Angry Graffiti or Beautiful Song

Parshat Devarim—Erev Tisha B’av
July 21, 2018 — 9 Av 5778

There is a rabbi in Israel named Rabbi Dov Haiyun who is the rabbi of our sister congregation, a Masorti congregation in Haifa called Moriah.   Rabbi Haiyun has davened at our shul.  Rabbi Haiyun has had Shabbat dinner at my house.  Temple Emanuel has sent delegations to his shul.  We have raised money for a saferoom in his shul.  Rabbi Haiyun has also been President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the body of Conservative and Masorti rabbis in Israel. In other words, Rabbi Haiyun is us–an Israeli version of us.

This past week, on Wednesday, July 18th, Israeli police knocked on his door at 5:00 in the morning and dragged him into the police station for questioning.  What was his alleged offense? That he, a non-Orthodox rabbi, had officiated at weddings in Israel.

The timing here, on the eve of Tisha B’av, which we mark tonight, is so haunting.  The Talmud explains the destruction of the Second Temple to be the result of sinat hinam, groundless hatred, where one group of Jews sought to undermine another.  That happened 2,000 years ago, and the Jewish state could not withstand it.  It is happening again today, this week, on Wednesday morning, the Jewish world is again inflamed, Jews are again hating on other Jews, and this is not good for Israel.

Is there a healthy and helpful way to respond to this kind of distressing news?  Conversely is there an unhealthy and unhelpful way to respond?  I want to think about this question through the lens of a day trip I took with a Hartman group took to South Tel Aviv.

South Tel Aviv has a number of challenges.  The asylum seekers or refugees from Eritrea and South Sudan  are in South Tel Aviv.  There is poverty and underemployment.   Drugs, crime and violence. There is also gentrification where new residents who have greater resources are pushing out existing residents who can no longer afford housing.  In a word, South Tel Aviv is fraught.  We encountered this complexity in two very different ways.

The first was a tour of what is called “graffiti art.” There are several blocks of South Tel Aviv where the walls are painted with graffiti.   The graffiti was big, colorful, and, there is no other word for it, angry.  Vultures. Hawks. Falcons. Beaks. Claws. Talons. In florid, flamboyant colors. Orange. Red. Green. Ahaa! Angry.

The street tour took two hours.  But after 5 minutes, the folks on the tour and I all checked out.  We could not engage this graffiti.  It was angry. Dirty. Ugly. It did not speak to us.

When, at long last, the graffiti tour was over, we went to a shul in South Tel Aviv where we heard five young Israelis, in their 20s, sing acapella.  The name of their group is VocaTikva, the voice of hope. They sang American songs. Israeli songs. Jewish songs.  Their voices were beautiful.  Their affect was lovely and hopeful.  I could not help but notice the body language of the Hartman travelers.  We were all very into this.

The same group that could not wait for the angry graffiti tour to be over was totally with the acapella singers.

After singing they shared their story.  They all grew up in South Tel Aviv.  This is their home. This is their neighborhood. These are their streets.  There are real dangers here, they cautioned.  Drugs. Alcohol. Unemployment. Gangs. Violence. Dropping out of school.  It would have been very easy for us to have made bad choices.  But this acapella group recruited us when we were young to get off the streets and to channel our energy into making beautiful music.

The contrast between the graffiti and the acapella singers was so glaring.  Both were responses to the social and economic problems of South Tel Aviv.  The anger of the graffiti art was a turn-off.  Anger only persuades people who are already angry.  Who are already bought in to your particular point of view.  But anger does not convince those who are not already bought in.  Anger turns them off.  The angry graffiti persuaded no one.

Hopefulness, by contrast, is very fetching.  Our friend Micah Goodman has founded this institute called Ein Prat that teaches thousands of young Israelis, 20-something, post-army, to be activists committed to creating a better Israel.  Micah is intentional about the vibe Ein Prat tries to inculcate: hopeful, not angry.  His goal is that when people encounter these hopeful 20-something Ein Prat graduates, who grapple with real challenges but remain optimistic, people will think of that famous scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally and will say to themselves, I’ll have what she’s having.  This activist is a serious person. This activist is dealing with real problems. And yet, this activist is not bitter or angry but is hopeful and optimistic.  I’ll have what she’s having.

Angry graffiti. Or a hopeful song. Two different responses to real problems in the streets of South Tel Aviv.

Which leads us back to the arrest of a Masorti rabbi, on the eve of Tisha B’av, for the crime of officiating at weddings.

Angry graffiti is an easy and understandable reaction.  At 6:00 am, on the morning of his arrest, Rabbi Haiyun posted on his Facebook page: “Iran is already here!!!”

I get his reaction.  I share his reaction.  When I first heard that he was taken in for questioning because he officiated at weddings, I called my father in love, who lives in Jerusalem, and said Dad, how can you live in a society where Orthodox rabbis exercise state power and instigate the arrest of people who don’t happen to agree with their interpretation of Jewish law?  I kept emailing Shira all day.  Shira wants to retire in Israel.  I would email her every time I got an article and say  I am not moving to a place where Orthodox rabbis exercise state power. We are free here in Newton from religious coercion. We are not moving to a place where there is religious coercion, and that is Israel today.

That voice is deeply felt.  That is where I am.  But that is not where I should be.  That is angry graffiti.  That is a hawk, a vulture, a falcon, a talon, a beak, a claw, in orange and red. Ahaa!  That does not change anything. That only persuades people who are already angry.

How do we do a different move?  How do we do the hopeful song?

One way is to continue to support organizations in Israel, like Hartman, like Ein Prat, that

support religious pluralism and a Jewish democratic state.  If we give up on Israel while they are fighting the good fight, how does this help?

But beyond supporting like minded organizations, I think there is a deeper move here.  It is about cultivating a certain kind of attitude.  I personally struggle with this.  I am not a natural at this.  But I recognize hard-earned wisdom when I see it, especially when I don’t have it.

Let me tell you a story that makes the point.   There is an Orthodox, gay rabbi named Steve Greenberg.  He is married, and he and his husband have a daughter.  Rabbi Greenberg is also on the faculty at Hartman.  I saw him a few weeks ago, and he told me the following story.

He shared that he and his husband and their daughter are members of a local Boston area Orthodox shul.  Every year there is an issue.  That shul has a higher level of dues for a family unit, a lower level of dues for a single member.  The shul office bills them at the single member rate because this Orthodox shul does not recognize a same sex household.  Every year he calls the office to say we are a family unit, please rebill us at the family rate.  Every year they say no.  Every year he sends them a check for the family rate even though they bill him at the lower rate.

I say Steve, why stay there?  Why stay where you are not seen, you are not heard, you are disrespected?  Why not go to any local progressive shul, like Temple Emanuel, for example, where you and your husband and your daughter would be seen as, treated as, billed as, a family, with no issue?

He says that would be easy.  But that would not move the dial. That would not change the world.  If we continue to be there, eventually they will see us, and we will be able to change attitudes from the inside.

I have been thinking about Rabbi Greenberg’s move.  That is not the angry graffiti. That is the hopeful song.  It is hard work, and slow, and desperately needed here.  And in Israel.

Angry graffiti art is easy.  Tisha B’av asks us, do we have the patience, the self-control, the ability to check our anger, the long view, the thick skin, that allows us, despite real insult, despite real issues, to sing a hopeful song.

For myself, I do not know if I can answer that question yes.  But I do know that it would be a better world if I could.  Shabbat shalom.