Thursday, December 15, 2011

From the Maggid of Mezritch

I'm in Boulder now, going to massage school and studying Jewish texts with my father.

Today we looked at a short teaching from an 18th century rabbi called the Maggid of Mezritch, which Abba (my father) has asked me to summarize and post here:

Every chapter of the Torah contains the whole Torah, and the Torah contains every plane of existence, even though only the most superficial details are visible. There are endless worlds hidden behind this one, and the Torah contains them all. One day, when the redemption has come and we could bear to see it, the Torah will be revealed to us as it truly is, divested of the 'clothing' of lower worlds.
The great sages are able to lift themselves out of the material world, and out of each successive world after that, one at a time, to see the Torah in purer and purer form. In each world, as the sage divests himself of himself, the illusory self, he expands to see the Torah more and more as it truly is.
The commandments of the Torah are the material manifestation of the hidden worlds, and each commandment is so rich as to contain all of the hidden worlds within it. (Abba likes to talk about holography and fractals here.) If our eyes were truly open, we could see the light of these infinite worlds shining in each commandment, and in some future day it will be so. If we saw the Torah as it truly is, unfiltered, today, we wouldn't be able to bear it. The great sages, who find themselves higher worlds, see the commandments according to the level of their own attainment, free from the measurements and details that bind the commandments to lower worlds.
Our liberation into higher worlds is the reversal of God's process of creation. As God grew further and further from his own pure nature, he contracted and dressed himself in the limits and illusions of lower worlds. So, too, the Torah descended from pure, unadorned holiness into the details and measurements that allow material service to an immaterial God.
We get excited about a teaching like this, Abba and I, because it speaks to the transformation of commandments over time, the deeper nature of service to God. He and I aren't concerned, so much, with the innumerable details of orthodox ritual observance, but a modern mystical Judaism can orient us at divesting from the lowest parts of our nature and enacting the commandments in a holier form. (Ideally. Unfortunately, I'm still good and committed to my lowest material self, and it's far to easy to hear this as an excuse for lazy behavior. But that's a question for another day.)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I wrote last time about wanting to believe in God, and wanting to believe that God loves me. When I experience God loving me, that experience seems to involve a figure much like the God of my tradition, but I find it hard to reconcile the God of tradition with my experience or understanding of reality. I called the experience I identify as God "Hashem," and the unknown cause of that experience "Deus," and I asked what Deus is, and whether Deus really is God, and whether Deus really does love me. I would like to understand God and the universe such that I really believe God exists and loves me, but I don't yet have a vessel to hold that belief.

I ended up posing the question of what such a vessel would look like intellectually, suggesting that it might be more promising to consider what a satisfying theology might look like than to continue pursuing one 'blind.' This is my answer - what I, personally, would need in order to stop doubting - but I hope you might find it valuable as well.

I believe that the foundation of truth is integrity to experience. As I contemplate how a theory of Deus-as-Hashem-loving-me could maintain integrity to our collective experiences of reality and of Hashem, I see three things it needs to do:
  • Indicate some real part or aspect of the universe as its candidate for deity.
  • Demonstrate that this candidate Deus meets some reasonable characterization of Godhood.
  • Explain how Deus manifests as Hashem, the personal spiritual experience of God.
Doing it in this order will appeal to someone like me, who is more comfortable with their understanding of reality than of God. Early reviews of this blog-post have suggested that some people find it absurd to take reality for granted, and then search for a pre-defined image of God. I wish those people the best of luck in their own struggles, but I have to persist in mine. I trust my sense of reality, and I know what God feels like to me, and I'm trying to find that feeling in the universe I believe in.

There's more to be said about each of these steps:

“Indicate some real thing in the world as its candidate for deity.”
The tricky thing about this part is the word “real.” What makes something real?

Rocks are real. Society is real. Love, peace, war, jokes, happiness, upwards, centers of mass, potential energy, flavors, and your mind are all real. Unicorns are not real, but the idea of unicorns is real. Dinosaurs used to be real, but they aren’t real anymore. Dinosaur fossils are real. This list is not meant to be comprehensive :-)

The essence of real things, as I see it, is that you can interact with them in some reliable way. Ideally, I’d like to say that you can interact with any particular real thing in multiple ways, and it’s the congruence of these different interactions that verifies what you learn through each one. A lot of physicists these days think dark matter is real, and many of them were only convinced when multiple streams of observation supported the same theory. Now, I can only detect flavors one way, but I can rely on other people detecting flavors similarly, and I can interact with flavor predictably “from the outside.” I’m not sure you can interact with potential energy and centers of mass, per se, because they only act through objects whose behavior I could explain without them, but you can reliably use both of these concepts in shorthand. These are borderline cases of real-ness.

So when I wonder if Deus is real, one thing that I mean is that there should be some way to interact with the cause of Hashem other than through the experience of Hashem.[1]

A lot of us, these days, also think that real also means “part of the physical universe,” in some sense. It’s hard to define what that means, since we want to include love, peace, and the idea of unicorns, but I think you can say something like “you can’t change something real without causing some corresponding change in matter,” or “any real difference corresponds to a physical difference.” [2] Thought is not itself material, but thinking involves something material happening in the brain. So Deus doesn’t need to be material to real, but it needs to be physical in that broader sense, a part of the physical universe.[3]

And the physical universe has laws. Our knowledge of them is imperfect, but decent, and the great ingenuity of science is to frame those laws in direct experience. The scientific establishment might not be right about what the laws of the universe are, but that difference has to be detectible by the scientific process in order to mean anything.[4] To be real, Deus needs to conform to the laws of the physical universe. If you believe in a Deus that doesn’t conform to those laws as we understand them, it’s worth examining why you do, and where exactly you think the scientific establishment has it wrong.

Miracles by definition violate the laws of the universe. Unless you were lucky enough to witness one yourself, believing in miracles is necessarily not integrity to direct experience. (I mean the sea-splitting, from-the-dead-raising kind of miracles. Life is miraculous, but that's different.) I can’t believe in miracles, or in a God who works miracles. It’s tempting, and I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t stick for me. That’s just not my experience. It’s not the experience of the consensus I trust.[5]

Along with all the other miracles, I especially can’t believe in explicit, unfiltered revelation. I can’t say exactly what I mean by that, unfortunately, and I’m not satisfied with my own definitions here. I’ll explain below that I do believe in some kind of revelation, but the impossible hurdle for me, I think, is in believing that any record of revelation represents exactly God’s will for all time, without any temporal influence from the society and psychology through which it manifested. Sacred, permanently true text breaks the rules. If a theory of Deus relies on that kind of miracle, I have no justification for calling it true.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. A lot of characterizations of God involve miracles and revelation, but not all of them. So let’s grant that a candidate Deus ought to be real, and move on to what it takes to be Godlike.

These are footnotes. After these footnotes, the main text continues. The footnotes are probably going to be really annoying to most readers, but they're intended to address objections other people might care about.
[1] I’m struggling with a comparison to flavor, at the moment. I’m not sure how to differentiate the realness of God from the realness of flavor. Arguing the reality of God from flavor, however, leads you with Hashem as a real experience (which is tautological) but not necessarily caused by any God-like Deus.
[2] The Law of Conservation of Matter/Energy doesn’t change at all, on the other hand, and isn’t really in the universe, but I think we can fairly say that laws of the universe are a part of the universe.
[3] I’m sure this is boring enough already without getting into the nature of causality, but I think it’s an important part of the physical universe that it’s (after the very beginning) causally complete. If something is outside the universe causing events inside the universe, let’s just spread the tent of “universe” a little farther to include it. If that something doesn’t seem to have any law of its own being, I think it calls into question the reality of the whole universe, which is a road I don’t want to go down here and now. If this all seems pedantic, it is, but this is the stuff I think about.
[4] Okay. Try this one. I could imagine a kind of trickster God who works miracles all the time, but only under circumstances where no one (or very few people) will detect them. Attempting to prove a link between prayer and healing might be bad for people’s health, in this case, because such studies drive God into hiding. I couldn’t prove that God doesn’t work this way, but it’s hard to feel justified in believing he does. In any case, it seems like such a God is so committed to our not believing in him that it would be more blasphemous to worship than not.
[5] A true believer might say that they trust the direct experience reported by those who wrote the bible. A clever true believer would even compare this to my trust in the reported experience of various scientists whose claims I trust, even if I don't understand the experiments they're conducting. The only difference, I have to admit, is my judgment call that the reports of one camp are more reliable than the other. There are too many ways to explain the bible as not literally true for me to consider it a fair record of anyone's direct experience.

“Demonstrate that this candidate Deus meets some reasonable characterization of Godhood.”
What are the characteristics of Godhood?

This varies a lot from believer to believer, of course. But this is my blog, and my theological struggle. Based on my experience and my received tradition, here’s what I think makes for Goddity:

God created the universe. 
God created life and humanity within the universe.
God has desire, knowledge, and unity.
God has a will that is manifest in everything that happens. God’s will is or involves a purpose that suffuses all of existence. God has a purpose for human beings, and human joy and sorrow are meaningful in the context of God’s purpose.
God’s will for us is such that we can do or not do what God wants. God’s will is morally good. God wants to have a relationship with humanity and with individual human beings.
God knows everything and controls everything. God hears and values our prayers, such that praying to God can affect the world. God is utterly worthy of love and awe.
God is available for communion with human beings, by which we can know some small part of God and some small part of God’s will.
God in some sense created Judaism as a means of relating to God.
God loves all of us, totally and completely.
(Also, just FYI, God cannot create a rock that God can’t lift. I know a lot of you were worrying about that.)[1]

Now, I’m flexible on a lot of these, especially with on the particulars of the wording. We can’t go into the quest for God with the end too precisely fixed in our minds, or else we might miss what we’re really looking for. But this is how Hashem represents himself to me, and how I interpret others’ reported encounters with Hashem. If Deus doesn’t live up to this description, this is still the experience of Hashem that needs to be explained.

The one totally essential characteristic is God loving us. Without that, Deus just isn’t the Hashem I’ve encountered. If Hashem is caused by something that doesn’t love us, the most important moments of my life were illusory. I’m doing all of this work so as not to believe that.

But love alone isn’t sufficient. My mother loves me, and that’s a different kind of thing. In order for it to be God that loves me, the lover has to be great, somehow. Unimaginably greater than any human. The love of God seems to come from someone that knows me utterly, has total power over me, and has deployed me into action for the betterment of the world. A God we believe in should love all of us, and know all of us, and have created each one of us for the sake of something beautiful. For the sake of glory. I want to believe in a God whose purpose for this universe justifies all of the evil, all of the hatred, all of the boring, banal misery of the last 14 billion years. From that requirement, most of the rest of my list seems to follow. Certain items wouldn't necessarily follow from that Great Love - that God hears and values our prayers, for instance, or that Judaism is a way of relating to God - except that Judaism and prayer and the like are so bound up in the encounters that I’ve had with Hashem, and they have taught me so much about how to encounter Hashem more deeply.

So that’s how I experience God.

But if I’m trying to maintain integrity to direct experience, I’ve got to recognize how many people don’t experience God this way, or even experience God at all. Judaism can’t be the only means of relating to God, and “God” can’t be the only word for Deus. Other religions and spiritual traditions describe such similar heights of possible experience that I have to assume we’re all encountering fundamentally the same thing. I want my Jewish belief in God to be true, and I want my Christian and Muslim friends’ beliefs in God to be true, and I want my Buddhist friends’ belief in no-God,  and my Hindu friends’ belief in many Gods all to be true. A theory of the Deus behind my Hashem should also explain how that Deus can be encountered in so many other ways.

Ken Wilber has addressed this question very clearly, and I just borrow his answer. Wilber says that God exists and manifests in all things, including you. So he divides spiritual paths into first-person, second-person, and third-person methodologies. Judaism and other traditional Theisms are second-person methodologies which foster a personal (I-Thou) relationship with a God who is not you. Many forms of Buddhism and certain other introspective paths are first-person methodologies, which encourage identifying with and engaging the divinity within. Nature-shamanism and similar paths (including a lot of scientific atheisms) wonder at the divinity of the grand world-system of which we are a part. Wilber emphasizes that these are each different ways of engaging with the same reality, using the natural human modes of first-, second-, and third- person relationship. The consequence for my project of theology, then, is that Deus should exist and manifest in all things, as Wilber says, and be equally available for engagement in each of these modes.[2]

I had an experience a little while after Reverend Tutu which speaks to this. I’d started meditating, and feeling weird energy flows with shapes and colors and stuff. I found myself deep in meditation, feeling connected to everything, surrounded by bright white light. I am God, I realized, terrified. I didn’t want to be God. I pulled away from the experience, and found myself standing outside a pillar of light pouring down from heaven in front of me, reaching above and below to infinity. I felt lonely out there, too far removed from this powerful truth, and curious about it. I approached it again carefully until I was just at the edge of the pillar, pressing my face up against the light. Here, I thought, I’m at home.

I don’t think that the second-person relationship I cultivate is truer or righter than any other path, but I’m comfortable there. I continue to have first- and third-person experiences sometimes, but it’s the I-Thou relationship that feels like home. Chassidic Jewish masters talk about pressing your face up against the light as d’veikut, cleaving to God. That’s the relationship I want with Deus, but I love that it’s my choice. Some stand inside the pillar, some stand outside. Ma, I suspect, stands inside the pillar with her face pressed against the darkness. Where do you belong?

Now, it doesn’t seem like an accident that I grew up in a Jewish house and I happen to want a second-person relationship in a Jewish framework. The face of Hashem that any given person encounters is clearly influenced by their own psychology and cultural context. Shared traditional accounts of God clearly carry some extra weight from the time and place where they originated, even after we strip off the obvious dogmas and prejudices. I suspect there’s no way to encounter God purely, without the intermediaries of tradition and personality: Ten out of ten mystics agree, the mask makes the conversation possible. These influences don't invalidate Hashem, but a relationship with Hashem needs to account for them. So ultimately, a satisfying theory of Deus will attribute to Deus some of the desired characteristics of God and explain how other characteristics arose as the product of social and psychological forces.

[1] C. S. Lewis settled that one, as far as I’m concerned. He says that “A rock that God can’t lift” is as nonsensical an object as a square circle or a three-legged dog with four legs. God could change what the words mean, but God couldn’t create something that matches a nonsense description. And this doesn’t limit God’s omnipotence - it’s the descriptions’ fault, not God’s.
[2] There’s also work to be done characterizing what faiths and spiritual paths are not valid. Some spiritual paths are redeemable with the right theology (You’re welcome, World), but I don’t think that all are. I’m not sure if I have anything to say at the moment about how to tell which are which.

“Explain how Deus manifests as Hashem.”
Having acknowledged those influences, how can a God-belief can still possibly be accurate?

I don’t believe that God created my ideas about God (directly and as such). I believe that they arose through same natural processes as my ideas about anything else.  Arguably, those natural processes come down to exactly the same social and psychological forces that might explain away the whole experience. In other words, there are so many excellent atheist theories of how Hashem could exist without a Godlike Deus that a theology needs to counter with a story of how the reality of God is still, somehow, responsible for faith.[1]

I don’t have much of an answer for that yet. Explaining how Deus manifests as Hashem seems like most of the work of a theology. But by working backwards, I think I can say a little bit. The natural human forces that shape Hashem must be a part of Deus, but I can hope they are not the whole of it.

If I believe God is powerful but doesn’t act through miracles, then the flow of the universe according to its law needs to be, somehow, the action of God. If there’s a purpose to the universe, the same psychological and social forces which distort Hashem have to make him available to me in the first place. I maintain hope that there is some pattern in the grand motions of everything which points to the Godliness of Deus. If so, the natural human processes which produced the Touch of God would be a part of that pattern.

There’s a little bit of evidence for this. As much as God has been used as a reason for evil, the experience of God can often lead people to goodness. I see that a relationship with Hashem (in the first-, second-, or third-person) helps people live better and more richly. If there is a purpose to the universe, I think the relationships that people have with Hashem must support it. Even if those relationships are a natural part of the human experience, I think they might still be encounters with a Godly Deus.

My father calls this the theotropic urge. Just as flowers are heliotropic and grow towards the sun, human beings are theotropic and grow towards God. I flip the order around, though, and say that real human growth must support the real purpose of life and the universe. Even if our growth is aimed by the physical world, whatever direction we grow in points to God.

That might all be totally circular reasoning, though. I’m not sure.[2]

[1] Someone might naively propose the alternative, that my belief in God arose independently of its accuracy, but that’s very hard to believe in. That would make it simply an amazing coincidence that God exists AND I believe in him. I don’t see how that’s a rational belief. “There are invisible elves all around us that we can’t interact with in any way. We have no effect on them and they have no effect on us, but I’m certain they exist and I hate them.”
[2] Somewhere in this section, I’m not sure where, I think the following needs to be said:
My current belief in God is the direct descendant of ancient mud-dwellers’ chants about the big chief in the sky-hut. I can’t deny it, and I don’t want to try to take their opinions literally. But if I’m going to believe in a Hashem so clearly influenced by those cretins, any theory of Deus needs to explain how Deus was accessible to them as well as to me. Pointing at grand patterns in the universe is all well and good, but it falls apart if you can only see the pattern through the Hubblescope.

One other thing

It’s often said that you can’t know God. A relationship with God must be predicated on faith. If God could be delineated and characterized, or belief in God fit with the laws of science, then there wouldn’t be any need for faith and awe. God isn’t subject to the same kind of truth and rationality as the mundane world. Some people take that to mean the kind of theology I’m hoping for is impossible, but I totally disagree.

Consider your best friend or your lover. It’s a truism that we can know people, but we can never know them fully. If I ask you to identify this person, you can do that for me. You can characterize him or her, maybe even well enough for me to identify him or her on my own. You know this person. But that doesn’t mean you’ll ever stop learning more about them. If you really stop to contemplate, you might even be drawn to awe and wonder at the infinite unknowability of this favorite person of yours. You know exactly who they are, you just don’t know who they are. Who they arrrrre, Matey. That’s what I’m reaching for with God.

A Godly Deus, however we might define him, has to remain totally mysterious. Deus should  be fabulously unknowable, eternally unknowable. Certain particular aspects of God should be knowable in principle, but never yet, so that there’s ample room for faith. Someday I want to be able to tell you what God is, while always having room to get to know God infinitely better. Not only that, I want the definition of God to invite that process of getting to know God better, to motivate that kind of unending quest because each step is just so gosh-darn satisfying. Anything less, I think, and it wouldn’t be God.

So I’m trying to point at something real and label it “God.” In order to earn that label, I see three kinds of conditions something has to meet – conditions to qualify as God, conditions to qualify as real, and conditions my knowing that it is God – and I’ve listed a few of each. I want to emphasize again that these are my conditions, and other people might not agree with them as being necessary features of theology, but I think they capture the essentials necessary for a contemporary faith. I’m very, very curious where other people differ.

I could say that I’m trying to use my spiritual experiences with the language and traditions of “God”-worship to enchant the humanist and physicalist world I believe in, but I‘m afraid that statement may not convey the reality I’m trying to attribute to God. I believe that God really is a real aspect/element/part of the universe available to humanism and physicalism. In its na├»ve form, I recognize my belief as unsubstantiated by the evidence, but I can’t shake it. 

When I try to believe that God doesn’t exist, the thought of a Godless universe fills me with such wonder and awe that I love God (or do something which I feel compelled to label “loving God”) that much more. So I’m instead trying to marry my belief in God to the world I find plausible. I’m trying to pull my recurring sense that God loves me out of the heights of heights and into my daily experience, in a way that’s authentic to the whole of my experience.  I want to live with God but here, where I already live.

Friday, May 20, 2011

This I Would Like To Believe

I’ve spent the last seven years trying to convince myself that there’s a God. I think I'm getting closer.

Sometime in high school I had reached the conclusion that God might or might not exist, but there was no way of knowing and no reason to care. The argument went something like this: I knew that God, in order to be God, had to be omnipotent and omniscient. But there’s no way to prove omnipotence, so you could never be sure that God is God. Sure, some deity-claimant could come along and do miracles and stuff, but it will always take an inductive leap to conclude that it was all-powerful instead of just very powerful. (You can recognize that high school freshman logic at work, no?) (For reasons now lost to history, my favorite example was this: How would you ever know if "God" could do everything except create a green horse?) And if there were some pseudo-God who was megapotent and megascient, but couldn’t quite make it to omni-, there was always the possibility of real God being way up there somewhere, in charge of this not-quite-God, and who wants to deal with the middleman? And if God or the local pseudo-God had created one of the world’s religions, He’d given us no way of knowing which one it was, so he couldn’t really have expected me to sign up for it. Ergo, QED, game over, religion is useless. I saw a certain kind of vague pleasantness in religion, especially the way my father taught it, but none for me personally.

In April of 2004 I began my theistic endeavor with my third ever spiritual experience, courtesy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. (The first two spiritual experiences were lovely, thank you, but didn’t really affect what I believed). He and my father were speaking together at a conference in Vancouver, and the family’s complimentary conference tickets got us in to some other event where Reverend Tutu was speaking. 

He talked about people shouting at each other over God, shouting at each other about what God wants them to do. “But God isn’t shouting,” he said. “God isn’t telling you you’re bad, or you’re sinful. God is whispering in your ear, ‘I love you, just as you are,’ every single moment.”

At school I’d been reading Emile Durkheim, a sociologist whose theory of religion said that God is Society: God/Society created man (as a thinking creature). God/Society instructs us in morality. And the experience often imagined as communion with God is really the effervescent rush of folks coming together in common action. Religion simply harnesses the same phenomenon experienced at concerts, riots, and football games. “Something” comes over you, and that something is labeled God.

Tutu's speech was such an effervescent moment. Durkheim and Tutu met and exploded together in my brain, and I suddenly felt God loving me, even though I didn’t think there was a God. I realized or decided or discovered that faith is wonderful and powerful even if it isn’t accurate. I started saying I believed in belief, or that God is so powerful, He didn’t even have to exist to make me believe in Him. (See that college freshman wit?)

Since that time, I’ve been chasing God on two fronts. One is the direct pursuit of a relationship: Spiritual experiences became more and more common as I contemplated faith, and I work hard on cultivating a relationship with the God of my experience. The other is my effort to understand what I‘m in a relationship with. I’ve continued to struggle between labeling that experienced God “God,” being something real which I experience, and labeling it “my experience of God,” being something I project onto natural human experiences. My difficulty in talking about God has been a constant hindrance in my talking to God, and I’ve spent these seven years, on and off, trying to reconcile the two conversations.

I find it helpful to think about the Touch of God and the Hand of God. I feel the Touch of God in my life. It pushes me forward and lifts me up. It guides me in the dark. It is warm shelter or a cool, comforting presence or a weight on my shoulders. But I don’t see the toucher that’s touching me, and I don’t see the Hand of God acting in the world, making miracles and carving tablets. The Touch of God is an experienced presence in my life and many other lives, and I call it Hashem (Hebrew for "The Name," a traditional euphemism for God). The Hand would be God’s perceptible active presence in the world, and I’ll label that Deus. I’m not satisfied with Durkheim’s particulars any longer, but I like that basic model. In Durkheim’s theory, Hashem is religious effervescence, and Deus is society itself. Hashem is real, at least like a mirage is a real mirage. But what causes Hashem? What, if anything, is Deus?

The encounter with Messrs Tutu and Durkheim set the model for all my highest spiritual moments since. I only have one epiphany, the same one again and again: God loves me. You might recognize this discovery from where I wrote about it before, here, here, here, and here, for instance. Every time, I’m overwhelmed by it. It’s so immediate, and so powerful. It’s exactly what I’ve always wanted, and I feel it in my deepest self. I tend to cry and smile big and talk softly for a few hours. But a couple days later, maybe a week, I don’t know it anymore. Maybe something lingers. Maybe some old wound is healed or new growth is planted. But that obvious, total awareness God Loves Me is driven out by I don’t know what that means. I believe that Hashem loves me, but it just seems illusory without a theory of Deus. I don’t know how to believe in a God that loves. Trying leaves me dissatisfied.

Now, I could imagine investigating that dissatisfaction on its own terms, taking for granted that I will never have a theory of Deus and trying to root out my futile desire to understand, but I don't want to. I could work on just feeling Hashem’s love despite my skepticism, just getting deeper and deeper into that romance as its own compelling experience. “God is mysterious and unfathomable. Questions are great for arousing awe, but not so great for answering. Have faith and stop trying,” is a common and spiritually powerful position (available in both God-realist and God-irrealist flavors), but I’m just not ready to embrace it yet.

And heck. I don’t even always believe Hashem loves me. That’s why I keep having my one epiphany. The notion of God that I’ve received is so demanding and judgmental, it’s very easy to fall back into thinking I’ve disappointed my maker. It’s easy to wonder if I’d be better off going black-hat orthodox, submitting myself totally to the tradition, and I can almost believe I should. It’s easy to imagine, also, that God is nonsense I’d be better off without, and Hashem is nothing more than a projection onto the void. Maybe it was a helpful projection once, but aren’t we over that now? It’s difficult to face these temptations directly, but when I really open myself to each possibility, it tends in the end to affirm my faith that Deus must be real, but not dogmatic. My hope is that pursuing the truth of Deus could keep me on that middle path more steadily.

In the end, I think there is truth to be had about Deus - limited, human, non-Ultimate truth - that could support a deeper, truer romance with Hashem. Truth that could be a vessel for God’s love in my life and could help me be of service to others. I ask Hashem, sometimes, if it’s wasteful or blasphemous for me to be searching for truth about Deus. He tells me to keep my heart open and keep looking. The truth is out there and the quest is valid.*

Living in Jerusalem and studying Judaism has really pushed the issue for me, and given me a lot of opportunity to work on it. I’ve been reading and thinking and talking and listening, and it feels like I’ve gotten a lot closer to some answers I can rely on. I’m putting a story together I can tell my inner skeptic, a story about what it is, out there, that I’m praying to and why it makes sense for me to pray to it. I'm also still struggling hard, and trying to figure it all out gets in the way just as often as it moves me forward. I've gotten to hear this year about some other people's struggles with God, or the idea of God, and learn how different those struggles can be. It encourages me to dive back into mine with patience and persistence.

I’ve been reading Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization, and I’m quite taken with his portrayal of religion and naturalism. 
…[I]t is possible to have religion without subscribing to the supernatural character of its origin. To steer clear both of rigid traditionalism and irreligion, the [seeker] will have to realize that religion is rooted in human nature, and that the belief in the existence of God, and the attributes ascribed to him, must be derived from and made to refer to the experience of the average man and woman.
The reorientation which is essential to the survival of… religion cannot be effected merely by trying to harmonize the traditional teachings of religion with the results achieved by modern science. It calls for nothing less than an approach to the religious interpretation of life with the same unbiased empirical attitude as that which constitutes the spirit of science, that spirit which regards truth not as something absolute and final, but as an active process of the mind whereby error is gradually eliminated. A conflict between science and religion is possible only when we assume that our knowledge of God originates not from our understanding of the universe and of human life, but from some supernatural revelation which is entirely extraneous to the natural powers of the human mind….
The approach to reality characteristic of modern though has rendered the dichotomy of natural and supernatural irrelevant. The tendency nowadays is to enlarge the concept of the natural so that it might include that plus aspect of reality which the traditional outlook did indeed sense but not altogether apprehend. From various quarters there have been launched onslaughts against the oversimplified view of nature as synonymous with the working of blind mechanical forces. All advanced thinking nowadays tends to recognize that the mechanistic interpretation of existence is only a half-truth. The fact that the minutest fraction of reality is determined by the whole of reality, and that each living organism determines as a totality the behavior of every part of itself, introduces the entire cluster of meanings and values which constitute the spiritual aspect of life. …“What a deep faith in the rationality of the structure of the world,” writes Albert Einstein, “and what a longing to understand even a small glimpse of the reason revealed to the world there must have been in Kepler and Newton to enable them to unravel the mechanism of the heavens in long years of lonely work.”

That’s the kind of theory of Deus I’m looking for. I have a deep faith in the rationality of the structure of our transcendent experiences.

On my recent meditation retreat, I found myself chasing my tail through these questions yet again. With the kind of remove available in meditation, I asked myself, "What need is this process satisfying? What would it take for me to stop?" Now, that's a really good question from a meditative point of view - what am I seeking or avoiding by leaving the raw present moment in order to philosophize? - but it's a good theological meta-question, too. I'd never thought of it like that before. So I continued to avoid the raw present, but instead of asking “What is God?” I started philosophizing about how I would know if I ever found the answer. What are the criteria for appraising a theology? What would an intellectual vessel for God's love look like? I want to believe with my rational mind that God exists, and God loves me, and God has a purpose for me. I want to embody that belief with my whole life. What would it take for that rational mind to be convinced?

I've got some early answers to that question, and I'll be back here in a week to share them. In the mean time I want to put it to you. Whatever quest you happen to be on, with God or religion or spirituality or whatever, what would it take for you to stop searching? 

* I want to clarify that I don’t think God talks to me as such. When I hear Hashem as a voice, for instance, it’s quite clear to me that I’m providing the words. (It often feels more like a guess-and-check system, even, where God and I are playing charades, and I ask him “do you mean this?” or “do you mean that?” and eventually interpret a hunch as a statement.) I’ll talk more about how I think Deus manifests as Hashem, but for the time being it’s enough to say I trust that Hashem’s will – What I experience to be the will of God as I encounter him – represents at least the best of my own wisdom and intentions. That is to say, in this case, I trust that pursuing theology is to some degree healthy and helpful, and not only a distraction from immediate experience.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Encounter Part 2 of 2: Hopes and Fear

Political hopes lie at the intersection of what you think is possible and what you think is good. When good and possible don't overlap - they often don't - a choice has to be made of where to compromise. Myself, politically, I'm an idealist, by which I mean that I settle for questionable possibility for the sake of more goodness. I think that spreading an unlikely vision only makes it likelier. I also recognize that idealists often get nowhere, so I'm glad that there are also pragmatists out there who focus on the imperfect achievable instead of wasting their time on the impossible. Left to themselves, pragmatists might become fatalists, so I choose to trust in the balance and express my idealist nature.

When it comes to Israel-Palestine, many would say I'm a ridiculous idealist - I'm still hoping we can all just get along. I want a single Israeli-Palestinian state with equal rights for all and a commitment to world Judaism. I want everyone to take everyone else's goodness as a given, while open-heartedly accepting that there are always assholes everywhere.

Encounter didn't quite crush that hope, but it changed my understanding of what "all getting along" might look like, and just how hard it will be. Encounter made peace seem a whole lot less possible and a whole lot more urgent. So what I hope for is certainly not easy, but I'm writing this today to spread a vision.

I've already written about what it actually was I saw and did in Bethlehem.  What I want to do now is talk about some of the elements that cry out at me for comment.  What you'll see here is something of what upset me most, something of what interested me most, a vision I had in meditation, and my fundamental questions about trust and peace.

One of the most affecting parts of the trip was the Human Rights presentation. Looking at maps of Israeli settlements and the Wall, I don't know how to believe that the Israeli government is acting in good faith. Officially, they say they're in support of a two-state solution (i.e. an independent Palestinian state), but the more they develop inside the Green Line (the internationally recognized border), the harder it will be to create a contiguous, sovereign Palestine. The maps hit me like a Go board, with one player totally decimating the other, and it makes me wince. The further Israel encroaches and penetrates into Palestinian territory, the more complicated every negotiation becomes. Some of this is done, officially, in the name of security. Maybe all of it, I don't know. I don't know how it could be. But trading peace for security strikes me as always short-sighted.

At the same time as a negotiated solution is getting harder, the border restrictions and internal barriers hobble Palestine's domestic economy and cultivate animosity against the Israeli government. 40% of the Palestinian workforce is unemployed at the moment (that's down from 60%), and it's hard to imagine a Palestinian state surviving for very long without a little more meat on its bones. It's hard to imagine, too, that Israel will feel safe next to a Palestine populated by the resentful formerly oppressed. And the alternative - continuing to occupy another nation indefinitely - that can't be a good idea, right? I just don't understand, looking at the progression of things, how the Israeli government thinks it's acting in its own best interest.

It's depressing, but it makes me want to listen to them. It makes me want to hear the government officers' story and find out what they could possibly be thinking of. I really hope I'll get to learn more about that before I leave the country. (If you know where I can go for that, please tell me.) The alternative, for me, is total cynicism, and I'm not ready to go there yet.

But much as I was moved by the presentation's depiction of Israel's self-defeating strategies and restrictive governance, I wasn't sure that they necessarily merited the term 'human rights abuses.'  For instance, Israel makes it all but impossible to legally build new buildings, but they knock down only about 1% of illegal buildings.  You can say that restricting movement and development is abusing human rights, but I'm not sure it's worth the fight. In fact, I think it distracts from the less-commonplace, but more-abusive abuses like violence and unlawful arrest. Even more important, maybe, I think that it pushes people into a defensive conversation about what's morally justifiable, instead of inviting them into a productive one about the mutual long-term good.

The "What The Hell Are They Thinking?" issue was really driven home for me by the sight of the half-built Wall and the ease of walking around it. I wish I had a proper picture for you, of where it crawls along a mountain and just stops. It drove me nuts, seeing that. It's a hike, but anyone committed to doing violence could walk from downtown Bethlehem into downtown West Jerusalem in a matter of an hour or two. Meanwhile, people trying to get across the border legally, to see family or seek work, have to first get the right permits, and then wait in long lines controlled by bored, heavily armed teenagers. At peak times wait is more than an hour.  I really want to believe that everybody involved in this thing is acting in good faith, trying to be fair and right and good and stuff, trying to make the most good for the most many (again,  ridiculous idealist). But seeing a security measure that provides no security, and the human cost for those living behind it - that makes it really hard for me to keep believing.

I've thought a lot about the open Wall since the trip. I've thought a lot, too, about my brief glimpse of Palestinian pop-culture. Some Arabic Jazz. A few minutes of a cop drama (I think). A music video showing in a restaurant. Most of this, I think, is Arabic culture imported from bigger countries, but it speaks to the internationalism of Palestine. I realized that as rich and messy and complex as American culture is, there must be a whole other civilization like that in the Middle East.  A whole world of Pan-Arab culture, and all the shared understandings and expectations that go along with that.  This is where people turn for edutainment, meaning and escape.  I'm filled with wonder at the thought of it.  What are they laughing at over there?  What are they crying over?

Most of the people I met there are on Facebook. All of them have email addresses and read the news.  Palestinians see the rich potential of modern living, they must want to be part of it, but they're stuck in a tragic situation. I think they have a sense of the world. They see Palestine as one part of the wider world - a special, unique part, 'cause it's their own, but still just a part - but they're cut off from real participation by an occupying army. It's hard to imagine.

The night I spent in Bethlehem, I sat and meditated for half an hour before I went to bed. I tried to just feel the intensity and pain and compassion of the day, open up to God and let being be being. In theory, the kind of meditating I do, you're not supposed to be deliberately thinking about anything, but I thought about things anyway, and a certain kind of vision came to me. I wanted to meet the soul of Palestine on this trip, and I think this is as close as I came.

I heard in my head again the words of a young man after our big group games. "The Palestinian is a welcoming people. But the Palestinian is a wounded people." I pictured the complex, evocative, somehow personal landscape of the West Bank. And the landscape transformed in my mind to be a beautiful, graceful, lithe and lovely woman, the Lady Palestine. She had long black hair and olive skin. She wore a rich, dark, forest-green dress that merged smoothly into the ground. She had a big open heart and clear eyes, and she was struggling to stand up. Thick black ropes across her shoulders kept her down, held by young, brash, bullying neighbors. She would stand almost to her full height, then stumble down, and rise up again unphased by the resistance. She looked out at the world with forgiveness. She was a vision of compassionate persistence, revealing her vulnerability, maintaining her strength, working and waiting until Justice would take its course.

I'm not saying that this is real, in any way, as an anything outside my own mind. I'm not saying this woman exists, or that Palestine is really like that. But it's a vision of Palestine, a certain slice of a people's common experience and emergent whole. This is what Palestine looked like when I turned my inner eye her way. I wasn't sure what to do with it, exactly, but I was glad to have my little vision and I went to sleep.

The Lady and her pop-culture raise the question of Palestinian normal. The people talking to Encounter trips are necessarily not normal - they're the forward thinkers and the political activists, sufficiently interested in good relations to bother talking to us. The trip was carefully planned and kind of insulated, and left me wondering what the rest of Palestinians think.

Vivian (the favorite crazy aunt lady), and my host for the night, and the Wall tour-guide, and basically everyone else we met all said that Palestinians don't feel that their government serves or represents them. Those three I listed predict a third Intifada if there isn't a democratic popular uprising a la Tahrir Square. A few people said that Palestine doesn't want to fight anymore. A lot of people said Palestinians don't hate Jews, they hate soldiers, or the government, or the occupation, and they want to live together with us. If they're right, that's fantastic. If they're wrong - mistaken, maybe, or overstating the case for the sake of encouraging peace - well I don't know what then. But I'm an idealist, and an optimist, and for now I believe them.

On the other hand, there are a lot narratives in Israel that say Palestinians are culturally committed to violence. They want all of Israel to themselves, and want all the Jews dead. They'd attack us every day if we let them. They don't want peace. They don't respect peace.

I don't believe these things, but there are people who do. And I'm sure I could tell them all about the peace-loving Arabs I met on Encounter, and they'd still point to a hidden majority, the violent Palestinian normal they believe in, and say some might be good, but the rest want to kill us. I don't know how to change these people's minds, and I can't be absolutely certain they're wrong.

I want to walk around a Palestinian supermarket. I want to sit and read in a Bethlehem coffee-shop. These aren't sociological studies of the popular opinion, but I feel like it would tell me something important, a little more of what it's like to be at home over there, to live occupied.  The people I met are all over there, still, six miles from here. It's kind of stunning, when I think about it. The place felt totally different from this, but we've got basically the same weather. 20 minutes by car, if it weren't for the politics in the way.

The party line in Israel, the way that I've heard it, is that yes, it's terrible. Yes, they're suffering. Yes, even, maybe, it's unethical. But it's necessary for the survival of the State of Israel, and that trumps. I don't believe that, I don't believe it in the slightest, and the one state I believe in is the opposite of that.

Two lines keep coming back to me I heard on the trip: "Walls don't protect people, peace protects people," and "A two-state solution is not a solution." I think that building up Israeli security at Palestinian expense, even with two states, isn't a long term solution. Extremists on both sides will still claim the whole region and pursue violence. Moderates on both sides will still live in fear of the other. Israel (in all likelihood) will still maintain a military presence in or above the West Bank in the name of security. When water and energy get scarcer, good people will do very bad things to each other.

I think that by working together, and living together, and actually getting to know each other, we can change that.

A lot of people are afraid for Israel's survival, and I'm not. When I look at the region, I don't see a real threat to Israeli sovereignty. What I do see is a threat to Israeli lives. If we relax our controls on the West Bank, Israelis might die. I can't deny that. But at some point Israel needs to learn how to trust.

I see this a lot on the personal level. People live in fear, all the time, of things that can't harm them. They live in fear so bad it keeps their hearts closed and their habits narrow. I live in fear this way, and I hear it all over the place. And I hear all over the place how exciting it is to start trusting, acknowledging that trusting might hurt you, and trusting anyway. Taking the pain as it comes, feeling it fully, and continuing to trust. Because when more pain comes, it might damage you, but it won't damage you nearly so badly as your fear did. A lot of my work as a rabbi, I think - a lot of the spiritual work of our times, I think - is about learning and spreading trust of what we fear.

That's what I want out of Israel. I want us to trust Palestinians not to attack us, and then keep trusting them when they do. I want us to look with compassion on their anger, and hope they look with compassion on our fear. I want us to treat them like equals, give them citizenship and education and jobs, and trust them to respond to good will with good will. I want to share a country with them, and trust them to share it with us. If we trust them, there can be peace. If we don't trust them, we'll never know it if we have it.

So that's it. That's the Yotam Plan. It'll probably never happen,. We'll all probably kill each other instead. But I've got hope.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Peace 3 of 3: Encounter (part 1 of 2)

The third event in my quick tour of Israel-Palestine peace efforts is a program called Encounter. Encounter takes future leaders of American Jewry on tours of Bethlehem and other areas of the West Bank, and introduces them to residents and experts who can convey something of the Palestinian experience. They call it a "listening tour," because the purpose is for us to hear what these people have to say (and see their homes or neighborhoods) and ask questions, but not to respond with our own counter-narratives. Participants go there to take in information and experience and be changed, but not to change the people we meet. 

After my experience with NVC, I'm really valuing the willingness to listen without speaking. I think that it can be easier to listen openly if you accept from the very beginning that you won't be changing anyone else's mind. This is only half a solution, of course, because the other side has to listen eventually as well, but it's a great half.

The leadership of Encounter hides their own political agenda, beyond the basic "Peace is good." It's a choice not to interpret the experience for us, and I think it makes the experience that much more powerful. Instead, they provide future Jewish leadership with a personal experience of Palestine and Palestinians, then let them go out and use that experience however they will. They're trying to promote intra-Jewish conversation about Palestine without determining what that conversation will look like. I appreciated the trust in that.

Encounter was a very full, very intense, two-day endeavor, and it would be hopeless to try to capture all of it in blog form. I'm going to try my best, but I'm splitting my report into two pieces to make it possible. In keeping with Encounter's approach, I'm going to try to report what I saw and heard here in the first post, and save most of my editorializing for the second. Even so, this will be a long post, but I urge you to read the whole thing. 

I'm recounting some Palestinians' own experience of their situation, here, and I'm not trying to filter out their biases or check their facts. I'm trying to hide my own biases, but they'll probably peek through here and there. So I'm sure some people reading this will want to argue about the facts or how they're interpreted, but please understand that this is just what I heard and saw, as clearly as I can recount it.


Unfortunately, I can't actually tell you about our first stop. We visited an institution that's very concerned about its internet presence, and they requested, at least for the time being, that we not write about them online. But we learned about a number of kids who have been traumatized by the occupation and efforts to help them live healthy lives. The people who talked to us are doing brave, difficult work in dark circumstances, and I wish I could tell you all about it.

Back on the bus, driving through Bethlehem, I was surprised by how much of a city it is. I guess I'd been walking around with unexamined conflicting assumptions about life in the West Bank. On the one hand, I was struck by the poor plumbing at our first stop. On the other, I was also struck by the taxis on the road, pizzerias and shwarma stands. A giant English billboard for Kit-Kat bars. Arabic ads for Lipton tea and Gauloise cigarettes. Signs for "Holy Land Dry Clean" and "Cooperative Society for Pressing Olives." I've driven through towns in America with weaker economies than this one. Bethlehem gets the boost of Christian tourism, but it's still surprising. On some level, I'd thought the whole West Bank might be one big refugee camp. I didn't think they'd be pushing Kit Kat bars. 

I'd been similarly surprised when our first presenter mentioned classes at Bethlehem University in Business English and English Literature. There's a Bethlehem University! They read Shakespeare there! (I imagine it's Shakespeare. Maybe it's all Tom Clancy novels. But still!)

This might not count as reporting without editorial. I'll save the rest of my surprise for the next post.

Our next presenter gave us a tour around part of the Security Fence / Separation Barrier / Great Wall of Palestine / Impossible-to-name-without-political-overtones-line-of-cement-and-wire. There's a lot of graffiti on the Palestinian side of the wall, and I took a few pictures:

A little more editorializing: I love the layers of cultural reference in this one, with Martin Luther King Jr, Barack Obama, a Palestinian Flag, Pink Floyd, and The Art of War:

I'm hurt and moved by the hatred shown in some places. I'm touched that hatred is expressed so much less artfully than hope and yearning.

I'm amused that someone felt the need to draw a penis on this one. For all the powerful emotions at play, there's always room for the juvenile:

If you Google "Palestine Wall Graffiti" and similar phrases, you can find a lot more. I didn't get a photo of it myself, but I was really struck by this one, and glad to find the picture online:

We asked our guide why so much of the art was in English and other European languages. He said that a lot of it isn't painted by Palestinians, but by sympathetic visitors.

While we walked around, the guide told us about the history of the Wall, and the Palestinian experience of it. He told us about how the Wall doesn't follow the recognized borders, but pushes into the West Bank, officially to protect Israelis and Israeli settlements. He said that the path of the Wall is often adjusted to put water and other resources on the Israeli side, or to include settlements in Israel that were built after the official settlement freeze, sometimes ten miles or more inside the official border. The Wall is said to be a security measure and not a political boundary, but it's harder and harder for Palestinians to claim land and resources on the other side. According to our guide, the Wall is becoming the real border between Israel and Palestine, and it's being unilaterally imposed by Israel. He said at one point, "This is one country. It's very hard to divide it. But if we must, we need to agree on the borders." He said, "This is a whole series of injustices." He said, "I don't feel free. I can't go for a walk without identification." He said "Peace protects people. Walls do not."

The Wall can separate people's homes from their own land, or from their villages. We saw one house surrounded by it on three sides. The residents have been told never to open their blinds on the top floor or go out onto their rooftop. When they had to fix some plumbing on the roof, it was a major diplomatic incident. 

The particular stretch of Wall we saw reaches into the city of Bethlehem to surround the Israeli passageway to a holy site. Our guide told us that no one had ever been harmed while visiting that site before, but Israeli leadership refused to have people pass through Palestinian-controlled territory in order to access it. 

Back on the bus, our guide took us through a town that doesn't have any sewage systems. It's in Area B, the region designated for Israeli municipal government. The Israelis are ready to hook up sewage lines, but they're going to connect them to the sewage lines for a nearby settlement. For some reason, allowing the Israelis to do this involves the Palestinian government acknowledging the legitimacy of the settlement, which weakens their negotiating position. The settlement has plumbing, so both governments are making these people poop outdoors for the sake of a bargaining chip.

He also took us to the edge of a valley, where we could see the Wall on the opposite side. And we could see where the Wall just stops. He pointed out a route to walk straight from where we were into West Jerusalem, with some mud and hills in the way, but no barriers or checkpoints. He said that the Wall makes it hard to get into West Jerusalem legally, but doesn't stop people from doing so illegally. It's often claimed in Israel that the Wall stopped the suicide attacks, but our guide disagreed. He didn't offer an alternative theory.

Someone asked him what he would say to Israelis who feel safer with the Wall. He said "Wait and see. This Wall is turning the West Bank into Gaza. If the Gazification of the West Bank continues... More walls, more fences, more checkpoints, more land confiscation, more poverty, nothing to do with their lives... Why will people make peace?" 

I was pretty overwhelmed at this point. We had lunch at a hotel (some very taste rice pilaf) and then some small-group processing time. I was still overwhelmed afterwards when we heard personal narratives from three Palestinians. I kinda spaced out during their presentation, so I can only say a little bit about what went on there.

The first speaker, a woman, talked about her very political mother. She said that her mother, her father, and all of her brothers had been arrested at various times for speaking against the Occupation. She said they had never acted violently, but they'd been called terrorists. Later on one of her brothers, then another, were shot by Israeli soldiers. She said she didn't want to be political herself, but she had formed a group of bereaved people from Israel and Palestine, where they could share their experiences together. Someone asked what she hopes for. "I want my daughter to go to college. I want my kids to see the sea."

The second speaker works in Palestinian media, trying to bring attention to non-violent peace work. She said that all of the Palestinian news outlets buy into the conflict in one way or another. There isn't a voice for true, non-violent Palestinian leadership. There isn't any fair representation of Israelis in Palestine either, to tell Palestinians that they have partners and supporters on the other side. When Palestinians do see Israelis demonstrating for peace, it helps them get by. 

The third speaker has lived in a refugee camp his whole life. He talked about people living in tents and tiny houses. The children of the middle-class who fled their homes in '48. Many of them could leave the refugee camp, but they stay to maintain their claims to land in Israel. He said the clinic in his camp gets 600 visitors a day. They have one doctor and two nurses there.

We had some more process time after these presentations. I don't want to talk too much about other participants' reactions to the program, but I was really moved and supported by what they all had to say. Many people pointed out details in the presentations and our surroundings that I'd missed, and the context that each person brought to the experience helped me internalize it a little better, make a little more sense about it all. The Encounter facilitators were really skillful at creating a space for people to share in. Many times over, other participants said how important it was for them to have heard these people's stories.

Next up, some Palestinian families came in to play games with us and hang out. Encounter sends people to locals' homes for the night, and these were the host families of some of the participants. We played some silly games, making noises and faces and cheering and running around, getting comfortable together. We played Rock, Paper, Scissors, where once somebody beat you, you had to follow them around and cheer them on while they played against other people. In the end, it came down to a 9-year-old Palestinian girl against a 40-something American rabbi, with dozens of people cheering for each of them. The little girl won, thank goodness.

Afterward we played some serious games. Step into the circle if you've ever been to Jordan. Step into the circle if you speak Hebrew. Step into the circle if you know someone who was injured or killed by violence in this conflict. One-state solution. Two-state solution. Step into the circle if you've lost a family member. More of the Jews than I expected knew people who had been injured or killed. More of the Palestinians than I expected had family in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. 

We broke into smaller groups for conversation after the games. We mostly exchanged names and brief biographies. Very little stuck with me of what was said there but this, from an older Palestinian man: "The Wall is not for security. It's a political issue. My name is on a black list. I'm in their computers. So I can never go to Israel. And it's hard for Israelis to come here." (It's a felony for Israeli citizens to enter Palestinian-controlled cities.) "It's the people like you, with American passports, that can go back and forth. Here, we are in prison. Sometimes I look at myself like I'm in a zoo. And here is a donkey and a tiger and a giraffe. People come to visit me, and I'm in a cage."

Another man, younger, said, "The Palestinian is a welcoming people. But the Palestinian is a wounded people." He talked about Arab hospitality, and how nice Palestinians are by nature. But they are wounded. His English wasn't very good, but he said, "The Israelis we see are the settlers. The Israelis we see are the ones who have the power. Change only happens when you see the other side. I can forgive, but I will always keep my distance. But for them, too... The way I feel, I'm sure they feel the same way. Not that we attack them, but they're scared. But what we do to them is nothing compared to what they've done to us for 63 years."

We went to dinner, all together, at a nice Palestinian restaurant. We walked past beautiful, aromatic, unkosher barbecue to enjoy a nice vegetarian meal inside. And Hey! They've got Arabic Coca-Cola!

I got to meet my host for the night, and I spent part of the evening talking with him and a young Palestinian woman. She told us a bit about dating a Jordanian man, and how rarely they get to see each other. She seemed to like it that way. In other towns in Palestine, she said, young people don't date at all.

I noticed that both my host and this young woman were very well dressed. I asked where they shopped. She bought most of her clothes in Jordan. He bought his in Tel Aviv, Dubai, and various cities around Europe. There's no good shopping in the West Bank, they said. I asked if most Palestinians travel as much as they do, and they said definitely not.

After dinner, many people danced. Some American Pop music, some Palestinian Pop music, and some drumming and singing, all mixed together.

I was very full, and I didn't feel like dancing. I chatted with other Americans about familiar subjects, maybe just for the relief.

Two other participants were staying at this man's house with me. In his car on the way there, we listened to a very Jazzy Arabic duet of "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps." (This isn't it, but it's close enough for comparison.) I had no idea such a thing existed. I was further stunned when we got to his house and saw his mother watching what, as far as I could tell, was an Arabic equivalent to Law&Order.

This whole trip was going on during the height of the Egyptian demonstrations, so our host overruled his mother and changed the channel to Al-Jazeera. We sat and watched for twenty minutes or so, hoping Mubarak would come out and speak, and our host explained a bit about his politics to us. He really admired what was going on in Egypt, he said. Like many of our speakers during the day, he felt like his voice wasn't represented at all in Palestinian politics. "There are only two parties: Fatah is corrupt, and Hamas is too violent. Nobody speaks for the normal Palestinian." The normal Palestinian, he said, wants peace, a single state, and economic prosperity.

He and his mother are Christians. We asked if he ever felt hostility from his Muslim neighbors, and he said he didn't. "Arab is Arab," he said. "Palestinian is Palestinian." A lot of Christian Arabs have left Bethelehem since Israel took over, so perhaps not everyone feels that way, but that's what he had to say.

We slept in his guest house, a beautiful old building with low ceilings and meter-thick stone walls. Of two beds and a couch, I took the couch and slept remarkably well. In the morning we went back to the hotel, prayed, ate breakfast, and got on with learning about Palestine.

Our next presentation was a big-picture overview of the West Bank situation, using a slideshow put together by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, available to anyone here. (It's the one called "West Bank and East Jerusalem," although we only saw the West Bank parts.) The presenter was a sweet, soft-spoken guy, extremely knowledgeable about the region, who took us methodically through the constricting space available for Palestinians in the West Bank.

I've got a lot of thoughts about this presentation, and questions I wasn't able to ask. (I emailed him a week ago, too, and never heard back.) For the time being, I'm just gonna pass on the information as the guy gave it to us, but this is one area where I'm especially tempted to comment.

The West Bank was divided by the 1993 Oslo Accords into three regions. Area A (Major cities, 10% of the West Bank) is protected and administrated by the Palestinian Authority, and Israeli citizens may not enter. Area B (30%) surrounds Area A, with Palestinian municipal government and Israeli security. About 3 million Palestinians live in Areas A and B. Area C covers the remaining 60% of the West Bank, with only 150,000 Palestinians living there. In the original agreement, the Palestinian Authority was supposed to take control of the whole region within five years.

So life is pretty congested at this point in Areas A and B, but the Israeli government makes it very hard to build in Area C. Construction is prohibited in 70% of Area C, and "restricted" in 29% (We never heard what that means, exactly. It sounds like you could build if you got a permit, but no one ever gets a permit.), so Palestinians are only limited to living in 41% of Palestine. Buildings built in Area C are demolished or threatened with demolition. Families whose homes are demolished receive about $1500 from the PA and a tent from the Red Cross. There are about 200 demolitions a year displacing 670 or so people, with over 3000 pending demolition orders and roughly 60,000 Palestinians living in un-permitted buildings.

At the same time, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are increasing and expanding, and construction continues on the Wall. Both of these factors decrease the amount of land in Area C.

Settlements in Area C (click to expand):

Current and planned Wall construction. The Green Line is the formal name for the pre-1967 border, the officially recognized border between Israel and the West Bank.

Aside from diminishing space, freedom of movement is the other major human rights issue in the West Bank. It's in part because of these settlements that Israel maintains roadblocks and checkpoints inside Area C. These have declined significantly since 2008, however, so that it's now fairly easy to travel within the West Bank. Legal ccess to Jordan or Jerusalem remains difficult.

Continued construction of settlements and Wall also interferes with progress toward a two-state solution, which is preferred by most foreign powers and officially supported by the Israeli government. He called it the Fragmentation of the West Bank, and it steadily erodes the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state. Settlers might eventually be relocated back to Israel, but the government is still providing financial incentives for people moving into the West Bank: you can buy a nice house in a settlement for less than $50,000 to be paid over thirty years.

Settler-on-Palestinian violence continues as well. When illegal settlements are demolished by the Israeli government, the residents punish the local Palestinian population. They call it the "price tag" strategy, the idea being that Palestinians will pay the price for any harm done to settlements. There were 352 recorded incidents of settler violence in 2009, and 476 in 2010. Less than 10% of the time is anyone arrested.

Settlers continue to use religious rhetoric in their claim to the land, but Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinian political parties, have both stopped doing so. The official Palestinian positions are now much more focused on human rights and international law. They've realized, says our presenter, that their strongest negotiating tool is their international legitimacy, which they're now trying to bolster.

Like I said, I had a lot of questions about this presentation. So did everyone else in the group. In the end we had to wrap it up with a great many of them still unasked, and move on to our last speaker. 

She was such a character, I can't bear not to give her a name. But she's wary of attention on the internet, so I'll call her Vivian and lie about some details. Picture everybody's favorite aunt, lively, loud, passionate, a little bit crazy. Someone who gestures with her whole body.

Vivian lives in a small Palestinian village we'll call Boston. A lot of the other villages near Boston are now empty, and there are settlements on three sides. Because the settlements are expanding, the Wall is being built right up next to Vivian's home, literally right up against her living room wall, and cutting her family off from their olive trees. This is the view she won't have anymore:

She said the view from her family home is her most prized possession. In theory, the government owes her family a lot of money for the land being confiscated. But the paperwork said "sale" and not "confiscation," so the family refused to sign it and now gets nothing.

After this section of Wall is complete, Boston will be totally cut off from the rest of Palestine. People will need to pass through checkpoints to go to work or anywhere else.

Here's the Wall being built nearby, with the landscape reflected in the bus window:

It's decorated on the Israeli side. The blank grey cement is for Palestinian eyes. When asked why, Israeli soldiers said they were doing Palestinians a favor - giving them an opportunity to paint and be creative.

The Wall should have been built a few hundred meters further away from Boston, but - and this was the official position, spoken out loud in the Israeli Supreme Court - it was moved, lest it get too close to a zoo on the Israeli side.

Vivian also talked about holes in the Wall, and how easy it is to cross it. She took us to another spot with a clear walk into West Jerusalem. From near Boston, where the Wall hasn't been built yet but will be soon, I could see some of the same landmarks that are visible from my roof. Vivian said a few times that if anyone wanted to attack Jerusalem, they could. The wall only stops the ones trying to get in legally. So she has no reason to believe that the Wall is really being built for security. Whatever the truth may be, to her eyes it's an Israeli land grab, trying to squeeze her and everyone else out of her village so Israelis can settle there, too.

We asked Vivian why she thought the attacks on Israel had stopped, if it wasn't because of the Wall. She says that Hamas sent suicide bombers to discredit Fatah and interfere with negotiations with Israel. Once Hamas stopped sending bombers, other groups sent them instead to discredit Hamas. We asked her if attacks would resume once negotiations resumed. She said no, that Hamas is too much part of the system now, and no one else has the will or resources for attacks. She says that Palestinians were just as shocked by the bombings as Israelis were.

Vivian also took us to a couple houses on the outskirts of the town, houses that won't be included inside the wall. Instead, electric fences will be built surrounding each house, and the children living there will have to pass through four military gates to get to school. Not the school they currently go to, though, because the monks who run it cut a deal to be on the Israeli side of the Wall. 

Two Israeli soldiers drove by in a truck while she was talking. Vivian joked after them "You don't have to be so loud. It's okay. We already hate you." Some people asked her about it - she thinks that Israeli soldiers are intentionally provocative. Part of their plan to drive her whole neighborhood out. Eventually, she thinks they'll succeed.

Over lunch, we got Vivian talking about her hopes and fears for the future. She's a one-state solution lady. She says the land is too small, with too few resources, for us to get by without working together. "We will not survive without joint leadership," she said. She talked about global warming and deforestation, and said "A two-state solution is no solution."

Someone asked her about the Palestinian birthrate. They would very soon become the majority in a single state, and many Jews wouldn't feel safe. She said "The birthrate is more scary without a solution than with one." And later, "You will never be secure if I'm not. I will never be secure if you're not." And again, "We will only survive together." But she also said that the normal people in Palestine, the uneducated people, they don't want a one-state solution. They don't want to be part of anything to do with Israel. They will give up anything to make Israel to leave them alone. She sees a fight for survival among her own people, as well as a struggle with Israel.

She said that she can't afford the luxury of giving up hope. She said that Israel has no reason to negotiate, and Palestine has no power to negotiate. She said, "Israel isn't a state that created an army. It's an army that created a state." A lot of people at the table glowered at that one.

Like everyone else we spoke to, Vivian was very excited about Egypt. She wanted a similar uprising in Palestine. One way or another, she thinks there will be an uprising soon. "There's no trust in the government." she said, "Within three years, there will be either a peaceful uprising like Egypt or another Intifada. The last one was ugly. I think the coming one will be the ugliest. Nobody can afford that."

And with that, we were done. As our last attraction, we walked through a security checkpoint on our way back into Jerusalem. After this point, there were no cameras allowed:

The checkpoint itself was like an airport, with space for long lines and slow bureaucracy, but with heavily armed soldiers scattered throughout. We showed our passports once to get out of Palestine, and again to get into West Jerusalem. It was almost empty while we passed through, but the facilitators assured us it's packed from wall to wall every morning, starting as early as 4am. I was distracted and overwhelmed, walking through the checkpoint, but I could see its potential as a place of misery and oppression.

And that was it. We went to a synagogue in West Jerusalem for a little bit more processing. We shared images that had stuck with us from the trip. What surprised us. What gave us hope. How we might use this experience in our home communities. And we went home.

So clearly, this was a big deal for me. I was very affected by the whole thing, surprised and moved and saddened and inspired. I went home and crashed, and cried, and stared at the wall for a while. It took me a few weeks to put my thoughts in order about the trip, and I'm clearly still processing it all. I'd really love to know what you think.

Was it Good? Yes Was it Effective? Yes. 
Half of the participants were rabbis or rabbinical students. Others were studying to be Jewish educators of various stripes. All of them were selected by Encounter as future Jewish leaders. I know that everyone had their own reactions to what we saw and heard there, some more skeptical than others, but they're all going into their future roles with a direct experience that will inform their whole community's relationship with Palestine. However the conflict plays out over the next few decades, a more informed, maybe more sympathetic American Jewish community will be an influence for the good.

Next Time
Personal reactions to a few moments of Encounter. My dream-vision of Lady Palestine, the nature of hope, and the Yotam Plan for Peace.