Thursday, February 23, 2017

Don't Mind the "Othering"

I'm spending the day at a "Clergy Convening" hosted by Faith In Florida, a Community Organizing group. The idea was to bring together clergy from various religions and backgrounds from all across Florida, and to let us start talking about, and making stronger connections in pursuit of, Social Justice. Although the organizers are dedicated to making sure that this group is as diverse as possible, for this particular gathering, it isn't completely so. Out of about 30 participants, I am one of four white people in the room. And, I'm the only Jew. I am, in other words, a distinct and visible minority here.

There have been a few moments of "othering," as it's known in some circles--some moments when I was clearly, albeit probably accidentally, marked as marginal. As not being fully of the group. There were a few comments from other participants about "people who look like us." In context, those were clearly references to African-Americans, and so at least for those moments, I was not being included in "us." There were also several prayers which invoked Jesus, and always in the first person singular, as in "we pray in Jesus's name.*"

* I did have to laugh especially at the one which began with several comments about coming together in unity, in all of our various forms and believes, and then went on to refer to us all turning to Jesus!

I obviously noticed these things, or else I wouldn't be writing about them. But, they didn't bug me very much, and that's what I'm really writing right now – why I wasn't particularly bothered by being "othered" a couple of times today. In part, it was just a question of proportion. I'm surrounded by people who are made to feel "other" on a regular basis – on a daily basis for some of them, I would imagine. To get overly sensitive about a moment or two when I was forced to experience a minuscule portion of their regular life seems awfully snowflake-ish of me, and I just decided to not take it too hard, basically.

But, it was more than that. What dawned on me was that, for me, this momentary marginalization was precisely that — momentary. It had absolutely no impact on my life, beyond this current moment. But, for most of the other people in the room, when they are marginalized, it's almost always one piece of a larger pattern of much more severe, and much more impactful, marginalization.

In other words, I was made to feel like I wasn't 100% part of this group for a brief moment or two. But, when I walked out of the doors of our little conference room, I went back to being a white man in America, which is a pretty damn privileged thing to be. I've got all the freedom, access, and power which comes, unearned, with my identity. But, when they are made to feel "other," it's not only the moment itself, but a reminder of the constant marginalization and disempowerment with which they live in our wider world.

Think of it this way – how hard is it to not have lunch? Well, that entirely depends on how long it's been since you've eaten. If you eat three meals every day, skipping lunch is not a big deal. If you regularly go hungry, and haven't had a decent meal in a couple days, then skipping lunch is probably a very big deal, indeed. And, it's pretty obnoxious of that first person to complain, especially to the chronically hungry person!

People sometimes complain about reverse-racism, and I'm not as dismissive of it as some people are. Treating anyone badly because of their race (or gender, or sexual orientation, etc) is never a good thing, and our society will be better the more of it we can eradicate. But, it's nice to remember that any racism, or any marginalization that I may endure is, because of the life I lead, always minor. And, ignoring it turns out to not be very hard at all, and actually feels pretty good.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Praying for the Siren

I recently decided to restart going through Rabbi Joseph Teluskin’s The Book of Jewish Values. It's a "short lesson a day" kind of book — certainly not one of the deepest books you'll ever read, but one with some good insights (and good fodder for sermons and blog posts, to boot). Lo and behold, the very first teaching is one I've loved for a long time, but had completely forgotten where I got it from. I'm pretty sure this book was the first place I saw it.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l) had a practice wherein whenever he heard the siren of an ambulance, police car, or fire truck, he would stop and offer a prayer, praying that they arrive in time to help whoever was in need, and that none of them would get hurt in the process. He suggested that we all do this, too.

Why should we do this? It doesn't seem that Reb Zalman (as he was always known) thought that our prayer would be efficacious, as that's normally understood; my stopping to ask God to speed them along and protect them does not make it any more likely that they will get there in time, successfully help anyone, or stay safe. My prayer doesn't affect them. But, my prayer affects me. My prayer for them will change my own state of being, at least momentarily.

It's easy to get annoyed by sirens. They're loud and annoying (on purpose!), and when we're driving, they often represent an annoyance, as everything has to stop for them. This practice of offering a prayer when we hear sirens is an exercise in sympathy. It shifts our attention away from ourselves and our own needs, trivial as they usually are. Instead, it focuses our attention on others who are obviously in much greater need than we are right now.

Most people "out there," at least in the Jewish world, seem to believe that the point of prayer is supposed to be to change God — that if we ask for something in the right way, it makes it more likely that we'll get that thing from God (many reject this notion of prayer, but they still assume that this is what prayer is, or is supposed to be; they just don’t believe in it). The truth is that, for hundreds, and maybe thousands of years, Jewish thinkers have often rejected this idea of prayer (not universally, of course. And, I imagine but don't know that non-Jewish thinkers are exactly the same way in this). Prayer doesn't change God — how could it? There are so many logical and theological problems with that idea, starting with the very notion that we have to ask for something at all — doesn't God know what we want already?

No — prayer can't change God, and prayer can't (by itself) change the objective facts of the reality in which we live (I don't care how hard you pray — you're just not changing the weather for this weekend or the outcome of the game you’re watching). But, prayer can most certainly change us. Prayer can change what we think about, prayer can change what we value, and prayer can help to change how openhearted and caring we are. And, much more.

Give it a shot. The next time you hear a siren, stop and offer a prayer for their safety and success. You might be surprised to find that, when you understand what a prayer is really meant to do, it almost always works.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Protesting the Anthem

There's been a whole lot of ink spilled over Colin Kapernick and his refusal to stand for the National Anthem. As I'm sure you know, he's doing so as a protest against the treatment of African Americans in this country. Many have joined in that protest in one form or another, many others have refused to, often condemning him, and those who have joined him, for being disrespectful to the flag, to the military, and to our country.

This morning, the news was filled with another story about an unarmed black man being gunned down by police. Another. Words fail, so I'm not going to even try to respond specifically to that incident, at least for now.

Here's what I want to say to anyone who is mad at Kapernick et al for what they're doing. Let's concede, at least for the moment, what you're complaining about. Let's concede that Kapernick is a whiny, privileged hypocrite. That he's aggressively disrespecting the military which has kept him safe*. That anyone who feels this way should just be quiet or (as ridiculous as this is on its face) leave the country. Let's, for a moment, let the worst version of Kapernick and his protest be what we accept as true.

* Although, I'll admit to being unbelievably frustrated that we've let anyone turn this into a debate about the military. The flag is not the military, and the military is not the flag. Unless and until someone actually calls out the military for something, conflating a protest against the anthem/flag with criticism of the military is just specious.

How bad is it? I mean--if Kapernick is everything his critics claim he is, what is he doing that's so bad? He's disrespecting a flag, and an anthem, and a country. I'm not a huge fan of that--I love our country, and as a religious person, I take symbols seriously. So, I'm somewhat ambivalent about the way he's protesting. But, that's all he's doing--protesting against symbols and institutions. Quietly and peacefully. That's as bad as it gets.

And, why is he protesting? Because black men keep getting shot by police when they've done nothing wrong. Because that's just the most heinous, egregious, awful, disgusting, unthinkable, evil manifestation of the larger reality, which is that racism is real, and it's present, and it affects people of color every single day in myriad ways, large and small. And that most of us who don't live daily with racism don't seem to be too bothered by that.

Disrespecting a flag vs. systemic racism. And, we're focussing on that disrespect.

If you don't like what he's protesting, or how he's protesting--fine. That's your right. But, if you think that the form of his protest is what's really important here, then we've got a bigger problem.

The world is on fire; let's stop protesting that we don't like the sound of the siren.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Thought About Interfaith Work


Just a quick thought about Interfaith work...

For the first time, and more and more, I'm having some success building Interfaith relationships here in Tampa. That's how I found myself having an early lunch today with Fr. Stephan Brown of St. Paul's church, and then attending the afternoon mass he celebrated with his congregation.

While he and I were talking, I remembered a metaphor for interfaith work, which really stuck with me while sitting in the congregation during mass. I can't say that I'm always good about using this framework, but I'm trying to! Here goes...

When I hear someone talking about their spouse in a loving way, I never get jealous, or defensive. If someone tells me that they're married to the best woman in the world, I don't feel the need to argue that, no, in fact I am! When someone tells me about how they met their partner, I don't think, "That's not the right way to meet someone." And, no matter how much someone extols the virtue of the person they love, I never find myself loving that person, or wishing I was married to them. But, what does happen is that it makes me think about my wife, and about our stories. And, that makes me happy. And, much of the time, hearing someone else wax rhapsodic about their partner makes me want to be a better partner myself--to make sure that my wife knows that I love her. Your stories of love aren't a challenge to my relationship; if anything, they're an aid to it, because your stories get me to focus on my own.

Ideally, it's the same with religion. Sitting in church today, I had no desire to be Catholic. I didn't want to accept Jesus as my savior, and I didn't wish that I had been brought up in the church. But, watching Fr. Stephan preach, and watching the faithful approach for the eucharist, did make me stop and think about my own religious life in a slightly different way from how I normally do.

The mass and the words of my new friend weren't my religion, and they didn't make me want to give up my religion, and they didn't feel like a challenge in need of a defense from to my religion. They were someone else's religion, and a beautiful example of that. And they made me love being Jewish, watching someone else loving being Catholic.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Ice Cream, Race and Privilege

Earlier today, I posted a little video on Facebook of a cop in Halifax who is pulling people over, ostensibly for some traffic violation, and then citing them for "driving without ice-cream," before giving an ice-cream cone to everyone in the car. I offered it as a feel-good counterpoint to all of the very serious (and very real) trouble with policing and race in America (and Canada, I presume).

A friend and classmate of mine gently but directly pushed back on me, pointing out how cruel it is to pull someone over when that person will almost inevitably fear for their safety. Even if the resolution is good, there's surely a moment when the driver thinks "Is this it?" Even if the intentions are good, which I assume they truly were, getting to the "good stuff" required playing on this woman's deeply seated fears. If I'm splitting hairs, I might challenge my friends use of the term "sadistic" to describe this, because the intent was to cause joy, not pain. But, that's a minor quibble--whether through cruelty or thoughtlessness, the pain that can be caused by this kind of thing is very, very real.

Here's another thing, though. When I first saw the video, I had that same thought. It wasn't as well developed, and certainly wasn't as strong, but I did think about that moment when the person in the car must have been afraid. I don't think I thought of it in terms of "feared for her life," but all of us who have been pulled over know that wrenching feeling of fear. For those who have seen like-skinned people killed for minor (or non-existent) traffic violations, that nauseating feeling must be incalculably greater. But, despite my learning more and more about what it's like to be a person of color in a situation like this, it just didn't fully register in this incident. It didn't seem like the main point. I mean, the interaction ended well, and she laughed, so all was good, right? It's just oversensitive to focus on that "little" moment when the cop was just trying to do something nice.

Still think it's not a big deal? Give this one a read:
To the untrained eye and ear, the black woman captured in the video sounded full of joy. But to black people everywhere, we know what loud, uncontrollable relief looks and sounds like. That relief that Maya Angelou once talked about that black women have perfected. That relief that forces you to laugh because you haven’t had the space to cry just yet. That relief every time we interact with police officers because we never know if we will leave that interaction alive.
Watching a situation, and being able to forget that for someone who looks like that, as opposed to someone who looks like me, it might have induced absolute, real-life panic? Thinking about the fear, but only briefly, and lightly? Thinking that a false pull-over might be, overall, funny and fun? There's a term for that.

Privilege.

Thanks, LR, for helping me see mine.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

In Praise of Slacktivism

A quick post, because I don't have much time, but I keep promising myself to get back to writing on this blog more regularly...

I'm sure you remember the Ice Bucket Challenge from a couple of years ago--it was a fun, silly way to raise money and awareness around ALS, and it pretty well exploded across the Internet. After a while the hardest part was finding people to challenge, because it seemed that everyone had already done it!

My timing may be off, but I also remember that as around the same time that I started hearing people deriding "Slacktivism," a cute term to describe people who engage in lazy forms of activism. This was a perfect example--all you had to do was pour some freezing cold water over your head and post a video of it to Facebook and, boom, you were done. Of course, you could opt out by donating some money to research, or you could do both.

The problem with slacktivism, according to the critics, is that it gives people the feeling of being involved and making a difference, but without having them actually, you know, make a difference. It let us feel good about ourselves without actually doing something which deserves feeling good about. And, it's not a complaint without some merit.

But, let me say a word in praise of slacktivism. First of all, while doing lazy acts of activism is certainly not as good as doing energetic acts of activism, I'm not sure it's bad. I mean, yes--some people will use it (probably without realizing it) as a way to dodge doing more. But, we live in a age of viral trends and memes--is it the worst thing to put an issue, and an effort to help, at the forefront? Is it bad to make caring and helping cool, even momentarily? I mean, people could be passing around videos of the cinnamon challenge or bad videos, if they wanted to. At least with this, they were raising awareness, and a few dollars.

And, let's remember that, in the end, it wasn't a few dollars. It was $115,000,000. It turns out that when millions of people care a little, and a good number of them care a lot, it adds up to something. Something significant, even.

You may have seen the news that some of that money went to fund research which has just resulted in a major breakthrough in ALS research, and could lead to better treatments or, possibly, a cure.

Let that sink in. All of those people who dumped water on their heads, and donated a few (or many) dollars, and posted the video of it all? They may have just been a part in (eventually) curing a terrible disease.

Sometimes, being a small part of a big thing can be great. Sometimes, it can even be holy.


p.s. If this didn't convince you, just remember that the Ice Bucket Challenge also gave us this:


Friday, July 15, 2016

Nice and Numb

The last time I looked, the death count was up to 84 in the horrific attack in Nice, France. 

Once again, I’m at camp during a horrific attack. I was at Camp Coleman last summer for the horrific massacre in Charleston. I was leaving for Coleman this summer when the horrific news broke of 50 people being murdered in the Pulse club in Orlando. And, I’m ensconced at Kutz now, getting dribs and drabs of horrific news about the dozens dead on a beautiful plaza in France. It’s so strange—camp is, by design, a bubble, cut off from most of the world. The Internet stinks up here, so it’s hard to get updates, but more than that—camp is its own world, and even when I’m absorbed in the news, the minute I step outside, camp-life seems to take over. I’m back to thinking about teaching Mindfulness, or laughing with a kid, or complaining about the food. Horrific as it is to say, it’s like it didn’t really happen.

But, I realize that it’s not just because I’m at camp. A young staff member here said something which resonated deeply with me, when we were processing this news last night. He said that he’s at the point where the news doesn’t even evoke an immediate emotional reaction. He has to search for it. 84 dead? Oh, that’s awful, I say to myself in an almost matter-of-fact way. I have to stop for a minute and really focus, really think about what it means for 84 people to be murdered at once. Maybe try to picture some bodies. Then I can start to feel appropriately horrified. But, these atrocities have become so commonplace that my normal, instinctive reaction has been numbed. One of the other faculty members here wondered if that’s what’s behind the need to actually see graphic photos and video of these kinds of attacks—the spare, objective text doesn’t get to us. We need something more visceral, more assaultive of our senses, to get us to the place where we know we’re supposed to be: horrified.

The thought that I could hear the news of 84 people being killed and, if I’m not attentive and careful, walk away as if nothing really happened is a deeply frightening thought. Disturbing as hell, to be honest.

I had the chance to teach some Heschel this week (to some truly amazing kids). I explained to them Heschel’s idea that religion was, in large part, a program for maladjustment to the world around us. That is, in the course of ordinary life, we tend to get numb to the world—acclimated. That means that we don’t see it in all of its depth. What was once so impactful on us becomes that which just is. Unremarkable. And so, we have to have systems and programs in place which will help us to become de-acclimated, so that we can again see things as if for the first time. Usually, Heschel is talking about the good stuff—about training ourselves to not take anything in this world for granted, from a beautiful sunset to a small morsel of food. But, it also goes for the bad stuff—we have to face each horrific tragedy as if it were the first horrific tragedy. We have to refuse to shrug our shoulders and world-wearily ask, “What is the world coming to?” as if that were a reasonable question to have to ask. We have to refuse to accept that this is what qualifies for normal, no matter how normal it actually becomes. 

It’s painful, to see the world in all of its depth. But, the alternative seems even more painful, in a much deeper way.

It’s been reminding me of one of the poems which I learned through my time with The Institute for Jewish Spirituality:
Behaving Like a Jew Gerald Stern, This Time: New and Selected Poems 

When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
It took me only a few seconds—just
seeing him there—with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration on the species.
--I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me
at sixty miles an hour
and praise the beauty and balance
and lose myself in the immortal lifestream
when my hands are still a little shaky
from his stiffness and his bulk
and my eyes are still weak and misty
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.

I’m not trying to imply (and, I’m assuming that the author wasn’t either) that this kind of constant openness to pain, and to caring, is unique to Jews. But, it is characteristic. At least, it’s supposed to be. That is, it’s not that only Jews care so much. But, if you are a Jew, and you don’t care, then what does that say about you, as a Jew? Or as a human being?

Today, I will not be numb. Today, I will behave like a Jew.