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Archive for August, 2013

            I noticed it first in a post by a colleague on the CCAR Facebook page – a closed community page only for Rabbis of the Reform movement.  It was a video of Sam Horowitz, a recent 13 year old bar mitzvah boy, doing a pre-choreographed dance at his lavish party at the Omni Hotel in Dallas, TX.  The dance routine began with scantily dressed girls dancing while a curtained round platform descends eventually revealing Sam.  You can see the whole routine at this link:

http://fox2now.com/2013/08/15/sam-horowitzs-amazing-bar-mitzvah-dance/

You have to admit that Sam is a very talented dancer.  The video went viral and Sam repeated the dance on GMA.  All of this provoked the usual outrage in rabbinic circles, many, many comments about the obscenity of overly lavish bar/bat mitzvah parties, questions about the values this transmits to the children, and laments over how this has become the way a sacred Jewish rite of passage is being represented in the media and the internet.  I agreed with most of the criticisms.

Then came a column by Rabbi David Wolpe, of a Beverly Hills congregation, blogging for the Washington Post.  In his vituperative column, Wolpe consistently referred to the young man sarcastically as “Sammy,” deriding him for the denigrating effect of his dance on the meaning of the bar mitzvah process.  Probably most striking was the tone of the insults he leveled at Sam writing, he “poorly approximated a pubescent Justin Timberlake.”  I do not know how many detected any irony in a Beverly Hills rabbi critiquing an over the top bar mitzvah party in Dallas, but Wolpe’s words about the young man were definitely harsh.

Even so, the reaction of most in my circles was a condemnation of the materialistic values that the dance represented and the seeming over indulgence by the parents.  Many wondered how much of a publicity hound Sam was because of his willingness to reenact the dance on TV.  No one paid much attention to the tone of Wolpe’s article until Sam’s rabbi, William Gershon, wrote a letter in response.

Rabbi Gershon did not argue with Rabbi Wolpe’s dismay over the rampant display of materialism.  He took him to task for his denigrating tone of the young man, saying such language describing one of God’s children was unbecoming of a rabbi.  He went on to give a lot of insight into Sam, his dedication to Jewish studies, his involvement in the congregation, and his love of learning the liturgy and leading the congregation in prayer.  He called Sam a “sensitive soul,” and lamented that Rabbi Wolpe had not looked beyond the surface of the dance routine to see the actual person.  To Rabbi Wolpe’s credit, he wrote a letter of apology to Sam that he posted on his blog site.  He admitted to writing the original post in anger, and that he was too quick to press the “send” button.

I do understand the angry reaction to Sam’s dance.  It does represent the worst excesses we see at so many Jewish celebrations that seem to stress the lavishness of the party instead of the holiness of the moment.  I also question why it was necessary for the Horowitz family to encourage the reenactment on Good Morning America.  The desire for publicity just feels a little wrong.  However, I do not have the mistaken belief that Sam is truly an “adult,” even though he has come to the age of responsibility in terms of Judaism.  I am very disturbed by the knee jerk reaction to Sam, as it resulted in very inappropriate words being directed at a child, and not just by Wolpe.  Too many of my colleagues jumped to conclusions.  Too many were ready to judge the young man strictly by what they saw on the video.  No one, in all the discussions I followed, asked for context (I am guilty of this too, by the way).  A lot of us got caught up in self righteousness.

It is poignant that all of this occurred during these weeks before the High Holidays, the month of Elul.  This is the time to search our souls for the repairs we need to make; to look at relationships that need to be mended.  All of this conveniently provides a lesson in the need for admission of wrong and apologies.  But I think something Rabbi Wolpe said in his apology needs a bit more examination.

He spoke about writing in anger, in reaction.  He spoke about being too quick to post his initial column on line.  Isn’t that what most of us do?  We are in a world of instant information, instant judgment, instant results, instant gratification, and instant reaction.  We are in a world in which our reaction can be instantly seen by countless numbers on the internet.  We are in a world in which our urge to click “send” too often overcomes our common sense.

What horrified me and so many colleagues was the rampant superficiality represented by the dance.  It seemed like the grossest caricature of what bar mitzvah in America has become.  To make it worse, it is just inappropriate for a 13 year old boy to be cavorting on a stage with a bunch of underdressed women.  But our reactions were superficial.  We reacted to a 3 minute U Tube video and failed to do what all of us urge others to do – look beneath the surface for the back story on Sam, to get context for this performance.  We assumed the family was Jewishly disconnected based on this video.  We assumed the worse about the boy.  We did everything we counsel our congregants not to do, beginning with pre-judgment.  We forgot there are ways to rebuke aspects of the behavior without denigrating the people or their motives.

I, for one, needed this reminder.

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            I read an interesting post on the St. Petersburg blog by Karen Cyphers about “interparty” dating.  In 1960 only 5% of people were opposed to people of different political parties dating.  In 2010 that number has gone over 40% – for Republicans it is close to 50%.  Cyphers compared this to the trajectory of approval of interracial dating.  In 1958 only 4% approved of interracial dating.  In 2010 that number grew to 86%.  What is interesting about the graph published on the blog showing this data is that the growth of those against interparty dating has spiked upwards since 2008 – the year the first African American president was elected.

The statistic missing from Cyphers’ blog post was attitudes regarding interfaith dating.  My guess is that the graph for this would follow the trend for interracial dating.  From 1958 until now I believe there would be tremendous increase in the acceptance of interfaith dating.  I think this graph would be a steady increase, rather evenly through the decades as opposed to the spike in approval of interracial dating in the last 5 years.

Some might be surprised that interfaith dating was even controversial.  While it might have never been quite as controversial as interracial dating, Americans today are quick to forget the deep religious prejudices that plagued our country for much of its history.  The KKK had Catholics on its hate list right along with Jews and blacks.  Protestant prejudice against Catholicism was quite deep.  It took a special appearance by John Kennedy and a speech to the Houston Ministerial Association to allay fears enough for Kennedy, a Catholic, to carry Texas in the election.  So Catholic/Protestant dating for the first half of the 20th century was almost as unthinkable as any kind of Jewish/Christian dating.  Today, I cannot imagine much opposition to interfaith dating except for Moslems.  They have not yet gained enough of America’s trust to be THAT accepted.

All of this leads me to another thought.  If dating someone from another political party now creates more objections than interfaith dating, is that a sign that politics is now the new religion?  Allow me to explain.

For most of American history religious affiliation really had little to do with choice of political party.  True, Jews have voted Democratic in consistently high numbers, but that is because of the political needs of the generations of Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century.  Many east European Jews were not religious at all, but were politically active in labor movements.  They naturally gravitated to similar political affiliation in America.  However, it was hard to argue that one should be Democrat based on the Torah.  Further, Jews were and still are a tiny minority of the American religious population.  The greater Christian population was well represented in both political parties.  Although the Catholic vote was once mostly Democratic, that eroded much faster than the Jewish vote, which is still overwhelmingly Democratic.  Those who today identify Evangelicals as Republicans, forget that Democrat Jimmy Carter was really the first Evangelical to inject his faith into the political arena by speaking about how his faith led him to certain political positions.

Now, I venture to say, that a person’s political beliefs influence their choice of faith far more than their faith influences politics.  Unlike the past, if you know someone’s political party, you can probably predict their religion.  It was during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency that the concept of a politician being chosen or approved of by God really got traction in the political arena.  More and more church leaders who leaned Republican began to tell their congregations that if they were truly believers in God/Christ – whatever, they would vote Republican.  In other words the test of their faith was based on a political choice.

What about the Jewish world?  Well, I am sad to say that most non-Orthodox Jews use their politics to define their religion.  I have to constantly remind congregants that agreeing with the platform of the Democratic Party does not necessarily make one a good Jew.  A Baptist minister friend of mine joked that mixing religion and politics is like mixing ice cream with manure.  The ice cream will not improve the manure and the manure will surely spoil the ice cream.  I will leave you to decide what in this analogy is the ice cream and what is the manure.

We seem unable to understand is that religion and politics, if operating properly, are operating in separate arenas.  Religion is supposed to connect one with what is divine in our world.  It is supposed to make us God oriented and God sensitive.  Along the way it points to moral and ethical problems along with our need to live morally.  Our faith sensitizes us to need.  Our choice of politics only represents the policy choice we make to address that need.  There is no political mandate in religion.  Allow me to give an example.

In this week’s Torah portion we are given some instructions as to how to alleviate suffering.  Deuteronomy 24:17 – 22 teaches not to subvert the rights of strangers and the fatherless; to leave some of the gleanings in the fields for the destitute along with fruit from trees and vines.  Since very few of us own fields, orchards, or vineyards how should we carry out these commandments which, in summary, tell us to do our part to relieve the suffering of the poor?  Politicians will give various ways to solve this.  Democrats will urge social programs.  Republicans will insist on a combination of the free market providing work opportunities along with individual charity.  Religion, including Judaism, does not mandate the details of solutions.  It only commands that we care enough about the poor to find a solution.

So I conclude that our political affiliations are now the most defining  boundaries in our country.  Few people really care about what church or synagogue you attend.  In fact affiliation rates are dropping fast for all religious denominations.  No, identities are more defined by the church of Democrat and the church of Republican.  And don’t you dare bring home someone from the other side to mom and dad.

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            The pain is palpable.  Feelings are raw and exposed.  Here in Florida the aftermath of the trial of George Zimmerman has brought no resolutions, only a hardening of the two narratives formed around the case.  The narratives are parallel and in some ways mutually exclusive. You either see the racial tensions revolving around Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal, or you ignore them.  It either raises the specter of racial profiling, or it doesn’t, depending on which narrative of the story you accept.

One narrative goes something like this.  Zimmerman was a concerned citizen living in a neighborhood experiencing a run of thefts.  He saw a suspicious, unknown person walking in the neighborhood.  This suspicious person had followed a car into the gated neighborhood through the car gate as opposed to the pedestrian entrance.  Zimmerman followed him for a bit, and called the police.  The police told him they were sending someone and he did not have to follow that person any more.  That person, Trayvon Martin, turned out to be a juvenile delinquent with a growing record, who had been suspended from his school in Miami for possessing drugs.  Martin, on the phone with his girlfriend when he realized someone was following him, referred to Zimmerman as a “creepy cracker.”  Being prone to violence; rather than going into his father’s girlfriend’s home, which he was visiting, turned and violently attacked Zimmerman.  He pushed him to the ground and pummeled him, until Zimmerman, fearing for his life, pulled his gun and shot Martin.

This narrative also interprets the aftermath of the events as follows.  While not a racially motivated killing, the media sensationalized it into one.  First NBC doctored the recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call to create the impression that he was racist.  Second, the media brought in a constant discussion of the “Stand Your Ground” law, even though the defense never used it as a basis for their defense of Zimmerman.  Race baiters around the country turned Martin from a nascent criminal into an innocent angel.  This narrative places the blame squarely on Martin, and while not saying he deserved to die, sees his series of actions as suspicious, violent, and the real reason he was killed.  Zimmerman is just an innocent citizen, doing his civic duty to the neighborhood.

Now for the second narrative:  Zimmerman was a police wannabe.  Having been rejected from a law enforcement program, he went on to start a Neighborhood Watch in his community.  He had a habit of calling the police, making dozes of calls in the few years before the run in with Trayvon Martin.  That night, he saw a young black male wearing a hoodie.  His 911 call to the police demonstrated his disdain through his comment, “These (expletive) they always get away.”  His trailing of Martin, a troubled young person from a split family, scared Martin, who expressed his fear to his girlfriend on the phone.  Martin had been doing nothing but walking back to the house he was staying in after buying some Skittles and an ice tea at a convenience store.  Zimmerman’s suspicions were based on the fact Martin was black and wearing a hoodie – that is he profiled him based on race and dress.  Martin panicked and attacked Zimmerman because Zimmerman was following him.  This narrative sees racism in attempts to turn the deceased from a victim into the perpetrator.

I have now spent time with the Dream Defenders – the group of young people, primarily but not exclusively, people of color; who are staging a non-violent protest in the governor’s office at the Florida state capital.  I have listened to their fears, concerns and most important – their stories.  Their protest is not really about Trayvon Martin, but a larger context.  They see the constant singling out of black males placed under suspect, and all fear either for themselves or friends and relatives.  They do not wish to walk the streets in fear for their lives.  They want to see the stream of young black males that leads right from the schools to the prisons be addressed.  They see a context that includes the racism demonstrated after Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at the All-Star game in July (check out the tweets calling Anthony who is a first generation American of Puerto Rican parents, a Mexican, non American, a travesty – those were the nicer comments).  They see the failure of Republicans in the House of Representatives to take fair immigration reform seriously.  They see a Fox interview with Reza Aslan in which his qualifications to write a book about Jesus are questioned solely because he is Moslem.  They see a swath of America that refuses to acknowledge the open prejudice that is exhibited every day.  They see a part of America that denigrates the poor as unworthy instead of unfortunate.  They are trying to work within the democratic process to begin the process of change here in Florida.  They are searching for justice, a justice with some heart.

This week’s parashah is Shoftim, which means “judges.”  We are instructed to create a system of courts that treats everyone with equal respect and consideration.  No deference is to be shown to either the wealthy and powerful, or the weak and poor.  It contains one of the most famous lines in the Torah, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, which we generally translate as “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) One of the most important aspects of God’s instructions is that they charge us with the responsibility to do this.  Human action is required to construct the justice system.  Once that system is up and operating; it is fair to ask if it is commensurate with the legal and moral expectations that God requires of us.

That is what the Dream Defenders are doing.  They are questioning both the technical details of the law (e.g. is “Stand Your Ground” necessary) as well as the morality behind a circumstance that leads to the death of a young black male who was headed back to the house he was visiting after buying Skittles and ice tea.  One can accept the idea that a “not guilty” verdict for Zimmerman was the only possible one the jury could render under Florida law.  But “not guilty” does not mean innocent.  Zimmerman’s suspicions of a young man dressed in a hoodie who turned out to be black, his initial pursuit, and the attitude he must have projected that evening all contributed to the tragedy.  On the other hand, Martin went in the wrong gate and decided not to just hurry home after seeing he was being followed.  We will never really know if in the 3 minute gap between the end of Zimmerman’s 911 call, and the first of the neighbor’s 911 calls, if Zimmerman decided to continue pursuit or Martin doubled back to assault him.  What we can say with certainty is that Trayvon Martin was a troubled, struggling teenager – a kid – who made some dumb decisions.  He should not have had to die for them.

Finally, the word tzedek not only means “justice,” but “righteous” as well (see the use in Isaiah 11:4).  We can read Deuteronomy 16:20 not only as “justice, justice shall you pursue,” but “righteousness, righteousness you shall pursue” as well.  The Dream Defenders are merely asking where is the righteousness within this justice?  I wish I had the answer.

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            I got home Monday evening from 2 months of amazing journeys – a lot of which have occupied this blog space for the past 2 plus months.  But upon arriving home it was time to catch up on the few TV shows I like to follow.  One of them is “Real Time with Bill Maher.”  I know.  Bill Maher is a kind of love him or hate him guy.  I think he is really funny, often clever, but I do admit there are some moments; some comments that make me cringe.  Last night I watched the episode that first aired last Friday evening.  Among his guests was the Reverend Jim Wallis.

Wallis is an evangelical pastor, but one who embraces many causes for social justice often not associated with evangelical Christians.  His presence shows how misunderstood the depth and breadth of the evangelical Christian movement really is.  It is far more diverse, far more embracing of a multitude of political views and agendas than most people think.  This is a lesson I have learned in my years in Tallahassee.  Evangelicals come in many different stripes and beliefs, but united by the desire to spread the “good news” of Jesus’ message.  Maher calls Wallis “one of the good ones.”

One aspect of their conversation was really interesting.  After Wallis told how Jesus’ message about the poor (he cited Matthew 25 about how you treat the least is how you are treating Me) has shaped his perspective on social issues.  Maher began to push him about accepting the Bible as being from a perfect God.  Maher’s critique (and the critique of all atheists) is that it contains not just the messages about peace and love, but a lot of laws that seem arcane and cruel as well as passages justifying the slaughter of innocent populations in God’s name.  Wallis tried to respond that the overall message was one of love, of caring for the stranger, but Maher would have none of that, saying that he did not see how one could get guidance from a book containing so many hateful passages along side of the inspiring ones.   Maher’s underlying question was really how can this book, filled with these contradictions, be considered a guide for anyone.

I would like to provide the answer that Rev. Wallis could not.  He could not give this answer and still be considered an evangelical Christian pastor.  Mordecai Kaplan, the rabbi who founded the Reconstructionist movement taught the following.  The Bible (in particular the Hebrew Bible) was not written by God and handed to humans.  Rather it is the human record of interaction with God.  I believe that the preponderance of evidence, including Biblical literary criticism, source criticism and just plain logic confirm that the Bible is a human construct that wrestles with the nature of God.  The power of the Hebrew Bible, and I daresay the Christian Bible as well, is that reflects the range of human emotions, actions, and beliefs about God.  It contains the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I contend that is a great thing, not a flaw.

Moreover, the figures of the Hebrew Bible are not superheroes, not demi-god figures portrayed as perfect.  They are humans with all human flaws.  Moses, David, Solomon, all of the prophets – they are presented with all their great achievements as well as all of their warts.  Of what use would a Bible be that only presented the good side of human existence and reality?  If we did not see the misapplication of religion in the Bible how could we then really understand the heights to which profound, moral spirituality can lift a person?  Most important, the Bible, particularly the Torah, actually commands us to use our intellectual and spiritual faculties to make choices about the kind of life we wish to live.

A great example of this is in this week’s parashah (Torah portion), Re’eh.  The first word, re’eh, is the imperative form of the verb “to see.”  We are commanded to “see” something.  The Torah says, “Anochi notein lifneichem b’rachah u’klalah.” “I put before you blessing and curse.”  The command to see this is a command to understand and perceive it.  We can often “look” at something but not “see” it.  Seeing means a level of comprehension beyond what is obvious on the surface.  Jews are not literalists who are ever satisfied with the plain sense of the words.  We are trained to question, to investigate – to seek out – the meanings within the text.  Meaningful choices can only be made after “seeing.”

Unfortunately, most people only “look.”  Most people either accept or condemn based on a cursory reading or understanding of Torah/Bible.  Seeing takes effort; an effort most are not willing to make.  Yet that effort can lead to life that is indeed filled with blessing, not only for the individual, but all the people that person might affect as well.  The true beauty and power of the Bible is that it takes all of the possibilities open to humanity and tries to understand those possibilities in the context of the divine.  It is a lens for forming our relationship with God.  Through proper study and reflection, it becomes a lens for living life.

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