Saturday, 26 January 2013

Israeli elections, Tu B'Shvat and the history of 'righteous trees'

The deck chairs are being shuffled about in the Knesset with no real prospect of change on the Palestinian front whether a fragile centre/right or fragile right/ultra-right coalition emerges. As usual, the seats won by Israeli Arab parties (12 in total) are not even in the reckoning for any complexion of governing bloc.

So in the circumstances, I thought I'd share a few thoughts about trees.

Why trees? Well today (Saturday January 26th) it's the festival of Tu B'Shvat which is the Jewish New Year for Trees. And trees have their own particular story to tell when it comes to Judaism and Israel/Palestine.

Trees have been on my mind for a while now, ever since I rediscovered the Israeli tree certificates I received for my Bar Mitzvah in 1979. I had one from my synagogue and 13 from my parents' B'nai Brit lodge. This was the traditional gift at the time, along with a copy of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew bible). I'll come back to my own personal piece of Israeli woodland later, but first a swift history of trees in Judaism and Zionism.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Genesis, the Garden of Eden, and the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. This is our very first call to lead a righteous life. Adam and Eve having eaten of the fruit, are given the ability to know good from evil, the knowledge to discern right from wrong. From now on we are expected to carry the burden of making ethical choices for how we live, our relations with others and with the planet itself.

Next up we have the story of the Noah and the Great Flood. Remember how the dove returns with leaves from an olive tree indicating that the waters are subsiding along with God's wrath at humankind's behaviour. We are given a second shot at righteousness and the olive tree makes its global debut as a symbol of restored peace and harmony.

By the way (and one day you may just find this useful to know) there are thirty varieties of tree mentioned in the Hebrew bible. Alphabetically, they go from Algum in Second Chronicles to Vine trees in Deuteronomy via Mulberries in Samuel and Myrtles in Isaiah.

While we are tree hunting in Deuteronomy, here's an interesting commandment (20:19) concerning behaviour to our enemies during wartime:

“When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an axe to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?”

In modern terminology this is a prohibition against scorched earth tactics that destroy the enemy's capacity to care for itself and rebuild life after defeat. I'll come back to this later.

And if it is us that are defeated and we find ourselves living in exile, then the advice from Isaiah is to plant ourselves firmly in the host community to become "trees of righteousness" (61:3).

And now to Tu B'Shvat itself. It's a minor Jewish festival which originated in biblical times with the need to establish a 'tax year' for the income from fruit harvests so that a tithe (one tenth) could be made to the Temple in Jerusalem and for the poor. Since tithing must be in proportion to individual income that makes it a progressive tax going to a righteous cause!

Even after the Temple was destroyed, in 70 CE, the tradition of tithing continued in the Jewish diaspora with money being given to those studying Torah, and to the least well off.

The festival became associated we tree planting and the reciting of ‘nature’ psalms, in particular Psalm 104:

“The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.”

The festival began to take on a new layer of symbolism and significance around the 16th century when the Jewish mystics of Safed, in northern Galilee, draw on Kabbalistic traditions and took the tree as an image to represent the dynamic aspects of God's creative power.

Leaping ahead to the 20th century, in the late 1960s Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (one of the truly great Jewish theologians of the last century) reached back to that verse in Deuteronomy, harnessing Judaism's prophetic tradition in his campaigning against the U.S. war in Vietnam. The Jewish Campaign for Trees for Vietnam, with Heschel as its chairman, challenged the actions of the U.S. government in deliberately destroying the forests of Vietnam to deny tree cover to Vietnamese guerrillas.

The Jewish Renewal movement, predominantly in north America, has taken up the festival as a ready-made Jewish commitment to environmental sustainability. With typical Renewal creativity and drawing on mystic and Hasidic thinking, they have re-imagined the festival as an opportunity to emphasise Judaism's 'green' credentials and general concern for the well-being of the planet.

And so to Zionism's contribution to trees and righteousness.

The Jewish National Fund (where may Bar Mitzvah trees came from) was created in 1901 to purchase land for Jewish settlement in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. Here's how the JNF website sums up its own history:

“Over the past 109 years, JNF has evolved into a global environmental leader by planting 250 million trees, building over 210 reservoirs and dams, developing over 250,000 acres of land, creating more than 1,000 parks, providing the infrastructure for over 1,000 communities, bringing life to the Negev Desert and educating students around the world about Israel and the environment.”

In short, making the desert bloom.

Of course there is another way of looking at this and an alternative Palestinian narrative that challenges all the desert blooming activity in a land that was certainly not without a people and nor without an established agricultural economy.

To quote from the Stop the JNF website, the actual consequence of all this land buying and tree planting has led directly to:

"...the creation of an exclusive and discriminatory Jewish state [and] also the destruction of Palestinian land ownership, community, livelihood, and the land itself."

The land was often bought by the JNF at inflated prices from absentee Arab landlords for the benefit of the early Jewish immigrants to establish their own agricultural communities. But the left wing Zionist pioneers of the 1920s and 30s did not see the local Arab population as part of their socialist Jewish dream.

When I began to read the works of the Israeli Jewish revisionist historians who have challenged the myths of Jewish state building, I became to feel less comfortable with my own little patch of Israeli greenery. It also made me reflect on how the State of Israel and Jewish identity have become so interwoven by diaspora Jewry to the point where they have become indistinguishable.

There's nothing on my tree certificates to tell me exactly where they were planted so I have no idea if they added to the woodland and forests that have covered over many of the Palestinian villages that were abandoned, fled from or demolished during the civil war/Independence war of 1947-1948. The very existence of the villages and their history has also been grassed over by the tourism guides and the park websites.

Yes, Israel has certainly planted a great deal of trees but a great many have been destroyed too, usually in the name of 'security' including the construction of the Separation Wall.

Some of the more militant Jewish West Bank settlers (ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist) also take opportunities to destroy their neighbours' livelihood in ways that seem totally at odds with Jewish ethics. Last year the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported 7,500 olive trees were destroyed by settlers between January and October 2012.

I don't know what they teach in Torah school these days on the West Bank but they're clearly skipping that verse from Deuteronomy.

During the election campaign in Israel there was little talk of trees, planted or uprooted, righteous or unrighteous. Netanyahu's handling of the economy and his failure to address the concerns of the social protests of the last two summers, had more to do with his party's drop in support than his belligerence over the Israel/Palestine question.

At Tu B'Shvat we think about God's creation and the annual nature cycle as we begin to emerge from the gloom of winter and look forward to new life emerging from the cold ground.

I don't hold much hope that the new Knesset will have the vision required or the bravery and imagination that will be needed to take Israel forward on the question of Palestine. For Jews like me though, this remains the project that will determine the well-being of the Jewish People and the future of Judaism for this century and beyond.

At Tu B’Shvat we may marvel at the miracle of God’s creation, as we see the sap begin to rise once again, but it is God and not the soil that we should worship. 

As the politicians cut their deals in the back rooms of Jerusalem to decide who gets control of which government department, I offer the following observation from Abraham Joshua Heschel, which made after his first visit to the State of Israel in 1969.

“Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil. So too the State of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Judaism.”

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Notes from a road-crossing, border-walking, inter-faithing Jew.

This blog post began life as a talk given at Manchester Cathedral at the end of last November when I was asked to be a 'conversation partner' for the writer, speaker, activist, and public theologian Brian McLaren. Brian was on UK tour organised by the Greenbelt festival to promote his latest book 'Why did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?'

Around 150 people gathered on a chilly Friday evening in the Cathedral's regimental chapel to hear Brian talk about the challenges of sustaining a strong Christian identity in a multi-faith world. My role was to give a non Christian response to Brian's comments and for us to take questions together afterwards. Thankfully, local singer-songwriter Jasmine Kennedy was also there to bring some respite from the talking heads.

Brian is a lovely, unassuming and highly engaging man as I discovered over a brief pre-event meal. He also turned out to know, or be acquainted with, some of the major influencers on my thinking including Rabbi Michael Lerner, Marc H. Ellis and Mark Braverman.

What follows is a slightly edited, in places slightly expanded, and generally polished up version of what I had to say that evening. It's about the merits of religious pluralism and more specifically Christian-Jewish particular my own.

Think of it as deep background for the production of Micah's Paradigm Shift. Your comments are most welcome. Please share this post with anyone you feel it may be helpful to.


Friday 30 November 2012, Manchester, UK

When Paul Northup, the Director of Greenbelt, asked if I would be Brian's conversation partner for tonight, my first reaction was: what right would I have to stand here and say anything to you?

I'm not a rabbi, I hold no position of authority within the Jewish community, I've not written a book on the subject, I don't even sit on any interfaith dialogue committees.

But then I remembered that I was taking for granted something which most people will see as quite unusual.

Faith in the journey

My wife, Anne, and I have been involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue for the past 25 years since we first met as students, here in Manchester in the mid 1980s. Actually, we don't really call it interfaith dialogue. We just talk about 'stuff' that's important to us.

Neither of us would have guessed all those years ago (when both of us were questioning our respective beliefs and upbringing) that by now Anne would be a Church of England priest while I would be using social media to defend Judaism's ethical tradition against the narrow focus of modern Jewish nationalism.

Anne and I have both been on something of a spiritual journey during all of these years. And throughout that journey each of us has found guidance, nourishment and inspiration in each other's faith traditions and through the very process of having to look closely at our own religious heritage.

Through all of this Anne has remained Christian and I have remained Jewish with both of us feeling more affirmed and secure in our respective commitments than we were a quarter of a century ago.

Although interfaith marriage is not the subject of Brian's book, I think Anne and I bring some validity to Brian's assertion that interfaith encounter and dialogue does not inevitably lead to a weakening of identity and commitment. In fact the reverse can happen even if the understanding of your own faith changes along the way.

Anne and I don't claim to have all of the answers to Christian-Jewish dialogue, far from it. In fact, not having all of the answers turns out to be an important place to get to when you are having inter-religious conversations. The really important thing is simply listening to each other without feeling defensive about our respective traditions. Without denying differences of emphasis and interpretation, we have consciously chosen to emphasise the interconnections between Judaism and Christianity rather than the points of disagreement and departure.

Throughout twenty-five years together, each of us has learnt to walk along borders, travel to a religious foreign land, occasionally negotiate hostile territory, and often take on a role of ambassador from a neighbouring kingdom. Don't worry there have been plenty of laughs along the way too. When it comes to religious institutions, of every variety, God clearly has a sense of humour!

Together, we have had to find our way through various religious rites of passage starting with our wedding in a Quaker Meeting House in the Lake District in 1992 (there's a lot to be said for a service based on silence when you're trying to keep both families happy!) Circumcision, baptism and priesthood have all had to be worked through along with our understanding and celebration of the annual cycle of religious festivals.

Each Friday night we sit down together with our four children in our kitchen and we light sabbath candles and share bread and wine to welcome in the Jewish Sabbath. Sometimes we are all so fractious and tired that this simple ceremony requires considerable effort from all of us. But nobody wants to give it up. It brings us together at the end of the week, with prayers that allow us to pause, give thanks, and think about the lives of others we have encountered or news we have heard about.

Location also plays its part too in the manner of our Jewish observance. Since the nearest synagogue is 80 miles away, Judaism makes itself at home in our family. Fortunately, or perhaps I should say deliberately, Judaism works well around the kitchen table.

Praying in a foreign language

Each Sunday we are at the large parish church that serves the market town of Kendal in Cumbria where Anne has been Curate for the last 18 months. After attending Church of England services regularly for the last fourteen years, I have learnt how to worship in a setting different to that in which I grew up with and with words and music I once found alienating and even threatening and certainly uncomfortable with. I have discovered how not to let specific liturgy or theological conceptions trip me up. I sometimes think of it as praying in a foreign language.

For me, all religious language is just our flawed attempt to put into words things that in the final reckoning defy the perfect human articulation. Sometimes the words work and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the same words work one week but not the next. And that feels like a good thing to me.

If nobody has the ultimate form of words then perhaps we can just accept that we are all straining to reach the same things, dealing with the same concerns, and responding, with varying degrees of success, to the meaning of our existence.

So, a church, rather than a synagogue, has now become my regular worshipping community. I sit with my companions on a religious journey, a continuing pilgrimage of faith and hope that looks to find modern purpose in ancient wisdom. Our religious minds may be wired up slightly differently but these days that feels to me like detail and not substance. My Jewish studies continue, thanks largely to the Internet and books that keep me plugged in to Judaism and Jewish community concerns that I can then share with the rest of the family.

The Carpenter and the Cross

Despite all my talk of commonality, I suspect you are still wondering what my view is on that toughest of all issues for Jewish-Christian dialogue - the status of that first century, itinerant, radical preacher from Galilee and the cross on which he was crucified.

How can one person's symbol of forgiveness, redemption and salvation be another's constant reminder of two thousand years of violence and oppression on European and Middle Eastern soil? There has been a high cost to the Church's past imperial might and its teaching of significant aspects of Christian doctrine. None of this can be glossed over or forgotten about just because in our post-modern Western European environment the Church has now fallen on hard times.

At the level of Christian leadership and amongst post-war Christian theologians there has been much acknowledgement and atonement for Christianity's other 'original sin' - the blood libel against the Jewish people. The progress that has been made in the last seventy years is an amazing achievement in such a relatively short space of time. However, I'm not sure how much of this historical understanding and theological adjustment has filtered down to pew level. For the average church goer in the UK, I suspect Christianity is seen as an almost entirely innocent force throughout its history and a religion that has been more often the victim than the victimiser.

Meanwhile, Jews are acutely and painfully aware of their historic relationship with Christianity. In fact, our self-perception of eternal victimhood has been pretty much perfected. The mis-match of self-perception leads to a great deal of misunderstanding and explains the underlying suspicion, even hostility, that many Jews feel towards Christianity.

Christianity, of course, does not own the patent when it comes to concocting dangerous cocktails that mix faith with power. In the same period during which Christian-Jewish relations have seen such improvement, there has been a parallel story developing that has taken Jews from the very nadir of their suffering to a new and disastrous destination that has seen the oppressed become the oppressor.

There isn't the time here to talk about the the relationship between the Holocaust and the State of Israel. It's complicated and involves a great deal of history, politics, theology, and the on-going collective trauma of both Jews and Palestinians. It is utterly tragic that the Palestinians have paid the price for crimes committed on Christian European soil. On a rather more modest scale, we Jews are now busy making all the same mistakes as imperial Christianity did and using theology and history to justify our actions.

But back to the carpenter from Nazareth who I do not believe should be held personally responsible for all that has gone on in his name.

On a trip to Israel and the West Bank, I remember sitting in the Church of the Beatitudes in Galilee, where Jesus is believed to have given the Sermon on the Mount (a rather brilliant statement of radical first century Jewish thought). I remember thinking what a tragedy it was that Jesus was 'persona non grata' in Judaism.

Here's a Jewish teacher, in my view, steeped in Judaism trying to take it onto the next religiously evolutionary level of spirituality and God-centred understanding. The rabbis who emerged out of the post Roman period were trying to do the very same thing, allowing prayer and ethical action to take the place of Temple sacrifices. The sorry relationship between the parent religion and its offspring has meant Jesus doesn't get the recognition he merits as a late, great Jewish prophet.

As for being the Son of God...well that all depends on what you understand by 'Son of God' I suppose. And rising from the dead on the third day? For me it's religious poetry and sacred myth, which is not to underplay its importance or value to Christian thinking and living. I would characterise much of the Hebrew bible in the same way but that does not detract from its power and wisdom or its merits as a guide to living and worship. Sacred myth is a seriously underrated way of understanding what it is to be human.

Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome

Brian's book presents creative challenges to many aspects of traditional Christian thinking that show how centuries old doctrine can become enriched, rather than impoverished, through dialogue with other faiths. Brian also recognises that dialogue between those within the same faith is no small matter either.

In Judaism in the UK, the fault lines run between the different denominations, with Orthodox rabbis refusing to share platforms with Reform or Liberal rabbis because they question their Jewish authenticity. So we have a shrinking community (apart from the ultra-Orthodox) battling hard to make itself even smaller. And I thought we were meant to be a smart people!

For me, one of the most interesting chapters in Brian's book is about how individuals can find themselves in profound disagreement with aspects of their own tradition particularly when they see theology or ideology or community politics being used to oppress those either inside or outside of the faith. Brian has a snappy name for those of us suffering from this condition: Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome (CRIS).

My own form of this syndrome, as you will have worked out by now, is in relation to the Jewish community's official establishment position on Israel. I don't want us to get side tracked by this issue tonight but if I tell you that my blog is called 'Micah's Paradigm Shift' and the sub title is: 'Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly. Rescuing the Hebrew Covenant one blog post at a time' then I hope you begin to get the idea of where I'm coming from. I take a highly critical stance on Zionism based on an understanding of the universalistic strain of Judaism and a belief in human rights which owes just about everything to Jewish ethics. Sign up for email updates by the way.

The naive school of religious plurality

I guess you can begin to see that my experience leads me to favour religious plurality as a way of understanding the world. You might to call this the 'Naive' school of theology, but to me, everything points to the need for, and indeed the desirability of, difference in religious thought and expression.

Why do we have 100s of species of Amazonian frog? Why do trees, flowers, birds come in such abundant and magnificent variety? Why are faces, fingerprints, personalities each unique? The planet clearly favours diversity. In fact it thrives on it. So if creation is so predisposed to difference why should this end at the doors to our religious institutions? Why do we insist on creating rigid codes and narrow dogmas when it comes to expressing faith?

If there is one bit of heritage I could happily throw overboard it would be all exclusive claims to election and choseness that deny another people their humanity unless they sign up on the dotted line to one set of terms and conditions. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all face the issue of evolving their respective beliefs to deal with the 'other' on truly equal terms in every respect.

There is no denying that we all share are the same anxieties, the same questioning nature, the same wonder, amazement, and, as the great 20th century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would say, 'embarrassment at being alive'. By the way, right after you finish Brian's book I'd recommend Heschel's essay 'No Religion is an Island' for an inspiring statement on the necessity and value of interfaith dialogue.

Crossing over and crossing back

Thinking about the title of Brian's book and its invitation to cross over roads, I suppose that I have crossed over the road to see what is on the other side.

I do not claim to have understood everything that I have found in Christianity. I have learnt to interpret the local language rather than feel threatened by it. I'm happy with my children growing up in a faith different to my own because I've stopped thinking that this is some kind of competition to capture the most souls. I am delighted that they feel at home in a community that fully accepts them and is giving them a perspective that will help guide them through whatever life brings. Hearing my children begin to wrestle with the big questions presented by a religious commitment is itself awe inspiring. At a time when consumerism is triumphant, it feels good to be a part of a community that worships something beyond personal acquisition.

At the same time I see how our children value their Jewish inheritance and how that part of their lives is creating a further dimension to their understanding of the world. They are remarkably unconfused by all of this. We underestimate our ability to live comfortably with multiple cultural identities.

Having crossed over the road to take a look at what is going on somewhere else, I still recognise that it's the same road - even if the street furniture looks a bit different. I am still confident that the road is heading in the same direction - to the Kingdom of God or the Promised Land or the Mountain Top or indeed the recognition of God in the very messy and complicated here and now.

I can see that Anne and I will keep talking about all this 'stuff' for the rest of our lives. I have become a road-crossing, border-walking, inter-faithing kind of Jew. That is, at times, a challenging and occasionally regretful path to have taken. But that is the price of the ticket. On balance, I find that the gains far outweigh the losses.

As much as I value heritage and tradition, tribes with flags no longer interest me...if they ever did. Roads are there to be walked and there to be crossed. If I get to meet Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and the Buddha along the way then the privilege is all mine.