up again.

Many have backgrounds in youth movements, but it’s hard to stereotype. Many of the participants are from the left, but we also have settlers and people from the right. I would say that the profile for the four monthers is that they are idealistic, adventurous, and determined. We now also have one month programs, mostly for backpackers on their post army trip, and a ten month program, in both Nepal and Burundi, mostly but not exclusively for people post-BA. In this program, which we call the Fellowship, we have an equal number of "internationals"—Israelis and others—and locals, meaning Nepalese and Burundians, of equivalent education and experience to the internationals.

Where are the volunteers sent? And what do they actually do?

During the first few cohorts of 4 month volunteers, we provided the orientation period, which I a one month period of study, including study of Nepali language, Nepali culture, Judaism and Social Justice, globalization, economics and poverty, as well as some limited guidance in how to work in various fields. Now we have far more extensive preparation in what we are actually going to do. Then the volunteers were placed as interns in different local NGO’s, mostly in Kathmandu.

As our experience in Nepal grew, we began to develop our own model of work. We realized that we could do much more if, as an organization with boots on the ground, we could work towards long term goals. We saw that the poverty in the big city mostly emanated from the crisis of the villages—that many villages in Nepal and across the developing world were no longer capable of growing enough food to feed themselves for an entire year, because of population growth, degradation of the soil because of erosion and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, loss of traditional knowledge etc. People in the villages also knew that there were health and educational services in the city to which they had no access. But the basic issue is food. People started to get drawn out of the rural villages to the city, often to really bad situations. Food was something might be able to do something about.

We hired Dr. Bishnu Chapagain, an agronomist with a PhD in Plant Science from Ben Gurion University—he spent 11 years in Israel. He became the head of a growing Nepali staff, now about 35 in number, along with 6 Israeli staff. And we began to work in rural village areas, with an integrated, participatory approach—working in agriculture, education, with youth and with women. We base our work on agriculture, but are ultimate goal is to build up and strengthen the community and its leadership, because without strong, committed community groups, any resources we bring in to the area may be coopted by the strong families.

When we go to a village area, we stay there for 3 to 5 years, until we feel we have really had a transformational effect. We build youth groups—we actually have a youth movement that is active in all the areas we have worked in, and a women’s movement as well. All this is introduction to what the Tevel volunteers do. According to their experience, expertise, and desire they are assigned to work in agriculture, youth, education or women. They basically work together with the Nepali staff, planning strategy, activities, workshops, campaigns, building capacity, using their knowledge and experience together with the staff, which knows the language and culture of course, much better than the volunteers.

But the volunteers bring valuable knowledge—some are graduates of agriculture, education or social work programs, others have experience with youth movement, others bring experience in arts, photography, computers, engineering, etc. It’s a real balancing act, drawing out their contribution and their desire to innovate but at the same time making sure that our long term plans are the basic road map. The volunteers, for example, may teach teachers new educational methodologies, but we don’t have them standing in front of a classroom, unless it’s a demonstration or an after-school activity—we want to build the capacity and strength of the local teachers, not replace them.

In agriculture they work together with our agriculture staff—we now have six agronomists in addition to Bishnu—to create teaching farms and, together with the staff, to teach effective agricultural techniques. We also have a project in the city slums, working from the other end—with migrants from the village, helping them build community. We have a day care center, a youth center working with the youth movement, work with several schools, and with women’s group on health and microsavings.

I think we have developed a cutting edge methodology for development of communities. Its intensive and long term, and avoids many of what I see as the deadly mistakes of development—the idea that there is a quick fix, the notion that the business model, ignoring community, will do the trick, the giving of material resources without really deep understanding of context.

With our one year program, which takes people after BA or MA in a relevant field, creates a team of ten Israelis and other Jews, along with ten Nepalese or Burundians (we have just started working in a rural village area in Burundi, Africa). So each international has a national partner and they work together on the long term goals we have set.

This is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Judaism? Why is it being done in the name of Jewish tradition?  And wouldn’t the local population prefer it if what was being done was not in the name of Judaism?

Tevel was founded out of the belief that the vision of creating a just society is at the very spine of Judaism, and that we have a responsibility to be part of making this vision a reality in the world as a whole. In this we are following figures such as the Baal Shem Tov, who said that we have “arvut” with the nations of the world in the seven mitzvoth of Noach—which include justice—Rav Kook, Rav Ashlag, who speaks of Jewish global responsibility in the age of globalization, Heschel, Buber and others. To me if Jews and Israel are global in every other respect—in terms of what we eat and consume, how we invest our money, what companies we own, who tends to the needs of our aged and demented, who we sell arms to, and so forth, and in just one area—ethics—we are only “local”, עניי עירך, we are in the process of losing our soul.

Also, a lot of young Jews are turned off to Judaism because they see Judaism as turned inwards, unconcerned with the future of humanity, even though there are so many clear and urgent issues humanity has to address. Judaism contains this universal vision within it; to maintain its integrity, it must find expression within contemporary reality. I think that as a tradition, our desire to integrate the physical and the spiritual, not to devalue this world, is the mainstream. Of course, with much humility and the knowledge that many other groups, religions, peoples, also have much to contribute. As my teacher Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said: “We are building a house for humanity. We are building one wall, the Tibetans are building a wall, the Indians are building a wall, everyone is doing their own unique part.”

In terms of the villagers themselves, they learn that we are Jews, and Israelis but for them we are also just westerners, most of them have not even heard of Judaism, and we don’t preach Judaism to them, of course. But I have seen that our involvement in our own identity resonates deeply with the Nepali staff and perhaps with the villagers as well. Nepal, like nearly everywhere in the 2/3rds world, is a mosaic of tribes and ethnic groups. All of them, to varying extents, wish to still draw strength from a feeling of rootedness in their own tribe and heritage and also feel an overwhelming need to connect with the knowledge and power of the larger global context. They see our double commitment, to our own heritage and to shared issues of poverty and environment as an inspiration.

Continuing on this theme, how do connect "Tevel" to developments in Judaism today? Is this a new path in Judaism? A continuation of the Prophetic vision? An alternative to keeping the mitzvoth? Or what?

I think I have already said that at a time when the Jewish people are so empowered economically and culturally, are really in many ways at the center of globalization, if Judaism puts its head in the sand and evades the huge ethical challenges humankind faces, we are in danger of losing our soul. I see a deep need for young Jews to integrate their Jewish and global identities and to feel that these are not in conflict. I also see a need to revive the Jewish vision of social and economic justice that is at the very heart of the Torah and the prophets and which is also present in the Talmud, in the great sensitivity with which it understands human interrelations, social and economic.

As I have already said, I see Tevel as reclaiming the stance of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, Rav Yehuda Ashlag, Hillel Zeitlin, Shimon Federbush as well as Heschel, Buber and many others who were both deeply Jewish and also believed that the ultimate mission of Judaism was connected to promoting the wellbeing and redemption of humanity and the world as a whole. As Yirmiyahu said (in the name of G-d) about Tzedek u’Mishpat “Ki zeh ladaat oti”.

I come from an Orthodox background and my teachers were Orthodox, and I identify very strongly with the mastery of tradition, the commitment and the spirituality that I encountered among the great Orthodox teachers I have known. At the same time, I don’t entirely identity with Orthodoxy because I see Orthodoxy today as the notion that Judaism means Halacha. Thus meta-Halachic questions, especially questions that do not have to do with personal status or ritual observance, get ignored as if they are beyond the purview of contemporary Halacha.

I don’t think this is something totally new in Judaism, and certainly don’t see it in place of ritual practices or spirituality, or Torah study. But I do think Tevel and what it represents opens up a new horizon, and allows us to see the potency of the Biblical and Prophetic vision, of the Jewish vision. To take on the challenge of hunger and poverty in the global world makes Judaism more real, brings it down to earth—which I think also may have the capacity to pull more love and light down from heaven into our orbit as well.

Rav Kook (the father) says in Orot HaTechiya that Mashiach ben Yosef is the ingathering of the exiles, and Mashiach ben David is universalism, the next stage. Perhaps Tevel is a part of that next stage. Where it is going to go in the end? I am not really sure yet!

What is the connection between Tevel’s activities and the powers that be that are facing globalization, or at least the connection to understanding these powers?

I started travelling in the two thirds world just as globalization started to really speed up, with the fall of the Soviet Union. To me, the fact that the whole world is connected through this one economic system, that a bunch of commodities speculators in Chicago can make the price of food go up for struggling families in Kathmandu means that we all have responsibility for each other in a clearer way than ever before. I also think that it is has spiritual implications—to grasp human society—and nature as well, as we affect it through our economic activity—as a single whole, a single system, which we are constantly influencing and being influenced by.

We study globalization in Tevel, and we also have to think hard about our role in light of globalization. What does it mean for us to intervene in a village, even with the best intentions? What is our vision for rural villages? Is it legitimate for us to have a vision for rural villages? How do we assign power to our Nepali partners, to the villagers themselves? How does that meaning change when the village itself is in the process of breaking apart through migration to the cities or to the Gulf States in any case? What is the meaning of ethnicity in the age of globalization? All these are questions that come up all the time for Tevel. For me it is of great importance that volunteers come out of Tevel not just with the experience of having done something good and having a great experience, and not even just with having learned to bridge seemingly immense cultural gaps, but also with a new perspective that can penetrate the smoke and mirrors that makes the world seem as if it is just “happening” naturally rather than being shaped by political and economic forces which we can affect and change.

You were a close disciple of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Is there a connection between the influence he had on you and Tevel b’Tzedek?

I would hope that yes, there is some connection, and that he would be proud of what I am doing. Shlomo said many times that Judaism and the Jewish world need to fix three things in this era: the relationship between men and women, between parents and children and between Jews and non-Jews. Even though he was a huge advocate of Judaism, a true believer in the greatness of the tradition, a witness for the huge power and spiritual achievements of both Hasidic and Litvish figures. it was a given for him that there were also holy people in other religions.

I would like to think that the same thing that attracted me to Shlomo also attracted me to the work I do now—that there is a special hashra’at hechina among the poorest populations living on the “margins” of modernity, in the “afar”. Shlomo also used to say “When human beings want a bridge to be built, they look for the person who knows the most about building bridges. When G-d wants a bridge built, s/he looks for the person who really really wants to build the bridge.” Shlomo gave me a lot of confidence in the power of desire, of the spirit, and I think that has given me the inspiration to do things I might not normally have done. Shlomo was also kind of anarchic, he did what he believed in. I hope I have learned that from him at least to some extent.

If we are already talking about Shlomo, do you think his legacy is being preserved properly today? What do you think would be good to "add on" in order to better walk the path he set out?

For me the biggest pull of Shlomo (besides his presence) was not his music, although I loved singing and davening with him, but his Torah. He was, in my opinion, an amazing interpreter of Hasidism. They say that the difference between the Ari and the Baal Shem Tov was that the Ari revealed the dynamic that was happening in the heavens, the process of the unfolding of the sefirot within the higher worlds and so on. The Baal Shem Tov showed how all this was happening within the soul of a person through his or her avodat hashem, prayer, meditation, etc. Shlomo, to me, added another dimension: he showed that even in the mundaneness of everyday life, in the midst of the “secular”, a depth dimension with a life of its own could be located, identified, could break our hearts.

Shlomo was a huge Talmid chacham and a hadshan who was able to explain profound concepts with seemingly simple metaphorical stories from all of our daily lives. His Torah, despite all kinds of books that lift quotes from his much longer talks and organize them around themes like the holidays or parshat hashavua, has not yet seen the light of day. Tens of thousands of hours of video and audio tape are being preserved, which is wonderful. But it’s crucial that the full transcripts be made available. I hope that in the end, his Torah will be received with the appreciation that his music is received today.

What is your vision for Tevel b’Tzedek? Where would you like to be in another 10 or 20 years?

There are a few directions in which I hope Tevel b’Tzedek will continue to develop over the next cade or two. I would hope that we would continue to develop and perfect our methodology for transforming rural villages into places of food, hope, knowledge and community—and that we also continue to work on building community in urban areas as well. Secondly, I hope we also begin to work as advocates, using our alumni and others, or a better world—not just showing an example but also pushing for macro level changes. And thirdly, I hope we manage to get some of the most creative Jewish minds, including rabbis, philosophers, writers, artists—involved in the struggle for a more just and beautiful world, involved in understanding how the depth of the Jewish tradition can light our way towards a new future for humanity.

Consciousness, Suffering and Veganism

The correspondence between Yuval Noah Harari and Gary Yourofsky offered readers an encounter with two prominent and highly articulate representatives of the vegetarian and vegan movements. Bracingly, it also offered a glimpse of the dangerous and anti-humanist extremes of that ethical movement. I shall not waste too many words on Yourofsky. Anyone who calls humans “parasites” and explicitly advocates violence is motivated by messianic blindness and certain to eventually cause death, be it of his rivals, his adherents or himself. And the day is not far off.

"in suffering we are all equal" says the t-shirt. click to go to siteYourofsky gives vegetarianism and veganism a bad name, but he is not without a home within these movements, asthey also have an anti-humanist element built-in to them, as well as a tendency to cheapen life through a utilitarian quantification of pain and suffering. Had these noble ideas a spokesman of their own, he would have had to condemn Yourofsky, but as this is not the case, one can only hope that anyone possessed of compassion and a conscience will distance himself from him and his ilk.

Harari is another story. Not just as a popular intellectual, but as a brilliant and extremely knowledgeable person, Harari presents a much more complex view of the subject. And yet, I think he “falls” into a number of intellectual traps, two of which I shall elaborate upon here.

First, Harari’s insistence that there is no difference in consciousness between animals and humans is astonishing. Harari claims that “there seems to be no evidence that homo sapiens

has some kind of special consciousness, or a greater capacity to suffer [than other mammals].” This is an odd assertion, considering that there is no scientific proof at all of human consciousness. Neuroscience, for example, has no capacity to examine the existence of “consciousness,” but only the nervous system and the brain that, ostensibly, enable its existence.

This is why many neuroscientists and neurophilosophers believe that human consciousness is merely an “epiphenomenon,” a secondary side effect that arises from brain function and is of wholly negligible influence. The big questions raised by the Turing Test also derive from precisely the same premise – that human consciousness may only be identified via the external responses that it produces.

And it is precisely from those external responses that we see that animal consciousness is not identical to human consciousness. Animals are not capable of constructing a sentence, of adhering to ideologies, of discussing moral questions. Harari surely knows this, for the superiority of human consciousness is a key element of the excellent best-seller that he authored. It is quite strange to see him retreat from this observation, which ought to be obvious to any thinking person.

The Depth of Suffering

As for the capacity to suffer, it, too, derives from consciousness, of course. A large portion of human suffering is linked to memory, imagination and our ability to tell ourselves complex stories about what happened, what might happen and what could have been. Anticipation, longing and remorse are direct causes of tremendous suffering, such as the memory of our loved ones who have died, or anxiety in anticipation of our own deaths in the years to come. As one interested in Buddhism, Harari surely is aware that the Buddha ascribes to these same emotional impressions a central role in the suffering that we cause ourselves (and others). While animals can certainly feel pain, since they have no complex system of conceptualization and imagination they cannot feel the same intensity of suffering.

Moreover: If we return for a moment to the empirical findings we find that scientific research has no doubt that the human nervous system and brain are more complex and sophisticated than that of the fly, the cat, or even the monkey. In fact, if this were not so, we’d be compelled to argue that the cause of man’s superior consciousness is not the structure of his brain, but rather his divine soul. Since depth of consciousness is directly and undeniably connected to the nervous system and the brain, it should be clear to us that the more complex these systems are, the deeper and more extensive the consciousness and suffering they can produce. Man’s capacity for suffering is immeasurably greater than that of the grasshopper or the cow. Fortunately, we also have a much greater capacity for happiness.

A second problem that arises from Harari’s statements has to do with consensual entities. Harari argues that man has “the ability to imagine things that don’t really exist, like gods, nations, money and human rights.” The equating of gods to money and nations does a disservice to atheists, who I expect would insist that gods do not exist anywhere near the extent that nations and money do, for if not, we would understand from Harari’s words that, like nations, gods divide up geographical spheres of influence, and like money, gods do in fact make the world go around. But this is the smallest problem with what he says, for none of us has any doubt that nations do exist. Harari apparently means that they would not exist without human consent, and the same goes for money – that is, these are entities dependent upon general human consent for their very existence.

This is true, but if that means that these are “things that don’t exist,” before you know it we will have to make do not just without nations, but without human beings as well, for the category of “human” also exists solely by virtue of human consent. Without the conscious ability to perceive distinct mammals and include them under a single abstract heading, all that would exist would be an undifferentiated collection of various individual organisms. The category of “science,” which Harari is so fond of citing in support of his ideas, also exists only due to human consent. The scientific method is a human creation, and the definition of a scientific experiment, and the way in which one should draw conclusions from it, are also utterly dependent upon human consent. Before Harari draws conclusions on the basis or the lack of “scientific proof,” he should take note that it, too, is a consensual entity.

But above and beyond all of these issues, a dangerous utilitarian moral stance arises from the discussion between these two thinkers. As noted above, this is a worldview that flattens and breaks down reality exclusively into units of suffering and pleasure, and that measures each action on a scale calibrated to identify these two things and nothing else. A commonly seen slogan on the T-shirts of vegan protesters is “We Are All Equal In Our Suffering,” and the same slogan can be found on the website of the 269 animal rights group, the movement that recently placed decapitated calves’ heads in various public squares in Tel Aviv. Suffering here is the common denominator among all living beings, and what makes them, despite being clearly distinguishable from one another by any other measure, “equal.”

This anti-humanist attitude not only fails to see any unique value to human life, but also fails to accord any value to life at all, instead measuring it solely in terms of the suffering or pleasure that it produces. This is the darks side of that heightened sensitivity to suffering which is gaining strength in this day and age. Amid the crumbling of universal ideals (not to mention traditional moral values), it is coming to be perceived as the sole valid index. In a world in which the pursuit of “experiences” and pleasure has become the only thing motivating us to action (Why travel to India? Why do drugs? Why see a movie? Why change jobs? – “for the experience”), causing suffering is becoming the only reason to abstain from an action.

Of course, there is an important moral dimension to our desire not to cause suffering to another being (I myself have been a vegetarian for the past 17 years). Compassion, empathy and respect of others’ wellbeing are all important elements of our moral framework. But a moral world that is reduced solely to equations of suffering and pleasure is a shallow one, incapable of grasping a complex picture in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts (as is the case, for example, with human society).

In fact, such a world, ultimately, also cannot explain why it is morally wrong to cause suffering. Yes, suffering is “unpleasant,” but then quite a few cultures consider the unpleasant or uncomfortable to have positive ethical value (See: asceticism). When Harari says that “gods, nations and human rights” are “things that don’t really exist,” he ought to bear in mind that the utilitarian notion that suffering must be prevented does not ”really exist” either. A less simplistic argument is needed in order to present a valid and convincing vegetarian or vegan stance.

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Published in Haaretz


Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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