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" »


Confronting Jewish privilege at the Jewish-Muslim emerging leaders retreat

Bigstock-silhouette-of-ten-young-women-15281810-996x497-53ad8f22“If you have parents who went to college, take a step forward.”

“If when you walk into a store, the workers sometimes suspect you are going to steal something because of your race, take one step back.”

“If you see people who share your identity reflected on television and in movies in roles you don’t consider degrading, take a step forward.”

When we began the exercise, we were standing in a row, holding hands. Our facilitators took turns reading a series of statements: if this is true for you, step this way. If that is true for you, step that way. It wasn’t long before our chain of hands was broken.

Before this session, I would have said I was aware of my privilege as a white, affluent, college-educated, Jewish cis-gender woman. I’ve read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. But it turned out that I wasn’t nearly as aware of privilege as I had thought.

In Jewish Renewal we speak often in the paradigm of the “four worlds”, of assiyah (physicality), yetzirah (emotion), briyah (thought) and atzilut (spirit/essence). In briyah, the world of intellect, I think I did have a handle on my own privilege. But when I had the physical experience of having to let go of the hands of my friends, and of seeing at the end where each of us was positioned, the realities impacted me in the emotional and spiritual realms, and they hit me hard.

This exercise, often called The Privilege Walk, was part of our session on “Challenges in Jewish-Muslim Engagement” at a wonderful retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders, held this month in Chester, Connecticut, and organized by the Reconstructionist Rabbinic College’s department of multifaith initiatives...

Read my whole essay at Zeek: New Depths in Jewish-Muslim Dialogue: Jewish Privilege.

 

Deep thanks to RRC and to the Henry Luce Foundation for making the retreat possible, and to my Jewish and Muslim sisters who attended, facilitated, and taught at the retreat.

Shabbat shalom and chodesh Tamuz tov to my Jewish readers; to my Muslim readers, Ramadan Mubarak!


On the Presbyterian conversation about divestment from Caterpillar et al.

27939I've seen some concern lately in the Jewish community about the conversation which some of our Christian cousins -- specifically the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA) -- are having about divestment and Israel. I think it's possible that some of the concern comes from lack of clarity about what the Presbyterians are actually discussing.

The Presbyterian church is not talking about divesting from Israel. (Indeed: one cannot divest from a country, only from a corporation.) They're considering withdrawing their church investments from three American-based multinational companies which make certain kinds of equipment used by the military.

Here's a link to the report which lays out their recommendations. And, from that report, here are their reasons for suggesting divestment from these three companies, in brief:

  • Caterpillar sells heavy equipment (e.g. the armored IDF Caterpillar D9) used by the Israeli government in military and police actions to demolish Palestinian homes and agricultural lands. (See On the Tent of Nations, destruction of orchards, and the path to peace.) It also sells heavy equipment used in the West Bank for construction of, among other things, settlements, roads which are solely open to settlers, and the construction of the Separation Barrier.
  • Hewlett-Packard sells hardware to the Israeli Navy, including Electronic Data Systems which provide biometric ID used to monitor Palestinians (and not used to monitor Israelis) at several checkpoints in the West Bank and in the separate Palestinian road system.
  • Motorola sells an integrated communications system, known as "Mountain Rose," to the Israeli government which uses it for military communications. They also provide equipment for the IDF, including ruggedized smartphones, and have signed a contract to provide the next generation of this technology to the IDF.

The conversation about divestment comes from the church's Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (CMRTI), a denominational committee which works to ensure that their investments are aligned with their stated religious values. The Presbyterian Church has an official policy of only investing in businesses which are pursuing peaceful endeavors.

The PCUSA has made these sorts of decisions before. Early in the church's history they withdrew investments from companies which produce alcohol. In 1980, they began withdrawing investments from corporations involved in military production. As one Presbyterian writes, PCUSA's "social witness policy prohibits [us] from investing in industries that harm people. We do not, for example, invest in gambling, firearms, pornography, and alcohol." I can understand why the CMRTI thinks that if their church seeks to only invest in businesses which do the work of peace, these corporations are not a fitting place for their investments.

Some of the Jewish critique of the church's process seeks to make the case that focusing divestment and other economic attention on what happens in Israel is inappropriate if equal attention isn't also paid to other places. But to me it makes perfect sense that the church would pay attention to "the Holy Land." It's easy for us, as Jews, to forget that Christians have a two-thousand-year-old attachment to this place. Don't we all pay attention to places which are emotionally and spiritually meaningful to us?

It may also be noteworthy that the PCUSA's investing agencies continue to hold stock in companies which do business in Israel, among them Intel, Oracle, Coca‐Cola, Procter & Gamble, IBM, Microsoft, McDonald's and American Express. (And that they have chosen at various times to withdraw investments from companies which did business in South Africa, Burma, and Sudan -- companies doing business in Israel are not the only subjects of their attention.) They're considering withdrawing their investments specifically from these three companies which produce implements used in a militarized or militaristic manner -- not from Israeli businesses or from other businesses working in Israel.

I don't imagine that any of these corporations would be substantially impacted by the removal of the PCUSA's funds. The divestment from Caterpillar et al. would be merely symbolic. But religous institutions frequently work in the realm of the "merely symbolic," and I can understand how this gesture could be meaningful -- both to members of this church, and to my friends who are working toward a just and lasting peace.

When I hear the anxiety from sectors of the Jewish community which oppose this divestment, I hear fear that this divestment proposal is thinly-veiled antisemitism; that it delegitimizes Israel; and that its passage will lead to further anti-Israel feeling. I see the situation differently. To me, what "delegitimizes" Israel is the injustices of the occupation, and I don't think it's appropriate to try to shame the Presbyterians into continuing to invest in corporations which do work they deem unethical.

The prophet Isaiah -- author of a holy text shared by Jews and Christians, though we sometimes interpret it in different ways -- speaks of the day when we will beat our guns into plowshares. (Some artists are taking that call to heart even now, turning guns into religious art, or into musical instruments.) Choosing not to invest in companies which make implements of war -- whether they be guns, or military communications systems -- is one way of embracing that prophetic vision of peace.


This Year's Revelation -- at Zeek

I have a new essay in Zeek. In this piece I draw on classical midrash and on Rabbis Without Borders thinking (as I did last year in the essay Being Meir) to make the argument that Torah belongs to all of us, no matter who we are -- and that God calls us to rise above the binaries which polarize us. Binaries within the Jewish community, binaries between us and other communities, binaries in the American political system -- what would happen if we could transcend those?

Here's a taste of the essay, a passage talking about the revelation at Sinai:

All of us were there. All of us heard.
 And what we heard, we heard according to our ability to understand. Torah comes to meet us wherever we are. Torah comes to lift us up, wherever we are. Torah comes to inspire us, wherever we are. And because each of us hears according to her or his own temperament and inclinations, we don’t always understand Torah in the same ways. But Torah doesn’t belong only to those who read it this way, or those who read it that way. Torah does not belong to religious liberals any more than it belongs to religious conservatives. Torah trumps those categories.

According to our midrashic tradition, God gives Torah to all of us — regardless of gender expression, sexual orientation, age, race, creed, color, class, political party — and it belongs to all of us, wherever we are.
 oes that seem too radical? Look back at the beginning of the midrash: God’s voice divided itself into every human language. For all that our tradition privileges Hebrew, revelation didn’t happen only in that language.

Revelation came in every language, because revelation belongs not only to Jews but to all creation. As my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi likes to say, God broadcasts on all channels; each religious tradition hears revelation on the channel to which we are attuned. The necessary corollary to that, of course, is that each religious tradition contains at least some ultimate truth. If some facet of the Infinite is revealed to each religious tradition, then it’s no longer possible to say that we have it right and they have it wrong.

Torah isn’t just for us, no matter how “us” is defined. [...]

I hope you'll click through and read the whole piece: This Year's Revelation.

Comments welcome.


Listening across our differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related:

Image: from a print by Jackie Olenick.


Another poem of hope

NOT THERE YET


When Moshiach comes
    everyone will celebrate
        interdependence day.

We'll line the streets
    for a parade of children
        leading lion cubs and lambs,

wave flags emblazoned
    with our blue-green earth
        against the star-spangled void.

All the world's marching bands
    with their gleaming epaulettes
        will play anthems in counterpoint.
        
On that day we'll remember
    that every molecule on earth
        is made of the same stardust.

All humanity is responsible
    for one another. The trees
        breathe out what we breathe in.

The only way
    to get it together
        is together.



The idea that every molecule on earth is made of stardust comes from a recent episode of the show Cosmos, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

"All humanity is responsible / for one another" is a riff on the Talmudic phrase Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, "All Israel is/are responsible for one another."

"The only way to get it together is together" is a quote from Reb Zalman.


This week's portion: creating liberation; Shavuot; and the Jubilee

Liberty+bell+PAThis week's Torah portion, Behar, tells us that when we enter into the land we may farm for six years but the seventh year should be a Shabbat for the land. During that year we should neither sow nor reap; it is a chance for the earth to experience the sacred rest which is part of the structure of creation. The Torah goes further: not only is every seventh year meant to be a shmita (sabbatical) year, but after seven "sevens" of years -- 49 years -- the 50th year is the Yovel, or "Jubilee," and that year too is a year of sacred rest.

During the Yovel, all debts are cancelled; those who have gone into indentured servitude are released; and any land transactions which have taken place are annulled so that the land can return to its original owners. Or perhaps I should say, original caretakers -- since Torah is clear that the land may be lent to the tribes of Israel, on condition of appropriate behavior thereupon, but it truly belongs to the Holy One of Blessing.

It's always striking to read these verses during the counting of the Omer. This week's Torah portion instructs us to count seven "sevens" of years, and to celebrate the 50th year as a time for proclaiming liberty throughout the land. Right now we are counting seven "sevens" of days, and we will celebrate the 50th day as the time of the giving of the Torah. What might the parallel teach us? How is Shavuot like the Jubilee?

In his collection Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber recounts that the rabbi of Kotzk was asked: "Why is Shavuot called 'the time the Torah was given' rather than the time we received the Torah?" The Kotzker answered: "The giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times." Shavuot is the day when we celebrate God's gift of Torah -- but the reciprocal process of actively receiving Torah is ongoing. The Jubilee year is the year when we celebrate release from our accumulated debts and transactions -- but the reciprocal process of actively creating liberation is ongoing.

The sabbatical and Jubilee year teach the importance of emunah, trust and faith. In the ancient world, taking a year off from cultivating food was a profound gesture of emunah. It required a leap of faith in God Who would provide even if we stopped our farming and harvesting. (And if that were true of the sabbatical year, how much more so the Jubilee year.)

My b'nei mitzvah students frequently ask me whether this ever actually happened. Maybe, maybe not. I can offer a variety of rabbinic teachings about the conditions under which we are traditionally considered obligated to follow these teachings. But for me, that's not the interesting question. I'd rather ask: what spiritual truths can we learn from this week's Torah portion?

As Shabbat is our weekly reminder to relinquish work and to recognize ourselves as holy and beloved regardless of our job titles, salaries, or accomplishments, the shmita year reminds us that the earth too is holy and beloved regardless of how "valuable" it may be and regardless of how we may usually put it to work for us. And the Yovel year urges us to let go of debts and grudges, to relinquish old angers and outdated paradigms, in order to experience true freedom.

It's only when we are free that we can choose to enter into a different kind of relationship -- the covenant between us and God which we reconsecrate and renew at Shavuot. Slaves to Pharaoh, slaves to overwork, slaves to opinion and custom can't enter into real relationship with God. But once we are free, then we can choose: not to be enslaved, but to serve. Our purpose in this life is not earning money or seeking fame. It's serving God through caring for our planet and living in right relationship with each other.

This requires emunah, trust and faith, no less than the temporary cessation of farming did. To proclaim release and liberty -- to consciously free ourselves from old paradigms, constricted understandings, the grudges and hatreds we have taken on -- requires us to trust that something better is possible. It requires us to believe that there is more to who we are than our accumulated labels. But imagine if each of us could really do that. What new Torah might we be capable of receiving at Shavuot then?

 

Image: closeup of the Liberty Bell, with its inscription of a verse from this week's Torah portion: "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

 


The inner lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers

6213_THE140213BRIDGES_47I live in two universes when I work in the Middle East. One is a universe where peoples are divided by bitter and violent sorrows, old resentments, understandable suspicions, and completely polarized affiliations. It is a world of great injustices and passed-on abuse, a place where people wait for apologies but are unable to offer any.

Within that world, however, there is another world, a secret world of those people who dare touch those of the other side with their words, their deeds, and their hearts. That special world is to me -- as an activist, spiritual seeker, and analyst of conflict -- a universe of enormous significance. For it is in that mysterious world of human bridges between enemies that we find flowering up from a ground of death, hatred, and war, something extraordinary: the seeds of life, the seeds of the future.

So writes Marc Gopin in the introduction to Bridges Across An Impossible Divide: The Inner Lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers.

I have been working my way through this book slowly. The writing is clear, but the stories the peacemakers tell are intense and they merit close attention. Here's another quote from Gopin, responding to the beginning of  the story told by peacemaker Ibtisam Mahameed. Ibtisam has mentioned the battle in Tantura in 1948; in the standard Palestinian narrative, this battle was a horrific massacre of Palestinians by Israelis. In the standard Israeli narrative, though the fact of a battle is uncontested, there is no massacre. Gopin writes:

I have become used to hearing these stories from the many Palestinians who I have come to know over the years. So many stories, and they seem to add up to a pattern of abuse in 1948 that continues to shock me. Each time it sends me into a tailspin, and I am still trying to examine my own reaction. Is it shame? I was brought up to believe that Jews were incapable of acting this way.

Gopin's description of the tailspin engendered by hearing these kinds of stories is familiar to me. I don't want to devolve into endless navel-gazing about how my Jewish soul aches both when Jews are victimized and when Jews victimize others -- but I think that confronting my own feelings can help me do the important spiritual work of living with the both/and where the Middle East is concerned.

Ultimately, he concludes, for the purposes of this book it does not matter whether 250 people were killed extrajudicially in Tantura or fifty. What matters is that it was a horrifying night for civilians, who (everyone agrees) were expelled from their homes and imprisoned just after the battle, and that there were deaths, and that this memory continues to haunt those who were there and the descendants of those who were there. What matters, on a personal scale, is the trauma which continues to be carried. (On every side.)

In her interview, Ibtisam moves from the trauma of memory to a philosophy which argues that war and violence are the easy path, and that peace is the hard courageous work:

I don't want to leave anger and sadness in my heart. First of all this will affect my health, and I felt that dialogue and discussion with the other side, even if you feel a strong pain inside, is better than throwing a rock at them. I want to give peace as a legacy to my children and grandchildren.

Ibtisam articulates a feminism which is rooted in her sense of the God-given equality of men and women. And she also argues for the importance of having women as peacemakers and bridge-builders:

I believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict started long ago, not from the 1948 war, it started since Ibrahim's era when he decided to marry Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael. Then Sarah gave birth to Isaac, and then both of those women have a conflict over one man, Ibrahim. Therefore Ibrahim had to take Hagar with her breast-feeding baby to a distant mountain which was deserted. He left her there and return back to Sarah. Therefore the brothers were raised separately and didn't have any kin relationship...

I believe that at the end, there will be a solution to this conflict, and there will be peace in the Middle East. But the role of women in this conflict is harder than that of men, because women are those who hold their child inside. And they are the ones who are responsible to raise him. So, if a mother loses her child, she will hold a severe pain in her heart. That's why we as women have to be more aware to the political movement, and become part of it.

Here's an excerpt of an interview with Ibtisam. This is part of an interview series called "Unusual Pairs," also a Marc Gopin project (with filmmaker David Vyorst) -- I believe the videos came first and the book grew out of the video interviews.

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go to it at YouTube: Elana and Ibtisam.)

Continue reading "The inner lives of Arab and Jewish Peacemakers" »


Daily April poem: about Elijah the prophet

ELIJAH WAITS


Elijah walks the streets
with Moshiach's phone number
programmed into his cellphone.

In his messenger bag
gift cards and cigarettes
he hands out to the homeless.

He always buys roses and gum
from the kids who peddle
at busy intersections.

He doesn't visit
every seder in the world
anymore. He still loves

the old melodies, the way
the story rewrites you
from the inside out if you let it

he finagles invitations
to the houses with great singing
and eager children, but

he's learned that our words
only matter so much.
When we box Pesach away

he holds his breath:
will we really emerge different
this time? Will we admit

we choose comfort over conscience
we cling to the neverending hametz
of our painful history --

or will we whistle Had Gadya
and recreate Mitzrayim?
Elijah sits back down

on the crumbling stoop
in the overcrowded hospital
at the enemy's table and waits.


Today's poem arose all on its own, without a prompt. It draws on some classical midrash about Elijah.

Had Gadya is a Passover song. Mitzrayim means Egypt, though it relates to the word root meaning narrow, so it can be rendered as "The Narrow Place."

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Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour

13492442823_43af1b707f_nOne of the things I knew I wanted to do, upon returning to Israel for the first time in many years, was to go with Eliyahu McLean to Hebron on his Hebron Dual Narrative Tour. I had heard about the trip from a rabbi friend, who wrote to me:

Eliyahu's trip to Hebron is amazing and wonderful and done in tandem with a Palestinian guide. I cannot recommend the experience highly enough... on Eliyahu's trip, one spends 1/2 the day speaking with Jewish settlers, and 1/2 the day speaking with Palestinians. One experiences what is happening on the ground there. It is painful, complex, and not rhetorical or polemical.  It is not either/or to go with Eliyahu, but both/and in every sense of the word.

Not either/or, but both/and: that sounds right up my alley. Eliyahu was the first person ordained by Reb Zalman as a Rodef Shalom, a seeker of peace. (Learn more about his work at Jerusalem PeaceMakers, which he co-founded along with the late sheikh Abdul Aziz-Bukhari, may his memory be a blessing. And here's an interview with Eliyahu at JustVision. While I'm at it -- let me mention that Eliyahu and my friend Reuven collaborated on transcribing the story of Reb Zalman Among the Sufis of Hebron, which I have cherished for years.)

13538370743_c172463a27_nI had visited Hebron once, in 2008, but not on this kind of dual-narrative trip. I was eager to see what I would learn. So last Wednesday morning I woke up early at the Ecce Homo convent and made my way through the Old City, out the Damascus Gate, and all the way down Street of the Prophets to meet up with the group. We were a mixed group of internationals: from Iceland, Denmark, Germany, Canada, the United States, and more. As far as I could tell, I was the only Jew on the tour.

(Long post ahead -- more than 4000 words, and many images, too. I hope you'll read the whole thing, despite its length.)

One of the first things that Eliyahu said to us was, "Remember that this trip is about dual narratives. You may feel at times that they are dueling narratives!" The first half of the day was spent with Eliyahu as our guide in the Jewish area of Hebron, which is called H2. H2 consists of about 20% of Hebron, geographically speaking; about 30,000-40,000 Palestinians live there. He reminded us that Hebron is one of Judaism's four holy cities, was the first capital from which King David reigned, and is considered in Jewish tradition to be second only to Jerusalem. 

Eliyahu speaks to our group; two Palestinian women at the edge of Shuhada / King David street.

He pointed out that both sides in this conflict tend to paint themselves as the victims. For instance: the Palestinian narrative holds that the closure of Shuhada street (which Jews call King David street) is a form of apartheid. That street had been a primary market thoroughfare before it was closed by the IDF. Now it is a ghost town of shuttered shops (and Palestinians are forbidden from walking on most of it), which the Palestinian narrative sees as a land grab and an exercise of power and control. The Israeli narrative says that King David street was closed because of suicide bombings and other attacks on Jews, and points out that Palestinians have access to 97% of the city while Jews are confined to a mere 3%, so clearly it's the Jews, not the Palestinians, who are the victims. (That's one example of incompatible narratives; over the course of the day we encountered many others.)

Continue reading "Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour" »


Interview with Jen Marlowe, coauthor of I Am Troy Davis, in Zeek

Earlier this week I had the privilege of interviewing Jen Marlowe for Zeek magazine. We spoke about her new book, I Am Troy Davis, co-authored with Martina Davis-Correia, which tells the story of Troy Davis who was executed by the state of Georgia. We also talked about The Hour of Sunlight, the book she co-authored with Sami al-Jundi; about the death penalty and the state of the American criminal justice system; about how her Jewishness informs her activism; and about where she finds cause for hope. That interview is now published online, and here's how it begins:

Iatd-cover-5319fd32I first encountered Jen Marlowe’s work thanks to blogger (and frequent Open Zion, Ha’aretz, and Forward contributor) Emily L. Hauser. She had written a review of The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian’s Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker, which Marlowe had co-authored with Sami al-Jundi. I read the book, found it powerful though not always comfortable to read — and ultimately partnered with other local organizations to bring Marlowe to my town to speak about her work.

I knew then that she was already working on a new book, also co-authored. That new book is now out. It’s called I Am Troy Davis, and it’s written by Marlowe and Martina Davis-Correia along with Troy himself.

Much like The Hour of Sunlight, I Am Troy Davis shines a spotlight on systemic injustice not by speaking in generalities, but by telling one person’s story — and thereby opening up the experiences of countless others who are in similar shoes. I spoke with Marlowe about these two books, how her Judaism animates her work, and what we as readers can do to strengthen justice in an unjust world.— RB

ZEEK: Tell us about I Am Troy Davis. What is the book, and how did you get involved with it?

JM: I Am Troy Davis grew out of my relationship with Troy and with the Davis family. Troy was a man who spent 20 years on Georgia’s death row despite a very compelling case for his innocence. When that compelling case came to the attention of human rights organizations and then the media, it led to a worldwide movement, both to try to prevent the travesty of justice of Troy being executed, and also toward the abolition of the death penalty, especially when there’s such recognition of the human error that the system is rife with. A system like that has no business making the decision to take a life.

The book grew out of my friendship with him and his family. It was my way of helping them tell their story.

Read the whole thing: Broken Justice and the Death Penalty: Q and A With Jen Marlowe, Co-Author of I Am Troy Davis.


How to love while acknowledging flaws

Torah+scrollsI've been thinking lately about how to love something while acknowledging its flaws. A few years ago I read a thought-provoking speech by Wendy Doniger which touches on this. Here's an excerpt. (She's talking here about hermeneutics, which means "a way of reading" or "a way of interpreting.")

We need to balance what literary critics call a hermeneutics of suspicion -- a method of reading that ferrets out submerged agendas -- with a hermeneutics of retrieval or even of reconciliation (to borrow a term from the literature on the aftermath of genocidal wars in Africa and elsewhere). And this must include some sort of reconciliation to our own shameful American agendas, our own relationship with slavery and with the destruction of the native Americans, not to mention our present imperialism. And then we can begin to read our own classics differently, with what the philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur called a second naiveté: where, in our first naiveté, we did not notice the racism, and in our subsequent hypercritical reading we couldn’t see anything else, in our second naiveté we can see how good some writers are despite the inhumanity of their underlying worldviews. If their works really are great literature, they will survive this new reading.

-- Wendy Doniger, "Thinking More Critically About Thinking Too Critically"

I first read Doniger's address in a rabbinic school class called Moadim l'Simcha ("Seasons of Rejoicing"), a two-semester cycle of deep immersion in Hasidic texts. We aimed to explore and unpack some of the tradition's many teachings about the festival cycle. It was an amazing course, not least because the Hasidic texts themselves were amazing and rich and I return to them often.

And I also return often to this idea of Doniger's. It's a useful lens for reading Hasidic material, because that material is inevitably a product of the times and culture which produced it. In its presumptions about gender roles and about the inherent spiritual superiority of our own people, that literature can be problematic to a modern, cosmopolitan, feminist sensibility. What do we do with that, we who strive to be modern, cosmopolitan, feminist and who also yearn for the spiritual sustenance which those texts often contain?

That's where Doniger's idea of a hermeneutics -- which is to say, a mode of interpretation, or a way of reading -- of reconciliation comes in. We do ourselves no favors, and we do our tradition a disservice, when we blind ourselves to what's problematic. But we also do ourselves and our tradition a disservice when we take only the step of recognizing what's problematic, and fail to take the next step of balancing and reconciling what's problematic with what's beautiful, meaningful, and useful in the text at hand.

Maybe I'm revealing myself here as the Hegelian thinker my undergraduate education taught me to be. I'm always less interested in thesis and antithesis than in synthesis, the third step which bridges and transcends the binary. This thing is beautiful -- no, it's problematic -- no, it's both at once, and having acknowledged that, now I can interact with it in a different way. Indeed, maybe it's interesting and rich and thought-provoking precisely because it is both beautiful and problematic. Maybe I can learn something about it, and about myself, through engaging both with its beauty and with its problematic aspects.

Continue reading "How to love while acknowledging flaws" »


Dr. King, z"l (may his memory be a blessing)

I want to say something to honor Martin Luther King Day, but I don't know that I have words meaningful enough for the occasion. And as a white woman, I don't want to co-opt the memory of a great African American leader.

But one of my rabbinic and civil rights heroes, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, was a friend and admirer of Dr. King's. So I'll share a brief quotation from him, speaking after Dr. King's assassination. He said:

Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us...his mission is sacred...I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the influence of Dr. King.

(I found that in the essay Two Prophets, One Soul, written by Rabbi Harold Schulweis in honor of Rabbi Heschel's yarzheit.)

We have a long way to go before we reach the America of Dr. King's yearnings. But -- as the sages in Pirkei Avot remind us -- though it's not incumbent on us to finish the task, neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.

I'll leave you with a two-minute excerpt from the film Praying With My Legs, which speaks to how these two great men informed and inspired one another. May we, their descendants, do the same.

May the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King be a blessing.


Making God present: protecting human rights

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul for Human Rights Shabbat / parashat Vayigash, crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.


Today we're observing Human Rights Shabbat. Human rights are woven into the fabric of our tradition. They've been there from the very beginning, the creation of humanity in the image and the likeness of God. Every human being bears God's DNA, as it were; each of us reflects a unique facet of divine infinity.

Because every human being is a reflection of God, containing a spark of divinity within, every human being has inalienable human rights regardless of race, gender, creed. The right to worship freely, without coercion. The right to pursue meaningful work. The right to earn a living wage. The right to choose the shape of one's family. The right to be treated as a whole and holy creation of God.

Over recent weeks our Torah portions have taken us into the Joseph novella. Joseph's story features several suspensions of his human rights: when his brothers throw him into the pit, when he's sold into slavery, and when he's cast into Pharaoh's jails.

In Joseph's story, of course, everything happens for a reason. Joseph himself is certain of this. When he reconnects with his brothers he assures them, "don't feel guilty for what you did -- even if you intended it for ill, God intended it for good." The Joseph story is a classic example of what our tradition calls "descent for the sake of ascent." In order to be lifted up, you have to recognize that you're someplace low.

Here's someplace low: our world is marred by human rights violations which ignore the innate wholeness and holiness of every human being.

Continue reading "Making God present: protecting human rights" »


On the silencing of Dinah, and rape culture today

This post focuses on an act of Biblical rape, and on silencing and rape in our own world.
If that is likely to be triggering for you, please feel free to skip it.

 

That same night, he got up, took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, and crossed at a ford of the Jabbok. (Bereshit/Genesis 32:23, in this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach)

Looking-out-of-the-red-tent-renee-kahnI'll say more about Jacob's encounters on the banks of the Jabbok in my d'var Torah this coming Shabbat. (If you don't live locally and can't make it to services, never fear, I'll post it here on Sunday.) Today I'm focusing on a different aspect of the parsha. Note that Torah refers here to his eleven children, but we know that Jacob had twelve children at this point -- eleven boys, plus Dinah. Why, then, does Torah say eleven? Rashi explains, quoting Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) that Jacob hid Dinah in a box so that Esau would not see her and seek to marry her. Jacob was so afraid of his twin brother's animal appetites that he concealed Dinah in a coffin to keep her safe.

That may seem ironic when we reach the very next story: Dinah's encounter with a local man named Shechem, which some translations call seduction, though most translations name as rape. Afterwards, Torah tells us, Shechem falls in love with her, speaks tenderly to her, and sends his father Hamor to procure her as a wife. Later in Exodus 22:15 we will read that "If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to anyone and has sex with her, he must pay the customary bride price and marry her" -- perhaps a troubling practice, to our modern sensibilities, but apparently an accepted one in the ancient Near East. And that's exactly what Shechem does.

But Dinah's brothers, outraged by this act of violence against their sister, devise a plan. (Some have argued that they were more outraged by Shechem's non-Israelite status and by their sister's act of premarital intercourse than by the suggested marriage -- see Dinah: Bible at the Jewish Women's Archive.) They explain that they couldn't marry off their sister to a man who isn't circumcised. They say to Hamor that if every man in the village will agree to be circumcised, then they will let their sister marry into this community. Then, when every man in the village is incapacitated and healing from this elective surgery, the brothers slaughter all of them. They kill every male in the village, and take their wives and children as captives. They take all of the wealth and livestock which belonged to that village.

Throughout this narrative, Dinah never speaks once. Her voice is entirely absent from the black fire of our text.

Continue reading "On the silencing of Dinah, and rape culture today" »


Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)

Several weeks ago, on the Shabbat morning immediately before Tisha b'Av, I sat down at the table in our social hall to study Torah with those who had joined us for services. We studied the haftarah reading assigned to that particular Shabbat, which comes from the prophet Isaiah, just like our assigned reading for today.

Here is a taste of the haftarah we read together that morning:

Why do you make sacrifices to Me? says your God.
I am overfull with burnt offerings; I take no delight in bloodshed.
Bring no more vain offerings. They are hateful to Me.
New moon and Shabbat when you gather --
I can't bear the iniquity of this community.
I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals.
They are a burden to Me. They weary Me.
When you spread out your hands in longing, I will hide My eyes.
When you call out in prayer, I will not hear.
Your hands are bloody with wrongdoing.
Wash yourself, make yourself clean: put away your evil acts before My eyes.
Turn from evil and do good.
Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, tend to the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Come now and let us reason together, says God.
Though your sins be scarlet, they will become white as snow.
Though they are red as blood, they will become white as clean wool.

"I hate your new moons and your appointed festivals." I tremble every time I read that passage. Because I love our new moons and our appointed festivals! I love how our tradition teaches us to mark time, to pursue spiritual transformation and teshuvah. Of course, today we offer prayers, not animals. But what I hear Isaiah saying is: because our hands are bloody with wrongdoing, God is sickened by our worship. As one of the people sitting around the Torah study table put it, on that Shabbat morning before Tisha b'Av: if we aren't also pursuing justice, our rituals are meaningless. Worse than meaningless, because they delude us into thinking that spiritual life is "enough" even if our world is unjust.

I love our rituals. I have made it my life's work to try to connect people, through those rituals and texts and practices, with God. But I hear Isaiah's words, and I know that he is right.

There's a visible tension here between priest and prophet. In antiquity it was the job of the priests to keep Temple sacrifices going, to make atonement for the people through appropriate slaughter and prayer, to maintain and lubricate the flow of blessing into the world through their service in the Temple. And it was the job of the prophets to speak truth to power. To say, what y'all are doing isn't enough; God demands more of us. God demands justice and right behavior. If you don't act justly, then it doesn't matter one bit whether you're doing the sacrifices the way you were taught. The sacrificial system isn't enough.

In our Jewish lives today there exist neither priests nor prophets. The priestly system came to its end when the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 C.E. The end of prophecy is slightly harder to pin down, though the mainstream Jewish answer is that the era of prophecy came to an end even earlier.

We have neither priests nor prophets in today's world. But I don't think that means that the work they used to do is no longer necessary. On the contrary: I think it's our job, all of us, to be both priest and prophet for ourselves and for those around us. It's incumbent on all of us to sustain the rituals which keep our community life flowing smoothly -- and also to hear God's call for justice.

Three days before Tisha b'Av I sat with a group of y'all here and we talked about Isaiah's furious words. Two days before Tisha b'Av, we learned that George Zimmerman had been acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Continue reading "Isaiah, Trayvon Martin, and Yom Kippur (A sermon for Yom Kippur morning)" »


(Revised) Prayer for Syria

Pretty much every rabbi I know is either working on a sermon about Syria, or wondering whether we ought to be frantically scrapping an existing Rosh Hashanah sermon in order to preach about Syria, or reading voraciously to try to cultivate an informed opinion about Syria and whether the United States should intervene (or whether, perhaps, the US should have intervened eighteen months ago but has now missed its window.)

Here's a slightly different tack. I've spent some time today revising a prayer which I posted here just over a year ago. This revision is intended to be prayed aloud. In my community we'll be reciting this prayer toward the end of Rosh Hashanah services, alongside our Prayer for Israel and Prayer for Our Country. If this speaks to you, you're most welcome to use it; I ask only that you keep my name attached so that people know where it came from.

A version of this prayer / poem will appear in my forthcoming collection of Jewish liturgical poetry.


Prayer for Syria


Shekhinah, in Whose womb creation is nurtured:
when your children are slaughtered you weep.

Bring peace beneath Your fierce embrace
to Syria. Let a new image of the world be born

in which American Jews pray for Syrians, who pray
for Israelis, who pray for Palestinians, who pray

even for American Jews. Fill the hearts
of the insurgents with Your compassion

so that when the regime comes to its end
no one seeks the harsh justice of retaliation.

Awaken conscience in the Syrian government
and spark their dormant mercy. And for us:

help us to wield our power in service of good
and strengthen our resolve not to turn away.

We bless You, Source of Mercy. Bring wholeness
to this broken creation. And let us say: Amen.

My Neighbourhood in my neighborhood

Earlier this week I attended a screening of the short (25 minute) documentary film My Neighbourhood at The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. The filmmakers describe the film as being about "a remarkable nonviolent struggle in the heart of the world's most contested city." Here's the movie's official trailer:

(Edited to add:) For those who can't see the embed, it's here on YouTube. And for those who don't want to watch the trailer, here's a synopsis:

The documentary tells the story of Mohammed El Kurd, a Palestinian boy growing up in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. When Mohammed turns 11, his family is forced to give up part of their home to Israeli settlers, who are leading a campaign of court-sanctioned evictions to guarantee Jewish control of the area.

Shortly after their displacement, Mohammed’s family and other residents begin peacefully protesting against the evictions, determined not to lose their homes for good. In a surprising turn, they are quickly joined by scores of Israeli supporters who are horrified to see what is being done in their name. Among them is Jewish West Jerusalem resident Zvi Benninga and his sister Sara, who develop a strong relationship with Mohammed and his family as they take on a leading role in organizing the protests.

Through their personal stories, My Neighbourhood goes beyond the sensational headlines that normally dominate discussions of Jerusalem and captures voices rarely heard, of those striving for a shared future in the city.

I'd read a lot about it (see East Jerusalem Doc 'My Neighbourhood' Wins Peabody Award by Emily L. Hauser in The Daily Beast, or Sumeet Grover's review in the Huffington Post.) In addition to winning a Peabody, this short film won both at the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival and the Al Jazeera Documentary Festival -- how many movies can make that claim?

I knew I wanted to see it on the big screen. And I was especially interested in seeing it accompanied by the panel discussion which followed -- featuring Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace; Israeli writer, activist, refusenik, and poet Moriel Rothman (a frequent contributor to The Times of Israel and to Ha'aretz); and moderator Victor Navasky, Publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

I expected that the film and subsequent discussion would move, challenge, and discomfit me. I find that trying to look at the Middle East with clear eyes and an open heart always does. 

Let me just say this: You should watch the film. It's 25 minutes long, and the whole thing is available on YouTube. It tells its story better than I can. If this is a part of the world that you care about; if peace and justice are issues that you care about; you should take 25 minutes of your life and watch this film.

Watching it made me weep.

Continue reading "My Neighbourhood in my neighborhood" »


A poem after Tisha b'Av

WATER FROM THE SOURCE


No blessing is so fervent
as the one over water
fresh from the faucet

adorned with ice cubes
and a quarter of a lemon
at the end of Tisha b'Av.

The crunch of snap peas
cold from the fridge
and sweet as sugar

their texture, crisp
and bright against the tongue
almost brings me to tears.

A day immersed in trauma,
the fallen temple of justice
mothers wailing for their sons --

our fast can't bring
children back to life,
rebuild what is broken.

But it reminds me
people know this emptiness daily
and have nothing to eat.

And that other hunger
for an end to prejudice,
for a world redeemed...

God, rouse my thirst
for righteousness. Make me
care for this damaged world.

 


 

4053470943_1ed648a3af_mThis poem's title comes from the Hebrew song וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם-מַיִם בְּשָׂשׂוֹן / ushavtem mayim b'sasson [here on YouTube], which is a setting of Isaiah 12:3.

(See also Amos 5:24, "Let justice flow like waters, righteousness like a mighty stream.")

It is traditional Jewish practice to fast from both food and water during Tisha b'Av, when we remember the two fallen Temples and mourn the brokenness of creation.

On "the fallen temple of justice" and "mothers wailing for their sons," see: George Zimmerman, Not Guilty: Blood on the Leaves by Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker and Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic.

Image credit: by gnuckx, licensed under Creative Commons.

As we move now into the seven weeks of consolation between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah, may our Tisha b'Av galvanize us to build a more healed and redeemed world.


On yesterday's grief and today's rejoicing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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