Guest Column: Cramming Kabbalah?

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Mark Jacobs
Mark Jacobs
Mark Jacobs

It was a late Tuesday afternoon, and my wife and I were getting ready for our first Kabbalah class.

“Did you read the book?” she asked me.

“There’s a book?!” I answered, and suddenly that old panicked feeling I experienced from seventh grade to law school came right back. My immediate instinct was to go with the old tried-and-true strategy that worked for me years ago: cram.

But this wasn’t, of course, like preparing for a history exam or having to write a paper on Great Expectations. This was Kabbalah, which, even I knew, would not lend itself to memorizing facts or faking out an oblivious high school teacher. No, this was very different. Our teacher, Cantor Michael Smolash, could certainly spot a Kabbalah phony in an instant.

But how is one supposed to fit mastering a complex subject into a busy life? There are just too many meetings, emails and phone calls during the day and a super summer schedule on Netflix at night. The answer, of course, is that it can’t be done, especially with something as spiritually demanding as Kabbalah. “Instant Karma” was a fun John Lennon song, but I’m reasonably sure it doesn’t exist. Kabbalah, just like anything big and complicated, cannot be quickly absorbed or condensed into cute, catchy soundbites although I did check out the Kabbalah for Dummies book on Amazon (don’t judge me).

There’s an old story about Albert Einstein when he was a professor at the California Institute of Technology in the 1930s. According to the story (possibly apocryphal), one day a graduate student rushed into class and excitedly started sharing a physics epiphany that had come to him overnight. He hurriedly began scribbling his new theory on the chalkboard as Dr. Einstein looked on. But shortly after he began speaking, Einstein abruptly cut him off and said, “Please. You must s-l-o-w down. I think v-e-r-y slowly.”

We all love having huge amounts of information spoon-fed to us in small bites. There are newspapers (USA Today) and news channels (Headline News) dedicated to doing just that. We love to quickly grab the main points and then convince ourselves and others that we know what we’re talking about. But it doesn’t work that way. Truly absorbing complex information requires time, a lot of it. Unless our brains work at twice the speed of Dr. Einstein’s, then we, too, must slowly and methodically trudge through the tedium of processing difficult information.

This realization became especially apparent to me during my last trip to Israel, my second in two years. Understanding the Middle East and Israel is, after all, the ultimate complex, seemingly insolvable conundrum. It can’t be reduced to paper-thin explanations or catchy soundbites.

Advocating For Israel

Anti-Israel groups use catch phrases like “Free Palestine” and “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” and “apartheid state,” but they are all misleading and inflammatory, which makes them so dangerous. The pro-Israel community’s response to these slogans must be more than just reciting our own counter soundbites. We must have a solid grasp of the flaws of the anti-Israel soundbites and a well-reasoned, deep factual analysis of the issues. If we can’t answer Israel critics (Jewish and otherwise) with thorough and compelling arguments, then how can we expect others to?

Recently, a friend of mine told me about his nephew who was involved in advocating for refugees around the world. The young man sounded like an incredibly bright and committed guy, just the kind of person the pro-Israel community needs. When I asked my friend how his nephew views Israel, my friend grimaced and he told me his nephew is very pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel and actually involved in the BDS movement. My friend said he’s tried to talk to his nephew about it, but that the young man said he was unpersuadable, stating, “I just always go with the oppressed people.”

Sadly, we all know this isn’t an isolated tale. I don’t know if this kid can be dissuaded, but I know we have no chance to change his mind and others like him without being able to articulate — as best we can — the case for the historic, strategic, military and moral reasons why Israel matters and why it must be supported. That’s no small order, but that’s now the challenge of pro-Israel advocates. We need to be armed with more than just headlines, soundbites and cursory oversimplifications. If we really believe that our positions are just, then we need to do the hard, tedious work of real learning. That’s a tough homework assignment, but I’m afraid that’s what these times call for.

Sources For Learning

Fortunately, there’s a plethora of great sources that can keep one up to date on events in Israel, including the digital versions of the Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post and i23NEWS (all free). Each of these also sends out breaking news alerts and analyses in real time that are highly informative.

AIPAC’s website, even for those who aren’t AIPAC donors, is also an excellent source of information on the political status of U.S. support for Israel along with our government’s efforts to assist Israel militarily and otherwise.

For those who are slightly obsessive with real-time security news from Israel, there’s an app called Red Alert (also free) that literally sends a siren (which can be silenced) telling where and when rockets or missiles are being launched at Israel. The app is quite startling as it shows the constant barrage that Israel faces, and the user cannot help but realize how shockingly silent the U.S. media is in reporting these attacks.

The topic of Israel, it seems, is one topic in which most everyone has a strong opinion, which is great — as long as those opinions are based on facts. But all too often, those opinions are just a regurgitation of empty soundbites.

If we truly wish to understand anything complex — especially something as infinitely perplexing as Israel and the Middle East — then soundbites don’t cut it; we have to put in the time and learn, and then keep learning and learning.

That’s also true whether you’re trying to teach physics to Albert Einstein or, as I learned the hard way, cram Kabbalah.

Mark Jacobs is the AIPAC Michigan director for African American Outreach, a co-director of the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity, a board member of the Jewish Community Relations Council-AJC and the director of Jewish Family Service’s Legal Referral Committee.

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