Standing against oppression

I am proud and humbled to serve, with Rabbi David Evan Markus, as co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal which just put out this statement and petition. If the President-Elect were to require Muslims to register with the government, we encourage all Americans to register with them. As Jews we have living historical memory of that kind of state-sanctioned mistreatment, and we will not stand idly by if it is perpetrated again. The text of the resolution is below; it's also at change.org where you can add your name.

 


Standing With Non-Jews Against Oppression

slider-standing-with-non-jews-against-oppression

RESOLUTION BY MAJOR JEWISH ORGANIZATIONS ON DIRECT ACTION TO THWART ANY U.S. GOVERNMENT ACTION REQUIRING REGISTRATION OF MUSLIMS

As initially proposed by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal 

WHEREAS:

President-Elect Trump repeatedly has advocated and expressed his intention that Muslims resident in the United States will be required to register as such with the United States government; and

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution bans state action in respect of any establishment of religion, including tests and other qualifications on the basis of religion; and

Article II of the United States Constitution obliges the President of the United States to take care that the Constitution and laws of the United States are faithfully executed; and

Incitement and intolerance of invidious discrimination on the basis of any religion, ethnicity, race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation cultivates a civic climate that countenances all such discrimination, including anti-Semitism; and

Incitement and tolerance of religious discrimination have no place in any civil society; and

The Jewish people have living memory of anti-Jewish legislation and other official discrimination in Nazi Germany, including civic disqualification and registration with the government, preceding the Holocaust; and

Core Jewish spiritual values teach that one must not stand idly by the blood of one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:16), and that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18); and

Principles of deep ecumenism  view all religious traditions as potential paths to the sacred; and

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi  z”l (of blessed memory) professed faith with the Sufis of Hebron to exemplify the spiritual principle that Jews can and must stand in faithful co-religionist solidarity with Muslims;

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT:

If Muslims are required to register as such with the United States government, then all Jews — and all other persons in familial or communal relationship with Jews — are urged to register as Muslims immediately; and

All Jewish clergy associations based in the United States — including OHALAH (Renewal), Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform), Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (Reconstructionist) and Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox) — as well as the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, its constituent organizations, all Jewish seminaries and other institutions of learning, and all other Jewish organizations, are urged to adopt, implement and publicize this resolution by all available means; and

All other clergy organizations and other faith-based organizations operating or having influence in the United States are urged to adopt, implement and publicize corresponding versions of this resolution most suitable to the tenets and contexts of their respective faith traditions; and

If Muslims are required to register as such with the United States government, then a goal is established that every United States resident promptly will register as a Muslim; and

Each ratifying organization will transmit a copy of this resolution to the official government office of Donald J. Trump as of its date of ratification; and

This resolution will be publicized by all available means.

SIGN THE PETITION!


Building the world we want to see

Hope

Hope, said Frances Moore Lappé, “is a stance, not an assessment.” But applied hope is not mere glandular optimism. The optimist treats the future as fate, not choice, and thus fails to take responsibility for making the world we want. Applied hope is a deliberate choice of heart and head. The optimist, says David Orr, has his feet up on the desk and a satisfied smirk knowing the deck is stacked. The person living in hope has her sleeves rolled up and is fighting hard to change or beat the odds. Optimism can easily mask cowardice. Applied hope requires fearlessness.

That's from a commencement speech called "Applied Hope," by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. I'm struck by his assertion that the person who is living in hope is working hard toward creating a better future. It's easy to imagine that hope is a passive stance, but that's clearly not how Lovins sees it. (You can find the whole speech online if you are so inclined. A friend sent it to me a few days ago and there's much in it that moves me.) Lovins writes:

The most solid foundation for feeling better about the future is to improve it -- tangibly, durably, reproducibly, and scalably. So now is the time to be practitioners, not theorists; to be synthesists, not specialists; to do solutions, not problems; to do transformation, not incrementalism. Or as my mentor Edwin Land said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” It’s time to shift our language and action, as my wife Judy says, from “Somebody should” to “I will,” to do real work on real projects, and to go to scale. As that early activist St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” In a world short of both hope and time, we need to practice Raymond Williams’s truth that “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.”

That last sentence really gets to me. "To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing." Despair is often convincing, and almost everyone has reasons for despair at least some of the time. Maybe your despair is personal: your own grief or illness, or a loved one who is sick or suffering, or an injustice in your personal sphere that brings you to tears. Maybe your despair is on a bigger scale: Brexit, the American Presidential election, the realities of hatred and xenophobia. I do not deny anyone's reasons for despair. To paraphrase Hamilton's George Washington, "despair is easy, young man: hoping is harder."

I wrote a d'var Torah last month called Be strong and open your heart that explored the question of hope from a spiritual perspective. I wrote, "hope is the quintessential psycho-spiritual move of Jewish life. To be a Jew is to hope toward -- and, importantly, to act toward -- a world that is better than the one we know now." Hope for a better world may seem especially inaccessible to some of us right now. But our spiritual tradition calls us to cultivate hope, and to be galvanized thereby to act toward making that hope a reality. That's the work at hand. That's always the work at hand. 

Returning again to Lovins' commencement address:

So with the world so finely balanced between fear and hope, with the outcome in suspense and a whiff of imminent shift in the air, let us choose to add the small stubborn ounces of our weight on the side of applied hope. As Zen master Gôtô-roshi put it, “Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.”

This mission is challenging. It requires you to combine sizzle in your brain, fire in your belly, perseverance rooted like a redwood, and soul as light as a butterfly. According to the Internet, one Michael C. Muhammad said: “Everything works out right in the end. If things are not working right, it isn’t the end yet. Don’t let it bother you -- relax and keep on going.”

I'm not sure I agree with the "don't let it bother you" part. Our world is badly broken, and that absolutely should bother us. But we shouldn't allow it to paralyze us. And what I take from his Michael C. Muhammad quote is the assurance that if the world is not redeemed, then our work is not yet done. If there is still injustice in the world, then our work is not yet done. If there is still bigotry in the world, then our work is not yet done. If xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, rape culture, and hatred of the Other still plague us, then our work is not yet done. Friends, I have news for you: our work is not yet done. 

Lovins -- like the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (who I quoted in that d'var Torah I mentioned earlier) asks us to imagine the world as it does not yet exist -- to look beyond what is to what could be. Lovins writes, "Imagine a world where reason, diversity, tolerance, and democracy are once more ascendant; where economic and religious fundamentalism are obsolete; where tyranny is odious, rare, failing, and dwindling; and where global consciousness has transcended fear to live and strive in hope."  I want to imagine a world where the vulnerable are protected, where no one is at risk of sexual assault, where religious freedom is guaranteed and celebrated, where diversities of all kinds are valued. 

Each of us will have her own list of the things that feel most important about the vision of a world redeemed. What matters is that we have the vision -- that we cultivate the vision. This will take work on our parts. We have to dream of the world we need, even when doing so feels vulnerable or scary. We have to imagine the world as we most want it to be, as our hearts ache for it to be. Dream big, and fix those dreams in the forefront of your vision. And then figure out how to take one small step in the direction of those dreams, and another, and another. That's the only way we'll get there. And that's the work we're here in this life to do: to love and to dream, to hope and to build. 

 


Prayer After the Election

prayer-after-the-election

Today mourning and celebration commingle.
Jubilation and heartache are juxtaposed
In neighborhoods where lawns proclaimed
Support for different candidates, on Facebook walls
And Twitter streams where clashing viewpoints meet.

Grant us awareness of each others’ hopes and fears
Even across the great divides of red state and blue state,
Urban and rural. Open us to each others’ needs.
Purify our hearts so that those who rejoice do not gloat
And those who grieve do not despair.

Strengthen our ability to be kind to one another
And to ourselves. Awaken in us the yearning
To build a more perfect union. Let us roll up our sleeves
Whether today we feel exultation or sorrow, and together
Shape a nation of welcome and compassion.

Let ours be a land where no one need fear abuse
Or retribution, where every diversity is celebrated,
Where those who are most vulnerable are protected.
May bigotry and violence vanish like smoke.
May compassion prevail from sea to shining sea.

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

 

Written for (and first published at) Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.


On grief and moving forward

This morning I presided over a funeral for a beloved member of my congregation. It was hard to shake the sense that many of us were mourning not only that loss, but also the loss of a vision of our nation as a place of hope and inclusion. Even those who are happy with yesterday's outcome may be feeling shaken by the reminder of how stark are the divisions within our nation.

To everyone who is feeling grief today, I say: it is okay to feel how you are feeling. Whatever you are feeling, take permission to feel it. Let yourself grieve.

Take comfort in what you can: the presence of friends or family, whatever sweetness or kindness you can find, a cup of coffee, the fact that the sun rose this morning.

Recognize that grief comes and goes in its own rhythms. So, too, does healing. Be gentle with yourself today and in days to come. Be gentle with those you encounter.

When grief is strong, it can seem impossible to imagine that one will ever feel differently. But this is not all there is. Loss is not all there is. Grief is not all there is.

Jewish tradition wisely instructs mourners to retreat from the world for a week. The customs of shiva are designed to insulate mourners from the hard edges of the outside world. They remind us to take the time we need to tell stories, to remember, and to grieve.

At the end of shiva, there is a custom of leaving one's house through one door, walking around the block, and then entering the house through a different door. We will emerge from our grief changed by the experience of the grieving. We will exit what was and enter into something new.

In this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, God calls Avram to leave his home and go forth into the place that God will show him. The opening words are often translated as "Go forth," but they can also be understood to mean "Go into yourself." Like Avram, we too are called to journey deep into ourselves, to dedicate ourselves to the spiritual work of becoming.

Avram had to leave everything that was familiar. He too must have felt that he had lost his narrative about who he thought he was and what he thought was ahead of him. But somehow he found the strength for the journey, and so will we.

We may need to grieve, but we must resist despair. Despair is corrosive, and it denies our agency and our ability to create change.

We can cultivate hope. We can build a better world. We owe it to ourselves and to those who will come after us to continue trying to build a world of justice and lovingkindness, a world in which no one need fear abuse or mistreatment, a world in which diversities of all kinds -- of race and creed and sexual orientation -- are honored and celebrated. A world in which the vulnerable are protected. A world in which bigotry and hatred vanish like smoke, and generosity of spirit and compassion prevail.

In this moment I don't know how we will do that. I don't know what steps we will take or how they will get us where we need to go. But I know that this is the journey to which we are called, and that we will journey together.

 

 


You may find comfort, as I did, in this from Rabbi David Evan Markus: The Day After.

Cross-posted to my congregational blog.


Prayers for voting

Vote_500x279I've shared these resources before, but they bear repeating, I think:

A Prayer For Voting by Rabbi David Seidenberg

A Prayer For Voting by Rabbi Sami Barth

First Step: Lech Lecha -- a Torah poem written eight years ago on Election Day, when Election Day fell (as it does this year) during the week of parashat Lech Lecha

And here's an essay I haven't shared on this blog before (though those of you who follow me on Facebook may already have seen it): Vote Your Privilege by Rabbi David Evan Markus. He writes, "This year I'll cast my vote on behalf of... a politics worthy of everyone – whatever they look like, whomever they love, whether or however they pray." Amen v'amen.

May the results of tomorrow's elections in the United States bring us closer to a world of hope, justice, and opportunity for all.


Take care of yourself as Election Day approaches

Election-stress-americaThe American Psychological Association reports that the Presidential election is a source of "significant stress" for a majority of Americans. I'm not surprised to hear it. Everyone I know is surfing waves of anxiety right now. I don't ever remember an election where the choices seemed this stark, the rhetoric this toxic, and the nation this divided.

Anecdotal conversation with a colleague who works as a therapist yielded a report that she's never seen pre-election anxiety this dramatic in all her years of practice. If you are feeling anxious, stressed-out, and/or afraid of what may be coming, you are not alone.

Take care of yourself over these next few days. 

For some of us self-care might mean pounding the pavement with get-out-the-vote initiatives, or making phone calls to potential voters. Taking action can be a way of asserting some control over a situation that otherwise feels vast and out of our hands, and that can be a form of self-care.

For others of us self-care might mean turning off the television, clicking away from Facebook and Twitter, and resisting the temptation to refresh Five Thirty Eight one more time. Self-care might involve choosing to diminish our intake of the 24-hour news cycle and the constant stream of data and opinions across social media networks.

Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. This goes doubly for those of us who are tasked with caring for others -- our children, our parents, our loved ones, our congregations. It is always okay to engage if that will help you through, and it is always okay to disengage if that's what you need to do. Listen to your body and to your heart, not just to your mind and the narratives your mind spins about what you "should" (or shouldn't) be doing with your time as the election approaches. 

For me, self-care includes ensuring that I get enough rest, cooking foods that I will enjoy eating, pausing to articulate gratitude for being alive and for the food that I have to eat, seeking out small sources of beauty like the red leaves on the bush I can see from my home office window or the bright orange of the pumpkins at our door. Lately it also includes pausing for short stints of contemplative practice during which I recognize the anxiety that the election is provoking in me, and give myself permission to feel what I am feeling, and then gently tell the anxiety that it is not needed and do my best to let it go. 

Most of all it means seeing myself through gentle eyes, and being kind to myself. May you find access to your best forms of self-care in the coming days. 

 

 

Related:

How news and social media can hurt us, 2014

Salve, 2014


#blogElul 5: Accept

BlogElul 2016You remind me
I don't have to turn myself
inside-out to be loved.

I don't have to force my feet
into shoes that don't fit
or walk a path that isn't mine.

You don't want me to hide
any of who I am, not even
my overflowing heart.


 

I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) Read #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; you might also enjoy my collection of Elul poems which arose out of #blogElul a few years ago, now available in print and e-book form as See Me: Elul poems.


A poem for #blogElul 16: Understand

Blogelul2014-1UNDERSTAND (ELUL 16)


Why sickness, why children
cringing from a blow
or broken by bombs, these
will never make sense.
Why cruelty. Why bar
anyone from the common table.

The sages say the world
was broken from the get-go,
too fragile a vessel
for God's infinite light, but
how can I listen to the news
without shattering further?

Our prayers talk about
who by fire, who by water.
It's the wrong question.
When will we rewrite
the words? The book of life
reads from itself, remember,

and inside is the name
of every living being
no matter our politics.
Our time here is so brief.
Scatter love like seeds.
Stop trying to understand.


I've been trying to draft each day's #blogElul poem a few days in advance so that the poems can benefit from a bit of revision before they go live. I wrote this one some days ago, not realizing that the 16th of Elul was going to correspond to September 11th on the Gregorian calendar. The confluence seems appropriate, though.

I'm participating again this year in #blogElul, an internet-wide carnival of themed posts aimed at waking the heart and soul before the Days of Awe. (Organized by Ima Bima.) You can read last year's and this year's #blogElul posts via the Elul tag; last year's posts are also available, lightly revised, in the print chapbook Elul Reflections.


Listening across our differences

ThumbSometimes when I look at my Twitter stream, and see the wide (and passionate) diversity of opinion which my friends express about Israel and Palestine, I despair of common ground ever being forged. If I can't imagine my friends on the one side really hearing my friends on the other side, how can it be possible that those who disagree with each other even more strongly than my friends will ever break bread together in peace?

Ethan has written a fair amount about the dangers of homophily, and about the echo chamber which arises when one is only exposed to limited opinions and perspectives. (Here's an early blog post on the subject; for more, I highly recommend his book Rewire.) I try hard to stay open, and to hear the voices of people who are different from me -- and I know that there are so many axes of difference that I'll always be working to broaden my hearing.

Am I listening to women as well as to men? Am I listening to people of color as well as to white people? Am I listening to transgender folks as well as those who are cisgender? Am I listening to people from the global South as well as people from the global North? Am I listening to people who are poor as well as people who are wealthy? (And so on, and so on.) And -- what do I do when the voices to whom I am listening are in tension with one another?

Listening can be a powerful and active thing. I learned this during my year as a student chaplain at Albany Medical Center. The greatest gift a chaplain can offer isn't "the perfect prayer" or "the right teaching," but real and whole presence. When I sit by someone's bedside, and open myself to hearing who they are and where they are, I manifest the listening and loving ear of God.

It's a lot easier to do that when I'm sitting by a hospital bedside than when I'm comfortably ensconced behind my desk encountering someone else's version of the news. And yet the opportunity to respond with openness and compassion is as real on Facebook and Twitter as it is when I'm ministering to someone who is suffering. Beyond that, while we don't all have the holy opportunity to engage in formal pastoral care, we all have countless opportunities to listen every day.

Ethan makes the case that homophily -- listening only to people like ourselves; that phenomenon referenced in the saying "birds of a feather flock together" -- can make us ill-informed about the world. Being a rabbi, I'm inclined to frame that same truth in religious terms. I think we have a religious obligation to broaden our sphere of understanding. Every person in the world is made in the divine image. No matter where they're from, or where they fall on the political spectrum, or where we might agree or disagree.

When we listen to people who are different from us (and different from each other), we can open connections between one experience and another, one understanding of the world and another. We encounter different facets of the infinite diversity of creation. The shema, which we recite every day, calls us to this work of listening. Listen up, y'all, it exhorts us. We are in relationship with the Source of All Being! And that Source is One. It's our job to listen to the unity which thrums behind our diversity.

There's a Talmudic story which teaches that the difference between God and Caesar is that Caesar puts his image on every coin and they are all alike -- whereas God puts God's image on every human, and we are all different as different can be. (For a beautiful drash on this, I commend to you Rabbi Arthur Waskow's God & Caesar: the Image on the Coin.) This is, as my programming friends would say, a feature and not a bug. It's not a flaw or an accident -- it's part of what makes creation so incredible.

And because we are so different in so many ways across this wide world (and even across narrow subsections of our world!), sometimes we disagree. I struggle with that sometimes. Like many clergy, I'm a born peacemaker, and I've had to learn to resist the temptation to put a "band-aid" over disagreements in a facile attempt to bring healing.

It is not always easy to hold a posture of openness to differing perspectives and views. Sometimes it feels like my own heart has become the container where opposing voices are duking it out. (Those are generally times to step away from the computer and ground myself in cooking, or reading a book to our child, or in poetry and prayer.)

But I think that cultivating that posture of spiritual openness -- developing the habit of keeping one's heart and mind open to other perspectives, even when (especially when) those other perspectives challenge us -- is some of the most important inner work we can do. And if there come moments when I look at our heartfelt differences of opinion and I feel despair, then I have an opportunity to pray that I might soon be returned to the ability to look at our differences and see opportunity for connection again.


Related:

Image: from a print by Jackie Olenick.


An historic synagogue in Rhode Island

Touro synagogue 3Stepping inside the Touro Synagogue feels a little bit like stepping inside an Old World Sefardic shul. There's a good reason for that. All of the oldest congregations in the New World were founded by Sefardic Jews, including this one.

There's no mechitza; instead there's an upstairs section and a downstairs one. The bimah (pulpit) from which the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) leads prayer and reads Torah is in the middle of the sanctuary, almost in the back, so he's leading from within/among the community, not standing in front of them Protestant-style. The ceiling is lofty and painted and ornamented in simple, elegant Colonial fashion. There are twelve big columns (one for each of the twelve tribes, naturally) and twelve smaller ones in the women's gallery above.

It is, I learn when we visit, the oldest still-standing synagogue in North America. (There was one founded earlier, in what was then New Amsterdam, though it burned down. It was rebuilt and the congregation is still extant, as is this one, but that makes this the oldest still-standing Jewish worship space in the country.) The community is celebrating its 250th anniversary this year.

Two hundred and fifty years may be a mere eyeblink in terms of human history -- certainly there are many European houses of worship older than that! -- but for a house of worship on these shores, 250 years is a very long time. And somehow there's something extra-special about being in a North American synagogue which is that venerable.

Its history is really cool. The first Jews came to Newport in 1658, of Spanish and Portuguese origin. (You might recall that Jews were unilaterally cast out of Spain in 1492. Thanks a ton, Ferdinand and Isabella.) Some of them came from Curaçao, and for a bit of a first, they came because they were interested in the colony's experiment in religious liberty, not because they had just been kicked out of where they'd been living. Rhode Island's colonial charter said, among other things:

No person within the said Colony, at any time hereafter, shall be any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion, who does not actually disturb the peace of our said Colony ; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time, and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his own and their judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of land heretofore mentioned, they behaving themselves peaceably and quietly and not using this liberty to licentiousness and profaneness, nor to the civil injury or outward disturbance of others

Synagogueinterior2009It's worth remembering that the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Catholics in 1647, and weren't particularly fans of Quakers, Baptists, or Anglicans either. In Colonial days, suspicion of "Jews, Turks and Infidels" was pretty standard fare. But Rhode Island set out to be different, and that attracted a handful of Jewish families from early on.

In its earliest years the community davened in each others' homes. They began constructing a building in 1758. The architect, an English fellow named Peter Harrison, had never seen a synagogue before. (Most non-Jews probably hadn't.) He designed the interior based on what he learned from the community's prayer-leader, Reverend Isaac Touro, who had recently emigrated from Amsterdam and had been part of that city's great Portuguese synagogue.

During the American Revolution, many of Newport's homes were destroyed by the British army (not only because pillaging is a time-honored form of wartime violence, but also because the houses were wooden and New England winters could be awfully cold -- the troops needed firewood.) Our tour guide confided in us that Touro himself was a Loyalist, rather than a supporter of the Revolution. One way or another, he convinced the local British invaders not to burn the synagogue but to use it as their field hospital. Its beautiful chandeliers and brass fixings went to New York for safekeeping until after the war, and the sanctuary became a place where the wounded could convalesce.

After the revolution was over, when the new president George Washington was traveling the colonies in hopes of getting the Bill of Rights passed, the congregation's then-leader Moses Mendes Seixas wrote to the president pressing him on the question of whether non-Christians truly had the right to worship in this country as we pleased. In response, President Washington wrote a fairly remarkable letter. He wrote, in part:

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support...

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Ten-commandmentsTo bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. It's not just a matter of the privileged "tolerating" otherness. At our best, our nation has always been about something better than that. (Indeed: the first item in that Bill of Rights which President Washington was trying then to pass is a clause enshrining freedom of religion in this nation.)

The Touro synagogue is a relatively modest structure, though a very lovely one. (I particularly like the mural of the ten commandments over the ark, and seeing the community's antique Torah scroll, now behind glass -- it's more than 500 years old, written on deerskin.) What makes it most remarkable to me is the realization that for two hundred and fifty years, people of my religious tradition have been gathering there in joy and in sorrow, davening the daily and weekly, monthly and yearly liturgies. It's sanctified by its very longevity.

And it feels holy to me because it's an early symbol of the religious liberty which is so foundational to this country. It was by no means obvious, two hundred and fifty years ago when this nation was new, that all people would be free to worship here as we pleased; that this wasn't simply a place where Christians of one stripe or another could be free from the prejudices of other Christians, but a place where Jews and Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs, people of every religious persuasion and of no religious persuasion whatsoever could together form the fabric of a nation where we walk in our own paths and cherish our differences.

I'm glad to have had the chance to sit, however, briefly, in this hallowed space. On my way out the door, I said a silent prayer of gratitude for its existence and for the principles of religious freedom which allowed it -- and every other community in this nation -- to flourish.

 

Photos from this gallery.


On yesterday's grief and today's rejoicing

Nr35p_-00_lifestyle_rainbow-flagWhat a rollercoaster of a week. Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a ruling which gutted the Voting Rights Act. That ruling was a major blow to minority voters in this country, and to all who recognize that voters of color in many places still face extraordinary hurdles in getting to the polls on voting day. And today SCOTUS handed down the ruling [pdf] that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. Yesterday's ruling was devastating; today's is a source of joy.

Today's victory for human rights doesn't undo yesterday's damage. The two issues -- minority voting rights, and the right to marry one's beloved -- intersect, and the communities impacted by these decisions intersect and overlap. The work of perfecting our flawed democracy, of eliminating prejudice and discrimination, of ensuring that everyone has full and whole access to the equal rights which are our God-given inheritance as human beings (including both the right to marry and the right to vote): that work remains ahead of us. The road to liberation is long and there are miles to go before we sleep.

But Jewish tradition teaches us to celebrate our victories, even when there is still further we need to go. As we read in my haggadah:

What does this mean, "It would have been enough"?  Surely no one of these would indeed have been enough for us.  Dayenu means to celebrate each step toward freedom as if  it were enough, then to start out on the next step.  It means that if we reject each step because it is not the whole liberation, we will never be able to achieve the whole liberation.  It means to sing each verse as if it were the whole song -- and then sing the next verse.

[That quote comes from The Shalom Seders, compiled by New Jewish Agenda, (New York, Adamah Books, 1984.)]

Today's step toward freedom is a big one. Today's ruling argues that "interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages" was DOMA's essence, and that such interference is unconstitutional. (I would also add, unconscionable.) This is a victory for GLBT Americans, for binational queer couples who will no longer be forced overseas because they can't get a spouse visa, and for everyone who believes that love should be honored and that commitment should be celebrated. Today, we celebrate! And tomorrow we roll up our sleeves and rededicate ourselves to fixing what's still broken.

The work of ensuring equality is not done. When any of us faces institutionalized discrimination, our whole nation is diminished. Yesterday's ruling on the VRA should galvanize us to work toward ending racism and prejudice, both on the micro level (individual people) and the macro level (systemic racism and inequality across the board). And today's ruling on DOMA is still only a step toward true marriage equality; remember that while same-sex marriage is legal and honored in many states, it's not yet legal and honored everywhere in this country. We're not there yet. But I am endlessly grateful for today's ruling and for the ability to hope that we can continue to perfect our imperfect union.

Jewish tradition offers a blessing for moments like this one:  ברוך הטוב והמטיב (Baruch HaTov VeHaMeitiv). "Blessed are you, God, who is good and who does good!" Amen, amen, selah.


New essay in Zeek about moving beyond binaries

I'm delighted to have an essay in Zeek once again. This essay owes a tremendous debt to Rabbi Irwin Kula and to the text study session in which he led my cohort of Rabbis Without Borders Fellows at our February gathering. The essay (like the text study session) looks at the Talmudic figure of Rabbi Meir as a paragon of post-triumphalism and a role model for striving to see through / beyond binary distinctions.

Here's a taste:

Talmud teaches (Eruvin 13b) that in the generation of Rabbi Meir there was none equal to him. He was the best mind of his generation, bar none. Why, then (the sages ask) was the halacha not fixed according to his insights? Because his insights were so deep that no one else could fathom them. “He would declare the ritually unclean to be clean and supply plausible proof, and the ritually clean to be unclean and supply plausible proof.”

The categories of tahor and tamei, clean and unclean (or, susceptible to ritual impurity, and not-susceptible to ritual impurity), were foundational to the sages of the Talmud. This was one of the primary binary distinctions through which they understood their world. And Rabbi Meir saw right through it.

A lot of progressive Jews are squeamish about the whole idea of tahor and tamei. (I’ve been there myself: what do you mean, the blood my healthy uterus generates every month makes me unclean?) Our discomfort with that system may get in the way of appreciating just how radical Rabbi Meir was.

But try this on for size: imagine looking at a staunch Republican and being able to see the Democratic values that person nonetheless holds. (And vice versa.) Imagine someone who could perceive the relativism beneath the most fundamentalist exterior — and the fundamentalism to which even the most relativist may be prone. In our modern paradigm, I think these are translations of what Rabbi Meir did and who he was in the world.

You can read the whole thing at Zeek: Being Meir.


Shared hope

Watch-barack-obama-victory-speech-for-election-2012Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs. And when we go through tough times, when we make big decisions as a country, it necessarily stirs passions, stirs up controversy. That won’t change after tonight. And it shouldn’t. These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty, and we can never forget that as we speak, people in distant nations are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter -- the chance to cast their ballots like we did today.

We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened up by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet...We believe in a generous America, in a compassionate America, in a tolerant America open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag, to the young boy on the south side of Chicago who sees a life beyond the nearest street corner, to the furniture worker’s child in North Carolina who wants to become a doctor or a scientist, an engineer or an entrepreneur, a diplomat or even a president. That’s the future we hope for.

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting... I believe we can keep the promise of our founding, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or who you love. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight. You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

(Source: Transcript of President Obama's Election Night Speech.)

Amen.


Election week Torah

If, after you have entered the land which Adonai your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, "I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me," you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Adonai your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kinsman. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since Adonai has warned you, "You must not go back that way again." And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.

When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

I decided yesterday morning to modify the lesson I had been planning to teach to our fifth through seventh graders, our b'nei mitzvah prep students. We still did some of what was originally on the syllabus for the day, but in honor of this week's Presidential election, we also took some time to read and discuss the short Torah passage above.

I was curious to hear how my students would respond to this short Torah teaching. Would they interpret this passage from Torah as favoring the idea of appointing a king, or not? (I tend to read it as begrudging acceptance -- it might be preferable not to have a king, because it's too easy to get attached to human sovereignty and power, but once the children of Israel have a nation-state of their own they'll inevitably want a government like everybody else's, so here are the Torah's stipulations about how the ruler should be chosen.)

How would my students understand Torah's qualifications for a king? Which of those qualifications still resonate for us today? What might be a modern equivalent of keeping too many warhorses, or of sending people back into slavery in order to add to the might of the army? What is the Teaching, or Instruction, which our modern leaders study and interpret and live by?

And is any of this relevant to us in an era and a place where we vote for a President instead of living in the old system where the power was shared between a King, the priests, and the prophets? My answer to that last question is, of course, yes -- there are always ways to find relevancy and meaning in Torah, even as times change. But I was interested to know how, and whether, my students would relate this passage to the process of choosing the American President.

The kids settled first on the matter that a king of Israel needed to be an Israelite, not a foreigner. We talked a bit about the extent to which different peoples worshipped different gods in those days, and they drew the connection between this idea in Torah and the American system in which only native-born citizens can run for President. We talked a bit about the matter of warfare and wealth, then and now. And then we talked about the question of whether or not, in our modern paradigm where we elect our government, kids ought to be able to vote. (My class's opinions were divided on that one.)

I'm curious to hear your responses, too. Does this bit of Torah have any bearing on how you think about our government today?

 


 

Related reading:

  • Elections, Kings, Wars, & Justice by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center, 2008. "The perek hamelekh (passage on the king; Deut 17: 14-20), puts constitutional limits on royal power: limits that speak profoundly and precisely to the present crisis of power in America."

  • YU Torah on Elections, a collection of texts about the Torah's concept of democracy, the responsibility of voters, the responsibility of elected officials, etc. Read it online, and/or download a PDF or TXT file to keep.

  • A Prayer for Voting by Rabbi Sami Barth, which I've shared (with permission) on my G+. "On this day we are called to discern and choose, to embrace a vision and cast our vote..."

A poem, and a few links, for Election Day

Four years ago, I wrote this Torah poem on Election Day. That year, Election Day fell during the week when we read parashat Lech Lecha, in which God tells Avram to go forth from his native land and his father's house to the land which God will show him. (This poem now appears in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published 2011 by Phoenicia Publishing.)

 

FIRST STEP (LECH LECHA)

 

It's not going to be easy.
All of your roadmaps are wrong.

That was another country:
those lakes have dried up

and new groundwater is welling
in places you won't expect.

You'll begin the journey in fog
destination unknown, impossible.

Don't be surprised by tears.
This right here is holy ground.

Take a deep breath and turn away
from cynicism and despair

listen to the voice from on high
and deep within, the one that says

I'm calling you to a place
which I will show you

and take the first small step
into the surprising sun.

 

I still find the poem meaningful as an expression of Torah and of my own experience of entering the voting booth and casting a vote for hope and change. Even if we're not reading Lech Lecha this week (we're not; this year, Election Day falls during the week of parashat Chayyei Sarah), there's something about the act of voting which feels to me very lech-lecha, very much a journey into hope for new possibilities.

Also worth reading today: Jay Michaelson's The Nexus of Spirituality and Politics in Zeek.

And: Rabbi David Seidenberg's Prayer for Voting, which I shared here four years ago.

May the outcome of today's US elections bring blessing to us and to the world.


R' Dov Baer of Mezritch on righteous indignation

 

Righteous Indignation

Your anger should always be for "the sake of heaven."
Direct your anger toward the kelipot [forces of evil]
in the person who upsets you,
and not at the person himself.

Understand that the kelipot scare him into doing evil things.

Then you can use your anger
to bring the kelipot under the sway of holiness.

 


That's from God in All Moments: Mystical & Practical Spiritual Wisdom from Hasidic Masters, edited and translated by Or Rose and Ebn Leader. It's a quote from R. Dov Baer of Mezritch, from his text Hayim v'Hesed, #12. 

What are the kelipot? This concept (early medieval in origin) was re-imagined and popularized by mystic Isaac Luria (d. 1572.) Luria taught that God withdrew to make a space in which to place creation, and sent divine energy, in the form of light, into the newly-emanated world. But the vessels which had been created to hold that light were too fragile, and they shattered. The broken shards of those vessels are the kelipot -- shells or husks or shards -- and they keep divine light hidden. Our task, say the Hasidim, is to peel away the kelipot and lift up the sparks of holiness which they conceal.

What I love about this short passage from Dov Baer of Mezritch is this: he reminds me that anger should be for the sake of heaven, not for the sake of ego or vindication. I like his teaching that if someone makes me angry, I should direct my anger toward the broken shards embedded in that person's heart, toward the thick callus preventing compassion from coming through, and not toward the person themselves. If anger is necessary -- and it sometimes is! -- try to point it at whatever is preventing the other person from being compassionate and kind, not at the person themselves.

Happy election season, my fellow Americans. :-)


Why I'm a Rabbi For Obama

Rabbis-logo
Four years ago I spent the summer in Jerusalem. When I got home, my shiny new ברק אובמה ("Barack Obama") sticker was waiting for me in my mailbox; it went on my car post haste. I've sported it proudly ever since. Of course, four years ago I wasn't yet a rabbi. Now I am, and I'm delighted to be able to say that I'm part of the renewed Rabbis For Obama. Here's a taste of the press release:

This group of over 613 rabbis - more than double the number of when Rabbis for Obama launched in 2008 – from across the country and across all Jewish denominations recognize that the President has been and will continue to be an advocate and ally on issues important to the American Jewish community...

Why am I a Rabbi for Obama? Because while we don't agree on everything, there's a lot that he's done -- and a lot that he's said -- which is in alignment with who I am and what I believe.

There's the Affordable Care Act, for starters (which OHALAH, my rabbinic association, formally supports.) And he gave a speech in Cairo a few years ago -- about America and Islam, about our responsibilities in an interconnected world, and about the need to move beyond the Palestinian/Israeli stalemate -- which moved me then and still inspires me now. (Here's what I wrote about it then.) He signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. He recently denounced Representative Todd Akin's offensive and patently spurious claim that women who suffer "legitimate rape" rarely get pregnant, and spoke out in favor of women being able to make decisions about our own health care and our own bodies. ("Obama: Rape is Rape," Huffington Post.) He signed the Children's Health Insurance Reauthorization Act, which provides health care to 11 million kids -- 4 million of whom were previously uninsured. (see Children's Health Insurance Program info.) He supports stem cell research. (see Obama on Stem Cell Research.) He established the Credit Card Bill of Rights, preventing credit card companies from imposing arbitrary rate increases on customers (see Your Credit Card Bill of Rights Now in Full Effect), and he's making it easier for people to pay back their student loans without bankrupting themselves. (see How President Obama is Helping Lower Monthly Student Loan Payments.) He's got an admirable record on civil rights (see Equal Rights -- President Obama), repealed "Don't Ask Don't Tell" making it possible for GLBT American servicemen and servicewomen to serve our country openly and honestly without fear, signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, and came out earlier this year in favor of marriage equality. (see Obama Embraces Marriage Equality.) (For more, see WTF Has Obama Done So Far?)

There are things he hasn't managed to accomplish which I had hoped he would do. Actually closing Guantanamo Bay, for instance. (see Guantanamo Bay: How the White House Lost the Fight to Close It, Washington Post.) Brokering a real and lasting two-state peace in Israel/Palestine. (Though the Jewish Journal reports that David Hale, Obama's envoy to the Middle East, continues to pressure Israel, Palestine in peace talks.) But I continue to believe that he is good for this country and that he's working to make the United States, and the world, a better place.


Broken world, broken heart

Sometimes reading the news makes my heart twist and my stomach sink. I don't know what to say about the horrific shooting in a Sikh gurdwara yesterday (CNN: Gunman, six others dead at Wisconsin Sikh temple). Not to mention the dreadful response of Westboro Baptist Church to the terrorist attack -- not surprising, but still depressing. This is not the America of our dreams.

I don't know what to say about the reality that as ugly anti-immigrant sentiment becomes more pervasive, Africans are routinely harrassed in Israel today. (YNet news: African diplomats in Israel: We're afraid to walk down streets.) Nor the reports of more than 50 instances last month of settlers attacking Palestinians. (Ha'aretz: Lambs to the settlers' slaughter, screaming and unheard). This is not the Israel of our dreams.

I don't know what to say about the situation in Syria. Rabbi Brant Rosen's essay Syrians Pay the Price in a Sick Proxy War is sobering. So is Marc Lynch's Preparing for Assad's Exit. I don't know enough about Syria to know whether, or how, things will get better. And these are just the posts at the top of my aggregator. Just today the Lebanon Daily Star reported a massacre which killed forty. I have no connection to Syria, but the news is pretty uniformly heartrending.

Everything I've just mentioned is huge, important, awful. Here's something tiny and grotesque: I learned this week that I've been named, along with thousands of my friends and colleagues, on a list of supposed self-hating Israel threateners. (I'm not going to link to it. Here's the Wikipedia entry about it intead.) On the one hand it's laughable. And on the other hand it's upsetting, and the fact that people chose to spend their time compiling this list makes me sad.

(The people who maintain the list are Kahanists; they're too far-out for even self-identified far-right Jews. But still. How is this a good use of anyone's heart, soul, or time?)

When I look at all of the hatred in our world today, I don't know how to find enough balm for our broken hearts. I want to hold all of this in my prayers, everyone who is suffering, everyone who has been hurt, everyone who is so damaged that they can only manage to hate and hurt others, but sometimes it's so heavy it crushes my prayers; I can't lift it up.

All I can do is close the laptop, say a prayer, and spend time with my son. What response can there be to hatred, other than teaching our children not to hate in return?


Celebrating marriage

538802-silver-wedding-ringsSometimes I think about what might surprise Drew, later in his life, when we tell him stories about before he was born or about his early years. The first time we ever did a video-skype call with my mother in Texas, she told him a story about being a little girl on a party line, and I thought: wow, we have come an incredibly long way, technologically speaking, since his grandma was a girl. To Drew, the fact that we sometimes "have dinner with" his Texas grandparents via Skype is entirely ordinary. He's never lived in a world where that wasn't possible.

Drew isn't old enough to know what a President is, but someday he'll learn that his parents voted in the historic election in which we elected our first African-American president. (I even wrote a Torah poem about it.) Drew has a deck of Presidential cards (like baseball cards, but featuring Presidents; picked up in the dollar bin at Target, I think) and when he scatters them on the floor, they are a sea of white faces -- all except for one. But maybe by the time my grandchildren are ready to vote, it won't be so remarkable anymore to think that this nation could (begin to) overcome its legacy of racism in this way.

Drew also isn't old enough to know what marriage is, though I'm grateful that he's growing up in a state in which gays and lesbians have the same right to marry as male-female couples do. His lesbian aunties on his dad's side were married here some years ago. His mama the rabbi officiates at gay weddings with great delight. And now we have a President who has openly affirmed his support for gay marriage, too.

I hope that by the time Drew is old enough to understand, the notion of a state passing a law against gay marriage will seem as misguided, plainly hurtful, and outdated as the notion of a state passing a law against someone of one race marrying someone of another. (I'm far from the first to note the painful similarities there.) I don't know who Drew will love; right now I'm pretty sure he loves his family and his friends and Thomas the Tank Engine, and that's as it should be. But I hope and pray that by the time he's ready to marry, if and when that day comes, he (and his generation) will have the right to marry, period. And not just in a handful of states, but anywhere in this country.

Because marriage is awesome. Getting married means standing up beside someone you love and speaking words which change your relationship to one another in a magical, powerful, and honest-to-God holy way. And after you get married, you get to be married, which is even better. Being married means loving someone, growing and changing along with someone, meeting the highs and the lows of a lifetime along with someone, navigating the bills and the laundry and the household chores with someone, discovering how lovemaking changes after ten and fifteen and fifty years with someone, learning from someone, giving to someone, for as much of a lifetime as you can manage.

Of course people can do those things without being married. But being married is is one of humanity's most time-honored ways to do them. And I'm grateful to have a President who supports the ability of my queer friends and loved ones to enjoy the same rights and privileges that my husband and I are blessed to receive. Shehecheyanu, v'kiyimanu, v'higianu lazman hazeh!


A rabbinic conference call with President Obama

I participated today in a rabbinic conference call with President Obama, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. President Obama asked for an opportunity to chat with rabbis about the new year ahead, at this moment which comes shortly before Rosh Hashanah and also as events are unfolding at the UN around the Palestinian statehood vote. (On that vote, by the by: I recommend Roi Maor's Don't blame Obama for impasse on Palestine in +972. Also interesting is Hussein Ibish's Obama at the UN on Israel-Palestine: Good Politics, Poor Diplomacy in The Atlantic.)

Beforehand, we were told that there might be time for some questions, and we were invited to submit questions in advance. Here's what I asked:

At this holy time of new beginnings, how can we best help Israel and the Palestinians (perhaps: Israel and the UN-recognized state of Palestine) achieve a true new beginning? How can we change the paradigm to one which will yield peace?

Our host told us that nearly 900 rabbis participated in the call, which is pretty amazing to me. Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the CCAR, introduced President Obama; then the President spoke; then 2 questions, out of the hundreds which were submitted, were asked. (Alas, mine was not one of them.)

The President began by saying "Thank you for everything you guys do every single day in your communities," and continued, "I want to be sure to wish each and every one of you, from Michelle and me, a sweet and happy new year. Rosh Hashanah offers us this extraordinary sense of possibility because it offers the chance to shape our world for the better." He offered prepared remarks, first about the economy and then about the international scene:

Last week I sent Congress the American Jobs act, a plan to lead to new jobs for teachers, construction workers, veterans, the unemployed; it cuts taxes for small business owners, virtually every working man and woman in America; it is critical in part because of world events which have weakened our recovery.

All of us see in our congregations and neighborhoods that folks are hurting out there. It would be nice if things mended themselves, but given what's happening in Europe and the volatility of world financial markets, we're confronting some significant headwinds in terms of putting people back to work. Our prosperity also depends on our ability to pay down the massive debt we've accumulated over the last decade.

I also put forward a plan that not only pays for the American Jobs Act, but also makes sure we're moving debt and deficits down to a sustainable level...We can't redeuce the budget by denying health care for poor children or for those with disabilities...we need to live up to our obligations to those who are vulnerable.

This isn't about figures on a spreadsheet; it's about who we are as a people, it's abut the economic future of this country...whether we're laying a strong foundation for the next generation. The Talmud teaches us that as parents planted for me, so do I plant for my children. This is about what we're planting.

It's also about fairness. About whether we're in this together, looking out for one another; about whether those of us who've been most blessed materially are willing to do our fair share along with everybody else.

From there, he segued into talking about foreign policy -- which is to say, the issue of Israel and Palestine and this week's UN vote on Palestinian statehood. (I'll offer his remarks here first, and will share my own response to them at the end of the post.)

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