My wife, Sarah, grew up going to Jewish day school. When I talk about the work I do, she has a very familiar reference point. She has lived it, more or less. I don’t have to explain Jewish ritual to her; more often, she causes me to question and dive deeper into the work that I do. It is a rare opportunity, though, when I get to bring her work into what I do.
A few years ago, she and her colleagues at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, published a paper about what happens in the brain when people with strongly held political believes are presented with challenges to those believes. The paper was eventually turned into an episode of the web comic, “The Oatmeal,” titled, “You’re Not Going To Believe What I’m About To Tell You.” The basic premise, as it relates to this topic, is that when people are presented with a challenge to a belief that is connected to one’s core identity, people tend to dismiss this alternative perspective and dig their heels in deeper to their previously strongly held belief.
One of the reasons why CCAR Press’ recent publication, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is so poignant is because the Zionist stakes are high. The new voices of liberal Zionism are teaching us that digging into previously held beliefs and narratives sets up a recipe for disaster, or more realistically, disengagement with Israel. At the workshop featuring chapter authors from The Fragile Dialogue, Michael Marmur, Liya Rechtman, and Eric Rosenstein presented diverging narratives of even what it means to be a liberal Zionist today.
Marmur opened with an implicit nod to how we deal with differing narratives, noting, “We create our own myths, which become our facts.” He continued his observation that we try to squeeze each other’s facts into our myths. “Most of us spend a lot of time doing myth preserving, making sure that our myths are neither strengthened nor weakened. This quells creativity around our myths.” This caused me to wonder: the rabbis who created Midrash had no problem getting creative around our foundational myths (Marmur even noted that our tradition has established for us a foundation where “we’re meant to be creatively uncomfortable”) – specifically when it comes to Zionism, why have we shifted so drastically against creativity?
Because it’s a fragile dialogue.
Liya Rechtman presented a narrative which was important for this room to hear, specifically because it was so challenging. “When you have red lines of who you will hear from, you inherently cut people out of the conversation,” she offered. And she’s right. How many times have we not invited — or worse, disinvited — speakers purely because their views crossed a red line for someone in our community? One of my rabbinic mentors has noted, “We spent 2000 years dreaming of having a Jewish parliament, and one of the members of that Jewish parliament wants to speak to us, and we’re saying ‘no’?”
Because it’s a fragile dialogue.
I feared going into this session that if we were to hear, as we did from Liya and Eric, that 21st century Israel narratives are based on the accepting the diversity in our narratives and finding places of mutuality and common ground, whereas 20th century Israel narratives were about the preservation of Jewish life, participants would backfire — digging their heels in, not believing what they were hearing. What gave me hope is that the opposite happened. Yes, assumptions were challenged. Yes, there were disagreements in perspectives. And yes, looking into a mirror of the generational divide on even what it means to be a liberal Zionist was difficult. But we heard each other.
Because we all know it’s a fragile dialogue.
If learning happens through failure, growing at a moment when a premise is challenged, this workshop showed that the future of our leadership and our approach to liberal Zionism is no exception.
Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael – How wonderful are your sessions O Jacob, your dwellings of fragile dialogue, O Israel!
Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel serves Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, CA.