Can the Jewish people find common ground? Is there enough that brings together all the varied different ways of being Jewish to find a shared destiny and shared future? Our differences these past few weeks have come in sharp high definition. The elections in Israel that secured Benjamin Netanyahu more time as Prime Minister. The speech by Netanyahu to the U.S. Congress shortly before the elections in Israel. The heightened public disagreement between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu that continues to escalate. The recent J Street conference in Washington D.C. where the President of Hillel, Eric Fingerhut, withdrew from attending because one of the chief negotiators for the Palestinians, Saeb Erakat, would be in attendance. These incidents and many more have brought the question of where is the Jewish common ground to the fore.
All of the recent controversy surrounding the relationship between American Jewry and Israel and the discord within the American Jewish community on Israel does not even begin to touch the longstanding divides along denominational and religious lines. Is there Jewish common ground between a convert to Reform Judaism and someone who identifies with a denomination bound by halakha, Jewish law? Is there Jewish common ground between a person who is Jewish through patrilineal descent and someone who is Jewish through matrilineal descent? Is there Jewish common ground between a person whose Jewish identify is defined by culture and one defined by religion?
I was part of a conversation a few months ago among a very diverse set of Jewish participants in which one person made the assumption that all the people present could at least resonate with the notion that the Land of Israel, if not the State of Israel, has played and continues to play a central role in Jewish thought, belief and communal identity. This assumption was also proven wrong as this too was not a value shared by all people in the conversation.
A month ago I offered the thesis that one can view the Jewish community through the lens of minimalists and maximalists. The minimalists are those who seek to construct a Jewish world around them that only looks like them and desire conformity as a central value. The maximalists want to foster a diverse Jewish community and want to cultivate a Jewish space where varied expressions and points of view are welcome. I made the point that minimalists and maximalists can be found in every Jewish movement and transcend denominations. There are Reconstructionist minimalists just as there are Orthodox maximalists.
Yet, the notion of the maximalist still rests on the idea that when one drills down to the core there is a Jewish common ground to be found. There are some shared principles, shared language and shared ideas that enable the creation of a place where all the difference can meet. The Midrash presented an early formation of this idea when it offered the idea that the Sea of Reeds was not split into a single path for all the Jews to march through but rather twelve separate paths, one for each tribe. Each tribe took their own path but they all arrived on the same dry land and there was one Jewish common ground.
What is our Jewish common ground today? Can we find values, ideas and language that we can use to construct a Jewish shared space? If not, what does that portend for the Jewish future?
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.
It’s not over until…
When the Simpsons go to see Carmen at the Springfield Opera House Homer asked Bart when the show will end. Bart replied, ‘it’s not over till the fat lady sings.’ To which Homer then points to a zoftig soprano on stage and says, ‘is that one fat enough for you, son?’
If you are glad that it is finally Election Day because you think that ‘it will finally be over’, then you’re wrong. “It” being the mind-numbing, ping-ponging Romeny-said-then-Obama-said twenty-four hour news cycle and the billion dollar ad campaigns. And the idea of it being over is wrong. As it stands right now, even in a country where 25% of us are clinically obese there isn’t a fat lady large enough to end this show. The Infotainment industry will not allow it.
My fear is that regardless of who is elected the division created and divisiveness employed in the last two elections have created a powerful schism in the fabric of our country. Regardless of the results of this election, we will remain a country divided. See Thomas Friedman’s piece, ‘The morning after the morning after,’ in the Sunday NYTimes.
Rabbi A. J. Heschel taught, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Rabbi Heschel’s insight should remind us that we must put pressure on our elected leaders, in control of government or in opposition, that we demand action on the 99% of issues where there is agreement. We will not tolerate inaction for the sake of political point scoring or posturing for the next round. As a nation we are above that.
In the Talmudic academy of old, as hot and contentious a place as the US Congress can be, rabbis of diametrically opposed view rallied hard against the other’s position. But there are rules for such a machloket, such a disagreement. First and foremost, the two sides must list everything regarding the issue at hand on which they agree. The Talmud might use the term “chulei alma” – ‘the entire world agrees’, even these two seemingly opposing rabbis about 99% of the issue at hand. Than, ‘mai benaihu’- ‘what is between them’. It is on the minutia of the tiny 1% of a problem that rabbis might agree to disagree.
Regardless of my fear that the battle is done but the war that divides us politically will continue, I pray and hold out hope.
Based on the wisdom of the Talmud understanding of how we go about disagreeing, we must demand two things after this election, regardless who wins the Presidency and who controls Congress: A) Left and Right must publicly and honestly debate the 1% of issues upon which they disagree. B) Right and Left must not use the 1% of issues upon which they disagree as hostage to acting upon the 99% that they do agree upon.
This past Sunday was claimed by many churches around the country ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. It’s the day that the pastors of these churches have chosen to speak not just of the issues that are important to us all, where religious traditions and values may offer some guidance or wisdom, but to speak directly about the candidate that they are supporting.
Wait! What about separation of church and state? You may well ask. What about the IRS and preserving their 501 c3 status, which does not permit the endorsement or political candidates by such organizations?
Well, it appears that this group of church leaders are intentionally thumbing their nose at the IRS. They are making the claim that they have a 1st amendment right to speak freely from the pulpit on any matter. It also appears to be the case, according to a report on PBS’ ‘Religion and Ethics Weekly’ a couple of weeks back, that the department that might pay attention to such breaches and the regional directors who might respond do not currently exist, so it is most likely that pastors who choose to speak out from the pulpit this Sunday will face no consequences for doing so.
Now, its interesting to note the somewhat non-inclusive nature of this ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. There are no synagogues or mosques identifying with this movement. Although it has certainly sparked some conversation among rabbis, and I suspect that I’m not the only rabbi who spoke on this issue last Shabbat.
And it does appear that there are considerable numbers of religious leaders who are comfortable parsing the difference between their 1st amendment rights as individuals versus their organization’s limitations based on their tax-exempt status. So, for example, while it would be wrong for a synagogue board to vote and endorse, on behalf of the congregation, a political candidate, should or could a rabbi who works for that congregation publicly do so as an individual in their own right?
Over 600 rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’. There is no equivalent website with names listed for Romney, although a rabbi has sought to create such a group and can be contacted online too.
I will tell you now, my name is not on that list. And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it. I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit. And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right. Continue reading
I have loved watching the conventions ever since I watched the Democratic Convention in 1988 and heard my fellow Texan, Ann Richards, skewer George HW Bush. She gave the keynote address at the convention that year, and become famous for her biting sense of humor. She made the famous quip about George HW Bush, “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” I was honored and excited to campaign for her for Governor of Texas in 1990, and cheered her victory at her inaugural ball where she came to the podium and said, “I know men invented high heels because otherwise they would not hurt so much.” Standing with aching feet in high heels myself, I cheered and hollered for this sassy strong woman.
My fascination which conventions continued when I was fortunate to attend both the Republican and Democratic state conventions in the summer of 1992 as an intern for the American Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I staffed the AIPC booth, handing out flyers and answering questions about Israel. President Bush was at the Republican Convention and soon to be President Clinton spoke at the Democratic one. The great state of Texas brings in star power! I remember checking out the other booths and chatting with the volunteers as a sense of excitement swirled around us. We were part of something important.
I watched with tears in my eyes four years ago when Obama accepted the nomination. “We Shall Overcome” kept playing in my head. I had HOPE. I was ready for CHANGE. Our first African American President, proof that progress has been made.
So, unlike Rabbi Amy Small, who wrote last week about her lack of interest in watching the political conventions this year. I was excited to tune in. Even though it has been a tough, even brutal, four years, I wanted to feel that old sense of excitement again. Not surprisingly, I did not get it from the Republican Convention. The messages did not speak to me. But the Democrats delivered. Watching Michelle Obama, I wondered why she has not run for office. While not as biting as Ann Richards, her speech reminded me of my old friend. Here stood a strong woman making her case clearly and articulately. She exemplified women’s power. She was feminine in her presentation, a gold, grey, and deep pink dress with hair and makeup expertly done. Yet, her arm muscles displayed a physical strength and her words a mental one.
Bill brought it the next night combining facts and statistics with humor and stories. And of course President Obama himself commanded the stage and had me wanting to stand up and shout “Four More Years!”
I am looking forward to the debates and the rhetoric to be shared over the next 2 months. I wish more people enjoyed the back and forth as much as I do. The back and forth of arguments is part and parcel of Jewish tradition going back to the Talmud where the rabbis argued about the best policies to live by. Like the presidential candidates of today they expressed differ worls views and wanted to shape society to adhere to their own viewpoints. One of the things I love best about the Talmud is reading the ridiculous ways the rabbis try to one up each other. Sometimes playing fast and loose with Biblical proof texts just as some politicians play with facts. Not surprisingly, throughout history Jews have been active in political movements look at the student activist of the sixties, the women’s movement, civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Jews held leadership positions in all of them. Political activism is in our blood. It is part of our inherited tradition whether activists make that connection or not.
So this fall, be a good Jew. Get active in one of the campaigns and fight for an issue that means something to you. One week before Rosh Hashanah is a time to think about the future and what we want it to look like. We each have the power to make that vision a reality. Raise your voice, stand your ground and usher in a New Year that will live up to your dreams. Shannah Tova!
Rick Santorum’s recent theological musings will likely prove to be an irresistible teaching moment for clergy of all sorts. Here’s my take on his take on President Obama’s take on the Bible’s take on nature.
First, let’s go to the tape…
On Saturday, at an event in Ohio, Santorum contrasted his own views with Obama’s “phony” theology, which is “not a theology based on the Bible, [but] a different theology.” A day later, on CBS with Bob Schieffer, he clarifed that he was not questioning whether or not Obama was Christian, but was speaking specifically about the President’s environmental policy:
Well, I was talking about the radical environmentalists…That’s what I was talking about: Energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do – that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.
In contrasting “stewardship” with “service,” Santorum is alluding to the divergent creation stories at the beginning of the Bible. Yes, “stories.” Biblical scholars have long noted that there appear to be two stories about the creation of the world in opening chapters of Genesis. In the first, God creates the heavens and earth majestically, with divine speech; in the second, God is more of an artist, fashioning people out of clay. Many people (including many people of faith) accept a theory known as the Documentary Hypothesis which posits that several different written sources existed independently of each other, in some cases for hundreds of years, before they were finally edited together sometime after the Babylonian Exile. People who see the Bible through this lens would see the two different creation stories as reflecting the understanding of two different authors or schools, and would be interested in what the differences between them can teach us about their respective writers.
Scholars assign Genesis 1-2:4a to the source known as “P,” whose major claim to fame is the book of Leviticus. The “P” Creation story has God imposing order upon chaos, a process culminating in the creation of human beings “in God’s image.” Humanity is charged with subduing nature and ruling over it (or “having dominion” over it)…which is to say, humanity is charged with continuing God’s work of majestic mastery.
The version which begins with the second half of Genesis 2:4 is typically assigned to the “document” known as JE. It seems to reflect a more rural worldview. JE’s first human is a farmer, placed in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah, to “work” it (or even, without betraying the original Hebrew, to “serve” it) and to “guard” it. Limits are placed on humanity’s dominion over the planet in this creation story.
One need not accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to learn from the contrasts between these two chapters of Genesis. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith” (also part of this week’s zeitgeist…thank you very much, David Brooks, for acquainting your readers with The Rav) sees in “Adam I” and “Adam II” contrasting, but necessary, expressions of a sound relationship between humanity and nature (and God). The “majestic man” of Genesis 1 and the “covenantal man” of Genesis 2 are both incomplete pictures of a human being. Taken together, they begin to describe us in our complexity. Indeed, for Soloveitchik, one couldn’t exist without the other, and the presence of the two of them is evidence that one very talented Hand wrote both stories.
Are we to master the world, subdue it, have dominion over it? Or are we to guard it, preserve it, perhaps even “serve” it? The Bible doesn’t answer that question; it merely helps us know how to ask it. And while Rick Santorum speaks the helpful language of “stewardship,” by placing that term in opposition to “service,” he seems to be leaning toward a view that is shaped primarily, if not exclusively, by “Adam I” thinking. For his part, President Obama’s environmental policies may lean more “Adam II” than Candidate Santorum’s (or not — ask some environmentalists what they think!), but to brand them as the product of a “phony theology” is to demonstrate a weak understanding of the full breadth and complexity of religious teachings on humanity’s relationship to this vast and bountiful, but by no means infinite, home.
Many Jews have ambivalent feelings about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Thankfully, the Jewish story in the United States has largely been one of success. The dominant narrative (but by no means the only narrative) is that Jews came as immigrants to this country, worked hard, got educations, and moved from the poor, to the middle class, and in many cases in to the upper classes of American society. Those Jews who have achieved great financial success feel attacked by the Occupy Movement. At an event held by the Edgar Bronfman Foundation where Simon Greer, the head of the Cummings Foundation, presented on “Jews and the 99%”, a man in the audience commented, “Why am I being painted by the Movement as a bad guy? I am not a bad person. I am an example of how to succeed in this country.” He was able to fulfill the American dream. He grew up poor, went to college, founded a business and is now considered to be “successful by any standard,” he said.
What Simon Greer, and an Op-Ed by Anderw Kohut the president of the Pew Research Center, point out is that Americans are not upset that there is income inequality in this country, but rather they are upset that it seems that now those in the lower economic echelons do not get a fair chance at raising themselves out of their current state. In Kohuts Op-Ed, he cites “ a Gallup poll last month found 54% believing that income inequality was an ‘acceptable part of our economic system’…What is different these days is that a despondent public, struggling with difficult times and an uncertain future, is upset over a perceived lack of fairness in public policy. For example 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.”
People need to have hope that they can do better. Hope that their dreams can be fulfilled. Hope that their children’s lives will be better than their own. Depression is really an apt word for the state of this country right now. A key symptom of depression is a lack of hope. Kohut ends his op ed by writing, “What the public wants is not a war on the rich but more policies that promote opportunity.”
Jewish leaders and the Jewish community have a lot to teach Americans about hope. The concept of hoping for a better time in the midst of the deepest darkest days is a central theme in our liturgy, the way we organize our communities, and the Jewish nationalist quest for a homeland in Israel.
First take a look at our liturgy. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce, Jews have prayed and hoped for the re-establishment of the Temple. This hope for an eventual return to the holy land, and the re-building of the Temple carried the Jews though thousands of years of Diaspora living. While holding on to this hope, the Jews leaders crafted a Judaism not based on offering sacrifices to the Temple, but rather on daily prayer and rituals. A new Judaism emerged, one which today makes the rebuilding of the Temple itself irrelevant. Yet, it was the hope for the return to the land of Israel and dreams of the Temple that carried Jews forward. Without hope, all would have been lost. Statements and prayers for hope can be found all over the prayer book and Jewish texts.
Then, during the nineteenth century Jews across Europe had the hope of one day making it to the “goldene medina,” the golden land of America, where they imagined the streets were paved with gold. This hope propelled tens of thousands of Jews to travel from across Europe in many different waves of immigration to the US. Then once they were here, the hope of eventual success in America caused Jews to organize Jewish welfare boards, Jewish Social Service Agencies, Jewish Community Centers, and the United Jewish Appeal in order to help Jews here in America and those suffering from persecution in every corner of the world. The Jewish community erected an amazing social support system which still exists today. The Jewish value of helping the poor, widowed, and orphaned was then and still is today taken seriously by the leaders of these organizations. With the hope of eventual success these great organizations would never have been established, and the Jewish community would not be as successful as we are today.
And of course, there always was the hope of returning to the promised land, to Israel. While Jews dreamt about Israel in different ways, some for religious reasons, others for secular nationalist ones, the goal of achieving a homeland stayed with Jews for centuries. It is no surprise that the name of the Israeli nation anthem is “Hatikvah,” “The Hope.”
We have a lot to teach about sustaining hope and the power the simple act of hope has to propel people forward to achieve great things. The Talmud teaches, “you must remove the stumbling block before the blind.” Now is the time to organize to remove the stumbling blocks which stand before us. The Occupy Movement will not succeed if it is based in anger. The message needs to be turned around and made positive. Hope is a positive message. It is the message that propelled Barak Obama in to the White House four years ago. But four years of continued economic depression had taken hope away from the average American.
Let’s restore the hope that the American economy can be strong again. That those who work hard and want to succeed can. Let’s remove the stumbling blocks that exist for those born into poverty. There are many different viewpoints and public policy arguments to be made on how to do this. I am not going to advocate here for any particular one. But I am going to strongly assert that before any particular policy can be effective we have to re-establish the grand hope that our country has the will and resources to help all of its citizens get a leg up.
All of us need to start preaching the call for hope. This is the starting point for our individual and collective success.
Last Monday evening a light rain fell on the Capitol City where I live on 16th Street, a mile up from the White House. I caught a bus in front of my house to go downtown for a class. After five minutes, the bus stopped unexpectedly.
Police cars blocked the entrance to the tunnel. We all imagined the worst. The bus turned to the right to find an alternate route. Another string of police cars blockaded that street as well. The driver led us through the traffic, the rain — the uncertainties of getting to our destinations on time.
Next to me sat a red-headed, attractive, thirty-something female who, suddenly realizing the situation, offered up the explanation. “Oh!” she said, “They must be blocking off the streets for the president. I’m going to hear him speak at the Hilton Hotel, but I guess I am going to be late.”
Well, the president is coming! That changes everything! I got off the bus and began walking in the rain among the others who were finding this rush hour to be particularly challenging. Police kept us in line and politely guided us to the other side of the street. We waited as the president’s motorcade drove by.
Big, beautiful, shiny black limousines passed in front of me with American flags waving in the wind. Which car holds the president? Will he notice this rush hour public? The locomotion of the city streets became a still life picture. People ceased their chatter and their movements. We froze in a timeless moment.
I closed my eyes and prayed for his safety. Like a flash mob at the end of its performance, people slowly began to walk away from the scene. All with their own thoughts. All a little late to their activities.
If they resonated with the atmosphere that surrounded us, perhaps like me, they were uplifted by the ritual of the moving motorcade of the president of the United States. A miracle on 16th Street.