Like most everyone I know, I find the prospect of a nuclear Iran terrifying. I am afraid for Israel, for the stability of the Middle East, and for the world. I am afraid of a regime I believe to be extreme and dangerously unpredictable. Still, the bellicose rhetoric coming from Republican presidential candidates and some Israeli government officials makes me nervous. Our country certainly doesn’t need another war based on an excess of high emotion and a dearth of thoughtful analysis.
In the midst of the deafening calls preparing for war with Iran, I attended a remarkable meeting of leaders of the American Jewish community and the Iranian-American community. The dialogue was convened by NIAC, the National Iranian-American Council, a ten-year old organization dedicated to promoting Iranian-American engagement in American civic life. A range of Jewish leaders and academics and Iranian-American scholars of Iranian history, sociology, politics, literature and culture participated in the dialogue. The day was spent learning about one another’s communities, exchanging perspectives on the political challenges of the current moment in U.S.-Iran-Israel relations, and thinking together about how to avert a catastrophic war.
It was exhilarating to sit in a room with so many knowledgeable people, engaging in high-level political analysis. But as a rabbi, I swallowed my pride and asked my Iranian-American colleagues a simple question: Can you give me an uncomplicated, 60-second reason why my community can afford to be a bit less afraid of Iran? Incredibly, I received twelve replies to my question. I didn’t find all of them equally persuasive, and neither will all readers of this column. But together, they cast creative doubt on the commonly held premise that Iran poses such a serious existential threat to Israel and to the world that we dare not stop to think about the wisdom of various actions the U.S. government may take. These perspectives, interrupting the usual flow of alarming thoughts about the Iranian regime, may allow us to think more calmly about a wise course of action.
(1)Those in the know consistently report that Ahmadinejad, the bellicose president of Iran, actually has very little power in his own country. Even if he wanted to bomb Israel or American forces, he would not have the power to do so.
(2)Ahmadinejad’s term of office ends in 18 months, and Iranian law prevents him from running for another term. By 2013, we will at least be dealing with a different elected leader.
(3)The official position of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to use weapons of mass destruction only in response to attack.
(4)The people of Iran keenly remember the trauma of the Iran-Iraq war and would not readily invite that kind of destruction again.
(5)The Iranian people as a whole, heirs to a rich religious and literary tradition, detest war and deeply value education.
(6)Nuclear war would be suicidal for Iran, and the state’s leaders care about their own political survival more than they hate Israel or the U.S.
(7)Iran has long felt vulnerable as a non-Arab Shiite nation in a sea of Sunni Arabs, and hence uses rhetorical attacks on Israel to inflate its sense of power in the region.
(8)Internal political sensibilities would prevent Iran from bombing Israel. Killing large numbers of Palestinians and damaging Jerusalem, sacred in Islam as well as in Judaism, would be untenable in a Muslim nation.
(9)Iran seeks nuclear capability not to use the weapons but for deterrence value, given its fear of its neighboring nations.
(10)It is nationalist pride more than real hostility that moves Iran to develop its nuclear capacity.
I’m not completely convinced by all of these, and perhaps, neither are you. I certainly wouldn’t want either the U.S. or Israeli governments to grow complacent about the threats Iran may pose, but there is little chance of that. But this set of thoughts, offered by an erudite and sophisticated group of Iranian-American scholars, may calm us enough to allow us to stop and think before embarking on a truly terrible course of action. These perspectives run counter to the predominant narrative that casts Iran as a terrifying threat to the stability of the world, and it is always difficult to absorb a narrative different from the one most often repeated. But if my new colleagues’ insights could allow some policy makers to think more calmly and clearly, the world might benefit greatly.
I took my first trip to the grocery store with the daunting task of buying enough food for a week for a total of $31. Why only $31? This is the amount that one week of food stamps would allow me. My head is spinning. I feel vulnerable, angry, tense and frightened.
Along with hundreds of faith leaders around the country and at least a dozen members of Congress, I agreed to join in a symbolic weeklong “Foodstamp Challenge.” All of us pledged to try, for one week, to eat only what would be covered by our allowance on SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as “food stamps”). The timing is meaningful, as the Congressional Supercommittee on Deficit Reduction will soon reveal its proposal for slashing the federal deficit. According to a national coalition, “Fighting Poverty with Faith,” “Anti-hunger advocates are deeply concerned that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program . . . might be targeted for massive funding cuts or structural changes that could result in enrollment being capped and many struggling with hunger being kicked off the program. These changes would hurt the families still feeling the effects of the recession and the nearly 49 million Americans who lived in households struggling with hunger in 2010. (http://fightingpovertywithfaith.com)
For weeks since taking the pledge, I have been engaged in thought, even obsessed, by questions: “How is it even possible to eat on $31/week? Would there be room for salad (which I normally consume in copious amounts) on this poverty-induced budget? How often would I be hungry? How much weight would I gain by eating less healthy foods? How many free meals can I find for myself – at friends’ homes, at the synagogue, at public events? If my children were hungry, would I be tempted to steal food for them?” And more.
But this was my first time actually going up and down the aisles at the least expensive grocery store I know, carefully checking the price of each item, with some “maybes” in the front of the cart. The result: Cottage cheese - $2.99; 2 cans of tuna fish - $3.30; egg noodles (to make a kugel casserole, to eat for dinner most nights) - $2.59; eggs - $1.99; 1 c. sour cream (to make the kugel more filling) - $.99; Kraft cheese slices (for snacking and cooking) - $4.09; a loaf of bread (not any of the healthy, gourmet breads I like – too expensive) – $1.99; bottle of Diet Coke (can’t live without that) - $1.89; frozen brussels spouts (cheaper than fresh – to serve with dinner all week) - $2.39; two apples (for the casserole? or save for snacks?) - $1.89; 9 small Roma tomatoes (Note: I normally eat about $4/day in tomatoes alone!) - $2.52; one head of lettuce - $1.99; 3 cucumbers (for a rudimentary salad) - $2.67. For a total of $31.29. I had to give back the pasta shells and small container of applesauce – not even money for those.
Mind you, that takes into account some cheating, including some ingredients I’d add from my own cupboard (hopefully left over from last week’s allowance), and several meals at friends’ homes.
At the check-out counter, an irrational feeling of shame came over me. There I was, dressed in my usual upper-middle-class clothing, looking at the young cashier, sure that he knew that this paltry batch of groceries was all I could afford. Another unpleasant surprise: the egg noodles rang up at 60 cents more than had been marked. Ever wonder why some people seem tense and angry at the checkout counter? May I never judge such people’s behavior again. Maybe they are trying to do the impossible: to live on $31/week for food.
Of course, this is only a simulation on my part. Any time I choose to, I can cheat on the pledge, returning to my real life, in which I don’t have to think much about which groceries I bring home for my family. I already have a full refrigerator and a full pantry at home, and many friends who’d invite me over for a lavish meal any time I called. What if I didn’t have my “real life” to go back to? What if the pantry was bare except for what I bought today? What if this was not a one-week experiment but an enforced way of life?
Please remember one thing when you hear public officials and pundits debating the value of the SNAP food assistance program. Remember one number: $31 for a week. Could you do it? Do you really want others to have to live on less?
I stood on the pulpit, in the traditional posture of Jewish prayer leaders, facing the Holy Ark, on Yom Kippur/the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year, a 25-hour fast day devoted to prayers of soul-searching and repentance. Behind me were hundreds of worshippers in my congregation’s beautiful sanctuary in California. At mid-day, we had reached a particularly dramatic moment of the service, when the prayer book has us reenact portions of the ritual of the High Priest on Yom Kippur millennia ago when the ancient Temple stood. As the prayer leader, I chant the liturgical text of the High Priest’s penitential prayers, asking for forgiveness first for his own sins, then for the sins committed by his family, and then for the sins of the whole Jewish people. Unique in Jewish liturgy, the words are accompanied by multiple full-body prostrations. It is an intense time of prayer.
Some years I have struggled with the meaning of this ritual, as I, a 21st Century woman rabbi with no desire to see the Temple ritual restored, replicate words and actions of the High Priest in ancient times. Sometimes I have been able to leave these questions behind and simply pray for forgiveness for my own misdeeds and those of members of my family and of my people in the past year.
This year something powerful happened. In the week prior to the holiday, I had been anguished by two terrible acts of violence in Israel: one, an arson attack on a mosque in northern Israel, bearing the signature of the extremist settler “price tag” campaign, and the other, a violent attack by secular Jewish settlers on a group of Israeli Jewish peace activists in the settlement of Anatot. I had taken some comfort from the near-unanimous round of denunciations of the mosque attack by Jewish leaders in Israel and around the world, and by an impressive range of Israeli government officials. Yet I was plagued by the thought that this attack was not the first such hate crime, presumably by Israeli Jews, against Muslim sacred sites in the West Bank and now, for the first time, within Israel itself. By contrast, the assault by Israeli Jewish settlers on Israeli Jewish peace activists had received scant media coverage. The silence was torturous, and the reality of Jewish-on-Jewish aggression horrifying.
What is happening in the country I love? Commentators may find logic to explain the increasing incidence of violence within Israel, as Israeli Jews feel ever more frightened by the support of many nations for Palestinian independence. But the logic does not touch the horror in my heart, as members of my own people engage in violent hate crimes against members of other religious communities and even against fellow Israeli Jews.
Ironically, these events had all unfolded in the midst of our annual “Ten Days of Penitence,” dedicated to deep self-examination, self-critique, words and acts of apology, and recommitment to righteous living. The practice is at once personal and collective: it is directed toward the individual’s process of repentance, but the language and setting of the prayer is collective. In keeping with our tradition’s unabashed tradition of rigorous self-criticism, several Israeli thought leaders had recently written about the need for collective self-examination, as violent and racist trends in Israel have risen.
As one American Jewish leader, there is little I can do to prevent acts of hate by individual Israelis, even as I align myself with organizations that monitor, combat and educate about trends of rising intolerance and aggressiveness in Israeli society. But in that moment of prayer on the pulpit on Yom Kippur, symbolically standing in the place of the High Priest, I prayed desperately for the sins of my people. Acting as if my prayers could carry the weight of great leadership, I prayed that the terrible historic wounds that my people carry would be healed, so that acts of hate would become impossible. I prayed for a change of heart for the people of Israel, a turning toward generosity and compassion. I prayed that the wisdom of Jewish tradition, centered on the values of justice and lovingkindness, would transform a troubled society, and Jews would never again be guilty of acts of unprovoked violence.
I am no High Priest, but I also know that I was not the only Jew offering such prayers this Yom Kippur. May our pleas be heard, and may the power of the sacred day of Yom Kippur do its work to heal the hearts of my people, and of people everywhere.
Jewish tradition teaches that a Shabbat/Sabbath day lived in deep contemplation of the joys of life is “a taste of the world to come.” This week I experienced such a Shabbat, but in an unusual way.
Our “Caravan of Reconciliation” (see previous blog post), including rabbis, a Lutheran minister and our beloved imam, had arrived in Atlanta, Georgia for the weekend. We settled in to a beautiful Shabbat service at The Temple in Atlanta, where the senior rabbi was a former student of our executive director. Already, the personal connections were deep and sweet.
After a warm and joyful Shabbat evening service, our Imam Yahya Hendi rose to deliver the sermon. He looked around the sanctuary, where 250 Jews greeted him with an air of welcome expectation, and he began to cry. He told the group in a mixture of Hebrew and English that he was deeply moved to be received so warmly. “My sisters and my brothers,” he said, fully aware of the power of his words, as a Palestinian-born imam addressing a Jewish congregation, “I love you all. We are one family.”
Sprinkling his sermon with references to Jewish liturgy, he spoke of the unity of all people. “Shema Yisrael,” he said, “Hear O Israel,” referencing the most beloved prayer in all of Jewish liturgy, “Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad,” “The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” We are one, he asserted: Jews and Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Westerners, old and young, black, brown, white, red, and yellow. All of us come from dust and to dust we will return. We are in this predicament of life together. Together we can build a better nation and a better world.
His sermon was greeted by an ovation (unusual in a synagogue), rounds of hugs and many tears. The Imam had won the hearts of this community of Jews, and the synagogue was luminous with joy.
Next morning, my colleagues spoke at a public event at the Islamic Center of North Fulton, in suburban Alpharetta, where a long negotiation with neighbors had broken down and the city council had unanimously rejected the Center’s downsized plan for expanding its facilities. This was sure to be an important meeting, but I needed to be at synagogue, and so, a bit lonely heading off without my friends, I headed to Ahavath Achim, a synagogue I had often visited on past visits to Atlanta.
The rabbi of the synagogue, an old friend, had offered me the opportunity to speak about my experiences with the caravan. I spoke of the blessings and curses described in the weekly Torah portion: curses for those who fail to live in accordance with God’s desires, and blessings for those who align themselves with the divine. I connected the biblical curses of “insanity, blindness, and confusion,” with the scourge of religious intolerance afflicting our country, proclaiming the message of religious pluralism. Aiming far higher than mere “religious tolerance” (as in “I hate you but I am forced to tolerate you”), I exhorted the congregation to seek out relationship with people of other religions, for the sake of creating a stronger tapestry of community, for the sake of enriching our own religious lives, and for the sake of peace in the world.
I challenged the congregation to remember that while we Jews have much experience being the religious minority most subject to discrimination, that dubious distinction now belongs to our Muslim brothers and sisters here in America. As Jews, I insisted, our obligation is to champion the rights of those facing oppression. Most of all, I appealed to the rich tradition of prayer for peace in Jewish texts.
Dozens of people rushed to congratulate me after the service, to tell their stories of enriching interfaith encounter, to speak of their own sources of inspiration for the work of creating relationship across boundaries of religion and race. The air was thick with inspiration and hope.
As darkness fell, my colleagues and I headed for Al Farooq, the largest mosque in Atlanta. It was a magnificent house of worship, the most beautiful Islamic Center I had seen in this country. The deep, reverent silence of the prayer hall moved me deeply, and the audience of 150 people listening with rapt attention had a sense of hushed momentousness. We gave our presentation, “From Fear to Faith: Advancing Religious Pluralism,” and were greeted with resounding applause, a round of encouraging, thoughtful questions, and much engaged conversation after the formal session ended.
My colleagues were heading into Tennessee, in which a debate rages about enacting “anti-shariah” legislation, prohibiting Muslims from following their own religious law in ritual matters, as do all religious groups in America. This was sure to be a challenging and fascinating leg of the trip, but it was time for me to go home to attend to other obligations.
I was terribly sad to leave my treasured friends after our intense week-long mission of peace and interfaith education, with many precious hours of love, laughter, and prayer shared together. But I had tasted the blessing of living as one family across religious lines, a time rich with blessings. Surely, this is how the world to come will taste. But why wait till then?