On taking action and turning inward

Last night I made the mistake of checking Twitter before bed, and saw tweets from the president and from his lawyer blaming George Soros for ostensibly paying people to protest the Kavanaugh nomination. The tweets suggested that Soros is evil and should be jailed. (I'm not going to link to them; I don't want to give them the attention.)

The claim that Soros pays protestors is ugly falsehood and it has its roots in one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards about global Jewish conspiracy. I expect that all of you who are reading this blog already know that. I don't need to preach to this choir on that front. 

But maybe you, like me, are having a panic response to news like this. Intellectually I know that I am safe, that my child is safe, that most of the people I love are safe. But like most Jews of my generation, I grew up on stories of the Holocaust. And when ugly anti-Semitic rhetoric is parroted by the president and by his lawyer, I feel a paralyzing fear in my kishkes, in my gut and in my heart.

I suspect that many of us are feeling that fear. The casual dehumanizing of Jews and Muslims and immigrants and people of color and women that we see in the news and splashed across social media is horrifying. And many Jews carry the accumulated baggage of generations of trauma, including the horrors of the Holocaust, and seeing this stuff in the news and on social media can activate that trauma in us. That's why I'm writing this post. I have four suggestions to offer for how to navigate these difficult times. If you have others, please share them in comments.

1. Take care of yourselves and each other

Take care of yourselves, friends, and take care of each other. Give yourself permission to turn away from social media when you need to, because marinating in a constant bath of outrage and anxiety can do harm. If Twitter and Facebook are raising your anxiety and stoking your fear, it's okay to stop reading them for a while. 

If you have the capacity to reach out to others to see how they're doing, do that -- doing so can help both the person who's reaching out, and the person receiving the outreach. (For more wisdom along these lines, here's an excellent piece by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on self-care tips for those angered and activated at this moment in time.)

2. Reach out to someone who can help

If you have a therapist or spiritual director, bring the anxiety and fear to them. (If you don't, now might be a good time to find one.) Don't sit with the fear alone -- it's all too easy for fear to consume us when we grapple with it alone. Tell a friend or family member. If you have no one at all to whom you can speak about what you're going through, reach out to the crisis text line.

3. Speak out, when you can - especially when you yourself are not a target

Many of us are oscillating between times when we have the capacity to speak out against injustice, and times when we are activated / hurt / grieving and need others to speak out on our behalf. That night when I was activated by antisemitism, I found comfort in tweets from people who are not Jewish and yet were willing to stand up and say clearly that antisemitism is wrong and they won't stand for it. Like these:

Seeing their tweets (and others like them) brought me to tears of gratitude that someone who is not directly harmed by this particular wave of ugliness was willing to stand with us against it. And that reminds me that I need to be an upstander and do the same when ugliness is directed toward groups of which I am not a part, whether Muslims or immigrants or people of color.

4. Take action when you can - and turn inward when you need to

Sometimes taking action to build a better world can be balm for our aching hearts. We can donate to a candidate who inspires us or to a nonprofit that does work we find redemptive, or write an op-ed, or be a good ally and upstander on social media, or take groceries to a food pantry. And sometimes we're too activated by the news cycle even to do those things, and need to focus instead on regaining equilibrium. Each of us will know best when we're up to taking action, and when we need to focus inward and heal.

*

The work of repairing our badly broken nation is not a sprint, it's a marathon. Or, to borrow a metaphor from Rabbi Danya, it's a relay race -- where we take turns handing off the baton to each other, so that when any one of us is unable to keep going, the work of moving forward continues. When we have the strength to keep going, it's incumbent on us to do so... and when we need to stop and rest and heal, may we find comfort in knowing that others are carrying the flame of justice and hope forward in our stead. 

 


Dear survivors: I see you, and I believe you.

Il_340x270-1432392392_j7leThis post may be triggering for survivors of rape and sexual abuse. If that is you, please guard your boundaries carefully.

 

So many of the women I know -- my friends, my loved ones, my congregants, my colleagues -- are survivors of rape or sexual assault. It's everywhere. It's an invisible epidemic that is only now beginning to come to light. 

And right now the national news is so saturated with it that all of those women are navigating trauma all over again.

From a president who bragged about grabbing women by our private parts, to a potential Supreme Court justice now multiply accused of sexual assault, to Jian Ghomeshi's recent essay, to a long list of actors and comedians and public figures accused of sexual misconduct: our discourse is consumed by conversation about the damage that women endure.

Encountering this subject everywhere can be re-traumatizing for victims of rape and sexual assault. Making matters worse, the public sphere is full of argument about whether or not to believe women when we take the risk of telling the truth about the harm done to us. The excuses, the gas-lighting, and the victim-blaming compound the trauma and the damage. 

I simmer with constant low-grade nausea and grief and rage about this. This moment in time is so hard for my friends and loved ones, congregants and colleagues, who are survivors. This moment in time is hard for me.

One woman who is dear to me tweeted recently, "My body is on hyper alert, absorbed with past experiences, and I wonder - how many of us are just battling to stay upright right now?"

Dear survivors who are reading this: I see you and my heart goes out to you.

I believe you.

I believe you, and I see that you are hurting now. I see you struggling to get through the day, I see you unable to sleep or plagued by nightmares, I see your body clenched and on hyper alert. 

I recognize that you can't take a sick day from work just because the current news cycle is constantly triggering you. I recognize that re-activated trauma may be slowing you down, making ordinary things difficult, making every day a struggle.

I am sorry beyond words for what you endured, and for what you are enduring now as the national news cycle thrusts these subjects into your awareness again and again.

I also see that you are more than your victimhood, and I honor that, too.

Dear survivors who are reading this: please don't carry this burden alone. Post-rape PTSD is real and is deeply damaging. There are some suggestions in the article How to Cope with Rape-Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I can offer anecdotal support for the positive benefits of several of the items on that list. I hope that you have (or will seek) a trustworthy therapist, ideally one trained in helping survivors navigate these issues. You might also seek a support group, so that you aren't alone.

(There's an excellent list of Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors and Their Loved Ones online at RAINN.)

*

I pray that something good will come out of this moment's painful focus on rape and sexual assault.

May we shift the broader culture so that the women's voices, experiences, and bodily integrity will be honored. 

May we teach our children about active consent, and may we relegate "boys will be boys" and "this is just how men behave" to the trash. Boys and men can and should be better than this.

And may all who are survivors of rape and sexual assault find healing.

 


Op-ed in the Berkshire Eagle: on protecting transgender rights and dignity

Postcardside1smallforwebThanks to the Berkshire Eagle for publishing my op-ed: Protect transgender rights and dignity.

For those who can't get to the digital edition, I'm reprinting the op-ed here on my blog.

 

NORTH ADAMS — On Election Day this November, voters in Massachusetts will encounter a referendum on our state law that protects transgender people from discrimination and harassment in public places. A "yes" vote on Question 3 would uphold current law, which means transgender people would maintain the rights and dignity to which they are now legally entitled. A "no" vote on 3 would repeal current law, leaving transgender people vulnerable to discrimination in public places such as restaurants, stores, and hospitals.

As a rabbi, I'm horrified at the prospect of a repeal. I'm voting "yes" on 3 because I have transgender congregants, friends, and loved ones. Because repeal — denying transgender people's rights and dignity — would be counter to the religious values I hold dear. And because repeal would set precedent for the rest of the country, and would embolden bigotry in many forms.

Jewish tradition teaches that we are all made in the divine image. Judaism doesn't understand God to have a physical form (nor, for that matter, a singular gender; we speak of the Divine in terms that are masculine, feminine, and gender-neutral). We can glimpse the "divine image" through humanity's diversity of shapes and sizes, races, sexual orientations, and gender expressions. And because we're all made in the divine image, Judaism teaches that human rights and dignity are everyone's birthright.

My tradition also teaches that one reason why we trace human ancestry back to a single first person is so that no one should be able to say "my ancestors were better than yours" (or, its corollary, "I'm better than you"— or "I deserve to be served in this restaurant while you do not.") My religious values call me to proclaim the inherent rights and dignity of trans people.

Of course, given appropriate division between church (or synagogue) and state, I shouldn't expect any state to legislate based on my religious values. But the secular values we share as Americans also demand a "yes" vote on Question 3. All should be entitled to equal treatment under the law, regardless of gender identity. And all should have the right to be safe from discrimination and harassment in public places: no matter whether we are cisgender or transgender, no matter what our gender expression, no matter what pronouns we prefer.

This matters especially for transgender youth, including those who identify as nonbinary. I want to be able to truthfully tell transgender kids that we see them, and we value them, and we uplift and uphold them in all that they are. I want to be able to promise transgender kids that they will continue to be treated with dignity in coffee shops and movie theaters and doctors' offices, and that they can be who they are in the public sphere without fear. I want to be able to assure transgender kids that we who are old enough to vote will not strip away the protections to which current law entitles them.

I'm thankful to live in a state where people of all gender identities are protected from discrimination. Let's keep it that way. Join me in voting "yes" on 3 in November, and uphold human dignity for all.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat serves Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. She is a founding builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home. 


New in The Wisdom Daily: wisdom about refugees, from a talking Biblical donkey

...There’s something inherently funny about [a] talking donkey, but her voice hints at a deeper theme. “What did I ever do to you, that you should hit me with that stick,” said the beleaguered beast of burden. The Israelites might say the same thing to King Balak: what did we ever do to you, that you should seek to curse us for fleeing from horrific circumstance?

King Balak felt threatened by the presence of refugees on his doorstep. It’s not hard to find a contemporary analogue, someone in a position of tremendous power who looks at refugees and sees, not human souls in need of help and welcome, but a teeming horde of foreigners whose very presence is a threat...

That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily: Wisdom about the refugee crisis… from a talking Biblical donkey.


Cultivating hope

That's a tweet from Representative John Lewis. (If somehow you don't know his story, I recommend the graphic novel trilogy March, which he co-wrote with Andrew Aydin and is illustrated by Nate Powell -- it brings the Civil Rights struggle to life.)

Many of us are reeling this week at the Supreme Court's upholding of Trump's horrendous and unethical #MuslimBan, followed by the news that Justice Kennedy is retiring. I'm hearing a lot of grief and fear and despair. (I too am feeling those things.)

I have two suggestions to offer. 

The first is: take care of yourself. There is no merit badge for enduring anxiety and panic. If you have a spiritual practice, strengthen it. If you don't have one, consider taking one up. The work at hand is immense, and our overwhelm helps no one. 

The second is: once your head is above water, find something you can do. If you have funds, donate. If you have time, volunteer. Register people to vote. Make phone calls to voters who might make a difference. And above all, do not lose hope.

I know that may sound naïve. But hope is not a luxury: it's a necessity. Without hope, life loses its brightness and despair settles in. Hope is quintessential to Jewish spiritual life, and I suspect that's true not just in my own tradition but across the board.

Raymond Williams wrote, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not despair convincing.” (I learned that from a talk called Applied Hope, in 2016.) Here's a thread I read on Twitter this morning that gave me a bit of hope to cling to:

I take heart from that reminder. The Supreme Court's rulings should be expressions of real justice, but there have been times in our history before when SCOTUS has ruled unjustly. With hard work and persistence we can move toward justice anyway.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg tweeted recently "This is a relay, not a marathon." If you can carry the baton forward, then do so. If you can't, then take a break: have a Shabbes, turn off the news, spend time with a friend, whatever replenishes your well.

And then tag in and pick up a baton again when you can. The work of repairing the world is infinite; it will always be there for you to return to. When you feel depleted, pause and recharge so that you can rejoin the relay strengthened and full of holy fire.

Above all, do whatever you can to maintain hope in the better world you want to see. Dream it, so that you can work toward it. We may not see a nation (a world!) of compassion and justice in our lifetime, but we need to do everything we can to build it.


#FamiliesBelongTogether, and what we can do

This is the note I wrote to send to my synagogue community this week. I'm sharing it here in case it also speaks to those who are not part of my local community but are part of my broader online community.

Many of you who have spoken with me this week have described your despair at current policy of stripping children from parents in order to deter immigration. You've spoken to me about your shock and heartbreak, about the emotional and spiritual impact of that news recording of children crying out for parents they may never see again, about the known traumatic impacts of separating young children from their caregivers.

Recent public discourse has included the suggestion that immigrants are "infesting" our country -- language which should deeply trouble us as Jews: it's the language the Nazi party used to justify what we now know as the Holocaust, and it's also the language Pharaoh used in Torah to describe our spiritual ancestors before setting the enslavement of the Israelites in motion. I know that many of you are troubled by this language too.

Like many of you, I am descended from immigrants who came here seeking asylum from state-sponsored persecution, which gives me an extra sense of connection with today's refugees. Like many of you, I have been gutted to imagine what those children are going through -- and to imagine the anguish their parents now face. Like many of you, I have felt sometimes paralyzed by the enormity of the injustice currently on display.

I am writing to you today to urge you not to give in to that paralysis or to its psycho-spiritual sibling despair. The need is too great. The work of creating a more just world is work in which all of us are obligated as human beings and as Jews. The call to "love the stranger, for [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated in Torah no fewer than 36 times. Separating parents from children is the very opposite of showing love.

The ADL recently sent Jeff Sessions a letter, co-signed by 26 American Jewish organizations, arguing that taking children away from parents is unconscionable and that as Jews we understand the plight of immigrants fleeing danger and seeking asylum. On this, every branch of Judaism -- the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructing Judaism movement, and the Orthodox movement --- is in agreement. 

Bend the Arc, a Jewish organization that works toward creating a more just world, has established a petition declaring a state of moral emergency.  As of this writing, more than 14,000 people have signed it. Here's a secular petition as well. Signing a petition doesn't "do" much, but it can break the personal sense of powerlessness. Reaching out to elected officials is another small act that can begin to create change.

There is a custom of giving tzedakah before Shabbat in order to prime the pump for blessing to flow into the world over Shabbes and in the week to come. My tzedakah donation this week will go to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a Texas-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing immigrant families and refugees (including children) with affordable legal assistance.

Another possible place to direct your tzedakah this week is the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, which advocates for the safety and well-being of unaccompanied kids arriving in the United States. The organization recently announced a project specifically dedicated to helping children separated from their parents at the border. You can learn more about the program's efforts and how to donate here.

I believe that as human beings and as Jews we are called to speak and work and act against injustice wherever it arises. Separating parents from children is injustice. Please do what you can to encourage our government to end this inhumane policy now.

And please take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually as you work to better the world. For some of us that means taking a Shabbat respite from the news, or entering into spiritual practice to replenish our hearts and souls for the work to come. Creating a more just world is fundamental to who we are as Jews -- and it's work that calls us also to self-care, so that we can be here to keep doing the work in all the tomorrows to come.

Blessings to all --

Rabbi Rachel

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


When words fail

I keep trying to write something about the current state of affairs in my country and being too daunted to begin. My words fail me. What wisdom can I possibly offer about migrant children torn from their parents and held in cages? All I have is heartbreak.

But the fact that I am stunned and horrified and sickened by what's happening in my nation is no excuse for my silence. If I can't find words of my own, the least I can do is point to words by others. Here are five tweets I've signal-boosted in recent days (the first one of these is a thread -- click through to read the whole):

 

 

If you want to know what you can do to make this better, here's a list of seven groups supporting children at the border that need our help. Donating to organizations like these doesn't feel like enough, but if the choice is between "doing something insufficient" and "doing nothing at all," I believe the former is better than the latter.


Love and justice

B_7eQn4WEAAc7w_This extraordinary quote from Cornel West has been floating around lately: "Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public."

Love and justice are two sides of the same coin. That's a familiar idea to me from Jewish mystical teaching and theology. In the spiritual journey of the Counting of the Omer, the first divine quality we cultivate in ourselves is chesed, abundant lovingkindness -- and it's always followed and matched by gevurah (sometimes called din): boundaries, strength, justice.

It's not only in our mystical tradition, either. In the Torah the call to love our neighbor / our other as ourselves is juxtaposed with "do not bear false witness," "treat workers fairly," and "do not stand idly on the blood of your neighbor" (do not stand by when someone is being harmed, whether with actions or with prejudice or with words.) We practice love through justice.

Love doesn't exist in a vacuum separate from justice. Without justice, "love" is a feel-good veneer hiding a rotten core, what Reb Zalman z"l used to call "whipped cream on garbage."   

This isn't just about our individual choices (though those do matter, and should be ethical and just to the best of our abilities). It's also about our systems and structures and communities. If with our silence we normalize unjust behavior, we become complicit in that unjust behavior even if we didn't perpetrate it ourselves. From the macrocosm (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, white nationalism) to the microcosm (e.g. lashon ha-ra, sexual assault, abuse), Judaism calls us to actively pursue justice not only as individuals but in community. We do this not separate from the call to love the other, but precisely as an expression of that call to love.

One might imagine that love is "spiritual" and justice is "political," but Judaism teaches that the spiritual and the political are always necessarily intertwined. Torah and Talmud both interweave "spiritual" teachings with "political" ones. Halakha ("Jewish law," though the word comes from the root meaning "to walk," so I like to translate it as the Jewish "path" or "way of walking") concerns itself deeply both with spiritual / ritual life and with political / community engagement.  My religious tradition and spiritual path call me to care for the widow and orphan, to love the stranger, to pursue justice, to give hatespeech no quarter.

Love is a core spiritual value in most religious traditions (including mine). But love isn't enough. In kabbalistic language, chesed (lovingkindness) by itself isn't enough: it needs to be balanced with gevurah (boundaries, ethics, justice), among other things. If we only want to feel love and don't also put our hands to the task of building justice, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't willing to do the hard work of seeing toxic systems and structures for what they are, then we're doing it wrong. If we only want to feel love and aren't capable of naming injustice and demanding better, then we're doing it wrong.

Because -- as Cornel West teaches -- love is what justice looks like in public. Torah urges us to love our neighbor, our other, as ourselves. That doesn't mean "love your neighbor the way you yourself want to be loved" -- I mean, in some cases it might, but it can't mean only that. It has to also mean "love your neighbor the way they want to be loved," and "love your neighbor in a way that recognizes their inherent dignity and worth," and that requires demanding for them every human right, every due process, every dignity to which they are entitled. It means not allowing hateful speech of any kind to stand, much less to proliferate. 

Love can't be separated from justice. Anything less isn't the love we're called to pursue.

 

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017.


Why I support the Child Victims Act

3dbacd5d-30f9-4f80-9f9a-2f57e6113844I'm going to Albany today to join colleagues (rabbinic and otherwise) in visibly supporting the Child Victims Act.

This legislation would change New York's statute of limitations for the crime of sexually assaulting a child, so that those who are sexually abused as children can seek justice. (You can read the bill here.) 

A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration of Children and Families found that 34% of childhood sexual abuse victims are under the age of nine. I have an eight year old, so that statistic hits home for me in a visceral way. At that age, most victims don't have the vocabulary to articulate what was done to them. Most victims aren't able to report their abuse until much later in life -- by which time, at least as New York law currently stands, nothing can be done. The Child Victims Act would change that.

If the #MeToo movement of the last few months has taught us anything, it’s that it is extremely painful and risky for victims of sexual harassment or assault — even those with power, money and connections — to speak out against their abusers. Now consider how much harder it must be for a child.

It should surprise no one that a vast majority of people who were sexually abused as children never report it. For those who do, it takes years, and often decades, to recognize what happened to them, realize it wasn’t their fault and tell someone. The trauma leads to higher rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, depression, suicide and other physical and psychological problems that cost millions or billions to treat — money that should be paid not by taxpayers, but by the offenders and the institutions that cover for them.

For these reasons, many states — including eight last year alone — have done the right thing and extended or eliminated statutes of limitations for the reporting of child sexual abuse. This has encouraged more victims to come forward and seek justice for abuse that was never properly addressed, if it was addressed at all.

New York, which has had no shortage of child sex-abuse scandals, should be on that list. In fact, it should be leading the nation on this issue. Instead it, along with Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Michigan, is one of the states with the least victim-friendly reporting laws in the country. New York requires most child sex-abuse victims to sue by the age of 23, 19 years before the average age at which such victims report their abuse...

(That's from a recent editorial from the New York Times editorial board: Albany, Pass the Child Victims Act.)

I did my chaplaincy residency at Albany Medical Center, and I have congregants who live over the border in New York state, so I feel multiple layers of connection to New York and New Yorkers. I also have beloveds who were sexually assaulted as children in the state of New York. For their sake, and for the sake of the (too many) others like them, I hope and pray that this legislation passes at long last.

I'm honored to stand with colleagues today (including my Bayit co-founder Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, who recently wrote Why on earth are Orthodox Jews opposing the Child Victims Act?)  in support of the passage of the Child Victims Act.


If we will it... (on #HolyWomenHolyLand, #MLK, and hope)

26230028_10213916856688417_2297923387648617796_nRecently I've been following a series of stories online, hashtagged #HolyWomenHolyLand -- written by a group of six rabbis and five pastors (all women) who have been traveling together in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Their updates have been heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. They've met with parents from the Bereaved Parents Circle, with Women Wage Peace -- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, religious, secular, settler, Arab, Israeli. They've met with leaders and activists and ordinary people on all "sides" of the conflict. They've visited holy sites together. They've eaten and prayed and wept and learned together. 

And one of the messages that keeps coming through, in their tweets and their Facebook status updates and their essays, is that women in Israel and Palestine insist that they do not have the luxury of losing hope. In the words of Maharat Rori Picker Neiss:

It's easy to look at the state of the world and despair. It is far more radical to cultivate hope -- and to take action toward the world of our hopes instead of the world of our fears. But that's the call I hear emerging from the rabbis and pastors who went on the #HolyWomenHolyLand trip...

...and it's the call still emanating from the words we just heard from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King z"l, who dared to dream that some day the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit down at a table of brotherhood. 

Our own core story, unfolding in Torah even now, teaches that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and our enslavement left us with kotzer ruach, shortness of spirit, such that we couldn't even hope for better. We got hammered down, like bent nails. (Here's a beautiful sketchnote illustration of that by Steve Silbert, based in a d'var Torah by Rabbi Sarah Bassin.)

Dr. King was talking about the literal descendants of slaves and slave-owners, not about the mythic, psycho-spiritual sense in which each year we recapitulate the journey from constriction to freedom. I don't want to elide or ignore that difference.

But I think there's a way in which in America today many of us have that kotzer ruach, that constriction of spirit, that Torah says our ancestors knew. There's injustice everywhere we turn. How do we cultivate hope when our own spirits may feel worn down by sexism and racism and bullying and gaslighting and bracing ourselves to hear the next horror story in the daily news?

Last week's Torah portion told us that our ancestors cried out in their bondage, and their cry rose up to God, and God answered. The first step toward change was crying out. When we cry out, even from a place of hopelessness, we open ourselves up. Maybe just a little bit, but in that little opening, the seeds of hope can be planted. We can tend those seeds in each other. 

Theodore Herzl famously taught, "If you will it, it is no dream." The quote continues, "If you do not will it, a dream it is, and a dream it will stay." The first step is to dream of a future that is better than what we know now. The second step is to will that future into being -- to build and bridge and act to bring that future into being -- so that what now is only dream will become real.

We can't afford to lose hope, any more than our sisters and brothers in the Middle East can afford to lose hope. Dr. King's vision calls out to us: it is as necessary today as it was the day he first penned the words. May we be inspired to live in his legacy and to build an America, and a world, where everyone can be free at last.

 

This is the d'varling I offered this morning at CBI (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

I offered these words after chanting excerpts from MLK's "I Have a Dream," set to haftarah trope by Rabbi David Markus, which you can glimpse as the image illustrating this post. Deep thanks to R' David for sharing that setting;  you can hear a recording of the whole thing and see the annotated haftarah on his website.


On Avram and Sarai and #MeToo

This d'var Torah mentions mistreatment of women, including sexual assault. If this is likely to be triggering for you, please exercise self-care.


Metoo-480x480This week's Torah portion is rich and deep. It begins with God's command to Avram לך–לך / lech-lecha, go you forth -- or, some say, go into yourself. It contains God blessing Avram. It contains, too, the birth of Ishmael to Avram through Hagar, which we just read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

But reading it this year, I was struck by a passage I've always glossed over: the part where Avram and Sarai go into Egypt, and Avram says to her, "You're beautiful, and if they think you're my wife they'll kill me and take you -- so pretend to be my sister instead." And Pharaoh takes Sarai as a wife.

Avram benefits greatly from this deception: he acquires "sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels." Meanwhile, Pharaoh is punished for sleeping with Sarai. God brings plagues on him and his household, until he comes to Avram and says, "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife?! Take her back!"

Perhaps predictably, the text says nothing about what all of this was like for Sarai. She has been asked to lie about her identity to protect her husband. Also to protect her husband, she allows herself to be taken into Pharaoh's court. She gives Pharaoh access to her body. Torah tells us nothing about how she felt, but I think I can imagine.

I don't want this to be in our Torah -- our Torah that I cherish and teach and love. But on the matter of women's rights and women's bodies and women's integrity, our Torah here is painfully silent. It may not explicitly approve women being treated as property, but neither does it explicitly disapprove.

Or: neither does it explicitly disapprove here. As we move from right to left through our scroll, Torah changes. Genesis contains this story, and the story of Dinah, raped by Shechem, who then seeks to wed her. Like Sarai in this passage, Dinah has no voice and no apparent agency.

But by the time we get to Numbers, Torah gives us the daughters of Tzelophechad, a surprisingly feminist narrative that gives women both voice and power. We can understand this dissonance from a historical-critical perspective as the weaving together of texts from different time periods. From a spiritual perspective, we can see this as the Torah herself evolving.

Torah reflects a trajectory of growth and progress: on humanity's part, and arguably even on God's part. But this moment in our ancestral story is distressingly patriarchal. It reminds me that the word "patriarchal" comes to us from our relationship with these very forefathers, who weren't always ethical in the ways we may want them to have been.

This year I read these verses juxtaposed against the #MeToo movement that unfolded in recent weeks on social media: woman after woman after woman saying, harassment and misogyny and sexual assault and sexual abuse and rape are all part of a whole, and I too have been a victim of these proprietary and predatory behaviors.

Maybe Sarai chose to pretend for Avram's sake. We don't know; Torah doesn't say. Maybe she was willing to allow herself to be raped to protect her husband. I can imagine situations in which I would allow myself to be violated to protect someone whom I love. But that is not a choice any woman should ever have to make.

I read recently about an exercise that Jackson Katz did in a mixed-gender classroom. He asked the men, what do you do to protect yourselves from being raped? And there was silence, and uncomfortable laughter, and eventually one of the men said, I don't do anything; I've never really thought about it.

And then they asked the women, and the women generated a long list without even trying. I don't walk alone. I don't go out at night. I don't park in dark places. I make sure I keep my drink in sight so no one can slip a roofie into it. I carry mace. I don't wear certain clothes. I don't make eye contact with men...

Most of us don't even think about these things: not the men, who have the privilege of not having to worry about being treated as property, and not the women, who do these things almost unconsciously. Sexual harassment, assault, and violence against women are the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

Reading this story in Torah makes my heart hurt. I don't want Avraham Avinu, our patriarch, to have behaved this way toward Sarai. But he did, and in the context of the time it was unremarkable. Notice how everyone assumed Sarai was going to get raped no matter what. That's the assumption when women's bodies are property.

Guess what: it's still unremarkable. This is what patriarchy is, what patriarchy does: it allows men's need to have sex, or to feel powerful, to trump the needs of women to have bodily integrity or to be whole human beings. Patriarchy is still real, and it is still damaging us. All of us. Of every gender.

Here are some things we can do to be better than this:

Listen to women. (Here's a good essay about how exactly to do that.) Sarai doesn't have a voice in this story: don't replicate that today by not listening to women. Listen to us and believe us. When a woman says she was assaulted or violated, believe her. 

Don't say "but men get raped too." Yes, they do, and that is terrible, and don't derail the conversation to make it about men right now. Patriarchy is a system that centers the needs and perspectives of men over the needs and perspectives of women, in every way. Make the radical choice not to perpetuate that. 

If you're sexually active, keep active consent as your guiding light, and teach your children the importance of active consent too. If someone's not enthusiastic, stop. If someone says no -- or "not right now" -- even if they say it through body language instead of words -- then don't do it. Whatever it is. Because no one ever is entitled to someone else's body. 

Understand that men feeling entitled to women's bodies takes a million different forms: from harassment, to the way men talk to women or talk about women, to the way men look at women (and the way women are depicted in media), to the way men touch women. Understand that all of these things are part of a whole that we need to change.

If you are a man, you may be thinking, "but I don't do those things!" I hear you. And: sexual violence is insidious. It's in the media we consume, the scripture we study, the air we breathe. It's shaped the way I think about my own body, and there's a lot that I'm working to unlearn. Inevitably these dynamics have shaped you too. But here's the good news: you can become aware of it and change it. And you can call out sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, and rape culture in ways that I can't.

I wish this story weren't in our Torah. But Torah holds up a mirror to human life. What I really wish is that this weren't such a familiar story, then and now. We are all Avram: God calls all of us to go forth from our roots, from our comfort zone, into the future that God will show us. We need to go forth and build a world that is better than the one Avram knew.

That trajectory -- seeking to build a better world than the one we inherited -- is itself encoded in Torah, and in the prophets, and in the whole Jewish idea of striving toward a world redeemed. This week's Torah portion comes to us from a very early time in our human story. The familiarity we feel, upon reading this troubling text, reminds us how far we still have to go. 

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog. 

Posted with gratitude to my hevruta partner, who helped me think through this. Shabbat shalom to all.


Prayer after the shooting

Prayer-after

I loved and grieved from the day you claimed your free will,
Knowing that you too would open into infinite love and grief,

Knowing how your hearts would bloom with gratitude and hope
With every child’s every first, and lament every child’s every last,

As I do and always will with My children’s every first and every last
In the raw and wild cosmic dance we began together in the garden.

What else could I do? You must become what you must become,
Like Me infinitely becoming, infinitely capable of love and grief,

So I clothed your shimmering lights in skins and hid in plain sight
For you to seek and find Me amidst life’s sweetness and sorrow.

How fast your lights flickered underneath: your second son’s blood
Cried out to Me from the ground, too soon returning earth to earth.

The guilty wandered the land howling, pining for peace and safety
Denied by the very violence that condemned the guilty to wander,

Setting in motion also the vicious whirlwind spinning through
Columbine, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas. Where next?

I did not mean for you to live like this or die like this – in fear and terror,
In trauma’s torrents, in shrapnel showers turning streets into killing fields.

You still can choose life: the free will your ancestors claimed for you
Remains yours even now, and still I gasp with loving pride and worry

With your every first and every last, grieving the countless innocents
Returning to Me in My own image too soon, bloodied and bagged.

But still you choose death. Aimlessly you wander the land howling,
Pining for peace and safety that senseless violence steals from you.

Choose to be My love, My strength, My intuition, My prophets, My beauty,
My healing hands – My living essence in this bloody and weary world.

Only then will this cruelest of your roulette wheels stop spinning red.
Oh, how I long with you for that day when you truly will choose life.

 

Claimed your own free will – Eve’s “defiance” in Eden claimed human agency for all her successors (Genesis 3:6-7).

Knowing … bloom – An allusion to the Tree of Knowledge and humanity’s “opening” into the knowledge of love and loss.

You must become – God describes God’s self to Moses as אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming” (Exodus 3:14). We who are made in the divine image are also called to perennially become.

Clothed your shimmering light in skins - Because the Hebrew words for “skin” (עור) and “light” (אור) both are pronounced or, Zohar teaches that Eden’s first humans were beings of light, before God made us garments of skins. Even so, our skins cover our light, which we still can see if we look carefully.

Your second son’s blood… returning earth to earth. Humanity’s first murder – Cain killing Abel (Genesis 4) – spilled Abel’s blood (דם / dam) to the earth (אדמה / adamah).

Wander - Cain, after murdering his brother, was condemned to wander the land without peace (Genesis 4:14).

Setting in motion also - From Cain comes not only the first murder but also the rhetorical question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8) – that continues to reverberate through the generations, and also the first “Why?” (Genesis 4:6), which teaches all future generations the possibility of teshuvah / return and repair (Radak Gen. 4:6).

Whirlwind – An allusion to the סערה (storm) from which God answered Job (Job 38:1). The storm’s circular shape resembles both a roulette wheel and a gun’s rotating cylinder that conveys bullets.

Choose life - “Choose life, if you and your progeny would live’ (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Aimlessly - The indiscriminate shooter, the nation’s inertia.

My love, My strength… – Seven emanations of the divine, corresponding to the seven lower sefirot of Kabbalistic tradition: chesed (love), gevurah (strength / boundaries), tiferet (balance), netzach (endurance / momentum), hod (beauty / gratitude), yesod (foundation / generativity), malchut (indwelling).

Roulette wheels stop spinning red – For the gaming tables of Las Vegas and the ultimate gamble: walking the streets safe and unafraid.

14 stanzas – 14 for יד, the yad (hand) of God: we now are the hand that must act.

332 words - 332 for לבש, lavash (clothed) in divine skins that cover our light.

 

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Evan Markus

(cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi and to R' David's website; feel free to reprint, with attribution.)


Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning

 
YKA couple of weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning before services, a congregant said to me, "Rabbi, Houston is flooded. There's a hurricane heading for Florida, and more are already forming. The Pacific Northwest is literally on fire. There are earthquakes in Mexico. Is there a God in control of everything, and is God angry with us?"

I said to her: no, I do not believe that God causes disaster because God is angry with us. And as far as whether or not God is in control of everything, that's a bigger question, and my answer depends on what you mean by "God" and what you mean by "control." 

And she said, "But doesn't Jewish tradition say that's exactly how it works?" Well: yes -- and no. "Jewish tradition" says a lot of things that don't necessarily agree with one another! But it is true that one of the strands in our tradition holds that God is in control and decides what will be. The Unetaneh Tokef  prayer we recite at the High Holidays says exactly that. (It's a very old prayer, by the way: written between 330 and 638 C.E.) "On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live, and who will die; who by fire, and who by water..." That's a theology that can be hard to swallow.

Now, I'm a poet, so I read the whole prayer as metaphor. I think it tells us something about one of the faces that we as human beings have needed to imagine God to have. We need to imagine God as the shepherd who lovingly takes note of each one of us, who sees us and accepts us as we are. And we need to make sense of the fact that our world contains fire and flood, so we imagine God deciding who will live and who will die. But I don't want to stop there. If we keep reading, in that prayer, we reach the refrain:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹֽעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

"But teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah, soften the harshness of the decree."

Teshuvah is a word we use a lot at this time of year. Some translate it as "repentance." I prefer "return." It comes from the root meaning "to turn," and that's the quintessential move of this season: we turn inward, we turn ourselves around. We look at who we've been, and we take steps to be better. We let go of old habits and patterns and stories that no longer serve, and we orient ourselves in a better direction.

Tefilah means prayer. You know, that thing we're doing here together this morning. But the Hebrew word tefilah is also richer than that simple translation would suggest. להתפלל / l'hitpallel means "to discern oneself." That's what prayer is supposed to be: a practice of discerning who we are, and refining the inner qualities that enable us to build a better world. 

And tzedakah means righteous giving. At its simplest, it means "charity." But tzedakah comes from a Hebrew root connoting justice. Tzedakah means making justice in the world. And sometimes we pursue justice through charitable giving, and sometimes we pursue justice through feeding the hungry with our own hands, and sometimes we pursue justice through electing public servants who will enact laws that we believe will make the world a safer and fairer place.

Teshuvah, and tefilah, and tzedakah. Turning ourselves in the right direction, and doing the internal work of discerning who we are and who we need to be, and pursuing justice: this prayer teaches that these three things sweeten, or soften, the harshness of the divine decree. Whether or not we believe in a God Who decrees what will be, teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedakah are our tradition's tools for fixing what's broken in our world.

Continue reading "Who by fire: a sermon for Yom Kippur morning" »


After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah

RHOne Saturday last month I was sitting by the pool after services, watching my son and his friends swim, when my cellphone started to buzz with messages from friends. I picked it up, and I watched in horror as white supremacists marched in Charlottesville.

Angry white men with flaming torches had stormed the university campus on Friday night. On Shabbat they marched through the city, some of them carrying swastika flags and giving Nazi salutes. They shouted the old Nazi slogan "blood and soil." They shouted, "white lives matter."

Of course I knew that hatred of Jews existed. But I've never encountered it in my daily life. I thought of Jew-hatred, along with Nazism, as a largely defeated ideology of the past. On the day of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville I recoiled in horror. This hatred of us is real, and I was completely unprepared. And it's not just hatred of us: it's hatred of everyone who doesn't fit the white supremacist mold.

Nazis and white supremacists must be stopped. And the fact that some people draw a false moral equivalency between the Nazis and the counter-protestors also horrifies me. But on this day of remembrance and introspection, I want Charlottesville to spur us to do some inner work... and the first step in that work is acknowledging that we weren't the only ones triggered, or targeted, by Unite the Right.

The Nazi chants and swastika flags in Charlottesville were badly triggering for many of the Jews I know. And the mob of angry white men with burning torches was badly triggering for many African Americans. Their communities carry the memory of of Ku Klux Klan attacks and lynchings, just as our communities carry the memory of pogroms and the Shoah.

While many of my white friends were as shocked as I was by this display of bigotry, none of my non-white friends were remotely surprised. Sad and angry, yes. Surprised, not at all.

In recent months, when I've had cause to say, "this isn't the America I thought I lived in," my non-white friends have said, "...this is the America we've always known." And they've pointed out that the fact that I'm surprised by this kind of ugliness shows that I've never had to walk a mile in their shoes.

Continue reading "After Charlottesville: a sermon for Rosh Hashanah" »


The stranger in our midst: Ki Tavo and Dreamers

635965444098234916-381174497_CYyDgmBUoAA12IkAt the beginning of this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read instructions for when we have entered the land of promise. When we enter that land, we are to recount where we came from, remember our hardships in life's narrow places, and then enjoy the bounty of our harvest, together with the Levite and the stranger who lives in our midst. Then Torah instructs us to set aside a tenth of the yield of the land and share it with the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.

That's the first dozen verses of this week's parsha: remember our hardships, be grateful that with God's help we have made it out of slavery and into freedom, and share what we have with the needy -- especially those who have nothing of their own (the Levites), the immigrant or migrant or refugee, and those who have no one to take care of them and keep them safe.

Our Torah was written a very long time ago. Sometimes it reflects sensibilities that are deeply alien. Sometimes we have to grapple with it, or turn it in a new direction, in order to find meaning in it. But for me, this year, these verses sound a clarion call that's all the more striking for how ancient we know them to be.

No one in this congregation, to the best of my knowledge, is Native American. That means that all of us are descended from people who came to this land in search of something better than what we had known before. The first Jews came to North Adams in 1867 from Eastern Europe and Russia. My own ancestors came to this country more recently than that, from Poland and from Russia and from the Czech Republic -- which was called Czechoslovakia when my mother was born there.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to the United States hoping that it would be the "goldene medina," the land of prosperity and promise. My ancestors, like your ancestors, came to this land in hopes that it was a nation that held to be self-evident the truth that all human beings are created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

My ancestors, like your ancestors, had to struggle with a governmental system that sometimes held Jews in low esteem. There were quotas. There was red tape. There was economic anxiety, and when there is economic anxiety, people turn on the Other: on those who don't speak or look or dress like them. You don't need me to tell you how many Jews perished in the Shoah because they couldn't get permission to enter this country where they would have been safe.

Today, this Shabbat, is the culmination of a week during which the President chose to end protection for "Dreamers" -- the children of undocumented immigrants who came to this country, often at great risk to themselves, out of those same hopes that brought my own mother and grandparents here. The "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" program had given them safety, security, refuge, and belonging. Some 800,000 young Americans are now living in mortal terror of deportation to so-called "home countries" that are not their home.

When you enter the land of promise, says Torah, the first thing you need to do is stop and remember where you came from. Torah cites the story of how our ancestors fell on hard times and descended into the land of Egypt and there were enslaved. (Each of us can tell our own family story of hard times that led someone to make the perilous journey to the United States. There were pogroms in the village. There was antisemitism in the town square. There were Nazis marching. We remember where our people came from, and how fortunate we are to be where we are now.)

And then, says Torah, you take your abundance and you share it. Share it with the stranger who lives among you: the immigrant, the refugee, the powerless. Share it with the Levite, who has no land of their own to farm and no crops to harvest. Share it with the person who has no protector to keep them safe from the cruelty of predators. Then, and only then, can you go to God and say, I've kept Your commandments, please give me blessing.

All of us are migrants to this land of promise. And if we have the safety of citizenship, we owe it to the Dreamers to fight for their safety and their inclusion and their continued right to live in this nation they already call home. We owe it to the Dreamers to protect them from the cruelty of a predatory government that would strip them of their status and send them packing. Then, and only then, can we go to God and say that we're honoring the mitzvot and we seek blessing.

Sometimes Torah is ambiguous. And sometimes Torah offers teachings that appear to be in conflict with modern sensibilities. But on this issue, Torah's teachings feel timeless and timely and unspeakably important. Today is Shabbat: a day to live as if the world were already perfected and suffering were already a thing of the past. But tomorrow when we re-enter the work week, I hope you'll remember Torah's call to action. We live in a land of promise. It's incumbent on us to remember how fortunate we are to be here, and to share our good fortune with others in need.

 

See also: HIAS Slams Trump Administration's Decision on DACA, Urges Congress to Protect Dreamers (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), US Jewish Groups Blast Trump's Decision to Scrap 'Dreamers' Program as Cruel, Unnecessary (Ha'Aretz) How You Can Help (Mashable)

Also, from the Reform movement: Take Action to Protect DREAMers.

 

(This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning, and is cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


After Charlottesville

20729549_10156463202964307_4929406110392764934_nI spent Shabbat in an increasing state of horror about the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Chants of "blood and soil," "white lives matter," and "Jew will not replace us;" white men carrying torches or wielding swastika-emblazoned flagsthe death of a counter-protester at the hands of a maniac driving a car -- all of these led me to a heartspace of commingled grief and fury.

Watching this ugliness unfold was not a "Shabbesdik" (Shabbat-appropriate) way to spend a day when we're meant to live as if the world were already redeemed. Ordinarily I ignore the news on Shabbes, and seek to inhabit a different kind of holy time. But it felt important to bear witness, both to the white supremacist protests that blended the KKK with Nazism, and to those who bravely stood up to offer a counter-message.

Throughout the day I sought strength and hope in the fact of rabbis who traveled to Charlottesville to stand against bigotry alongside clergy of many faiths, "praying with their feet," as it were. I took comfort in the number of people I saw donating to progressive causes in Charlottesville (per Sara Benincasa's suggestion). But the weekend made clear just how much work we have to do to root out the cancers of racism and prejudice in this country.

Bigotry and xenophobia are among humanity's worst impulses. White supremacy and antisemitism are two particularly ugly manifestations of those impulses (and they're clearly intertwined -- I recommend Eric Ward's essay Skin in the game: how antisemitism animates white nationalism, which is long but is deeply worth reading). After Charlottesville, I recognize that there is far more hatred than I knew.

I was appalled by the ugliness we witnessed this weekend, and I know that's a sign of my privilege. I haven't had to face structural racism. I imagined that modern-day Nazis were laughable, and that the moral arc of my nation would bend toward justice without my active assistance. No longer. These hatreds are real, and alive, and playing out even now. They will not go away on their own.

The work ahead is long, but we must not give up. We have to build a better nation than this: more just, more righteous, concerned with the needs of the immigrant and the refugee, cherishing our differences of origin and appearance, upholding the rights of every human being to thrive regardless of race or religion or gender expression, cherishing every human being as made in the image of the Infinite One.

In offering that core Jewish teaching, I don't mean to parrot the "all lives matter" rhetoric that erases the realities of structural racism. Every human being is made in the divine image. That doesn't change the fact that in today's America, we don't all have equal opportunities or receive equal treatment. In today's America, racism is virulent. So are other forms of bigotry and hatred. We have to change that.

We have to mobilize, and educate, and hold elected officials accountable, and combat voter suppression, and give hatred no quarter. Those of us who are white have to work against racism and the malignant rhetoric of white supremacy. We have to combat antisemitism in all of its forms. We have to recognize that all forms of oppression are inevitably intertwined, and we need to work to disentangle them all.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. We won't all be able to participate in this holy work in the same ways. Some will be able (for reasons of gender or skin color or finances) to put their bodies on the line in direct action and protest. Others will participate by calling congresspeople, running for office, writing op-eds, or teaching children how to be better than this. But it's incumbent on all of us to do what we can.

I've often heard people muse aloud that we wonder how we would have reacted if we'd been alive during the Shoah, or the Civil Rights years, or any number of other flashpoint times of crisis and injustice. Would we have protected the vulnerable? Would we have spoken out? Would we have been upstanders? This is a time of crisis and injustice, and the only unacceptable response is doing nothing at all.

 

Some links:

 

Cross-posted, with some additional framing material, to my From the Rabbi blog.


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.

 

 

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