At Home in Exile: A Tale of Two Statues

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
June 3, 2016 / 26 Iyyar, 5776

In the Land of Israel

As Shabbat nears, I am thinking of Beth and Liza Milliner, who are on a very moving See Israel with Pride LGBTQ trip. For Beth and Liza, there are so many highlights–meeting with President Rivlin, overlooking the Kinneret on Memorial Day, or riding ATVs in the Golan (NO, Liza, you can’t drive one of those through the synagogue hallways!).

Mudbaths at the Sea of Salt (the Dead Sea), encounters with gay Israeli youth or Ethiopian children. Falafel at Moshiko. For me, though, the highlight was reading Liza’s account of Friday in Israel, as she vividly portrays the excitement that builds towards Shabbat in our Holy Land. It’s such a reminder to me that I live in galut, in the Diaspora.  As strong as our Portland Jewish community is, the feeling of being part of the majority is something I only experience while in Israel. Getting to travel with a group of like-minded LGBTQ from all over the US has to provide a similar sense of being at home.

In my younger days, I really wanted to live in Israel. And I guess that wish has been fulfilled in part, since I have been fortunate to live a total of three years there. What a remarkable age! We have the historical luxury of choosing whether or not we want to live in our ancestral home, something most Jews throughout the ages could only dream about.

Choosing to live in America, on the other hand, is a decision we have made, whether passively or actively, to live as a minority. It is to chose a life with less cultural privilege, one where part of our difference is enforced because we are not in the majority culture.

In an age where people increasingly wish to live only among the like-minded, it is fascinating how comfortable we Jews can be with our otherness. I want to offer the argument that our success as a species depends on our ability to live simultaneously both at home and in exile. Yes, we need to create for ourselves homes of like-mindedness where we can “be” without explanation or justification. We also need to place ourselves out of our own element. This place of encounter is laced with emotional discomfort. That is essential.

A Tale of Two Statues and the Challenge to Free Speech

Fifteen hundred years ago, in central Afghanistan, some devout individuals carved out of a sandstone cliff some remarkable sculptures known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. For 1700 years, these statues stood proudly, over 150 feet tall. In March of 2001, the Taliban dynamited the statues. They were idolatrous, and thus were an intellectual, emotional and spiritual affront to Taliban leaders. Their existence, in other words, caused tremendous pain to the Taliban. Apparently, despite their discomfort, there were those in leadership who initially resisted destroying these Buddhas. In the end, however, the continued presence of these icons was too much to bear.

Fast forward fifteen years. Over the past year, students at universities around the country have rallied to remove historical statues. At Columbia, efforts were made to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson because of his racist past. At Georgetown, two buildings were “rebranded” because of the slave owning past of their namesakes. Many other similar efforts have cropped up across our college campuses.

An argument could be made that distinguishes the actions of these students from what the Taliban did in Afghanistan. On some level that argument would have some truth to it. Of course we don’t want to countenance slavery, oppression, racism and other forms of hatred and prejudice.

The question and comparison, however, have at least two parts. First, are we allowed to judge history by today’s standards? It seems self-evident that every age dons moral blinders that makes it oblivious to some failings, even as that society gets other things right. Additionally, progress is never linear. We don’t just grow ever better by recognizing the flaws of the past. Often we react to a previous injustice by creating a new one. More on that in a moment.

Second, do we achieve our aims by eliminating dissent and removing ourselves from situations–or objects–that make us uncomfortable? For many complex reasons, I don’t think we do. Indeed, a telling characteristic of tyranny is the suppression of different perspectives. What starts off seeming like a good thing–get rid of offending statues that hurt our moral sensibilities–ends up exacerbating the lack of freedom, equality and sense of being at ease that we so desire and need.

I have been following the trends on college campuses with increasing alarm. Two articles stand out. The May 23rd New Yorker has an article about the climate at Oberlin College entitled the “Big Uneasy.” The September 2015 Atlantic featured an extended piece called “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Both address the increasing concern students have with trigger words and microaggressions.

Trigger words (or images) are words that purport to reopen some traumatic experience I have endured. Students are increasingly demanding that they either not be exposed to any material (literature, art, history, etc) which might contain such triggers, or that they be given ample warning and be permitted to excuse themselves when those topics may arise. The extension of this phenomenon extended to “disinvitations,” where students protested the appearance of a speaker who might view the world differently than they do.

At our own Reed College, it involved repeatedly tearing down offending posters (by the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist group whose messages should have been right at home on Reed’s campus) because certain students interpreted these posters in a manner that made them perceive them as wholly negative triggering statements of microaggression.

Microaggression, we should note, comes out of some psychological theories from the 1970’s. In short, small affronts to one’s race, gender, religion, skin color add up over time to constant oppression, and that it is therefore appropriate to punish those who knowingly or unknowingly “microagress.”

Contemporary students are increasingly demanding the right to “safe spaces.” These are spaces free of triggers and microaggressions. In my parlance, these students are calling for psychologically protected homes, where nothing will intrude on their sense of well-being.

There is something beautiful about all of this. Our students, as we hope each new generation will do, are highlighting types of moral injustice that their parents could not see. For that, we owe a debt of gratitude. Yet they are doing so by creating their own forms of injustice–screaming invective at their opponents, seeing only the negative in a given situation, getting people fired for unworthy offenses, squelching debate, creating censorship, blaming others…destroying statues. Haven’t we been here before?

Overcoming Spiritual Exile: Dialogue with the Self

In parts of our mystical tradition and some strains of contemporary Jewish thought, the notion of exile has moved from being a land-based concept to an existential one. In this understanding, we are all in exile, regardless of where we live. To be a human is to suffer, at least occasionally, a sense of spiritual and psychological dislocation. To feel odd or separate is part and parcel of our humanity, and is a condition that will only fully be corrected with the arrival of the messianic era.

When I think of Neveh Shalom in its deepest promise, I can’t help but think of what Isaiah once wrote about a future temple in which God states, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” A place where people of all backgrounds, beliefs, orientations, genders, religious commitments can happily co-exist even while we stand committed to our Jewish communal values.

In the interim, it is our job not to run away from this sense of dislocation, but to embrace and learn from those emotions. We have the capacity, by how we choose to view the world and react to it, to overcome much of our all too human alienation. This is not to say that we shouldn’t fight for justice. But God help us all if in our fight for justice we end up merely shifting our alienation on to others.

Because in life, what goes around comes around.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D


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