La’asot N’Kama (To Exact Revenge)

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In the last few weeks I’ve heard the word נקמה (revenge) mentioned in regards to the horrific massacre in Itamar, the bombing in Jerusalem, and the rocket attacks in the South. We hear it mentioned every time there’s a terrorist attack, and it’s the reason why some people refer to the situation in Israel as a Cycle of Violence. There’s even a song played at some Jewish Weddings (horrifyingly almost at ours) that glorifies the idea of נקמה.

If you can tell from having read anything else on this blog, or my tweets, I am not a big fan of Revenge. While it may feel good in the short run, it’s rarely perpetrated against the original offender, it leads to more bloodshed, and doesn’t heal the original wound. It embroils people in deeper conflicts, and creates an even greater stumbling block for peace.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised earlier tonight to see a mention of נקמה that I could jive with. It was written by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah, and I ran across it during my daily study of a Perek from Mishneh Torah (part of a Mt Sinai Education Committee initiative). Here is the text:

.הנקמה שאין נקמה גדולה ממנה שתכרת הנפש ולא תזכה לאותן החיים

“The word revenge that can be exacted is the cutting off of the soul, and the denial of eternal life in the next world.”

(Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah, 8:5)

The Rambam had just described the most wonderful perception of the afterworld, and he explains that the worst thing that could happen to you is that you are denied access to this “House of God” after death.

When we read in the news about concerns about “Price Tag” attacks against Palestinians in response to the Itamar murders, it’s disturbing and horrific in its own right. There is no excuse to attack someone because you suspect they live in the same town as a person who attacked you.

We need to work together as best as possible to work towards peace in all situations, and especially with the Palestinian people. While the IDF and PA should continue to hunt down the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks, the rest of Israel and the world can rest assured that Justice will surely be had in the world to come.

The focus of the people of Itamar, Israel, Palestine and the world should be Peace.

My Chanukah Dvar Torah

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I really do wish more people at Mt. Sinai would write divrei Torah for the Kesher bulletin, but I also enjoy getting published on a frequent basis. So here is my short idea on Chanukah. (Thanks for fixing my typo’s and dangling modifiers to @thedailysnowman.)

OK – it’s time for the annual asking of the Chanukah Question: Are we celebrating the miracle of the oil or are we celebrating the miracle of the military victory? There are strong arguments for both sides, of course. On the one hand, a very small amount of oil was able to last much longer than it normally would have. On the other hand, a small ragtag group of Maccabees was able to fight off a larger, stronger and better trained Greek army. How do we decide?

I’m propose that neither of these is the true reason for celebration on Chanukah, but instead the victory and the oil, respectively, act as a prerequisite and a symbol of something much more important. What we are commemorating on Chanukah is the ability of the Jews to go back to living their lives without the fear of persecution, and without the threat of violence and war. They could stop retreating to the forest with wooden tops for clandestine daf yomi shiurim, and would no longer be pressured into publicly sinning to prove their allegiance to a foreign king. They could live freely and live normally.

Granted, the military victory was a necessary step in achieving that freedom. But a military victory is not an end to be celebrated. We do not rejoice in the injury or death of another people; we don’t relish the opportunity to fight, destroy and kill. While we pray to God for safety and security in battle, our true wish is for the war to have never begun in the first place. The victory was miraculous, but it alone would not have merited a holiday to continue for generations.

The supernatural oil is also insufficient to merit a holiday of its own. The environmentalist in me is happy for a Jewish example of how important energy conservation is, but if this was all about a jug of oil that burned longer than it should have, we would not still be lighting Chanukiyot today. The menorah was the most mundane of activities in the temple – it was as basic as turning on the light switch each morning. We focus on the Menorah because it symbolizes a return to the mundane, a return to the normal.

With so much disagreement and fighting in the world, we begin to lose sight of the goal. Life is not about defeating an enemy. Life is not about waiting for that one small miraculous event to inspire us. It’s about the daily ritual and the daily routine. It’s about connecting with family and friends, contributing to society, helping another person, performing a mitzvah, saying a tefilah. The war and the oil are the tangible events that we associate with this return to normalcy. Chanukah is an 8-day week designed to remind us to appreciate the freedom we have to live our lives with purpose and security.

Aaron Steinberg (@Steinberg) is a Mt. Sinai board member, Rena Weisen Book Club Member, and ‘The Knish Box’ Panoply team member. He and Adina have lived in the Heights for 3.5 years.

Not much of a hidden agenda in this dvar Torah – just wanted to emphasize that we don’t celebrate war, and should all be striving to live our lives peacefully. OK – maybe there’s a bit of commentary for ME Peace Process. Sue me.

Happy Chanukah!

36th World Zionist Congress feat. Aaron Steinberg

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8.5 hours into my flight, and the significance of the event I’m about to attend is hitting me. I’m about to serve as a delegate from the Religious Zionists of America to the 36th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. It is our collective responsibility to carry on the efforts begun by Herzl & Co. to build a Jewish State.

Over the last few weeks, people have been asking me what I’m going actually going to be doing there. I tried to explain that the WZO has some authority over JNF and the Jewish Agency, and that the voting at the Congress can have an impact on the policies of these important bodies. While that may be true, it still seems like it’s really an opportunity for 750+ Jews from around the world to get together and argue. Sounds fun, but is it worth the time and money spent to maintain this organization?

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Another matter that some of my regular readers may pick up on is the seeming contradiction between my personal politics and the perceived positions of the Religious Zionist movement (Mizrachi). To be clear, my personal opinions differ from the Mizrachi party-line on settlements, paths towards peace, religious pluralism, the role of religion in government, and possibly other matters as well.

Furthermore, I am attending this conference with the understanding that I will in-line with the party in all cases except those where we are explicitly instructed to vote our conscience, and I intend to fulfill that commitment.

This won’t be an easy process, and I am dreading the potential reality that I will have to vote for something I think is not in the best interests of Israel or the Jewish people.

BUT, I firmly believe that there is a growing minority of Orthodox Jews who have these more liberal views on Israeli politics and religion. We are a group that is continuing to work for a stronger, more vibrant, more democratic, Jewish State. We love Israel, we live lives of Torah, and we believe in the need for a two-state solution. It’s that simple.

I am a part of the RZA delegation because I want to be a part of the internal discussion of what it means to be a religious Zionist. Regardless of whatever criticisms people may have, it’s hard to deny that over the years Orthodox Zionists have ranked among the most passionate and steadfast of Jewish supporters of Israel. There is a lot of passion and dedication, and I’m proud to be a part of that rich heritage.

I hope that the discussions we have as a Siah (faction) will at least foster a sense of understanding for the other opinions that might be represented in the room. This is my first experience of this kind, and I look forward to the challenge.

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Still struggling with an answer for what the point of the WZO is, I went to my Zionist handbook – The Zionist Idea by the late Arthur Herzberg. I usually refer to this as my other Zionist bible.

I flipped from ideologue to radical to politician to poet, and tried to find something that would inspire some higher significance to this conference. There have been a lot of strife in our community over the last two weeks, and I wanted to find something to help push us through this rough patch.

I settled upon a reading should have probably been my first stop – Herzl’s opening remarks to the first Zionist Congress held in Basil in 1897. Amazingly, his first message to the group was a hope that time would be used wisely and efficiently, and that a lot could be accomplished in three-days. He knew Jews, and was worried that we would get caught up debating details instead of tackling the big issues.

His main message to the group, however, showed great optimism, premonition and confidence in the ability for World Jewry to come together around a Jewish State. He declared that the body convened in front of him served an important purpose, and that it would continue to be needed even after the establishment of a Jewish State. Herzl believe that the Jews of the world needed to remain connected to what was happening in Israel (Palestine), and actively involved in the continued development and governance of that important place.

On any given year, I’m not sure what important decisions the WZO makes. If we were to ask the hard-core WZO lifers, they would point to dozens of resolutions passed every four years that they would claim impacted the direction of the State of Israel. I’m not so sure the rest of us would interpret those resolutions with the same import or impact.

The importance of the World Zionist Congress is that it brings Zionists together from around the world for a collective effort of perpetual nation building. Israel is the home of the Jewish people, and the more avenues that Jews outside of Israel have to become involved in what’s happening (shy of voting), the stronger the country will be.

Israel Day Parade 2010 – Standing in the Middle

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Growing up in Maryland, I didn’t know what the Salute to Israel Parade was all about. I had NY friends who would rave about how big a deal it was, but it wasn’t until I came to New York for college that I marched for the first time with Bnei Akiva. And it is truly remarkable to see hundreds of thousands of people coming together in Manhattan to celebrate and support the State of Israel.

Ask anyone what part of the parade route stands out the most, and they’ll likely mention the corner of 59th and 5th where two large groups of people are gathered with signs on opposite sides of the street. Palestinian and Neturei Karta protesters are on the West side of the street, and (mostly Right-Wing) Pro-Israel protesters are on the East Side. People are yelling and screaming, and the emotions are running high. It is an ugly scar on this day of celebration, and a stark reminder of how far we still have to go as a community.

It should come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I am in favor of a two-state solution, and would not oppose a Palestinian Capitol in Eastern Jerusalem. I think this is the right thing to do for moral, legal, pragmatic, and religious reasons. I know these views do not make me very popular, and I am often in the minority among my fellow Zionists and Orthodox Jews.

It’s not easy to think about asking (forcing) people to leave their homes. It was a horrible process for the 8,000 Israelis who left Gaza in 2005, and it will be a horrible and painful process for those living in areas of the West Bank which will hopefully be part of a future Palestinian state.

We have been jaded by the years of violence to believe that Palestinians are the enemy that has no desire for peace, and that the Israeli government/military is the infallible  and sole agent of good in the Middle East. We need to break ourselves from these false conceptions, and realize that this is a complicated situation that requires a nuanced and difficult response.

A recent article in the New York Book Review by Peter Beinart highlighted the problem that many young American Jews don’t feel connected to Israel or Zionism because of the attitude that Israel must be never be criticized, and that Palestinians are “violent and hateful.” As long as our community promotes these ideas, we will never have peace, and we will collectively lose our connected to the State of Israel.

There are Palestinians who will be partners in peace, and there is hope for a better future. We need to have faith that a better collective experience is out there if we are willing to find it. The process will not be simple, and a fledgling Palestinian State will not be without its shortcomings. We will need patience and resilience, but that is the only real option we have.

So when I arrive at the corner of 5th and 59th this afternoon, I will truly feel as if I’m stuck somewhere in the middle. I can’t relate to the Neturei Karta who deny the validity of Israel, and I can’t relate to the Right-Wing Zionists who refuse to trade land for peace – they are simply opposite sides of the same extremist coin. I am a Religious Zionist who believes in both the importance of a Jewish State in the land of Israel, and the need for a sovereign Palestinian nation in the West Bank and Gaza.

As the rain falls during today’s Salute to Israel Parade, we should realize that the more ominous clouds are those that blind our judgment and perpetuate strife and discord in the Middle East.

The Beginning of the End for the Jewish State?

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The longer Israel refuses to pursue a Two State Solution with the Palestinians, the greater the likelihood that the world begins demanding a One State Solution. A single state for Jews and non-Jews will be a state without a Jewish majority.

The New York Times published an Op-Ed last week titled “The Two State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything.” The authors of the article argue that the Jews are eternally focused on having a Jewish State, and that the Palestinians are forever thinking like refugees. In their opinion, “the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel.”

I’ve been telling people for two years that we need to take a pragmatic approach to the Israeli/Palestinian impasse we find ourselves in. I personally feel that the Palestinians deserve to have a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza, but that belief of mine is not really relevant.

People who are against the two-state-solution never seem to stop and think about the alternatives. The status quo cannot last forever. We cannot have an apartheid state with Palestinians playing the role of 2nd class citizens. We can’t kick the Palestinians out of Israel because there is practically nowhere for them to do.

The alternative to creating a Palestinian State is giving full Israeli citizenship to all of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (and maybe those in the diaspora as well). I believe that the Jewish people have a right to country where we can express our culture and heritage, so long as it isn’t infringing on other people’s similar rights.

We can either demand a two state solution, or resign ourselves to the end of the Zionist dream for a Jewish homeland.