It is my policy not to discuss Israel and Palestine on the Internet. The weaponized, propaganda-tipped arguments of foreigners are just another brutal tactic employed in the Middle East conflict. I am a conscientious objector. After a blood relative called me a vicious name during the last escalation, I don’t participate in that anymore.
Moreover, my partner is entering the Conservative rabbinate, so I have chosen to end my days of taking fearless, privileged, visible stances on any issue I choose. She is taking on a public role in Jewish life, a sensitive position that demans inclusiveness across a broad spectrum of beliefs, and I support her with my whole heart.
Yet this life transition, which begins in just two weeks, feels all the more poignant because of the current escalation of ongoing violence in the Holy Land. It is frightening to be diving head-first into Jewish religious life from the height of this 21st-century emergency of Jewishness. While they’re separate issues in my heart, various stances on the politics of the state of Israel are assumed to be essential components of Jewish identity by many Jews and non-Jews alike. So through my religious choices, I’m forced to confront these politics.
I’m flooded with questions about my own identity: Are all Jewish people my people? Are all Jewish values my values? Is all Jewish ritual my ritual? Can the Jewish People accept that non-Jewish people are also my people? Can non-Jewish people accept me and my Jewish identity? Can the Jewish People coexist as one people in this century?
With no answer to these questions, I am joining the religious establishment of the Jewish People in America nevertheless. I’m not yet taking any formal role, but I will be joining in through rituals and observances, through neighborhood and relationship, and through study and community, spheres of activity that are inextricable from one another for Jews. I do not know What I am joining, for that would presume answers to those questions of identity. But I do know Why, and for the sake of the many identities within the Jewish People, I am called to explain to the world with G!d as my witness.
Walking Is Hard
[Update, March 17, 2017: While I honestly and proudly preserve this post for posterity, I no longer call myself a Buddhist and have decided to fully embrace Judaism and Jewish practice. Read more here.]
Jewish identity has not been an easy fit in my life. I’ve sworn a rejection of it more than once, both as a child and as an adult. My major reason, as I’ve explained at length in the past, has been a feeling of incompatibility with the Jewish community I was in. But I’ve also had spiritual reasons. Jewish religious language always felt like an awkard fit between my mind and the world, while Buddhist language fit snugly. (This is a common problem). A year and a half ago, I professed religious faith in Buddhism. To be clear, I do not renounce that faith. I still seek refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. But those are not the only places I seek refuge.
I’ll take refuge wherever I can get it. It’s always temporary. I enjoy it while I can. I have all kinds of bracelets and crystals and Tarot cards and rocks for protection. I have a ceramic Mayan agricultural calendar on my bedroom wall. I patch together my shabby nest from whatever bits of refuge I can find. The world is scary. Refuge is hard to come by.
I need religion to be okay. I’ve always known that. I don’t mean “spirituality” alone. Spirituality is an emotion. I’m talking about defined, sacred objects to mark space and practices to mark time. I need an oversimplified story of reality that gives me instructions about how to participate. I need language for talking to G!d. Without that stuff, my soul feels like a space alien on this planet, and it makes me terribly afraid.
I often hear it said that “religion is a crutch.” It’s said derisively, implying that religious people need to Man Up and walk on their own. Well good for you, I want to say. I’m glad your life has been so easy. For lots of other people, walking is hard.
Religion is a part of my basic need for home. It’s a habit of life no different or less essential than eating breakfast. My childhood home was a Jewish home. We weren’t very religious, but the influence was there. I learned enough of the Jewish religion that its ritual feels the most home-like to me. Sometimes I’m still out of my element in Jewish environments because I don’t feel learned enough, but I still feel comfortable enough to try.
Even if I do zazen and read Tarot every day, I feel like an alien unless I do something Jewish. I’m not at home unless I say the Sh’ma. So even though I’ve had bad luck fitting into Jewish religious communities, I know my eventual home community will be a Jewish one.
I know because I’ve seen glimpses of it.
My Prayers Were Answered
Ariel and I went to Passover in the Desert this year. It’s a festival in California’s Panamint Valley put on by Wilderness Torah, an organization that “revitalize[s] Jewish life by reconnecting Jewish traditions to the cycles of nature.” At this festival, around 150 people live together in a temporary tent-village to observe the Passover story in the truest possible way: in the desert.
WT offers something I never got growing up. It teaches that the Jewish religion is a nature-based tradition that was severed from its origins by centuries of violent persecution, political marginalization, and pragmatic adaptation to circumstances. American Jews are cut off from holiness. We carry ancestral trauma, and we show symptoms. We’ve become disembodied. We've become fearful and reactionary. But we can’t heal the trauma with more politics. We certainly can't heal it with more trauma. We have to return to our bodies and to the Earth’s body, to start feeling that connection to the land again, in order to heal and thrive. The land where we live has to be Holy Land.
It’s all right there in the rituals. We mark our time with the phases of the moon, the seasons, the times of harvest. We sanctify by eating and drinking and praying and resting. Our highest calling is tikkun olam, repairing the world. It seems to many Jews that the forms of Judaism forged by modernity don’t emphasize those parts, but they feel like the most fundamental things about the religion to us.
No stranger to desert festivals, I was thrilled to join Ariel for her second Passover in the Desert, especially after the transformative experiences she described from her first time. Extended solo time in the wilderness is an important part of the festival experience, and on her solo last year, Ariel was visited by some wild burros with whom she had a lively conversation about all kinds of holy topics. That sold me. I was even more eager to go when we learned that this year they would offer a small number of participants an overnight solo vision quest before the main festival began. All-nighters out in the desert are kind of my thing.
We signed up for the build crew, so we’d arrive with the staff and help set up the village. That meant nine days and nights out there. It was hard, hot work. We observed the first two nights of Passover with the small village of early arrivals. A lunar eclipse presided over our first night’s seder. After we built the village, 22 people, 11 women and 11 men, met in the sanctuary tent with three teachers to prepare for the vision quest.
Our facilitators had formal training with Native American teachers as well as with Jewish teachers. The practices we learned and used were an intentional synthesis of those native to the Jewish people — which certainly include wilderness vision quests — and those native to the land where our Jewish ancestors immigrated and where we now practiced, the land called America by its colonizers and the immigrants who followed.
This healing of ancestral trauma stuff is delicate business, but it’s pragmatic. It acknowledges that those of us alive now are saddled with the karma and pain of our ancestors, but it admits that, well, here we are. We live in a land that was taken from others and given to us. We own our part in that. All we can do now is stop the trauma and work for reconciliation. For me, out in the desert of California, that had to start at home, where we were, not in some storied Promised Land of ancient or modern invention.
We spent a day preparing ourselves by setting our prayers and intentions for the vision quest. We partnered with a buddy through some kind of divinely directed random selection process, and we walked out onto the land in pairs. Together we found a meeting place, and then we split off from there to find our individual sit spots. When we found them, we left a marker (and some extra water), and we brought back a stick and a rock from the place to the village. These were to connect our remote spots to the sacred fire, the spiritual heart of the village from which we would go out.
Our fasting and silence began the next day. At the appointed time in the afternoon, we came to the circle of stones that contained the sacred fire. We brought only our sticks and rocks from our sit spots, our water, ritual implements, and layers to keep warm at night. Some 50 people from the village were lined up around the circle, chanting.
I approached from the southwestern side, and as I began to breach the circle boundary, one of the leaders of the village, a strong man larger than I, threw up his hands to stop me. I startled and lost my concentration. He ushered me around to the eastern side of the circle, where I could see an entrance path and an exit path divided by a line of stones. I had made a ritual mistake. It seemed obvious after the infraction, but I hadn’t been taught to enter the circle correctly, from the east, like the sun. Ashamed, I walked around the outside of the circle, entered as the teachers smudged me with burning sage, and joined the other vision questers around the inner ring. All of this happened in silence.
One at a time, when we were moved to begin, we placed our rocks on the inner ring of stones surrounding the fire, and we placed the sticks from our spots into the fire. We spoke our intentions aloud to the village, and then we walked clockwise around the inner circle and out of the exit path while the village witnessed us. In silence, while the desert sun beat down on us, we walked out to our hidden spots in the vast flats of the valley. I thought about my breach of protocol for a while, remembering other feelings of shame for not knowing the proper ritual forms in synagogue or on meditation retrats, then I let it go. I had a much more important job to do now.
When I got to my spot, I began to build my circle of stones around the flat, smooth rock I had chosen as a seat and altar. As I worked, I announced my intentions to the land and to G!d as our teachers had instructed us. I talked about my lineage and my aspirations and my prayers for this vision quest, which were to clear out the obstacles between me and religious life. I declared my intention to sit in this circle all night. And when I finished my circle, I sat.
When the sun went down, I heard another vision quester chanting the Sh’ma at the top of his lungs, so I joined in. I sang my prayers louder than I ever had before, and I lost myself in them. By the time I had finished, it was dark. The moon rose over the eastern mountains, and I howled like a dog.
Overnight, as I prayed, I heard the occasional chatterings of other questers carried by the breeze. I felt so relieved to know there were 21 other mystics at least as crazy as I. Relief gave way to gratitude, thanks to G!d for finally delivering me into religious community. I felt all 22 of us out on the land, and then I felt the rest of the village back there praying for us. Some of them were at the sacred fire all night.
The gratitude remained and was joined by wonder. It’s 2014 in the United States of America, I’m 26 years old, and I’m being held by a whole village while I pray all night for the first time in my life. Every one of us is doing something new. We’re creating a new ritual. There is no wrong way! At that instant, I forgave myself for breaking the circle, for all the times I’d ever felt like I didn’t know how to pray correctly. The village forgave me, too. They honored my religious strength by sending me out into the wilderness. I was me, I was a Jew, I built a circle of stones, and that’s all that mattered. I’d stay in it all night long and pray.
The stories-within-stories of the visions I saw that night… maybe I’ll tell you those by the campfire sometime. A couple of them are secrets. My prayers were answered.
It was cold that night. My wool blanket was thin.
When the sun hit the tops of the mountains on the western side of the valley, we closed our circles and walked back to the sacred fire. The village was there to welcome us. The fire warmed us. We chanted wordlessly, then we prayed Shacharit while the sun rose. I looked around at the other vision questers, and when we met eyes, the whole universe dropped away for a second. They looked so beautiful. I cried like I almost never cry.
I need religion. It is a bottom-level Maslow’s hierarchy thing for me, down there with breathing, food, water, sex, sleep. It is a physiological survival need. Most of my life, everyone around me has treated religion as a top-of-the-pyramid thing, in the category of “self-actualization” along with art, philosophy, scienctific reasoning, and so on. Those are the things humans get to worry about once they’ve got the lower levels covered. It’s not like that for me. I have no hope of “self-actualization” if I don’t pray every day.
Consequently, when people treat religion as a high-level thing, as something that should give way to the other stuff in the hierarchy, I feel threatened. When my religion gets dragged into some political battle, I feel a real sense of danger.
And I have lots of religions, so this happens all the time.
If you can’t relate at all to what I’m saying about religion, I understand completely. To be honest, I probably said “religion is a crutch” to people a few times, when I was a teenager. When I thought “religion” meant the same thing as “people” or “nation” or “ideology.” I used to think it was a synonym for politics, and I thought politics was an abomination. (I still think that about politics.) Religion is a battered victim of politics. It’s the number one excuse for heinous political ideology.
I believe ideology is part of “self-actualization.” One’s ideology, one’s view of the way things are, is from the top of the pyramid. One gets to the top by slogging up a mucky pile of material circumstances. One’s mood at the top depends upon how hard one’s climb was. Ideology, in other words, is one’s set of views about the material conditions of human life, about money and possessions and work, about morality and propriety and fitting in, about who is Us and who is Them, and about how far we’ll go to defend Us from Them. Ideology is what gives rise to politics.
If someone has religion at the bottom of their pyramid, one will surely pick up a whiff of it on their way to ideology. One’s ideology might sound religious. But I believe all the material conditions of one’s life form one’s ideology, not just religious beliefs. There are all kinds of other influences on ideology from around Maslow’s hierarchy: needs for home, needs for safety and security, needs for love and belonging, needs for esteem. Each of these things are as important to ideology as religion.
Ideology is something engrained in every person by the material conditions of their life, which they’re retroactively reflecting upon to create a set of principles they believe are coherent. People can be very good and clear-sighted about this, or they can be completely deluded. In the latter case, only other people can tell. (If the nitty gritty of this part is interesting to you, I recommend this funny movie.)
This is why it hurts me in my soul whenever someone explains a political action or stance with “because I’m [Religion]” or “because they’re [Religion],” no matter who says it or what it’s about. Ideology is a view. You can hold someone accountable for that. Holding someone accountable for their religion is like holding them accountable for their thirst.
The Middle East is the site of history’s most dire conflation of religion and ideology. All “sides” and the propaganda campaigns that sustain them participate in that. And I don’t just mean social media posts and YouTube videos. I’m talking about religious texts thousands of years old. Religion has been dragged through so much ideology there throughout history that few people in the West even care about the difference anymore.
But that difference is a matter of survival. When “Jew” or “Jewish” or “Judaism” is attached to war by anyone in any way, I fear for my life. Whenever any religion is given as a reason for something political, I worry about unending retribution, either from other people or from G!d. The more controversial the politics, the more intense the fear. Ideology, you can have it all. Keep religion out of politics.
Israel and Palestine are the products of ideology. To sustain the bloodshed in their own names, they require a war of argument. The whole global court of public opinion is called to order to preside over their chaos. Arguments about rightness and wrongness on both sides rage every time the violence flares up, driving friends and family, neighbors and fellow citizens to bitter disagreement, even more violence. All of it is conducted in the name of religion. Religion is used to excuse and condemn what is really ideology.
And as a religious person, I receive the blame. People around the world, my neighbors, my close friends, my blood relatives throw religion into the fire. The battle over land and wealth, over law and liberty, over raw, earthly, human power, the battle of ideology takes religion as its victim.
That’s why I don’t talk about Israel and Palestine on the Internet.