Friday, June 26, 2015

On Marriage Equality and Charleston

At 10:01 this morning, I had to rewrite my sermon.

As am sure most of you heard, at 10:01 today, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling about marriage equality, which means that a 10:01 this morning, lesbians and gays all throughout this country were granted the freedom to be married. There are plenty of conversations around the legal side of it (that is, whether or not this is actually a good legal ruling and such), and while I find that deeply interesting, it isn't for this moment. Right now, at this moment, I want to express my absolute joy at being alive to see this. I want to express my incredible gratitude to finally be living in a society where any couple who wishes can get married, regardless of what genders they happen to be. And, I'm especially proud to be standing before you tonight, speaking as a Reform Rabbi.

There are times when I think it's important to identify as Jewish, without any adjectives or modifiers. But, there are also times when I'm particularly aware, and proud, of being a Reform Jew, or a Liberal (that is, non-Orthodox) Jew. Because, at our core, what we are is not a group which believes in less Judaism, or in easier Judaism. What we are, at our core, is a group which believes that the best religion is one which draws from the best of Jewish tradition, as well as the best of the Modern world around us. Yes, that can be tricky. Judaism and the outside world are often in tension, and often in direct conflict, and it's not always so easy to harmonize the two. The middle path isn't always clear. And, this attempt to draw from the best of both worlds can sometimes leave us open to accusations of following fashion, or of not having principles, even if those accusations are almost always specious.

In reality, the truth is that our willingness to change, our willingness to draw from the outside world and culture, has brought so much good into the world, and into Judaism in particular. Without this willingness to change and grow, the equality of women within Judaism wouldn't even be a dream, and women serving as rabbis and cantors wouldn't even be thinkable. The newer forms of worship which speak to so many of us more than some of the older forms — musical instruments, different modes of music, to name just two — wouldn't be part of our religious world. And, the centrality of Social Justice which, it's easy to forget, hasn't always been important in Judaism, and sadly, still isn't in some quarters, is a direct result of the early Reformers' intersection of Judaism and the Modern world. Yes, Reform Judaism's willingness to take risks and to evolve is something of which I'm deeply proud, as should we all be.

And, today, Reform Jews, followed closely by our other Liberal brethren, have the opportunity to see a milestone in a fight in which we have been engaged, passionately, for decades, Reform Judaism was the first major religious movement to support LGBTQ rights, and it remains one of the most passionate voices for them. We believe as a movement, and I believe as an individual, as a Jew, and as a rabbi, that marriage must be open to gays and lesbians precisely because it is such an important institution. Precisely because, not only does it hold a sacred place in our civil society, but because it remains such an important way to bring sanctity into our own lives. And, because acknowledging these marriages (which, let's admit, have actually existed de facto for decades) only increases the dignity of our fellow human beings, each of us created betzelem elohim. And so, I'm so happy to be able to celebrate this moment, and to celebrate it with you.

But, what I was going to talk about up until 10:01 this morning, was Charleston. What I was going to talk about was the unthinkable, irredeemably evil act committed by one evil individual, may his memory be wiped out, just 10 days ago. I wanted to stand up here and tell all of us that is our obligation to not stand idly by during this time. That was incumbent upon us to reach out to someone, anyone, and offer our support and our solidarity. And, I also wanted to take a moment, even on Shabbat which is meant to be joyous and serene, to remind us of how broken our world truly still is. When we see racism, when we see terrorism, when we see inequality, when we see hunger and pain, we see a world in pieces. I was going to give a D’var Torah about Tikkun Olam — fixing the world. Fixing the world — not "improving," but "fixing." That's an important distinction. Because, Tikkun Olam means seeing the world as it is, and knowing, instinctively and deeply, that this is not what is meant to be.

When we see people being treated differently, in overt and subtle ways, it's not just not ideal. It's fundamentally wrong. It's not as God intended.

I don't generally pretend to know God's mind, and I'm cautious in my wording here. But, when we come across the pieces of a broken lamp on the ground, we know, we know that that's not how was meant to be. Someone built that lamp of the intent of a being whole, and of it giving light. Some One built this world in which we live with the intent of it being whole, and of it giving light. And, that's not the world we see. When we see that brokenness, we have to have the reflexive urge, we might even say the sense of commandedness, to fix it. Until we see that world, until everyone in this world is treated justly, fairly, compassionately, humanely, humanly, we can't be satisfied.

It's such a wonderful, terrible, happy, miserable time to be alive. There is so much holiness, and, at times, the arc of the moral universe seems to be bending faster than ever towards justice. There is so much darkness, and so much pain, and at times, it seems as if we haven’t moved any closer to justice, or to holiness. Tonight, I celebrate one of the greatest moral milestones of my lifetime, even as I remember one of the greatest acts of evil and of darkness I have ever seen.

In the words of my good friend and colleague, Rabbi David Widzer:

The human heart has two sides: one takes in blood depleted of oxygen, the other pumps out oxygen-rich blood.

Our hearts today are filled in part with the oxygen of equality and dignity. Today marriage is marriage and love is love for all Americans.

Our hearts today are filled in part with the airless ache of acts of hatred, lives laid to rest in Charleston, lives cut short by terror overseas.

May our hearts be large enough to hold them both, the pain caused by hatred and the joyfulness of justice. Ultimately, it is oxygen that sustains the human body. Ultimately, may it be love and justice that surge through our souls and sustain us all.

This is a version of the sermon given by Rabbi Rosenberg on June 26, 2015

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Flags and Racism

Obviously, a lot of the talk in the news over the past week or so has centered around the Confederate Battle Flag, and whether it should be flown from State Houses, sold in stores and generally held up as a worthy symbol. Equally obviously, a lot of the discussion, as it always is, has been side-taking, extreme views, and fairly thoughtless faux-debate.

This morning, Charles Blow has a wonderful op-ed in the New York Times. It's clearly partisan, but it's thoughtful and measured (which I think is almost always true of Blow). And, in a relatively short space, he really addresses two related but different issues.

First, the question of the flag itself. For a few days, there was a lot of (digital-)ink being spilled on the need to take down the flag (as well as on defenses of the flag). Then, the conversation seemed to turn to whether all of this focus on the flag was really just an attempt to hide from the larger, more difficult questions about race in our society:
And yet, there is a part of me that still believes we are focusing on the 10 percent of the iceberg above the water and not the 90 percent below.
When do we move from our consensus over taking down symbols to the much harder and more important work of taking down structures?
I worry much less about individual expressions of racism than I do about institutional expressions of racism. And we live in an age where people are earnestly trying to convince us that institutional racism doesn’t exist.
Do we focus on the flag so that we can win (or lose) a battle and then walk away feeling righteous (or righteously indignant), but then never have to have the very troubling, nuanced, frustrating but oh so important discussion about what race really means in 21st Century America, about what racism still exists in our society, and about how it is allowed to persist and, in some places, flourish, and so on? Is the flag-debate a part of a larger discussion, or a distraction from it?

It seems pretty clear to me that the only way to answer that is to see what happens next. I think that arguing over symbols can be a very important, worthy effort, if the argument doesn't begin and end with symbols. To use his metaphor, there's nothing wrong with focussing on the visible 10% of the iceberg; it's only a danger if we do then ignore the hidden 90%. I'm not overly optimistic about this (mostly because it's rare that any of these large, systemic discussions happen on a large scale; they're just too hard to pull off and stay focussed on), but I do believe that there's a real chance that we've got an opportunity to talk seriously about race in this country. Time will tell.

But, he then points out that this question leads inherently to an even more difficult discussion--the discussion about whether we even have a conversation that needs to happen. Whether there really is systemic racism in our country. Because, there are many who claim that we are living in an essentially post-racial society. Yes, there are racists. But, they are individuals--society itself is no longer racist, so there's nothing to fix on a societal level:
On Fox News’s “Hannity,” after the contributor Deneen Borelli said of the president, “I have dubbed him today Rapper in Chief,” the guest host David Webb posed the question to another guest: “Is America institutionally racist, that’s racism which requires codified law, a social acceptance, societal acceptance — and we know that racists, racists will always exist. Bias, prejudice in some form, black, white, in any form will always exist. Is America institutionally racist or are there racists in America?” 
As if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. 
Webb later answered his own question: “I say we’re not.”
This is the part of the conversation which I find mend-bendingly frustrating, and I know I'm not alone in this. Of course enormous progress has been made in race equality over the years. Of course most (all?) of the laws which explicitly favor whites over non-whites are off the books (we do not live in the Jim Crow era anymore, thank God). But, I find it hard to believe that anyone can look out into our world and see one where people of color are treated the same as white people. We see daily depictions of black people being treated by police differently from whites. We have studies which show that people of color get harsher penalties for identical crimes committed by whites. We hear testimony after testimony of parents from one community who have to have the "how not to get shot if you get stopped by the police" conversation, while most members of my community would never even think to have to have that conversation. Sometimes, it's so subtle that it's hard to see, such as research which shows that resumes with "black sounding" names get less response than identical "white resumes."

Racism is still real, and it's still pervasive, and it's still systemic. I can't believe that's a controversial statement.

Having made substantial progress is not the same as having solved the problem. Having an African-American President is a wonderful sign of an improving world; it simply does not mean that racism is dead, or even that systemic, societal racism is. Racism, even systemic racism, doesn't only exist in official laws and policies. It can, and does, continue to exist in much more subtle, but no less pernicious, ways:
But institutional racism will not be limited in that way. Institutional racism is often like a pathogen in the blood: You can’t see it; you have to test for it. But you can see its destructive effects as it sickens the host.
Furthermore, institutional racism doesn’t require the enlisting of individual racists. The machine does the discriminating. It provides a remove, a space, between the unpleasantness of racial discrimination — and indeed hatred — and the ultimate, undeniable and, for some, desirable outcome of structural oppression.
I prefer the Aspen Institute’s definition: “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”
I doubt that I'll live long enough to see a world which is free of racism. But, I know that if we pretend we already live in one, then we never will.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Lens of P'shat and Drash

[This blog was originally posted on the URJ Camp Coleman Blog]

Rabbis are used to wearing many hats. But, for about two weeks now at Camp Coleman, I’ve been wearing a hat which is very new to me: photography teacher.

I’ve been a hobbyist photographer for while, and I’ve read and learned a ton along the way, and gotten to be a half-decent photographer while I’m at it. So, when camp found themselves short a photography specialist, I offered to use some of my 12 days on Faculty to fill in that slot and teach some campers a bit of what I’ve learned about this art form (including the fact that it is an art form, but one perfect for someone without much native ability!). I expected to be challenged, which I was, and to have fun, which I did. And, I hoped to inspire at least a few campers, which I’m pretty sure happened. What I didn’t really expect was to get a new way to think about a very old subject.

Rabbis, and readers of Jewish texts, are used to talking about p’shat and drash. P’shat means "simple," and it refers to the simple, direct meaning of a text. D’rash means something like “interpret,” and refers to the various deeper meanings that we find within a text and, often, that we impose on a text. You might recognize it from the word “midrash,” which are stories that the Rabbis told about the Torah. So, for example, the p’shat of Genesis chapter 1 is that God created the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Some of the drash is that this teaches us that the world has an order to it, or that when we create, or when we rest, we are imitating God. D’rash is a large, expansive, meandering category. It’s a creative interpretation of text.

And, it’s unbelievably frustrating to some. Because, I’ve noticed over the years that some people get very resistant to that expansiveness. I’d teach them that the rabbis say in some midrashim that Isaac was a willing participant in the Akedah (his binding and near sacrifice by his father, Abraham), and almost invariably someone will say, “That’s not what the text says really happened” or, “They’re just apologizing for Abraham.” They’ll say, “That’s not in the text.” We’re so used to reading text critically, and to reading the Torah as a simple, linear story, that straying too far from the p’shat just feels dishonest to some people.

But, it turns out that no one has that trouble with a photograph.

I showed the kids a photo of 2 boys, one young and one older, sitting at a counter, their backs to us. They’re both somewhat hunched over. “What’s the p’shat?” I ask. They tell me they’re sitting. They describe their clothes. They try to guess where they were. “Now, tell me what’s to the left and right of the picture.” They start with some obvious guesses. “But,” I ask, “what if those boys’ mothers were there, just out of frame, watching them with smiles? What would this picture be about then?” They quickly answer that it would be about brotherhood, or mentorship, maybe. “So, what if there was someone on the floor, crying? What would the picture mean to you then?” Well, then it’s a picture of people focusing on their own world, ignoring what’s important around them.

And, the fact that I tell them that it’s actually 2 boys (my son and another boy who happens to now be a counselor at Camp Coleman!) playing on tablets in Barnes and Nobles doesn’t end the conversation. That’s nice to know, but the stories we can tell are much more interesting. The p’shat is a starting place. The drash—the creative, fun, exploring interpretations are where the action is at. And, more importantly, where the real meaning is found.

This wasn’t my insight—I got it from the The Jewish Lens, a curriculum on teaching Judaism through photography (or, was it photography through Judaism? I forget) that the camp provided me. But, it’s brilliant. It’s a new, better way to teach something I’ve had trouble teaching well over the years.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to fill in as a photography teacher again. But, I know that I’ll never teach p’shat and drash without a photograph again. Thanks for that, Camp Coleman. I owe you one.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Caitlyn Jenner, Privacy and Openness

Someone I grow up with, and who I now know mostly through Facebook made a comment today about Caitlyn Jenner. And, I'm absolutely sure that it's a comment which has been echoed all around the world. Before I respond to it, let me say that this old friend of mine is a pretty reasonable guy, from what I can tell. He certainly isn't some foaming at the mouth, hate filled homophobe, or anything like that.

So, what did he say? He made the (probably mostly offhand) remark that while he's fine with Caitlyn Jenner (who was, Of course, until recently Bruce Jenner*), he's tired of having the picture of her thrown in his face. Be happy, he says, but keep it private.

* My dictation software just changed "Bruce Jenner" to "Bruce Gender." 

We all have our own sense of privacy – how much we need it for ourselves, and how much we expect/prefer it from others. As someone who hates most reality shows, and especially hates celebrity reality shows, I get it. I wish nothing bad for the Kardashians, for example, but I would be just fine if I never hear or see from them again. But, I think that this was different.

Being LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) is difficult on many interconnected levels, I'm sure. But, one of the ways in which it must be the most difficult, the most painful and the most dangerous is in the sense of shame that comes with it. People who are not straight are subjected to a seemingly endless stream of reminders that they aren't normal. This happens in subtle ways, and it happens in ways which are anything but subtle. And while being told that you aren't "normal" is rarely fun for most of us, in this case it's often served with a generous helping of outright disdain or hatred, as well. Throw in the very real possibility of physical violence, and it's not the least bit surprising that so many LGBTQ people stay in the closet. It's not surprising that so many of them internalize that hatred. It's not surprising that far too many of them take their own lives out of a feeling of desperation, loneliness, and God knows what else.

And so, standing up and presenting themselves, in public, as who they really are, is more than just another version of 21st century exhibitionism. It is not an analog to the rest of the "hey, look at me" culture which has become so prevalent in the Internet age. And, it's not forcing their opinions down other people's throats. It is a powerful statement of self acceptance, and a brave stand against hatred and fear.

There's nothing wrong with sitting in the back of the bus, until someone tells you that's the only place you're allowed to sit. There's nothing wrong with being quiet about who you are, until someone tells you that you shouldn't talk about it. Then, it's more than acceptable to move your seat, or open your mouth. Then, it's a moral imperative.

Somewhere out there, probably more than once today, some child who questions his/her sexual identity saw Caitlyn Jenner, and just as importantly, saw the reaction to her, and felt braver. Some adult who has felt the need to hide his/her sexuality is one step closer to being willing to stop hiding. Someone who felt that they'll never be understood, and never be accepted, took one step away from harming him/herself.

Thank God Caitlyn Jenner found the courage to transition, and the courage to stand before the cameras, before and after. Thank God that we live in an age when she is able to do so. Thank God for everyone who shared, retweeted and otherwise spread the word that the arc of the moral universe continues to bed. And, at long last, it seems to be bending faster and faster.