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Recently I published an guest column in the Tallahassee Democrat criticizing the comparison of the political influence of the NRA to Planned Parenthood.  www.tallahassee.com/story/opinion/2018/03/05/opinion-nra-vs-planned-parenthood-bad-comparison/394038002/

Lynda Bell, the leader of an active anti-abortion group, wrote a response criticizing my interpretation of a Biblical passage.  I wrote a response that was shortened by the paper into a letter.  Here is the full content of my explanation of Exodus 21:22 to 25:

I completely understand the passion of Lynda Bell in her opposition to abortion. She is the leader of a group that leads the fight against abortion in Florida, so of course she sees Planned Parenthood as a mortal enemy.  What I would like to address, however, is the interpretation of Exodus 21:22 through 25. By insisting that her take on this Biblical passage is the only correct one, she misses my point that Biblical passages are seen differently by various religious traditions. I do not claim the Jewish perspective is the only way to read the passage, but that it is as valid as any perspective. So let’s look at the complete passage and see how it forms the basis for the Jewish perspective on assessing life.

Here is the full passage, 22) If men quarrel and hurt a pregnant woman so that her (unborn) child comes out and yet no further harm follows; he shall surely be punished, according to what the woman’s husband will lay upon him and he shall pay a determined penalty. 23) And if any further harm follows, then you shall give life for a life, 24) Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for a hand, foot for a foot. 25) burning for burning, wound for a wound, bruise for a bruise.

While the actual Hebrew has some wording oddities, this passage is not used to either justify or oppose abortion. Rather, it is the basis for establishing that there are different levels of life. The punishment for the loss of the unborn child is a fine, NOT a death penalty. The Torah has many examples of when a death penalty is the punishment for the loss of a life. This is not one, so the rabbinic sages of the first few centuries CE qualify fetal life differently than fully formed human life. In this passage we should note a few things. First, the husband is the one who has a say in the amount of the penalty. The further harm referenced in verse 23 is to the woman, which would then be punished by what is outlined in verses 24 and 25. If the woman loses her life, then the perpetrator loses his and so on.

The Talmud, which is the early rabbinic elaboration on Torah law redacted between 200 to about 600 CE, builds upon the difference between fetal life and fully formed human life. The example used for abortion arguments is a case in which a woman’s life is threatened by the birth of her child, the child can be aborted unless its head is emerging during birth. There are other examples showing different levels of life. Funeral rites are not required for the loss of a fetus regardless of the reason (miscarriage, accident, abortion). They are required for the death of a fully formed human. In the early 20 century, a leading rabbi in Palestine (before the establishment of the State of Israel) took these teachings and ruled that a woman who consulted him, could have an abortion because her doctor concluded the pregnancy would result in her being blind. Of course today we would question how this doctor could know this, but the point is the rabbi used our traditional perspective on the levels of life to make his decision.

Therefore, from a Jewish perspective, the mass murders of students at schools, the mass shooting in Las Vegas, or at the Orlando night club are more horrific than abortions, as they are murders of fully formed human life. I must, however, add this note that will make liberals unhappy. While the Talmud is clear that fetal life is not the same a fully formed human life, it is also clear that fetal life is human life. Ergo, the use of abortion as simply birth control would be condemned by Jewish tradition.

There is so much about all of this to discuss, and I invite Ms Bell to meet with me and set up a community, public discussion. If we do it civilly, perhaps we can find some areas of agreement to bring our community together rather than to verbally fist fight.

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Sacred Space?

February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is about the creation of sacred space for the Israelites as they wander through the wilderness. God says to Moses vayikchu li terumah, “they will take a gift for me.” A key question here is why the use of the verb “take” instead of just “they will give me a gift.” Then begins a long list of valuable and beautiful materials that will be used for the space, along with this sentence, V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti betocham, “They will make sacred space for me (a sanctuary) that I might dwell among them.” A question asked by Rabbi Yitzchak Arama is, since the Israelites experienced Sinai and learned that God is not material, why is it necessary to create a material sanctuary for God?

One answer is to read this not just literally, but metaphorically. The sacred space we create for God is about the world we create, the morality and/or goodness that are the result of our actions. A midrash from Pesichta d’Rav Kahana teaches that human action either draws or repels God’s presence from our world. If we act evilly, God’s presence leaves and retreats to heaven. If we act righteously, God’s presence dwells with us.

We are currently repelling God’s presence.

On Valentines Day – a day of “love,” 17 people were killed and numerous others wounded at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. This is the third mass school shooting in our country since January 1 of this year. Please tell me what other major developed country has any where near the number of mass shootings as the Untied States. The answer is none.

One of the students killed was Alyssa Aldaheff, a 14 year old girl who attended Camp Coleman. A young man from our congregation, Andrew Goren, who is now a student at UF, was one of her counselors in the Kesher unit last summer. Here is what he texted me, “She was loved throughout the unit by her friends and her counselors.” Andrew attended her funeral today in Parkland, FL along with other staff members from Camp Coleman.   This sadness has touched many of us. Another one of our younger students is camp friends with Alyssa’s younger brother.

I have never been one who has been vocal on gun issues. I have always felt that gun ownership was not the major cause of our problems with violence. After the school massacre in Columbine about 20 years ago, I agreed with Pope John Paul II’s observation about our country, “America has to provide its children with a moral vision.” The problem is American culture; its obsession with raising the desires of the self constantly above the needs of the community, the idolizing of guns by a significant portion of the population. We worship the god of personal liberty to the point of forgetting the responsibilities and obligations we have to each other. In many ways I still believe these attitudes, which corrupt our culture, are at the base of what causes gun violence.

Now I feel that enough is enough. I am sick of the continued tragedies in which innocent people, most horrifically children in schools, keep getting murdered. Already numerous Republican leaders and right wing commentators are chiming in once more that this is not about gun ownership, but about mental health. The left, of course, makes this about gun ownership. Here is the reality. Both sides are right that their concern contributes to the problem. And, both are wrong if they think their perspective is the only correct way to view the problem.

But now I admit feeling real anger with leaders like Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and President Trump, just to name a few. They all cite mental illness as the cause of the mass shootings, yet they fail to do anything to prevent gun ownership by those displaying mental illness that could lead to violence. This shooting is a prime example of what is wrong with our system. The accused shooter, Nikolas Cruz, (who has confessed to the shooting), was expelled from 3 schools for exhibiting violent tendencies. He has at least a 5 year documented history of mental problems. The staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was warned to be on watch for him as someone who could pose a potential threat to the students. A staff member who saw Cruz enter the campus sounded an alarm and called for help, but the response was not soon enough to prevent the shootings.

Of course we must add to this tragedy the failure of the FBI to properly process the tip it received on Cruz the beginning of January. This is inexcusable!

However, here is a key question. How could Cruz legally obtain an AR 15 semi-automatic assault rifle given his tortured background? Here is another question. How can a person not old enough to even legally buy a beer be allowed to buy an assault rifle? But here is the most important question. What is our political leadership going to do to stop standing behind ideological lines and have real discussions on how to handle gun violence not only in schools but in our country period?!

The answer to the last question is – nothing.

Why? Because they are corrupted by idolizing the self as opposed to what is good for the community. They are corrupted by political ideology instead of truly caring about morality. Politicians care more about raising money for re-election than doing what the country really needs.

Who is to blame? Well, I certainly lay a good share of blame on the NRA. This is an organization that has become an immoral lobbying group for gun manufacturers. Their payments to politicians to prevent them from even having significant dialogues on the possibility of reasonable and effective gun laws is reprehensible. Marco Rubio received over 3.3 million from the NRA. President Trump received 30 million – and switched his view supporting a ban on semi-automatic weapons expressed in a book in 2000, to being even more radical than the NRA!  The NRA’s lobbying was successful in getting congress to pass a law a number of years ago, that prevents government agencies from even researching the connections between mental health and gun violence. This is beyond hypocritical. It is corrupt. In Florida, they successfully lobbied for our legislature to pass a law preventing doctors to have discussions about gun safety with their patients, so they cannot even discuss safe gun storage to prevent accidental shootings. We need to shout out and condemn the NRA for what it really is.

I also blame the 2nd amendment, or rather, those who now see it as freedom to obtain any weapon without restrictions. Do you really think the founding fathers, in particular James Madison who wrote the Bill of Rights, would have wanted the situation that exists today given the ultra advanced forms of guns existing now versus the single shot pistols and muskets existing in their time? Further, it is likely the 2nd amendment was written in the context of the importance in the early years of our country, of maintaining state militias. I have come to believe the 2nd amendment, at least as interpreted by certain groups, is not only irrelevant, but harmful. We live in a different world than the 1780’s.

Mostly, however, I blame us. We are failing to make our voices heard. We are accepting corruption. We have become too complacent. We should be inspired in our resistance and protesting by some of the students who survived the shooting.

One, Carly Novell, hid in a closet for 2 hours, much like her grandfather, Charles Cohen, did 70 years ago. He also was hiding from a mass gun shooter. What I love about Carly is her response to a tweet by Fox newscaster, Tomi Lahren which read:

“Can the left let the families grieve for even 24 hours before they push their anti-gun and anti-gunowner agenda? My good ness, this isn’t about a gun, its about another lunatic.”

This was her response:

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there, you don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns and this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.”

Other students who survived are protesting and pushing for change. They are providing the leadership us older folks have failed to do for them.

I do not claim to know what the real solution would look like. I do not know what changes to the laws will be most effective. I only know that the jabbering of right wing newscasters, the presence of the NRA, and ideological rigidity on all sides will not bring us to the answer. I strongly believe that protests and pressure on leaders at all levels can make a difference. Here is a reality. Poll after poll shows that an overwhelming majority of our country wants some kind of change to gun laws to address this problem. We must begin to speak out.

In Judaism, pekuach hanefesh, the saving of a life, is one of the highest values. The Talmud teaches that one who saves a single life is like one who saves an entire world. One who takes a life is like one who has killed a whole world. The 17 lives lost in the shooting are the destruction of 17 worlds. If we are going to create sacred space that invites the presence of God, we need to save lives, not kill them. We need to create holy space that recognizes the sanctity of life, that enacts laws to prevent the loss of life. When God says the Israelites must take something from themselves to give to God, that implies much more than just giving a superficial gift. We must be willing to take something from our self desires, our egos, and sacrifice it for the sake of our community at large. Perhaps then God will decide to rejoin us. If we do not take action, our prayers will be meaningless.

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“If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you”  Psalm 137:5,6

These words from Psalm 137 deeply reflect the Jewish attachment to Jerusalem. It is a part of our history, our religious development and of our soul. One cannot discuss Jerusalem without evoking deep reactions, especially for those who have been to Jerusalem. I lived there for almost one year, the year I began my rabbinic studies. My experience there was life changing. My connection to the city is undeniable. Given the context of President Trump’s announcement recognizing Western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, allow me to separate from my emotions for a moment and share some historical facts.

First, the Jewish connection to Jerusalem goes back up to 3,000 years. It has always been the capital of Judah, and we can confirm that archeologically at least to the 8th century BCE. At the end of the 19th century, before the Zionist movement began bringing new settlers to Palestine, the majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish. This included a Jewish quarter in the Old City. As Jewish immigration in the early 20th century increased Jewish presence in Palestine, Western Jerusalem grew as a Jewish area. In November of 1947, when the United Nations passed the resolution to create 2 states in Palestine, one Jewish and the other Arab, it included a clause that Jerusalem should be an international city, open to all and dominated by none.

The rejection of the United Nation’s resolution by Arab leadership in Palestine as well as the surrounding Arab nations meant Jerusalem became an open target for dominance by either side. During the 1948 war, Jordan captured and took control of the Old City and East Jerusalem. Immediately afterwards the Jordanians destroyed the Jewish quarter of the Old City. The Israelis took control of West Jerusalem and soon afterwards declared it to be the capital of the new state of Israel. In 1967 Israel took back the Old City and Eastern Jerusalem during the Six Day War. It is important to note that during the 19 years of Jordanian occupation of the Old City, no Jews were allowed to enter and pray at the Western Wall. Under Israeli control all religions that see Jerusalem as a holy city are permitted to engage in their religious activities.

Given all that I have related so far, it is clear to see why any Jew who cares at all about Jewish history, Israel, religious observance, or personal connections to Jerusalem; would feel emotional stirring by President Trump’s announcement recognizing West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and promise to eventually move the American embassy there. However, as Americans and human beings, we need to look at Jerusalem and its status holistically; recognizing there is much more depth and complication than the emotional shout of “hooray” that we feel as Jews. In short, I agree with URJ President Rick Jacobs’ remarks at Shabbat services this past Saturday when he stated that as Jews of course we support the reality of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but we must question the timing and context of the announcement.

Why? To start there is the reality of what happens “on the ground,” both politically and in the streets of Jerusalem. The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as an eventual capital of their state if there can be a two state solution. The reaction is not capitulation but resistance resulting in violence – which is harming both Palestinians and Israelis. While we can list criticisms of Palestinian leadership, in particular their support and urging of virulent anti-Semitism in their communities; we cannot deny that the presence of Palestinian Arabs in the whole area once known as Palestine, is as legitimate as Jewish presence. That is the tragic sadness of two peoples, both with real historic and emotional ties to this area, but whose needs and connections are in conflict. How does the President’s unilateral declaring of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital contribute to a true, peaceful resolution of this conflict? It does not. It only adds to existing tension, in addition to the rising of distrust of the United States as a potential moderator/negotiator.

The bigger context than Jewish concerns is the seemingly random acts and declarations made by President Trump that stir controversy. There is no real strategic reason for many of his declarations other than a way to feed his unending narcissistic need of feeling the love and support of his base, and/or trying to draw some others into his base by playing with their emotions on an issue. Another example of this is his declaration of banning transsexual people from the military. His base loved that but those in responsible positions that have to deal with consequences made it clear this was not happening so fast (if at all). If the President is truly concerned about finding a peaceful solution for the issues between Israel and the Palestinians, this random declaration was a senseless act, thinking only for his short term desires not long term strategy.

We must point out that every American administration, whether Democrat or Republican, has put the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the larger context of being part of an overall peaceful solution. Trump, however, cares not about true solutions, but about his own, egotistical, emotional needs given any moment. I am saddened that a place I care about so deeply – Jerusalem – has now become just another tool for the con artist in chief.

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It was the day after our last Jewish Food and Cultural Festival. I came into my office and saw I had a voicemail. I pressed the button to listen. Here was what I heard, “Heil Hitler! I am going to put you Jews into my concentration camps…” Some of the rest was garbled but it ended with this, “you Jews have to stop stealing our money.” A few weeks later we learned that a white supremacist group, The Republic of Florida Militia, had posted on FaceBook they were having a protest at Temple Israel. The incident turned out to be a big nothing, but was worrisome nonetheless.

But there is more. Our teens are experiencing anti-Semitic incidents in their middle schools and high schools at levels I have not witnessed in my 16+ years in Tallahassee. Shomrei Torah received 2 anti-Semitic letters. Now put this in the national context. The ADL reports that anti-Semitic incidents have surged in 2016 and 2017, as much as 86%. Most recently, white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, VA, shouted “Jews will not replace us!” as they marched through the city. Interviews with participants were clear about their hatred of Jews, stating the often held racist view that Jews control the country.

We Jews are not the only people experiencing hatred. This past June a white man in a Chicago Starbucks was filmed calling a black man a slave. In May racist graffiti was sprayed on LeBron James’ home in Los Angeles. In College Park, MD an African American, Richard Collins III, a lieutenant in the US army, a senior at HBCU Bowie State University, who was only days away from graduating, was stabbed to death by Sean Urbanski, a white student at the University of Maryland who was a member of the Facebook group called “Alt-Reich: Nation.” Add to these more horrifying incidents like the murder of Philando Castile by a policeman in St. Paul, or the massacre of 9 members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church by Dylan Roof.

The existence of racisim and anti-Semitism is very real, and I see deep parallels. We Jews have an extensive history of suffering from anti-Semitism. The African American community has a sad and deeply disturbing history of being victims of racism in the United States; our country that prides itself on equality. It is time to face reality.

What is that reality? It is partly demonstrated by two events that occurred in Tallahassee schools last year. At SAIL High School a group of students laid down on the school grounds and created a human swastika. At Chiles High School for weeks a group of students displayed Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. It was only after a social media threat that the principle of Chiles banned their display. The reality is that we are failing to properly teach our youth about the history of bigotry, about how even symbols of hatred can be oppressive. We are failing to provide them with moral examples.

I am sure everyone here is appalled by the sight of a swastika. It is a horrible symbol of oppression, not just for Jews, but numerous others. I am not sure that everyone understands how, for many people, especially African Americans, the Confederate flag inspires the same emotions. Many folks are taught a version of Civil War history that excuses the leaders of the Confederacy; stating they revolted to protect state’s rights. Here is the fact. The state’s right they wished to protect was slavery. Further, the constitution does not give a state the right to secede from the Union. Ergo those who rebelled and formed the Confederacy were traitors to the United States: traitors who, knowingly or not, defended the right for whites to own black slaves.

How does the Confederate flag fit into this? It was a battle flag carried by Confederate armies. It symbolizes the actual war against the United States, and was adopted by racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, carried in their fight against attempts to create equality for African Americans. One of the most famous examples is the use of the Confederate battle flag by protestors supporting George Wallace, as he stood in the doorway of a schoolhouse to prevent the admission of blacks to the University of Alabama. Often when Wallace would speak, that flag would be displayed behind him, or on his podium. His speech in the doorway promised “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The Confederate flag is associated with the defense of segregation. To the black community, it has the same emotional effect as a Nazi flag does to Jews.

For the black community, the Confederate flag is a reminder of decades of the horrifying experiences they suffered. Recently Audrey and I had the chance to visit the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC. It is in the old Woolworth’s store where demonstrations to end segregation at its lunch counter took place. On February 1, 1960, four African American college freshman sat down at the white section of the lunch counter. Over the next several months the protests grew, with whites and blacks coming together to try and end segregation. I must say that seeing the actual lunch counter, while hearing this history, was intensely moving. More important, the museum presents the brutality African Americans experienced for over a century after slavery ended.

First was the degradation of segregation: separate schools, using separate bathrooms than whites, drinking from separate water fountains than whites, to be forbidden from staying in the same hotel as whites. The list seems endless. The museum had a coke machine from the 1950’s which was 2 sided. One side faced a whites only waiting room in a train station, the other side faced a blacks only waiting room. The side for the whites was a nickel cheaper than the coke for blacks, and although the machine had on it the cokes were ice cold, that was only true for the white customers. Schools were supposedly separate but equal. Just take a look at pictures of white classrooms and black classrooms during that era. The facilities and learning materials provided to blacks in public schools were disgustingly inferior, based on the thought that blacks did not have the same learning capacity as whites. It was thought, for example, that blacks’ brains would become non-functional above a certain altitude. It took the formation and success of the Tuskegee Airmen to demonstrate how stupidly wrong that was.

The most horrifying aspects of black life in post Civil War America were the violent vigilante actions by the KKK and similar groups. Earlier this year was a reminder of one of the worst episodes, the murder of 14 year old Emmett Till in 1955. Till was accused of flirting and dog whistling Carolyn Bryant, a married white woman. Till, from Chicago, was visiting family in Money, MS. He was abducted by Bryant’s husband and a helper; tortured and killed. His body, so disfigured it was not recognizable except by a ring he was wearing, was found in a river. The murderers were found not guilty. A number of months ago, Carolyn Bryant admitted that Till did not flirt with or whistle at her.

Emmett Till was a famous case. Have you ever heard of Ben Chester White? He was a sharecropper who at 67 years old in March of 1966 was shot 17 times by a KKK group to attempt to lure Dr. Martin Luther King to their area of Mississippi in order to murder him.

These are only two of the unending terrorist attacks that African Americans suffered, in addition to the inequality of segregation and denial of access to the resources necessary to lift themselves to a better life. Having a history of over a century of being treated as second class citizens, is it any wonder that the killing of African Americans by police ignites protests by Black Lives Matter? The incidents open the wounds of recent African American history and the systemic racism that still exists.

We, as Jews, should understand that feeling. A few weeks ago a congregant here made me aware of a FaceBook site called “Jewish Ritual Murders.” This site claimed that incidents of Jews killing Christian children for ritual purposes, dating back to early medieval times were true. It criticized Jews for not acknowledging that these murders are part of our history, as well as condemning us for refusal to admit that we have rituals requiring murder to obtain blood. The site attempted to appear logical, and moderate, by saying many religions have rituals requiring murder, so why don’t we Jews own our past? How many of you know of any Jew who has practiced the tradition of killing a Christian child to obtain their blood to make Passover matzah? That’s because there is no such ritual. There is nothing in Jewish text, tradition or practice that even mentions this. This is known as blood libel and has been used against Jews, to justify the oppression of Jews, for centuries.

Blood libel is likely the invention of an English Benedictine monk in the 12th century. A young boy, William of Norwich, was found dead in 1144. The monk blamed his death on local Jews; but as there was no evidence, the authorities did not prosecute anyone. In 1190, however, the Jews of Norwich were massacred in revenge for the murder – 46 years later! Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

There are numerous other accusations of Jews committing blood libel. One of the most famous is from 1475 and the death of a 3 year old boy, Simon of Trent in Italy. Torture was used to force false confessions from the Jews of Trent and 8 were executed.

These events can be read about on line today in radical Catholic sites that try to affirm them as proven cases of Jewish guilt, and the existence of ritual murder as part of Judaism. Add to this another aspect of Jewish history from the early middle ages. Jews were forbidden to own land or to practice most professions. An exception was money lending. This is used to accuse Jews of being shady characters, out to steal Christian’s money. Our historic oppression is twisted against us even today, feeding the flames of anti-Semitism.

We all know how recent history affected Jews. In addition to the Holocaust there was also strong anti-Semitism right here in America. Father Charles A. Coughlin used his radio show to deride Jews, implying their depravity in phrases like “international bankers,” and criticizing Jewish financiers for their attempts to control the world. As the situation for Jews grew worse in Europe, the Roosevelt administration did little to increase immigration quotas to allow more Jews to escape the Nazis. A group of American athletes supported a boycott of the Berlin Olympics in 1936, but Avery Brundage, chair of the American Olympic committee, refused to acknowledge the mistreatment of Jews in Germany. Later, as head of the international Olympic committee during the 1972 Olympics, Brundage refused to end the Munich Olympics after the murder of 9 Israelis by terrorists. For decades Jews were subject to quotas at many universities. My own parents were prevented from joining a social club in Fairmont, W. VA because they were Jewish.

Can anyone really criticize us for being a bit hypersensitive when anti-Semitic incidents occur? Can anyone really criticize African Americans when incidents arouse their recent memories of an oppressed existence in America? The historical memories of blacks and Jews are why our reactions to the events in Charlottesville, VA are so strong. Seeing confederate flags and swastika flags carried side by side ignites the worst fears in both of our communal memories. The prejudice we hoped would die is clearly still alive.

But Charlottesville does not represent the full reality of racism and anti-Semitism. It represents the extreme. Most Americans are not neo Nazis or white supremacists. The reality of bigotry is far more subtle, yet pervasive. It is present in ways we don’t often acknowledge or even recognize.

For African Americans the reality of bigotry is present in every day life. Yes, the police shootings get a lot of media attention, but how often do you either feel or witness distrust of blacks? When I was 23 and living in Philadelphia I was a big brother to a 9 year old African American child. The Big Brother headquarters were located in a north Philadelphia neighborhood that was mostly African American. It was just after a major snowstorm, and I needed to pick up some paperwork at that office. When I came out, my car was stuck in the snow. Every time I pushed the gas pedal the wheels just spun. I looked up and saw 4 young black men coming towards me. My initial thought was “Oh boy, I am in big trouble.” They knocked on my window and asked if I needed help getting out. I said yes, and the 4 of them helped push the car out of the snow. I offered them $10 but they refused, saying they just wanted to help. I must ask, how would you feel now seeing 4 young black men coming towards you with your car stuck in the snow? If you say the feeling of distrust is natural then think about how you would feel if it was 4 young white men.

African Americans sense the institutionalization of racism. And they resent when facts are twisted to deny the truth of their feelings. For example, I have seen posts in FaceBook dismissing the existence of institutional racism based on a Harvard study comparing the experiences of whites and blacks with police. The study shows that more whites are killed by police than blacks, so the concerns of blacks are belittled. However, that one statistic does not properly represent what the study really shows. First of all, it is not a vetted study. Second, it examined not only shootings, but the overall handling of people stopped by police. Items such as, the ratio of people handcuffed, thrown to the ground and in other ways physically mishandled showed that blacks are treated very differently from whites. The outlier was deaths caused by shootings. However, the study did not cover to what degree whites are stopped compared to blacks.

There is more. Studies have been done in which resumes of equal qualifications are looked over by companies looking to hire. If the name on the resume is an ethnic black name, like Jamal, that person is less likely to be called for an interview than someone named James. There is still a subtle, pervasive sense that blacks are not as capable as whites.

Blacks are seen as the prime recipients of welfare, as being lazy, as being the source of most crime. The ratio of blacks serving in prison far exceeds that of whites and one must ask, is it because blacks commit more crimes or because the sentencing is so different for blacks than whites? According to a survey done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, from 2005 to 2012 black men received 5% to 10% longer prison sentences for similar crimes. Other studies show the difference as much as 60%!

No, most Americans are not white supremacists. But these institutional, embedded prejudices are proven, and African Americans must live with them, feeling them constantly. To me this is intensely sad. Last spring I know most of you were at least aware of, if not attending, the Requiem of Resistance. A core of the choir was the student chorus from FAMU. For most of them, this was the first time they ever had the chance to sing with a symphony orchestra. When the concert was over, those of us who organized the event joined the FAMU student choir for dinner at Cabos. I went around to each table thanking them for their hard work and talent. Every student told me how honored they were to participate and what a great experience it was. While we were eating, they broke into song, passionately singing gospel music. It was beautiful, but then I felt sad. Here was a room full of talented, wonderful young people, who are going to face difficulty because of bigotry based on their skin color. It will likely not be the outright hatred of racists, but the subtle societal and institutional roadblocks. They do not deserve that.

We Jews can understand exactly how African Americans feel. Despite the recognized heights of success many Jews have achieved, hatred is still alive. The typical accusations against Jews, that we control the media, the banks, and want to control the world – are all still alive. And we are also sensitive to statements. Remember a few years when Ann Coulter said in an interview, “We just want Jews to be perfected.”? That resurrected all the ill feelings about Christians who try to convert Jews. We do not see that as Christians expressing love for us as individuals they want to save from hell. We see that as hatred of Judaism and Jews.

We also fool ourselves in not recognizing that anti-Semitism exists on the left as well as the right. Oberlin College fired Joy Karega for anti-Semitic posts that included a picture of Jacob Rothschild adding the words, “We own your news, the media, your oil and your government.” Last night I related the anti-Semitic reaction of leaders of the Dyke march in Chicago this past June when they banned lesbians carrying rainbow flags with Jewish stars on them. We fail to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is rampant in the Arab world and that many Islamic leaders condemn Judaism as a religion of lies. Anti-Semitism exists across the political spectrum, which is why we feel its presence is often an underlying tone in society.

What is the reality of bigotry? No one is born a racist or an anti-Semite. We are all blank slates. We all have the potential for love or hate, depending on what we learn as we age. The presence of bigotry is complex. Yet I think the solution is rather simple and well expressed by 3 important commands from the Torah portion we will read this afternoon.

The first – “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” Rashi puts it very clearly, if you can save your neighbor, do it. I believe this is not just about throwing a life saver to a drowning person, but standing up for the rights that will preserve their ability to live the same as us.

The second – “You shall reprove your fellow and not bear a sin on his account.” If someone with you expresses bigotry or hate, correct them, teach them the truth, moral truth and factual truth. Silence in the presence of bigotry makes you a contributor to their sin.

The third – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not just the person like you, the person in your family or ethnic group, but the stranger, the person who is different.

It is Yom Kippur. It is the day we plead to God for forgiveness. One way we do this is through the words of al cheit.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have done before You by failing to acknowledge the bigotry suffered by others.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have done before You by failing to recognize sources of bigotry against ourselves.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have done before You by failing to properly educate our children about the history of hate.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sins we have committed before You by failing to rebuke acts and words of bigotry even when spoken by friends.

Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha – For the sin we have committed before You by failing to accept the stranger as ourselves.

For all these sins, Adonai our God, help us to find a path to repentance, to atonement, to creating a better, more just world.

Kein yehi ratzon – may this be your will.     Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The first time I was criticized for a sermon commenting on politics was in the fall of 1998. I was the new student rabbi in Fredericksburg, VA, during the middle of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. The weekly haftarah portion contained King David’s confession to Natan the prophet that he had “lied before God.” In the sermon I condemned President Clinton’s lying about his involvement with Lewinsky, as well as his misuse of Presidential power to take advantage of a 22 year old female intern. To me, his lying and abuse of his position of power were obvious moral issues, not political issues. So I was shocked at the response of congregants, who hated my criticism of the Democratic president they loved. I was dumbfounded by liberal and feminist justifications for President Clinton’s actions. It became clear to me that morality did not matter, if the immoral character represented your favored political views.

That is not how I operate. Yes, I think that Bill Clinton was a skilled politician who generally moved the country in a better direction. In the end, however, his presidency was a disappointment because of his immoral behavior. A president is not just a political leader, but needs to be a model for how Americans should behave, especially towards each other. That is not to say a president needs to be perfect. We are all human, so perfection is impossible. More important, I feel we, as American citizens, need to make our priority in judging any individual, political or otherwise, first by their moral character, based on their behavior, before judging by political policies. Jimmy Carter is considered a poor president. We can debate that another time. However, he may have modeled the finest post presidency of anyone in my lifetime. Over the past 4 decades, Carter has created numerous initiatives to help the underprivileged. He raised the profile of Habitat for Humanity. He is a devout Christian, who still conducts Sunday school classes at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown of Plains, GA. George H. W. Bush has also proven his decency of character during and after his presidency, as has his son George W. Bush. Did I agree with most of both President Bush’s policies? No, but each has provided moral leadership which I deeply appreciate.

Tonight I predict I will anger almost everyone in this room. Why? Because you will consider what I say to be about politics, not morality. You will be upset by the examples I give, as they will insult liberals and conservatives alike. You will likely only hear what you expect to hear. Let me be blunt. I am fine with you being ticked off at me. I have lived long enough and witnessed enough history to tell you I cannot stand the current direction of our country. We are allowing the moral beliefs we claim to embrace, to be undermined by our political preferences. We are refusing to face facts, to accept realities that prove our desires and instincts wrong. In that process, we are adding to the atmosphere of hatred instead of working to find ways to embrace each other.

Let me begin by outlining 3 basic moral principles that I am positive all Jews, if you claim to be a serious Jew, must embrace.

The first is accepting the stranger. The number of references in the Torah to this, which often add “remember you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” is amazing – generally counted as 36 times. These references range from the person not born into the community, to those brought as servants or slaves, to the orphans, widows and poor. The point is that we must accept those who are not like ourselves, the person we see as an outsider. Torah teaches that the stranger is entitled to most of the same legal protection as the citizen. Even more is this teaching, “Rabbi Johanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: verbal wrongdoing is worse than monetary wrongdoing, because of the first it is written “And you shall fear your God” but not of the second. Rabbi Eleazar said: one affects the person, the other only his money. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said: for one restoration is possible, but not for the other.” The point is clear. A monetary wrong can be corrected. A verbal abuse cannot. Despite an apology, the feelings caused by verbal abuse linger. Look at the expressions of prejudice and hate by so many today. Those memories linger. They hurt even after an apology. The bottom line of this basic principle – be open, accepting and sensitive to those unlike yourself.

The second overarching moral principle is to not accept the existence of poverty. This is made very clear by Deuteronomy chapter 15. We are commanded to not allow poverty to exist. We must provide for the poor what they need to raise themselves up. This is often in the form of a loan that is forgiven every 7th year. The chapter stresses that as long as there are people, there will be those who are poor. We must extend them our help. Those of you with strictly political orientation will read the passage as a green light for your conservative or liberal policies. That is not the point. Torah does not specify if the aid is by government programs or individual charity. We must simply help the poor. Further, we must not judge the poor as deserving of their fate. Rather, we should accept that any of us can fall into hard times, needing aid. Jews do not take the perspective that praying to God to help those in need is enough. We must act as though there is no God, and work to relieve the suffering of others.

Third is the respect for alternate points of view. This is illustrated by Talmudic excerpts about the disagreements between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who represent different interpretations of the law. Here is how the Talmud characterizes their disputes, Rabbi Abba said in the name of Samuel, “For 3 years there was a dispute between the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel, each one asserting “the law is according to our view.” Then a divine voice went forth and said, ‘These and these are both the words of the living God, but the law is according to the school of Hillel.” Since both are the words of the living God, what entitled the school of Hillel to have the law fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kindly and humble. They taught their own rulings as well as those of the school of Shammai. And even more, they taught the rulings of the school of Shammai before their own. This should teach you that he who humbles himself is exalted by the Holy One, and he who exalts himself is humbled by the Holy One.”

I love this teaching. Despite strong disagreement, we must see the divinity of the person arguing the other side. Further, it is not the logic or force of your argument that decides if you are correct, rather humility and moral behavior.

Are there many other Jewish morals important to embrace? Of course. I just see these 3 as general encompassing ideas of most the other morals you will find in our sacred texts. I will be blunt. Following these 3 moral generalities indicates a true embracing of your Judaism. Your political leaning does not.

Now I will get into the weeds. On the radical left is a concept known as intersectionality. What is that, you ask? It is seeing the connections between all kinds of oppressions.  But intersectionality has become the belief that anyone who does not share ALL of your beliefs over who are oppressed victims cannot be an ally in a particular protest or movement. One example is tying the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank to the suffering of African Americans in the United States. A leftist who believes in intersectionality does not believe you can support Black Lives Matter, for example, if your support the State of Israel in any way, because Israel is judged to be oppressive of Palestinians. Some of my colleagues were banned from participating in demonstrations protesting the killing of Michael Brown and its impact on the black community of Ferguson, MO. The assumption was, because they were rabbis who supported the existence of Israel, they could not honestly understand black oppression, as they did not understand Palestinian oppression. The problems here are obvious. You can totally understand the difficulties facing Palestinians and still support the existence of Israel. Further, your position on Israel has nothing to do with understanding the plight of African Americans. When a Jew is excluded from a protest on injustice in America because they support Israel, that is politics overcoming morality.

Condemnation of Zionism as oppression reflects a lack of understanding Jewish and Israeli history. Assumptions about Jews who utilize a symbol some connect to Israel is anti-Semitism. This happened at the Dyke march in Chicago on June 24, 3 Jewish lesbians came with rainbow flags, symbols of the LGBTQ community, but with Jewish stars on them.  They were asked to leave the event by the organizers who claimed their flags represented a threat to Palestinian participants. These Jewish women were not there to advocate for Israel, but to express their pride as Jewish lesbians.

Intersectionalism is very strong on college campuses, exemplified by intolerance for conservative speakers or those who even question certain activities on campuses. An example of this occurred in the fall of 2015 at Yale, when a letter went out to students telling them to be sensitive over the kinds of Halloween costumes they wore so as not to offend anyone. Erika Christakis, a professor of early childhood education who also presided over a residence hall, sent a letter, very thoughtfully and civilly written, inviting the students to think about this issue intellectually, and discuss what is offensive and what is not. If you see the video of how she and her husband were cursed at by students, calling her racist, swearing at them, denigrating them for insensitivity, you will see a scary example of closed thought. The students’ politics overrode their morality on how to treat people and have a thoughtful conversation.

Linda Sarsour, is a very controversial figure in left wing politics. She is a Palestinian American and one of the organizers of the woman’s march that took place shortly after President Trump’s inauguration. That march was a seminal moment for many concerned about women’s rights. It was a peaceful, powerful event with a huge turnout around the nation. Indeed, Sarsour is an advocate for many who are downtrodden. She seems, however, to be an intersectionalist. She helped organize the events in Ferguson that banned some rabbis. She regularly condemns Zionism as oppressive, vocalizing it in troubling ways that feel anti-Semitic. An example of this occurred in August, during a protest at NFL offices supporting the right of quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem. During that rally, Sarsour stated, “We will not be silenced by blue lives matter, by white supremacists, by neo Nazis, by right wing Zionists.”

I must be completely fair, however. Linda Sarsour, you should know, is a complicated figure that I do not fully condemn. When the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was vandalized earlier this year, Sarsour helped to initiate a fundraising drive in the Muslim community that brought in close to 130 thousand dollars. She worked with a classmate of mine in St. Louis who thought her work was wonderful. Sarsour also urged folks who follow her to donate to various sites that provided aid to victims of Hurricane Harvey.

My questioning of a leftist is this. Do you dismiss or ignore anti-Semitism from activists who represent political stands you endorse? Do you cling so hard to political correctness that you condemn anyone disagreeing with an aspect of left wing perspectives? Do you believe that free speech should be limited to liberal values and perspectives? If yes, then politics are subverting your morals.

In truth, however, left wing activists are currently only minor players in the political arena. The centerpiece of immorality in today’s politics is, unfortunately, the President of the United States, Donald Trump. I want to share with you the words of Peter Wehner, an evangelical Christian who served in the Reagan and both Bush administrations. I have met and spoken with Peter, and while he and I will disagree on the details of numerous issues, we are both frustrated with the corruption of morality at the expense of political perspective. In an article published on August 11, he wrote:

The same qualities that Mr. Trump showed during the campaign have continued in his presidency. He lies pathologically. Mr. Trump exhibits crude and cruel behavior, relishes humiliating those over whom he has power and dehumanizes his political opponents, women and the weak. He is indifferent to objective truth, trades in conspiracy theories and exploits the darker impulses of the public. His style of politics is characterized by stoking anger and grievances rather than demonstrating empathy and justice.

Now comes the hard part of what I am trying to do – to separate the areas of policy and morality. It is difficult because for many issues, we, whether liberal or conservative, see policy as representing our morality.

Remember the first moral principle I described, to be open and sensitive to those not like yourself? Trump, first as a candidate and now as president fails at this; miserably. His campaign began with an indictment of Mexican immigrants, claiming their presence raises the crime rate. As president, Trump continues to claim his policy is meant to reduce the crime rate. Facts, however, contradict this claim. There is no statistical evidence that immigrants, whether undocumented or legal, increase the crime rate. Indeed, there are many studies that confirm the opposite. The repeal of DACA, which places innocent people who arrived as children, and raised in the United States; is seen by many across the political aisle as immoral. Immigration, however, is mostly about policy. We can all disagree over the number of immigrants that should be allowed into the US or whether DACA should have been a law passed by congress. Trump’s immoral view of people unlike himself is confirmed by numerous other examples, not just immigration policy.

The most obvious is his responses to the demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA in August, which were criticized by many across the political spectrum. One moment he condemned the presence of neo-Nazis, but then asserted that there were fine people on both sides of the demonstrations. It should be morally clear, no one marching with white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, or anti-Semites can in any way be “fine.” Further, in trying to defend the original intent of the protesters, the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee, he inappropriately asked if we should now take down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, since they were slave owners. Lee’s statue represents the rebellion of traitors against the United States. Washington and Jefferson were founding fathers who were key contributors to establishing the early greatness of our country. There is no appropriate comparison.

Further, figures like former KKK head David Duke and white nationalist Richard Spencer, confirmed that the ultra right wing protests were in support of Trump and his positions. They felt affirmed by him. If you look at the content of many of Trump’s campaign rallies along with his speeches, his focus against non whites and non Christians, his tweets and insults of other candidates; all gave a green light to racist, white supremacist and anti-Semitic believers.

You could legitimately argue that Trump is not himself racist or anti-Semitic, since his own daughter and all of his grandchildren are Jewish. I would then assert he is a heartless, narcissistic manipulator of people, playing upon a particular constituency’s prejudice to inspire and gain support from a bigoted group of supporters. It is a fact that proven white supremacists and anti-Semites are part of his constituency. If your politics drives your feelings, then you find ways to explain or justify this – and that is plainly immoral. Trump’s immorality is absolutely confirmed by his history of embracing birtherism – the belief that President Obama was not born in the United States and therefore was not qualified to be president. This was completely false, yet, since 2011 Trump embraced this claiming to be investigating Obama’s origins. This lie catered to those who hated Obama because of his race, not necessarily because of his policies. Birtherism placed Trump in opposition to Obama in a way that appealed to the most bigoted segment of America. On September 16, 2016 Trump held a press conference in which he finally acknowledged Obama was born in Hawaii. There was no apology for 5 years of lying. Rather, he continued to insist that the Hillary Clinton campaign of 2008 initiated the birther controversy. A fact check proves that completely wrong.

There are many aspects of Obama’s policies and programs about which we might disagree. My purpose is not to defend any of his political positions. However, the proliferation of birtherism and all of its related bigoted activities by Donald Trump is outright immoral. His use of this to motivate supporters is immoral. If you fail to see this, or if you justify it because you support Trump, then your political leanings have overcome your moral sense. Further, if you fail to see that Barak and Michelle Obama, no matter what you think of their politics, have a loving 25+ year marriage and conduct themselves as a model for all American families in the way they act as a family, your moral sense has been overcome by your politics. That is true especially if you overlook Trump’s mistreatment of women, his failed marriages, his clear disrespect for non-whites and non Christians, and his continually growing list of outright lies.

Most disturbingly, the domination of our morality by politics has killed the potential for dialogue across the divide of beliefs. This process has been going on for years. It has been fed by certain cable news channels, who act as propaganda mouthpieces for their favored political party. It has been fed by interactions on social media, in which our trend is to only read feeds that affirm our political beliefs in spite of proven fact. It has been fed by the leftist belief in intersectionality that has led to the squashing of freedom of speech on numerous university campuses. But currently, it is mostly fed by a president who, using cowardly tweets, denigrates anyone with whom he disagrees. His base loves his aggressive chest thumping, but know this, that level of narcissism is destroying the moral base of our country. I see the result every day on FaceBook. I see liberals and conservatives mocking each other, claiming that the other is a threat to our society. Nonsense! Our country thrives on the interactions between different political views, as long as we embrace the basic moral principle of seeing our opponent as another one of God’s creations, not as someone evil, but who intends goodness for our country even if we disagree on policy.

We began tonight’s service with the chanting of the prayer, Kol Nidrei. That is actually a rather odd prayer. It asks God to allow us to break vows we have made in the last year. Its origin lies in a time when Jews were being forced to convert to other religions, and they wanted God to forgive their breaking of that vow in order to stay Jewish. Tonight I ask you to break another vow in order to stay Jewish. I ask you to break your vow to submit to a political perspective. If we can free ourselves from subservience to political loyalty and embrace morality as our priority, we can create a different reality. Then Democrats, Republicans, independents, liberals, conservatives and moderates will have a foundation to disagree civilly, but work together to move America to a higher plain.

Kein yehi ratzon – may that be God’s and our will.

Amen

 

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The Essence of Change

 

 

This is my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon

You might know that I am a theater lover, particularly musical theater.   While in college I did 3 years of summer theater, participating in a number of musicals. My time playing small roles and being in the chorus taught me an important early lesson in life – I was not talented enough to make a career in musical theater. I saw the leading players, who were trying to make it in NY, struggling, spending their time as waiters, waitresses or doormen.

Over the years I have seen many shows, in NY, London, and other major cities, as well as community productions. Needless to say I am a pretty hard critic of theatrical productions – of both the quality of the presentation as well as the content of the play itself. I dismiss a lot of musical theater as “trite,” especially when I can finish the rhymes in songs before I hear them, or when I see the story line as insipid. There are the shows I have seen too many times and never want to see again – like Oklahoma.

Yes, I am really picky about the shows I like. In June, however, I saw Hamilton. I am completely obsessed with it! Hamilton might be the most brilliant musical theater production I have ever seen.   You see, I gravitate towards shows that bring change to musical theater. For example, in 1957 West Side Story opened on Broadway and brought issues of racism to the forefront of the stage. In 1965 Man of La Mancha presented a play within a play. A Chorus Line gave us an inside look at how theater works based on Michael Bennett’s observations of aspiring dancers auditioning for parts at a workshop. In 1987 Les Miserable eliminated dialogue from the show – creating a Broadway style opera – and used musical themes to subtly connect the story lines of opposite characters. Now there is Hamilton, a show that pushes the boundaries of musical theater to new limits in order to teach us lessons on our history, about who we are, and the true makeup of our nation.

In his unique telling of the narrative of Alexander Hamilton’s life, the show’s creator, Lin Manuel Miranda treats the history of the founding of our country with great reverence and respect. Unlike most representations of American history, however, Miranda’s story telling method brings light to aspects of the history, and our nation’s current makeup, that are often overlooked or buried. Too often our history is portrayed in a way that only recognizes a certain group of white, influential figures. “Hamilton” adds a deeper perspective of our history.

How? Well there are two obvious ways. First, his score is a conglomeration of musical styles: hip hop, rock, jazz and classical Broadway – which includes ballads and blues. He uses hip hop to highlight revolutionary activities – not just in the war but to emphasize how our republic was formed and operated. The flow of musical styles from number to number is seamless.   This mishmash of musical style acts as a metaphor for the diversity that makes up our country, which can be eye opening yet essential to the way our country is structured and operates. One of the most classical Broadway style numbers is sung by King George, thus representing the “Old World” as opposed to America’s new ways of doing things, which is often presented by hip hop or rap. During some of his musical numbers Miranda tips his hat to prior musicals with lyrical connections to shows, such as “South Pacific,” “1776” and “HMS Pinafore.” These references, just like the varying musical styles are (I believe) meant to show how our country is a sum total of diverse sources, and that all of these sources are a necessary component of who we really are.

A second teaching tool is the casting. Three key characters in this story are slave owning Virginians, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – 3 of our first 4 presidents. All of them are played by African Americans. Indeed, the cast of this show breaks all the boundaries of the old school approach to theatrical casting. The mixture of different races and ethnicities hammers home the lesson that our country was founded for everyone, and its story belongs to everyone, not just an elite group of wealthy white men.

Even more, from its very beginning, the show makes sure we understand that it was more than well-known founding fathers who contributed to the strength of our country. For example, during a scene that depicts a cabinet debate over Hamilton’s proposed financial plan, Jefferson states (in a rap style) that Virginia is wealthy, successful and plants seeds, so why should Virginians take on the debt of other states like New York. Hamilton replies (also in rap style) that we know who was actually planting the seeds for Virginians (i.e. slaves) and that Virginians were profitable because of slavery. The message is clear. Not only is slavery wrong (highlighted numerous times in the show), but black slaves were the unseen, unacknowledged resource that provided the platform for Virginians’ (and other southern states) claimed success.

The essence, then, of the lessons Hamilton teaches us is this. Through a radical change in the way show is written and cast, we learn about the diversity of our country from its very beginning, and the contributions of all ethnicities to our country. These facts have always been part of our history – just hidden in the standard historical presentations.   We are, and have always been, a conglomerate of contributors to the building of our country’s success. Sometimes we resist accepting that fact. Lin Manuel Miranda’s work through Hamilton enhances our perspective on American history.

So what does this have to do with us Jews, or Rosh Hashanah? Well, our story is the same. We are made up of varied ethnicities, multiple traditions, and many sources – often from outside the Jewish world. And these outside sources have changed the essence of Judaism, of the Jewish people. Since there is not a Broadway musical to help show these facts, I will share a number of historical examples with you. And please forgive me for not being able to do it in rap style.

The first example, however, is connected to a piece of music we all know (sing a verse of Ma Tovu). According to the Torah, these are the words of Balaam, a non Israelite prophet hired by king Balak to curse the Israelites. If you want to read the full story of Balaam and Balak, see Numbers chapters 22 through 24. You will be very amused, especially by Balaam’s talking donkey that I believe was the inspiration for the old TV show, “Mr. Ed.” On the way to curse the Israelites Balaam encounters God, who changes his mission. Instead of cursing the Israelites, Balaam blesses them with the words of Ma Tovu.

Who exactly is Balaam? Well, Jewish tradition is very hard on Balaam. One midrash says he was destined to be a prophet to the world, and was of greater intelligence than Moses, but was morally deficient. Another says he was an advisor to Pharaoh in Egypt. The Talmud teaches that his name is a play on the Hebrew words balah am which means “he devoured people.” Yet his characterization in the Torah makes him seem like a decent man – just a bit befuddled. Given the strange episode about Balaam in Numbers, it is easy to think he is just a mythological character. However, inscriptions found on a wall in Deir ‘Alla, an ancient town in Jordan, refer to a real Balaam, who is connected with the God Ishtar. He apparently did good deeds on behalf of the people living in that valley.

Why is any of this significant? Because the words of Ma Tovu, which open every Jewish morning service, are attributed to a foreign prophet who archeology shows identified with a non-Israelite god. This, however, is only the beginning of a history of the influence of outside sources on Judaism and Jewish tradition.

After the conquest of the Persian province of Judah in roughly 332 BCE, Greek culture greatly affected Jewish tradition, making significant additions and changes to Jewish practice. During the last 2 centuries BCE, Hellenistic culture had made significant inroads into all aspects of Jewish life. In literature, Biblical stories were recast in Greek mode. For example, Joseph’s story from Genesis was retold as “Joseph and Asenath,” in which Joseph was cast as having the powers of a demi-god, such as Hercules. Joseph is described as coming from the sun on a chariot, bringing the suns rays with him.

We can thank Greek thought for some key ideas we now identify as Jewish – most significantly the concept of an eternal soul. This opens the door to a real discussion of life after death – what really happens after we die? Is there something that lives on? The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible give no real description or belief in afterlife, but after adopting the idea of the soul, it permeates Judaism. The rabbinic schools of thought, exemplified by the schools of Hillel and Shammai, are based on the schools of Greek philosophical thought. Further, we see a vestige of Greek influence every Pesach when we have the children search for the afikomen during our seder.

Just as there was Jewish pushback against Balaam, there is a long history of Jewish pushback against Greek influence. The Maccabean revolt grew out of a conflict between two groups of Jews: those who wanted to assimilate more into Greek culture and those who saw that assimilation as a threat to Jewish existence and tradition. The Talmud contains much debate on whether Jews should be allowed to study Greek language as well as Greek thought. In the end it is allowed, but not without many objections and arguments.

By the 7th century CE, much of the Jewish population had fallen under Islamic rule. The Islamic culture of the middle ages was one of high intellectual and scientific achievement. A group of Moslem thinkers worked hard to mitigate the seeming contradictions between philosophy and science on the one hand, and theology on the other. The exact same exercise happened in the Jewish world, led by theologians such as Saadia ben Yosef and Maimonides. Both Moslem and Jewish thinkers were studying and applying the philosophic works of Plato and Aristotle to their religions. In 9th century Babylon, for example, Saadia ben Yosef used philosophic reasoning to prove creation ex nihilo and to demonstrate the importance of free will in Jewish observance.

But the influence of Islam on Judaism is even simpler than philosophical. The kippah or yarmulke that many of us wear does not originate in Torah. Research indicates we adopted wearing head coverings to show subservience to God, from the Moslem culture in Babylonia. It took only a few centuries for this to be so identified as something essentially Jewish that by the middle ages a rabbi was consulted on whether halachah permitted prayer services if the men do not wear a head covering. His response was while it was technically ok, it did not feel appropriate.

Even Christianity has influenced the development of modern Judaism. One notable example is the role of the rabbi. Traditionally the rabbi was a teacher, interpreter and judge of law and a community leader. His role was not to lead prayer services, or to provide pastoral care. As Jews became more integrated into Christian communities in Europe and America through the 18th and 19th centuries, rabbis became the Jewish versions of Protestant ministers. There are certainly many factors that contributed to this change, but the change is a fact.

You see, change is a reality that we often resist. Change is built into the very structure of the world from the moment it was created – and that is not just a scientific perspective. Every day of creation described in the first chapter of Genesis describes changes God made to the world. The rabbinic explanation for the second chapter of Genesis that retells the creation story differently than the first chapter, is that God recognized the need to change what was originally created, so God changed creation. Change is built into the DNA of the world.

Change brought by outsiders who we often see as others or even enemies, is a fact we loathe to accept. Yet that is the reality of life. No person, group, religion, or country can live in isolation from the influences of the rest of the world. It is our personal biases and inhibitions that prevent us from accepting the fact that our nation, our religion, and ourselves are all the result of amazing diversity and interaction with others – often our opposites – who cause change.

Yet, that is not the very essence of change. Real change is not just about the changes caused by the nature of the world around us. Real change is about adjusting our perspective, to accept the reality of what the world is – a sea of change – and not be stuck in our preconceived notions guided by our instincts. Real change is about our ability to be open to learning, listening, and even changing our thoughts and beliefs, sometimes in radical ways. And there is a musical play about this. It is Ground Hog Day, a musical based on the movie starring Bill Murray. Do you remember it? Murray is an obnoxious newsman who gets stuck in reliving the same day over and over again. The events of the day do not change, but Murray changes. He becomes a better, more caring person who appreciates the reality of his existence and those around him.

That is the essence of change. The facts of the world are there. How do we perceive them? Are we open to them or not? Are we ready to always learn and modify our perspective on those facts or not? Are we open to learning more of them and thus challenge our biases or not?

Now is the moment appropriate to engage in the self-reflection necessary for personal change. Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah. We always interpret that as the beginning of the year. But the word Shanah also means “change.” Tonight is the beginning of change, your change, my change. Look at this as an opportunity to grow, to learn, to reach a level you have not encountered before. I hope we all embrace this chance. I am. For as Lin Manuel Miranda says playing the character Alexander Hamilton, “I am not throwing away my shot!”

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The Day After

This story is based on 4 quotes from Genesis and 2 midrashic references

“And Abraham returned to his young servants. They arose and went together to Be’er Sheva; and Abraham stayed in Be’er Sheva.” Genesis 22:19

It was the day after the worst day in Abraham’s life. He was thinking hard about a life’s journey that was closing in on 100 years. Leaving his family’s home in Haran – was hard. Trusting that he had properly understood God’s directive to him to travel to Canaan, thus leaving his mother and brothers – was hard; especially since Sarah questioned his motives. Dealing with Sarah’s grief over their infertility was hard. Dealing with Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar after Ishmael was born was hard. Having to expel Hagar and Ishmael from their family’s camp was unbearably hard, but God confirmed Sarah’s wish to Abraham, so he did not question it.

Now, here he was, on the day after the worst day in his life. Believing he had once again understood God’s demand, he had taken his son Isaac, to the top of Moriah. Fortunately he left his two young servants at the bottom of the mountain, as he was ashamed to have them witness what he thought God had commanded him to do – to slaughter Isaac as a sacrifice to God. But he did not slaughter Isaac. God sent a messenger at the last minute, literally as Abraham held the knife above Isaac’s neck as he laid shivering with fear on the altar, to stop him, to tell him God knew of Abraham’s loyalty and did not want him to sacrifice his son. A ram appeared and Abraham sacrificed it instead. He felt incredibly relieved. He figured since the incident was over, and Isaac was safe, all of them could go home and continue a normal life.

But that was not to be.

As they were leaving Moriah to meet up with their young servants, Isaac made it clear he could no longer bear to be with his father. “How could you possibly think that the God who cares about human life, would command you to sacrifice me?” Isaac demanded. “You taught me devotion to our God was better than how our neighbors worshipped their various idols, some of whom you told me demand child sacrifice. How can you now say God is any better than Ba’al or Ashteroth?”

“Son, you don’t understand.” Abraham replied. “There are many times we just have to trust our faith in God and not question Him. God was testing me. I don’t know why or for what purpose, but I had to follow God’s command.”

“Nonsense,” said his son. “That’s not how you reacted to God when He told you He was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah because of their sins. You stood up for those cities filled with awful people. Why would you not stand up for me? Am I too awful to live?”

“No,” his father replied. “You are anything but awful. God was making a demand of me, not just telling me what He was going to do. There is a difference.”

“If that is how you think, I can’t go home with you.” Isaac said in disgust.

“But what will I tell your mom if you don’t return with me?” Abraham asked his distraught son.

“Tell her I went to a school to get some training in some useful skill. I can’t believe anything you teach me. I need to be away from you. You might think all is OK just because you didn’t kill me, but I have to separate from you to try and understand your insanity.”

“Then I will tell your mom you went to study God’s word with Shem and Ever,” (1) Abraham replied.

“They’re dead Dad. Gosh, I cannot stand your inability to see and confront the truth. Damn, I hope I don’t inherit your blindness to reality!”

So Isaac did not descend Moriah with his father. When Abraham met up with his servants at the bottom of the mountain, they asked where Isaac was. He mumbled something about going off to some school. They did not question him, but they could tell their master was disturbed. In his heart Abraham knew he should go directly home, but he just could not find the nerve to face Sarah. She was way too smart to accept any lie or story about what happened on Moriah. She would be angry that Isaac was not with him. She would be suspicious of any story Abraham told her. Even worse, Abraham knew that on most issues, God affirmed Sarah’s perspective. He did not have the strength to face her recriminations. He realized what a tremendous wrong he had committed to Isaac. Somehow he had misunderstood what God really wanted.   And he had wronged Sarah, by not even telling her that he and Isaac were leaving their camp near Hebron, let alone telling her what he had thought God was demanding. He knew the right thing to do was to return home, to Hebron, to pour his heart out in honesty to Sarah. However, he did not have the nerve. So he went to Be’er Sheva.

Abraham and his young servants found an inn in Be’er Sheva. The 2 young men with him, who worked mostly as shepards, loved the opportunities there. It was a town filled with entertainment, places to drink and eat, and best of all, gorgeous women, who made themselves readily available. So they enjoyed city life. Abraham, however, barely left his room at the inn except to eat. He sat brooding, trying to figure out how to handle things when he eventually headed home. How could he get Isaac to return. How to make peace with Sarah. Unsurprisingly, each day that Abraham avoided going home to Hebron increased his anxiety. In his heart he knew he was failing by not returning to Sarah, by not talking to her honestly about his mistakes, about his now broken relationship with their son. He confronted the truth that it would be Sarah, not himself, who would be able to sit and speak sense to Isaac. But Abraham was a broken man. For the first time he actually felt the weight of his years, the weight of all he had forced Sarah to experience because of his relationship with this invisible God. Yet, if he would be completely honest with himself, God was telling him to go home, to repair his relationship with Sarah. He just could not.

However, Abraham also realized he could not let Sarah sit and wait without hearing from him. So he sent his two young servants. “Go home to Hebron,” he told them. “Tell Sarah I am in Be’er Sheva conducting business, getting some things we need for our herds and household. Assure her all is OK and do not mention that Isaac is not with me.” The two lads then left for Hebron, sad to be leaving the night life of Be’er Sheva, but knowing they had to carry out their master’s demands.

Now Abraham was truly alone. He felt agitated. He could not sleep. His mind was tortured by his torn relationship with Isaac. He kept trying to figure out what he would say to Sarah.

It was late at night. Abraham could no longer stand the mental torture of being alone in his room, so he began wandering in the streets of Be’er Sheva. This was before the Israelite presence of later years dominated the town, so there were a number of cultic temples throughout the city. Some employed prostitutes. Abraham walked in the night without any awareness of where he was going. He did not know he had strayed into an area of prostitution. A very young woman approached him. “You look lost and lonely sir.” She said. “I can help you feel better. Come with me. You look like you are suffering. Let me ease your pain.” It took a minute or so until Abraham realized she was speaking to him. When he finally looked at her, he saw her as an alluring, beautiful woman, who was beckoning him, inviting him. In his state of mental confusion, Abraham followed her, wordlessly, into the side room of a small cultic temple. There he lay with her and fell asleep.

He awoke hours later, his head in her arms. He sat up sharply. “What have I done!?” he thought disturbingly. He turned and saw the beautiful young woman and the worst of his fears overcame him. “What have I done!?” he now said aloud. “You have spent the night with me, my lord,” she replied. The disaster of his time in Be’er Sheva now came sharply into focus. He had betrayed Sarah in the worst possible way. Yes, technically Abraham could be with any woman he desired, and marry as many as he wished, but in his heart he knew his treatment of Sarah had fallen to the lowest of the low. He then had a second revelation. If he was truly taking the teachings of his God seriously, then he had also done this young woman wrong.

“What is your name?” he asked her. “Keturah,” she replied. “Keturah, a beautiful name. Keturah, please forgive me but I have committed a terrible sin with you. I must and will make this right with you.” “Whatever you pay me will be enough,” Keturah replied. “No,” said Abraham. “That is not how my God says I am to treat a woman that I have been with. I am sorry, I must return to my home near Hebron to be with my family, but I promise this – I will return soon and take you to be my wife. You will live a life of comfort, and I will take care of you.” “As you wish my lord,” answered Keturah. She smiled to herself, knowing that if they did indeed marry, it would be a far better life than she could have ever before imagined. And if they did not, her life would be as it was, a zonah in the service of he idol she worshipped.

So finally Abraham headed home to his camp near Hebron. It did not even take him a day. As he rode home on his donkey he worked through in his mind how he would sit and speak honestly to Sarah, how he would tell her the truth about Isaac, what he thought God told him to do, and to deeply apologize for not telling Sarah and for suddenly disappearing from her with Isaac several days earlier. He looked back on his life and realized the burdens he had placed on Sarah each step of the way. He decided to begin by acknowledging to his wife that his decisions had not made her life easy. He realized how deeply he loved Sarah, how much her wisdom, her presence, completed his life. He knew he had to do repentance, to ask her forgiveness. Yes, he was old, but he felt he still had time to try to make things right with Sarah. Abraham was afraid, but now he was also determined.

Earlier, I shared with you Genesis 22:19, the last verse of the account of Abraham and Isaac on Moriah. Here now is Genesis 23:2, six verses later at the beginning of the next weekly Torah portion. “And Sarah died in Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to grieve for Sarah, and to weep for her.”

When Abraham arrived at his camp, he knew immediately something was wrong. Eliezer, his most trusted and chief servant, greeted him with despair engraved on his face. “Eliezer, my friend, what is wrong?’ Abraham asked. “Master, Sarah is dead. The two lads who arrived yesterday are on their way back to Be’er Sheva to tell you. They did not tell us when you were coming home.”

Abraham ran into his wife’s tent. There she lay, motionless, with an expression of deep shock on her face. Abraham embraced her and cried. Eliezer waited patiently at the entrance to the tent. Finally Abraham looked up at him and asked, “When did this happen? How did this happen? She was not ill or feeling sick when I left here.” “Master,” replied Eliezer. “They day you left, Sarah woke up and was distressed to find you and Isaac gone. She told me to send some of our folks out to seek out where you had gone. About 3 days later, a man came here named Sama-el. He told Sarah that you had taken Isaac to Mt. Moriah to kill him, to sacrifice him to your God. Upon hearing his words, she screamed, clutched her heart and collapsed. (2) Master, why is Isaac not with you? Is he truly dead?”

His servant would never vocalize his inner thoughts, but Abraham knew from the expression on Eliezer’s face the disdain he was feeling because of the thought Isaac was dead. “No, Eliezer. Isaac is alive. He decided to attend a school to enrich some of his skills. We will send someone to bring him home to mourn for his mother. Meanwhile I will buy an appropriate place for her burial.”

Abraham was trying to be stoic, to present strength in the face of tragedy. But inside, he churned, he grieved, he tried to reconcile the loss of Sarah before having a chance to talk to her, to repent for the wrongs he had slammed upon her. He had no idea how to handle his guilt. What could he possibly do? How could he possibly repent? Sarah was gone and he had to live with that responsibility.

Abraham had no idea how to manage his guilt. Sarah was gone. There was no way to ever redeem himself with her. In his mind, life was now a failure. He could only think of two things left he could possibly do. First, he knew that Isaac would not only bear resentment towards him, but would deeply grieve over the loss of his mother. So Abraham had to find a wife for Isaac; someone who was as strong and smart as Sarah; someone who could be Isaac’s rock throughout his life, who would be a source of wisdom. So he sent Eliezer back to Nahor, where, he heard, there were some exceptional women, one of whom might be a great partner for Isaac. Isaac might never forgive Abraham for Moriah, but Abraham knew he had to do something to secure Isaac’s future.

The second thing Abraham knew he had to do was to marry Keturah. He truly had no real interest in having a young partner. She could never be what Sarah was. But she was alive and he could do what was right for her. Abraham could not let her live a life as a prostitute. He had been with her. God’s law demanded he marry her. As we learn in Genesis 25:1 “And Abraham went on and took a wife and her name was Keturah.”

I am sure that no one in this room has ever tried to sacrifice a child, at least physically, but perhaps emotionally. I am also sure that every adult in this room has faced a crisis, has had a moment when your actions have created deep pain for your loved ones. I am sure that everyone here has struggled with how to do repentance, has faced fear over having to do teshuvah. How do we handle that moment? I am sure that all of us have had that horrific “day after” our misdeed, in which we churn and grieve over our action. What did we do? Did we hide and delay? That is human nature. Were we honest with ourselves? We know that a delay in confronting the realities of our lives, as hard as that confrontation might be, will only increase and prolong the pain. Yes, we know that. Yet too often we fail to act on that – which is why we need this time of the Yamim Nora’im – the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

For this time of year forces us to confront the reality of who we are, of what to do. If we are serious about trying to correct our paths, to heal the wounds we have caused; we should not only engage in confession and repentance, but we try to find actions that can create a new, more positive direction. We cannot reverse the past. We cannot erase the tragedy we might have caused. All we can do is commit to what is necessary to create a new path. One that builds a better alternative to the path we have tarnished. This is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of a new year. It is called Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. We must judge ourselves. Honestly. We do not have to stay mired in the mud of the past.

Abraham could not correct all that happened on Moriah. But he tried to create a new path. The Torah states the following upon Abraham’s death, and I believe it is connected to the path of repentance Abraham chose, “and God blessed, Isaac, his son.” – Genesis 25:11.

May we commit to honest self assessment. May we commit to repentance that begins a new, more righteous path. May this bring God’s blessing upon you and yours as well.

  1.  Genesis Rabbah 56:11
  2. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer chapter 32

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