Being the Change You Wish to See in the Middle East

Today is the first full day in Israel. Jet lag woke me up at 5:45am and I grew restless waiting out the dawn in my twin bed, so I pulled on running shoes and trotted out into the indigo chill. The Sea of Galilee, black then silver then blue, reflected the slowly brightening sky as I traversed the quiet morning streets and found a muddy trail on a bluff overlooking the blustery sea.

There’s too much to a day in Israel to even record, remember, keep track of. Thus the crucial importance of awareness and presentmindedness through these moments. My consciousness/presentmindedness is the only container that can accommodate the totality of this complex experience (and it is woefully partial). Nevertheless I’ll attempt to scribe some of this journey. Piecemeal by necessity, by reality.

Out of my constant present consciousness, my memory can hold and contain part of my experience; my writing only draws on a piece of that. Representing the past through writing only conveys a sliver of the full moment. But rather than be nihilistically overwhelmed by the absurdity of capturing it all, and knowing that “to much is given, much is expected,” I am behooved to share my learnings with others and with my future self who is no longer so viscerally or vibrantly in touch with these memories but would benefit by their recollection.

We went to places. Capernaum: Peter’s homestead. Ruins. The church structure built over his original house, a rather comedic literalization of Peter being the rock upon which the church is built. The Galilean healing narratives mostly happen here, which brings to the site a more poignant miraculousness of renewal and resilience than a place like Mount Moriah, where the big one-time miracles happened, or the parlor tricks of the Wedding at Cana. We visited the Sea of Galilee, and it was robustly blustery, wavy, splashy, and graced by silver sunrays jutting through a wispy patchwork of clouds.

Someone made a joke that we should rebuke the waves. I stood on a slippery rock at water’s edge and faced the gusty expanse, standing strong against the splashing squalls, cleansed by the living water and the ruach of the seashore. I felt cleansed and rowdy, baptized in the mikveh of Jesus of Nazareth. I turned toward my classmates, the Christians blessing each other with dripping handfuls of seawater, their words stolen by the tempestuous winds. The Jews hung back shyly; they might have sensed the sacredness of this site for the Christians and left them alone to it. I’ve got a passport to both worlds, so I struck out to sea. I stood at the storm’s edge, knowing it hasn’t changed much in 2000 years, feeling its timelessness, observing and not reacting to the conditions around me. I felt the life in me that wants to be lived. The tranquility I felt on that wet rock, surrounded by the winds of Galilee and the sweet joy of my Christian classmates, was an apt metaphor for the experience I hope to enact and re-enact when I return to normal life (whatever that is, as abnormal and compromising as life always feels).

One great thing about Israel is that it is a pilgrimage site, and travelers have their own distinct liberating enthusiasm and attention to newness and the preciousness of waning time. Their time has the architecture of itineraries and endpoints so they are free to grow. Israel is constantly encountered by the newness of pilgrims, seeking answers to so many levels of concern. There is hunger here, energy, a consciousness of history, a consciousness of conflict and anguish at its obvious ravages. It feels dear and vitalizing. Life is bright here because it is so dark. Israel and its amazing technicolor dreamcoat is enlivening.

As usual people in my group want to know how a nice Jewish girl like me ended up at Union Theological Seminary to earn an MDiv. I am getting better at explaining it, or at least owning my own journey and knowing that no explanation will explain it, or satisfy anyone, and my own deep satisfaction at learning to love and coexist at a deep level with my enemy of Christianity has brought me more peace and sustenance than my cherished and arrogant anger could ever have brought me. The way to have fewer enemies in life is to learn how to love your enemies; to attempt to understand their background and position and respect their suffering as I respect my own, to stand in awe of the fact that we all continue to live and grow despite the ugliness and loneliness we all always endure.

To the curious I explain my mixed family background, my attraction to the faith that anguished me with its seeming preposterousness, my desire to stare down the beast of Christianity, and my discovery that the beast was actually my ignorance of the magnificent, subtle, fierce truths spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. I realized that part of my journey into Christianity through Union was the result of my awful trip to Israel in 1998; after allowing myself to be so offended and frightened by hostility, political instability and gender marginalization I think I drifted reactively away from Judaism.

I could no longer find my place in the liturgical Zionist yearnings of Jewish texts. But still I hungered so much for spirituality and religion that Christianity became my default exploration (a generous Union scholarship didn’t dissuade me either). I found Christianity to be a complicated and politicized recapitulation of Jewish midrash and arrived once again at Judaism as a more appropriate system for my intellectual and aesthetic proclivities, for my own needs for structure and tradition.

Teshuvah: I returned to Judaism. As it was through the door of Christianity, it was an act of atonement and at-one-ment. Tzedakah: the journey taught me so much about love and justice. Tefillah: I can relate to God now, rest in God, can tell when I am getting in God’s way, and sometimes I am graced with the humility to step aside and surrender to God (not like I am ever going to win anyway). Tikkun: returning to Israel is a healing of the rupture that had cast me away from Judaism so many years ago. Israel led me to Union, the most important education of my life (thus far). Israel watered the seed of makhloket in my heart, which sprouted into curiosity, which eventually led me back to Israel. That my pilgrimage should start at the Sea of Galilee is fitting. I am a Jew who honors the midrashic teaching of Rabbi Jesus of Narareth.

Perhaps because I am a Jew, still I feel that the Christian imperative of love comes with far too few specifics (a good thing and a bad thing). That is what the epistles try to provide–muddied of course by Paul’s proselytizing political jargon–and it is also what Christian doctrine tries to provide. But this body of knowledge has been criminally overbelieved and dogmatized, and easily becomes a legalistic prison. Thus I return to the imperative of structure, of an ethical framework that brings order out of chaos so that we can move beyond human housekeeping and into better loving and growth. When life is neatened through order, ritual can start to unlock love through awareness, beauty, and celebration. I worry about the sentimentality of contemporary Christians and spiritualists saying love is the answer but not successfully theorizing how love can break into history through justice. Reinhold Niebuhr does a good job of this, but…how is it enacted? Sometimes I feel that Christianity is for my heart and Judaism is for my hands. Sometimes I feel Christianity is for my privacy and Judaism is for my community.

Of course, when I make distinctions like this, implicit statements about any inadequacy of Judaism, I know I display my lack of knowledge of my own religion. I know Judaism must be able to speak to my private heart in a way I have yet to access. That is my hunger. How I can I let Judaism into my private heart? How, why, when and where will Judaism let me into its private heart?

I wrestle with God. I am in the private heart of Is-Ra-El, now and always. I always have been.

One of the Christian students (a brilliant Union classmate!) reminded our group that Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it to; to demonstrate its rightful end. Jesus is no sentimentalist. He speaks truth, unadorned of meekness and never pandering to the ego sensitivities of his disciples, who severely lack ego discipline. But Jesus is not made of stone–he is afraid, he makes mistakes, he corrects himself, he sobs at Gethsemane in terror and the devastation of betrayal. He is all too human and that makes his principled clarity and wisdom that much more miraculous. He fulfills the law by enacting its central thrust, love, through ethics and straight-talk and subversive political badassery. When he is silenced by torture from the threatened establishment, he knows they know not what they do. He is the demonstration but not the usurpation of the law. The law is needed for messy imperfect humans; we need a seatbelt so we can safely drive the car. Jesus shows us how to do this–in his time.

I climbed over a balcony on the third floor tonight to talk to an inebriated American college student about the Arab-Israeli conflict. I learned a lot from him. Given, the lesson was from a slightly inebriated American college student who is no doubt garnering claims from his own Israel trip founder, a Jewish NGO that supports Israel and wants to teach its acolytes to do the same. The kid and I were on the same page about the tragically indeterminate and deeply incompatible historical landclaims by either side, legitimate in their own rights and so incommensurable in the contemporary world that the historical claims become moot. They cancel each other out by dint of equal legitimacy, legitimacy accessed by equally unconfirmable, yet undeniable, historical lineage and self-preserving rationale.

Still I see the problem of both sides living in reaction to history, attempting to preserve a cherished history and traditional chain that is affirmed through the words of scripture and therefore thought sacred and inviolable. But if two “truths” are opposed and yet inviolable, do they both falter? Do they cancel each other out? Idealistically, yes. But sociologically? Culturally? Aesthetically? Traditionally? No. In the realm of words, of memory and spirit, of emotions and transcendence, of human cultural and bioheritage, both subjectivities are stalwart. But when the strength of each opposing argument is such that the two together create insuperable conflict, a gridlock that stagnates in bloodshed and propagandic dogmatism for each side, a new reality is called for. A reality that fairly assesses, hopefully rejects, and eventually negotiates  transcendence of this bloodshed and culturally-reinforced partisanship for whatever side you happen to be raised by, affiliated with, taught by. Fairness, hope, eventual balance: this is Kingdom talk. But I’m no Messianist.

Systems and institutions move so slowly, are so complex, get so weighed down by minutiae and memory and relationships so as to prevent progress. This is where I start thinking that only personal relationships contain enough grace and space to allow for negotiation, sacrifice, compassion, and growth. The interpersonal level of human life remains the most fluid and the most likely to actualize principled potential. And it is the place to start to develop the capacity, the ground zero, of a zeitgeist and a new cultural reality.

All change starts from the inside and moves out. The human individual individuates from her cultural and familial inculcations and ideas of separation, self, and personal imperatives through processes of time and radical maturity. Through a series of small and thorough cataclysmic conversions. But we often feel about other people the ways we feel about ourselves. As long as we continue to deny ourselves joy, reality, justice, life-giving discipline, and self-generated/referential/contained loyalty, we cannot offer it to others.

Thus the inner conflict, and then interpersonal conflicts, are the most crucial to attend to. Thus inner violence and interpersonal violence are the most damning and paralyzing of all, the most painful of all, so much so that our animal brain thinks we are dying when we are cognitively dissonant or interpersonally violated, and floods itself with decoupling pain-inhibiting neurotransmitters. Thus we do not even feel our pain, we are not even conscious of it, when it is the most painful. And we are frozen in time, literally, frozen in memory and fear of the past, acting in reaction to it and not to present exigencies. The only way forward is to make the pain conscious and move through it. Feel it all again for the first time, then leave it behind.

Attention to inner conflict doesn’t always mean compromise and negotiation, or the subservience of one inner demand to the other. But it does require holding the tension of opposing truths and navigating a Middle Way through Scylla and Charybdis with balance, awareness, and periodic prioritization of one claim over the other. Periodic is important.  Some days you choose sacrifice, some days you choose selfishness, some days you choose duty, some days you choose desire. Sustained peaceful resolution of opposing sides is only available in Nirvana, in an aspectless realm of pure contemporaneous present.

But the present so often arises out of the detritus of history and the ideals of the future, that its very nature is subservient, perspectively derived from the sufferings and values of the bearer. A common present is as evasive and nearly impossible for beings-in-time.

This is why universals are an important concept. Where between our radically different presents can we find common ground? Where is the overlap? Are there universals–ethics or basic human rights–that are presently enactable in history, or are they all future ideals that provide momentum and dynamism but always collapse upon achievement in history? I always return to Niebuhr and the actualizable potential of proximate justice. I always return to interpersonality, and to the ultimate personality conflicts of multitudinous human selfhood.
For that is one of the realms where the pure, aspectless, full and empty samadhic bliss of consciousness is periodically achievable. It is in fact always accessible.

I had a moment of expansion listening to this college kid when I was listening to his words, but I also saw the waxing moon in the sky behind him, and a Golan skyscraper rising in another background, and the Sea of Galilee sprawling in another background, and the other collegiate minglers chatting, and the ground grounding far below our balconies, and the pimpled youngness of everyone there, and my bare arms blanching in the January air, and the hot sharp drag of my cigarette, and the fact that one kid had the same name of my last boyfriend in Boston, and more facts, and more memories, and more awarenesses, all coming apart at the seams and drifting off into the universe as space debris and cosmic rubble, all so full and yet equal and empty, all so inconsequential next to eternity. This was a moment of consciousness of totality. And yet, it was limited to everything I saw and everything I come from.

I can’t see what I can’t see yet, and I don’t know what I don’t know yet, and that’s because I’m a  human and have to keeping discovering and uncovering everything and doing good hard work to make sense of it all. Thus the totality is always limited to my human creatureliness. And the totality itself is ever-expanding and changing, roiling far beyond the limits of human apprehension. It cannot even apprehend itself. (And that is why a sentimental, anthropomorphic theology is an embarrassment, a cage and an insult to the perspectivally limitless ground of being…but that’s a whole ‘nother can o’ worms.)

Learn kindness. Start with the self. Learn observing without reacting. Start with the self. Learn tranquility. Start with the self. Keep learning, keep starting, keep working. Keep being the change you wish to see.

Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. The periodic possibility; the periodic table. I am standing periodically on the ground of elemental truths. Touching the void. The generative void.

Time for another stab at rest.
Tomorrow is Shabbat in Jerusalem.

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