Friday, September 6, 2019

Marriage, Justice and Mercy


“You shall place judges and guards in all of your gates which Adonai your God has given you to dwell in. You shall judge the people with righteousness. (Deuteronomy 16:18)”

In trying to understand this passage the Chatam Sofer connects it to a passage from Hosea (Chapter 2) in which the prophet links righteousness and judgment with kindness and mercy. He (the Chatam Sofer) sees that later passage as a kind of quid pro quo between us and God. God gives us kindness and mercy, while we are expected to give the world righteousness and judgment (judgment, probably in the sense of fairness, in this context). In fact, it’s a bit more than an ordinary deal that God made with us — it was, essentially, our “bride price.” It was the exchange by which our marriage to God (the Rabbi’s favorite metaphor for our covenant with God) was created. God said, “I promise to give you kindness and mercy; you promise to judge fairly and with righteousness, and by this exchange, we will be linked forever.”

That’s why we have to put “judges and guards” at our gates to make sure that we judge with righteousness: if we don’t have those protections, and our righteousness falters, we’re in violation of our marriage contract. We have to hold up our end of this bargain, or we’ll have no right to expect God to do so in return.

Our entire relationship with God is contingent on our being willing to continually act with righteousness and justice in the world.

As always, I don’t take this literally. I don’t believe that, were we to stop caring about justice, the earth would rebel and start treating us with viciousness. I don’t think that the rains will stop or disease will descend on us if we stop pursuing justice. But, I very much believe that our relationship with God is based in our willingness to pursue justice, and that there’s no way to ignore justice without violating that relationship. I believe that our ability to connect with the Most High only exists when we are concerned with fairness “down here.”

I’m pretty sure that religion which is unconcerned with justice isn’t actually religion, at all. It’s sacrilege.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Jean Vanier and Accepting Care

I just learned of the passing of Jean Vanier. Vanier was a priest who dedicated his life to serving some of the most underserved members of society. I first encountered him when he came to speak at Holy Blossom Temple as the first ever recipient of the Rabbi Gunther Plaut Humanitarian Award. I was instantly taken by his quiet, dignified demeanor, the gentle sweetness which he radiated, and the simple wisdom of his words. He was one of those people who embodied the best of a spiritual life, and it showed so naturally.

He's appeared as a guest on the wonderful podcast "On Being," and it's worth a listen. One thing he said on one of his appearances there (I couldn't find the right one) really stuck with me--he talked about growing older, and growing infirm, and he said that one of the joys of it was that he was finally forced to learn to let other people take care of him.

That struck me, because it is precisely the opposite reaction that most of us have to growing older, and less independent. I can't tell you how many people I've heard lament their loss of independence, and how frustrating it is to no longer be able to fully take care of themselves. And, I get it — I can't even begin to imagine what it's really like, and I'm certainly not looking forward to it, myself. But, it amazed me that this man found a completely different way to understand his new reality. He saw beauty in other people being willing to do for him what he had been willing and eager to for others all through his life.

That doesn't necessarily mean that, given the choice, he would choose this for himself. That he prefers this dependence over this former way of living. But, he wasn't given a choice in the matter--he became frail, and he needed help. And, rather than rail against it, he chose instead to find beauty in it.

And, it is beautiful. Again, I'm not claiming that I'm looking forward to that day, but there is an undeniable beauty in a person being willing to give so freely and deeply of themselves. And, if we allow ourselves, we can be even more appreciative of that beauty, and that gift, when we're the recipients of it. I don't know if I'll be able to, but if and when my day comes, I hope I'll be able to receive it as he did.

Rest in peace, Jean Vanier. May your memory be a blessing.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Anti-Semitic Criticism of Israel?

There has been a whole lot of talk for the past few weeks about a series of comments made by new House of Representatives member, Ilhan Omar. On the off chance that you don't know what I'm talking about, Omar, who is Muslim, has spoken out against our country's ongoing support of Israel, and against AIPAC’s role in ensuring that support. And, many people have responded to her comments by accusing her of anti-Semitism. And then, inevitably, many people have responded to those comments by accusing the people who made them of Islamaphobia, stifling free speech, giving too much blind support to Israel, and so on. It’s not been pretty. Probably the best, most evenhanded summary of the situation I've seen can be found here.

As per usual, most of the articles and posts (although, I'll gladly admit that I've read very few posts, as I've been actively avoiding Facebook for a while now) take a "one side or the other" approach. Either Congresswoman Omar is making a valid point, or she is being anti-Semitic.

It seems to me that it's quite possible that both of those are true.

Let me be clear — I disagree with the vast majority of the substance of what I have heard her say. I continue to be a strong supporter of Israel, and I will happily argue (respectfully, sticking to the issues) with anyone who claims that Israel is an evil actor, and unrepentant oppressor, a colonizer, or anything of the sort. But, I do think that there are valid criticisms that one can make of Israel, just as there are of any country in the world. As I've said before, I'm not at all a fan of the current government in Israel, or of many of their policies. And, pointing out policies which might be wrong, or even immoral, does not make you anti-Israel, or anti-Semitic. And, even though I am generally supportive of AIPAC, and of their mission, I also don't think that they are above criticism.

However, it's possible to be right on the specifics of your criticism while still engaging in anti-Semitism.

Let me try an analogy. Let's say that a Muslim-American engages in an act of domestic terrorism. And, let's say that a certain news source speaks out against that act, vigorously. They call the act an act of evil, and they condemn its perpetrator in similar terms. But, let's also imagine that this same news source has a long-standing pattern of ignoring terrorist acts by white Christian men. It rarely covers them, and when it does, it refuses to use the word "terrorism." But, is never so reticent when the violence is done by a Muslim. In every one of those cases, it runs large headlines condemning the act, and the perpetrator. And, it sometimes uses language which is often used by Islamaphobes-- it talks about how "those people" tend towards violence. It sprinkles the word "jihadist" liberally throughout its coverage. And so on.

I would say that, on this specific issue, that news source is being correct — an act of terrorism should be condemned, as should the terrorist. But, given the larger context, it's also clear that this news coverage is displaying an anti-Muslim bias. I’d be right to be suspicious of their motives.

We don't even have to be getting into hidden agendas and masked ill-intent. Racism can exist in someone's actions even when their hearts are pure (well, at least as pure as anyone's heart can be in the real world). One of the powerful teachings from the left about racism over the past few years (decades?) Has been the way in which good-hearted people can nonetheless, often unintentionally, partake of and reinforce systematic racism. Even if I have absolutely no ill feelings towards African-American people, if I support a policy which does harm to the African-American community, then I'm supporting racism. Intent matters, but impact matters more, and if my impact is racist, even if my intent wasn't, then I have to be held accountable for that racism.

Back to the case at hand… I don't know (and, most likely, neither do you) what Congresswoman Omar's thoughts about Jews really are. And, I truly do not believe that it is out of bounds to criticize Israel, AIPAC, or just about anything else in our society. But, when someone goes out of their way to criticize Israel above and beyond other countries, and when they do so continually, and when they use classically anti-Semitic tropes about using money to subtly control ("brainwash") our government, or which accuse Jews of "dual loyalty," yeah, I get a little nervous, and more than a little suspicious.

I do truly believe that it is the right of any citizen of America to criticize Israel, or our policies regarding Israel. But, the larger context of those criticisms matter a great deal, and don't be surprised when Jews like me point out anti-Semitism where we clearly see it.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Stop Waiting For Pharaoh

Earlier this week, I came across a teaching I found a few years ago, but had completely forgotten about. I used it at our Board meeting last night and again with some students this morning. I really love it, so it's probably worth sharing a bit more widely.

It starts (as always) with this week's Torah portion, Parashat Beshallach. We're at the part of the Exodus story where our people are finally leaving Egypt. This Torah portion begins, "When Pharaoh sent the people out of Egypt…" Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen (Itturei Torah III 108b, if you’re following along at home) says that those words are meant as a criticism of us. That kind of makes sense if you think about it; why mention Pharaoh here, at all? The Torah easily could have said, "When God freed us from Egypt," or, "When we left Egypt." Why give Pharaoh top billing a this seminal moment?

Actually, it was because God wanted to remind us that it was Pharaoh who, in a way, actually set us free. I mean, God was obviously behind it — God was the driving force behind Pharaoh's decision — but, ultimately, we went free when Pharaoh said, "Get out." But, that wasn't what God had hoped for.

The 10 plagues are usually understood to be an escalating set of attacks on Egypt and Pharaoh, staged in order to convince him to set us free. But, according to Tzadok HaCohen, at least part of God's motivation was to impress us, the enslaved Israelites, with God's power. And, God's hope was that, impressed and inspired by that power, and knowing that God, and all that power, was behind us, we would find the strength to free ourselves.

It's an amazing thought. What if, after the first or second plague, we had just got up and left? Rather than go to Pharaoh and ask for permission, what if we just packed our bags and walked out?* I mean, what could the Egyptians have done about it? If they tried to stop us, God could have stepped in. We had the ultimate trump card, the ultimate reinforcement lying in wait. The only reason we didn't go free earlier is that we didn't try to.

* One kid this morning, before I even got to this teaching, asked why our people didn't just sneak out during the plague of darkness which, according to the Torah, didn't affect our people, just Egyptians. That sure would have made for less dramatic but more comical episode — the lights come on to find the Egyptian people looking around going, "Did anyone see the Israelites? I swear to Ra, they were here a minute ago…"

As always, this teaching isn't really about the Israelites or Pharaoh; it's about us. It's about the way that we tend to underestimate our own power, and instead look to others to lead us, or to save us. It happens in religion, for sure — people want their rabbi (or, I imagine, their priest, Imam…) to take care of their religion for them. To speak to God for them. To show them exactly what "the right way" to do something is when, in actuality, they could just try doing it for themselves.

It happens in society when people look to political or civic leaders, or official organizations, to address some major need, or to right a wrong, rather than just getting up and doing it themselves.

I could probably think of a dozen more examples, but I'm short on time, and I think you get the idea (at least, I hope you do).

Salvation, redemption, freedom, whatever you want to call it — we might not have to wait for it. It might be waiting for us.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Wearing Black


Rabbi Chanina taught, “I have learned much from my teachers. I have learned more from my colleagues than my teachers. But I have learned more from my students than from all of them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit, 7a)

Confession time—I’ve never really loved that quote. Or, to be a bit more precise, I’ve had to do some (typically rabbinic) mental gymnastics to make it work. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I love the idea of learning from my students. But, mostly for me, that’s meant learning because I’ve had to prepare well to teach, or because they’ve pushed me to think more carefully. There aren’t many times when a student has, in a direct way, taught me something.

Today, we were talking about death and dying with our 5th grade class (students and parents together). As part of it, the kids wrote down all of the questions that they could think of. Then, I had each kid pick one of their questions, and then each student had to try to answer it with their parents. The idea was to show that, especially on this topic, wondering out loud together is at least as important (and at least as accurate) as listening to a so-called expert.

One of the kids asked an unusual question (“unusual” in that I’ve run this program a dozen times, and never heard this one before). “Why do we wear black when someone dies?”

“Good question! You all answer first—why do you think we wear black?”

One little girl raised her hand.

“Well, black is the absence of color, so maybe we’re trying to show the absence of the person that we’re feeling?”

You know what? I don’t know if that was the reason, but it sure is now.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Responding not to love, but to pain

Last month, I had the chance to attend a 2-day convention of Rabbis who are involved with Social Justice. I was just glancing through my notes from that event, and I came across an idea from some speaker, but I didn't write down who shared it. Which is a shame, because it's a beautiful, powerful idea, and I'd like to give her or him credit. Anyway...

The point that this speaker made was that, in justice work (as well as in other realms, I'd add), we often put too much emphasis on love. We are moved towards justice because we love the other. We are compelled to help the needy because we love the one in need. Or, so we say. It's a potent idea, but it falls short because of a difficult, not often acknowledged complication.

There are a lot of people whom I don't love.

I'm not just being sarcastic; I'm being quite honest. There are a lot of people out there towards whom I don't feel love. There are the people that I know whom I dislike, of course. But, there are literally billions of people whom I've never met, to whom I don't have the faintest connection (beyond the proverbial "7 degrees" by which we are all connected). I can say that I love them. But, can I look you in the eye and tell you that, really, I love them? I understand that my Christian friends and colleagues might approach this differently, and might understand love as a more basic, fundamental aspect of existence. But, to me, to someone who relates to love as a deep, personal, actual relationship with another, I can't honestly claim that I love people I don't know.

But, I can honestly tell you that I respond to their pain. 

When I see a child suffering on TV, I don't know that child, so I can't really tell you that I love them. But, I can see that they're in pain, and I can be moved by that pain. In my experience, that's an honest claim--I am moved by pain, even when I don't know that one that is in pain. The truth is, that I'm even moved by the pain of people I hate. I can honestly say that I don't wish pain on anyone, and if I saw someone I actively disliked in pain, I'd be moved to try to help them. My love has limits; my response to pain doesn't seem to.

The trick, of course, is to actually see the pain. To be willing to look--both in the sense of being willing to watch and read and listen to the hard stories, which I want to avoid, because they cause me pain, as well as to acknowledge that, whatever else I think, that pain is real. That acknowledgement keeps me from saying "you deserve it" to someone who doesn't agree with me on politics, or religion, or whatever else. That's part of the power of pain, and of responding to it--pain doesn't know of tribalism, or of politics, or of identity groups. Pain, and the humanity of the one in pain, precede these categories, and so it affects me before I can wall it off with a sense of "otherness."

I don't want to get too overtly political, but it's impossible here. So, let me just dive in. To take one current example, I'm sure that many/most people reading this aren't in favor of building a wall along our southern border, and that some of you are. I guess there's an intelligent debate to be had about that practical policy question. But, whatever you think about walls, or The Wall, or immigrants, or refugees, we have to be able to recognize the pain of the real people who are involved in this. The pain of people who are running for their lives is real, and it must be acknowledged, and it must be responded to. And, the pain of people who fear for the jobs or their lives (even if I firmly believe that their jobs and their lives aren't actually in danger from these immigrants) is real, too, and it must be acknowledged, and it must be responded to.

I'm thinking as I'm writing, as I often do when I blog, and I think I just got to the point. Even if I disagree with the cause or the philosophy or the belief which is behind your pain, I can't honestly deny that you are in pain. And, if I'm human, I'll want that pain to end. I may not be able to make it so, but I want to try.

I want your pain to end. That, just maybe, is the wellspring of justice.

Friday, January 4, 2019

The One Who Sets Me Free


A bit of a long, somewhat rambly exploration of God’s nature, and the reason to be religious. What else is there to do on a Friday afternoon…?

Nehama Leibowitz was a 20th century Torah scholar — one of the greats of her generation. Her commentaries on the weekly Torah portion were some of the most interesting, challenging pieces we read in rabbinical school, and are remarkable (among other reasons) for their combination of traditional text-learning and modern, thoughtful approach. She’s worth checking out if you want a bit of a challenge.

Early in my career as a rabbi, I often used her teachings — sometimes for sermons, more often for adult education. Over the years, I’ve turned to her less and less, partially because I realized that her dense, esoteric teachings tend to appeal more to rabbinical types than to laypeople, and partly because I tend to overuse my favorite sources (as I’m sure that any of our regulars will attest to), and then, after a while, try to find other sources to keep things fresh. Anyway, I was studying with a new friend/colleague today, and we decided to look at some of her teachings.

She always finishes with “Questions for Further Study,” and one of those questions for this week’s Torah portion, Vaera, concerns a tiny linguistic variation, which might hint at a larger, philosophical idea. In Exodus 6:6, God says:
I am Adonai, Who is bringing you out from under the burdens of Egypt.
And then, in the very next verse, God says:
I am Adonai your God, the One who brings you out from under the burdens of Egypt.
There are two differences here. First of all, the second verse adds “your God” to God’s name. And, there’s a subtle shift in the Hebrew which I tried to (hopefully accurately) capture as the difference between “Who is bringing you out” and “the One who brings you out.” Why the difference?

The first version, “Who is bringing you out,” is using the phrase to talk about something which God is doing, at this very moment. But, it’s only at this moment. The second phrase has a bit more of a sense of God’s identity. “Bringing you out” isn’t just something which God does at some given moment. “Brings you out” is something which God does, regularly. Or, more to the point, it’s part of who God is. It’s like the difference between “I’m going to play baseball” and “I’m a baseball player.” The first describes an activity of the moment; the second says something about identity.

God is “bringing you out from Egypt” at this moment. But, more importantly, God is the God who, regularly and reliably, “brings you out from Egypt.” The first speaks only of the current moment; the second also hints at a future promise.

And, that might explain the other difference — the inclusion of “your God” in the second verse. Because, it’s only when we recognize God as the One who will, in some ongoing way, take us out of Egypt, that God becomes “our God.” We don’t follow God because God freed us once. We follow God because God frees us. Always.

I’m putting a (possibly too) fine point on this because it speaks to something fundamental about how I see Judaism, and (I guess) all religion.

Some people promote religion based on what it has done — you should be religious because of what God did for us. You should be religious because of what religion meant to your parents, or to theirs. You should be religious because of something which happened when you were young. And so on. I’m not going to argue the logic or morality of this. Instead, I’m going to argue the effectiveness of it. Or, to be more precise, the lack of effectiveness.

Look, I can give you all sorts of history-based reasons to be religious. I might even believe some of them (although, many would be hollow arguments coming from me, to be honest). But, I won’t bother, because I don’t expect that many of them would be particularly effective. People just don’t get involved in religion because of abstract arguments and “should’s,” which are just thinly masked guilt trips. People get involved in religion if religion brings something to their lives. Arguably it’s always been this way, but especially in our modern (postmodern, to be precise) world, this is the reality. People are not going to get deeply involved in and connected to their religion simply because someone tells them it’s a good idea, or because they have some historical, or genetic, or vestigial obligation to do so. People are going to get deeply involved in and connected to their religion if, and only if, it has a profound impact* on them. Only if they believe, even if it’s metaphorically, that God sets them free.

* EK—if you’re reading this, I changed that from “profoundly impacts them” for you…
Is this selfish? Is this just a religious version of “what have you done for me lately?” Maybe. Probably. Yet, I guess that it is. But, I think it’s fair, and it’s honest. The various versions of “you should” that people use to try to get other people involved religion just don’t work, at least not for most people I encounter (and, from the bit I read about it, not for those who are my age or younger, generally speaking). Either religion speaks to me in my situation in a deep and meaningful way, or it’s just not going to be compelling enough to me to spend my time and money on it.

Maybe I’m comfortable admitting all this because I do believe that religion, and God, have had an enormous, positive impact on me. And, that they can for many others, too. That, although I highly doubt that God literally set our people free from Egypt, I know that God has, metaphorically, but nonetheless transformatively, set me free in many ways.

My God is a God who sets me free. Yesterday, today and tomorrow.