Seeing With Two Eyes: Thoughts on Israel-Palestine

Portrait of a boy with the flag of Israel painted on his face.

Today is Yom Ha’atsma’ut, Israeli Independence Day. My son went to his Jewish pre-school dressed in white and blue to celebrate, and I felt that feeling many Jews know at times like this, the strange mixture of pride, joy and aching sadness. It is tempting to try to simplify the hearts feelings and cancel out one of these clusters of emotions.  I could celebrate the triumphs of Israel and mourn it’s victimhood at the hands of Arab states and Palestinian Arab terrorists, denying that Israel shares any substantial guilt for the suffering of the stateless Palestinian Arabs and blaming it all on the violence of Palestinian Arab political culture; or I could declare Israel a “catastrophe” and blame it for Palestinian Arab and Jewish suffering, seeing the Palestinian Arabs as innocent victims of Israeli-Jewish nationalism and greed. Either choice would simplify my tortured emotions and also provide me with a custom built echo-chamber: either the “pro-Israel” community or the “pro-Palestine” community, where I could find tailor made biased news reports, inflammatory rhetoric, and the twin toxins of self-piteous victimhood and confident self-righteousness.

It is so hard to hold together in one mind the narrative and suffering and humanity of Israel and the narrative and suffering and humanity of Palestinian Arabs. So few people do it well. Those who understand the history of Zionism and Israeli political and social culture and defend Israel from the many unjust accusations hurled at her are so often dismissive of the real role that Israeli militarism, right-wing Jewish nationalism, and the settlements have played in perpetuating the conflict; so often emotionally numb to the extremity of the humiliation and suffering of Palestinian Arabs under the occupation of the disputed territories. Those who have listened intently to the Palestinian Arabs and their stories of human rights violations, poverty, suffering and death, often dismiss the role that Arab hostility to Israel, the cynical refusal to resettle Palestinian Arabs in Arab countries, Islamic anti-semitism, and the Palestinian choice of violence as the main instrument of liberation have played in perpetuating the conflict.

Dogen Zenji, the great Japanese Zen master, said that a person of wisdom must see “with two eyes, not one”. I have begun to find the one-eyed vision of so many commentators on this conflict incredibly tedious. It is so much easier to see with one eye. One can dine on the simple, pleasurable fare of an easy, smooth narrative with a side of sour self-pity and a sweet pastry of strident self-righteousness to wash it all down. Yet this narrative is not simple, and as the Israeli author Amos Oz said wonderfully in his How To Cure a Fanatic, “this is not a wild west movie where all we have to do is decide who the good guy is and who the bad guy is and then cheer for the right one.”

So there is no resolution to the feelings of my heart as I watch my son get ready for a classroom tour of  “Israel” in a pretend airplane. I refuse not to celebrate, and I refuse not to mourn.

 

   

 

Is Bernie Too Among The Prophets?

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Bernie Sanders is now the first Jew ever to win a presidential primary and be seriously considered as a candidate for the American presidency. Recent polls have him tied with Hillary Clinton. Reactions from the Jewish community have been mixed, and mostly quiet. Many Jews have chosen, unsurprisingly, to debate Bernie’s record on Israel. Has he supported the state enough? Are his ties to J Street and other liberal, dove-ish groups a sign that he will not stand up for the Jewish state?

For myself I am not interested in debating Sanders’ record on Israel, and I think other North American Jews would also be wise not to focus on it. The reason is simple: Sanders is running for the US Presidency, and the primary issues that need to be considered are how he will run the country he might be chosen to lead. I also resist the idea that the primary consideration for Jews should be Sanders’ relationship to Israeli security concerns. I think that the primary consideration for a Jew thinking about Sander’s candidacy is his relationship to Jewish tradition and the degree to which he embodies Jewish values.  

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The progressive Jewish community has seemed hesitant to throw it’s weight behind Bernie, perhaps because until recently they saw him as unlikely to succeed. Or maybe there is a fear of jinxing him: “Shhh, they haven’t really realized that he’s Jewish yet.” As Sarah Tuttle-Singer wrote  a few days ago in The Times of Israel, one of the great things about Sander’s ascension is that his Jewishness has been so irrelevant to Americans- he has risen in the polls purely because of who he is as a human being. Meanwhile big Jewish financiers like George Soros, Donald Sussman, and several others have been backing Clinton, not Sanders.

So what is Sanders’ relationship to Judaism? Well, it seems that he is comfortable with his Jewishness and appreciative both of what he finds valuable in the tradition and of Jewish customs. Sanders has not been making much of his Jewishness, to the chagrin of people like Michael A. Cohen. Cohen recently complained in Tablet that Sanders was downplaying his Jewishness, saying that it “hurt”. Cohen seems to prefer Jewish identity politics to embodying Jewish ethical values. Sanders feels the opposite, and his evaluation is a perfect example of the moralism that is drawing people to him in the first place.

On Chabad,org Dovid Margolin recently defended Sanders’ connection to Judaism, citing his fight for the right for Chabad to light a public menorah on public property in a key court case which paved the way for the now common practice. Sanders was also appreciative of the Rebbe’s stance on education and declared the Rebbe’s birthday “Education Day” in Vermont with these charactarisic words:

The Lubavitcher Rebbe has democratized education by labouring tirelessly to establish educational institutions for the elderly, for women, for children, and whereas he has sought out the materially oppressed and disadvantaged thereby effecting their enfranchisement through education and by stressing the universal implications of education as a source of continuous creativity through which the human condition is perfected; and whereas especially in this same week marking the 850th birthday of Maimonides, binding the principle of reason to human liberation, now therefore I, Bernard Sanders, mayor of the city of Burlington, hereby designate yud-alef nissan as the day of educationNote Bernie’s use of the Hebrew “yud-alef nissan” to designate the date, as well as his interesting commentary on Maimonides. Margolin also notes that Sanders and the Rebbe corresponded and Sanders celebrated his re-election as mayor by attending a Purim party in Crown Heights. This writ, from 1985, does not establish Sanders as a Hosid, which clearly he is not. It does show him as sensitive to, and appreciative of, Jewish values and Jewish sages. As some have pointed out, Sanders is more of an old style Yiddish Socialist than a “Socialist”.

Sanders himself, when asked, had made it clear that he is not a religious Jew. When late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel asked  Sanders in October whether he believes in God, Sanders sounded more like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr than Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I am what I am….and what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.”

Sanders does not strongly identify with his Jewishness, and his religious sentiments could better be described as a general reverence for life and humanity, a kind of secular, naturalistic spirituality. He and his Catholic wife Jane both say they believe in God but are not involved in organized religion, and that their faith backgrounds inform their moral sentiments. David Harris-Gershon has written in Tikkun, “For Sanders, socialism is Jewish. Ending income inequality is Jewish. Supporting black Americans as they struggle against continued oppression is Jewish. Which is not to say such things are inherently so, but rather that for Sanders, such positions are a direct extension of his Jewishness. His career-long drive for social justice is a central part of his political identity in the same way his being Jewish is a central part of his cultural identity, and the two are inextricably intertwined. Belief in God doesn’t matter. Going to synagogue doesn’t matter. Keeping kosher doesn’t matter. What matters is justice. And that mattering is Jewish.”

Jay Michaelson has written, “secular, progressive Judaism is, itself, a kind of religion. While dispensing with the God of the alte velt—if the Enlightenment didn’t kill him, the Holocaust certainly did—leftist Jews of the 20th century maintained a prophetic, religious zeal for justice… if we are asking whether Sanders is “religious” in Jewish terms, the reply must be that he is.” I would argue that the evidence supports that assertion with regards to Bernie, who may be the most prophetic politician in decades.

The prophets of Israel were relentless in criticizing the behaviour of Israel and calling it back to its highest ideals. Contrary to the popular vision of them as diviners of the future their primary job was calling people back to the ethical demands of God. Their vision had social justice at it’s core; for them this equalled fidelity to God. In the words of Jeremiah (22:13-17): “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, ‘I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,’ who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion. Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He vindicated the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me?’ declares the Lord.”  Isaiah sums up the prophetic vision well (1:17): “Learn to do good; seek justice, fight oppression; bring justice to those without a protector, plead the cause of the vulnerable.” Or Zechariah (7:9-10): “Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Judge truly, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the vulnerable, those without a protector, the foreigner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” Israel’s wisdom literature agrees: Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and the needy (Proverbs 31:8-9).”

Walter Brueggeman, a leading scholar of the Hebrew Bible, describes the prophets as follows, in words I challenge you not to associate with Bernie Sanders: “The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that make it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.” (The Prophetic Imagination)

These are, of course, the very criticisms levelled at Bernie: that the future of justice that he fantasies is not thinkable, that it is indeed pure fantasy and cannot be implemented. Many would argue otherwise. Many would just like to see somebody really try for a change. That is why Bernie is so popular with millennials.

The Jewish Candidate

Bernie Sanders is relentless and consistent in his criticisms of the financial elite, his calls for a political system free of legal bribery, and his defence of education and the needs of the poor for fair wages, medical care and enough money to live. He wants to free Americans from debt and modern slavery and to pull America away from militarism and hatred of the stranger. All of these themes echo in dozens of verses and laws structuring the political vision of the Torah and running deep in Jewish consciousness, even when they are obscured by fear or effaced by our falls into chauvinism. Bernie Sanders may not be just the Jewish Candidate by ethnicity. Ironically this secular, non-observant Jew may be the candidate that best embodies the political values of the Torah, which is to say, the ethics of the Jewish tradition.

 

The Tower of Babel: Bad Religion?

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I was recently listening to the punk band Bad Religion’s album Recipe for Hate. The song Skyscraper, whose passion and composition I’ve always enjoyed, centers around the metaphor of the tower of Babel (you can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/37Jlj0_FsZU). I can’t claim to understand the lyrics to the song in toto, but it does seem to be criticizing the destroyer of the tower (God), not the builders. In Greg Gaffin’s midrash, the tower builders are trying to reach God and God is afraid that if they find him they will abandon him (presumably because he doesn’t exist). Gaffin sings: I know why you tore it down that day, you thought that if you got caught we’d all go away, like a spoiled little baby who can’t come out to play, you had your revenge.  Gaffin sees the destruction as a bad thing: Well madness reigned and paradise drowned when Babel’s walls came crashing down. The song also seems to contain an implied criticism of the story of the tower itself- the last verse of the song characterizes the story as hardly understood and never any good.

Leaving aside Gaffin’s somewhat bizarre atheist fantasy midrash, this got me thinking about the story. How good of a story is it?

This question resonated in my mind more because of some reading I was doing lately, in a book called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament by John Walton. This book, which I recommend, strives to let people know what more than a century of intense archaeological investigation has uncovered about the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. It puts the Torah into context. Walton says, as many have before him, that the story of the tower of Bavel takes its central image from the Babylonian ziggurat.

In Genesis 11:1-9 a group of early humans settles in Shinar, probably Sumer, an area in southern Mesapotamia associated in the Torah with Babylon. The Mesapotamian building materials are foreign to Israelites, so the Torah describes them for us. The “city and tower” being built (see below), if true to history, would have been an urban area housing public buildings. In this case it was a temple complex. These structures, which began being built at the end of the 4th milennium BCE, were still visible in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The tower in the story is almost certainly based on the ziggurat temple complexes of Sumer, which are frequently described in Mesapotamian literature as”with head touching heaven”, as in the Torah as quoted below.

The story in the Torah is as follows:

The whole earth was of one language and of one speech.  It came to pass as they journeyed from the east that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there,  and they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.’  They had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar, and they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in heaven and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And YHWH said: ‘Behold they are one people and they have one language and this is what they begin to do.  Now nothing will be withheld from them which they aim to do. Come, let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  So YHWH scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off  building the city. Therefore was the name of it called Bavel; because YHWH did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did YHWH scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

This enigmatic story seems to warn human beings about the hubris of using technology to storm the heights of heaven and make themselves secure from any danger. Sound familiar? Far from being a story that should irk Bad Religion, a band which continuously snarls warnings about human arrogance and self-deception, I would think this story might make it on to their “acceptable biblical stories list”. I suspect that such a list does not exist. In any case let’s look a little more at the story itself and its ancient context.

In the story YHWH confounds people’s languages and spreads them out over the world. The story then explains the existence of multiple languages: they are there to prevent the creation of a mega-mono-culture and the attendant human hubris and blindness, one in which people make themselves God and depend on their own technology and might.

The fact that the story appears based on ancient Israelite perceptions of Babylon is also interesting. Babylon was a sophisticated, expanding empire with technology beyond Israel’s. Israel, a society of farmers and shepherds, looked up at the urban megalopolis of Babylon and its temple towers and saw nothing but a symbol of human arrogance and, it seems, a force that threatened to destroy smaller cultures and impose it’s own hegemony on everyone. Babylon was an imperialist state whose leaders glorified themselves and exalted in their technology and military strength. The story criticizes what Israel perceived as Babylon’s dream of a monocultural, invincible empire.

One interesting thing about this story, though, is that the Israelite perception of the nature of ziggurats- temples reaching upwards to heaven- is wrong. As Walton points out, ziggurats had a different nature and purpose. Humans did not use them, did not live in them or climb up them. Ziggurats existed as stairways upon which the gods descended to bring blessing to the earth, and to receive offerings. The ziggurats were not for the use of human beings, but for the use of gods!

We can thus see that the Israelite story is not an accurate depiction of Sumerian or Babylonian religion but rather takes up an image from the civilization of their neighbours and riffs on it to make a point- a point that is both a shot at perceived Babylonian arrogance and a broader statement. Anyone familiar with the sourcing of the story of Noah and the flood in older Akkadian and Mesapotamian stories knows that this is not a singular occurence in Israelite literature. It appears that the crafters of Israelite literature took up motifs from the literatures and civilisations of their neighbours and ran with them in a completely different direction. The religious sensibilities of Israel were truly an anamoly in the ancient near east (see Created Equal by Joshua Berman or the excellent discussion in Fight by Preston Sprinkle, ch.3-5). 

To answer my own question: is the the tower of Bavel a good story? I think it’s a very good story.  The story’s lesson seems to me to be that cultural diversity is a divinely willed protection against human hubris. Think of this-when there is only one human culture, from where does diversity, criticism, and challenge come from? Israel seemed to intuit that an unchallenged culture possesses an unlimited potential for evil.

Technology tends to empower empire and its accompanying arrogance. The technical-industrial explosion of the last 300 years has not only allowed us to touch the heavens. We have also exterminated more than 50% of the cultures and languages of the world, reducing ethnodiversity as well as biodiversity. We have pierced the atom and the gene and are quickly approaching the doleful day when “there is nothing they cannot do”.

I am reminded of a verse from the Daodejing, the ancient classic of Daoism by the Old Master (Laozi) which describes the ideal civilization (translation by Red Pine):

Imagine a small state with a small population

let there be labor-saving tools

that aren’t used

let people consider death

and not move far

let there be boats and carts

but no reason to ride them

let there be armor and weapons

but no reason to employ them

let people return to the use of knots

and be satisfied with their food

and pleased with their clothing

and content with their homes

and happy with their customs

let there be another state so near

people hear its dogs and chickens

and live out their lives

without making a visit.

 

Isaiah pt. 3: Leadership

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What is a Biblical idea of leadership? As you might expect if you’ve been reading my previous posts on Isaiah, it is different than some might think. In the 32nd chapter of the book of Isaiah he begins to spell out a vision of leadership:

 

See, a king will reign in righteousness,

   and princes will rule with justice.

2 Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,

   a covert from the tempest,

like streams of water in a dry place,

   like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.

 

Isaiah’s vision of a leader is centered on “righteousness and justice” (tsedek u’mishpat) and results in the leader being a dramatically safe place of refuge for the endangered. S/he is pictured as saving from wind, tempest, desert and deadly exposure.

 

3 Then the eyes of those who have sight will not be closed,

   and the ears of those who have hearing will listen.

4 The minds of the rash will have good judgment,

   and the tongues of stammerers will speak readily and distinctly.

5 A fool will no longer be called noble,

   nor a villain said to be honorable.

 

When the leader embodies these virtues the people suddenly acquire the ability to hear, see, and speak clearly. Villainy and nobility are called by their true names. Jeremiah (5:21) uses the same image of having senses but not using them to castigate those who don’t perceive the presence of God in nature and recognize his presence and power. The common theme here is not recognizing the reality of God and responding appropriately. Those who do recognize the reality of God are those who can use their eyes and ears to see what is right in front of them. What Isaiah thinks is the proper response to recognizing God’s power is laid out in the next verse first by negative example:

 

6 For fools speak folly, and their minds plot iniquity:

to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the LORD,

to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied,

   and to deprive the thirsty of drink.

7 The villainies of villains are evil;

   they devise wicked devices

to ruin the poor with lying words,

   even when the plea of the needy is right.

8 But those who are noble plan noble things,

   and by noble things they stand.

 

What is it to practice “ungodliness”? What is it to “utter errors concerning the LORD”? It is to “leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied and to deprive the thirsty of drink”, to “ruin the poor with lying words”. Isaiah’s assumption here is that recognizing the reality of God entails feeding the hungry and being a refuge to the endangered, defending the just cause of the poor and protecting them from being defrauded and exploited.

The Psalms use this same image of ears and eyes to refer to idols who cannot see or hear (115:6; 135:17) and warn that those who worship idols will become similarly deaf and blind. Those who worship dead things- money, possessions, land- will themselves become spiritually dead and insensitive.

There is only one idol whose “worship” is allowed in the Bible, and that is the idol of other human beings. In the Genesis creation account this is hinted at by the word used to describe the human being (ha’adam). The human is created “b’tselem elohim”, in the image of God. The Hebrew word used here, tselem, is used several times elsewhere in the Bible to refer to idolatrous statues (Numbers 33:52, 2 Kings 11:15, Ezekiel 7:20, etc) . The tselem in Genesis is the icon, the idol, of God. The only thing in Creation which images God in this sense is the living human being. Those who love idols become themselves dead. Those who love human beings, whether neighbour or stranger, love God and do his will (Leviticus 19:18, 19:33).

Who are the noble, the leaders? Those who “plan noble things, and by noble things they stand”. Their recognition of the reality of God leads them to plan noble things, and by these noble things they themselves stand in life- they live before God.

There is a barometer here not only for those of us who seek to recognize “godly leaders” but also for our lives. The degree to which we have ears that hear and eyes that see, mouths which speak truth and hands that work to defend the endangered is the degree to which we are really, truly recognizing the reality of God and not just worshiping what’s created by the “idol factory of the heart”. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “To meet God is to change.”

 

Refuge (Isaiah pt.2)

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Into the 21st chapter of the book of Isaiah, this luminous and unsettling book continues to speak about the current crisis. Presaging the multiple religious voices calling to accept Syrian refugees (Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish) Isaiah says to Israel:

 

Shelter the outcasts;

do not reveal the fugitive;

let the outcasts of Moab

sojourn among you;

be a shelter to them

from the destroyer

(Isaiah 3:4 ESV)

 

Moab was related to Israel (through Lot, Abraham’s cousin) but also frequently in tension with, if not in outright conflict with, Israel. Yet God here enjoins Israel to shelter their refugees. Later on in the series of “oracles” concerning the nations surrounding Israel Isaiah prophesies destruction coming on the Arabs. God here calls out to those who will find the refugees lost in the desert:

 

The oracle concerning Arabia.

When you lodge in the scrub-brush of the dessert,

O caravans of traders-

To the thirsty bring water;

meet the fugitive with bread,

Those who live nearby.

For they have fled from the swords,

from the drawn sword,

from the bent bow,

and from the press of battle

(Isaiah 21:13-15, ESV modified).

 

Speaking of the recent reaction of US Republicans, no one said it better than Stephen Colbert: “How do you tell if someone is a Christian? Jesus said, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, I was cold and you clothed me, I was a stranger and you ____.’ If they fill in the blank with anything other than ‘welcomed me in’ they are either a terrorist or they are running for president.”

 

Terror (Isaiah pt.1)

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The thing to fear is not others, and not fear itself, but ourselves.

I recently sat down to read the book of Isaiah. The book opens with Isaiah calling Israel to task for its rebellion and estrangement from God. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master, but Israel does not…..(1:3) Isaiah prophesied at a time of great political vulnerability and danger. Israel was surrounded by imperialist, rapacious civilizations whose tactics make ISIS look restrained. Isaiah warns Israel of the horrific danger they face. What’s interesting is what God, speaking through Isaiah, doesn’t say. He doesn’t say:

 

Know this, Israel: Babylon is evil, and Assyria a ravening lion

Idolaters and lovers of violence

they are what you should fear, their cities you should hate!

Defend yourself with spear and chariot

ride with me to purge the earth.

 

That’s not what God says. What he does say is this:

 

Bring no more futile sacrifices…

The New Moons, the Sabbaths, and the calling of assemblies

I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting.  

Your New Moons and your appointed feasts

My soul hates…..

When you spread out your hands,

I will hide My eyes from you;

Even though you make many prayers,

I will not hear.

Your hands are full of blood. (1:13b-15).

 

God had advice for Israel:

 

Cease to do evil,

Learn to do good;

Seek justice.

 

How is Israel to do that? The next verse explains:

 

Rebuke the oppressor,

Defend the fatherless,

Plead for the widow (1:17).

 

What else is God angered about?

 

Their land is filled with silver and gold

and there is no end to their treasures;

their land is full of horses,

and there is no end to their chariots.

Their land is also full of idols;

they worship the work of their own hands

That which their own hands have made.

People bow down

And each man humbles himself;

Therefore do not forgive them. (2:7-9).   

 

God’s warning is not about the Babylonians or the Assyrians, the Egyptians or the Philistines, the remaining Canaanites or the Amorites. God’s warning to Israel is about the Israelites. What is God angry about? The overwhelming message of Isaiah is that God is angry that the Jews are failing to defend the weak and vulnerable among them. “The orphan, the widow” are the most economically vulnerable members of society. Isaiah also rebukes the Jew for thieving from each other, taking bribes to be unjust, and amassing wealth. Isaiah reports God’s word, where God presents himself as standing up in court for the poor like a public defender:

 

The Lord stands up to plead,

And stands to vindicate the people.

The Lord will enter into judgement

With the elders of His people

And His princes:

“For you have eaten up the vineyard;

The plunder of the poor is in your houses.

What do you mean by crushing My people

And grinding the faces of the poor?”

Says the Lord God of Hosts (Isaiah 4:13-15, NKJV modified).  

 

God’s warning to Israel is, in one sense, about the surrounding cultures and their violence. God warns, repeatedly, as in other prophetic books, that if Israel does not “seek justice” than God’s blessing will be withdrawn and Israel will be vulnerable to attack from their neighbours. God’s advice is not to invest more in their military or to make pre-emptive strikes. God’s advice is: “Do not be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. The Lord of hosts, him you will sanctify: Let him be your dread (8:13).”

 

If there is one thing about the history of classical Israel that stands out it is surely this: the remarkable nature of their self-understanding. Israel was defeated, brutalized, exiled, tortured, and slaughtered. Throughout there is one consistent theme is the way Israel assigns blame: the blame is assigned to themselves. This consciousness continues past Biblical times at least into the Talmud, where frequent reference is made to “the enemies of Israel”. Who are the enemies of Israel? This phrase is a Rabbinic euphemism for Israel itself.

 

All of this should call us to wonder. Israel was guilty of social injustice, corruption, bribery, greed, and apathy. They were also estranged at heart from God. One thing they were not was members of “the wrong religion”. They were religious Jews, very much so. Yet being outwardly religious Jews was far from enough, in fact it was a righteousness God compared to filth (Isaiah 64:6).  

 

What of us? Here is North America our society is guilty of social injustice, corruption, bribery, greed, and apathy. Most of us are estranged at heart from God. The truth is that we are far more guilty than ancient Israel. We know more. We have better resources than they did. Our crimes are also not just against the poor of our country, but against the poor of the entire world. Our crimes are not just against humanity but against nature and millions of animals every day. Most grievously our crimes against the climate and the land, water and sky are not just against our generation but against future generations. It is remarkable, by any estimate, that God has been as forbearing with us as He has.

 

In the wake of the horrific violence against the civilians of Israel, Paris, Lebanon, and elsewhere it is easy to stand up and declare “our enemy is Islam” or “our enemy is Jihadism”. Yet in saying that Jihadis are our enemy, or that dealing with them is a political priority, we risk misleading and endangering ourselves. We face very great dangers today, yes, but they mostly come to us in the shape of ourselves. Climate change is in every way a massively bigger problem than Jihadis. Our communal spiritual state is the barometer of our strength. If we do not “learn to do good, seek justice” than we will be weak and without God’s blessing. That is a scary place to be. In times past when the community faced violence or danger the response was repentance. Maybe it’s time, in the face of ISIS and the other threats that face us, to relearn that careful art.