Category Archives: Justice

Why Freedom of Expression is So Essential

shutterstock_243316642The 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.

Posted on February 22, 2015

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A Secret Weapon for Peace

We Refuse to be Enemies

photo credit – Bruce Shaffer

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.

Posted on February 6, 2015

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Are Synagogues Outsourcing Tikkun Olam?

512px-March_on_Washington_editThese 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.

Posted on January 27, 2015

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“The State of the Union is …”

imgresEvery 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.

Posted on January 20, 2015

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

“Never Again”…Again and Again and Again

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.

Posted on January 16, 2015

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The Souls Who Whisper are Yelling Now

candlesWhen 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.

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Posted on December 19, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Pathos of Exodus: What Hollywood Blockbusters Have To Do With Ferguson and Giving Tuesday

Moses_and_Aaron_before_PharaohMy boys are getting psyched for the upcoming release of the blockbuster Exodus: Gods And Kings. Exodus promises to be this generation’s The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, a theatrical rendition of the biblical exodus from Egypt that will resonate for years, if not decades.  And, like any depiction of biblical material, it is already sparking controversy: both for its failure to include non-Caucasians in leading roles and for its depiction of God as a moody and demanding child. For eight and 11- year-old boys who attend Jewish day school, though, Exodus is a dream come true: matching the biblical narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim (redemption from slavery in Egypt) they have studied at length with a Hollywood director’s imagination and 3D special effects. Though both the plot and the acting are reported to be somewhat shaky, the digital cinematography will surely be breathtaking.

I plan to return to a discussion of the substance of this movie in my next blog, after I have had a chance to see and analyze it. But there is an aspect of the movie, and its relationship to the biblical narrative, that I want to discuss today because I think it addresses many of the most pressing social and racial issues of our times. Simply put, I hope the movie Exodus spends a good deal of time depicting the horrors of slavery that the Israelites endured before it moves on to the heroic tale of Moses and Aaron standing up to Pharaoh and the climactic battle at the Red Sea. One of the central tenants of Passover, in which Jews commemorate the exodus story, is that we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, were slaves in Egypt.  The Torah, too, returns again and again (Exodus 12, Exodus 13, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24) to the injunction that we remember the experience of slavery in Egypt. Why? Why such a fixation on the bad part of the story of redemption, rather than just the celebration of God’s deliverance? I believe the answer is that we are compelled to feel empathy. We, as Jews, are not allowed to forget what it feels like to suffer, to feel powerless, to be subject to the whims of others.

As a society, we are suffering from a paucity of empathy.  The story of Ferguson, I believe, is largely about this inability to experience empathy with what it feels like to be a young African-American in an urban environment.  Lost in the cacophony over whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown is this larger narrative of the persistent, systemic racism that results in young black males being seen as threats to law enforcement and thereby justifies their disproportionate incarceration and killing by police.  As my colleague Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz recently put it, any effort to move forward after Ferguson requires us “to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others.” The exodus story compels us to listen to the pain, the humiliation, and the anger of those of us who are enslaved to this system of injustice.

The same is true when it comes to the issue of President Obama’s recent executive action on undocumented immigrants. Most of the debate in the media and on Capitol Hill revolves around whether or not President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in deciding not to deport approximately five million undocumented immigrants. But where is the discussion about what it feels like to live under the constant stress and duress of being forcibly removed from one’s family? To put down roots in a community, day after day, year after year, while knowing that these roots can be torn apart at a moment’s notice? About having to decide between reporting an abusive spouse and risking arousing the attention of law enforcement versus keeping silent to remain under the radar?  The exodus story compels us to listen to the fear, the frustration, and the suffering of those enslaved to an intransigent, unjust, and nonsensical immigration system.

Today is #Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to giving back to our communities following the gluttonous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  Donating one’s resources to charities is, of course, a wonderful mitzvah.  But, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently wrote, writing checks of offering other financial support is not enough. “The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing.”  Doing generates empathy.  You can’t click your way to experiencing what it is like to go hungry by dropping off a can of soup to your synagogue’s food pantry collection, but you can if you participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week (or even just today) trying to live on the $29.40 per week that those receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits) have to spend on food.  Or you can spend time working at a food pantry, talking to those who are recipients, hearing their stories.

Judaism commands us to remember, to experience anew, so that we can empathize with those who are still struggling. May we be leaders in urging our society to experience what it feels like for those of us who are marginalized; for those who suffer through the systemic injustices of our current society. And in doing so to defeat the Pharaohs of our own day and to help us transform our own society into something a little bit more holy. Now that’s a message I want to teach my boys.

Posted on December 2, 2014

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Rolling My Vegetarian Eyes with Sasha and Malia

256px-Turkeys_on_pathTeenagers Sasha and Malia Obama couldn’t keep a straight face during the annual Turkey Pardon Ceremony.

Thank God for their commentary in body language!

How could anyone keep a straight face during this grotesque theater of the absurd? Two turkeys, Mac and Cheese, named sardonically for vegetarian foods, were publicly pardoned. This took place just after 45 million un-named turkeys were slaughtered for the American celebration of Thanksgiving.

Maybe the pardoning ritual is an uncomfortable joke. Maybe it is an admission of guilt. Maybe it is an awkward attempt at an atonement ritual. Logically, we know that two spared lives cannot erase 45 million deaths. But maybe the ritual of pardon has some power.

Not as much power, though, as the ritual of a thanksgiving offering of animal life.

In Nepal, this week, many celebrated the festival of Gadhimai. In gratitude to this goddess, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of buffalo were butchered. Many American animal activists criticized the foreign festival; some drew parallels with American Thanksgiving.

Jewish parallels can be drawn as well. Some Jewish writers call Sukkot the Jewish festival of thanksgiving. During Sukkot, the Talmud says, 70 animals were offered on the altar. Lest readers be outraged by such decadence, the Talmud hastens to explain its meaning. Seventy animals hint at the 70 nations of the world. Delicately put, a thanksgiving offering touches a universal chord in human nature. Less delicately, a massive sacrifice of animals brings all people together.

Maybe this explanation seems obvious to you, but to me it begs for psychological and sociological interpretation.

Many Jewish scholars describe eating meat as a “compromise.” The Torah explains this through a teaching story: The original human beings were told to eat grasses and seeds. Only ten generations later, however, people and animals were killing one another. God wiped the earth clean with a flood and restarted it with some new rules. People, who could not avoid killing, could now satisfy their impulses by eating animals.

Perhaps partaking of meat at a festival affirms our species-being. Yes, we are aggressive, the ritual teaches, but we do not need to kill one another. Together we affirm a pact: we kill only other species, and only to eat. At American Thanksgiving, we affirm this pact with family and friends; in the Talmud’s vision of the Temple, strangers from around the world affirm it together. The Temple thus becomes a centre of peace.

Of course, some contemporary psychologists would object. Some may view these extravagant meat-based festivals as bonding rituals. But research shows that people who harm animals are more likely to harm people. The manifest lessons of peaceful festivals contain subtle, subliminal messages of aggression: Us versus them. Desensitization.

When you see through the manifest content to the mixed messages, it’s hard to keep a straight face.

Maybe the U.S.’s first daughters were simply uncomfortable watching their father tell bad jokes on TV. But to suggest that would be to underestimate teens. Real teenagers see inconsistencies, ask edgy questions, and work the answers out in deep private conversations.

That’s why I have tried to see this season through fresh teenage eyes. Thank you, Sasha and Malia, for helping me take another look at festive animal offerings and ask, “Why?”

Photo Credit: Dan Smith, Wikimedia Commons

Posted on December 1, 2014

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Cultivating Generous Giving in the Season of Shopping

hands holding four colorsThis Thanksgiving, I felt so grateful for the presence of beloved family. Yet I was also mindful of a friend’s recent comment on the need to have sympathy for those who did not have family with whom to share the holiday. Whether by geography, strained or broken relationships, illness and loss, many could not share the holiday with families.

Others endured the indignity of not being able to afford a Thanksgiving meal. Suffering at home on the holiday, or visiting soup kitchens, it can’t be easy to be outsiders in a culture that seems to elevate “things” over people.

The holiday season has crept earlier, beginning around Halloween. That means that for two months the season of “sharing” can be painful for many people.

Isn’t it ironic that the holiday of “thanks” is celebrated with feasts where abundant food is consumed and discarded? Where is the connection of thankfulness to gluttony? What does this mean for our souls?

The greater irony is that the season of “giving” begins on the holiday of “thanks,” as feasting quickly gives way to shopping. It has become a season celebrating conspicuous consumption.

Enter #GivingTuesday, designated for the Tuesday after Thanksgiving – after the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping feasts.

Founded in 2012 by leaders at New York’s 92nd Street Y, #GivingTuesday is a global day dedicated to giving back. Its common purpose is: “to celebrate generosity and to give.” It brings together charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world.

How can we give generously? Many of us will write checks to charities at year’s end. These tzedakah dollars are essential to countless organizations doing so much good in the world.

Yet, as important as that giving is, it is not enough. The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing. By getting involved, we can make a difference in people’s lives while living our values.

Doing good becomes a natural habit through experience. There are many hands-on ways to give. The Jewish Council for Pubic Affairs will participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving, to raise awareness of hunger and poverty in the United States. For one week, participants will limit their food budget to the average food stamp (SNAP) benefit. The Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest is holding a “Community Challah Bake” to benefit hundreds through Jewish Family Service and local food pantries.

It is important to contribute generously to sustain social justice, learning and religious organizations. But this week, we can commence the season of “giving” with mindfulness of our values and commitment to nurture generous living. True giving won’t be found at stores. It requires a heart-opening to the needs of others, and a commitment to make a difference.

I’ll be at the Challah Bake on Tuesday. How will you get involved?

Posted on November 30, 2014

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Digging Wells for Generations

Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.

Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.

This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.

Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee.  Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.

My great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Jacob Lavitt’s book. Photo credit: Jason Lavitt.

According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?

As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.

Posted on November 17, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy