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Holy Protest

10898148_590976061004298_7092959092064390888_nThose who know me know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is one of my 20th century heroes. To me, he exemplifies the exact right balance a Jew must maintain in his or her life, between ritual observance and the application of our most righteous principles to every day living. Heschel did not believe that prayer existed in a vacuum, to be recited at specific times of the day or week then forgotten; but an inspiration to be translated into our every action. In a 1970 essay Heschel wrote, “A word uttered in prayer is a promise, an earnest, a commitment. If the promise is not kept, we are guilty of violating a promise. A liturgical revival cannot come about in isolation. Worship is the quintessence of living. Perversion or suppression of the sensibilities that constitute being human will convert worship into a farce.”

Prayer, according to Heschel, is aspirational, inspirational and sensitizing. Heschel is my hero because he lived those words. He is well known for his association with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through his participation in various civil rights marches. After participating in the Selma, AL march of March 21, 1965, Heschel was asked if he took any time to pray. His response was, “my feet were praying.” But Heschel did much more than participate in civil rights protests. He was one of the first of American clergy to declare he was against the war in Vietnam. He was a delegate to the second Vatican Council and spoke openly and critically of the Catholic Church’s attitude towards Jews. His ability to speak that truth to power helped push the Church to end the charge of deicide against Jews in 1965’s Nostra Aetate.   Heschel advocated for rights for the elderly. He embodied and summed up Judaism’s prophetic tradition when he wrote in 1971, “We must continue to remind ourselves that in a free society all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Heschel exemplifies something I call “holy protest.” I know that sounds like a line out of the 1960’s television show “Batman,” but I know of no better term to use when describing something I see as part of the essence of Judaism. Indeed, it might be the most powerful Jewish call to the world – the idea that we must never be satisfied with the state of our society. We are called upon by God to protest injustice. Once again Heschel says it best when he wrote in 1968, “The Hebrew Bible has destroyed an illusion, the illusion that one can be an innocent bystander or spectator in this world. It is not enough to be a consumer in order to be a believer.”

Our tradition of protest goes all the way back to Abraham. When God announces to Abraham God’s intent to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, Abraham protests that doing so will result in the loss of innocent and righteous lives. After a rather protracted back and forth, Abraham convinces God to spare the cities if just 10 righteous people are found in them. Here is the interesting twist to this story. God, being God, knows there are not 10 righteous people in Sodom and Gemorah. Yet he allows Abraham to carry on with his protest. The lesson? Our job as humans is to question and stand up for issues of justice – even if we are opposing God.

The real flowering of the Jewish tradition of protest, however, comes in the prophetic books. The Hebrew Bible prophets challenged authority. They were the protagonists in the conflict with the priesthood – the authority that held the connection with God was through religious ritual (in their days sacrifice) versus those who held that true connection with God came through caring for those in need. Each side in this conflict, priest and prophet, emphasized commandments from Torah, but each selecting a different priority. Without the influence of our prophets, without the sense that God wanted more from us than mere ritual obedience, Judaism would have died centuries ago as an archaic religion bereft of deeper purpose. The prophets engage in holy protest in two ways – visions of a better world, and admonitions for the evil acts of their communities.

Typical of admonition is this passage from Jeremiah 22:2 – 2,3, “Here the word of Adonai O king of Judah, who sits upon the throne of David, you, and your servants, and your people who enter in by these gates; Thus says Adonai, ‘Execute you judgment and righteousness, and deliver the robbed from the hand of the oppressor, and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.” Amos clearly states God’s priorities in these familiar words, “Though you offer me burnt offerings and meal offerings, I will not accept them; nor will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take away from me the noise of your songs; for I will not listen to the melody of your lutes. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

It is Micah who provides a vision of a more ideal world, repeated in other prophetic books, “And he shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide concerning far away strong nations; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of hosts has spoken it.”

I could provide quote after quote from our prophets that emphasize these points. God could care less about the rituals we perform if they are done disconnected from striving for a just society. Justice, not love, is the driving concept. How is justice defined? Create a court system that does not favor any one; whether rich or poor, powerful or weak. Cases must be judged on their merits by provable facts attested to by witnesses. Treat the stranger with kindness and respect, giving them rights within the community. Provide for those with no resources, the poor, the orphans and the widows.

I must point out that these moral commands of providing for those without resources are not a mandate for a particular political perspective. There are commandments that support government sponsored programs as well as personal charity. A certain portion of the tithes collected, which was the Bible’s form of taxation, went to provide resources to the poor. But your obligations were not complete through tithing. One also had to give tzedakah, personal charity as well (leaving the corners of your fields and vineyards). No, Judaism does not command a political point of view. Rather, it demands that we find a way to raise the needy. Neither can we blame the victim for their condition. We are encouraged to be as successful as we possibly can – then to use our success to help solve our communal problems.

The vision of a better world does not imply that God will simply act and solve our problems either. No, Jewish tradition in all eras, and in all forms practiced the past 2500 years assumes we act in partnership with God. If we do not act, if we do not at least protest, God will NOT step in to rescue us from our failings. We are responsible for acting in a way that invites God’s presence into our world. Our actions count immensely. And actions begin with our caring about the state of our world, of our communities.

At the very core of Jewish morality is our treatment of the stranger – the “other” who lives among us. This is one of the most dominant tropes of the Torah, repeated numerous times in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. To ignore this call is to transgress a basic command of God, so important, according to our tradition, it is repeated 36 times. We are not commanded to love the stranger (that is reserved for our neighbor who in Torah likely meant a member of our clan), but it is clear the stranger is to be welcomed, treated kindly, and given the same rights of justice as we are given. We are told to do this because remember – we were strangers in Egypt. Our prophets teach us that when this does not occur, we must engage in holy protest.

And here is where we are failing today. Not just us Jews, but all of us. We are too tolerant, too excusing, of the blatant mistreatment, verbally and physically, of others. We can begin with immigrants. Our country has been built on the backs of people like my father, who fled here as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Who came here at 16 years old, finished his education in a trade school, volunteered for the American army, fighting in Europe in World War II, eventually liberating a concentration camp that fed prisoners into Dachau. After the war he went to work, eventually opening his own factory, contributing productivity and employment to America. I remember dad telling me not only about the oppression he faced in Germany, but the anti-Semitism he faced in America. His experience was typical of Jewish immigrants in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

That experience is typical of what immigrants have faced in every generation, whether from Germany in the 1840’s, China in the late 19th century, Eastern Europe in the early 20th century or Hispanics and Muslims today. The arc of American history is to vilify, to be afraid of whatever group of immigrants is in the headlines at the moment. Every generation that opposes immigrants has its issue of the day to justify its bigotry. In the 1930’s it was fear of Jews taking jobs from Americans, or that some would be German spies. Today it is crime and security. Well folks, crime in general has been on the decline for decades. And changes in vetting immigrants will do nothing to stop the influence of people accessing radical organizations through the internet. That is our real security issue right now, not immigrants. I believe that showing kindness, tolerance, to immigrants, will do more to reduce tension than an increase in the strictness of our immigration policy. Indeed, by tolerating the targeting of specific ethnic groups or engaging in ideological vetting, we encourage more racial and religious hatred.

Here is an example. I have Muslim friends who immigrated to America from India in the early 1990’s. They became citizens and had two children here – so their kids are citizens as well. Their 15 year old son, who I tell you is as American as apple pie, was told last spring he would be deported once this year’s elections are over. By allowing this, by mistreating the “stranger,” we are violating a basic command of the Torah. We need to engage in holy protest.

More complicated are the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. I say more complicated because of a couple of issues that muddy the waters. The first is the universal condemnation of all police. We cannot address the tragedy of the plethora of killings of African Americans by police without acknowledging the dedication and conscience of most police officers. We must acknowledge they are human beings doing a difficult job, capable of making mistakes born of fear as well as bad judgment. However, these caveats cannot be used to deny that there is a still a real race problem in America. The deaths of unarmed African Americans by police are just the tip of an iceberg of deeper racial problems. Look at the number of times black drivers are stopped by police for seemingly no reason or suspected minor offenses compared to white drivers. Look at the difference in prison sentences given to blacks and whites for similar crimes. More important, look at the fear and pain in the African American community, the sense that the system, 50 years after the passage of major civil rights legislation, is rigged against them. It is wrong to say their pain is misguided or somehow invented. It is the result of real fear, and the experiencing of real prejudice, amplified by the larger platform being granted to the “alt right” and white supremacy groups.

However, there is a specific problem for Jews in supporting Black Lives Matter – the support of its official platform for the BDS movement, and its anti-Israel statements. This has developed because radical supporters of Palestinians, such as Students for Justice in Palestine, have gained influence in the Black Lives Matter movement. They have drawn comparisons between the plight of African Americans and the situation of the Palestinians. Jews understand this is a false equivalence; as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has a completely different kind of history than the history of blacks in America. This influence on Black Lives Matter is so disturbing because it has resulted in rabbis, colleagues of mine, who have participated in protests side by side with African American colleagues, being driven out of the movement because they support of Israel. They have been told their support for African Americans cannot be real if they support Israel. That is tragic. My rabbinic colleagues are discussing how to handle this reality.

Well, we cannot abandon our support for Israel. We need to not be afraid to tell the folks running “Black Lives Matter” that equating African Americans to Palestinians is wrong and does nothing to advance the needs of African Americans. We have to point out that assuming all Jews blindly support all policies of the Israeli government is itself anti-Semitic. Yet we cannot turn away from the pain of our African American brothers and sisters. As Jews we must not use the misguided positions of some as an excuse to ignore the reality of bigotry that exists in America. We must, as Jews have done since the 1950’s, stand with fellow Americans who are suffering from the pain of injustice.

We must also understand the real meaning of the phrase, “black lives matter.” Too often we hear the counter, “Don’t all lives matter?” as an attempt to say African Americans are just engaging in their own brand of prejudice. Yes, of course all lives matter. But from the perspective of African Americans, considering the number of black deaths at the hands of police, and the casualness with which many whites seem to dismiss the feelings of the African American community, the reality seems to be “all lives matter, but black lives not so much.” The purpose of “black lives matter” is to plead that these lives should matter as much as any life matters, and not be dismissed as part of a political game to gain votes. Today’s racism, highlighted by black deaths, is a painful reality to African Americans.

It is really hard to actually walk in someone else’s shoes. Very few people really understand the depth of Jewish fear of anti-Semitism. They have not experienced what my family experienced in Germany. They have not experienced the emotion of seeing their child mocked or excluded from activities in schools here because they were Jewish. Yet, I have also seen the sensitivity of many of our Christian friends and neighbors in Tallahassee. Over my years serving this community, I have been moved by the caring of Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, even southern Baptists, for our feelings and well being. I have little doubt that if something anti-Semitic happened to Temple Israel, the outpouring of support from the Christian community would be overwhelming. No, they cannot walk in our shoes, but many Christians have felt our pain.

That is exactly what we need to do for our African American friends.

If you were at Temple Israel on September 23 for the “Faith, Food, Friday” program, you witnessed the pain of my friend, pastor Darrick McGhee. Darrick pastors a church on the south side. However, his full time job is in politics. He got his start working in the governor’s office under Jeb Bush, and continuing there for the Crist and Scott administrations. Now, Darrick is a successful lobbyist who is respected on both sides of the political aisle. On that day Darrick expressed is dismay, his frustration and his anger with American society as the police shootings of blacks in Tulsa and North Carolina happened earlier that week. In the heightened racial climate of this political season, his 10 year old son was called the “n” word in school. His son had wanted to be a policeman when he grew up, but as Darrick put it, that week he saw the light go out of his son’s eyes. As Jews we cannot dismiss or ignore the realities Darrick is facing and telling us. Rather, we must embrace his experience, his pain, and engage in holy protest.

When will our obligation for holy protest end? Well, let us look at the first prophet to engage in holy protest – Elijah the prophet, zeicher l’tov. Elijah opposed idolatry as well as unfairness. He confronted Ahab and Jezebel over their immoral and illegal actions. What happened to Elijah? He never died. Rather, he was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. Because of this, Elijah has occupied a position of prominence in Jewish tradition. He will be the one who announces the coming of the messiah (why we put out the cup of wine at Pesach). He is the protagonist in many Talmudic and folk tales. Just as Elijah did not die, neither does the task he undertook. He was succeeded by many prophets who engaged in holy protest. But the age of the prophets is long gone. The task is now up to us. And we must continue. We must continue holy protest until Elijah returns. In truth, we cannot count on Elijah’s return. We cannot count on the coming of a messianic age. We can only count on the effort we are willing to make, to empathize with those who suffer, to embrace their stories and concerns not because we fully understand them but because we care enough to embrace their pain. We can engage in holy protest.

I have spoken a lot these High Holidays about the presence of God in everything, in all of us. May we come to realize that when we engage in holy protest, we are not just speaking on behalf of ourselves, but on behalf of God. May we gain the courage to stand with those whose different race, religion or ethnicity makes them the targets of prejudice causing pain. May we understand that our teshuvah is not just about saying “I’m sorry,” but about taking actions to demonstrate that sorrow. Kein y’hi ratzon may it be God’s will that our holy protests will be heard and heeded.

Amen.

Tears

Whenever I see the movie “The Color Purple,” I cry.  Not through the whole movie, but at the end, when the sisters, Celie and Nettie are reunited.  Nettie has finally gotten the paperwork allowing her, after many years, to return from missionary work in Africa.  With her is Celie’s son, Adam, taken from her at birth: adopted by a pastor and his wife who Nettie accompanied on a mission to Africa.  It does not matter how many times I have seen that movie.  At that moment, the tears just pour out uncontrollably.  One time, Audrey had fallen asleep before me.  I found the movie on TV and watched the last 45 minutes while she slept.  The end came.  Sure enough, I was bawling like a baby.  Audrey woke up, looked at my face, and said, “Oh, are you watching ‘The Color Purple?’”

I cry on other occasions as well.  When our daughter Carrie was first put in our arms, I cried.  When my first grandchild, Amelia was born, we flew across the country from a vacation in California.  When we walked into the hospital room and saw her for the first time, I cried.  I did not cry at my dad’s funeral.  But when I stood on this bimah during Yizkor on the Yom Kippur just following his death, I read a letter I composed to Amelia about the great grandfather she would never meet, then I cried.  I got teary when I held my grandson Simon’s legs during his bris, and again when I did my other granddaughter, Libby’s baby naming at our home here in Tallahassee surrounded by family and close friends.  I cried when I learned that Audrey had to put our yellow lab, Xara, to sleep before I could get home from Camp Coleman to be with her at the end.

When we watched the American Olympic team enter the stadium in Brazil, I got tears in my eyes when I saw the diversity of the American team, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Muslims and who knows who else, surrounding the American flag carried by 5 time Olympian Michael Phelps.  I felt these tears of pride because no other country in the world could ever present that same picture.  Whenever I have not been to NY for a while, I tear up if I see the Statue of Liberty while entering the city.  Why?  Because I think of my dad passing by that statue when he immigrated to the United States as a 16 year old in September 1939.  I think of the relief he felt when he passed under Miss Liberty.  I cry every time I see the musical “Les Miserable.”  I cry at the end of “Toy Story 3.”  Heck, I cry at the Folger commercials that show the guy coming home and making coffee for his mom.

Are tears a sign of weakness?  Some would say yes.  There are instances when tears have destroyed the public’s perception of a person.  In February 1972, presidential candidate Ed Muskie was the subject of 2 pieces published by William Loeb in his newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader.  Loeb accused Muskie of using a slur against French Americans, at that time a significant voting block in New Hampshire (the proof he cited turned out to be a hoax by the way).  Loeb also accused Muskie’s wife of taking “unladylike” pleasure in drinking and telling jokes.  Muskie, with shoulders heaving and voice breaking, stood outside in a blizzard and called Loeb a “gutless coward.”  Reporters covering the event reported Muskie cried.  Aides said the water on his face was melted snowflakes. Muskie won the New Hampshire primary, but his campaign was ruined and many blamed the idea that a man who sheds tears in public is not fit to be president.

There are, however, instances when tears are the emotional crowning of a moment that creates a powerful group experience through collective empathy.  On July 4, 1939 Lou Gehrig gave one of the most famous speeches in baseball history.  The Yankees had organized an appreciation day for him, after Gehrig was driven from baseball by falling victim to ALS.  His descent into weakness was astounding.  Columnist Jim Murray called him “a symbol of indestructability – a Gibraltar in cleats.”  To baseball fans, his decline was unbelievable.  Even more so was his speech, in which he called himself the luckiest man alive.  He then wiped the tears welling in his eyes, and Babe Ruth, who had not spoken to him in 5 years threw his arms around Gehrig, hugging him.  Columnist Shirley Povich wrote about that day, “I saw strong men weep this afternoon.”  Watch the video of this.  If you are a baseball fan familiar with Gehrig, you will tear up.  I did.

There is, of course, a science behind tears.  We have 3 types of tears, basal – which are the worker tears that keep our cornea lubricated so our eyes don’t dry out.  Reflex tears wash irritations from our eyes like particles or vapors – the most obvious example is our reaction to onions.  But it is psychic tears that capture our attention, our wonder, our emotions.  For these tears are a response to strong emotions, either happy or sad, or suffering, or physical pain.  Apparently there is a natural pain killer in these tears – lencine encephalin – which actually helps us to feel better when we cry.

The Talmud has a lot to say about tears.  I will start with its explanation of the physical effects of tears:  Until the age of 40 crying improves your health, and the body replaces the fluid lost by tears.  After 40 the fluid is not replaced and crying begins to weaken you (Shabbat 151b).  Well, this may be interesting but it is not very scientific.  And not true.  Far more important, far more powerful, are the many passages that teach us what tears are really about – human emotion, human connection, human balance between joy and sorrow, and humanity in the image of God.

According to the Torah we are created in God’s image, and the Talmud teaches this includes the capacity to cry.  Two times the Talmud speaks of God weeping.  In Chagigah 5a, “Our Rabbis taught: Over three the Holy One, blessed be He, weeps every day: over him who is able to occupy himself with [the study of] the Torah and does not; and over him who is unable to occupy himself with [the study of] the Torah and does; and over a leader who domineers over the community.”  God cries because of us.  If we fail to connect with God through studying Torah even though we have the capability, God cries – I would imagine tears of sadness.  If we succeed in connecting through Torah, overcoming obstacles in order to do so, God cries – I would imagine tears of happiness.  If we are the victims of a narcissistic, domineering leader, who cares not for our welfare, God cries.  Further (Berachot 59a), God cries over our suffering and lets 2 tears fall into the ocean, creating a rumbling sound heard the world over.  God cries over our misfortune, our suffering, our lack of reaching out, our failure to form deeper connections with the Divine, and therefore with each other.

We are created with the same capacity to weep.  Our tears are the means by which we can break down barriers of heartlessness; by which we can feel empathy; through which we can connect with each other – in times of sadness and times of joy.  Tears open our path to God even more than our prayers.  We teach that our High Holidays are the time that the Gates of Prayer are open, that God hears our prayers for teshuvah.  As the end of Yom Kippur approaches those gates begin to close.  But the gates of weeping do not close (Berachot 32b).  The capacity to cry, to shed tears, breaks through our coldhearted tendencies.  It tells God we are ready to reach beyond our personal barriers, to connect with our friend, our neighbor, our fellow human.  It tells God we are searching for divine connection.  Tears are a challenge to our egos, to our separation from others.  When we cannot or will not cry, God weeps.

But we do weep.  We weep over lost dreams, over life’s disappointments.  The Talmud tells (Berachot 5b) this story about Rabbi Yochanan visiting Rabbi Elazar after Elazar had fallen ill.  He saw Rabbi Elazar lying in a dark room.  When Rabbi Yochanan was said to be so handsome his mere presence invited light, so when exposed his arm a light came into the room and he saw Elazar crying.  “Why are you crying?” he asked.  “If it is because you feel you did not learn enough Torah, remember we learned that God is pleased with the one who is able to offer little the same as God is pleased with the one who can offer much.   And if you are crying because of a lack of food, not everyone is able to have 2 tables.  If it is because of the children you have lost, know I have lost a child as well.”  Rabbi Elazar replied to him, “No, I cry because of the beauty that will rot in the earth.”  By this Elazar meant Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty.  He was crying not for himself, but because his own illness reminded him of his friend’s mortality.  Rabbi Yochanan nodded in understanding and said, “Are your afflictions dear to you?”  “Neither they nor their reward!”  Elazar replied.  “Give me your hand” Rabbi Yochanan said.  Elazar did so and Yochanan raised him up.

This is a beautiful story that teaches the power of comfort our presence provides when we visit someone who is ill or in distress.  It also teaches that the tears shed and shared amplify the connection between humans.  It deepens the experience.

When I was 13, the man who raised my dad, his uncle Richard Stern, was in the hospital after suffering a severe heart attack.  My dad was also in the hospital for minor surgery.  After visiting dad, mom asked if I wanted to see Uncle Richard as well.  Uncle Richard was like a grandfather to me, so of course I did.  I went up to his room and when I walked in, Uncle Richard began to cry.  Mom told me later he cried because he was upset I had to see him in such a weakened, degraded state.  Uncle Richard died just a few days later and I will never lose that image of him in his hospital bed, with tears streaming down his face.

The tears shed by Rabbi Elazar and by Uncle Richard were not over their own suffering, but over the connection of their suffering to the person visiting them.  “Tears are words the heart can’t express.”  The source of those words is unknown but the truth is obvious.  Communication by words can often be divisive.  Communication through tears is connective – to each other, to God.

But not all tears are tears of suffering or tears of mourning.  I am sure many of us have experienced the tears of joy, or the tears brought on by laughter.  That is how I best remember my oma, my grandma.  Oma would laugh so hard she would begin to cry.  We used to visit her with our daughters at her Miami Beach apartment.  One time we were visiting her when the girls were about 10 and 8.  She had prepared lunch for us but was looking for something she had taken out to put on the table.  She could not find it until one of the girls opened her freezer and found it along with a tissue box she had inexplicably left in the freezer.  They all started to laugh and Oma laughed so hard she had to sit down with tears rolling down her cheeks.  That is one of my favorite memories of my oma – my daughters laughing so hysterically with her that she cried.  As Hosea Ballou wrote, “Tears of joy are like the summer rain pierced by sunbeams.”

Which leads us to another truth.  We cannot really know or appreciate joy without knowing the depths of sadness.  The world is defined by balance, the yin and yang between different values, different emotions.  Our tears are often the connective piece between the extremes of joy and sorrow.  It says in Psalms 126:5,6:

“Those who sow in tears, shall reap with songs of joy.

Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag,

he shall come back with songs of joy carrying his sheaves.”

There are levels of interpretation to these verses.  The obvious is that we must suffer before coming to a place of joy.  Rabbinic tradition applies this Psalm to the sufferings of Israel.  In 586 BCE we suffered the destruction of the Temple, of Jerusalem, of a Jewish nation, culminating in the exile of our people in Babylon.  That was a moment of tears, as it says in Psalm 137:1 “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept, as we remembered Zion.”  The Hebrew Bible prophets taught, and the rabbis later affirmed, that the Babylonian conquest and exile were punishment for the sins of Israel, sins of injustice, of neglecting the poor, of turning society’s back on those who shed tears of need, who begged for help.  So Israel shed its own tears in exile.  But, the tears of exile are only a step along the path to redemption.  In Isaiah 40:1 we read “Comfort, O comfort My people, says God.” (nachamu, nachamu ami).  Isaiah goes on to teach that Jerusalem should take heart; the time of repentance is complete.  The succeeding chapters in Isaiah increase in their levels of joy, describing the rebuilding and the future hope of Jerusalem.

Yes, rabbinic tradition teaches Psalm 126 as a reference to the people Israel.  Our tears of sorrow were but a step along the path to redemption and joy.  But a reference to the trials and triumphs of Israel serves as a powerful metaphor for our personal experiences.  How many of us have walked paths of pain before reaching a place of joy?  How many of us have caused tears from a wrong we committed, before facing our personal redemption?  How many of us have felt we were in exile, from friends, from family, then suffering a painful confrontation before the relief and joy of reconciliation?  And how many times have the resolutions to any of our difficulties included the sharing of tears?

It is our tears that connect us.  They speak a language that needs no explanation or translation.  They break down the barrier of separation.  They water our paths of transformation leading to a moment of connection, of joy.  When we share our tears, we are mingling our lives together in an emotional and meaningful way, a way that leads us to empathy and understanding, to actually seeing the world, even for an instant through another’s eyes.  While we can never walk in another person’s shoes, we can share their tears.  Our tears water our hope for the future.

There is a midrash about a key moment in this morning’s Torah portion.  As Isaac is laying upon the altar, his father Abraham looms over him, knife drawn.  Isaac sees two things.  He sees the angels of heaven screaming for Abraham to lay down his knife and NOT slaughter Isaac.  And, he sees the tears of pain welling up in his father’s eyes from his grief over what he is about to do.  Isaac begins to weep, tears welling up in his own eyes.  Abraham’s tears begin to fall into Isaac’s eyes, the tears of father and son mingling together.  It is at that moment that Abraham hears the angelic voice breaking through his emotional barriers, crying out, “Do not harm that boy!”  It was the sharing of tears that enabled Abraham to leave his own head and finally understand what God really wanted, that he was NOT to kill Isaac.  It is the sharing of tears that enables us to really hear what others are trying to convey.

Tears are transforming.  Tears are humanizing.  Yes, we often sow in tears.  But may our tears clear the path to our songs of joy.  May they melt the ice around our hearts.  May they move us to appreciate how others suffer as we do.  May they water fields of understanding and empathy, from which we can build a better humanity.  May our tears for each other mirror God’s tears for us.  Amen.

Shanah Tovah

 

One day, a group of scientists got together and decided that humanity had progressed to the point that it no longer needed God.  So they picked one of their group to go have a talk with God – to suggest perhaps the Holy One should retire.  The scientist walked up to God and said, “We have decided we no longer need you.  We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just leave, take a rest, retire.”  God listened patiently to the man.  After the scientist was done talking, God said, “I hear you.  How about this?  Let’s say we have a human making contest.”  The scientist replied, “Sure, great!”  Then God continued, “We will do this just like I did back in the old days when I created Adam.”  The scientist said, “Sure, no problem.” He proceeded to bend down and grabbed a handful of dirt.  God stopped him and said, “Wait a minute, go get your own dirt.”

Cute story.  Comes down on the side of religion in the faith versus science discussion.  Do you detect a few problems here?  I do.  First, I am sure there are many, maybe most of you, who if pressed would say factual truth is expressed more by science than by religion.  A lot of us are tired of the silliness of dealing with folks who take the first chapters of Genesis – those describing creation and the first human beings – as literal.  Indeed, very few Jews, from any part of the Jewish spectrum, take the creation story at face value.  Even Rashi, the 11th century commentator on the Torah, says chapter 1 of Genesis is not about a logical order of creation, that it makes no sense on that level.  That’s only a surface problem.  A deeper problem is the way the story depicts God – as a person with the same feelings of any human, but with super powers.  This makes God more like a DC comic book hero than the center of serious religious thought.

The problem begins in our own Torah.  God is never to be physically represented, that is God is invisible, yet God is continually depicted anthropomorphically – as having arms, as speaking, as having human emotions.  Maimonides says all of this is necessary metaphor due to the limitations on human understanding and language.  He says the Torah is like an apple that looks silver, but upon closer inspection we can see the silver is filigree and the core is gold.  The silver outside has value, but not like the gold.  Torah has value in its literal sense but Maimonides sees the real value in uncovering the golden core – the inner meaning.  Traditional Jewish commentary on the Torah is almost never satisfied with the surface meaning, but delves deep into the text, peeling back layers of meaning.  Torah and therefore God are mysteries to be studied and understood.

Which means we have yet to really understand creation or the creation story.  If you are scientifically bent you might be thinking, why even bother?  Clearly Genesis is mythology and our understanding of how the universe came to be is being continually sharpened by science.  A typical response by a religious person is that there need be no conflict between religion and science.  Science explains the “how” of creation and religion tells us the “why.”  While I do not disagree with that statement, it feels rather inadequate – incomplete.  I believe the Torah, if we cut through the silver and examine the gold, can teach us lot about creation, and what the scientific truths about creation really imply.  And today is the right day to explore this, as Rosh Hashanah is not only about our journey to repentance, it celebrates the birth of the world.  It celebrates creation.

So I begin at the beginning.  B’reishit bara Elohim.  Pretty much all translations render that as “In the beginning, God created.”  But that is not grammatically accurate, which even Rashi points out.  A better exact translation would be, “In the beginning of…God created.”  You see the difference?  The question it raises is obvious.  There is a word missing in the sentence – in the beginning of…. what?  The entire Torah begins with a mystery, a blank inviting us to speculate about the true nature of God and creation.  And when we speculate about the true nature of God and creation, we are really speculating about ourselves, and how we fit into the world around us.  Too often we see ourselves as islands, disconnected from most of what goes on in the world.  That is normal, but misleading.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how we are connected to all of creation.  My pondering began while on vacation in June.  We went to Alaska and one of our excursions was walking through a temperate rain forest at the base of the Mendenhall glacier.  The glacier, as most glaciers world wide, has been receding for the last number of centuries.  The rain forest grows where the glacier used to be, and for the last approximately 125 years the receding has been marked by signs that show where the end of the glacier was in various years.  Our guide shared a lot of interesting information, some of it shocking and some of it fodder for deep contemplation.  The most shocking was the rate glaciers are receding.  The end of the last glacial advance was about 11,700 years ago.  Scientists have been tracking the Mendenhall glacier for at least 125 years.  Until a few years ago the glacier was receding at the rate of 25 to 30 feet per year.  Now it is receding at a rate of 300 to 500 feet per year.  If you doubt that climate change is happening, go study the glaciers in Alaska!   The rain forest, growing in the wake of where the glacial ice used to be, is composed of 4 main elements, moss, alder, spruce, and hemlock.  They form the acronym MASH; which until this trip I thought stood for mobile army surgical hospital.

It is clear that the soil left by the receding glaciers is quite fertile, rich with elements that spur growth.  Then our guide taught us something even more amazing.  The movement of the glaciers through the mountains scrapes off tons of marble and granite filled with minerals.  All the glaciers have streams that flow into the ocean.  These streams serve as feeding tubes for the world’s waters.  The minerals they carry feed all ocean life, a lot of which ends up on our dinner tables!  In fact, it is the glacial action all over the world that provides the nutrients necessary to sustain the earth’s oceanic life.  The waters off of Alaska, for example, are so rich in nutrients that the humpback whales who migrate to Hawaii in the winter to breed, actually do their feeding while in the north.  I was dumbstruck by this fact told us by our guide – without glacial activity, the earth could not sustain life.  Wow!  Think about that.  It is a stunning example of how all of life – all of creation – is interconnected in ways we usually do not think about or see.  The science of how glaciers are critical to our survival reinforces a mystical religious perspective!

What my experiences walking through the rain forest by the Mendenhall glacier, and seeing how glaciers affect life brought into focus is how all of life, all of creation, all of us are deeply interconnected – but most of the time we are blind or oblivious to that.  This is the golden core of the Torah of life.  We kind of stumble through life seeing the silver filigree.  We see the surface of existence.  We judge things based on how our little island of existence is doing in the moment.  Often the silver is quite lovely.  We enjoy our life, our friends, our hobbies.  Often the silver feels inadequate – we sense something is missing or we yearn for something more but often cannot really place our finger on what we feel is missing.  Our emotional responses, happiness, anger, sadness, pleasure; our judgments of people and events – are surface reactions – meaning we are responding to our impression, our satisfaction or disappointment to what is surrounding us in a particular moment.  We do not see the golden core.  We do not see beyond the boundaries of self that our egos erect for us.  We are mostly oblivious to deeper, inner realities.

But not always.

Have you ever had a moment in which you realized that your personal story was not uniquely yours?  Have you ever had that moment when you saw another person’s experience, although different on the surface, deeply connected to your own?  It can happen in a conversation, it can happen watching the news, it can happen in a movie.  When I saw the movie “Woman in Gold,” the story of Maria Altmann’s struggle to recover a painting stolen from her family by the Nazis and taken by the Austrian government, I felt that moment of connection – not to oppression or a shared family history in the Holocaust, but in the way family and extended community works.  It occurred in the scene in which she hires Randol Schoenberg as her attorney.  She hires him because her family knew his family in the 1930’s in Vienna.  She knew him as a little boy.  She serves him a piece of strudel and in that moment I was taken back to my childhood in the Bronx in the late 1950’s.  The kind of community connection felt by Maria and Randol is exactly what I experienced with my grandparents as a child.  I connected on a deep emotional level to people I had never known about because of a shared community dynamic.

In 2012, when I was meeting and getting to know the part of the Romberg family my father never knew, I got a lesson in hidden ties while talking to Magie (Romberg) Furst, who is my dad’s first cousin – one he never knew existed.  In my office is a photograph of a stairway in Brooklyn leading to a store of Jewish sacred books and ritual objects.  The title given the photograph is “Stairway to Heaven?”  The photographer is Teddy Tobar, my father’s close friend, dating to their childhood in Cologne, Germany.  Teddy, like a good number of dad’s Jewish community in Cologne, found a way to make it to America.  I remember him as a funny, engaging man who everyone in the German Jewish community in New York seemed to know.  He looked like Yogi Berra.  His apartment, in the late 1940’s, was a center of social gatherings for German Jews.  At one of Teddy’s parties, shortly after Magie was married, she told me her husband came to her and said he had just had a conversation with a man named Romberg, who must be related to her (her maiden name was Romberg), and she needed to talk to him. That man was my father, who had to leave before Magie could meet him.

Stimulating that feeling of deeper connection can come from seemingly alien incidents and people.  They do not have to be revelations of family and cultural similarities.  In 1992, as the videos of Rodney King’s beating were played all over TV, my dad called me in tears telling me it was making him relive his youth in Nazi Germany.  Dad saw himself, a German Jewish immigrant, cabinet maker and businessman; in an African American taxi driver in Los Angeles.  On September 12, 2001, I called one of my former congregants in Fredericksburg, VA, as I knew his wife was an American Airlines flight attendant who was often working flights to Los Angeles.  I was worried she was on flight 77, the one that crashed into the Pentagon.  As it turned out, she was the on call back up attendant who was sent home when the regularly scheduled attendants all showed up for the flight.  I would wager many of you have similar stories, of connections to events and people that shake you, that surprise you.  I would wager that many of you see the faces of your own children or grandchildren when, for example, you hear of incidents like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook.  I would wager you see yourself and your friends when you learned of the tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  We sense a deeper life connection in moments of sadness, tragedy, joy, and relief.  We get a glimpse of the interconnectedness of all being in those brief moments.

And that is a hint of a deeper truth: the beginning of understanding the golden core of all creation.  We feel and act isolated, but we are not.  Midrash teaches when the 10 commandments were recited for the Israelites at Sinai, all they saw was one thing, the letter alef.  It is the letter printed in your leaflets.  It is the first letter, of the first word, of the first commandment – anochi adonai elohecha, “I am Adonai your God.”  There are a couple of interesting things about that phrase.  First, the word elohecha “your God,” is in the singular form of “you” even though all of the people of Israel are being addressed.  From God’s perspective they are one unit, not a collection of individuals.  But why does the midrash teach that all the people saw was the letter alef ?  That is the letter that begins the word translated as “I am.”  Take your leaflet.  Look at the alef.  Turn it slightly so the center line of the alef is not diagonal but straight up and down.  Look at it carefully and what you will see is the outline of a face.  The center line is the nose.  The 2 curved lines are the eyebrows.  It is a face with no details.  It is God’s face.  It is your face.  It is the face of every human who ever was, is, or will be.  It is the signal of the truth in the golden core.  All of us, all of creation, are connected in the most basic way to God.  We are connected to each other.  When we look at another person, do we get distracted by skin color, by hair color, by eye color, by clothes, by makeup, by ethnicity, by religion by wealth or by poverty?  Or do we see the alef, the presence of God, our connection to all creation, to each other?

Bereishit bara Elohim…“In the beginning of….”  The Zohar teaches that what emanated first from God, was keter, literally crown.  This is the “crowning” if you will, of all creation.  When you look at the kabbalistic tree, That shows the emanations from God that create the world, you will see that the first, the first emanation, is keter, the crown of creation.  From the crown comes the qualities of binah, understanding, and chochmah, insight.  The very first letter of the Torah is a bet, from the word b’reishit.  On top of that bet is a decorative crown, a keter.  That bet is the only one in the Torah with a decorative crown, as bet is not one of the 7 letters that usually gets that decorative piece.  That crown on the first letter is our reminder – to read the story of creation, indeed the whole Torah, with binah – understanding and insight.  We are invited to understand that all we really need to see is the alef that begins the word anochi.  All we need to understand is that the word anochi, “I am,” is not just about me.  It is about God.  It is about the reflection of God in each other, throughout creation.  God placed God’s self throughout creation.  God is present in everything, in each one of us.  That is why God declares about creation ki tov, behold, this is good.

May this be the year we can see the connection, the good, throughout creation.  May this be the year we can see the connection to God we share with each other: even those who seem so unlike ourselves.  May we all look at the world, at God’s creation and declare, ki tov, behold, this is good.

Amen and Shanah tovah!

imagesI was at the Anchorage Museum looking at an exhibit displaying the backgrounds of the various native American groups that have and are inhabiting Alaska. Here is the quote from one that made me pause for a minute, “Our name for ourselves is Inupiaq (the real people).” Instantly I thought of the movie “Dances with Wolves,” where we hear that the Lakota refer to themselves as the “human beings.” I then noticed another Alaskan tribe’s description in the museum and they referred to themselves the same way – as the “human beings.” As I walked the display, it turns out that a number of tribes referred to themselves as “real people” or “human beings.”

It should be no surprise that we Jews are not the only folks with a tradition of being unique, chosen. I am not going to critique the feeling of uniqueness in Jews or any group. It is a common part of ethnicity. What is unique about the Jewish tradition of being chosen is how much debate and discussion has occurred through the centuries over what that really means. Is it a quality of being select? Does it imply greater responsibility? Perhaps, it means adopting a set of ideals and religious approach to life that is different from other groups?

That is the overarching theme I glean from parashat Shoftim. “When you come to the land that Adonai your God is giving you, you shall not learn to do the abhorrant things of those nations.” (Deuteronomy 18:9) The immediate context of this verse specifies certain practices, not putting your children through a trial by fire, no magicians, diviners or other practices that lead from basic morality and truth. Moses is trying to teach that the society the Israelites are supposed to form is one that operates on a different standard than those of other nations.

This instruction becomes elevated when one considers the opening verses of Shoftim. These command the Israelites to create a just court system, highlighted by the phrase, tzedek, tzedek tirdof, usually translated as “justice, justice you shall pursue.” Thanks to the uniqueness of the Hebrew language, this command takes us to a more complex and deeper level. Simply pursuing justice would not make the command to the Israelites unique. All cultures claim to pursue justice. Justice, however, is a relative term. It is too unqualified, open to abuse by authoritarian figures. Hebrew, however, allows us to read the word tzedek in other ways. We can translate the word also as righteousness. The system of justice we are commanded to create is to be guided by righteousness and moderated by mercy. But that is not all. The same Hebrew letters, tzadik, daled, kuf, also form the root for tzodek, which means factually correct. The justice system, indeed society, is to be informed by facts, not by falsehood. Why else would the rabbinic amplification of this system emphasize the need for witnesses who can testify to facts.

A society based on these three translations of the word tzedek: justice, righteousness and factual truth, would be a unique society indeed. It would create a nation unlike all other nations. These values are relevant not just to Jews. These are core values that Americans believe make our nation an exceptional nation. Each one is present in our founding documents. As our country has grown and aged, we have adapted the initial precepts to changing times. For example, the phrase “All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence meant white property owning males in 1776. Today we operate (at least ostensibly) under the assumption this phrase really means “all humans are created equal, no matter what race or gender.” The precepts of justice are outlined in numerous amendments to the constitution. The guarantee of a free press, is a recognition not only of the right to diversity of opinion, but the necessity for a media independent enough to report facts without repercussions from the government.

These are the essential ideals of our country. Rather than exceptionalism based on tribe (our country is an amalgam of tribes), American exceptionalism is based on our founding principles. The Israelites were commanded to create a nation that did not do as the Canaanites did. Our founding fathers tried to create a system for our country no nation had ever attempted. The American experiment was a model and inspiration for many around the world. The potential for people to live in freedom with the opportunity for prosperity has attracted generations of immigrants who have contributed to the building of this country.

But now times are changing. We can legitimately ask if we are adhering to the ideals that made America exceptional. Because too many in our country see our exceptionalism expressed not by our principles, but by our power. Freedom and opportunity are not for all, but for those deemed as acceptable. That is the problem with those who state they want to “make America great again.” They do not mean a return to our founding ideals of justice, righteousness and facts. They mean a reinforcement of a system that returns favor and power to a select few. They see change and diversity as threats to be defeated, as opposed to assets to be harnessed.

Look at reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement as an example. Yes, there are elements in that movement that we can question. Yes we must be careful not to demonize those police forces who are doing a great job in their communities. But to deny the existence and persistence of racism and its impact on African Americans is just covering truth with excuses. And it is not only racism against blacks that exists. The rise of Islamophobia, of anti immigrant rhetoric and more blatant anti-Semitism are all embarrassments that too many in our country refuse to acknowledge.

Why? Because we have turned away from the value of facts. Our media is not a free press that presents facts and then offers diversity of opinion on those facts. It is a series of silos which attract like minded people and offer them spin to confirm and inflame their latent feelings. When a self described news site like Breitbart states that Huma Abedin is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is not interested in facts but in stirring the prejudiced emotions of its readership. We value those who bully and feed our worst instincts rather than those committed to righteousness.  We see strength as making loud, assertive statements and not in hard policy decisions. We are allowing the definition of justice to be driven by what benefits a select few instead of what best serves the majority of our population. We are too open to a system of justice driven by fear of people of color, of immigrants, of those who do not practice the majority religion.

Is America an exceptional nation? We like to think we are. It will be for you to determine.

images

This week we lost Gene Wilder, one of the iconic comedic actors that my generation watched in movies we consider as classics. I can trace my maturing from adolescence to college to adulthood via Gene Wilder movies. I like pretty much all of his work from the late 1960’s through the 1980’s. Everyone, of course, has their favorites. And I suppose that mine should be “The Frisco Kid,” the hilarious story of a rabbi from Poland trying to find his way across the wild west – it has so many funny Jewish references and insights. However, my very favorites are two of the ones he did with Mel Brooks: “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.”

Both films met with controversy during their development as well as their initial releases. Both tread ground no one dared to walk, showing disdain for the political correctness of their day. Both have moments where I still laugh so hard that I cry – even though I have seen them multiple times.

Brooks always wanted Zero Mostel to play Max Bialystock, but it took Mostel’s wife to convince him to take the role. The original Leo Bloom was supposed to be Peter Sellers, but that did not work out. Brooks then remembered he had spoken to Wilder about the role a few years earlier and cast him. “The Producers” was originally titled “Springtime for Hitler.” It was an idea Mel Brooks had been developing for years before he actually produced it. Major studios rejected the movie “Springtime for Hitler,” saying the idea of using Adolf Hitler for comedy was over the top tasteless. Brooks would say in numerous interviews that the best way to degrade the most vile dictator of the 20th century was to mock him, to make him the butt of jokes. His script for the 1968 film won an academy award. In 2001 he converted it to a musical play that won 12 Tony’s. Yet, even in 2015, some folks protested the play and the film’s mocking of Hitler, saying having Nazi’s parade around the stage in musical numbers is in bad taste, an insult to those who suffered through the Holocaust.

The premier of “The Producers” in Pittsburg, November 1967 was a disaster. The movie studio was ready to shelve it. But Sellers saw it privately and supported its general release. Reviews were mixed. But what do reviewers know? To me the movie is one of the funniest films I have ever seen. It is brilliant in its absurdity.

“Blazing Saddles” also morphed a lot through its production. The original title was supposed to be “Tex X,” a kind of spoof on Malcolm X. Richard Pryor, who was one of the co-writers, was supposed to play Sheriff Bart, but apparently the studio would not issue insurance on him. So the part went to Cleavon Little. Brooks offered the part of the Waco Kid to John Wayne, who turned it down but promised to be first in line to see the movie. It was then given to Gig Young, who collapsed on the set early in the shooting. So it went to Wilder.

Reaction to “Blazing Saddles” was as mixed as the reaction to “The Producers.” Many thought it was hilarious, and indeed it was a box office hit. Others were offended by the frequent use of the “n” word. Brooks pointed out those protests were mostly from whites. However, the movie was incredibly politically incorrect even beyond the language, such as when former NFL star Alax Karras, in his role as Mongo, punched and decked a horse. Or when Madeline Kahn, as Lily von Schtupp, seduces sheriff Bart. One of my favorite moments is when Mel Brooks, as the Indian chief, is shocked at seeing black people and says in Yiddish, “Hast du gesehen deine leiben (have you seen anything like this in your life)? They’re darker than we are!”

Both movies challenge our sense of propriety. Both make us uncomfortable while at the same moment trying to make us laugh. Do we dare see Hitler as funny? Is he being mocked or trivialized? Do we dare laugh at the raw racism depicted by the language and attitudes in “Blazing Saddles?” I think Brooks is correct when he states this movie could never be made in today’s politically correct culture.

To put these questions in the context of this week’s Torah portion; do we see these movies as a blessing or a curse? Are they just crude attempts at humor or insights into our cultural foibles? The very first word of the portion is re’eh, the imperative form of the verb “ to see.” God commands the Israelites to “see” that the existence of blessing and curse if before us. In Nitzavim we are told to choose blessing and live or to choose curse and die. Here we are told that if we follow God’s commands given that day, we will be blessed and if not we will be cursed. We are then to pronounce the blessing from Mount Gerizim and the curse from Mount Ebal. So what are the commands given that day? Well actually, just one, to “see.” If we combine the references to blessing and curse from this week’s parashah and Nitzavim, we can understand that we are commanded to see the existence of blessing and curse; to acknowledge them and to choose our path.

Traditionally, we look at this under the mitzvah system. If we obey we get blessed. If we do not we get cursed. But I would “see” this a bit differently. We are commanded to look at things and to judge if they are blessing or curse. We are to make the choices based on what we see and from our choices we can build a life of blessing or a life of curse. Even more, can we see that the potential for blessing AND curse exists in each thing, and how we choose to react or to handle each thing determines the degree of each in our lives. While we are told to declare blessing from one mountain and curse from another, the truth is we do not live on either mountain, but at some point in between. How close we move to one mountain or the other depends on the choices we make and the attitudes we choose to embrace.

That is why I am so intrigued by “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles.” Each represents a life puzzle. Each can be seen as funny and insightful or as awfully insulting. If we follow God’s command and “see” them in the context of life’s choices, how we choose to frame life, we will learn something about ourselves. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will better understand why we feel blessed or cursed. Our reactions to these movies can teach us a lot about who we are. And we can laugh a lot while we learn.

A Pesach Carol

Nobody ever called me Ebenezer, and no one ever accused me of failing to give Bob Cratchet a raise – I have never employed a Bob Cratchet. I do not think I have been particularly miserly for most of my life, but a few nights ago I was visited by 4 ghosts – 4 Pesach ghosts. No, they did not seem particularly scary. None of them gave off eerie moans. No, I did not see a specter like head appearing on my door knocker at home – probably because I don’t have a door knocker. Yet, four ghosts paid me a visit and so tonight I will tell you about them.

The first ghost was the ghost of Pesach past. He looked rather like Charlton Heston did at the end of the movie “The Ten Commandments;” with flowing grey streaked hair, long beard, billowing robes. I actually thought it might be Charlton Heston coming back from the dead to chastise me for my opposition to the NRA until he told me that his name was Moish. “I am here,” he said, “to review with you the years through the lens of Pesachs past.” “Look Moish,” I said, “You don’t have to put on that spooky voice. Just speak to me like a regular person.” “OK, no problem,” said Moish. “Ghost guild rules require that I at least start out with the requisite voice. Let’s take a look at where you’ve been.”

With a wave of his long staff (did I mention he carried a staff?), we were back in the Pesach of the year 1965. Immediately I recognized the room. It was the dining room of our friends, the Bermans. Diana was one of my parents first friends when we moved to Allentown in 1963. By 1965 having seder with them was a yearly tradition. Her younger daughter Helene, had become one of my close friends – the kind of female friend who, later, when we were teens, would clue you in on what the girls were thinking. I really liked the pool table they had in their basement. My dad would conduct the seder at their house. Diana was divorced. And 1965 was the last year I had to do the 4 questions, as my younger brother was just learning how to read Hebrew.

Spring 1965 was an interesting time. The Yankees had lost the World Series the previous October, for the second year in a row. Their manager, Yogi Berra, had been fired, and the manager of World Champion Cardinals, Johnny Keane, was hired in his place. Mickey Mantle was still “The Mick.” But you had to wonder how much longer he could play on legs that were falling apart more each year. That spring we could not know that the long time Yankee dynasty was at an end. The great Yankee players of the 1960’s pretty much all fell apart that year. The Minnesota Twins would go on to win the pennant – go figure!

But the news that dominated adult conversation was Vietnam. President Johnson had been elected by a landslide that past November, but the war in Vietnam had greatly escalated. He ran as the “peace” candidate, depicting Barry Goldwater as a wild eyed maniac who would lead us into nuclear war. That was a real concern in those days. I remember bomb drills in elementary school, where we would have to go into a hall in the middle, supposedly most protected part of the building, and crouch down. I always wondered what good that would do if the building was caving in because of a nuclear explosion, but I never had the guts to ask the teachers. I just did the drill along with everyone else.

The other big conversation going on was the situation with African Americans. The previous summer there had been terrible race riots in Philadelphia, just 50 miles away from us. Although the President was pushing through many bills to ease the problems of African Americans, it did not seem like enough to stem the rising anger. Little did anyone know that the Philadelphia riots of August 1964 were just a glimpse at what would happen throughout the 60’s in places like Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Asbury Park. At Pesach 1965, there were really no hippies – the word would be used in print for the first time in September of that year. The Beatles were still writing love songs and John had not yet met Yoko. We lived in a world in which “The Sound of Music” would win the Academy Award for best picture.

Moish, however, decided not to let me tarry too long in Pesach 1965. With a wave of his staff (did I mention he carried a staff?) we were transported to Pesach 1978. The scene was my in law’s dining room, where almost 30 family members gathered for seder. Audrey’s dad led the seder and some of her young cousins all took turns singing the 4 questions. One young 4 year old cousin, too young to know Hebrew or be able to read, was not happy that other cousins got to sing, so he announced he wanted to sing as well and serenaded us with “I’ve been working on the railroad.”

That spring the Yankees had just reestablished themselves as World Champions, beating the Dodgers the previous October. Led by Reggie Jackson, they were absolutely the team to beat that year. They would win it all again in 1978 and one more time in 1981. In this time just a few years removed from the angst of Vietnam, the Academy Award winner was “The Deer Hunter,” one of many, edgy films that was critical of the war.

The big crisis in those years centered around the price of gas, which drove inflation into double digits. The cost of borrowing money was so great that no one could fathom how the economy could ever move forward and break the cycle of high inflation and high unemployment.

The great hope that spring was in the Middle East, where just the previous fall, Anwar Sadat made his famous, dramatic trip to Jerusalem. Sadat’s grand gesture, which he hoped would lead to a swift, comprehensive peace agreement between the Arab world and Israel, an agreement that would include self determination for the Palestinians, took the world by surprise and created a aura of hope for the intractable conflict. The Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, however, would end up derailing this grand gesture through a constant focus on legal details rather than grand principals. Begin was trying to consolidate the Israeli hold on the West Bank and used this time to accelerate the building of settlements there. While a peace was achieved with Egypt that holds until today, Sadat paid with his life and Begin’s West Bank policy helped to create the boondoggle that clogs any attempt at a peace process today.

I was about to ask Moish to what year we were going next, when I was back in my bedroom. “What a dream!” I thought to myself. Then I saw a tall, thin, African American man walking towards me. “President Obama!” I cried, “What are you doing here?” “I am not President Obama,” he said. “I am the ghost of Pesach present.” “Well why do you look like the President?” “First of all, because he hosted a seder in the White House. Second, what better way to get you to focus on what is happening in the world around you right now?” “Well,” I said. “The Phillies are rebuilding, and it looks like the Cubs might finally break their 118 year curse. “No, I want you to be aware of some other things beside baseball,” he said.

So he waved his staff (did I mention he carried a staff? It seems that all Pesach ghosts carry a staff), and we were looking into my dining room, in my house, with all of our invited guests. The food was plentiful, delicious, and all seemed to be having a great time celebrating our seder. The children of our guests were singing the 4 questions. “It all looks just like it should,” I said. “Yes, but now you need to see this.” And he waved his staff again and there I was staring into another Jewish family’s home. They were distraught. No seder was happening. They were a family in crisis. Their jobs did not pay enough – bills piling high. The family was in counseling. The children were struggling in a substandard school. They had no time or appetite for sitting at a seder. Their questions were not about how this night was different from all other nights, but how to survive. I turned to the ghost and asked, “Why are you showing me this?” But he was gone and suddenly I found myself back in my bedroom. “Wow, what a dream.” I thought.

Then, I saw a rather scary figure – just like out of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. A figure draped in a black shroud, hooded and carrying a staff. This one spoke not a word. “Are you the ghost of Pesach future?” I asked. The figure nodded. “Where are we going now?” The figure just waved his staff and pointed.

It is a seder in my dining room. My kids are there and my youngest granddaughter, Libby, must be about 10 years old. She has just finished singing the 4 questions. She looks up at me and says, “Saba, can I ask you another question?” “Of course,” I say. “I learned in school this past week about how angry people were when I was a baby. I heard there were police shooting black kids. I heard people hated Muslims and Mexicans. Lot’s of people were really upset. The teacher said too many people did nothing to stop people from hating. When you were working in your congregation, what did you do? I cannot tell you my answer because all of a sudden I was back in my bedroom.

“Wow, what a dream,” I thought. I was finally about to try to go back to sleep when I saw another black man, but different this time. He was dressed in a tee shirt and jeans, and had a head full of dreadlocks. “Who are you and how did you get in here?” I asked. “You know me mon,” he said. “I am Marley’s ghost.” “Jacob Marley’s ghost? Aren’t you in the wrong story?” “No mon, I am Bob Marley’s ghost, and I am in the right story.” “How do you fit into this story?” “Because of a song that I wrote, that you need to remember. It is called ‘Redemption Song.’” And then he began to recite the following:

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,

None but ourselves can free our minds.

How long shall they kill our prophets,

While we stand aside and look,

Some say its just a part of it

We’ve got to fulfill the book.

Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom?

‘Cause all I ever have:

Redemption songs, Redemption songs, Redemption songs.”

Pesach sameah (Happy Pesach) to everyone!

I begin with this. I, along with many if not most American Jews, understand the need for a just solution for the Palestinian people. I knew in the 1970’s, when the first settlements in the West Ban…

Source: BDS – The Wrong Approach

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I begin with this. I, along with many if not most American Jews, understand the need for a just solution for the Palestinian people. I knew in the 1970’s, when the first settlements in the West Bank were established, that this was a disastrous path for Israel. They were letting right wing religious extremists in a door that should have been closed to them. Let me put this in more a personal light. On my first trip to Israel in the summer of 1971, a teen group tour, we were guests at a Palestinian community center where the guys played a basketball game against their team (we lost); then all of us shared a wonderful meal together. I doubt that experience could be duplicated today. How sad.

So I, like many American rabbis, am critical of the Israeli government, often to the chagrin of some American Jews. I criticize the settlement policy, as well as many aspects of what happens in Israel, such as issues over religious pluralism, the dominance of the orthodox rabbinate, and the treatment of Israeli Arab citizens. We do not shy from looking into ourselves and voicing criticism of Israel. I see it as a religious duty to do this as a people and be honest about how Israel conducts itself.  However, underlying any criticism I might have of the Israeli government is my commitment to the principle of the legitimacy of the State of Israel. I have studied its history. I have been there numerous times including living there for a year. None of my criticism is ever meant to undermine the legitimacy of Israel, but to apply pressure for it to follow the better, more idealistic course I have always believed it should and could.

Now we confront the BDS movement. This calls for the boycott of Israeli products, be they commercial, academic or artistic. It calls for divestment of economic commitments to Israel by entities doing business or investing there, and it calls for sanctions to be levied against Israel, much like the sanctions that were levied in the 1980’s against apartheid South Africa. BDS proponents claim they are just looking for a peaceful way to push Israel onto the same path that people like me desire. It all sounds very good and righteous – until one looks at the details.

First, the BDS movement aligns itself with campus organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine. Having appeared in a program with a representative of that organization, it is clear that this organization is not about justice, but revenge. Most important, this organization does not see Israel as having a legitimate right to exist. It excuses the most violent actions by Hamas by saying an oppressed people have a right to use any means at their disposal, including the targeting of innocents. Even more, SJP (at least the representative I was with) is completely unfamiliar with the history of the region. Her opening statement was “before 1948 Christians, Jews and Muslims all got along fine.” The implication here is that all of the problems began with Israel’s independence declared in 1948. There is no acknowledgment of a continued Jewish presence in Palestine from Roman times until the Zionist movement began in the late 19th century. While Jews were a minority in Palestine, they were there and at the end of the 19th century were even a majority in Jerusalem.

Because of the historical inaccuracies embraced by BDS, they miscast the current situation of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and treatment of the Palestinians as equivalent to apartheid South Africa. The current situation is the result of over 100 years of complex history. It begins with the purchasing of land by the early Zionist movement, often from absentee Arab landowners. The development of these lands had many scenarios ranging from local Arabs and immigrant Jews getting along just fine, to Arab xenophobia not accepting any Jewish presence in land that was once Muslim, to some European Jews acting like colonialists, determined to “civilize” the poor Arabs they found in Palestine. BDS proponents do not acknowledge the Arab massacres of Jews in the 1920’s nor do they acknowledge the virulent anti-Judaism of a significant part of the local population. For example, the Grand Mufti in Jerusalem in the 1930’s aligned himself with and even met with Adolf Hitler, declaring his full support of the annihilation of Jews. BDS proponents see no validity in the UN resolution of November 1947 that recognized there should be two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. BDS proponents, when talking about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967 never mention this was a war instigated by the actions of Arab nations led by Egypt’s Abdul Gamel Nasser. BDS proponents do not mention that from 1948 to 1967 the West Bank was occupied by another nation, Jordan, as there was no acceptance in those years by Arab states for a two state solution. BDS proponents do not acknowledge that in the aftermath of the 1967 war, Israel offered numerous times to return all territories for a peace agreement.

No, BDS does not acknowledge any of this history. For the truth, as sad and unjust as it might be today for Palestinians, is that the current situation arises from Israel’s success as a nation, overcoming vast economic and sociological difficulties to create a vibrant, dynamic economy, a high standard of living as well as the only state that resembles a democracy in the Middle East. The Israelis succeeded, and tragically, the Palestinians were never given the chance to succeed. Instead, their Arab brethren, in the years after the 1948 war, kept the refugees in displacement camps – an atmosphere calculated to incubate hatred not just of Israel, but of Jews.

And that – hatred of Jews – is what BDS proponents seldom acknowledge as part of the ongoing problem. Yes Israel is far from a perfect actor in this. The building of settlements and the resulting oppression of Palestinians is just plain wrong. But it is not the result of the colonialism or racism that created apartheid in South Africa. Rather, it is the result of a struggle between two peoples, each pushing their own national liberation movement. Israel won, the Palestinians lost. As awful as the consequences might be for many Palestinians, this is NOT the same as what created apartheid. Rather, it is closer to the history of our country, the United States, and its treatment of Native Americans – with one huge difference, however. There has been a continuous presence (albeit a minority) of Jews in Palestine, while there were no Europeans living in the Americas before Columbus.

The point really is that no one questions the legitimacy of the United States existence. We are critical of its history, and of the consequences of that history even today. It is equally legitimate to question the history and actions of Israel. No nation is perfect in its actions. But it is NOT right to question the legitimacy of Israel’s very existence.

The next problem with the BDS movement is its connection to anti-Semitism. True, most of those drawn into the movement are not or do not consider themselves to be anti-Semitic. However, it quickly slides into anti-Semitism through its attempt to align other, very legitimate social justice movements to its cause. For example, BDS proponents have aligned with Black Lives Matter and declared that no Jew who supports the existence of Israel should be allowed to ally with Black Lives Matter. They then draw the comparison to South African apartheid, or even more of an outrage, to the struggle of African Americans in the United States. Conflating the problems of the Palestinians with the struggles of African Americans is a disservice to both. The histories of each struggle are very different and have very different origins. One is the result of conflicting national movements. The other derives from the history of American slavery and the resulting racism. Conflating these two struggles creates anti-Semitism among those supporting Black Lives Matter.

One needs to look at the recent experiences of Rabbi Susan Talve in St. Louis. Rabbi Talve founded and built her congregation based on principles of social justice. She has spent her career supporting Israel, BUT being very critical of its polices and actions vis a vis the Palestinians. As the events in Ferguson unfolded, she protested with African Americans, supporting Black Lives Matter. Some folks in that movement, influenced by organizations aligned with BDS, took a stand that someone who supported the mere existence of Israel could not support Black Lives Matter. They judged it to be hypocritical, and looked to drive Rabbi Talve out. For the full story click here: http://forward.com/news/327466/can-jews-back-black-lives-matter-and-be-pro-israel/

According to this reasoning, any Jew who believes Israel has a right to exist cannot truly support movements in this country like Black Lives Matter. That becomes anti-Semitic. This point is reinforced by what is happening to Jewish students on campuses around the country. One example is that of a Jewish student at UCLA who was at first disqualified from being on student government because her being Jewish was seen as a “conflict of interest.” Is there any other religion someone can have that is considered a “conflict of interest?” For the full account read this http://www.thefederalistpapers.org/us/ucla-student-government-openly-says-student-shouldnt-serve-because-shes-jewish   There are, unfortunately, a growing number of similar examples, in which Jewish students are singled out on the assumption they are pro-Israel – which frankly should not be an excuse anyway. Pro-Israel has a wide range of definitions, which do not necessarily include blanked support of all Israeli government policies.

BDS takes its aim at exactly the wrong elements. They oppose Israeli artists, musicians and academics as propaganda tools of the Israeli government. They oppose Israeli businesses as well as those American and international corporations that wish to invest in Israel, declaring them as exploitative of Palestinians. When artists, musicians, academics, and businesses are targeted, the very folks who are the natural allies in creating a different reality between Israel and Palestine become alienated. Rather, they need to be enlisted. The cooperation of business is necessary in order to create economic opportunities for Palestinians to lift themselves out of an awful situation. The only way to create justice in Israel and Palestine is by creating a non-violent alliance between Israelis and Palestinians who are dedicated to a just solution. Rather than trying to create positive connections between groups, those supporting BDS, willingly or unwillingly, are just driving more wedges between the people of the region, thus creating more bitterness and divisions.

The creation of peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a long, hard process. It has started and stalled numerous times over the century since the beginning of the Zionist movement. The only way to start a process that has any hope of success is for those who care about Israel and Palestine to shut up and just listen to each other’s narratives – not always to agree but to learn to understand the background and concerns of each other. By focusing on Israel as the villain, and by ignoring Arab anti-Semitism, those pushing BDS simply add to the poison already in the atmosphere.

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All of us have moments of fear. It is natural. It is human. I believe that one of the measures of our humanity is how we manage our fear. How far do we let it drive us? How much do we allow it to determine our life decisions? How does it affect our attitudes towards others? Fear can be a good thing. It can push us to actions that result in safety. Fear for loved ones can push us to acts of loving sacrifice. But the darkest side of fear pushes us to hatred, to denigration, even to acts of oppression. Excess fear creates darkness.

A couple of days ago I posted a piece in which I declared a blackout on writing or discussing a certain politician. Here is that link: https://thejewishobserver.com/2015/12/08/lets-shut-this-down-now/ This blog is not about him. It is about some of the reaction to the posting, in particular by those who support his policies regarding Muslims, immigration, and the Syrian refugees. This is about the fear they express and how it is driving a conversation that has turned very ugly. And yes, it is also about those who are against the policy suggestions aimed at Muslims, those who wish to welcome refugees, but use insulting, denigrating language to dismiss the fears of the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee crowd. We need to speak to each other reasonably, without name calling, without accusations of being unpatriotic, or stupid, or racist. We might believe any of those things in our hearts. Maybe we are right. Maybe we are wrong. But injecting pejoratives into the conversation is counter productive. So what I will speak about is fear and what it can force us to do.

Fear forces us to make generalizations; to make value judgments on people because of ethnicity, race or religion. As a result of African American attempts to get civil and political equality, white fear led to laws of segregation, attempts to keep blacks from voting, and perpetrated mythologies of black intellectual inferiority. On an even more obscene level, it spread myths about black desires – such as wanting to rape white women. So African Americans were categorized as non intellectual, but great athletes (and entertainers) who needed to be kept at a distance from white mainstream society. The suffering of blacks to just be able to order a soda at the same counter as whites is a sad commentary of American society.

Fear of Jews (most obviously in Germany/Europe but also to a certain extant in the US as well) cast Jews as money grubbers who wished to control society/government through their wealth. Aspersions such as the blood libel (Jews kill gentile children and use their blood to bake Passover matzah) have had legs for centuries. Father Coughlan was quite public in the 1930’s with his outright hatred for Jews in this country. Many shared his feelings. As a result, there was little support for admitting Jewish refugees from German or Europe leading up to World War II. A sad example is the story of the SS St. Louis, a boat filled with Jewish refugees who were refused safe harbor in 1939 in either Cuba or the United States. The boat returned to Europe and most of the Jews on board died in the Holocaust.

Fear in each of these historical examples also shapes the responses of the victims. Many, led by brave and insightful leaders, fight for equal rights. That is how history and attitudes can change. We need visionary leaders who point a way past fear and the resulting bigotry. But, and this is important, another reaction within the oppressed groups, is submission – the sad acceptance of their fate and position. In Germany during the 1930’s, Jews were so in shock that the country in which they had assimilated and succeeded was rejecting them. Fear often kept them from protesting. In our country, African American communities have been filled with tensions regarding how much to protest versus how much to just go along in the name of safety. Talk to African Americans today, and many fear the police. Fear can drive us in multiple directions.

Now we are dealing with a new, different fear: Muslims. It is different because there is a tangible reason for our fear. Muslims have perpetrated devastating terrorist attacks in this country and Europe. ISIS is an expression of a twisted variety of Islam that perpetrates a range of horrors. In a world in which images are transmitted instantaneously, the fear generated by these events goes viral within minutes of an event. Let me be blunt with my liberal friends. By refusing to acknowledge these realities, by pretending there is no connection to Islam, you are creating a fear in conservatives that you are too dense to appreciate the threat. Let me be equally blunt with my conservative friends. By refusing to see there are radical elements that have and still do come into play in ALL religions, not just Islam, you are allowing your fear to descend into bigotry. Everyone needs to see, for example, that the shootings at the Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, and the shootings in San Bernadino are both terrorist acts. Both have connections to religion. Conservatives will say the Colorado Springs shooter was mentally ill. I would argue that an American born Muslim with a good job who embraces ISIS and kills 14 people is also mentally ill.

Fear of Muslims drives us to consider stopping all Muslims from entering our country. Fear of Muslims drives us to see certain politicians as “truth tellers” instead of ignorant egotists. Fear of Muslims drives us to applaud suggestions like shutting down mosques, or creating a database of Muslims in America. Fear of Muslims pushes us to consider steps that compromise our basic liberties in the name of security. Fear of Muslims prevents us from being the America most of us would like to be.

Fear affects the American Muslim community as well. Imam Nidal Alsayyed of Beaumont, Texas did an interview with his local TV station in which he said he understood why some politicians want the limits on immigration. He did not criticize proposals aimed specifically at Muslims and he said Muslims need to demonstrate they are with their fellow Americans. I would say that American Muslims demonstrate their commitment to the United States all of the time. Muslims serve in our armed forces, contribute to all aspects of American life. The previous U. S. attorney for our region told me of the cooperation and the tips she received from the Muslim community while investigating potential terrorist threats. Surely Imam Alsayyed knows these things. Why would he feel the need passively endorse anti-Muslim policies put forth by politicians like Donald Trump? Well, Beaumont is a small town near the Louisiana border. It is in one of the least tolerant states, in the least tolerant areas of our country. I would speculate that he is experiencing the same fear that all minorities under suspicion experience. I am saddened if he feels intimidated to endorse actions that would be detrimental and insulting to his community. As I said, we are too motivated by fear and not enough by principle, or by morality.

It is significant we are in the middle of Chanukah, the festival that celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the religious oppression of the Greek-Assyrians. It is not significant because of the military victory, which is certainly an expression of bravery and belief in the principle of religious freedom. Rather, the choice of the rabbis of the Talmud to emphasize the miracle of the oil over the military victory is significant. They chose to highlight the creation and furtherance of light over violence. What is that light? Psalm 97 states, Or zarua latzaddik ul’yishrei lev simchah. “Light is sown for the righteous, and gladness for the upright of heart.” Perhaps the light is the light produced by righteousness, a light that triumphs over the darkness of fear, and that lifts the feeling of gladness in our hearts. May we be inspired to spread that light, giving us the strength to turn away from the darkest side of fear.

 

 

 

 

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I am not given to rants, especially about political candidates. But, as Popeye once said, “That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more!” So I hereby declare a “Trumpout,” – a Donald Trump blackout. After this blog post I will no longer write about Trump, follow Trump, or speak about Trump. He is, to quote Mr. Wonderful from “Shark Tank,” dead to me. I urge all of you to share this post and to do the same.

Folks, the man is playing us for suckers as we mindlessly participate in his cruel reality show. If he is serious about what he says (you can look up the litany of ridiculous statements/positions), then he is the most dangerous politician in America since George Wallace ran for President. If he is not, if he is just playing a huge mind game with the American people – then shame on us for stupidly playing along.

I have yet to meet a Republican who embraces this man in any way. The only positive comment I heard, and this was at the end of the summer before the latest foul statements, was an admiration for his honesty. This person did not endorse him or take him seriously, just liked his bluntness. I have no idea how that person feels now. All of my Republican friends are pretty much horrified by everything this man says.

Therefore, I call upon everyone to stop sharing posts about Trump, writing about Trump, and talking about Trump. We need to collectively reduce this man’s exposure on all media, but perhaps we can start with social media. If you have to refer to him in a conversation, then just drop the “T” from his last name – for that describes what he is best.