Elephant in the Global Jewish Room

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“One day, the king ordered that an elephant be brought into the palace, along with the five wisest sages from the outskirts of the city, who all happened to be blind. The king instructed each sage to stand at a different place around the elephant, each touching a different part of the animal. ‘You are each touching one thing,’ the king said to the sages, ‘Tell me: what is it?’ 

The first sage was touching the trunk of the elephant. ‘It is long, coarse, and flexible,’ he said. ‘It is a rope.’

The second sage was touching the tusks of the elephant. ‘No, it is hard, smooth, and pointed,’ she said. ‘It is the blade of a plow.’

The third sage was touching the elephant’s ear. ‘You are both mistaken,’ he said, ‘It is thin, soft, and flexible. It is a banana leaf.’

The fourth sage was touching one of the elephant’s legs. ‘You are all wrong,’ he said, ‘It is round, firm, and sturdy. It is the trunk of a great tree.’

The fifth sage was touching the elephant’s tail. ‘You must all be crazy,’ she said, ‘It is thin and soft, with bristles. It is a paintbrush!’

At this point, the sages started arguing with each other. So certain were they of their own conclusions, they did not ask questions or listen to each other. Unable to agree, they accused one another variously of being confused, delusional, crazy, wrong, and lying. The situation grew tense. And the more they argued, the more they argued.

‘This,’ said the Buddha, ‘is what Truth is like.’”

It is one of my favorite Buddhist stories, one I’ve taught to children. “I wonder why the sages couldn’t agree,” I say. The children offer explanations: all the sages knew was what they were holding; they weren’t listening to each other; they weren’t working together. Good points, all.

“I wonder what Truth is really like,” I say.

“It’s big,” they say. “More than anyone can see on her own.” I love children.

“I wonder where you are in the story,” I say.

All eyes turn to me. And now it is my turn to answer.

This story is in my thoughts lately because I was recently accepted to participate in this year’s Siach conference, to be held in Israel this June. The Siach program brings together Jewish environmental and social justice leaders from the U.S., Europe, and Israel in order that we might connect; siach means “discourse” in Hebrew.

As I understand it, the main goal of the program is to bring Jewish environmental and social justice leaders from around the world together, with the hope and expectation that we will better share information, ideas, and resources through increased and continuing connection. When justice leaders are isolated, we often expend unnecessary effort “re-inventing the wheel.” Bringing us into relationship with each other will ideally foster new partnerships and collaboration, making all of us more effective.

In addition to the professional networking and partnership possibilities, the conference also aims to foster honest conversation about some of the “elephants in the room” in the global Jewish community. As I understand it, the two major ones are:

  1. Israel (that is, differing views over various policies of the State of Israel, the Peace Process, Israel’s place in global Jewish identity and priorities, etc.); and
  2. Jewish identity and peoplehood (that is, how big is the Tent, really?).

As a Jewish environmental leader, the opportunity to connect with other people who are working on environmental issues—and working on them as Jews and/or from a Jewish perspective—from elsewhere in the U.S., in Europe, and in Israel is exciting.

The work of mobilizing “a religious response to global warming” in which I’m engaged as part of the Interfaith Power & Light movement particularly, and the religious environmental movement more generally, is a brand new human enterprise; we’re all figuring this out as we go, and the more sharing we do of information, ideas and resources, the better.

When I applied to the Siach program, I really didn’t think I’d be accepted—partly because I don’t work for a Jewish organization, or one that focuses exclusively on serving Jewish communities; I work for an interfaith organization. But also, while I consider myself to be a serious person, on paper I look pretty weird. On my application, I wrote, “I am a progressive, environmentalist, Texas Jew-by-choice; a master’s of theological studies student at a Presbyterian seminary; the granddaughter of a Christian minister and the daughter of Sufi teachers.”

On further reflection, I see that the uniqueness of my Jewish identity could be one of the reasons conference organizers have invited me to participate. I expect there will be people at the conference who won’t consider me to be a “real” Jew, and that some of the conversations around identity will be difficult for me on a personal level. But I also expect to learn and deepen and grow, maybe a lot—and I recognize the importance of sharing my unique Jewish identity with other Jewish leaders. If we are to expand the Tent, stories like mine need to be told.

This will be my first trip to Israel. My sense is that many Jews in the U.S. have a complex and sometimes challenging relationship with the state of Israel. My relationship to Israel is a new and still-developing one.

Before I became Jewish, my thoughts about Israel went something like this: the religious, social, and political conflicts of that land—land held sacred to so many people for thousands of years—were so complex and so deeply rooted in history, that I’d pretty much written off the possibility of ever having a well-informed opinion about any of it.

Today, though, I have a deep connection with k’lal Israel (the Jewish people), and find that I have a personal stake now in the land, its people, and its politics.

If Israel is an elephant in the global Jewish room, it is a pretty big elephant—one that, like the elephant in the king’s palace, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to see fully from my individual vantage point. But it is an important elephant, one I need to get to know. I am excited to have the opportunity to go and experience some of the land for myself, to meet and talk with others, and to learn, learn, learn.

So where am I in the story? Excited to have an invitation to the palace. Curious about what I’ll find there. Bringing an open mind, open ears, and open heart. Pretty sure there’s no way to fully know the whole Truth—but hopeful about encountering some small glimpses of its complexity.


This post originally appeared on State of Formation. Photo used courtesy of Laurent de Walick via Flickr Creative Commons.

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