Monday, September 1, 2014

Remarks at the "Ferguson" interfaith vigil, August 28, 2014

I'm going to frame my comments by quoting two biblical texts, but first I want to say something I think is really important. Silence is assent.

I have long known about some of the factors that have led us to the situation are are in today: the re-segregation of society, the 30 year long so-called war on drugs and the cost it's had on communities of color, the increased paranoia of post-9/11 America, with its cutting corners on the constitution, and the militarization of the police.

But I've been mostly silent about all that, and silence is assent.

Something happened to me when I watched what happened in Ferguson. I've been to demonstrations in my life, but never have I seen a sniper on an armored personnel carrier aiming a loaded assault rifle at a largely peaceful crowd. When I saw what happened to Mike Brown, and the community's response, and the police's – and I know that's not the only place; when I heard about some of what the African American community has had to face in St. Louis County – the traffic stops, the fines, the petty and less petty hassles - and I know that's not the only place. I thought, I can't be silent anymore. I can't assent to this anymore.

My thoughts went to Deuteronomy 10:

And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your soul... Cut away, therefore, the thickening around your heart and stiffen your necks no more. For Adonai you God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribes, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Cut away the thickness around your heart. Don't stand there when so much injustice is being done to to your neighbor, to your countryman, to your brother. Don't blame people for being poor, or for unjust traffic stops, or for getting shot in the street. Don't blame Mike Brown for what happened to him. Open you heart. To the white people here tonight I say: cut away the thickness of your heart – feel your neighbor's distress.

But don't just feel it – do something. For God “shows no favor and takes no bribes, but upholds the cause of the fatherless an the widow and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.” It is in acting for justice for the stranger, for the person we don't know, that God's presence is felt, and known.

I can't solve the drug war, or the militarization of police, at least not tonight, not this week. But you know what I can do? I can befriend the stranger. I reach out to my neighbor. I can promote more interaction, more conversation. I can show up with my voice, and I can withdraw my consent.

My second text is also from Deuteronomy, 16:20: Justice, justice you shall pursue. Because there's a principle that not a word in Torah is wasted, the commentators spend a lot of time trying to figure out the meaning of the repeated word “justice.” Some think it's a repetition for emphasis, some think there are different kinds of justice involved. But tonight, I interpret that line to be “black people standing up for justice, and white people standing up for black people standing up for justice.” Because racism is a problem created and sustained by white people, and it can't be addressed until we address it. By not being silent, by withdrawing consent, by reaching out to the stranger, by working to make sure that this epidemic of black deaths in America ends. Tonight. And don't just wait for it – justice doesn't just happen, you have to pursue it, you have to make it happen.

I pray that tonight is only the first step toward addressing this issue as a community. Let us all, black and white, work for the day when there is there isn't black justice and white justice but an American justice, for all, when each individual will be treated as b'tzelem elohim, created in the image of God, Let us truly work for the day when a person will be judged not by color of their skin, but by the content of their character.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Tisha B'Av and the Brokenness of the World

There's so much going on in the world, and in my heart, that I almost don't know what to talk about. So I'll start with the calendar.

Monday night and Tuesday mark the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av. It commemorates, first of all, the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE. In their times these were cataclysms unimaginable in their scope. The second destruction in particular led to a loss of Jewish life which was, in proportion, likely comparable to that of the Holocaust. Beyond that, though, the second destruction marked the end of Jewish sovereignty for almost 2000 years, and the experience of exile.

It's difficult to overemphasize how important these events have remained, how closely they've been held. The weekday Amidah prayer contains prayers asking for the rebuilding of the Temple and the gathering of the exiles, as does the Birkhat Ha-mazon, Grace after meals, so religious Jews would be asking for these things at least 5 or 6 times a day. The custom of breaking a glass at a wedding is to remind us that our joy cannot
be complete as long as the Temple remains destroyed and the Jewish people remain in exile.

The rabbis established Tisha B'Av as a day of mourning, and it is the second sundown-to-sundown fast on the calendar. It is marked by strict mourning practices, many the same as on the other full fast day, Yom Kippur: no food or drink, no sexual activity, no wearing of leather shoes, no bathing or wearing perfume. People sit on the floor or on low benches at services, and the Book of Lamentations is read, recounting in harrowing detail the destruction of Jerusalem. We're meant to refrain from pleasurable activities, including Torah study – the only time in the year that that's prohibited.

As time went on, the rabbis added more significance to Tisha B'av. It was when the Romans crushed the Bar Kochba revolt in 125. It was the day the Jews were expelled from England in 1290. It was the day the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. It was the day the Final Solution was approved in 1941. The historical accuracy of these sitings are not important. What's important is that there was a day to commemorate all the evil that has been done to the Jewish people since the time of the Temple.

Modern Jews have always had a ambivalent relationship with Tisha B'av, which I attribute to a number of reasons. First is practical – it occurs in the summer, when most Jews are not that active Jewishly, and it doesn't get covered in religious school. There's also the discomfort with the association of the holiday with the ancient sacrificial system. One of the first changes the Reform movement made was removing the prayers asking for the restoration of sacrifice. The classical Reform movement also had a problem with the idea of the return of the exiles – they wanted to be full citizens in their country of origin, and not be perceived as waiting for the opportunity to return to the ancient homeland.

The issue changed after the establishment of the state of Israel. Why should we continue to mourn for destroyed Jerusalem when Jerusalem is rebuilt​? Why not acknowledge our people's at least partial redemption? Traditionalists would point to the unbuilt Temple. Others would point out that past tragedies are still tragedies even if they are not happening directly to us, and we observe Tisha B'av as a kind of Yohrzeit for all that has befallen the Jewish people throughout the ages, as an act of solidarity with them – of memory. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who I really intend to talk about one of these days, suggested that we acknowledge the partial redemption of the Jewish people by fasting for part of the day, perhaps until noon or 3 o'clock.

But I have to say, I'm feeling the brokenness of the world very closely this year. Very closely. The world seems to be falling apart before our very eyes. Syria, Libya, Iraq and the so-called Islamic State, Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Palestine. Death and destruction, fear and hatred, displacement and homelessness, a horrible carousel with, seemingly, no way out. Dissension and anger amongst friends and relatives over Israel's actions.

The response to Israel's actions is leaning heavily into antisemitism, particularly in Europe. Foreign ministers from France, Germany and Italy had to issue a joint statement condemning the actions. “Anti-Semitic rhetoric and hostility against Jews, attacks on people of Jewish belief and synagogues have no place in our society,” it read. So much brokenness.

But I'm most concerned about the level of discourse in the Jewish community. A wave of racism and hostility amongst Jews, both here and in Israel. Anti-war protesters in Tel Aviv set upon by right wing counter-protesters. An Israeli soldier posts a picture saying, “This gun killed 13 children, all you Muslims are next.” Yesterday a friend approvingly posted an article from state-supporting media in Egyptians saying that if Gazans didn't rise up against Hamas then they all deserved to get bombed. Today there was an article in the Times of Israel arguing the halachic (Jewish legal) question of “When Genocide is Permissible.” Later the post was removed and the site apologized, but the question remains whether this was really outside the norm or if it represents an unacceptable exaggeration of an increasingly acceptable dehumanization of the Other in our community.

Please note that I'm not talking about the war itself, or the actions Israel has taken, I'm talking about the terrible passions that are accompanying it. Things happen during wars, temperatures rise, I get that, but where is the Jewish reliance on the rule of law, on ethical standards, that we have been so rightly proud of? If we lose that, what do we have left? We are told that the second temple was destroyed due to “sinat hinam” - the senseless hatred of other Jews. I wonder if, God forbid, we lose the third republic, if the reason will be sinah le'acherim, or the senseless hatred of others. So, so much brokenness.

Even here, in our own community, a person we know, who many of us have been fond of, has been accused of a terrible act. Over the course of the last year, the sweet girl struggling to make a go of it has deteriorated before our eyes into someone we were frightened to be around – for good reason, as it turns out. I don't know the whole story so I don't how this happened, though I know that mental health care is a disaster in this country and now I have seen with my own eyes, we have all seen the line between evil actions and mental incapacity get blurry, and now this girl is lost. Such brokenness.

And lest we forget, California is undergoing a paralyzing drought, June was the hottest June on record world-wide. This is from Mother Jones: On June 28, a fire broke out at a Halliburton fracking site in Monroe County, Ohio. As flames engulfed the area, trucks began exploding and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals spilled into a tributary of the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water for millions of residents. More than 70,000 fish died.  The earth itself, it seems, is broken.

Sometimes the brokenness gets so bad, it's paralyzing. The Jewish tradition, in its sometimes really profound wisdom, said that at times like this, when the brokenness gets so bad that there seems to be no way out of it, we stop, we take off our shoes, we sit on low benches, we read sad poetry, and we mourn. We mourn for the dead and wounded. We mourn for the frightened population in their shelters. We mourn for the morals and ethics that are the first casualties of war. We mourn for the soldiers, who do what we make them do, no matter how unwise that might be. For the girl whose mental illness proved stronger than she was. We mourn for the fish, for the damaged and battered earth. We just mourn.

And that's what Tisha B'av is. That's why I encourage you to observe it in some way this year. Even if just a piece of it, such as fasting after dinner on Monday, or skipping breakfast on Tuesday, or sitting on the floor, or reading sad poetry. Just so you acknowledge the brokenness.

And you know what we do after that? We break the fast, we put on our shoes, we stand up, and we go on about the work of repairing the world.

Shabbat shalom.  

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tribalism vs. Universalism

I'm writing this with a heavy heart, as warfare between Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza has broken out yet again. I believe this is the fourth time since the Israel's 2005 disengagement from Gaza that hostilities have broken out.

Like many who are concerned about that small piece of land that is home to two peoples, my social media pages have seen a lot of extremely emotional posts about the situation. On one hand are the pro-Israel voices, who essentially say that the Gazans brought this on themselves by electing Hamas and allowing them to shoot rockets into Israel. On the other hand are pro-Palestinian voices, who see this situation as the outcome of 60 years of Israeli occupation and (what they see as) Israel's refusal to negotiate in good faith toward a peaceful settlement. And there are Jews in both camps.

I think this reflects a tension between two strains within Judaism: tribalism – the communal imperative to privilege Jewish peoplehood and self-defense, particularly defense of Israel and its actions; and univeralism - the call, emanating for the prophetic tradition, to live according to our best values, to treat The Other as we would wish to be treated. For the tribalist, Israel's actions are necessary self-defense, however unfortunate; for the universalist, Israel's actions are at best reckless and at worst an abrogation of its, and the Jewish people's, commitment to be a “light unto the nations.”

The tribalist tends to be the one who holds Jewish identity itself the closest, and who might have been told, “Always keep your passport in order, in case you have to leave suddenly,” who prioritizes Israel as the last refuge of an ever-refugee people. The universalist lives in an America where Jews are not only tolerated, but honored – respected by all, at the top of every field. They can't imagine a circumstance in which they would ever have to flee, and to them, Israel's role as potential haven is theoretical at best.

This is an oversimplification, as both tendencies appear in both countries, but we might even say that tribalism is represented by Israel – a fortress mentality focused on self-protection and self-preservation, and universalism is represented by America – where Jews are, and want to be, one people among many.

And for further oversimplification, tribalists tend to be more religious, older, in-married and affiliated with synagogue and Federation, while universalists tend to be more secular, younger, intermarried (or the product of interfaith homes) and unaffiliated. Although we certainly have many people in our LJCC community who value their commitment to Jewish peoplehood, we (I believe) tend to be more universalist - in our commitments, in our beliefs, and in our actions.

I think we're starting to see the tension between the two tendencies near the breaking point. Tribalists can't understand why anybody would question Israel taking whatever it believes are the necessary steps to defend its people, and universalists can't understand how any country – or any religion - could justify some of Israel's actions, particularly when they result, as they so often do, in civilian casualties.

Worse, we may be entering a situation where Israel's actions are serving as a deterrent to people being involved in Judaism at all. If Israel represents Judaism, they say, if what it does represents what Judaism means, then count me out.

I look at that with as much heartbreak as I look at the violence in Israel/Palestine. At this point I feel closer to the universalists of other religious traditions than I feel to the tribalists of my own. I don't want to spend my time defending Israel-right-or-wrong. I want to develop, and represent, and teach, a Judaism that is universal in its commitments, that promotes peace, reconciliation and diversity, a Judaism that is in keeping with what I think are its deepest and best values. A Judaism that calls us to our best selves.

And offer it to whomever wants it.

I hope that includes you.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Remarks at the Interfaith Vigil at LJCC- April 21, 2014

These are the remarks that I made at the Interfaith Vigil at the LJCC on April 21.

Last week, in Jewish homes all over the world, we retold the story of the Exodus from Egypt. We are told that when the seder was being developed, there was a rabbinic disagreement about the meaning of the word “slavery.” Was it, as the sage Rav said, forced labor – not being in control of your own life, your own destiny? Or was it, as Shmuel held, a form of idolatry, the putting in the place of God those things that do not deserve to be in held in such high esteem? Is it physical slavery, or spiritual slavery? As is so often the case, both cases were kept, and both arguments were kept, and both aspects are mentioned in our seders.

Usually when I talk as a rabbi about the spiritual aspect of slavery, I mention those things that constrict us, that prevent our personal or spiritual growth – materialism, or a focus on achievement, or the like. Given the events that took place in Overland Park, this year we are forced to focus on another form of idolatry, an idolatry that has been with us since before the birth of this nation – white supremacy.

Make no mistake – while there is obviously an anti-semitic element to this tragedy, which links it to a hatred that is the world's oldest, and that triggers all sorts of bad memories and feelings and fears in the Jewish community – I believe this could have happened in any number of places where there gather those many whom violent white racists despise - in an African-American church, in a Sikh temple, or in a mosque, or in a car outside a convenience store. Violent white racism is the fever in America that refuses to die.

But look what happened. This person went to the JCC and to Village Shalom looking to kill Jews, but he killed Christians. You know what that tells me? He couldn't tell the difference. This was a person who spent every hour of his day investigation what he thought was the perniciousness of Jews, I'm sure he felt he knew all their features, yet when the moment came, he couldn't tell the difference.

Let me say their name: Dr. William Corporon, Reat Underwood, Terri LaManno. May their memories be a blessing.

They were just doing their thing, like people do all over the place all the time. Forever has there been a tension between this nativism, this violent racism, and it's opposite and antidote: diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance, community, and peace. And that's what was happening at the JCC, that's what was happening at Village Shalom, and that's the response that the Jewish community received from our friends locally and around the world in the aftermath of the tragedy, and that's what's happening here tonight.

Many Christian people have Jewish people in their extended families, many white people have African-Americans in their extended families. In 50 or 100 years it will be nearly as difficult to tell so-called races apart as it is today to tell religions apart. And that's a good thing. And that means that violent white racists are not only losers, but they've lost. Already, they've lost.

But they can still be dangerous, as we have seen. That's why we need to stand with each other, in community. When an African-American is racially profiled, when a Muslim community construction project is opposed simply for their religion, when a gay person is fired for being gay, when a woman is guilty of what happens to her simply because she is a woman – the rest of us must stand in solidarity. My white privilege may allow me to hide when the violence is not directed at me, but I must not hide. Your white skin and Christian identity may allow you to hide, but you must not hide. The answer to hatred is love, the answer to isolation is fellowship, the answer to racism and anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia is diversity and tolerance and inclusiveness, and the answer to violence is peace. The answer to evil is good, the answer to despair is hope, and the answer to idolatry is godliness. And those are all things that the faith community, at its best, has plenty of.

Thank you for being here tonight. Thank you for standing with us. Let this not be the last time we stand together each other's lives, for justice and for peace.