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RHR2010: How Long Before Indefinite Detention Without Charge Becomes Permanent Betrayal of Our Values?

RHR-NA conference

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

The day begins with shacharit (my favorite moment: singing a snippet of our abbreviated Hallel to the tune of "Maoz Tzur" in honor of Chanukah) and breakfast. After a word of welcome from (and a brief commercial for) UJA / Federation New York, we begin our first plenary session of the day:

How Long Before Indefinite Detention Without Charge Becomes Permanent Betrayal of Our Values?

This session features Donna Lieberman, New York Civil Liberties Union; Gabor Rona, Human Rights First; Michael Ratner, Center for Constitutional Rights; and Rabbi Marla Feldman, Union of Reform Judaism.

"Indefinite detention is another form of slavery," says one of our welcomers. We read just two weeks ago about Joseph being put into Pharaoh's prison -- "that was a form of indefinite detention!" But even if some of the prisoners in Guantanamo could interpret dreams as Joseph did, that wouldn't get them out of prison.

"Nearly a decade after the horrific 9/11 attacks, we're still living very much under their shadow," says Donna Lieberman. "Of course the pain of those who lost loved ones is very fresh. But the collateral damage to our civil liberties is remarkably ongoing." Government behavior which would have once been unthinkable has become the new normal: indefinite detention, surveilance, all in the name of "national security" and the global war on terror. Many of us thought that when the Bush regime was over, the worst offenses would cease -- but we know now that this has not been the case.

Lieberman introduces our panelists (I'm not taking notes on their bios -- you can read about these folks if you click on the links to their names, above) and then we get rolling. Our first speaker is Rabbi Marla Feldman, who begins by laying out the Jewish foundation of our thinking on these issues and explains that after she starts with these basics she'll speak more directly to the subject of this panel. We often speak, she notes, of the notion of human beings being created in the divine image, b'tzelem Elohim. "That means that all human beings should be treated with dignity, as equals, with one another." Jewish tradition also impels us to treat the strangers in our midst as one of our own, "for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. So citizens and non-citizens were governed by the same laws" in the ancient world, she says. "Jewish tradition commands us to treat them as one and the same."

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RHR2010: Human Rights Under Fire in the Age of Obama and Netanyahu

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

I almost didn't make it here in time -- I hadn't read the conference schedule closely enough, and went to the facility where tomorrow and Tuesday's events will be taking place instead of to tonight's venue! (The doorman at the other facility told me that several lost rabbis had stopped in as I did, baffled about why no one else was there.) But here I am -- hooray. I arrived at the beautiful Bnai Jeshurun sanctuary in time for R' Shawn Zevit's beautiful opening song ("For freedom's never-ending spark / Light one candle in the dark..."), a powerful prayer on behalf of the mourners and those impacted by the horrible Carmel fires, and the lighting of Chanukah candles.

Conference Opening Plenary: Human Rights Under Fire in the Age of Obama and Netanyahu

This session features Iain Levine, Human Rights Watch; Dr. Naomi Chazan, New Israel Fund; and the Hon. Elizabeth Holtzman.

"This is an important subject," says Holtzman. "Many of us understand that there are serious issues with regard to human rights, civil rights, civil liberties in both Israel and the United States. Here, we see that some of the most serious crimes -- torture, illegal surveilance, illegal treatment of detainees, illegal war-making have been left unaccountable. In Israel we see other kinds of assaults on civil liberties."

Holtzman describes our first speaker, Dr. Naomi Chazan, as one of the great Jewish women thinkers of our times. "She [Chazan] was a pioneer in dealing with women's rights and improving the status of women in Israel," Holtzman tells us, as Chazan founded the Israel Women's Network. "Naomi's a very courageous woman; I remember sharing a sealed room with her when Sadam Hussein's scud missiles were being launched at Israel." Chazan is being demonized in her own country, Holtzman says, and that is simply appalling. The crowd applauds for her and her work.

Dr. Naomi Chazan begins her formal remarks by saying, "I'm here tonight to challenge us all."

The biggest challenge to Israel-- since 1948 and before -- is that right now, it is clear that the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel is on the verge of bringing about two separate and equally pernicious processes. The first is the inability to resolve the conflict, and without resolution of the conflict and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Israel's ability to integrate into the region and to survive is going to be well-nigh impossible. And on the other hand, the continuation of the occupation is eating away at the moral fabric of Israeli society and threatening its democratic character and the values that underlie its existence. If it continues much longer, [Israel] will implode.

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Brokenness and hope: in this week's Torah portion and in our lives

This week we're in parashat Miketz, continuing the Joseph story. I want to share a couple of beautiful teachings which I learned from the writings of Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank, may his memory be a blessing. (This teaching can be found in his Meta-parshiot commentary from 5757.) Genesis 42:1 reads: וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם; וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב לְבָנָיו, לָמָּה תִּתְרָאוּ. / -- "Now Jacob saw that there were rations in Egypt..."

The word translated here as "rations" (some translations say "corn") is שבר. With the dot on the upper-right of the ש, the word is shever, "rations." (R' Wolfe-Blank explains that the word "rations" means "distribution of food" -- in that sense it speaks to a kind of brokenness, e.g. a small quantity of food broken into many pieces.) It's also a homonym for another word (pronounced the same way) which means "destruction." But with the dot on the upper-left of the ש, the word is sever, "hope." Since the Torah scroll is written without dots or diacritical markings, one can creatively misread the word so that what Jacob is finding in Egypt is hope. (Though our tradition holds that the word is indeed shever, reading it creatively as sever is a classical midrashic technique for drawing new meaning out of the same letters.)

"Jacob saw that there was שבר in Egypt."

There was shever [brokenness] - that is the famine;
there was sever [hope] - that is the plenty.

There was shever [brokenness] - "Joseph was taken down to Egypt;"
there was sever [hope] - "Joseph became the ruler." (42:6)

There was shever [brokenness] - "They shall enslave and afflict them;"
there was sever [hope] - "In the end they shall go free with great wealth." (15:14)

(-- Bereshit Rabbah 25:1, quoted in The Beginning of Desire, Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, p. 301.)

Jacob, writes R' Wolfe-Blank, is having a simultaneous vision of hope and of brokenness. He sees that in Mitzrayim, the children of Israel will be made into slaves -- and yet he sees that in emerging from Mitzrayim, the children of Israel will become a great nation. "Without a crisis, without 'going down to Egypt,' hope cannot arise."

This is the message of the Joseph story writ large: sometimes descent is necessary in order for ascent to be possible. Joseph had to be thrown into a pit in order to be rescued; had to be sold into slavery in order to rise up in Egypt; had to be thrown in Pharaoh's prison in order to be in a position to interpret Pharaoh's dream and achieve the power which would enable him to save the lives of all Egypt and of his own home community as well.

And in our lives, too. Sometimes you have to go through something hard in order to be able to get to something sweet. A woman at the end of pregnancy has to endure labor and birth before her child can be born. New parents have to endure weeks of sleeplessness and exhaustion before their child even learns to smile. Relationships go through tough times, and the only way out is through -- but if you trust that something better is coming on the other side, then the dark moments become bearable, because they're the path toward new light.

"This is reflected in the lights of Hanuka," writes R' Wolfe-Blank, "where we live through the darkest part of the year and light the wicks of hopefulness." As we light our Chanukkah candles tonight, may we be blessed with a vision which transforms any brokenness in our present lives into the wholeness which is coming. Chag urim sameach (a joyous festival of lights) and Shabbat shalom!

Tunes for Chanukah

It's a custom, writes R' David Seidenberg here at NeoHasid, to meditate on the light of the Chanukah candles and to sing while doing so. He offers a beautiful niggun for slow, quiet Chanukah meditation. The melody is a Skolyer one; the words are the words to Ana B'Koach, which I posted about back in August. (If you want to hear him sing it, that NeoHasid page is the place to go.) While Chanukah isn't as rife with melody as some other holidays of this time of year, there are melodies which suit the season. Here are a few.

One of the songs that's traditionally sung after the candles are lit is Hanerot Hallalu, which talks about how we kindle these lights in remembrance of the miracles and wonders which God did for our ancestors at this season and how the lights must be kindled only in order to spark our mindfulness, not to be used for mundane purposes. You can hear an elderly Israeli gentleman chanting that one, after the other Chanukah blessings, at the end of this short video on YouTube here. Or, for something a bit more musical, here's a recording of women's voices singing an adaptation of the prayer in harmony, in Hebrew and in English.

I remember standing in the dining room of the house where we lived when I was a kid, singing selected verses of Maoz Tzur, "Rock of Ages," in Hebrew and in English. It turns out that the song was written about 900 years ago, and the tune that I grew up on is an adaptation of a German folk song which was also favored by Martin Luther when he chose choral settings. (Read all about it at JHOM: About Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages).) If the classical translation by Gottheil and Jastrow isn't your style, you might dig Reb Zalman's singable translation. Anyway, here's the tune I grew up singing [mp3], performed by a choir accompanied by piano.

One of my favorite songs to listen to (or sing) during Chanukah is "Or Zarua" by Shir Yaakov. (You can listen to it here at It's not a Chanukah song per se, but it feels thematically appropriate to me. The words translate to "Light is sown for the righteous / and for the upright of heart, joy," and the second line is "For with You is the source of life / in Your light we see light." The theme of light in the darkness is a resonant one at this season. (Once again I apologize to readers in the southern hemisphere, for whom all of this winter/darkness material couldn't be more wrong.)

If you're a fan of folk music, you probably already know "Light One Candle," Peter Paul & Mary's paean to the Maccabees, to the "terrible sacrifice justice and freedom demand," and to the "wisdom to know when the peacemakers' time is at hand." Anyway, you can watch it here on YouTube. (I think their retelling of the story of the Maccabbees is necessarily limited, but that doesn't make it any less of a great song. If you want discourses on the history and implications of the holiday, try R' Arthur Waskow's Origins of Hanukkah: Miracle or Revolt? or my post Mai Chanukah? But I like the PP&M song just as a song, even if the history it offers is a bit redacted.)

On a different note, I can't resist offering this link again, though I know I posted it last year too: Hallel using Christmas carol melodies. It's customary to sing the psalms of Hallel every day during Chanukah; if you like Christmas tunes and you get a kick out of the idea of using secular (or other traditions') melodies for celebratory psalm-singing, then you might dig this too!

I made a solstice playlist a couple of years ago as the days were growing shorter and darker. I had a fantasy of sharing all of the tracks here, but many of my favorites don't seem to be online anywhere -- Richard Shindell's "Darkness, Darkness," Richard Thompson's live rendition of "Remember O Thou Man," Maria Kalaniemi and Sven Ahlback's "Randas" (which means "Dawning.") Even the Barenaked Ladies' "Hanukkah Blessings" song, which features their own lyrics alongside the words of the Chanukah blessings, isn't online anywhere! So instead I'll ask: what music is enlivening your Chanukah this year?