Posts Tagged ‘Moral Monday’

            It was surreal; waiting with some pillars of the budding Moral Monday movement, inside the old Florida capital building.  The old capital was the staging area, with the speeches presented from its steps facing the new capital building.  The crowd gathered in the courtyard between the two capital buildings.  Waiting with me were Rev. William Barber, the North Carolina pastor from the NAACP, who has been a key mover in establishing the Moral Monday movement. He was in town to teach, to inspire, to help cobble together a coalition clergy who would embrace a range of issues affecting the poor and minorities; not on a partisan basis, but on a moral basis.  He would go on to give a thundering speech calling upon Floridians to dare to reach higher.  Along side Rev. Barber was the Rev. Russell Meyer, head of the Florida council of churches.  Rev. Meyer has been a prophetic voice on many moral issues in Florida.  I had most recently met him while lobbying against an Arizona style immigration bill about 3 years ago.  Rev. Barber and Rev. Meyer were only two of the many impressive prophetic voices to mount the steps that day.

Across from us was the current capital building.  Inside, staffers and legislators were preparing to open session – which officially started on Tuesday.  I have been part of that numerous times as well.  I know the ritual.  Prayer is given to invoke the presence of God.  There is a roll call and a welcoming by House and Senate leadership in a symbolic joint session.  Homage is paid to bi partisanship.  Everyone extols the virtues of Florida, democracy, the sacred privilege of serving the people.  By the next day the ritual will revert to business as usual; which means that the priests of state government will respond not to the people but professional lobbyists, work to consolidate their own power, vote on strict partisan lines, and entertain a host of bills that do little to further the prosperity of the state, often giving a platform to politicians hubristic preening – all preparing their path to a higher political office (a promotion in civil priesthood).  The form, i.e. the ritual of government is maintained.  The content seems empty.

That is how I have come to view our state politicians:  as the priests of the political system.  So here is the scene Monday.  On the steps of one capital is an array of clergy.  They are a prophetic voice, exhorting the moral necessity of proper education of our youth, the need for medical care extended to the poor, the preservation of voting rights for the disenfranchised, and the need to end the culture of violence that pervades our state.  Across from them in the other capital, are the priests of state government, who are neither connected to, nor caring about the message being delivered and cheered outside their office windows.

It is here I gain insight into Leviticus.  It sets the stage for the conflict between priest and prophet that will underscore the history of ancient Israel.  Leviticus, you see, presents the system as it SHOULD be.  It presents a system in its ideal.  The goal of the system is very clear.  In order to thrive, the Israelites believed everyone must participate in promoting the presence of God in the community.  Jacob Milgrom, in his commentary on Leviticus, explains this theology.  The Israelites believed there were only 2 acting agents in the world, God and humanity.  There were no demons, no demi-gods.  The wellbeing of the world depended on the interplay between God and humanity.  Humanity had the ability to promote or expel God’s presence in a number of ways.  There were impurities that could cause it to retreat, disease, uncontrolled blood flow, molds – a great number of things that are now easily explained and controlled.   But to the Israelites these were mysteries that repelled God’s presence.  After an appropriate treatment for the condition, a sacrifice was offered.  The pleasing odor sent up to God was a smoke signal, if you will, that humans had rectified the condition and done the appropriate ritual act to punctuate the remedy.

The same process applied to moral and ethical situations.  The chatat offering (misunderstood when translated as “sin” offering) was the ritual that signaled a moral transgression had been corrected.  If a person transgressed and caused harm to another person or to the community, they did the proper correction and offered a sacrifice to signal that fact.  Even if the transgression was not intentional, the Levitical system mandated that there was a responsibility to correct the wrong.  Lack of culpability did not absolve from the responsibility of the remedy.  Further, if someone experienced the blessing of good fortune, they offered a special sacrifice to signal their gratitude.   All of this (and much more) created a complex system in which individuals participated in the maintenance of God’s presence in the community.  Every Jew had a stake in this outcome.

The role of the priest was to facilitate the participation of the people.  When a sacrificial remedy needed to be offered, the person brought the animal to the priest, who received it on their behalf through a ceremony in which hands were laid on the animal to transfer the authority over it for sacrifice.  The individual might indeed do the slaughter (or the priest could as well), but Nachmanides teaches that only the priest could bring the blood necessary for the ritual from the animal into the altar area.  Unlike the Catholic priesthood of the past 2 millennia, Israelite priests were not God’s representatives to the people, but the people’s agents in dealing with God.

But we know that the system went awry.  The priesthood became too enamored with its own power, seeing the offerings as a collection of material for the maintenance of their power and not as part of their function as agents for the community in maintaining the presence of God.  This is a central message of the Hebrew prophets of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE.  This famous passage from Amos 5:22 – 24 typifies the message of the prophets:

“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.”

Repetitions of that message occur in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea.

The core of prophetic criticisms includes the following.  First, the ritual of sacrifice is NOT God’s central concern.  Rather, God wants us to care for the well being of ALL people in the community.  The Hebrew prophets emphasized enforcement of the moral laws of Leviticus (see Chapter 19 as a great example) over the ritual of the sacrificial system.  As a corollary, the priesthood is indicted as a power hungry, corrupt institution not serving the needs of the community.   This is emphasized by the Talmud in tractate Yoma by the criticisms leveled against the priesthood of the second Temple.

Thus we have the summary of a central battle in the history of the development of Judaism, indeed all religion.  Of what use is ritual, and the institutions and offices that support ritual, if it is devoid of a tie to moral purpose?  In other words, priest versus prophet.  Of what use is the form of religious observance without moral content?  Let me make this real and relevant to the now.

As we light our Shabbat candles, and celebrate services, there are layers of purpose, of meaning.  Yes, the music is beautiful, and there is joy and meaning in praying and singing together.  Yet, there is also a call to something deeper, something that should stir in the souls of all Jews.  Let me make this real by sharing the issues from Moral Monday:

1)   Medical coverage for the poor.  Allowing emergency rooms be the ad hoc medical providers for the uninsured costs the system money.  Far more efficient is to extend Medicaid to more people.  Florida is rejecting this money.  This not only makes no sense from a financial perspective, but more importantly from a moral perspective

2)   Florida has had a rash of violent incidents arising from angry people with easy access to guns.  Whether you believe the guns are to blame or the people are to blame, we must address this culture of violence.  Current Stand Your Ground laws might be partly to blame.

3)   Our educational system is failing too many students.  This feeds the school to prison pipeline.  It is a waste of human capital.  Education is a key to raising people out of poverty.

4)   If we are truly a democracy, then laws that encourage voting are a must.  Attempts to limit voter participation through the red herring of voter fraud is just immoral.

Do you see the same connection to the conflict between priest and prophet in the Hebrew Bible that I do?  We observe the rituals of government, but without a content that serves the people with the least.  We invoke the name of God to bless these rituals.  But do we really believe the presence of God is invited to our community when a representative declares, as I heard at a committee hearing last year, that he would be honored to be the person to execute a convicted criminal.  Is expressing glee over the prospect of killing someone, even a criminal really promoting the presence of God?

Leviticus teaches that there is a way to marry ritual and morality, institution and community ethic in ways that create a place for the Divine.  If we blissfully celebrate Shabbat without feeling a sense of the moral call of Jewish tradition, we are repeating the failings of our ancestors when they focused on the form of the sacrificial system instead of the motive behind it.  The ideal expressed in the opening chapters of Leviticus, that ritual can be married to ethic and that the divine presence is in the hands of everyone in the community from priest (leader) to citizen, is achievable; but only if we demand it to be so.

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If nothing else, the Torah teaches that the moment we think something is complete, our work is really just beginning.  That paradigm is present in the very beginning of Genesis, after the work of creation is described in chapter 1, chapter 2 begins with the words, vayachulu hashamayim v’ha’aretz.  We usually translate this as, “the heavens and the earth were completed.”  But, as Hebrew grammarians know, the verb form is in the future tense with a conversive letter vav in front that converts the word from future to past.  So we could translate the phrase as “and the heavens and the earth WILL be completed.”  The implication being that we will complete the work God began at some point in the future.  More than an implication, much of Jewish tradition poses that as human responsibility.

One aspect of that completion occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Pikudei.  Under Moses’ direction, the Israelites complete the work on the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will rest in the center of their camp in which God’s presence settles.  Indeed, the very end of the Torah portion, the closing in fact, to the whole Book of Exodus, is the settling of God’s presence into the completed mishkan.  This is a powerful moment, one which punctuates what I see as the theme for the entire Book of Exodus – the process by which a distant, disconnected God, becomes the center for the community.

Yes, Exodus is the story of an enslaved people gaining freedom and then responsibility.  But think of the relationship between the Israelites and God, and how it progresses throughout the book.  The first two chapters are devoted to the plight of the Children of Israel in Egypt.  It is only at the end of the 2nd chapter that God even takes notice of them.  A hero/leader (Moses) is selected by God, in a distant location.  For most of Exodus, communication between Moses and God is on a mountain top, eventually within sight of the people, but decidedly separate from the community.  The first attempt to place God in the center is misguided, even idolatrous.  The episode of the Golden Calf is highlighted by violence, failed leadership, and the narcissism of the worship (the Hebrew word letzachek which describes the worship carries connotations of immoral sexual behavior).  The creating of the Golden Calf is born out of fear.  Everything about it is wrong and goes wrong.

The completion of the mishkan in this week’s Torah portion is the community’s remedy to the false start of the Golden Calf.  The contributions are not violently taken, they are freely offered from the heart.  Further, it is not just material contributions, but contributions of artistry and skill as well.  Leaders for the project are put forth to the people for their endorsement.  Ba’al Haturim comments that leaders cannot function without the consent of the community.  It is well organized communal work, with a purpose – to construct a place that is fitting for the presence of God in the absolute center of the community.   As the work is completed, Moses blesses them.  At this point midrash detects connections to creation.

Moses’ blessing over the people is seen as a parallel to God’s blessing over the first humans per Genesis1:28.  God blesses them and tells them to fill the earth – God’s creation.  After Moses’ blessing God will fill the people’s creation – the mishkan, in a wonderful piece of circularity that teaches us something about the interconnection of the human and the divine.  This moment gives the rabbinic sages a chance to ask another question about the first chapter in Genesis, that details the week of creation.

The description of the first day ends with vayahi erev, vayahi boker, yom echad, “there was evening, there was morning, day one.”  The use of the Hebrew echad, one, is different from the words used for the other days of creation.  The rest of the days end with a number adjective, such as “second,” “third,” etc.  Why does Torah use the number “one” instead of saying “a first day?”  One answer provided by midrash is that the word rishon or “first” is reserved for the first day of the new relationship between God and the children of Israel – the day in which their work is completed so that God can be present within the community.  Now comes the complication.

Just as the beginning of Genesis tells us that the work of creation will be completed, so too does the work of maintaining God’s presence within the community need to be completed.  Yes, the stage of the physical labor, of building the sanctuary is complete.  However, the history of Israel, the history of Jews, is one in which we are constantly laboring, with moments of success and moments of failure, to keep God’s presence in our community.  We can never stop the work of keeping God present in our center.  It is hard work to prevent God from becoming distant, disconnected.  The end of one kind of work only leads to the beginning of the next round of necessary work.  And this kind of work is not about building projects, but infusing the divine qualities of morality and justice into our communities.

Which brings me to the needed work of the moment.  The state of Florida, much like North Carolina, has taken a hard right turn that is to the detriment of underserved populations.  The most outrageous is the limiting of voter rights by attempts to purge voter roles of supposedly illegitimate voters.  The targets of these purges are overwhelmingly minorities, and pretty much every case has been dismissed.  These voters are proven to be legitimate.  Florida, like North Carolina is focusing on a statistically nonexistent issue (voter fraud) that feels very much like an attempt to limit minority voting.  Florida, like North Carolina, is failing in its attempts to educate its students.  The result is the tragic school to prison pipeline that is bolstered by the prison system (both private and state run prisons).  In addition, Florida has a real problem with gun violence resulting from rage, as recent cases in Jacksonville and Tampa illustrate.  Finally, Florida, like North Carolina, refuses to use available federal funds for Medicaid which would extend coverage to thousands of underserved Florida families.

The Moral Monday movement started in North Carolina.  It brings together religious leaders to advocate for solutions to the above problems.  On Monday, March 3, Moral Monday will come to Florida as we gather at the capital to express our concern on these issues.  Not everyone there will agree on all of the solutions proposed.  But we are united by our recognition that these problems are real, and must be addressed.  We are once again trying to build a mishkan, a space for God’s presence to dwell.  But instead of building a physical structure, we hope to create a communal structure of morality and justice that will foster the presence of divinity at the center of our community.

Please join me between 10 AM and 2 PM, Monday, March 3 at the Florida capital in Tallahassee, as we begin our work anew.

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