Peace Fast

My heart has been heavy this past week reading the news coming out of the Middle East.

Beginning with the kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli yeshiva students, followed by the horrendous revenge killing of an even younger Palestinian boy, we are witnessing a deepening round of violence. As rockets land in Israel and airstrikes hit Gaza, a cease-fire is broken and we have spiraled into another round of violence. Extremism and violence has once again won the day.

While there are moments of hope and light-the families of the IsraeIi and Palestinian youths have reached out to eachother and both publically denounced the violence and hatred which led to the death of their children-that is overshadowed by the darkness. I grieve for the loss of life, the fear which grips all who live there and the zealotry that has led to this result.

I chose that last term purposefully because it brings to mind this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. We are reading this week in our Torah reading cycle in the book of Numbers. Our portion actually picks up in the middle of a story begun last week: The Israelites while wandering in the desert began to associate with (and have sexual relations with) the Moabites. This then led the Israelites adopting the Moabite gods. God becomes incensed at this sinful behavior, and orders Moses to carry out a punishment.

Just then an Israelite takes a Midianite woman and has sex with her in the Tent of Meeting, in the sacred central gathering space. Pinchas, a priest, takes a spear, goes in after them and kills them both by impaling them with the spear through both of their torsos. With that act a plague, which we can assume was a punishment for the previous idolatrous behavior, ends. And at that, last week’s portion Balak ends.

It is a bit of a cliffhanger. While we know the plague ends, what of Pinchas? Is there any more fallout from his act? This week’s portion opens with God offering Pinchas a blessing, recognizing that it was Pinchas’ action which ended the punishment. God offers Pinchas and his descendants a place in the priesthood and a brit shalom, a pact of peace. The Torah appears to condone his act.

The term zealot because that is the term usually invoked to describe Pinchas and his act. Pinchas was a zealot, who in his passion and zeal kills two people in the name of God. Is Pinchas rewarded for his act of zealotry? Is the Torah telling us that violence in the name of God is a good thing?

Its not quite clear. What is a brit shalom? What is a “pact” or “covenant” of shalom? One way of understanding this-an as some translations bear out-is God is making a special relationship with Pinchas, a “pact of friendship” in which, presumably, God has Pinchas’ back since Pinchas had God’s.

But why would God offer a pact of shalom? Maybe this is not so much a reward for Pinchas’ behavior as a check on it.

A colleague of mine from the CLAL Rabbis Without Borders program, Rav Hanan Schlesinger, writes,

Rabbi Naftalie Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym Netziv, answers by way of a deep psychological insight. Violence, even when justified, leaves an ugly scar on the soul. The seeds of callous disregard for the preciousness of human life are implanted by every act of aggression, not matter what the context. A little bit of one’s humanity is lost.

God’s ‘covenant of peace’ is an antidote to the pernicious effects of Pinchas’s zealotry. It is a promise that he will be spared the almost inevitable lot of all perpetrators of violence. The Netziv reminds us that violence of all types eats away at us from within, and a counterweight must be quickly provided to prevent the damage from spreading. It is true for the individual and it is true for the collective.

Another way of looking at this is that blessing one who demonstrated anger and violence with “peace” can be understood as disapproval-Pinchas needs more shalom in his temperament for his natural inclination is to act violently. Pinchas in his extremism demonstrated the opposite of shalom, so God blesses him with it.

A hint at this meaning is found in the text itself. Based on an early medieval tradition, in the Torah scroll, the vav in the word shalom is written broken:

Here too is a criticism of Pinchas. As one Torah scribe put it, the authors of the scroll “must have been shocked by the violence of Pinchas’ action as they made his blessing only partial through the broken vav which explains that true peace cannot be brought about through violence and that the two concepts are incompatible.” (Thanks to Toby Shulruff for this cite.) Or maybe another way to put it is to say that Pinchas, through his act of violence, is broken or scarred.

Peace brought by violence is broken. Zealous behavior leaves physical and emotional scars. Revenge is not the way. Acts of zealotry is driving this conflict. Acts of compassion and control can hopefully end it.

This upcoming week, on Tuesday, is the 17th of Tammuz. In our tradition it is a fast day, a day of mourning, remembering the time the Babylonians breached the wall of Jerusalem during their conquest in the 6th century BCE. The day ushers in a period known as “The Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av-the Ninth of Av-a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple.

The 17th of Tammuz is a minor fast day, both in the technical sense of being a sunrise to sundown fast (as opposed to a 24 hour fast like Yom Kippur), but also in the sense that it is not widely observed outside of traditional circles. Maybe this is the year to make an exception.

Noting that we are also in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a month marked by day-long fasting, Rabbi Schlesinger (an Orthodox rabbi) is part of an effort to make this Tuesday a joint day of fasting-for peace and non-violence. Rabbi Arthur Waskowalso notes such a project. By using the fast day to focus our spiritual energy in this way, then perhaps it can be the “brit shalom” that is so desperately needed right now.

This Tuesday we can fast for peace. So we can hopefully have peace fast.

15+ Questions for the Board of the Olympia Food Co-op

Just a bit more on the Co-op boycott, three years out. Based on my last posting and some recent conversations, certain questions have crystallized in my mind. I think the Board answering some of these questions in an open way would be a good step in helping to address some of the difficulties which have come about because of the boycott and how it was implemented.

How and why did you make the decision to institute a boycott of Israeli products?

Are you sensitive to the unique relationship between Jews and Israel? If so, why didn’t you approach the Jewish community before the boycott decision? If not, then presumably Jews who support the boycott and argue for it “as Jews” will have no special consideration either, correct?

Why wasn’t the membership in general consulted before the boycott?

From the standpoint of the Board, what were the practical results of the forum held after the boycott decision?

Why hasn’t the Co-op allocated resources to educating about the boycott and issues of Israel and Palestine, and are there any plans to do so?

In your opinion, what has been the actual impact of the boycott decision on the movement for a just peace in Israel and Palestine? How much effort have you put in spreading the boycott to other Co-ops?

Why do you popularly portray yourself as a co-operative, but when push comes to shove, (i.e., defending the boycott decision) you rely on your legal status as a non-profit? Do you ever plan to openly address this discrepancy between perception and reality? Or legally re-incorporate?

Because the OFC is not legally a co-operative, how do you view the general relationship between Co-op members and the Board? In other words, what are the standards and guidelines for when an issue needs to go to the membership for an advisory conversation and when does it not?

In what instances is non-consensus deemed a conflict that needs to be resolved, as it was in this case, and when is non-consensus simply non-consensus?

Irrespective of the issue, why doesn’t a conflict between a subset of the membership and the Board fall under the “conflict resolution” clause of the by-laws?

Since the Board now distinguishes between “staff initiated boycotts” and “Board initiated boycotts,” what are the guidelines and procedures for deciding the latter?

Why did the board decide to use punitive action in making a SLAPP claim against its own members, rather than simply defend itself by invoking its legal authority as a Board of a non-profit?

Was there any conflict of interest in being represented by attorneys who actually wrote the SLAPP statute? (I.e., they would have a vested interest in a legal precedent to support their previous work.) What was the process for hiring the lawyers?

Do the Board members elected subsequent to the boycott who were involved in boycott activities prior adequately vet their conflict of interest in making decisions about the boycott now that they are on the Board?

Now that the Board is on record as affirming corporate personhood and cites Citizens United in its defense, will the OFC be funneling money to political candidates?

The Value of Values

Thirty years ago the movie Trading Places came out, and 30 years later I finally understand it. One of the best birthday presents I could have gotten is a report from NPR, which explains the ending I never understood.

The movie concerns the wealthy Duke brothers who bet each other that they can take a homeless man (Eddie Murphy) and make him wealthy and a wealthy man (Dan Ackroyd) and make him homeless, driving him to crime. The two get wind of the scheme, team up and in a climactic scene in the Securities Exchange, amass great wealth at the expense of the Duke brothers by trading orange juice futures.

You can read or listen to the story yourself, but in short, they succeed because of a simple fact: value is relative.

I think about this as we mark the third anniversary of the Olympia Food Co-op boycott of Israeli goods. Three years ago the board of the OFC instituted a boycott of Israeli products, and as one may recall, it was done without any member input, and after the staff of the Co-op failed to reach consensus on a boycott. (According to OFC policy, it is the staff which must consent to all boycotts.) The move created ill feelings in the community, especially in the Jewish community, because of the focus on Israel and the negativity associated with it, and because of the way the Co-op board managed the situation.

And three years later, it is still a live issue for people. TBH members and long-time Co-op members Tibor Breuer and Laura Schrager recently wrote letters to the editor. And anecdotally I know of people who have stopped shopping at the Co-op, or do so very minimally.

The one group for which it does not seem to be a live issue is the Co-op itself. Since the boycott the Co-op has done little to nothing to promote the boycott, use its resources to educate members on the conflict, or even mentioned it in the newsletter. Strange behavior for an organization which took, in its mind, such an important social justice stand.

I sometimes wonder about what happened at that July Board meeting three years ago. At that meeting, it was reported to the board that the staff will not reach consensus on the boycott, and in keeping with OFC policy it would seem that the boycott would be moot. However that night, in a room packed with over 30 supporters of the boycott, the board agreed to institute a boycott.

So what happened? Did the Board feel unduly pressured by a group of people confronting them and pleading with them to institute the boycott in the name of social justice, Rachel Corrie and others? In response to that did the Board misread the impact this issue has in the community in failing to decide to be prudent and take it slow? Or did they know it would cause upset, and just figuring it was easier to upset an invisible subset of their membership rather than the people in the room at the time? Did they not understand that even though they had authority to make a decision this was an issue which was best turned over to the membership for an advisory conversation? Did they assess how this decision would impact the staff and jeopardize its own fiduciary responsibility by ignoring its own policies and the mission of the Co-op, and instead take the lead from an outside organization (BDS)?

Much has been made of the fact that it impacted only a few products on the shelves, and so the boycott is primarily a symbolic action. But should that make a difference when making decisions around social justice? Consider another issue the Co-op had to decide recently–how to support striking Teamsters in their conflict with UNFI, the Co-op’s main distributor. To support the workers by not ordering from the distributor would have come at real financial cost to the organization. After polling the membership (imagine that!), the Board decided not to order from UNFI for one week in a symbolic gesture, but not put the Co-op in financial harm by stopping its ordering until the strike was settled.

So: for an issue that would not put the Co-op in a financially precarious position, the Board acted hastily and enacted a boycott. For an issue which would impact the organization, the board acted cautiously and did not take significant action. Apparently it’s easier to make a social justice decision when the stakes are low.

But shouldn’t a values-based organization stand by its values no matter what the cost? The issue with the Teamsters demonstrates that the primary mission of the Co-op is not as a social justice organization, but as a food store. Therefore, social justice positions, which are secondary, need to be made with much deliberation and thought. This is where the Co-op failed regarding the Israel boycott. Why didn’t the Board use the same prudency in the Israeli boycott as the Teamsters action, irrespective of the cost to the organization? Why isn’t the Board willing to take action that carries real risk, rather than just safe, symbolic actions?

The Co-op has demonstrated that the value of values is relative. Now they just need to admit it.

Three years later, what others and I desire from the Co-op Board is some form of accountability. So ultimately what may be required by the Co-op, in order to show some leadership on this issue, is an acknowledgment of this fungibility of its approach to social justice, and a reckoning by the board as to how and why it took the action it did on the Israel boycott, why it did not consider member input on the matter prior to making the decision.

In addition, the lawsuit that was filed against the Co-op in response to the boycott has raised some other issues I would like the Board to address, namely: one, honesty around the fact that the Co-op is not actually a cooperative, but a non-profit, and how therefore it generally views the relationship between the members and the Board. And two, why in its defense of the lawsuit it chose a course of action which was meant to punish those members who brought the suit.

There are those who will deflect these questions in talking about the necessity of the boycott, that the real issue is Israel/Palestine, and to challenge the boycott is to support human rights abuses, etc. This is and will continue to be an illogical red herring. Many who oppose the boycott support a just peace for Israelis and Palestinians, myself included. The means of the boycott is a separate issue. Besides, shouldn’t peace begin at home, and shouldn’t we be first and foremost responsible for how we treat each other here in our own backyard?

And whither Israel in all this? We know that the OFC boycott had zero effect on bringing about a peaceful solution, and that the local BDS supporters went for one symbolic action and called it a day. The peaceful futures of Israel and Palestine are not going to be secured by anyone in Olympia.

So therefore the news coming out of the Middle East is hopeful: Secretary of State John Kerry is successfully working at getting peace negotiations started again and bringing together the key leading parties. This news unfortunately will not satisfy those boycott supporters who have a black and white view of the conflict and trade in strict notions of what defines social justice. But a negotiated solution that acknowledges the sins of the past, recognizes the realities of the present and sets a vision for the future is the only viable course of action. Because justice, like the price of orange juice, is also relative.

After Death, After Boston

This week’s Torah portion in our weekly cycle is Acharei Mot, which means “after death.” The death referred to is that of the sons of Aaron, priests like their father and nephews to Moses, who make a mistake in the sacrificial offerings and are incinerated by God in the process. The text describes Aaron silent in the face of this destruction and loss, and other priests swiftly moving in to clean up and tend to the dead. (The narrative of the death takes place a few chapters prior to this week’s portion.)

We feel the same way “acharei mot”–after death, after Boston. The news out of Boston this week was terrible, just terrible. The death of three, including a child, the loss of limbs by many, the sense of security and trust shattered hits deep at our core. We watch in silence as others move in to clean and investigate.

But we are all impacted by these events. On the one hand, it is because we turn inward and see our own vulnerabilities. We imagine the places we have been, exercising our right of freedom of assembly, only to have it disrupted by terror. With ArtsWalk looming on the Olympia horizon, I’m sure many of our thoughts turn to that spectacular event, and the risks associated now with gathering in such a public, and vulnerable, space.

On the other hand it is because we share a common bond with those thousands of miles away. Not all of us are runners, who find meaning in the achievement and solidarity in running a marathon and being with the community of runners. Not all of us have ties to Boston, or Massachusetts, who are oriented to the celebration of Patriots’ Day, a day set aside in that state to mark the battle of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolution. But we are a part of the same greater (American) community, committed to the same values, inheritors of the same history, living under the same tent.

The same feeling is what connects us as Jews to what happens in the State of Israel. The bombings in Boston occurred during the “High Holidays” of civil Israeli society–Yom Hazikaron, memorial day for fallen soldiers, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, this year marking 65 years since the founding of the nation.

We all know that discussing Israel is sometimes difficult, that we in this community have differing opinions about Israel’s future direction. But we can not dispute one fact, that all of us do have different opinions and struggle how to talk about Israel at times because we have a connection to what happens there. That we, as Jews, are part of the worldwide Jewish community, and thus committed to the same values, inheritors of the same history and living under the same tent to Jews everywhere.

Which is why an attack in Boston is an attack on us. Which is why (to cite one example) a struggle to make the Western Wall in Jerusalem more open to egalitarian prayer is our struggle. We are a part of the greater whole. And moving beyond, we remember that we are connected to all humanity. There is no “over there.” There is only “over here.”

Earlier this week we found glimmers of hope in those who ran towards the scene as opposed to away from it (though we can all sympathize with the latter, can’t we?), in those who reached out to help others and carry them to safety, to the doctors who made difficult decisions, to the first responders who are always there in times of crisis.

Let us remember that hope.

The day of the Marathon, Patriots’ Day, is a day of hope–the hope that a struggle against a tyrannical power would result in a new reality based on values not power, based on individual rights and communal responsibility. Let us remember that hope.

Yom Ha’atzmaut is a day of hope–the hope that an oppressed people, traumatized by history, can find peace, recognition, an end to conflict and the realization of future potential. Let us remember that hope.

Let us remember the hope. Let us remember the hope and abide by it, so that the hope of the aftermath of the bombings, the hope of Patriots’ Day, the hope of Yom Ha’atzma’ut can continue to guide our lives and be extended to all.

The parasha that follows Acharei Mot is Kodashim (“holiness”). After death, after Boston, must come the renewed commitment to manifest holiness in our world.