Letters to the Editor: November 2010
A NOTE ON LETTERS TO THE EDITOR:
We welcome your responses to our articles. Send your letters to the editor to Letters@Tikkun.org. Please remember, however, not to attribute to Tikkun views other than those expressed in our editorials. We email, post, and print many articles with which we have strong disagreements, because that is what makes Tikkun a location for a true diversity of ideas. Tikkun reserves the right to edit your letters to fit available space in the magazine.
KUCINICH AND THE ESRA
In the September/October issue of Tikkun magazine, Dennis Kucinich proposes an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution (in "ESRA: An Opportunity to Reshape the World"). Such an amendment has as much chance as the proverbial snowball in hell. And even if passed, it wouldn't timely address the overwhelming problem of global heating. Maybe Kucinich is trying to compete with David Cobb and Move to Amend; but both divert attention from addressing global heating in the next six years, which is the time that Jim Hansen and others say we have to avoid climate hell.
Juvenal, a Roman poet, said luxury is "more ruthless than war" and violence. His words are particularly relevant today, when carbon dioxide is around the world in hours and in the atmosphere for up to a thousand years. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from American big houses, big vehicles, and other luxuries are the largest threat to the Global Atmospheric Commons and have already led to floods (Pakistan), drought, crop failure, water wars (Kenya), genocide (Darfur: "when the rains stopped, the genocide began"), and will lead to climate hell, if not abated.
SAVING THE WORLD FROM CORPORATE GREED
I found a troubling amount of psychological denial in the September/October issue of Tikkun, starting with the cover article title, "Saving the World from Corporate Greed." That title emerges from a state of what we wish for, rather than anything we can realistically hope to accomplish. It averts the eyes from the immensity of the trouble we face.
After attending the San Francisco NSP conference, I came away convinced that the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution (ESRA) was a giant distraction. A five-page ESRA is even more irrelevant.
I was intrigued by the richness of the question "Do the Dems Deserve to Lose?" In my mind, the Dems have made their deeply flawed choices and will reap the consequences. It's not up to progressives to save them -- we can't.
However, the editorial never addressed the cover's question. Instead, Rabbi Lerner wrote about the Obama of his dreams. He chose to not deal with the Obama who actually lives in the White House. In the ugly times we are in, that just doesn't cut it.
I constantly grieve over how the world is not the way I would like it to be. It seems to me that thoughtful people have a responsibility to see the world as it is, no matter how painful that is. I believe this is the path to truth, love, and peace.
San Rafael, CA
Both Mr. Schonbrunn and Mr. James have trouble imagining how the world can be fundamentally changed. In this, they resemble those Black pastors who warned Martin Luther King Jr. to stop trying to challenge segregation, or the women who cautioned second-wave feminists about challenging patriarchy, or the homosexuals who were disturbed when gay activists sought to bring the question of homophobia into public awareness. We at Tikkun do not have any evidence that the emphasis we place on the Spiritual Covenant with America, the Global Marshall Plan, and the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ESRA) will actually switch the power relations in our society (though they would if passed). What these campaigns may succeed in doing is to reframe U.S. public political discourse in a way that will change consciousness by creating a concrete vision of what progressives are for, not just what they are against.
We do not see any reason why a focus on this campaign should detract attention from any strategy Mr. James has that would, in the meantime, end global warming, and our NSP/Tikkun communities will do everything we can to support any plausible strategy that will reduce global warming. Our guess, however, is that corporate control over the electoral process (and over the resulting Congress and administration) will not be significantly reined in until there is a comprehensive constitutional amendment of the sort that ESRA proposes. The unrestricted use of corporate incentives to maximize companies' profits at the expense of the environment will also continue unchecked until we pass a comprehensive amendment. The suggestion from Mr. Schonbrunn that we are not looking at the world realistically ("as it is") seems to miss our point that the world as it is can be changed, and that one significant way to build the movement for such changes is to move beyond a narrow focus on "what's wrong" and put forward visionary ideas about how the world could look if people were to unite and struggle for that new way of arranging our world.
Dr. Phil Wolfson's article, "Cuba Sí," has stirred me. What troubles me most is how individuals and the populace can become and remain stagnant due to their broken governments for fifty years, one hundred years, or more. I am truly sorry for America's role in Cuba's sorrows, and I support the Spiritual Progressives' Global Marshall Plan as I dream of America as a cooperative ally rather than a dominant enforcer. I worry for my own country in the grips of corporate power and the rapidly growing inequality, and feel helpless as a citizen as I observe our government muddling through bureaucracy yet keeping things status quo. I wonder if Dr. Wolfson feels that if American citizens got together and gathered seeds and plants from our own gardens and cooperative seed groups, and if we gathered our used computers, of which we have plenty in our throw-away society, and sent them to Cuba, that that would help. What I am hoping for is a seed of people helping people to go beyond the limitations of what governments can achieve to help their citizens and create peace in the world.
HAMAS AND PALESTINE
It could be that "the idea of Hamas is about liberation, an end to Occupation, and independence," as Jeremy Ben-Ami says in his article "The New Zionist Imperative is to Tell Israel the Truth." But the Arab hostility existed long before the IDF changed the Green Line in 1967, already then a highly disputed border between Israel and the surrounding Arab states. So for that matter a peace treaty and good intentions between Israelis and Arabs should long ago have been established. So, sorry Ben-Ami, Hamas and Hezbollah and Abu Mazen drive after another road map. That road map is the whole of the former Palestine, and "Israel" isn't printed on that map.
Jeremy Ben-Ami responds:
I agree wholeheartedly that Arab hostility to Israel preceded 1967. I would further agree that there will be those in the Arab world and far beyond who will continue to oppose the very existence of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, even if there is a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question is which future is better for Israel and the Jewish people -- one with a negotiated two-state solution or one without.
The answer to my mind is unequivocal. The surest route to a map without a state of Israel is to fail to achieve a lasting and comprehensive peace. Saddest of all would be to end up on that route because Israel couldn't stop itself from building a few more structures over the Green Line for a matter of months while it negotiates a permanent border.
Jay Michaelson is a friend and colleague. I agree with the central points of his article (in the July/August "Queer Spirituality and Politics" issue of Tikkun): the gay rights struggle is based in virtue and religious values, and good people should support this struggle out of compassion and loving kindness. And I want to add that the function of "gay spirituality" in gay people's lives is to discover the meaning of one's homosexuality as a stepping-stone in one's spiritual path. Being gay gives people a different perspective on the world. We have a different sense of what life is for, and how to participate and contribute. How we relate to religion and religious institutions is certainly part of the personal developmental process, but there's so much more to the gay spiritual life than what "straight people" think about homosexuality. What matters to us is how we think about homosexuality and how we can find in our experience of being gay clues to the experience of "God."
Tikkun is a spiritual magazine, but Ruth Vanita's article "Same-Sex Weddings, Hindu Traditions, and Modern India" (July/August 2010) had references to Hindu rituals but no discussion of the deeper spiritual practices of meditation and yoga. As such, the article gives a very unbalanced view of Hindu spirituality. An article that mentions only the Kama Sutra but no other Hindu scriptures does a disservice to the reader and sincere spiritual seekers.
The principles of ayurveda (science of life) and yoga hold that cultivating the spiritual energy, known in Sanskrit as prana, is central to transforming one's mind and body in preparation for deeper spirituality and final liberation from the cycle of rebirth. But it also holds that the use and overuse of the five senses are the primary manner in which prana is dissipated, wasted, and therefore not available to power the spiritual pursuit. Sex in any form, whether heterosexual or homosexual, results in a large loss of prana. This is the underlying reason for the practice of austerity in the yoga tradition, and most probably, in many other religious and spiritual traditions. It is the practice of gradually and lovingly loosening the ties that bind, and giving up "small" experiences of bliss, in order to achieve the highest Bliss, direct knowledge and communion with God, also known by the Sanskrit word samadhi. These principles are stated emphatically through all of the Hindu and Yoga scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The article also states that an individual is reborn in order to work through attachments from previous births and move toward freedom from attachment. This is true; however, indulging in an attachment, also known as a samskara, only serves to strengthen the attachment, making it all the more "irresistible." I would ask the author and the reader to consider that perhaps the reason for these so-called "irresistible" impulses is repeated indulgence in previous lives and the present life. I do agree with the author in that forcible suppression of attachments is not healthy, but rather, as stated earlier, working through an attachment is a process of gradually and lovingly letting go of it, with the knowledge that a higher purpose and goal is being served.
Ruth Vanita responds:
Tikkun asked me to sum up my decades-long work on same-sex love and marriage in a limited word-count. In my book Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West, I discuss two parallel strands in Hindu life -- that of asceticism, which takes a negative view of desire, as outlined by Polanchyck, and that of everyday practice, which honors desire as one of the four goals of life, and worships Kama, God of love, as a beautiful young male God. If many Hindu texts advocate giving up desire, many other equally popular Hindu texts hold up ideals of loving marriage and friendship, with marriage being seen as a kind of friendship and friendship as a kind of marriage. Lord Shiva is an ascetic, but also a loving husband to Parvati, with whom he enjoys erotic bliss (which, by the way, does not produce children).
The ascetic tradition is balanced by a strong this-worldly tradition in Hinduism. Strict nonindulgence of all desire would rapidly lead to the dissolution of relationships, the family, society, and ultimately the species. Whether such dissolution is a "higher purpose and goal" is open to debate; I suspect that most ordinary Hindus in India do not incline toward this goal.
SAINTS PERPETUA AND FELICITAS
I am an Orthodox Christian. I pray standing before an Icon of Saint Perpetua and Saint Felicitas. I love them, together with the other Holy Martyrs who suffered together with them, Saints Revocatus, Saturus, and Saturninus. And when I first saw them on the cover of your magazine, my first instinct was to Cross myself and kiss the cover. Then I read the words printed on the cover.
I am sad you desecrated their Holy Icon by using it to promote the evil of homosexual behavior. It is hard for me to believe you would slander these two women like you did. Both St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas were married women, the former a mother. The latter was eight months pregnant at the time of her arrest and gave birth two days before she was killed in the amphitheater.
The Icon you desecrated was not, as you implied by the words you printed on the cover, a depiction of a homosexual embrace. Rather it shows that last act of the women, a liturgical act all Orthodox Christians are familiar with, the Kiss of Peace. Yet now, all who are uneducated who see the cover of your magazine will think these two were homosexuals. Did they not suffer enough from the torturers and the wild animals that were set on them before their execution? How dastardly of you.
But I am not writing to you to express outrage. Instead, I am extending an invitation. God forgives slanderers. He even forgives those who cause others to fall by saying what is wrong is right. If you repent, God will have mercy on you.
San Jose, CA
David Belden Responds:
Matt, I do understand that the cover is offensive to you, and I am sad that it has caused you pain. But I also have an invitation to you, to consider that this holy kiss of peace between two married women facing death for their faith could also evoke the holiness of two lovers, whose love in major parts of the Christian tradition has been denied and indeed killed. The articles in the magazine argue that there is holiness in love, that God is love, and that includes homosexual love. We often use images of one thing to describe another. At my own wedding, the minister told the story of Naomi and Ruth, mother and daughter-in-law, who said she would go wherever Naomi went: for my wife, an American, and myself, an Englishman who had left everything to come live with her, this was a moving story. We felt it was relevant to us. In retrospect, I think it would have been helpful for us to explain our use of the image and our view that love of God, love of friends, love of lovers, love of family are all holy -- as for example the love of David for Jonathan was holy whether or not they ever had sex together; but at the same time I doubt that would have made any difference to those like yourself who feel that homosexual love is "evil," as you put it. There is so much pain in this world, so much hurtful behavior of one to another, I am sad and devastated that we would make up a story that certain kinds of love are evil, despite their being indistinguishable in almost every respect from kinds of love we call holy: doesn't it just add to the pain of the world rather than enabling us to work together to end the scourges of cruelty, greed, war, starvation, thirst, imprisonment, and loneliness?
I was deeply disturbed by some of the writing in the Queer Spirituality & Politics section of the July/August issue. Two of the writers, in articulating their visions of Queer presence in our culture, used demeaning terminology to describe those whose struggles differ from their own. In one of the pieces, Lt. Dan Choi is called an "assimilationist." In another, those in the movement to legalize gay marriage are lumped in with legitimizing the prison-industrial complex! This kind of divisiveness does nothing to further our liberation; in fact all it does is point out how far we are from the personal liberation we much each achieve before societal liberation will be possible.
My rabbi teaches that "othering," demeaning, or in any way lessening the intrinsic value of another person is totally at odds with the tenets of Judaism. Those who study the Torah and Talmud quickly learn that the Jewish path allows for and encourages a multiplicity of opinion on any given subject. Our own Wisdom Masters often disagree with each other about what is the correct response to any given challenge.
It is interesting that Alana Price identifies Lt. Choi as an assimilationist, for he is anything but. That terminology has historically been used to define someone who keeps their queer identity hidden, in order to benefit from perceived heterosexuality, and continued personal gain of power and/or privilege. In coming out as a gay man, Lt. Choi risked imprisonment and losing his position, as well as the ability to further his chosen career.
On a more personal level, I was dismayed by the way those of us who wish to be married were dismissed as having an unworthy goal. My partner and I celebrated our kiddushin with the holy community of Beyt Tikkun, blessed by Rabbi Michael Lerner and his wife Rabbi Debora Kohn-Lerner. It was a day of celebration of family and community, of love and triumph over a societal message that says we are not deserving of participation in the rituals and blessings bestowed upon others simply by virtue of their sexuality.
Queer Liberation has never been narrowly defined. It encompasses the views of many different people from all walks of life. I may not wish to participate in the way Wendy Somerson is led to express her vision for change, but I would never demean her for doing what she believes will achieve her goals. I would not want to serve in the military, but unlike Alana Price, I respect and affirm the rights of Queer people to do so openly and without shame. We are each responsible to live our highest vision of the life we have been given, how we identify and articulate that vision is between ourselves and G-d.
In this month of Elul, when we are instructed to hear the Shofar blown everyday, may we recognize that even though we may hear it differently, that call to prayer resonates in each of our hearts.
Alana Price responds:
DJ Simone rightly points out that Queer Liberation has never been narrowly defined, and goes on to express a frustration that I in fact share -- a frustration at activist approaches that define what is worthwhile in a purist and total way and then tear apart activist communities by personally and divisively demeaning individuals who opt to work on other struggles. I am surprised and sad to learn that Simone experienced my article as divisive and personally demeaning in this way.
I want to believe it is possible to engage in earnest, constructive reflection within the LGBT activist community as a whole about the social effects of our collective activist decisions about where to direct our resources, organizational time, and energy both historically and in the present. Such reflection is not about judging each other's life choices or demeaning each other -- it's about working as a community to dream big about what sort of change is possible and how we can orient our activism so that it has a chance of effecting larger structural changes to our society and so that it is resonates with the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our community.
Never in my article do I describe an individual person as "an assimilationist," as Simone suggests, and I definitely did not intend it as a derogatory slander against individuals who choose to marry or join the military. Rather, I used assimilation as an analytic term to describe the strategic aims of certain organizing approaches. Some activist goals are aimed at making it possible for LGBT people to be assimilated or absorbed into our society's current institutions as they currently exist, whereas other goals are aimed at radically transforming the shape of our society and its institutions. By saying "the goal of the action fits neatly within the conservative, assimilationist aims articulated by mainstream LGBT lobby groups" I certainly wasn't suggesting that Lt. Choi was trying to pass as straight or that he was "selling out" in some way in order personally to hide his identity: I was arguing precisely the opposite -- that it was the forcefulness and riskiness of Choi's action that belied the more limited nature of his political aim.
I see the struggle against "don't ask, don't tell" and the struggle for marriage equality not as "shameful," but rather as ones that are worthwhile but limited. I've heard that some LGBT activist groups these days are finding that unless they work on these two headline issues, they're having trouble getting funding. So it seems like an important moment to reflect and think about the strengths and limitations of these particular struggles. Who can they help? Who can't they help? For whom are such struggles irrelevant?
Simone's letter made me reflect more on the history of the term "assimilation" and I see how there are connotations that conjure the idea of in-groups/out-groups and can be hurtful in that way, perhaps making it a term we should all use with more care. In my life I have experienced this term not primarily as a slur against closeted gay people but rather as a term -- still fraught in various ways -- used to describe the multivalent process of immigrants becoming absorbed in the mainstream society instead of demanding that the structures of mainstream society somehow expand or change radically to incorporate the insights of their culture and experience. My own family history is one of immigrants assimilating into U.S. society; assimilation was my grandparents' primary goal -- an urgent one necessary to ensure their well-being and safety ... but it was also a limited goal whose fulfillment benefited our family without fundamentally transforming the shape of society.
As the actual text of my article should make clear, I see all moves toward greater institutional equality as positive -- including the abolition of homophobic employment discrimination in the military, even though the military is an institution I'd eventually like to see abolished. The contrasts I was drawing between inclusion-oriented activism and more transformative activism were not at all meant as a divisive condemnation of people who have poured their energy into the don't ask/don't tell fight or the marriage equality fight but rather as an invitation to us all to dare to consider a bolder vision of what queer activism could entail and how it could plug into a struggle that would transform the world in a larger way for everybody.
PRAGMATISM OR MORALITY?
I am writing Tikkun to ask the magazine to boycott bromides and innuendos. Both are basic to all good writing, but statements like the following [from a letter to the editor published in your July/August 2010 issue] are built entirely on them:
I, along with many supporters of Israel who actually live here, vote, and pay taxes, take a pragmatic rather than a moralistic view of the Israeli presence in the West Bank. Better to leave most of it, we say, for the good of our children. On the other hand, the thought of bringing them closer to mortar range is not one we relish either. - Eli Eisenstein
And thus, are only worth unpacking--not printing.
Guilt is not clout. It's interesting that Eisenstein lays claim to greater moral license (he lives there, he reminds us) while at the same time acting as if his own non-moralistic sense of morality reaches high above the messy political strife unfolding beneath him (Is it any wonder his first name means "elevation"?). Israeli citizens don't have any more moral authority over the questions of human rights and equality than the rest of us. Living in Israel implicates one deeply in the conflict, but contrary to the author's suggestion, first-hand experience itself doesn't allow one's actions to exceed morality. So-called pragmatism like Eisenstein's is what makes up the inner-most being of the occupation and helps normalize a situation that is anything but normal. As an Israeli citizen, Eisenstein is actually right in the thick of it, a quite active player who thinks his politics have no use for a moral compass.
But politics is about power and powerlessness, and morality is about the distinction between right and wrong, a set of values and principles outlining right and wrong conduct. Morality has everything to do with the struggle of men and women to make a living, to build a just society, to love the stranger. Hence, nothing could be more centrally involved with morality than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So I can't help but wonder how Eisenstein's pragmatic stance can escape morality, as his dichotomy above indicates.
Eisenstein's personal approach to the longest on-going occupation in modern history, whether he thinks so or not, is the direct result of moral calculations, the direct consequence of his formulations of what is right and what is wrong. Why does he choose to pretend that his political posture is not explicitly linked to and defined by morality itself? Why not thunder and boom one's most deeply held beliefs? Especially when they concern the life and well being of children.
It's not just what Eisenstein says in this short paragraph, but what he effaces, that's upsetting.
He uses the phrase "mortar range" to relate the potential dangers Israeli children could face if the right decisions are not made. Palestinian children, on the other hand, might only be so lucky to face threats that more or less amount to a bugbear. The perils of potentially being within mortar range pales in comparison to the systematic hazards and insecurities plaguing the life of Palestinian youngsters. These children are always vulnerable to, within the range of, routinely subjected to, murdered in the hundreds by the most technologically advanced and lethal military weaponry on earth: F-16 fighter jets, heavy artillery, white phosphorus shells, bulldozers, Apache helicopter gunships and drones. For someone moderately versed in the issue, Eisenstein's "mortar range" statement unintentionally points to the sheer disproportionate madness of the conflict.
My main point here is that I'm sick and tired of people equivocating their stance and neglecting the fundamentally moral nature of all this. A state that is premised on the purity of blood in order to maintain its exclusive national character is a flash point for morality. Is it never moral to militarily conquer and occupy a people. Instead of facing that fact, Eisenstein submerges his arguments in the turbid waters of insinuation. First, Eisenstein monopolizes the moral high ground in the hopes of doing away with it to better inoculate Israeli actions against international outcry. Then Eisenstein signals implicitly--through popular colloquialisms--that he is a fan of occupying the West Bank. Why doesn't he come clean and admit his colonialist stance? Why the wishy-washy language?
Perhaps he doesn't know right from wrong. The oppressor's compass always reads pragmatic--those facts on the ground don't make themselves.
GOD AND THEOLOGY
"God-talk" is the new hip aphorism for theology. It is a term that has evolved over the centuries, but nonetheless has been the overarching verbal communicator on all things God. But, what happens when this hip God-talk pushes us further way from the God we desire? What happens when this kind of talk forces God out of the conversation? Then, I think we need something tragic to happen. I think we need the death of theology. I think we need the flowers; the black casket; the headstone with the apt three-lettered silencer, "Rest In Peace." Let's be honest, theology as it has evolved has brought anything but peace. If we peer through the lens of our history, a lot of our wars and disagreements have been because of God-talk.
Now, if God no longer resides in our discourse then how can we find her? I think we need to first understand the limit of our language. As famed linguist Julia Kristeva once stated, language estranges us from the object of our desire. So, what we really crave is the Language beyond our language, or in this instance, the God beyond god. The God who insists beyond the god who exists in our finite linguistic discoveries. What this means is that we can no longer rest upon our pedigrees, laurels, or affiliations to authoritatively empower whether we know what we think we know about the God beyond god. What this then does to us who desire to know God is that it invites us into darkness rather than light. It forces us into silence. It brings back the fear of the unknown, and as we know, the fear of the unknown displaces us. This horrific silence displaces all of our attempts at verbalizing our experiences with the divine and pushes us over the linguistic edge and reignites the passions of the mystic. The ancient mystics were more attracted to the divine without words. They saw the silence as a necessary space for "unionized" engagement.
Essentially, if the death of theology is imminent (which I think it will be eventually), then it creates an unraveling of all that we know about God. It makes us all amnesiacs. It turns us into intentionally forgetful people and reinvites God back into our lives as Stranger. If you remember when you were little, you might have been taught that strangers are dangerous and unsafe and not to be spoken to. This is the same with a God who is beyond our theology. God then enters the scene not as peacemaker, but rather as disrupter. God the nuisance. God the being who is beyond hegemonic commodification. In this new space, God enters our lives as one who is present only to force upon us a new kind of silent, mental and emotional vertigo that upsets all of our logic and becomes the ultimate conundrum we deep down know we crave.