12 September 2017

Standing in the Rain/Speaking Truth to Power

Temple Sholom congregant David Richmand* just shared with me David Brooks' latest OpEd in the New York Times about the universal imagery and lessons of the flood narrative.

As always, I find Brooks to be knowledgeable and willing to go beyond the surface level in his thinking - especially in areas concerning morality.  While the texts about Noah are not new to me - and hopefully not new to our congregants (I've cited them a few times in classes and sermons.) - he does explain them well and they are very useful to bring forward.

Rabbinic commentary goes back and forth about Noah.  As a human being in an extraordinary situation, there is sympathy for what he is able to do.  On the other hand, with the benefit of hindsight, the comparison with Abraham (vis a vis standing up to God to reconsider the punishment) is highly critical.  I view this dichotomy with one lens and two lessons.  The stories that have been preserved for us in Jewish text are those that we are meant to learn from.

The first lesson is that we should show compassion and understand the humanity of others.  Our tradition has a concept that what might be proper to say before someone makes a decision, might not be the right words after the decision is in the past.  We have guidelines on how to behave - prescriptively; and then a process for repentance (t'shuvah) when we realize that we may have made the wrong decision.  We act with sympathy, even if we disagree with the decision.

The second lesson, that Brooks brings out, is that we are called upon, by our tradition, to speak up for others.  Abraham becomes a model for that - compared with both Noah and Abraham's nephew, Lot.  They are not condemned by the text. Rather, Abraham is held up, in that instance, as a better model.

Brooks' takes this argument in a bit of a different direction - that the lesson is that we must not blindly accept ANY authority.  Remember, as we will read next week at Rosh haShanah, Abraham later follows God's command to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, without an explicit word of protest.  (Rabbinic commentary does attempt to find an implied argument in God's detailed description of who is to be sacrificed.)  Living under Roman authority and trying to find a way to justify a Jewish Rabbinic authority at the same time, the Rabbis walked a tightrope.  I would read the more nuanced idea that we should not blindly follow authority that acts in contradiction to the morals that we have been taught to not only espouse, but bring into the world.

An early shanah tovah to you all.

*Update - Natalie Darwin also called to let me know about this article.

02 May 2017

Israel, Thy Very Name is Struggle - Yom haAtzma'ut 5777

Today is Yom haAtzma'ut - Israeli Independence Day.  In Genesis, when Jacob receives his eponymous name for our people, we are told that it means the one who struggles with God and humanity.  [Gen. 32:28]  Nowhere else is this more apparent than in our modern day redemption in the state of Israel.

For millennia, our people have lived by the oft-repeated Biblical exhortation to remember that we were strangers in Egypt, and to empathize with those not in power; who felt like strangers in their own land.  Without political and state power, there was little to put this maxim to the test.  For the past 69 years, Israel has given us the blessing of a real, physical homeland - a source of pride and the ultimate redoubt for our people. However, we have also been given the opportunity to apply the politics of  minority to the power of the nation-state.  In many ways, we have succeeded.  Israel is a democracy, surrounded by dictatorship.  Yet, not only does the shadow of religious fundamentalism tinge the democracy of its Jewish citizens, but the increasing insularity of the Jewish populace continues to encroach on the rights of all the non-Jews - citizen and non-citizen alike - who find themselves sheltered with Israel's borders.

This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of the miraculous victory of the Six-Day War, which brought with it the dubious benefit of increased territory and a vast refugee Arab population.  When its neighbors washed their hands of responsibility, Israel became the breeding ground for a Palestinian resistance - one which dominates the political landscape of Israel - both within its pre-1967 borders and without.  The miraculous underdog of 1967 and 1973 is now perceived as the bully of the Intifada. Israel has failed to find a solution for the Arab population that it finds itself in control of, and we are being changed in ways that only a few (Moshe Dayan, for example) imagined.  Force and repression have become our only tools.

The Palestinians, separated now by name from the rest of the Arabs in the Middle East, have become the underdogs.  Americans, always sympathetic to the underdog, are torn. Many American Jews turn away from an active engagement with Israel because the situation is too divisive, too fraught with difficult moral issues, so different from the David and Goliath story of 1948, 1967, and 1973.

Yet, today is Yom haAtzma'ut.  Atzma'ut - independence - comes from the root ayin-tzadi-mem - which is not only the self-reflexive term in Hebrew, but is also the root for "bone".  Israel is in our bones.  We, as Jews, no matter what our genetic origin, pray for the peace of Israel at every service, and long to return to mythic Jerusalem at every seder.  We cannot ignore our connection with Israel, lest we lose our backbone, our support and structure.

We are Israel - those who struggle with God and with humanity; nowhere more evident than in the modern state of Israel.  Right struggles with left; Ultra-Orthodox with Reform and Conservative; Ashkenazic with Sephardi/Mizrachi/Indian/Ethiopian; Jew with Arab; Diaspora with Sabra.  The struggle is not new.  Judaism teaches us that - but also that we engage in the struggle with certain values to guide us - love your neighbor as yourself; help even your enemy with his fallen burden; and treat the stranger as the native.  The passage in Genesis says that Jacob not only struggle with God and with humanity, but that he prevailed.  Prevailing is not necessarily winning.  Let us hope that we, too, can find a way to prevail  - a way that preserves not only our own rights and dignity, but those of the ones we, today, find as enemies.  Then we can truly live up to the name which has been bequeathed to us by the generations - Yisra'eil.

30 January 2017

Hevel, Hevel, haKol Hevel and I'm Not Sure What's New under the Sun

I have a tallit that my family made for me to wear when I planned to march with the NAACP's Journey for Justice in the summer of 2015.  I could not make that trip, due to illness, but I wore it one or two times at rallies since then and at at the opening of the Reform Movement's Nitzavim campaign in August.

Since last week, I've decided to keep it to hand in my car.

I had a congregant angry at me yesterday because I did not tell her in the morning that I would be speaking at an immigration support rally that afternoon.  That morning, I did not know.

Last Thursday, I attended a meeting of statewide clergy to talk about the sanctuary movement and how I could help to keep people from being deported.  I learned at that meeting that a man that I had helped to keep from deportation three years before was now being called in for an emergency meeting with ICE.  Two days later, my colleagues and friends were demonstrating at airports all over the country to let people with valid papers who had already arrived leave airport detention.  The next day, I marched with groups focussing on both issues - "No Ban, No Wall."

Many of the faces that I am seeing at these meetings and rallies are those of people I have met in local interfaith groups, testifying for marriage equality in New Jersey, organizing for reproductive rights, rallies against hate.  Are we preaching to the choir, or is it strengthening to standing with stalwart companions?

I am also seeing congregants, colleagues, college and high school classmates, former congregants, parents of my children's friends, old youth groupers.  Faces that are new in these places are a joy to behold.

On Facebook, there is live video feed from friends all over the country chanting and marching in separate places, together.

Today I had a phone call with an organizer I have worked with in the past and all that kept running through my head was that the old organizational math was no longer valid.  What used to add up now subtracts, and the rules of the political game seem to be quaint memories.

I do not know what to do - and I have spent a life time learning.

I do not know what is next - and each news item spins me in another direction.

Kohelet, the voice of the book of Ecclesiastes begins by saying, "Hevel, hevel, ha kol hevel" - the King James' Bible translates this as "Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity!".  The new Jewish Publication Society as "Utter futitilty!"  Mist, unsubstantial mist - we are tilting at shadows, sparring with ghosts.

And yet, the book ends, in what I would argue, is a fourth-wall breaking wink, "The making of many books is without limit, and much study is wearying of the flesh."  We can only rail in our libraries for so long and then the time comes to put down the book and go out into the world.

You'll find me out in the cold.  I hope you join me there. We'll warm each other with the fire of righteousness.