Mishpatim: the angry ox and the Chapel Hill shooting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the Chapel Hill shootings


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer After Eric Garner


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Justice, justice shall you pursue


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Injustice: the Ferguson grand jury's decision

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

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

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


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



We have to build a better world than this

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


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

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

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

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

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

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







Seeking peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Project Daniel, 3D printing, and hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grief at the deaths of unarmed black men


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.


Image: from a print by Jackie Olenick.

Another poem of hope


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 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."


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" »