The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Closing of the American Jewish Mind?

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Rosh Hashanah 5775
25 September 2014

The Closing of the American Jewish Mind?

Once upon a time, not long ago, there was a young man named Joe. Joe was a nice Jewish boy from Anywhere, USA who did well in high school and got accepted early to one of his top choice colleges – let’s call it University of Middle America, or UMA. As Joe’s high school graduation approached, he found it hard to focus on homework and class, often lost in thought about what campus life would be like.

Joe daydreamed about the wealth of classes and professors he’d have at his fingertips; he daydreamed about learning that would happen in and out of the classroom through the open exchange of ideas. That’s what college is for, right? he asked himself. Not avoiding disagreement but seeking it out? Intellectual sparring with students and faculty? Joe had always excelled at that. It’s part of why he did so well in high school: by offering his own ideas to be crystallized and honed in the crucible of debate. He knew that’s how real learning occurs.

Needless to say, what happened around UMA’s commencement that spring surprised and disappointed Joe. He was finishing high school while closely following events on the campus he was about to call home. The University had invited a prominent leader to address the student body at graduation. But then a well-organized group of liberal students and faculty, who opposed the speaker’s political views, started a petition. Their outcry led to the disinviting of the speaker from that year’s commencement. Joe’s politics tilted liberal, but he was troubled by the bigger picture at stake here. On a university campus, of all places, a small vocal minority was able to stifle someone’s ideas simply because they were disagreeable? And this wasn’t the only campus where a speaker with “unpopular” views was disinvited. What did that say about the state of these supposedly “liberal” institutions of higher learning that their students and even some faculty couldn’t stomach hearing dissenting views? Nothing good, thought Joe.

The press was all over these disinvitations. One Jewish observer wrote, "College was once about preparing boys and girls to become men and women, not least through a process of desensitization to discomfiting ideas. Now it’s just a $240,000 extension of kindergarten" (Stephens; see also Wisse). 

And a Yale law professor wrote: 
In my day, the college campus was a place that celebrated the diversity of ideas… Your generation, I am pleased to say, seems to be doing away with all that… How marvelous it must be to realize at so tender an age that you will never, ever change your mind, because you will never, ever encounter disagreement! How I wish I’d had your confidence and fortitude. I could have spared myself many hours of patient reflection and intellectual struggle over the great issues of the day. (Carter)
Troubled by the developments on campus, Joe spent the summer packing for college, meeting his roommates online, and registering for fall semester classes. Though worried about a lack of real debate on campus, he took some comfort in knowing that he would always have a home among the Jewish community at Hillel. There, he knew, he’d find willing partners for debate. His childhood rabbi had always encouraged thoughtful dissent. They’d even studied Jewish texts about it, how the rabbinic tradition was founded on engaging seriously with your opponents’ positions.

With the Jewish community on campus, Joe looked forward to engaging in the age-old practice of chevruta study – arguing over texts and ideas, challenging your fellow learner and inviting him to push back, elevating your mutual learning together.

Needless to say, what happened at Hillel that fall after Joe arrived on campus surprised and disappointed him. The Hillel’s Israel Task Force had invited a speaker to address the campus community. This speaker was a Jewish educator who would speak about his attempt at reconciliation with the Palestinian family of the terrorist who bombed the Hebrew University cafeteria in 2002. That attack had killed two of the speaker’s friends, and nearly killed his girlfriend, too. He had gone on a personal mission to find the killer’s family because he wanted to see where such misguided, murderous hatred could come from.

As it turned out, the speaker had also written a blog post about BDS – the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. The BDS movement is especially active on campuses, its members ranging from progressive Zionists who want to end the occupation, to anti-Semites who want to delegitimize Israel. The speaker’s blog post said that BDS is a legitimate form of nonviolent protest against certain policies of the Israeli government. When this came to light, the Hillel rabbi informed the speaker that a pro-BDS stance disqualified him from speaking at Hillel because of the parent organization’s Israel Engagement Guidelines. Although Hillel promises to “encourage students’ inquiry” and welcome “a diversity of student perspectives” in a “pluralistic community,” they also set limits on speakers allowed to appear under Hillel’s name. That includes barring anyone who supports “boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel.”

Bound by these guidelines, and backed by a small but vocal group of Jewish students, Joe’s Hillel rabbi disinvited the speaker. Joe didn’t get it. He didn’t support BDS himself, but he wanted to hear what this thoughtful, committed Jew had to say. Joe was on campus to learn and grow, and he could handle himself in an argument. He was not afraid to be provoked to think critically, even — or especially — about Israel. 

When Hillel withdrew its invitation to the speaker, the Muslim Student Union stepped in to host him instead. Joe had reservations about that group’s intentions, but this was a conversation he wanted to be a part of, so he went to the event. The speaker stated his support for Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, a dual commitment demanded by his Zionism. As he started to say that the occupation threatens Israel’s democratic character, and therefore violates his Zionist principles, a group of pro-Israel students stood up and shouted him down.

Joe had seen similar behavior when Palestinian students shouted down pro-Israel speakers. He and his fellow Jews would dismiss them as thugs who couldn’t handle having their ideas subjected to actual debate. Now Joe’s fellow Jews were using the same tactics. Ironically, these Jewish students were violating another of Hillel International’s guidelines, barring individuals who “exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

Joe was fed up with the hypocrisy on both sides. He had considered a degree in international relations with a focus on Middle Eastern affairs, but he decided in that moment to major in something less controversial, like particle physics or underwater basket-weaving. He never really set foot in Hillel again, except occasionally for the High Holidays, and he lost his passion for discussing Israel, too. There were too many lines drawn in the sand, everywhere he turned.

*    *    *

Joe’s story is fictional, but not by much. Last spring, a long list of colleges disinvited speakers because of  “unpopular” views. Blistering critiques were written about college students’ need for intellectual coddling. At the same time, Hillel has been embroiled in a national debate about what qualifies as a sufficiently “pro-Israel” event to bear Hillel’s name. Speakers have been invited and then disinvited when deemed out of bounds (e.g. at Harvard). The tension came to a head last December when students at Swarthmore publicly rejected the parent organization’s guidelines and named themselves the first “Open Hillel.”

The organized Jewish community is sending a message, a mixed message, to our college kids: we want you to engage in stimulating intellectual debates, get involved in the open exchange of ideas, challenge your views — but just not when it comes to Israel. On that topic, you’re either with us – unconditionally, uncritically – or against us.

Let’s consider for a moment what one critic said about all those disinvited commencement speakers, and apply his thinking to the context of Hillel, even though the author wasn’t writing about that situation:
Ladies and gentlemen, you are graduating into a world of enormous complexity and conflict. There are corners of the globe where violence and war and abject oppression still dominate… Traditional societies are caught in an increasingly desperate struggle between the perils of fundamentalism on the one side and the perils of modernism on the other. Given your generation’s penchant for shutting down speakers with whom you disagree, I am assuming that you have no intention of playing any serious adult role in mediating those conflicts. And that’s fine. We should leave the task of mediation to those unsophisticated enough to be sensitive to the concerns of both sides. (Carter)
One of the main reasons we don’t foster a healthy Israel conversation among college students, let alone within congregations, is that we have substituted pro-Israel advocacy for Zionism. Zionism’s goal was to change the status of Jews in the world with regard to power, agency, and responsibility. “Statehood was a means to that end, not an end in itself” (Goldberg). Now we can’t see past the question of supporting or criticizing the state, as if that’s the substance of Zionism. We’ve forgotten, or never learned, that Zionism is not just about Jews having the power to defend ourselves – it’s also about Jews having the responsibility to treat others who live within our power in a Jewish way. It’s not just about creating a Jewish majority – it’s also about shaping that society to reflect the values of Jewish tradition. It’s a conversation, I’m proud to say, that we had for nine weeks this summer with the help of the Hartman Institute’s iEngage curriculum: 20 Jews around a table, arguing, disagreeing, pushing back, but sharing a commitment to respect each other as we studied our tradition’s views on power, sovereignty, self-defense, war, and human rights.

Peter Beinart wrote on Monday that during these High Holidays, American rabbis should not speak about the Jewish state, but rather about Jewish texts. The real crisis facing our community, he says, is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but illiteracy about Judaism. In other words, we are so alienated from Jewish tradition that we aren’t ready to have a real conversation about Israel, let alone Zionism. So we cling to defensive pro-Israel advocacy, at the expense of a richer engagement with Zionism and the future of the Jewish people.

College campuses are ground zero for this problem. The organized Jewish community pours money and energy into defending Israel on campus, sometimes from real enemies but often at the expense of building Jewish community or cultivating students’ Jewish identity. Rabbi Oren Hayon, Executive Director of the Hillel at the University of Washington in Seattle, experienced this firsthand. He spent two years gearing up to fight BDS legislation at the university, and fight they did. Reflecting after a successful campaign to defeat BDS, Hayon asks us to consider the cost of these victories. He said, "The moment a BDS resolution is introduced on a college campus, a mighty political advocacy engine roars to life and, before long, the entire community becomes characterized by a relentless scorched-earth approach” (Hayon). This machine is distracting and alienating. It forces Hillels to forego more substantive programming, and it shuts out students whose questions about Israel get them banished from the tent.

Rabbi Hayon compares this approach to the Akeidah, the famous binding of Isaac, which we will read later this morning. In the case of Abraham, his own son Isaac became a tool in his quest, the means to prove his faithfulness to God. Hayon says, “When we fail to treat college students as persons, and instead relate to them as objects to be manipulated for our political or ideological goals, we hasten our own downfall.” Rather than calling students “thinkers, partners, or colleagues,” activists on both sides of these campaigns refer to them as troops, vessels, and assets. What does it say about us that we treat students as pawns in our own defensive game, and not as the future leaders of our community? What kind of leaders will they be?

And what will become of our hypothetical Joe once he graduates, if this was his experience on campus? If Joe had been encouraged to learn and grow in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom and rigorous debate, wouldn’t he be a stronger Jew, poised to confront the complex challenges of his generation? On the other hand, if Joe is brushed aside as not pro-Israel enough, then what do we expect? Why would he want to live Jewishly, if that’s the shallow Jewish identity he’s been sold? Why should he join a synagogue, or support a Jewish organization, when his experience of the organized Jewish community is that you either fall in line or get out of the way? What gifts of Jewish leadership, what potential contributions to the ongoing story of our people, are we sacrificing on the altar of pro-Israel advocacy? 

Zionism calls us to imagine and enact the ideal Jewish future. It demands a proactive vision for the state of the Jewish people, not a defensive apology for the status quo. Jewish tradition challenges us to balance self-defense and the rights of others, to take care of our own without diminishing our moral commitment to humanity. As Rabbi Hillel himself famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Upholding these dual commitments is not childish or naive — it’s exactly the kind of sophisticated Jewish leadership we urgently need.

It’s time to let go of our insistence on simple answers to complex questions. It’s time to study, argue, and act — like adults.

Sources and Recommended Reading



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Getting in Touch with Your Inner Hypocrite

Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775
24 September 2014

Getting in Touch with Your Inner Hypocrite

Two boys were playing hockey on a pond in Boston Common when one was attacked by a rabid pit bull. Thinking quickly, the other boy took his hockey stick, wedged it down the dog’s collar and twisted, breaking the dog’s neck. A reporter strolling by saw the incident and ran over to interview the boys. As he started writing in his notebook, he said, “Young Bruins Fan Saves Friend from Vicious Animal Attack.”

The boy replied, “But I’m not a Bruins fan.”

“Oh, sorry,” said the reporter. “Since we’re in Boston and you’re playing hockey, I assumed you were. Let me start over. ‘Red Sox Fan Rescues Friend from Rabid Dog.’”

The boy replied, “I’m not a Red Sox fan either.”

The reporter said, “I assumed everyone in Boston was for either the Bruins or the Red Sox. What team do you root for? The Celtics?”

The child answered, “Nope. I’m a Yankees fan.”

The reporter began writing in his notebook, “Little Bastard from New York Kills Beloved Family Pet…”

Bias is everywhere. It’s starting to feel like there’s no news anymore – it’s all opinion peddling, agenda pushing, slanted editorializing. Pundits pump up their side of the story at the expense of their opponents, without much regard for the truth. Jews are particularly sensitive to bias in the media. We fund many organizations whose sole purpose is to be watchdogs against anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias in reporting. 

This time of year, though, we are called to look inward — to aim our critical eye at ourselves. It’s a good thing, too, because bias is alive and well in each of us.

Consider this example. Earlier this month, President Obama gave a speech announcing the use of force to confront the terrorist threat of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in the Middle East. Now, just my mention of that person and event already triggered a non-rational response in you, based on where you sit on the political spectrum. Your rational brain lags behind and rationalizes how you already feel. “His speech was weak and he waffled on confronting our enemies”; or, “He showed measured restraint in the face of a conflict he didn’t choose.”

We like to tell ourselves that our opinions “are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.” But in truth, they are “the result of years of paying attention to information that confirmed what you believed, while ignoring information that challenged your preconceived notions” (McRaney, Smart, 27).

Let’s get more specific. President Obama said in his speech: “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”

I’m not interested in debating that point right now. Instead, I want to ask you to monitor your own reaction to it. Most likely, your emotional brain kicked in, generating a feeling of agreement or disagreement based on whether your underlying attitude is “boo Obama” or “yay Obama.” That’s key: before you even analyze the arguments, your brain has already flipped the switch to direct the locomotive of your rational mind down a particular track. That’s because you care more about maintaining your worldview and your group identity than you do about reaching a reasoned, objective conclusion. 

Truth is, there’s something legitimate to say on each side of this discussion. Conservatives were quick to criticize the President for saying that ISIL is not Islamic. Not only does it identify itself as such, they argued, but it takes its core teachings from the Quran.

Liberals came to the President’s defense, explaining that ISIL is not Islamic merely because it claims to be, just as it’s not a “State” despite calling itself that. Mainstream Muslims, they say, reject ISIL’s interpretation of the Quran as an extremist distortion of true Islam.

Again, I’m not trying to convince you of either position. I want you to notice how you reacted to each one, which was probably some version of, “THIS view is right, and THAT one is biased and wrong.”

Let’s go one step further with this example. In 2011, a man named Anders Breivik went on a murderous rampage in Norway, killing 77 people. In his extensive writings, he called himself a Christian on a crusade against the infidel, and the media began referring to him as a Christian extremist.

Bill O’Reilly and other conservative commentators came out strong against this claim. O’Reilly said, “Breivik is not a Christian. That’s impossible. No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder. The man might have called himself Christian on the net, but he is certainly not of that faith.”

For some of you, just the mention of “Bill O’Reilly” set your emotional brain into action. You just thought to yourself, without really thinking, either “Boo O’Reilly, so boo to his opinion!” or “Yay O’Reilly, he’s right!”

So is Breivik a Christian? Is ISIL Islamic? Is your gut fighting your intellect to reach a consistent answer to both questions? Are you having trouble agreeing with both Bill O’Reilly and President Obama? Are you uncomfortable and starting to sweat? (Are we having fun yet?) Don’t worry, your discomfort is just a symptom of cognitive dissonance. Close your eyes, visualize your warm and cozy echo chamber, and the feeling should pass.

These are complicated issues on which reasonable people can disagree. You tell yourself that you’ve sifted through the available evidence and made a reasoned judgment, but you probably haven’t. Your decision was made already because of which group you’re a part of: liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. 

Our ancestors evolved to identify with a tribe. Tribal loyalty increases safety and survival, but it also leads to demonization of other groups as a way to strengthen one’s own identity and group cohesion. And so instead of analyzing new ideas with intellectual honesty, we determine whether they confirm or challenge our existing narrative, and we affirm or reject them accordingly.

The lengths we go to in protecting our identity and worldview can be quite striking. In the late 1950s, a psychologist named Milton Rokeach brought together three delusional men to try and cure them of their insanity (as recounted in McRaney, Dumb, Chapter 1: “Narrative Bias”). He did not intend to set up an experiment; he wanted a cure. These three men — Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel, and Leon Gabor — with three very different backgrounds suffered from a surprisingly similar delusion: each man held the firm conviction that he was “the living reincarnation of Jesus Christ” (McRaney, Dumb, 18).

Rokeach hoped that throwing these men into daily social interaction with each other would cause their delusions to “cancel one another out.” And here’s where it got really interesting. Rokeach regularly brought their conversation around to the impossibility of there being three Christs. He tried to encourage each man to acknowledge that impossibility and, as a result, give up his delusion. But here’s what happened instead:
When forced to explain, they didn’t come to a sudden realization that they were being delusional; they didn’t reel in awe after being struck by the insight that their identities were showing cracks. No, they just dismissed the other two men’s claims. Benson said the other two were some form of cyborg and not actually alive… Gabor believed the other two men were lesser gods who came after him… Cassel’s explanation was the most accurate and prosaic. He said the other two men were insane patients in a mental hospital. (McRaney, Dumb, 19-20)
Although Rokeach was writing about profoundly delusional men, his conclusion applies to us, too: “These three Christs were, if not rational men, at least men of a type we had all encountered before; they were rationalizing men” (McRaney, Dumb, 20; emphasis added). That’s what we all are – rationalizing men and women. When confronted with beliefs that challenge the story we tell about ourselves, we rationalize them out of our way. “It’s part of life — watching other people lie to themselves to get by. Yet, when you do it, it gets swept under the mental carpet” (McRaney, Dumb, 21).

Our tendency toward bias should concern us, because bias is the handmaiden of hypocrisy, “the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform” (New Oxford American Dictionary). Politics makes otherwise decent people into unwitting hypocrites. We trash our opponents for ignoring the facts, we call them delusional — and then we turn around and play fast and loose with the facts ourselves to support our side. We look the other way rather than admit our own delusions and rationalizations. 

You won’t be surprised to learn that our tradition does not take hypocrisy lightly. In the rabbinic academy, hypocrisy was grounds for expulsion. Rabban Gamliel used to say: “No disciple whose inside is not as his outside may enter the house of study” (Talmud Berachot 28a; Book of Legends 695:59). According to another source, we have a responsibility not only to avoid hypocrisy ourselves but also to speak out against it in others: “One should expose hypocrites to prevent the profanation of the Name…” (Talmud Yoma 86b; Book of Legends 523:152). 

Most damning in rabbinic tradition about hypocrites is a parable about Rome and pigs: 
“Why is the kingdom of Rome said to be like a boar?” the sages ask.
Because like the boar, which extends its cloven hooves when lying down, as if to say, “See how kosher I am,” so the wicked kingdom of [Rome] robs and despoils, yet makes it appear that the legal tricks it resorts to are fair practice. 
It happened that a Roman ruler who kept executing men guilty of theft, adultery, and sorcery confided to his counselors: “In a single night I committed all three of these acts.” (Bereishit Rabbah 65:1, Vayikra Rabbah 13:5; Book of Legends 356:171)
In the rabbinic mind, Romans and pigs are the lowest of the low. Hence, so are hypocrites. They show their split hooves as if to say, “Look at me, I’m kosher!” — when in reality, “Surprise! I’m bacon.” 

We all do it. Maybe that’s reassuring? We’re all in this hypocrisy boat together. 
Once upon a time, a lapsed synagogue member ran into the rabbi in town and said, “I never go to temple. Perhaps you noticed that, rabbi?”
“Yes, I noticed that,” said the rabbi.
“Well, the reason I don’t go is because there are so many hypocrites there,” said the man.
“Oh, you shouldn’t let that keep you away,” said the rabbi, with a smile. “There’s always room for one more.”
It’s hard to rise above our psychological tendencies, but it’s not impossible. The first step is noticing we have a problem. It requires humility and inner strength to admit when we apply a different standard to ourselves than to others. Our sages said, “Reproach not your neighbor for a blemish that is yours” (Bava Metzia 59b; Book of Legends 695:48). In other words, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. My friends, we all live in glass houses, so let’s put down the stones, pick up a mirror, and do some honest self-reflection.

If our arguments are always zero-sum, with a winner and a loser; if political debates are less about truth and progress than about waving our group’s banner and circling the wagons; if ideas only resonate with us based on a gut judgment of the messenger rather than the merit of the message — then the future is bleak indeed. 

So when you find yourself thrust into a knee-jerk reaction to an idea someone lobs your way, try to step back and ask yourself, I’m reacting viscerally to this argument, but what do I really believe? Do I like or dislike this idea because I think it’s true or false, or because it confirms or denies my narrative about myself and the world? Can I fully explain my opponent’s position – or even my own?

And if you’re ready for advanced placement, try this: next time you get into a heated argument with someone, switch sides with them. Each of you argue the other’s position. You’ll quickly see how well you really understand your opponent’s case, and if he/she gets yours. And you’ll get to hear what your argument sounds like coming back at you.

Learn to love critique and correction. In the words of one psychologist: “In science, you move closer to the truth by seeking evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the same method should inform your opinions as well” (McRaney, Smart, 31). 

Maybe the best way to combat your hardwired bias and hypocrisy is by changing the story you tell yourself about your identity. Start to see yourself as not simply a good liberal or good conservative, but as an independent thinker – or as a liberal or conservative who wants to understand the other side. Cultivate that identity. Tell your friends so they can hold you accountable. Then, when your knee-jerk reaction kicks into gear, the identity it bolsters will not be partisan faithful, but rather intellectually honest, critical thinker. That may allow your rational brain to do its job better – namely, to sift through available evidence and make a reasoned judgment.

It won’t be perfect. We are only human, after all. But it’s worth the effort. In fact, our ability to grow as a species and confront the challenges in our future depends on our capacity to think more honestly about how we think. You may even learn something new along the way, find wisdom in an unlikely source, connect with someone you’d previously dismissed as having nothing in common with you. That makes a for a better story to tell about who you are, doesn’t it? 

Think about it.

Sources and Recommended Reading

Special thanks to Maurice Emmer, raconteur extraordinaire, for supplying comic material.