Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Lunch in Jewish Disneyland

Rabino Michael Marmur

Jerusalem is special for many things, and despite serious worries about her future, she continues to beguile and enchant her inhabitants. Well, this one at least. I plan to write something another time about what is happening to the city of Jerusalem, but at present I have a more modest goal. I want to talk about lunch.
In Jewish terms, Jerusalem is Disneyland. Within a few miles you can find a unique selection of Jewish pundits, sages, saints and sinners. They cover a dizzying array of religious and political viewpoints, and among them you will find some of the most original and significant voices to be heard anywhere in the Jewish world. One way of gauging how special Jerusalem is in terms of Jewish culture is to survey the range of lectures, seminars, and lessons on offer every day of the week. I believe that when the cultural history of our current times is one day written, the sheer wealth and depth of intellectual and artistic stimulation on offer in Jerusalem will be regarded as one of the most stunning aspects of the great experiment of Jewish sovereignty in our time. And the lunches are great, too.
All over the city of Jerusalem on Shabbat, Jews are sitting down to lunch in unlikely configurations. We tend to think that everyone boxes in their own corner - ultra-Orthodox, secular, Conservative, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Reform, right wing, left wing, well-heeled, down at heel. Of course, in large part it is true that Israelis (like most people the world over) stay within their own tribes. This is particularly and tragically true of the psychological fence segregating Jews from Arabs in this city.
But in Jerusalem there are also encounters and contacts going on which reach out beyond the stereotypes and the boundaries. There are people sitting down to lunch who do not belong to each other's tribe. Sometimes there are bonds of blood which tie these unlikely lunch partners – every family has someone who broke the mold, a rebel secularist from a highly Orthodox home, a ba'al teshuvah from a kibbutz, a Revisionist reared among socialists, and so on.
Another reason is even more disturbing: friendship. People encounter each other and decide they like each other's company. One thing leads to another, and before you know it Jews are sitting down to eat lunch with each other even though they are not meant to be fraternizing with members of Another Team.
Over Shabbat, my family and I were fortunate enough to sit at the table of an eminent Orthodox rabbi and his family. Also present were a highly impressive couple, also at the forefront of Zionist Orthodoxy in Israel. I learned a great deal over lunch (and the moussaka was delicious). I learned that many of the great challenges faced by the Modern Orthodox world are highly similar to those we in the Liberal camp are grappling with. Between mouthfuls, somebody opined that there is an urgent need to include a theology of humanity in our religious doctrines. We need to remind ourselves of what our tradition teaches us about the dignity of each person in the world, and our responsibility to act vigorously in defense of that dignity. I learned that we are all thinking about our children who are in the Army or on their way to it, and we all stay up at night wondering what the future holds for them. I was reminded of something we all once knew but seem to forget: that there is so much more to bind us as a people than there is to separate us, and that we are meant to love our people, even when we may not always like every last one of its constituent parts
As an avid eater of lunch, I know that similar meals and encounters are taking place all over the Jewish world. Sometimes, the rules and regulations governing dietary practices makes these encounters particularly challenging. Often, in my experience, goodwill and flexibility can prevail without compromising anyone's integrity.
There was no saccharine served at lunch, and I am not offering any here. We may disagree profoundly about crucial issues, and no one is expected to give up on any of their firmly-held beliefs. All that is required is that curiosity, hospitality and solidarity win out over extremism, obscurantism and chauvinism.
It's almost impossible to come up with a workable recipe for pluralism within the Jewish people. It’s fiendishly hard to know where the division runs between being open-minded and empty-headed. Like every other thinking person, I am struck every week by attitudes and behaviors I find difficult to condone or to excuse. There's a portion of the fan base of my local soccer team, for example, which covered itself in ignominy last week by expressing support for Rabin's assassin. It's hard for me just to smile and excuse their behavior away.
We don't have to change our opinions about people (although developing the art of sympathetic listening wouldn't do any of us any harm). But here's something we can do. The next time you meet someone from outside your natural catchment area, someone whose theology or accent or wage bracket is different from yours, and as you talk to this person you see you actually like them despite the difference, don't challenge them to a duel. Do something more dangerous and more significant. Invite them to lunch.