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Sunday 10 February 2008

Israel Suffers from ADHD - Rabbi Michael Marmur

Reform Reflections: Israel suffers from ADHD
Israel suffers from Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
We are so overloaded with events bearing heavy cargoes of moral
complexity; so stunned by sensory overload; that we often can give
nothing more than perfunctory attention to issues demanding profound
In the days since my last blog was penned (or keyboarded), so much has
happened: I am writing this with the radio on in the background -
Dimona, Gaza, Sderot, Winograd, Olmert, Barak, Egypt, and more
What is an appropriate religious response to this ADHD reality? A common
strategy is to claim that what we see on the surface is only a mask for
some concealed Truth. There is a code, a secret means of unlocking a
door leading to harmony and coherence. Often, this is presented as the
essence of Jewish belief. It may appear as though everything is an
unholy mess, but a True Believer knows that all is part of a holy master
plan. To doubt the plan is to doubt the Master.
If to believe is to claim that everything is fine beneath the surface,
then for some to love God means to strive for ecstatic union with the
Divine. Often a single-minded religious passion goes hand in hand with a
complicated and painful situation out in what passes for the "real
world." Rather than sinking in the mud of depression and ambiguity, we
can click our theological heels and suddenly everything is alright with
the world.
There is a third step in this dance. Having defined belief as the
decoding of hidden harmonies, and love of God as the pursuit of ecstatic
oneness, it only remains to re-introduce the metaphysics into the
political sphere. I don't know if I will ever be able to get used to the
sight of the portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe plastered all over the
country mouthing strident political statements. Those of us laboring
under the impression that his purported demise may have weakened his
credentials as a commentator on the latest news have simply got it
wrong. The mystical meets up with the polemical, and the results are a
dangerous cocktail of the bigoted and the bizarre.
There is another way. A rabbi here in Israel has come out against the
notion that human beings can love-cling to God in some physical sense.
He has made the radical suggestion that the way to express devekut,
cleaving to God, is to do good things in the world: to support education
and social justice, to stand for what is right. He argues that since God
is unknowable and untouchable, the best we can hope for is to do some
good for God's creatures.
This approach stands in direct opposition to the view that Jewish belief
is like a sophisticated de-scrambler, helping us find the truth behind
the diversions of "real life." According to this Rabbi's view, it is
only by facing the tough realities around us and determining to make a
difference that we can come to serve God. To love God, this Rabbi tells
us, is to act in such a way that the name of Heaven is made lovable by
your actions.
The Israeli rabbi I am quoting is Rabbi Ishmael, son of Elisha. He lived
here some 1850 years ago (in a time when Ishmael was still a name for a
nice Jewish boy), and his thoughts are recorded throughout Rabbinic
Scholars are divided on the question of Rabbi Ishmael's political
commitment. Some sources suggest he was a strident nationalist, but in
any case there can be little doubt of the contrast between him and his
great contemporary and rival, Rabbi Akiva. It was Rabbi Akiva who
promoted a vision of Judaism which understood love of God in its most
literal sense, and which ultimately translated into a political program
which ended in martyrdom and national disaster.
Now Rabbi Akiva is in no need of support from me. That his reputation
goes beyond his political record will be exemplified this week in
London, England, where the Reform Movement will mark the construction of
the Akiva School. His interlocutor Rabbi Ishmael has had a less
successful afterlife, and his name and reputation are less well known:
the prospect of a Jewish youth movement called B'nei Ishmael is still
It may be that in our day, and in the craziness of ADHD Israel, the
pragmatic and socially-involved voice of engagement and faith epitomized
by Rabbi Ishmael needs to be heard. There's no need to worry on Rabbi
Akiva's behalf – his would-be heirs are to be found in the Knesset, in
houses of study, on illegal settlements, in every corner. But those who
suggest that the sons of Akiva are the only legitimate heirs of the
Jewish religious tradition are silencing Rabbi Ishmael, and doing a
great disservice to us in our current predicament.
There is a strong Jewish tradition of facing up to tough conditions
without flinching or flaking. In this version of our tradition, to
believe is to hold on to a vision of a better tomorrow with fidelity and
yet also with realism. You don't have to deny our grim situation in
order to prove the depth of your faith: acknowledging it may be the best
proof of faith. In this version, to love God is to demonstrate love and
care for God's creatures. In this version, Jewish politics will be less
about wild-eyed fundamentalism, and more about open-eyed religious humanism.
When a child suffers from ADHD, they are given medication to help them
focus and stay calm. Too much medication, and they are silenced. Too
little, and they cannot get a grip. Marx was wrong: religion is not the
opium of the masses. Maybe, however, it can be the Ritalin of the Jews.


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