Monday, February 8, 2010

Physical and spiritual

Well, it took me a bit longer than I'd thought to emerge from my post-less spell. But here I am.

This is a thought from the High Holiday season that I've been meaning to share.

The contrast between "physical" and "spiritual" is probably one of the most often-heard from pulpits and elsewhere in the observant Jewish world. The underlying message is that attention to our "physical" selves is somewhere between a necessary evil and something to be avoided or minimized. On the other hand, attention to our "spiritual" selves - that is, observing the mitzvot (commandments) - is our true purpose in life as religious Jews.

Even allowing for the fact that sermons are often simplistic, the evident dichotomy between "physical" and "spiritual" is inaccurate in several ways.

To begin with, the terms themselves are not well-defined. What does "physical" mean? When used in a negative sense, it seems to refer almost exclusively to sexual desire. But that is too narrow a definition. We are, by definition, physical beings. That includes needs of many types - food, shelter, protection from the elements, sleep, healing when our bodies are not functioning properly, and, yes, sexuality. Attending to our physical needs occupies a good deal of our time, and not just when we are eating or sleeping. That is because we spend a lot of time working, in order to earn the money that allows us to meet these needs. So the "physical" side of life means all of those activities we do in order to maintain ourselves (and our families) in a healthy, comfortable state.

"Spiritual", too, I think is often understood too narrowly. Most basically, it refers to our performance of mitzvot. That is, or should be, the core of our spiritual lives. But the term should be thought of as including all aspects of life that go beyond our efforts just to function from day to day. This includes the wish to love and be loved, the wish to gain knowledge (in the broadest sense), the wish to help others - everything that makes us human beings, rather than just another species working to survive. (This last thought comes from Rabbi Moshe Berger of Cleveland).

When we talk, then, about the balance between our "physical" and "spiritual" sides, we should understand the terms properly. Even those who don't see themselves as such exemplary religious people (which is most of us) should realize that it is the spiritual aspects of life that make our lives meaningful in any real way.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Reawakening from dormancy

It's hard to believe that the blog has been dormant for over five months! I am pleased to tell you that the period of hibernation is over. I hope to be putting up my next real post within a week. Stay tuned. Alan

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thoughts on music

I recently listened again, for the first time in many years, to the Broadway cast recording of Les Miserables. This music is associated for me with a particularly difficult time in Sara and my lives. It was May 1988, and we had just finished our first year at Columbia. I had started a summer job in an office in Midtown, and Sara was about to begin working at Einstein for the summer. However, she had no place to live at Einstein just yet, so she was floating around the Stern dorm, moving from room to room. My job didn't turn out so well, and I ended up leaving there after one week. But, as I traveled from Manhattan to Brooklyn, Les Miz was my soundtrack. The beautiful music gave me comfort in a bewildering situation. Listening to it now, I was again moved by it, not only because of the music, but because it is such a great story. For anyone who hasn't read the book, I strongly recommend it.

Related: last week we saw an excellent documentary called Every Little Step (, which is about the making of the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. The show's songs are very much a part of the childhood of those of us who grew up in NY in the late 1970s. One particular memory stands out: when I was about 10, I attended a local day camp. One day they held a talent show, and a girl named Lydia - whom I can still see, with her pale skin and blond hair - sang "What I Did For Love". I was wowed. Thirty years later, I can still remember what an impact it had on me. Hearing the song again in the movie, I am back there in 1979, listening to her again.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Boggles the Mind

It was initially heartening at the end of May to hear the U.N. Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, say that an assessment of human rights violations needed to occur regarding the recent phase of the Sri Lankan civil war. Although this seemed obvious to anyone reading the news, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that such an investigation would take place.

Thus, the matter was brought up on May 27th in a special session of the UN’s Human Rights Council. The Council voted 22-16 (with 9 abstentions) to accept a resolution that commended the Sri Lankan government and military and condemned the violent activities of the Tamil Tigers.

The resolution states (among several other items):

Commends the measures taken by the Government of Sri Lanka to address the urgent needs of the Internally Displaced Persons;


Condemn[s] all attacks that the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) launched on the civilian population and its practice of using civilians as human shields;

(A link to the full text can be found at

This same body held a special session on the Israeli-Palestinian situation earlier this year. The title of the special session was “Grave Violations of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory including the recent aggression in the occupied Gaza Strip". Let me emphasize: this was the title of the session, not the conclusion it reached. The very language used to frame the discussion explicitly prejudged the outcome. (Now, I am all for moral clarity – sometimes, it is clearly one side that is the aggressor. But somehow moral clarity at the UN (and similar bodies) shows up only where Israel is concerned).

Here, too, regarding Sri Lanka, the Council showed a bias. Yet, in this case, it was the government that was praised for protecting its citizens and the rebels/terrorists who were criticized for their disregard for human life.

Could anyone imagine the Government of Israel being commended for anything, and/or the Palestinians being condemned for attacks on Israeli civilians? Of course not. But why?

If the Council’s perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were grounded solely in a concern for human rights, then we would expect it to condemn both sides for violations. We would expect, at the least, for Palestinian terror tactics to merit a mention in the Council’s statements. (A perusal of recent UN resolutions on Israel will not find such mentions). Similarly, we would expect the Council’s statement on Sri Lanka to raise alarm about the Sri Lankan military’s actions over the last several weeks. By virtually all news accounts, the army shelled areas crowded with trapped civilians and then locked up these civilians in refugee camps without allowing agencies like the Red Cross to deliver services to them.

The absence of these kinds of statements shows that the Council has adopted a position on each conflict, and has determined that only the side it considers to be at fault will be subject to criticism. In other words, the ends justify the means.

What should we, then, do? It is tempting to shrug our shoulders and say ‘Well, what else can we expect from the UN?’ And that’s true. We cannot expect anything else from a body constituted of so many countries that demonize Israel. At the same time, we need to keep ourselves knowledgeable about the hypocrisies shown by international bodies. We have to continue to point out these hypocrisies, and use them to challenge those who oppose Israel – whether they do so out of ignorance, willful blindness, ideology, or even principle.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hooray for Daniel Gordis

Having cited Daniel Gordis in my post yesterday, I want to bring attention to his latest piece, which should be required reading in light of Israel's frequent appearances in the news this week (due to PM Netanyahu being in Washington). As always, Gordis tells it like it is - lucidly, non-ideologically, and convicingly. Three cheers for a brave and passionate Jew.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sri Lanka, continued

The situation in Sri Lanka continues to occupy the news. As of today, it appears that the war between the Tamil Tigers and the central government has finally been concluded.

Before addressing why I believe the Israeli-Palestinian issue is treated so differently, I want to underscore this discrepancy by referring to a recent issue of The Economist.

In an editorial printed in the April 25th issue, the editors refer to the Tamil Tigers as "dreadful", "cruel and brutal" and call their leader "bloodthirsty". They note that the Tigers have "resorted to virtually every despicable technique in the terrorists' manual: suicide-bombing, assassination, extortion...". They are clearly pleased to see that the Tigers' violent rebellion is about to be ended by the Sri Lankan military, and go on to say that the government needs to bring about a "political settlement" of the Tamil issue.

In other words: get rid of the terrorists first, and then talk about political arrangements. It sounds good.

Would anyone imagine a mainstream Western paper daring to write this way about Fatah, or even Hamas? The writers would be immediately met with a crescendo of wrath from the usual sources. But here in the case of the Tigers, The Economist has got it exactly right. (And for further proof, see the language used in today’s New York Times article about the end of the war).

So, then, why the distinction? Why are the standards against which the Palestinians are measured differ from those applied to similar struggles?

I think that there are several issues at play.

1. Let's start with a simple reason: there are not that many Tamils in the world to raise cries of protest, or to make the Tamil issue a pressing one on the world stage. By contrast, the Palestinians have the vocal backing of millions of Arabs and billions of Muslims, who have made their cause a central element of their political identities. Of course, we know that there are many cases in which Arabs and/or Muslims suffer - usually at the hands of their own governments (see: Sudan) - and we do not hear anything from the same countries that routinely villify Israel.

2. Secondly, the land of Israel is loaded with cultural meaning and geopolitical significance, far more than Sri Lanka is. Everybody wants to claim it as their own.

3. And, just as the land of Israel carries strong associations, so too does the notion of 'Jews' and 'the Jewish people' evoke many associations (often negative). To many, therefore, the idea that the Jews should have their own state does not sit well. In the early days of the second intifada, Amos Oz - no hawk - said something like: 'In Europe, it used to be 'Jews to Palestine'. Now it's 'Jews out of Palestine'. The message is: don't be here and don't be there. In other words, don't be.'

This is crucial to understanding why the Palestinians are media darlings, their cause the cause of our day, support for their aspirations the litmus test for someone wishing to demonstrate his or her bona fides as a progressive. Israel is an unwanted, troublesome guest in the international community.

This argument was made, infamously, by Tony Judt in a 2003 article called "Israel: The Alternative". ( In this piece, Judt (a professor at NYU) said that the nation-state is a thing of the past, and therefore Israel, with its stubborn insistence on a Jewish state, should give up that quaint identity and become, like all of the good citizens of the world, a state for all of its people. (For a superb response, see the always-wonderful Daniel Gordis, in his article, "My Anachronistic Home", available at Thus, concern for the Palestinians becomes intertwined with the notion that Israel is per se an illegitimate country. Or, stated differently, if the Palestinians did not exist, the world would have to invent them.

I don't mean to say that the Palestinian conflict is not worthy of serious attention, or that Israel's behavior has always been appropriate. It is that the level of opprobrium reserved for Israel - alone among the world's countries - cannot be explained without its connection to the deep wells of Jew-hatred that have long been a part of both Western and Arab culture.

Thus, the issue is not that the Sri Lankan case is ignored; it is just that the Palestinian situation gains far more attention than any other conflict on Earth. But the strong parallels between the two conflicts have to make an observer why the Palestinians are so much more deserving than the Tamils (or, for that matter, the Kurds, or the Basques, or any number of other stateless groups).

Monday, May 4, 2009

Conflict in a small Asian country

The country in question gained independence in 1948, after many years of rule by foreign powers. Since then, two main sectors of the population have been fighting with each other. These groups differ in ethnicity, religion, and language. The dominant group views its connection to the land in both religious and political terms. The secondary group disputes these claims and prefers to refer to the country by its pre-independence name. It seeks to create an independent homeland within the country. The second group has created a militant organization to lead an armed struggle against its enemy. This organization is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and other international actors. Both sides are frequently accused of abuses against civilians.

Of course, it would seem that I am talking about Israel. But, in fact, I am not. The country under discussion is Sri Lanka.

The similarities between the two conflicts are remarkable. The country has about 19 million people, 75% of whom are from the Sinhala ethnic group, and 20% of whom are Tamil, an Indian ethnic group (also found in southern India). The Sinhalese are Buddhists, the Tamils mainly Hindu. The Sinhalese espouse an ideology which has been referred to as 'Sinhalese political Buddhism', which views Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese Buddhist state. The Tamils have long complained about domination and oppression by the Sinhalese. Their militant wing, the Tamil Tigers (formally, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) are notorious for having pioneered the technique of suicide bombings, back before it took hold as a favored technique among Muslim terrorists. Sri Lanka is the name given to the country by its new Sinhala leaders some years after independence; the Tamils will often call it 'Ceylon', which was its name under the British.

In virtually each of the elements I've described, all you have to do is substitute the names and we could be talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Essentially, this shouldn't be a surprise. In both cases, we are dealing with relatively new countries emerging after decolonization. When both ethnic groups were subservient to the British, the ethnic tensions were more muted. Once the colonial rulers were no longer around, these tensions become more pronounced.

Since I learned about Sri Lanka in the late 80s, I've felt that it is a much better analog to the Israeli situation, rather than the South African analogy so frequently used by Israel's detractors. The key distinction, obviously, is how the international community has dealt with these long-running conflicts. In the case of the Tamils, there is no UN relief agency dedicated specifically to their needs; relatively few calls for their liberation on college campuses and in academia; few NGOs sending volunteers to shield the population from Sri Lankan army attacks; and - most significantly - no expectation that the Tamils will one day achieve statehood. This last point has been brought home in recent weeks. The conflict is entering what many reporters are calling its last phase: the Tigers are cornered in a small sector of the country, and the Army is pressing in on them. The assumption appears to be that the Tigers will be defeated and the conflict will soon be over.

Why? Why do the Tamils not deserve their own state, whereas the Palestinians do? Why is it OK for the Sri Lankan army to destroy the Tamil insurgency, without regard for the Tamils' right of self-determination?

I think it is important to think about this question. I invite your thoughts, and I plan to share mine in a follow-up post.