I love the ocean. Whether surfing or just playing in the waves, as a native Californian, I feel at home when I am in the salty water of the Pacific. Mere moments after I jump in, I find tranquility, introspection, and rejuvenation. But I also am well aware of the danger the ocean poses. From sharks (yes, there was a Great White breeding ground near where I grew up) to stealth riptides to pounding surf, the ocean can be dangerous, even deadly. I vividly recall the terror I felt after wiping out while boogie-boarding many years ago: caught underneath a cavalcade of waves, I barely held my breath long enough to outlast the barreling set and resurface.
This sense of struggling to breathe is how I now feel about Israel.
On the one hand, I firmly believe that Israel faces threats to its security more substantial than any it has faced since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Iran is the most obvious of these threats. Its nuclear ambitions pose an existential threat to Israel and risk plunging the entire volatile region into a nuclear arms race. It continues to sponsor terrorism in Gaza, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, and remains the primary patron of Hezbollah. Even the purportedly “moderate” regime of Rouhani has refused to repudiate Iran’s unabashed desire to destroy Israel.
Israel also faces neighbors who themselves are fighting—officially or unofficially-with militant Jihadists. Whether it is terrorists in the Sinai confronting Egypt or the ongoing, tragic civil war in Syria, Israel currently is situated in the least stable geo-political neighborhood on earth.
Even “responsible” international actors continue to put Israel in their cross-hairs. Just last week, the UN Commission on the Status of Women decided that there was only one country on earth that deserved condemnation for its treatment of women. Who was that country? Not Saudi Arabia. Not Sudan. Not Nigeria. Israel.
These threats are real, substantial, and cannot be rationalized or justified as a response to any policy of Israel. Period.
On the other hand, how can I continue to support the ongoing rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government? In the desperate throes of the final hours of the recent Israeli elections, when Bibi faced a real threat of losing his grip on power, he made two deplorable, shameful statements. First, in an expression of blatant racism, he urged Israelis via social media to vote because “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and thus threatening the country’s “rightwing government.” I am proud that the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I am a member, rightly condemned such hateful and xenophobic speech, saying, “This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”
Second, either to curry favor with right-wing voters or in a display of his true colors (or both), Netanyahu eviscerated the prospect of a two-state solution by repudiating any support for a Palestinian state. He stated that no Palestinian state would be established for as long as he remained prime minister, calling such a move “simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel.” Rejecting a two-state solution not only flies in the face of a bedrock principle of American-Israel policy but also leaves no viable solution to the increasingly untenable status quo in the West Bank.
Even before the election, Bibi’s ruling coalition has endorsed policies that fly in the face of Jewish values and human rights. Led by coalition member Jewish Home, the right-wing government has taken draconian positions against Africans seeking asylum in Israel, incarcerating individuals who have fled brutality and civil war in their African homelands. Through the Prawar Plan, it has pursued inhumane, shameful policies with respect to Israel’s indigenous Bedouin population. Bibi’s statements and positions in response to rising anti-Semitism in Europe–that European Jews should just come to Israel–have, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently put it, created an unnecessary and “anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.”
So I find myself stuck between support for an Israel that is under siege and condemnation for Israeli leadership that continues to push immoral and egregious policies. Instead of being able to embrace Israel as a home, as a place I love, I feel myself drowning in this cognitive dissonance. How can I stay silent when BDS, or Students for Justice in Palestine, perniciously spread half-truths that, in the echo chamber of liberal university politics, resonate with and influence college students? But how can I defend Israel with integrity when the normative way of doing so is to demand unflinching support of everything Israel’s government does (AIPAC’s position)? The moneyed Jewish establishment has created a McCarthy-like ethos where any critique of Israel (JStreet, Open Hillel, Rabbis for Human Rights, etc.) is viewed as treason. Yet some of these very same groups, while openly critical of Israel’s rights violations, do not seem as willing to address Israel’s real, existential threats. In this context, as a rabbi, how on earth am I supposed to teach young adults about Israel? As a community leader, how am I supposed to cultivate a consensus of ahavat Yisrael, love and support for Israel?
The truth is, I need Israel to be an or l’goyim, a light unto nations. It is not enough for me for Israel to be celebrated as a Start-Up Nation. Or the least egregious violator of human rights in the Middle East. Israel is my spiritual and moral home. As a result, I do hold it to a higher standard. I need it to represent the best of humanity, to apply the moral truths of our religion to contemporary reality. Am I expecting too much?
So here I find myself, to borrow from Greek mythology, caught between the Scylla of defending Israel and the Charybdis of criticizing it. I hope, like Odysseus, that I can somehow navigate this howling sea without losing my sanity. I pray that I can find, or create, enough oxygen in the discourse about Israel in America that I can breathe. But it grows ever harder each day.
I have sung the song “David Melech Yisrael” thousands of times. It’s easy to learn and fun to sing with hand motions. The song voices the hopes of the Jewish people; exiled, dispersed, powerless and persecuted, we have longed for the “good old days” of the strong, unified and powerful kingdom of King David. Some three thousand years later, we haven’t stopped wishing for a return to the Davidic monarchy. It is our messianic yearning, fueling optimism and collective hope.
Optimism is one of the Jewish values that most animates our spiritual worldview. But recent events have prompted me to revisit the content of this narrative. The wish for a monarch who rules over a united Jewish nation, even the whole Jewish people, looks different now.
It is time to replace “David Melech Yisrael” with a different trope. We do not have a King of Israel, and we shouldn’t. That was then, and this is now.
In 70 CE, when we lost the last grasp on our Jewish nation, our people dispersed. During that time of dramatic change, our leaders took to the study halls. Their leadership was built on learning, interpreting, and vigorous debate over all aspects of life. The record of those holy disagreements became the Talmud, the sourcebook for rabbinic Judaism. The Jewish ideas that inform our lives today flow from those pages. “When there are two Jews, there are three opinions,” the joke goes. But it’s true. The Jewish people thrive on diverse opinions freely shared.
Today, during another time of great change, the yearning for King David has a new voice. As if “David Melech” once again lives, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed the mantle of power for all Jews. The Prime Minister recently asserted that he is the representative of the “entire Jewish people.” Netanyahu argues that the Jewish people are endangered, and only a strong state of Israel can protect all of us. Together with his invitation to French (and other European Jews) to make aliyah – move to Israel – the Prime Minister has stirred an anxious debate within the world Jewish community about his role and our relationship to Israel.
We’ve been down this road before. In 1950, the head of the American Jewish Committee negotiated a pact with founding Prime Minister Ben-Gurion. The Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement with Israel asserted “without any reservation, that the State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of the Jews who are citizens of any other country.”
I support policies and politicians who make the world safer for Jews, and make Israel strong. But we will best accomplish this goal by vigorous debate and respectful divergence of views. My prayer for a safe, strong Israel includes a vision of a just, democratic nation. The voices of all its inhabitants, and all Jews, form the chorus to the song of Israel. No one representative, no king or absolute ruler, can achieve that. Only we can do that together.
I cannot remember the last time I switched on the news—be it on the television or the radio—or glanced at a newspaper headline without cringing and wanting to turn away. Without wanting to stop the world and all of its madness and bring about a cure for these seemingly endless ills.
The reports seem to physically rush at my ears and heart as I hold my aching head and wonder at the inhumanity of so much of humankind.
Clearly, many are suffering from this same fatigue. We need to be informed—but we may wonder… how much information is too much? Can we, as concerned creations, look away from our fellow suffering creatures? Are we exhibiting a lack of compassion when we enjoy the lives we are lent? Are we really able to do much of anything to help?
I recently reread Anne Frank’s diary, which speaks of the human struggle to remain reasonable and even good humored, and not lose faith in humanity, even while very well aware of the heart-wrenching fate of others. I am now reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin—another tale of the plague of the powerful over their hapless victims. These timeless stories speak volumes to us in the light our world’s countless present and historical travesties, all of which are committed by the strong over the vulnerable in the name of some terrible immoral ideology.
All who live and have lived in these circumstances have known full-force the reality that we, here, allow only to flutter around the edges of our anxious minds: that life is fragile and sacred, and that we are all vulnerable. That people can be capable of heroism or cruelty. And if we give in to our fears and allow ourselves to be overwhelmed, the enemy is victorious not over just the body, but over hearts, minds and the spark that spurs us on to live and love.
And I sense that, as you are reading this, you are no more prepared to let the enemy win that I am, even as we face the harsh reality that the enemy is not just far away, but very near. It is fed by ignorance and cruelty and despotism in all of its forms – all around us.
So what are we to do? First, of course, we can redirect the energy of our frustrations and stand up for what is right and moral and loving. We can educate ourselves and others, and raise our voices about injustices. And yet… we may still feel as if we are small and unable to bring others out of the enslavement of brutality.
We recall a wise and powerful adage from our tradition: If you save one life it is as if you have saved the whole world. But which life? Where? When? And how?
It seems to me that the evils of the world are fostered where there is a lack of the one thing that makes us human and compassionate, civilized and humane: LOVE. It is the lack of love and kindness and the hope they engender that brings human beings to desperate measures and terrible acts that we cannot in any other way comprehend.
I do believe that love is the only force powerful enough to put an end to hatred and cruelty. And everywhere you look, people are desperate for love. Souls are waiting to be infused with hope. Ignorance is ripe to be overcome. So yes, we need to be vigilant and active about what is happening far away. But perhaps even more so, and every day, to be involved with what is happening here, in our own homes, neighborhoods and communities.
Can we make a difference? Of course we can. It is because we are vulnerable that we cannot give in to feelings of helplessness. As we read in Pirke Avot—we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to turn away. With every act of kindness offered generously and with full hearts—from working at the food pantry to mentoring a child, from offering rides to the infirm to visiting prisoners—we plant a seed of hope not only in the person we help—but also in our own hearts. In a hundred thousand small ways, we can shine light into dark the corners and help ensure that fear and desperation will find no firm foothold. At least not on our watch.
This week’s Torah portion commands us to swear off cheeseburgers. Well not exactly. It was the rabbis that created the prohibition against mixing meat and milk products, but the foundation of the matter is indeed found in the Torah. Parshat Ki Tissa contains one of three instances in which the Bible warns us not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
To understand the rationale behind the “cheeseburger clause,” we may have to go back to the Book of Genesis. When Jacob, upon re-entering the Land of Israel after a prolonged absence, is brought word that his brother Esau is rapidly approaching accompanied by a band of 400 armed men, he is “greatly afraid and distressed”. The Torah records his apprehension in a heart-rending prayer in which he turns to God and begs to be delivered “from the hand of Esau … lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children”. Our forefather’s greatest fear is that mother and child be killed together.
Another biblical source that highlights the same underlying sensitivity is found in the prophet Hoshea. In describing the horrors and wanton destruction brought about by war, he depicts it as a time “when the mothers were dashed to pieces with their young”.
The Bible is keenly concerned to avoid the terrible tragedy feared by Ya’acov and described by Hoshea, and its spreads forth its mercy not only upon human beings but upon animals as well. The Book of Leviticus warns “whether it be a cow or a ewe, you shall not kill it and its young both in one day”. In addition, the Book of Deuteronomy warns against plucking a mother bird from her nest together with her young. Rather we are commanded to send away the mother bird guarding her nest before one takes the eggs or the chicks. If you must take the young, then the mother bird is to be spared.
The illustrious Maimonides pinpoints the focus of the Torah’s concern in both these cases on the suffering of the mother, who is forced to witness the demise of her progeny: He explains in his Guide to the Perplexed that “the prohibition of slaughtering the mother and her offspring on the same day is a safeguard, lest one come to kill the offspring in front of its mother”. Similarly, in the case of the commandment to send away the mother bird guarding her nest before one takes the eggs or the chicks, he writes, “by doing so, her anguish is minimized when the eggs and chicks are taken away”.
However, Maimonides’ predecessor, the exegete and philosopher Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra, takes a slightly different tack. The objective, he seems to opine, is not so much to limit the emotional pain experienced by the mother bird as it is to prevent the development of moral callousness in the hearts and psyches of human beings.
That being the case, he connects the prohibition in this week’s Torah reading against seething a calf in its mother’s milk to this commandment concerning the mother bird. Both, as well as the prohibition against slaughtering the mother and its young on the same day, are fences against human cruelty. What could be more symbolic of the worst sort of cruelty than to take the mother’s milk that was created to nurture and nourish the young animal, and to use it as an instrument of the youngster’s destruction? What greater perversion could there be of the beneficent ways of the merciful God? As such, this precept comes to uplift and to sensitize, serving as another bulwark against the malignant cancer of callousness that is so likely to spread in the human soul as we engage in the slaughter of animals and the preparation of their flesh for our food.
No wonder, then, that our tradition built once fence after another, mandating the complete separation of meat and milk, in an effort to keep us forever distant from the cruelty of heart that would turn life giving milk into an agent of death. Yes indeed, there is much more to the great American cheeseburger than meets the eye.
The terrorist attacks in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and in Copenhagen targeting artist Lars Vilks have reopened conversation about whether there should be limits to free artistic expression. Are cartoon caricatures that offend a religious group too provocative to be protected as free speech?
The Jewish people has suffered for generations from hatred and cruelty. Nazi propaganda, which drew upon ugly centuries-old characterizations of Jews, aided the Nazi’s campaign to dehumanize Jews in the public mind. I sympathize with concerned Muslims who are hurt by drawings ridiculing their prophet, offending their religious beliefs. Some also worry that the caricatures may fuel backlash against Islam. But our two people’s struggles are not quite the same.
There is a distinction between hate speech that is threatening and artistic expression that is just hateful. Some people around the world wonder if provocative cartoons should be restricted from publication. America has always valued freedom of expression, refining the discipline to avoid acting emotionally rather than rationally.
I recall 1977, when the National Socialist party of America petitioned authorities in Skokie, Illinois, to hold a Nazi march. Skokie, then a largely Jewish town with 1/6 population of Holocaust survivors, denied their permit. Court rulings considered whether the march constituted hate speech and should be banned. Ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court decided that the Nazi march was constitutionally protected: “The display of the swastika, as offensive to the principles of a free nation as the memories it recalls may be, is symbolic political speech intended to convey to the public the beliefs of those who display it.” (January 1978)
Where is the line between freedom of expression as protected speech, and hate speech, as banned by law in many states and nations? If someone paints a swastika on the house of a Jewish family or synagogue, or an anti-Muslim slur on the home of a Muslim family or mosque, it is a threat; it is hate speech. The First Amendment protects other free expression: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The right to free expression is a cornerstone of western democracies, based on a faith that ultimately good people and justice will prevail. Yet, we also have the right and responsibility to speak out when the content of speech (or art) seems to cross lines of decency. Is it appropriate to ridicule the prophet Muhammed in caricature? Is it wise? Is it necessary? Do the political messages suggested by the art outweigh the power of its hurtfulness? Are there times when we should self-censor out of decency?
These questions are our shared task as Jews, Christian, Muslims and others, as people concerned about the challenges of a pluralistic world. Jewish tradition teaches us to guard our tongue against evil speech. The task is to hear and speak with compassion as we fix our world (tikkun olam) together.
I believe that there will be no solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict until the Palestinians come face to face with the fact that we Jews have seen ourselves as a people, and not just as a religion, for time immemorial. This is a bedrock fact of our identity. And at the very same time I also believe that there will be no solution to the conflict until we Israelis admit that the there is a national component to Palestinian identity. They understand themselves to be a people, and therefore they are. No amount of denying that will change their sense of themselves.
I also believe that there will be no solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict until a significant number of Palestinians understand and internalize the simple truth that the Jewish People have a long standing and legitimate connection to all of the Land of Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. And at the very same time I also believe that there will be no solution to the conflict until a significant number of Israelis understand and internalize the fact that the Palestinians have a long standing and legitimate connection to that same land – all of it.
Both sides have a legitimate claim to all of the land. The claims derive from different foundations but in the end, the same land is both Israel and Palestine. When we first wake up to this realization, it tastes like a bitter pill to swallow. It might seem to make this an intractable conflict, but denying that truth will only cause us to pursue solutions that will eventually blow up in our faces, because they ignore the deepest truths dearly treasured in the hearts of the people that must make peace if they are not to make war.
So many of us on both sides stick our heads in the sand and ignore one half or the other of this truth. Most Israelis dream that we will wake up the next day and find the Palestinians gone. And most Palestinians very likely harbor the vision of a land without Jews. But it is not going to happen. Both sides are here to stay and both sides deserve to stay and to flourish.
I am not afraid of a complex reality. My study of Jewish sources taught me long ago that “these and those are the words of the living God.” Two truths, even conflicting truths, can both be true at the same time. Our rabbis taught us that “you should make you ear like a funnel to hear the words of those who permit and those who forbid,” that is, those who say yes and those who say no. Not only can two contradictory truths be true at the same time, but more than that: we have an obligation to struggle to absorb both and accept both. Only then does the soul expand towards the fullest truth, “the union of opposites” that Rabbi Abraham Isaac haCohen Kook wrote of so eloquently.
Had do you begin getting to that place? By knowing that all truth is truth from somewhere and never from nowhere. It is from our vantage point, from our perspective – whether individual or national –and is therefore partial. At that is so even for religious truth, revealed truth. God created us such that we rarely see more than a sliver of the whole. Even the revelation at Sinai, according to Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, was only an approximation of the infinite divine truth. God granted us the gift of not knowing it all, in order to provide for us the opportunity to embark upon the journey towards ever-growing truth. Expanding our consciousness to see the truth on the other side, the Palestinian side, is part of the divinely mandated journey.
So how do we Israelis – and the Palestinians – begin the process of seeing and identifying with the other’s truth? By crossing the borders that divide us and getting to know the other. Not by debating but by listening, active listening. By taking off the blinders and opening our eyes to their reality, that is, reality as they see it. By putting ourselves in their shoes. This is not easy. It is challenging and painful and really hard. You have to exert yourself in the search for the fuller truth. You have to hold yourself back from fighting, from arguing, from defending your version of things. At later stages there is room for the give and take of a respectful disagreement, but first you have to listen! You have to listen while you feel offended and attacked and then keep listening. You have to absorb and even identify with it until you feel unmoored and then you still have to listen more. And then you have to put it all together and find room in your soul for two competing, powerful, partial truths.
Naive you say. I would have thought so myself. Except that what I have described is a process of personal transformation that I and scores of other Israelis and Palestinians have experienced over the course of the past year. And thousands of other have been shown a window into this process, all in the framework of an amazing initiative that we have built together in the Gush Etzion area.
Yitzchak Rabin was not quite correct. You don’t make peace with enemies. Here in the Holy Land where our lives are so intertwined, such a peace will not hold. Rather, first each side must learn to see at least some truth on the other side. Then we can be transformed from enemies into human beings, and then into neighbors, and when we are neighbors – each genuinely concerned with the good of the other – political solutions become plausible. As we embark upon the process of making the other into our brother, we can make peace.
This is another way of saying that this is going to require good will. If we come to the negotiating table as if we are at war, doing battle with words, then we will stay at war. If it is about trying to extract concessions from the other side, the efforts to come to an agreement will be doomed to failure. Rather, only when we – and they – truly realize that the more the other side, both sides, can get of its dream, the better off we all will be.
And yes, there are potential ways to fulfill much of the dreams of both sides at the same time. When both sides have made room in their souls for the humanity and the truth and the needs of the other side, we will find the way. There are such plans out there but that is for another article.
To me it appears that this – deep, long term, empathy-creating dialogue – is the secret weapon for the Palestinians to get from us what they want. And it will also achieve for us what we want. It is their tool to attain their dignity – and their rights and their justice and their national aspirations. And it is our means toward recognition and peace. All other weapons harm and kill; this one creates life. If only each side would realize the amazing power of this secret weapon.
These are exciting times for Jewish social justice. This past week, an interfaith group of ministers, led in part by the Jewish group Bend The Arc, staged a dramatic die-in at a Capitol Hill cafeteria as part of the #BlackLivesMatter effort. American Jewish World Service has become a leading global advocate for combating gender-based violence, promoting LGBT rights, and empowering girls to end child marriage. Tru’ah coordinated an active rabbinic presence in Ferguson and is a leader in combating modern slavery and human trafficking. Hazon has galvanized the Jewish community around issues of local farming, health, and environmental sustainability. Uri L’Tzedek, has brought social justice education and advocacy to the Orthodox community. I could go on and on.
But beneath this profligacy of Jewish social justice activism lies what is, to me, an unsettling reality: “tikkun olam,” literally “repair of the world” or, more contextually, “social justice,” is losing resonance at the congregational level. Fewer and fewer synagogues are willing to embrace advocacy as part of their spiritual mission. To put it more dramatically, if the 1963 March On Washington was held today, how many synagogues would participate? Would yours?
This notion of waning congregational interest in tikkun olam work might seem shocking to some. After all, “tikkun olam” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that even President Obama has used it in outreach to the Jewish community; most shuls have social justice or tikkun olam committees; and we continue to teach students in our religious schools about pursuing justice.
But in my efforts first as rabbi of a synagogue and, later, facilitating the outreach efforts of numerous synagogues across a suburban Federation region, I have witnessed an alarming decline in synagogue tikkun olam participation. There is a growing chasm between what I will term “social action” and “social justice.” By social action I mean direct service such as canned food drives, clothing drives, or volunteering at elderly homes or homeless shelters. Social justice, in contrast, refers to advocacy directed towards changing systemic injustices in our society, whether legally or culturally. The Civil Rights movement, and more recently the effort to sanction same-sex marriage, are examples of social justice.
Our synagogues, often through tikkun olam committees, do a tremendous job providing donations and services and should be applauded for doing so. The amount of goods contributed from community gardens, or the number of collective hours spent tutoring disadvantaged inner city school children, represent shining examples of the altruism and beneficence of our shuls. But these same synagogues, especially in suburban or exurban areas of the country, are becoming increasingly skittish about getting involved in social justice advocacy.
A case in point: I recently received a phone call from the leader of a social justice committee at a nearby shul. She wanted her synagogue to support a campaign calling for municipalities to use their collective purchasing power to get gun manufacturers to start producing safer, smarter guns. She (and I) thought this would be a no-brainer. After all, saving a life (pikuah nefesh) is one of the highest values in Jewish law, trumping even Shabbat. Conversely, in the Talmud, the rabbis reject the use of weaponry on Shabbat, even for mere ornamentation (BT Shabbat 63). Her committee’s response?No way—this was far too political an issue for them.
So why are shuls largely pulling back from social justice advocacy? After all, the Civil Rights movement, and more recently the Save Darfur campaign, show that synagogues and their rabbis have been active in social justice efforts in the recent past, taking prominent, visible roles. So why not now?
I think there are at least three reasons for the decline. First, the emergence of effective and specific Jewish social justice organizations, such as those discussed above, has enabled the Jewish community to outsource our concern for the welfare of those beyond our neighborhoods. Worried about women in Africa? Send an online donation to AJWS. Want to take a stand against human trafficking? Click on a Tru’ah online petition. We don’t need our synagogues to get involved in these efforts because we now have alternate points of engagement.
Second, we should acknowledge that Jews in many places have grown wealthier in recent generations. This means that membership–and especially boards–of synagogues have grown slightly more conservative. For example, I had a congregant complain that I sermon I wrote was too liberal when I was merely addressing the mitzvah of pe’ah! How much latitude can a rabbi have to engage her community in social justice if major donors are opposed to doing so?
Third, in this hyper-politicized culture in which we live, some rabbis avoid addressing social justice topics from the pulpit because their congregants want a sanctuary—quite literally—from politics. Shul-goers want a respite from the cacophony of cable news and talk radio. So rabbis steer clear of political issues and instead focus on more spiritual messages.
I firmly believe, however, that more synagogues should adopt a commitment to addressing social justice as a complement to their social action work. From a practical standpoint, many synagogues are hemorrhaging membership, especially disaffected teenagers and young adults. Yet the millennial generation highly values social justice commitment. Looking at an innovative synagogue like IKAR, which has integrated social justice into its mission, shows how effective tikkun olam advocacy can be for stimulating new membership in our houses of worship.
Additionally, to be intellectually honest, those who care about social action should also care about social justice. If we care about gathering food for food pantries, shouldn’t we likewise advocate to adopt policies expanding access to food stamps and other forms of food aid? If we gather clothes or volunteer at homeless shelters, shouldn’t we also seek to address systemic causes of poverty, such as by raising the minimum wage so that those who work full time don’t live below the poverty line, as they currently do? Social action is wonderful and I applaud all those who give of their time and resources to help others. But drawing an arbitrary line between direct service and policy is simply minimizing our impact on issues that clearly matter to us.
Finally, our prophetic heritage should compel us to pursue social justice from our congregational platforms. There is a reason we read the Haftarah in addition to the Torah every Shabbat. Judaism mandates conscientiousness both about our internal ritual lives and the values we express publicly. This spirit of societal rebuke and a refusal to accept the status quo is inherent to our tradition. It began with Abraham standing up to God; continued with Moses standing up to Pharaoh, and later extended to a host of prophets standing up to wayward Israelite kings. This spirit became enshrined in Jewish law, such as the following passage from the Talmud: “We sustain the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, visit the non-Jewish sick with the Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, for the sake of peace.” (BT Gittin 61a) In short, if we want to be a light unto nations, let’s start acting like it!
Our synagogues, and especially the rabbis who lead them, continue to do tremendous work striving to enrich the spiritual lives of those in our communities. They also do a fantastic job sharing their communal resources through social action efforts. But I yearn for the day that our synagogues will see themselves, too, as vehicles for societal transformation. Perhaps then we will truly make inroads in the arduous, daunting, yet inescapable task of repairing our broken world.
Every January I reflect on the lessons of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel famously said of King that “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” Together this pastoral duo was a strong moral compass for the nation, that inspired its citizens. Each man could articulate a vision of a better tomorrow, and more than that, they both believed that each of us could take steps to bring dreams to fruition. “By each deed we carry out,” Rabbi Heschel said, “we either retard or accelerate the coming of redemption. Our role in history is tremendous.”
January also brings with it the President’s State of the Union Address (this year it’s tonight, January 20th). It makes for depressing political theater, predictable applause lines and partisan standing up or sitting down. Representative Joe Wilson made some small waves a few years ago when he yelled, “You lie.” Alas, such is the state of politics lately. What do I want to hear in the State of Union this year?
Dr. King said that “a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” This year President Obama has been traveling campaign-style prior to delivering his State of the Union Address, an historical first for a president. We already know, based on what he tells us he’ll be speaking of, that we can hear more about his tax plan for the 1%, tax breaks for the middle class, and increased cybersecurity. Both of these points are politically expedient – its what most of us want to hear, but are these the points that will us to become ‘a more perfect union’? Heschel said that the task of a statesman, “is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interest.” In contrast to other predictable topics, President Obama has also announced a visionary and ambitious plan to make community college free. To my mind, a bold plan such as free community college does in fact begins to approach “statesman” status.
What do you want the President to turn our attention to? It is worth thinking about. Here is some of my wish-list. If I could, I would implore the president to please use his address to bring our country into honest discussion about:
1) Race relations. Dr. King led a great battle for civil rights, but enough time has passed to measure his success, and sadly, in large measure, blacks and whites in our great country still misunderstand and mistrust each other.
2) Food. Every citizen deserves safe, inexpensive, healthy food. All too often inexpensive, accessible food is also unhealthy food. Factory farming, unethical treatment of animals, and illogical farm subsidies for certain crops also needs changing.
3) Economy. There is tremendous income inequality in the world. By one report, in 2016 the top 1% will control 50% of the world’s wealth. This wild imbalance is a threat to the democratic process, and is a recipe for the exploitation of resources and workers in the name of profits.
4) Human Rights. Our world is still dealing with modern, actual slavery. Human sex trafficking is a significant issue, and so are the sub-human conditions in the mining of rare earth elements for our cell-phone and other gadgets. What do we stand for as a leading nation on this planet if we care more about the low price of smartphones rather than the people, often children, who are forced to mine the minerals necessary for their production? We are all complicit in this atrocity. Will call attention to what should be an unacceptable situation?
5) Gun Control. The Constitution gives us the right to defend ourselves, but that does not preclude us from creating some common sense guidelines to protect our citizenry. Every day there is a new senseless tragic story. Yesterday’s heartbreak came when a nine-month-old baby was shot to death by his five-year-old broth in Missouri.
6) Environment. 2014 was the driest year in recorded history, and marine biologists are asking people to track tidal king waves in preparation for a ‘new normal’. Our oceans are facing catastrophic die-off. President Obama has recently staked out methane as a new emission to regulate, but there is so much more we need to do to protect our environment. Are we willing to invest time and money into a safer healthier planet for our children? Is fracking safe?
In 1967 Dr. King said, “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Beyond Vietnam.
In a 1963 telegram to to President Kennedy, Rabbi Heschel wrote, I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency…The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”
The hour once again calls for ‘high moral grandeur’. Let this new year surprise us with an end of governmental stagnation and political point-scoring on both sides. The president has the opportunity to set the agenda of the big conversations we need to have. Frankly, with the House and Senate both in the hands of the same party, Congress has a real opportunity to lead as well.
And we too have a role in demanding and creating a better tomorrow. Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” Dr. King put it this way, “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” It begins by articulating your dream for this great country.
Long ago, legendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan sang in his gravelly tones, that “the times, they are a-changing.” He was a truth teller in a time of historic social justice activism.
Those of us who remember the 60s and 70s recall the courage of Vietnam protesters, civil rights marchers and women pursuing equal rights in society and under the law. They stood and strong and took great personal risks to advance their just causes. Values, ethics and laws were challenged—and changed. These efforts were not without cost: The Kent State Massacre. The Watts Riots. Lynchings. Beatings. Imprisonments. It seemed as if our nation was on fire as the passion and effort lurched our society into a new evolution. Not that the work was completed, but, strides were made.
And then, many, or most, of the activists got married, had kids and that, for the most part, was that, as Dylan’s message was lost in the 5-CD player shuffle. But in truth, the times never stop changing, nor do we, in our priorities, morals, social values, and willingness (and sometimes lack thereof) to accept challenges—and to raise them.
Last week, we watched in awe as some 3.7 million citizens and world leaders converged throughout France to raise what I took to be a cry akin to “Never Again”—though it remains unclear what the next steps in this multi-national outcry against terror may be.
The news now reports details about the long and twisted web that directly links the Paris attacks to ISIS, painting an unnerving picture of the months and years to come. At the same time, the actual terror of the attacks—the human fear and anger and frustration—have oozed from news sites’ front and home pages and have settled into a somewhat safer space in our lives.
In our own lives, perhaps. But not so much for the people of Paris, or Boston, or the Iraqi Christians fleeing from the same terrorists. Or the people of Belgium whose have learned that their police force had been targeted. Or maybe the Ohio neighbors of Christopher Cornell, the seemingly average boy-next-door, who is in custody for allegedly planning to bomb the U.S. Capitol building and gun down fleeing legislators in the name of ISIS. And not so much for the families of all who have been murdered in these horrendous attacks all over the world, nor all who came within a hairs’-breadth from becoming victims.
In our lives, for the most part, we have known people who were directly affected by the injustices against which the throngs rallied. Now, we are being called to respond to a global crisis and ensure basic physical security and basic human rights for all who seek peace.
Of course, this nightmare hits us very close to home as we read of the proliferation of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel commentaries in France and many other many nations after last weeks’ attacks (links: 1, 2, 3, 4). So when we hold the cry “never again” as a sacred commitment to our people, we must extend our commitment to our entire human family, because none of us will ever be safe until all of us are safe.
If 50 years ago it felt as if our nation was on fire, today it can seem as if the whole world is aflame. The people who are now on the front lines fighting this world scourge are our brothers and sisters every bit as much as the twelve million individuals who were murdered by the Nazis. They face torture and execution as their communities are destroyed. They are victims not just of terror, but of hatred parading as righteousness—even as the ISIS equivalent of “Heil Hitler” is ringing throughout the Islamic extremist world. It is again time for action and passion. A time to raise challenges—and meet them. As we learn in Pirke Avot, (Ethics of our Sages) we are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.
Nous sommes Juifs. We are Jews. It is our duty to act, and teach our children not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors both next door and half a world away. We need to learn and educate and inspire others. We need to give generously to help victims of terror wherever they are in the world. And we must make our voices heard here at home by our legislators so that they will know that we are not willing to not stand idly by. Not now, not ever.
When I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.
But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.
They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.
Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.
I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.
The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.
Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.
Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.
And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?
Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.