Thursday, September 22, 2011

Should Troy Davis have been executed?

There's been a lot of chatter these past few days, and especially today, about Troy Davis. Last night, Davis was executed for murder of which he was convicted a few decades ago. This execution, in particular, has become quite a flash point, obviously. My Facebook feed is filled with people who are in sincere angst and anger over this execution. Me? To my great surprise, I find myself somewhat confused, and ambivalent, in a way.

Let me be clear—I opposed this execution. But, I opposed it because I oppose all executions—I am against the Death Penalty. I've written about my reasons before, so I won't go into them in detail, here. My colleauge Larry Bach has a blog post about the Jewish view of this - a lengthy look at the Rabbinic approach, which is to essentially remove the Death Penalty from consideration, because of the impossibiilty of applying it morally.

My confusion is about this specific case. People are pointing to it as a crystal-clear example of why the death penalty is so bad—because, in this case, a seemingly innocent man was executed. One of the arguments against the death penalty (it's my argument, along with Rambam's, in Bach's post) is that, so long as we execute criminals, we run a real risk, and eventual near certainty, of killing an innocent man. And that is, simply, unacceptable. Better to let 1000 criminals go free than execute one innocent man. And, in these cases, we wouldn't be letting them go free–we'd be keeping them in jail, for life. It seems almost ridiculously obvious to me.

But, let's imagine for a moment that I didn't accept that argument. That I believed that it was possible to perfectly implement the death penalty, or that it was worth the risk of innocent death. Were that me, I'm not sure I would have opposed this case.

Everyone (at least everyone I've been reading) seems absolutely sure that Davis was innocent (at least of this crime). And, there are good reasons for those beliefs—witnesses who recanted, lack of physical evidence, other people who may have confessed, etc. Pretty damning stuff.

But, yesterday, I read an article from the cases prosecutor:

"This is fuzzy thinking. This is what happens when you try a criminal case in the streets, when it becomes a public relations campaign," the former D.A. said. "When it's in a court, you get disciplined thinking. We've won every time the thinking has been disciplined."

If you care about this case, it's worth a read. Essentially, he's saying that the counter evidence is what's deeply flawed. The shallow treatment it gets in the press makes it seem valid, but when put under proper, rigorous scrutiny, in court, the truth becomes clear. Guilty, without a reasonable doubt.

You know what's scary? I have no idea what to believe. I have not read the legal documents, nor would I be likely to understand them, if I did. That's probably true for you, too. I haven't read a single piece which tries to look at both sides of the issue. Which takes the prosecutions case, along with the defense, seriously. Which tries to understand, rather than just advocate. Does anyone have anything like that? I'd really love to read it!

In the end, this is just a small plank in my anti-death penalty stance - the unavoidable nature of uncertainty, which therefore makes it impossible to fairly impose the Death Penalty. But, on a less important level, this is just one more reminder, in an endless stream of reminders, that certainty is usually there for those who want it, but is usually lacking when we look carefully.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Should Rabbis give political sermons?

Dennis Prager (radio talk show host, author, pundit) has written an article, slamming Rabbis for giving political sermons on the High Holy Days. He says that, on these holiest of days, Rabbis should be focussing on spiritual issues, such as personal growth, teshuvah (repentance), and such. To focus on narrow, partisan political issues is wrong:

But those rabbis who do use Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to offer their political views are doing their congregants and Judaism a real disservice.

Rabbis who have used the holiest days of the Jewish calendar to give a sermon on behalf of the Obama health-care bill or to excoriate the Christian right or to expound on any of the many other left-wing positions have cheated their congregants. The primary purpose of the High Holy Days is to have the Jew engage in moral and religious introspection: What kind of person have I been in the past, and what do I need to do in order to be a better person?

He's especially upset because all Rabbis who give political sermons are on the left, and support only leftist causes:

Because separation of pulpit and politics is a conservative value, not a liberal one. Therefore, rabbis with conservative political beliefs do not use their pulpit to advance their political agenda. And because no conservative believes that advancing the conservative political agenda makes you a good person. Like Judaism, we know that becoming a good person demands arduously working on one’s character, not having the right politics.

Now, this latter idea that only Liberal Rabbis give political (and, therefore, liberal) sermons is borderline farsical. It's true that most Rabbis are politically liberal, so most political sermons will lean that way. But, the idea that only non-Orthodox and politically liberal Rabbis (which, he believes, are nearly identical categories) will ever speak politically on the High Holy Days? Come on. NO Rabbis have spoken out against Same Sex Marriage, for example?

Look, I try very hard not to be political in my sermons. I want to make sure that I'm speaking authetnically Jewishly, and even when I believe that my liberal values come from a very Jewish place, I try to err on the side of caution. And, I am extra cautious of partisan politics - I might speak about a cause, but I would be very wary of speaking about a particular bill or program, and I would (almost?) never speak about an individual candidate.

But, would I ever talk politics? Absolutely.

Supporting Same Sex marriage is politics. Supporting caring for the poor is, partially, politics. Opposing slavery was (and is) politcs. Does Judaism have nothing to say, from either side, about health care, or abortion, or war, or...anything which overlaps with politics?

When Isaiah, in a reading which we use on Yom Kippur, said:

Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?

Is it not possible that there is a least a teensy bit of politics which overlap with that thought?

Look, it is incredilby hard to know where to draw the line - to know when a truly religious issue crosses over into a much more truly political one. It's also incredibly difficult to know when we (who are both Liberal (non-Orthodox) Jews as well as political liberals) hold a belief because it's Jewish, vs. because it's liberal (or, how much of each). When we should be willing to speak our positions, and when we should say, "there are mutliple valid opinions on this, and we have to honor them all." Very, very tricky. Like I said, I err on the side of caution, as I think I should. But, Prager takes a complicated issue, and falsly makes it simple: liberal/politcal=bad. Orthdoxox/Conservative/non-politcal = good.

I'd be curious to hear what you all think - when can a Rabbi (or Priest, etc) talk politically, and when is it wrong? How do you know when a line has been crossed? What would make you walk out of a sermon, if anything?

By the way - during one of my sermons during these High Holy Days, I'll be talking about Israel. Is that ok, Mr. Prager? Or, is it too political?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Will Palestine be Judenrein?

I will admit a bit of ambivalence (or, possibly, timidity) about this post, as well as several others which I've written, and probably a couple which I haven't.

You see, I really am still, in my heart, a peacenik, especially when it comes to Israel. I've said before (on this blog, I'm sure) that, were I in charge of the world, the Palestinians would have a state tomorrow, living in peace with Israel. Not simply because it's good for Israel (I believe that, in the long run, it is), but because it's right. The Palestinians have suffered greatly through all the conflict, and even though it's fair to discuss who exactly is to blame* among the Palestinians, it's clear that there are many, many among them who have suffered needlessly (if you're about to ask “who?” then I remind you that some very young children have tragically died along the way. At the very least, I hope we can all agree that they didn't deserve it).

*I often say that the leadership is to blame, and the people simply suffer because of the leadership's awful and cynical decision-making. But, that's really a gross oversimplification. The people themselves are largely, by most accounts, virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Now, you can blame that, to a very large degree, on the constant propaganda and miseducation of the populace, by those same leaders. You can also say that, ultimately, people who support terrorist attacks and genocide have to be held responsible for those views. I think that, in reality, it's terribly circular and confusing, and probably not addressable in this space, right now.

But, quite often (and, it seems, more and more) I come across an article which talks about some deeply disturbing, often horrific insight into the Palestinian world. The peacenik in me doesn't want to talk about it. I don't want to sound like I am ever suggesting that Israel should just steamroll the Palestinian people, and dispossess “these scum.” I don't want to ever say, or imply, that Israel should let off the hook for anything it did, simply because its enemy is so bad. But, at the same time, nothing good can really come from hiding from the truth, and sometimes the truth is ugly.

According to an article in USA Today, the PLO's ambassador to the US has stated that any future Palestinian state should be judenrein“free of Jews.” There should, by law, be not a single Jew living on Palestinian soil. It might be somewhat provocative, but not inappropriate, I think, to use the word which the Nazis used for “Jew free” land. Because, Nazi Germany was the last time there was such a law anywhere in the world*.

*that's what the article says; I actually thought that, at the very least, Saudi Arabia had a similar law. True or not, I don't think it really matters here.

Besides the fact that it is, on its face, disgusting, it's also remarkably, shockingly disingenuous. The ambassador says that the reason for this policy would be that 44 years of occupation requires a separation of these two peoples, in order for the Palestinian people to develop their national identity. But, you can be sure that he wouldn't accept (nor should he) the same argument from the Israeli side—because of 60+ years of conflict, Israel needs time to develop its national identity, and is therefore expelling all Palestinians, or all Arabs. It would be disgusting thing for Israel to even suggest. It's no less disgusting coming from a Palestinian.

Decades ago, Golda Meir said that there would be peace between Israel and the Arabs when the Arabs love their children more than they hated us. I don't think that has changed. There are clearly many, many issues to be resolved, if Israel and the Palestinians (or, Israel and the Arab nations) are ever going to have peace. But, a basic acceptance of Israel's right to exist, of the Jewish people's right to exist, and of our basic human rights simply has to be one of the principles of that peace.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The meaning of the shofar

Probably the best known, and most beloved, symbol of the High Holy Days is the shofar. Hearing the sound of the ram's horn is one of the high points of the year for many of us. But, as is often the case, many of us aren't aware of why we blow the shofar, and what it's supposed to mean. And, as is also often the case, there isn't one reason, but a whole host of explanations given by our tradition.
There are those who say that the shofar reminds us of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. At God's command, Abraham almost sacrificed his beloved son, and so proved his devotion to God (as moderns, this story makes us very uncomfortable, and it should. But, to our ancestors, it was a beautiful, although possibly hyperbolic, example of faith). At the last second, Abraham is told to substitute a ram for his son, and so the sounding of a ram's horn reminds us of that animal. Although we will never be called to make such a great sacrifice (and, we would never kill anyone, let alone our own children, in the name of God) it is important to ask ourselves what we would give up in the name of some One higher than ourselves.

The shofar was also sounded, we are told, when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. So, hearing that sound again brings us back to that moment, and calls on us to reaffirm our commitment to our tradition.

Finally (for now) tradition has it that the “Great Shofar” will be sounded when God is ready to bring the Messiah, and perfect all of creation. And so, the sound becomes one of hope—hope for a better day, an end to strife, and a world in which we can all live in peace.

There are so many memories and meanings which are associated with the sound. When we hear the shofar this year, may we dedicate ourselves to sacrifice in the name of others, may we reaffirm our commitment to Judaism, and our tradition, and may we all pray, together, for a better day.

L'Shana Tova.