Glimpses of a week in Alabama

33641141506_8159a61cb6_zThere are so many things about my week in Alabama that I wish I could share with y'all.

The preaching at 16th Street Church in Birmingham last Sunday. I had thought I would miss the service, but the Jewish student and I who flew in that morning both arrived just in time, and holy wow, I have never actually seen preaching like that before.

The rosemary in the rose garden in front of the Presbyterian church where we stayed in Tuscaloosa, which I touched every time I went by, like a mezuzah. It scented my fingers, an olfactory hyperlink to many places and moments I have loved.

Four ChaplainsBuilding a "safe room" on our first day, in hard hats, on a bare slab on Juanita Drive, right in the heart of where the tornado devastated the city in 2011. Nailing two-by-fours together, framing walls, adding steel brackets, adding steel cladding -- to keep the inhabitants of that Habitat home safe if a tornado should come through town again.

Leading our first evening discussion on brokenness and mending through the lens of Rabbi Isaac Luria's teaching about the breaking of the vessels and our obligation to lift up sparks. Connecting that with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's teaching about how when he marched in Selma, his feet were praying.

The quality and caliber of our conversations all week long. Each of my colleagues taught one night, and each offered beautiful teachings drawn from their own tradition. (You can see the four of us in one of the photos illustrating this post -- taken outside of Habitat for Humanity's office in town. They'll print the photo and tack it up on a wall there as part of their illustrated address book of people who've come through town to serve in this way.)

Crouching in a patch of clay outside one of our rehab homes with a Muslim student, showing each other how to write and pronounce the root of the verb "to write" in our respective holy languages. (In Hebrew it is spelled כתב - k/t/v. In Arabic it is k/t/b. We both beamed.)

33704224946_2fdd09e0ac_zWorking on rehabilitating a home for someone in need. I was based primarily in her kitchen, putting doors and veneer on cabinets, tiling and grouting the backsplash, fitting baseboards and nailing down thresholds. I take comfort from knowing that when we leave, her home will be safer and more beautiful and more functional than when we arrived.

Taking on a long list of carpentry and construction tasks that I had never done before. I'm comfortable now with a circular saw, a table saw, a mitre saw, two different kinds of tile saw, not to mention nail guns powered by compressed air. (Comfortable enough to maintain a healthy respect for them! But no longer afraid of them.)

Today (Friday) is our last day on our various job sites. We'll knock off slightly earlier than usual so we can return to First Presbyterian Church, clean ourselves and the church, and make our way to Birmingham. The coming Shabbat will feature Friday dinner and activities at the Islamic Society of Birmingham, Shabbat morning services and lunch at Temple Emanu-El, and afternoon mass at St. Francis Xavier before our closing reflections and havdalah. 

As the week draws toward its close, my body is tired but my spirit is soaring. I'm endlessly grateful to my chaplaincy colleagues at Williams for the opportunity to take part in this extraordinary week, to our hosts at First Presbyterian Tuscaloosa and St. Francis Xavier Birmingham for putting us up, and to the kind and patient teachers at Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa who so graciously and warmly helped us believe in ourselves as we learned new ways to serve.

 

 


An interfaith service trip to Alabama (after Shabbat)

FlamePurpleDECALAt the blessed crack of well-before-dawn on Sunday I'm heading south for what promises to be a truly extraordinary week.

Each year, the chaplains at Williams College partner with the Center for Learning in Action on an interfaith service trip to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (See Alabama Calling, Williams Alumni Review, July 2012.) This year I am profoundly blessed to be one of the chaplains serving my alma mater, which means I get to take part!

The four chaplains (Jewish, Christian, Roman Catholic, and Muslim) will travel to Alabama with a group of a dozen students from a variety of faith backgrounds. This year's group includes students who self-identify as Jewish, Christian, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, Deist, and atheist.

We'll begin the week by visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (and those who are there on that Sunday morning will attend services at the 16th Street Baptist Church; I'm sorry to miss that, though am grateful that those of us who are flying in on Sunday morning will get there in time for the Civil Rights Institute.)

Then we'll spend the week working on a Habitat for Humanity building project together, building a home for someone in need and continuing to help our host community there recover from tornadoes that devastated the area a few years ago. We'll camp out in a local church social hall, and cook vegetarian meals together each night. (I've packed my sleeping bag. The whole thing is giving me fond memories of touring with the Williams College Elizabethans during my own undergraduate days.)

Each night a different chaplain will offer teachings on the shared theme of brokenness and mending. Those evening sessions offer an opportunity to introduce students to our four different faith-traditions, and also to get them talking with each other and with us about how the conversations we're having in the evenings relate to the holy work we're doing during the day. 

Over the course of the week, as we engage with the civil rights movement and how that historic and historical struggle for human rights dovetails with today's politics, I expect that (alone and together) we'll wrestle with our own relationships to race and privilege. For most of us, the American South will be unfamiliar territory, so there's learning to do there. And for most of us, the kind of conscious multi-faith community we're aspiring to co-create will be unfamiliar territory, too. I suspect that all of us will find ourselves pushing up against our usual boundaries from time to time. 

We'll seal the week with what feels to me like a gloriously multi-modal celebration of Shabbat: first we'll attend Friday dinner and activities at the Islamic Society of Birmingham, then Saturday morning Shabbat services and lunch at Temple Emanu-El, and then Saturday afternoon mass (or as I've been thinking of it, Shabbat mincha in a different key) at St. Francis Xavier, with havdalah as part of our closing reflections and integration work on Saturday night. 

(As a student of the students of Reb Zalman z"l -- he who famously called himself a "Spiritual Peeping Tom" and said he liked to see how other people "get it on with God" -- I think that Shabbat sounds like an actual foretaste of heaven!)

I know that this will be an exhausting and overwhelming week -- and I anticipate that it will be at least as wonderful as it is challenging. I don't know that I'll manage to blog much while I'm away, but I imagine that I will harvest spiritual riches from this trip for a long time to come. 

 


Responding to fear with prayer and hope

In recent days, Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized and desecrated in St. Louis and in Philadelphia, and bomb threats at Jewish community centers and Jewish day schools are becoming commonplace. (There were 31 such threats on Monday; there have been more than 100 since the secular year began.)

My Facebook feed is filled with posts from friends whose children attend Jewish schools that got bomb threats this week, and friends who are grieving the desecration of the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried or the cemeteries where they provide pastoral care and preside over funerals.

Meanwhile, there was an arson attack on a mosque in Tampa, Florida -- the second such attack in Florida in six months. Four mosques have burned in the last seven weeks. Hate crimes against Muslims are at their highest since 2001. Hate crimes have risen massively, and the list continues growing.

My heart aches. I oscillate between grief and fury. I am not afraid -- I am fortunate enough to feel safe where I live and work and pray -- but I know that those who are more vulnerable than I, who occupy positions of less privilege by virtue of how they look or how they pray or where they live, are very afraid.

I can't do much to shift our national political climate. But I can take action in my own community to stand against hatred, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, and to stand with friends of many faiths in affirming that our differences are holy and that we stand in solidarity with each other in times of need.

The Chaplains' Office at Williams College is putting together an interfaith opportunity for prayer and togetherness for next week. We'll begin in the Muslim prayer space on campus, where the Jewish students and chaplain will offer a prayer for those impacted by Islamophobia and the fire at the mosque, and then in their sacred space we will say the prayers of our afternoon mincha service. 

Then we'll walk together from there to the Jewish prayer space on campus, where Muslim students and chaplain will offer a prayer for those impacted by anti-Semitism and by the cemetery desecrations, and then in our sacred space they will say the prayers of their maghrib sunset worship. 

There are a few things I love about this intention. One is that we will be consciously sharing our sacred spaces with each other, and saying our own late-afternoon prayers in each others' sacred spaces. (And for any participants who are neither Jewish nor Muslim, they'll have an opportunity to respectfully be present and bear witness during a few minutes of prayer in each of those traditions.)

I also love the fact that we'll be praying for each others' wellbeing. Jews will pray for the wellbeing of Muslim communities and sacred spaces (both local and global), and Muslims will pray for the wellbeing of Jewish communities and sacred spaces (both local and global). This shouldn't be a radical act, though today's political climate often mitigates against this kind of basic human connection of love and care.

And I love the fact that we're standing against terror and fear -- against arson and desecration -- against bigotry and hatred -- by coming together in companionship, prayer, and hope. I know that what we do on our small campus in our small town won't change national or global realities, but it might shift our own internal spiritual realities, and the prayerful connections it will strengthen will strengthen us.

 

 

Related news stories:

 


Outrage and heartbreak at Trump's #MuslimBan

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I entered Shabbat and emerged from Shabbat heartsick at news of Trump's ban on Muslims and refugees entering this country. That he would issue such a ban at all is horrifying. That he did so on a day of remembrance of the wholesale slaughter of six million souls who were persecuted and killed for their religion (my religion) just makes this dystopian reality more surreal and more appalling.

Trump has suspended entry of all refugees into the United States for 120 days, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and blocked entry into this country for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries -- Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen -- for the next 90 days. His ban also blocks entry for green card holders from those countries.

There are already countless reports of permanent residents of this country held in airports across the country as they tried to return from funerals, travel, or study abroad, and family members of American citizens who sought to come here legally on family visas now facing immediate deportation. These are some of the instances we know about because they're making it into the media; surely there are other stories, equally heart-wrenching, that aren't known to us. 

And the Syrian refugee crisis has been called the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. We should be responding to that crisis by welcoming refugees with open arms -- not, God forbid, closing our borders out of fear of people who look different, dress differently, or pray differently than we do.

Can you imagine escaping from wartorn Syria, living in a refugee camp for years, and finally making it through the red tape to be resettled here in a free country -- only to be turned away now by this? (That's exactly what happened to one family -- two parents and four children, one of whom is six years old. That child has been through hell I cannot imagine, and now that hell is prolonged.)

By the time I headed for bed on Saturday evening I was mildly heartened to see that a federal judge has blocked part of Trump's order -- but that's not enough. 

In November, ALEPH was the first Jewish organization to insist that if the President requires Muslims to register, we will register with them. The Jewish people have living memory of being refugees barred from entry into nations (including this one) where our lives could have been saved. We of all people should be fighting this unconstitutional and unconscionable executive order with all our might.

This is not the America I want to live in. 

The America I want to live in is one where religious freedom is uplifted and cherished -- not one where the person holding the highest office in the land demonizes adherents of any religion or people of any ethnicity.

The America I want to live in is one where refugees are welcomed and embraced -- not one where they risk being sent back to the horrors they fought so hard to escape.

The America I want to live in is a nation of opportunity and freedom -- not one where this kind of bigotry is allowed to stand.

The America I want to live in is the America of Emma Lazarus' poem The New Colossus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The verse most often repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The deepest wisdom of my religious tradition demands of us that we welcome refugees, not turn them away.

Torah demands that we love those who are different from us, not persecute them for their differences. My firmly-held principle of deep ecumenism reflects the truth that all religions are paths to the One, and my religious tradition calls me to stand firmly against bigotry and xenophobia in all of its forms. 

I am outraged: as a rabbi, as the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants who fled the Holocaust to seek safety on these shores, as an American citizen, and as a human being. This policy is unconscionable. My nation must be better than this.

I donated to the American Civil Liberties Union and to T'ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights after Shabbat ended. Here's a list from HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) of ways to help refugees. If you have suggestions of other actions we can take, I welcome them in comments. 

It's a new week, friends, and we have work to do.

 

 Although I cited, above, ALEPH's resolution urging all citizens to register as Muslims if the proposed Muslim registry were to come into being, I speak here as an individual, not as co-chair of ALEPH. I am also not speaking here for either of the institutions that employ me, the synagogue or the college. These views are my own.


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

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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!


Not by Might

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I'm honored to have a poem in Not By Might: Channeling the Power of Faith to End Gun Violence, edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor with a forward by Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense

Shannon Watts writes:

"The emergence of Rabbis Against Gun Violence and this powerful collection of American faith voices reassures me that citizens of every variety are ready to stand together, to speak, preach, and act to demand an end to the ongoing American gun violence epidemic."

The anthology features work by Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, Rabbi Michael Bernstein, Rabbi Matt Rosenberg, Lorraine Newman Mackler, Rabbi Michael Knopf, Rabbi Simcha Y. Weintraub, Rabbi Evan Schultz, Rabbi Hannah Dresner, Rabbi David Evan Markus, Alden Solovy, Rabbi Jesse Olitzky, Rabbi Lauren Grabelle Hermmann, Diane O'Donoghue, Rachel Weinberg, Rob Eshman, Rabbi Ben Greenberg, Rabbi Richard Myles Litvak, Rabbi Ron Fish, Rabbi Noah Farkas, Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, Margo Hughes-Robinson, Rabbi Marcus Rubenstein, Eileen Soffer, Rabbi David Lerner, Amy Ramaker, Rabbi Salomon Gruenwald, Marc Howard Landas, Rabbi Seth Goldstein, Rabbi Daniel B. Gropper, Rabbi Rick Sherwin, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Francine M. Gordon, Rabbi Gary S. Creditor, Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, Rabbi Yael Ridberg, Rabbi Daniel Kirzane, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Rabbi Annie Lewis, David Paskin, Rabbi Denise Eger, Rabbi Larry Bach, Rabbi Danielle Upbin, Barbara Schutz, Stacey Zisook Robinson, Lisa Rappoport, Liav Shapiro Gilboord, Nicole Roberts, Rabbi Sara O'Donnell Adler, Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, Maxine Lyons, Rabbi Kim Blumenthal, Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt and Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Rabbi Ben Herman, Rabbi Philip Weintraub, Rabbi Michael Adam Latz, and Joy Gaines-Friedler. (And me, of course.)

Here's a review of the collection on the URJ website. Copies are available on Amazon. Deep thanks to Rabbi Menachem Creditor for putting this volume together.

 
 

Tu BiShvat Resources for Our Living Planet

Cross-posted from Kol ALEPH, the blog of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Earth

This year we (at ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal) rededicate ourselves to caring for our living planet as a place of holiness. Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees (coming up on January 25), is a natural opportunity to link our deep ecological values with the life of the spirit. Here are some resources which we hope will bring added meaning to your Tu BiShvat:

  • Rededication (pdf) - a new liturgical poem for Tu BiShvat by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
  • Blessing for Tu BiShvat (pdf) - a prayer from the original Tu BiShvat haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.org
  • One page flowchart haggadah (pdf) - a one-page printable flowchart haggadah, offered by Rabbi David Seidenberg at NeoHasid.org
  • A digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat (slideshow / powerpoint) - a new digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat, intended for projection on a screen (to save trees!)  Liturgy, poems, prayers, video, and more. That same haggadah is available online via slideshare:

May our celebrations of Tu BiShvat bring us closer to healing our living planet and connecting us with the One Who enlivens and sustains us all.


Tears and celebration

Why do we break a glass at the end of every Jewish wedding? There are many answers, but one of the interpretations which resonates for me is this: we break a glass to remind ourselves that even in our moments of greatest joy, the world contains brokenness. That's how I feel today - mourning the Charleston shooting and today's news of horrific terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France; celebrating today's news about the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality across the USA.

Imrs

This image made me cry. [Source]

Back in 2012 I wrote:

I hope that by the time [our son] 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 he 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.

I hoped then that by the time our son was grown, our nation might have risen to the new ethical heights of granting the right to marry to all of its citizens, regardless of their gender or gender expression, and regardless of the gender or gender expression of their beloved. I never in a million years could have imagined that it would happen before he even started kindergarten. I'm grateful to everyone who devoted heart and soul to the work of making this possible now, in our days.

It's hard to wrap my head and heart around the disjunction between the sheer joy which I feel at the prospect of the right to marry being granted to every American, and the grief which arises at the news of today's terror attacks around the world. Though I think that kind of disjunction is part and parcel of ordinary life. It's a little bit like having a parent in the hospital while one's child is celebrating a joyful milestone -- love and sorrow, joy and grief, intertwined. Most of our lives contain these juxtapositions.

One of the pieces of framed art on my synagogue office wall contains a famous quote from the collection of rabbinic wisdom known as Pirkei Avot: "It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either." Our nation is still marred by many inequalities, and there is much work yet to be done. Our world is still marred by endless brokenness. But I believe it's also important to stop and celebrate what we can, when we can. Our hearts need that.

Today we celebrate the SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality. Tonight we celebrate Shabbat, and may imagine that the Shabbat bride looks a bit more radiant than usual in reflection of this joyful news. And when the new week comes, it will be time to put our shoulders to the wheel and keep working toward the dream of a world free of hatred, free of violence, free of bigotry, where everyone on this earth truly knows and feels that we are all made in the image of God and all deserve safety and joy.

May those who are grieving lost loved ones in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France -- and for that matter Charleston SC, and everywhere else tarnished with acts of hatred -- be comforted along with all who mourn. May we gather up the shards of their broken hearts and cradle them lovingly as we celebrate today's victories for human rights. And for those who celebrate, may tonight's Shabbat be sweet.

 

Edited to add: ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal's official statement.


Kedoshim: Holiness and Baltimore

This is the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) An abbreviated version of these reflections were published on Friday in The Wisdom Daily.



"Y'all shall be holy, for I -- Adonai your God -- am holy."

At first blush, this seems like a pretty tall order. I get that we're supposed to be holy because God is holy, but to compare ourselves to God seems like a recipe for falling short.

But the Jewish mystical tradition offers a different view. Rabbi Moshe Efraim of Sudlikov teaches that when we're holy, our holiness percolates upward and enlivens God. There's chutzpah for you: to think that our actions and choices give strength and holiness to divinity on high!

In a funny way, it means that God needs us. God needs us to be striving toward holiness, so that the energy of our striving will enliven the highest heavens. And we need God as our beacon, our reminder that holiness is possible. We need God, who needs us, who need God. Holiness unfolds and grows in the space between, that space of relationship.

Whether or not you believe that God's holiness derives from ours, it seems to me that God manifests in the world through our actions and our choices. What should those actions and choices be?

This week's Torah portion gives us some suggestions. Feed the hungry. Treat your parents with reverence. Keep Shabbat. Don't render an unfair decision; treat both rich and poor as equal human beings. Don't hate your fellow in your heart. Love your fellow as yourself.

This week as I've been studying the Torah portion, I've also been reading stories about the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Freddie locked eyes with a police officer. Freddie ran, but the officer pursued him and caught him, then radioed for a police van for transport.

By the time the police van reached the police station, Freddie had three broken vertebrae and a fractured voice box. He died of spinal injuries shortly thereafter. It seems clear that the injuries took place while he was in police custody, in the van; his death has been ruled a homicide.

In the wake of Freddie's funeral Baltimore burned, though already a coalition of local leaders, clergy, and even gang members are working together to end the violence. I've seen some people decry the rioting. For my part, I empathize with the viewpoint that riots can be an expression of hopelessness and grief, and that we should be angrier at those responsible for Freddie's death than at those who have smashed windows in despair.

I find myself thinking about Eric Garner, who died in police custody in New York after being placed in a chokehold and gasping "I can't breathe." I find myself thinking of Michael Brown, shot by police while walking down the street in Ferguson, Missouri. I find myself thinking about what it must be like to live in this country without the privileges with which my skin rewards me.

It's facile, and often problematic, to claim that Torah justifies any given political position. People can and do use scripture to justify every political stance. But I do think that this week's Torah portion can speak to us today.

"You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger." Fifty percent of those in Freddie Grey's neighborhood are unemployed. There are whole communities living at or below the poverty line, and a disproportionate number of those living below the poverty line are non-white. Do our social systems provide for them the way the Torah's system of gleaning aimed to do?

"You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich." Do residents of Freddie Grey's neighborhood trust the police and the justice system to live out that instruction?

"Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow." What can this instruction mean to those who fear that no matter what they do, they and their fellows will still be systemically mistreated and undervalued because of the circumstance of their birth or the color of their skin?

"You shall love your neighbor, your Other, as yourself." This verse is at the heart of the Torah, both metaphorically and literally. This week's Torah portion instructs us to be holy as God is holy. If this passage is a set of instructions for that process, then holiness means loving others as we love ourselves; wanting for them all the things we want for ourselves; ensuring that they live within a social system and a justice system which are as dedicated and lofty as we would want for ourselves.

In the original context of Leviticus, the word רעך -- "neighbor" or "other" -- meant Israelite neighbor, your fellow who is like you and is part of your tribe. But I think this moment calls us to live in a spirit of post-triumphalism. Ours is not the only path to God, and in this interconnected world, we are all neighbors.

Every citizen of this country is my neighbor, deserving of equal rights and equal opportunities. Every citizen of this world is my neighbor, because each of us is enlivened by the same spark of divinity, and because the myth of our separateness has long been dispelled: what happens on this part of the planet impacts that part of the planet, and vice versa.

May the Torah's voice call us to an honest accounting of our obligations to one another, and may we work toward the day when all human beings are truly afforded respect, dignity, and justice. Kein yehi ratzon.

 


From Purim to Pesach

 

Today is Purim -- the full moon of the lunar month of Adar. Pesach (Passover) begins in one month, at the full moon of Nissan. There's a traditional teaching (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 429:1) which holds that "One must begin studying the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday." In the Mishnah Berurah (note 2, Biur HaGra) we are told to begin studying Pesach specifically on Purim itself. That's the impetus behind "Purim to Pesach," a new project of the Shalom Center.

 

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The Shalom Center is sending out a new series of daily emails between now and Passover. The goal, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow explained it to me, is "to make broadly available powerful short kavanot (intentions) that reawaken and revitalize the meaning of Pesach, especially in a Shmita (sabbatical) year devoted to healing Earth and renewing social justice." Each day's post is by someone different who was solicited to share their words as part of this project: rabbis, activists, poets, writers & more.

This is a new twist on the idea of studying the halakhot (laws/ways-of-walking) of Pesach for a month before the holiday begins. Instead of focusing us on matters of ritual and praxis, these emails aim to focus our attention on what Pesach might come to teach us about our relationship with the earth, especially during this Shmita year when many of us are paying renewed attention to our relationship with consumption and with the planet. And they link Purim with Pesach, which I think is really neat.

I'm honored to be one of the writers whose words will be going out as part of this series, and I'll let y'all know when my post goes out. That said, I'm only one of 30 voices taking part in this project, and I'm excited about reading what the other participants have to say, too. If you want to receive these writings in your inbox, sign up for The Shalom Center's email list; alternatively, you can visit the Purim to Pesach website daily and see what new earth-oriented Passover wisdom has been shared.

Chag sameach -- happy Purim! And here's to Pesach, only one month away.


Mishpatim: the angry ox and the Chapel Hill shooting

Here's the brief d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Raging-bull-attacking-charging-woodcut-illustration-angry-facing-front-snorting-done-retro-style-32193042In this week's Torah portion we receive a wealth of ethical commandments.

For instance: When an ox gores someone to death, kill the ox, but don't punish its owner. But, if the ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner knows that but fails to guard it, and it gores someone to death -- then punish its owner, because the person who had responsibility failed to act.

I've read this verse many times before. But this year I couldn't help reading it through the lens of the news story I've been following this week.

A few days ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man entered the apartment of two neighbors and shot the couple and the woman's younger sister in the head, execution-style. He later turned himself in and claimed that he killed them over a parking dispute.

The three young people who were murdered were Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, aged 23, 21, and 19. Deah and Yusor were newlyweds, married in December. They were dentistry students who donated their dental expertise to the local homeless community, taught kids about dental hygiene at the local library in their spare time, and raised money and dental supplies to take to Turkey so they could help Syrian regufees. Razan was a college kid, a student of architecture and environmental design. All three of them were pillars of their community. Deah, Yusor, and Razan were Muslim.

This act would be atrocious no matter who the victims were. But it is extra-heartbreaking to me because they were so young, and so idealistic, and so full of life.

The man who killed them was a known anti-theist -- not merely an atheist, but someone who loathed religion. He had posted nasty anti-Muslim language on Facebook. He had harassed these victims before. The young married woman had told her father, "He hates us because of who we are."

What he did was beastly. And when I read the verses about the ox who gores someone to death, I think of this man who killed three innocent souls for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

And then I wonder: who is responsible for the behavior of the ox? In the Torah, the answer is clear: its owner, if that owner had any suspicion that the ox would behave in such a way.

Continue reading "Mishpatim: the angry ox and the Chapel Hill shooting" »


On the Chapel Hill shootings

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The most heartfelt -- and heartbreaking -- piece I've read about the Chapel Hill shootings is this one: My best friend was killed and I don't know why. I commend it to you, along with this NPR piece -- 'We're All One,' Chapel Hill Shooting Victim Said in StoryCorps Talk:

"Growing up in America has been such a blessing," Yusor Abu-Salha said in a conversation with a former teacher that was recorded by the StoryCorps project last summer...

"There's so many different people from so many different places and backgrounds and religions — but here we're all one, one culture."

What a terrible shame it is that we are only getting to know these luminous young people on the national stage because they were shot in the forehead, execution-style, in Deah and Yusor's own home.

For my response to the killings of 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, 21-year-old Yusor Mohammad, and 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, click through to The Wisdom Daily:

My first response to this news is grief. I imagine myself in the position of the parents of the victims, and my heart aches. I can only imagine what their families are going through. (Yusor and Razan were sisters - grief compounded.) Their deaths are atrocious. That would be true no matter who they were. But somehow, their murder is all the more horrifying because the victims were young, and idealistic, and by all accounts were trying to make the world a better place...

...[H]ad the shooter been Muslim, surely the headlines would have been emblazoned with "terrorism." But because the shooter was White and the victims were Muslim, this story gets reported as a "fatal shooting" or a "possible hate crime." Those covering the crime use softer words, as though they could make the reality any less terrible, and as though they could remove our own sense of guilt for living in a society where Islamophobia may lead to senseless violence...

Read the whole thing here: Shock in Chapel Hill - Should We Call It Terrorism?

I'm grateful to the editors of The Wisdom Daily for including me among their roster of contributors, and hope you'll click through and read. (Also, if you're on Twitter, consider following them - @WisdomDailyNews.)


Prayer After Eric Garner

 

Nishmat Kol Chai / Breath of All Life:
Your breath enlivened the first man,
You breathe
the breath of life in each of us.

Today our breath is shortened
as we remember Eric Garner gasping
"I can't breathe," an elbow pressed
around his neck.

Breathe into us
determination to build a better world
where no innocent is killed
by those sworn to serve and protect.

Ignite us toward justice.
Eric Garner was made in Your image.
His six children, bereaved: in Your image.
Every Black man, woman, and child

twenty times likelier to be killed by police
than their white neighbors:
in Your image.
Help us to root out from every heart

the hidden prejudice
which causes police to open fire in fear,
which transforms a child in a hoodie
into a hoodlum, a person into a threat.

Comfort the families of all who grieve.
Strengthen us to work for a world redeemed.
And we say together: Amen.


Nishmat Kol Chai is a Hebrew name for God; it means "The Breath of All Life." It is also the name of a prayer which explores this theme, recited on Shabbat and festivals.

On "Your breath enlivened the first man," see Torah, Bereshit (Genesis) 2:7.

On "twenty times likelier to be killed by police / than their white neighbors, see Pro Publica's report Deadly force, in black and white.

For more on the connections between the Hebrew n'shima (breath) and neshama (soul), and how these relate to the death of Eric Garner, see Rabbi Pam Wax's post I Can't Breathe -- IMO Eric Garner.

Here's a statement from T'ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights on the death of Eric Garner and our justice system: Justice for Eric Garner.

 


Justice, justice shall you pursue

Eric_garner_memorial

I know that I do not understand the American legal system as well as I could. I know that I particularly don't have a nuanced understanding of grand juries and how they function. But even from my relatively inexpert standpoint I can tell that something is not working right in our justice system.

You probably know by now that a grand jury has decided not to charge the NYPD officer who choked Eric Garner to death. Apparently the officer thought he was selling loose cigarettes. Which he wasn't. But that's not the point. Eric gasped "I can't breathe" eleven times before he died.

Chokeholds, as it happens, are banned by NYPD's standards. Eric was unarmed when the officer choked him and killed him. The whole awful incident was caught on video tape. And now the grand jury has decided not to press charges against this officer who killed an innocent Black man.

If the case had gone to trial, prosecutors and defenders could have argued the facts of the case. But the grand jury's decision means it won't go to trial. Exactly like the recent grand jury decision which means that officer Darren Wilson won't be tried for the killing of Michael Brown, either.

What message can this grand jury decision possbibly send to Americans of color? Judging by the Black voices in my Twitter stream, what it says is that Black lives are insignificant. How else to interpret the reality that someone who kills a Black man in full view of the public isn't even brought to trial?

People of color do not feel safe in this country, and I can understand why not. Don't believe me? Read about how Black moms have to have "The Talk" with their kids -- about how to appear unthreatening, and accept humiliation as necessary, in order to not be killed by trigger-happy fearful white people.

It is terrible enough that people live in fear of their children being mistreated, humiliated, or killed because of the color of their skin -- because a Black teenager (even in his own home!) might be mistaken for a criminal, or if he reaches for a bag of skittles he might be "reaching for a gun."

It is so much worse that people live in fear of the police and the legal system which are supposed to protect us from precisely that kind of prejudice and injustice. Cops are supposed to keep us safe. The legal system is supposed to be righteous and just. And right now those seem to be questionable.

This isn't just about officer Daniel Pantaleo and the fact that he will not see trial. It's about the fact that white people and people of color experience different systems of justice. It's about the shameful truth in W. Kamau Bell's On Being a Black Man, Six Feet Four Inches Tall, in America in 2014. (Read it -- the shame lies not in his fear of police, but in the fact that today's reality gives him reason to fear.)

I am holding the grieving family of Eric Garner in my prayers. And I am doing my best to listen to people of color in this country about the reality they inhabit, and to take their lead on working toward change. I do not want to live in a country where the following tweet seems so painfully true:


Injustice: the Ferguson grand jury's decision

I'm mostly offline this week, but I just saw the news that officer Darren Wilson, who shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9, will not face trial. (See Ferguson police officer won’t be charged in fatal shooting and Ferguson smolders day after grand jury decides not to indict officer.) Apparently this means that the grand jury decided that there was not "probable cause" that Wilson had committed a crime. The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus says that the Ferguson decision shows that black lives have no value.

This decision is part of a pattern (see Ferguson Cop Darren Wilson Is Just The Latest To Go Unprosecuted For A Fatal Shooting, which looks at shootings by police in the St. Louis area: "Since 2004, St. Louis County police officers have killed people in at least 14 cases. Few faced grand juries, and none was charged.") And I know that this is not only a problem in St. Louis. (See 'Epidemic of police violence in US’: Black person killed every 28 hours, and on CNN.com, Ferguson: the signal it sends about America.) While I'm sharing links, don't miss Chronicle of a riot foretold by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker, which I found both painful and powerful.

My computer time right now is limited, and I don't have the spaciousness to craft an impassioned essay about how and why this is not the America of my hopes and dreams. (Instead I'll link you back to what I wrote a few days after Michael Brown's killing -- Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men.) But I am holding the family of Michael Brown (may his memory be a blessing) in my prayers. And I pray for change and for justice. In the words of the prophet Amos, "May justice roll like a river, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

 

Edited to add: I commend to you rabbinic student Sandra Lawson's A Prayer for Ferguson.

 

 


We have to build a better world than this

This post talks about violence against women. If that is likely to be triggering for you, please guard your own boundaries and read with care.

 

What can I say in response to the many awful things wrong in the world? The endless news ticker of atrocities both large and small, the many entirely legitimate reasons to be furious and to feel despair? This week my Twitter stream is peppered with posts about Gamergate and Jian Ghomeshi -- two currently-unfolding stories having to do with rape, assault, intimidation, and violence against women.

Violence against women -- from rape, to "doxxing," to other forms of silencing and intimidation -- is everywhere. We read about it in Torah (see On the silencing of Dinah) and we read about it in the news. I am trying to hold all women who have been victimized in my prayers. May they know healing and wholeness, safety and comfort, integrity of body and integrity of spirit. May they not be afraid.

It's harder for me to pray for the men who have committed these transgressions. I find myself thinking of the generation of Israelites who left Egypt and didn't make it to the promised land, their psyches too scarred by slavery to allow them the expansiveness of a new way of being. I wonder whether it's possible to redeem men who are so steeped in toxic entitlement that they would commit such acts.

And then I remind myself that ultimately forgiveness and consequences are in God's hands, not mine. (Thank God for that.) But I do have control over how I cultivate my own compassion and kindness. And I can do everything in my power to show the boys whom I teach, and the boy who I am raising, how to treat women with the respect due to one who is made b'tzelem Elokim, in the divine Image.

Pirkei Avot teaches that it's not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it. Creating a world where women can live without fear -- that's part of the work. We have to build a better world than this. Full disclosure: I'm not sure how. People hurt other people out of alienation, and I don't know how to heal that. I don't know how to fix a problem this systemic.

But I know that we have to try. That the world needs more kindness. That we all long to feel at-home and cherished for who we are. That Jewish tradition teaches us to cultivate hope in place of despair. It's not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it. Write, teach, help, listen, pray, mentor, be kind: what can you to do begin creating the world we need?

 

 

Resources:

 

 

 


Seeking peace

Seek+peaceLately I've been working on finding the right balance between paying attention to the world and its many injustices, and cultivating an internal sense of peacefulness and compassion. Against this backdrop, a friend recently shared with me a teaching from her Buddhist practice. According to this way of thinking, if one increases one's own suffering, one adds to the suffering of the universe; if one increases one's own peacefulness, one adds to the peacefulness of the universe.

My first reaction, upon hearing this, was that it's a way of justifying contemplative practice. It's easy (for some folks) to knock prayer and contemplative practice by saying that we who engage in prayer and contemplative practice aren't "doing anything" to heal the broken world, and that therefore these spiritual practices are self-centered at best. But in this Buddhist way of thinking, if I can cultivate peace and compassion in my heart, I will add to the overall peace and compassion of the whole cosmos.

This makes some sense to me. If I can cultivate peace and compassion, I'm likelier to relate to others with those qualities instead of with impatience or anger. When I am feeling grounded and mindful and kind, I think I'm a better parent; I suspect I'm also a better partner, rabbi, and friend. That's a small-scale change which might have a ripple effect. But can my acts of meditation and prayer shift the peacefulness in the cosmos in a bigger-picture way? When I work on myself, do I really change the universe?

The Zohar speaks of itaruta d'l'ila and itaruta d'l'tata, "arousal from above" and "arousal from below." Sometimes God pours blessing, love, divine shefa down into creation entirely of God's own accord, and that divinity streaming into creation further awakens us. That's (what the Zohar calls) arousal from above. And other times it is we who initiate the connection -- with our cries and prayers and contemplation, we stimulate the flow of blessing and abundance from on high. That's arousal from below.

Contemplative practices -- meditation, prayer, chant, even the internal work of teshuvah (repentance or return) which is the primary focus of the coming month of Elul and the holidays which follow -- are practices designed to facilitate that arousal from below. When we cultivate peacefulness, or enter into teshuvah, or make a conscious effort to practice kindness, perhaps we awaken parallel qualities on high. At least, that's how the Zohar understands it. Our prayers and meditations can awaken God.

The psalmist teaches "turn from evil and do good; seek shalom/peace and pursue it." (psalm 34:14) We usually understand shalom to mean peace and wholeness in an external sense, between people(s). But I wonder whether we can also read it as an instruction to seek internal peacefulness. Maybe when I cultivate peace within myself, I stimulate the divine flow of more peace into the world. (Or, in the Buddhist framing with which this post began, I add to the net peacefulness of the universe.)

"Seek peace and pursue it" seems at first to be repetitive. If I'm seeking it, surely that means I'm pursuing it too, right? But our sages teach that there are no extraneous words in Torah -- or at least that we can find or make meaning even in the most apparently repetitive of phrases. Ergo there must be a difference between "seeking" peace and "pursuing" it. All well and good, but what might that difference be? Here's one traditional answer, from the collection of midrash called Vayikra Rabbah:

Great is shalom, peace, because about all of the mitzvot in the Torah it is written, “If you happen upon,” “If it should occur,” “If you see,” which implies that if the opportunity to do the mitzvah comes upon you, then you must do it, and if not, you are not bound to do it. But in the case of peace, it is written, Seek peace, and pursue it—seek it in the place where you are, and pursue after it in another place. (Vayikra Rabbah 9:9)

In other words: the other mitzvot ask us to make certain choices when opportunity presents itself. But in the case of peace, we have to be proactive. We have to cultivate peace not only where we are, but also in the places where we haven't been yet (or where peace hasn't been yet). We have to cultivate external peace, and internal peacefulness, precisely in the places -- and the hearts and minds and souls -- which aren't yet peaceful. And when we do this work, we can hope that we awaken God on high to do the same.


On Project Daniel, 3D printing, and hope

Over coffee this morning, my friend Colin showed me a video which I found pretty extraordinary. It's about an endeavor called Project Daniel:

The video isn't new, but it was new to me. Here's how the project's creators describe it:

Just before Thanksgiving 2013, Mick Ebeling returned home from Sudan's Nuba Mountains where he set up what is probably the world's first 3D-printing prosthetic lab and training facility. More to the point of the journey is that Mick managed to give hope and independence back to a kid who, at age 14, had both his arms blown off and considered his life not worth living.

I'd heard about 3D printing, but I'd never actually seen a 3D printer in action, or seen the kinds of things one can create. In my mind, 3D printing was more or less the stuff of science fiction -- Rule 34 by Charles Stross, or Maker Space by KB Spangler. But as this video demonstrates, this technology is very real -- and while I'm sure it's being used for a lot of delightfully silly purposes, it can also be turned to really meaningful forms of service.

Just prior to the trip, the now 16-year-old Daniel was located in a 70,000 person refugee camp in Yida, and, on 11/11/13 , he received version 1 of his left arm. The Daniel Hand enabled him to feed himself for the first time in two years... After Daniel had his own “hand,” with the help of Dr. Tom Catena, the team set about teaching others to print and assemble 3D prostheses. By the time the team returned to their homes in the U.S., the local trainees had successfully printed and fitted another two arms.

I don't want to glorify the "white savior swoops into Africa" narrative. An uncountable number of extraordinary things are done by Africans, in Africa, all the time, though they aren't often reported in American news media. (Take, for instance, the story of William Kamkwamba and his windmill.) But what's remarkable about this story to me isn't Mick Ebeling per se, but the fact of a technology which can create functional prosthetic limbs cheaply, and the look of joy on Daniel's face when he holds a spoon in his new hand and lifts it to his mouth without aid.

It turns out this kind of thing is happening here in the States, too. E-nabling the Future is "a network of passionate volunteers using 3D printing to give the World a 'Helping Hand.'" They design 3D-printable prosthetic limbs and make the designs available under Creative Commons:

We are engineers, artists, makers, students, parents, occupational therapists, prosthetists, garage tinkerers, designers, teachers, creatives, philanthropists, writers and many others – who are devoting our “Free time” to the creation of open source designs for mechanical hand assistive devices that can be downloaded and 3D printed for less than $50 in materials.

Our designs are open source – so that anyone, anywhere – can download and create these hands for people who may need them and so that others can take these designs and improve upon them and once again share with the World in a “Pay it Forward” type of way.

People are using this technology to make new limbs for toddlers, and new hands for veterans. And because the designs are available online as open-source materials, freely available for use and for remix, they're available for anyone who needs them.

At a moment in time when there's so much tragedy and trauma in the world -- Syria, Israel and Gaza, Ferguson, the list goes on and on -- I'm grateful to be reminded that there are people in the world who are giving their time and energy to help others, and to make the world a kinder and more functional place.


Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men

Ferguson

I've watched with grief and horror this week as stories have emerged of police shooting unarmed black men. Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri. Ezell Ford was shot by police in Los Angeles. Both of these deaths come on the heels of the death of Eric Garner, strangled by police in New York, only a few weeks ago. Mother Jones reports Four Unarmed Black Men Have Been Killed By Police In The Last Month.

I've been following the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag on Twitter. "If the police shot me," ask those who tweet with this hashtag, "what photograph of me would the news reports show?" The subtext is often: the news media would choose a photo which makes the victim look "like a thug," as though that justified the killing of an unarmed human being. (See the pair of photos enclosed in this post for an example of what that means.)

Bu7pN-ZIAAAmx_PI've been reading the essays which smart friends have shared, among them Black kids don't have to be college-bound for their deaths to be tragic. Jasmine Banks writes:

Let me be clear: Unarmed college hopefuls don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids heading to work or trade school don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids floundering aimlessly through life don't deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids who have been in trouble—even those who have been nothing but trouble—don't deserve to be shot.

The act of pinning the tragedy of a dead black teen to his potential future success, to his respectability, to his "good"-ness, is done with all the best intentions. But if you read between the lines, aren't we really saying that had he not been on his way to college, there'd be less to mourn?

Also The death of Michael Brown and the search for justice in black America. In that essay, Mychal Denzel Smith writes:

Michael Brown was robbed of his humanity. His future was stolen. His parent’s pride was crushed. His friends’ hearts were broken. His nation’s contempt for black youth has been exposed. A whole generation of young black people are once again confronted with the reality that they are not safe. Black America is left searching for that ever-elusive sense of justice. But what is justice?...

Counting the bodies is draining. With every black life we lose, we end up saying the same things. We plead for our humanity to be recognized. We pray for the lives of our young people. We remind everyone of our history. And then another black person dies.

Continue reading "Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men" »