RHR 2008: Closing reflections
December 09, 2008
In the last formal session of the day, Tom Wilner made reference to the story of Abraham arguing with God, though admitted that he doesn't know the story as well as he would like to. In response, during the closing ceremony, RHR's executive director Rabbi Brian Walt (read one of his essays: Some Hard Truths) told the story of God deciding to tell Avraham about his plans for Sodom and Gemorrah, because he wanted to develop a relationship with Avraham and his descendants so that they would grow to do what's just and right. That's the motto of Rabbis for Human Rights: "To Do What's Just and Right."
But the rule of law, he said, is not enough. Sometimes you have laws which don't make justice. God tells us: you need to do both. You need to uphold the rule of law, and also to make sure it is just. That's the mission of the Jewish people.
One of the things which struck me, over the course of the conference, was how often I heard people talking about a feeling of having come home. Rabbi Ellen Lipman said something about it in her closing benediction on the first night, and the sentiment was repeatedly echoed both in formal settings and in conversation.
It's important to have a space in which one feels at-home. I think this is especially true for those of us whose political stances may be to the left of the American mainstream. Those of us who feel strongly about issues of social justice, and whose political and ethical orientations are shaped by our religious convictions, can feel twice-marginalized: first, marginal as Jews within American culture writ large, and then marginal within mainstream Jewish community as supporters of, say, equal rights for Israelis and for Palestinians alike. Being part of a group like Rabbis for Human Rights allows us to affirm the ways in which our faith and our politics are inextricably intertwined.
And there's something delicious about coming home to a group of people with whom one shares basic orientations and passions, and about coming home to a group of old friends. It was fun for me to see how many groups of old friends clearly exist among the conference attendees; though this is only the second annual conference thrown by RHR-NA, it clearly brings together a lot of people who've been working and praying together for a long time. It had some of that tenor for me, too; over the course of the three days I spotted (and hugged, and talked with, and davened alongside) several of my teachers and friends from ALEPH and from Elat Chayyim. That's valuable in and of itself, regardless of what other good the conference can do.
The RHR conference offered me the opportunity to engage with some difficult realities. Listening to Avram Burg speak about the situation in Israel today; listening to Rabbi Brian Walt, who just led a RHR delegation to Israel, describe the racism and oppression he witnessed; listening to Rabbi Melissa Weintraub talk about torture, and then listening to Gita Gutierrez' unbelievably powerful remarks about American use of torture at Guantanamo and how we are all culpable in what our nation has done there: these were not easy. Often I came away drained. My heart hurt. It made me cry.
But the conference also offered me the opportunity for learning and for connection, which can heal the very heartsickness that the difficult material can induce. I come away strengthened in my sense that my Judaism calls me to work toward a just society, in my certainty that the prophetic call to justice still resonates in my religious community today, and in an awareness that I am not alone in caring deeply about these issues. I came away with a deeper sense of being part of a larger Jewish social justice community. And I came away inspired to find ways to do the work I need to do to help repair the world, an obligation which is incumbent on all of us.
One small thing I can do, and have already been doing, is spreading the word about the gathering we've just had. I'm delighted that these posts are being discussed at Jewschool and at Talk Islam and at JVoices; I hope that over time more folks will read these blog posts, and link to them, and share them with friends, so that the circle of people impacted by this series of panels and workshops and conversations can continue to grow.
For now...In assiyah, my body is tired from schlepping my laptop, and kinked into knots from contorting myself to type in some fairly un-ergonomic settings. In yetzirah, my emotions are brimming over. In briyah, my brain is full of new information and ideas and connections which will take a while to process. But in atzilut, the realm of essence, I know that all of these are facets of the whole, and I trust that over time I'll find myself integrating all of this material into my life and my work, my rabbinate, my poems, and my prayer.
To everyone I met at the conference: it was a pleasure! To everyone I haven't yet met, or didn't manage to meet: I look forward to next time. And to all of you who have been following along via Velveteen Rabbi, I want to thank you for listening. It's been a privilege to share this conference experience with you.