Pursuing justice

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"Justice, justice, shall you pursue." (Deut. 16:20)

Or in the translation of my friend and colleague Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, "Resist so that you may exist." Because Torah says we are to pursue justice in order that we may live.

It's not enough to support justice. Agree with justice. Nod our heads about justice. We're supposed to pursue it. To run after it. To seek it with all that we are.

We need to pursue justice because without justice we cannot wholly live.

We need to pursue justice because without justice, life isn't wholly living.

Cornel West wrote that "Justice is what love looks like in public." If we love the other -- and Torah is quite clear that we should: "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" is repeated no fewer than thirty-six times in Torah -- the way we are to express that love is by seeking justice.

And where there is no justice, "love" is a hollow word. In the absence of justice, love loses its meaning. If someone says they love you, but they won't pursue justice for you, then their love is at best false and at worst highly damaging. 

What does it mean for us to pursue justice?

It means acting ethically. Always. Without fail. As much as we can.

On a personal level, it means discerning where we've fallen short, apologizing to those whom we've harmed, and pursuing restitution for those whom we've harmed. That's the work of this time of year. (This is classical Jewish teaching; see Maimonides on teshuvah.)

Communally, social justice means "equal distribution of opportunities, rights, and responsibilities" across our differences. [Source.] If the systems of our society prevent any subgroup from having equal opportunities, rights, and responsibilities, that isn't justice. 

A world in which people of color are systematically disenfranchised from voting is not justice. (This week at havdalah when it's time to #BeALight, we might choose to support Fair Fight.) I'll bet we can all can think of other examples of injustice needing to be repaired. 

Pursuing justice means acting with integrity to uplift those who are disempowered -- in Torah's paradigm, the widow and the orphan; in today's paradigm, those who experience systematic discrimination.

This is our work in the world as Jews. This is our work in the world as human beings. This isn't new, but this year it seems more important than ever.

So here's my prayer today:

Please, God, strengthen our commitment to justice. Strengthen our readiness to not only uplift justice but to pursue it, to run after it, to seek it with all that we are. Because without justice, the world is broken.

And with justice -- only with justice -- we can aim to live up to our highest aspirations as individuals and as a society. With justice, we can live up to what God asks of us.

Because justice is what God asks of us. And justice is what we should ask of our government, and our communities, and our own selves. Justice is what we're called to pursue, all the days of our lives.

Kein yehi ratzon.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) I followed it with last year's Torah poem: Pursue.


Being a woman in America

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"These are not great times to be a woman in America," wrote Jennifer Wright in Harper's Bazaar. "At least, not if you are a woman who believes your body is your own." (She wrote those words two years ago. Now is worse.) Most of the women I know live daily with disbelief, anger, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, numbness -- all symptoms of trauma, as it turns out.

It is painful and exhausting to be a woman in America today. Many women, of course, would say that it has always been painful and exhausting to be a woman in America. Women of color, visibly queer women, trans women, immigrant women. The fact that I thought this was a pretty safe place until a few years ago is a sign of how lucky I've been, how good I've always had it. 

It is also painful and exhausting to be a Jew in America today. This week, as it happens, I feel more anxiety about being a woman than about being Jewish. (I'm sure the next synagogue shooting will change that.) Women in America today can't help marinating in a bath of (others') misogyny and (our own) fear. I worry about what that does to our hearts and souls.

I don't often write here about politics, or out of a place of my own anger. Focusing on values and spiritual life is my lifeline. It's part of what keeps me whole. But the worse matters get, the more I fear that my silence is complicity -- and that it's spiritually damaging. I'm hoping that speaking these truths will help me, and maybe others, to work harder toward change. 

In 2016 this nation elected, to the highest office in the land, a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. He proclaimed that when you're a star you can do anything you want. His opponent was smart, tough, experienced... and a woman. You know all of this already. We all know this. The morning after the election, many of us felt like we'd been punched.

Many of us felt, that next morning, as though there had been a referendum on our gender and we had lost. Too many people apparently feel threatened by successful women. They would rather vote for someone with no governance experience (not to mention, someone whose casual misogyny is staggering) than for a woman who has proven herself to be competent.

The Kavanaugh hearings were excruciating for many women, including me. Once again the takeaway was that men's comfort matters more than our safety. Their misbehavior is irrelevant. Women brave enough to admit being victims of sexual misconduct will be mocked, hounded, and threatened with death. Men credibly accused of such misconduct will rise to power.

Today's news is full of abortion bans and draconian heartbeat laws. (Here's where such measures have been passed so far; I suspect the list will grow.) This news shows me that women's bodily integrity, our very personhood, is increasingly at-risk. Men who apparently don't understand the first thing about female biology are legislating away our right to healthcare.

They blithely criminalize miscarriage, already an emotionally excruciating experience for a woman who is trying to conceive. Meanwhile, poor women and women of color will bear the brunt of this new legislation. Those who are poorest -- disproportionately women of color -- are likeliest to be jailed for miscarriage... or to be harmed by "back-alley" abortions.

In privileging the "rights" of the fetus over the rights of the mother, these laws assert that women don't deserve bodily integrity or autonomy. It's as though in this Christian supremacist worldview, women aren't people: we're fetus incubators who shouldn't have the right to make decisions about our own bodies. I don't have adequate words for how dehumanizing that is.

These laws derive from a very particular brand of Christian theology, which in turn makes a set of very particular assumptions about when life begins (conception). But the laws are not only being made for women who share that theology. They're being made for everyone. This is Christian hegemony, and its disregard for religious pluralism is deeply frightening. 

Judaism has an entirely different view than that evangelical Christian one. By and large, mainstream Jewish legal thinking privileges the health of the mother over the fetus. Our legal tradition argues that life begins at birth, with the first breath -- not at conception. The health of the mother, not the fetus, is paramount. Abortion is permitted, even necessary sometimes. 

But lawmakers in Alabama, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio (so far) don't care about that. They don't care about the fact that not all Americans are Christian, or that they're legislating their theology onto the bodies of people who don't necessarily share it. And that scares me both as a woman and as a Jew. That feels like we're falling down the slippery slope toward Christian theocracy.

It is painful and exhausting to be a woman in America today. And I know I have it easy, comparatively speaking. I'm white, which means I'm not navigating the constant barrage of micro- and macro-aggressions that come with being a person of color. I'm not an immigrant or a refugee. I'm not transgender. I'm not in danger of having my child stripped of citizenship

I'm just a woman. Living, as most of us do these days, with anxiety and fear. Surfing the toxic waves of constant debate about whether or not I deserve healthcare or the right to make decisions about my own body. And facing the reality that for many of the white (mostly male) Christians in positions of power in this country today, the answer to those questions is no.

So what am I going to do? Tomorrow night, thank God, Shabbat arrives. I will aim to set this anguish and grief aside, and to live for one day in the "as-if" -- as if the world were already redeemed; as if people weren't trying to strip women of our rights. And then when the new week begins, I will do what I can to protect all who are vulnerable, and to work toward a better world. 

 

Related: What You Can Do To Help Women in States With Extreme Abortion Bans, at The Cut.

Image by durantelallera [source].


Holiness lessons

Holy"Y'all shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy." (Lev. 19:2)

That's the first line of this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim -- "Holy (Shall You Be)." But what does it mean to be holy as God is holy? It seems that the subsequent verses offer our answer. Treat our parents with respect and honor their needs. Keep Shabbat. When we make offerings to God -- remember, this arose at a moment when we still made physical sacrifices -- we are to eat them that day, or the next day, but not to let them linger. Wait, what? The first two things in that paragraph still resonate: honor our parents and honor Shabbat, so far so good. But what's with the need to eat sacrifices quickly?

We could regard that as an instruction pertaining to food safety. Meats, even meats cooked over fire, will go bad after a few days. Maybe this is an ancient precursor to germ theory? But I think there's more here than that. "When you make a wholeness offering to God," when you're seeking to draw-near to God because you feel that your life is whole, inhabit that feeling of wholeness... wholly. Make the offering and consume the offering. Experience your emotions completely. Inhabit your gratitude completely. Trust that the way to keep the abundance flowing is to celebrate and accept and enjoy the good you've received.

Read this way, it's a teaching about trusting that feelings of wholeness and gratitude will keep arising. It's a teaching about trusting that reasons for wholeness and gratitude will keep arising. It would be easy to want to cling to our reasons for gratitude, hoarding them, doling them out in little bits so that they will last -- like a box of chocolates eaten bit by tiny bit. But if we cling for too long, the thing we were grateful for may turn sour. The correct response to life's gifts is to celebrate them, express gratitude for them, and enjoy them -- now -- in the moment -- trusting that more will come.

Notice the interweaving of internal and external ways of cultivating holiness. Honor your parents -- which our tradition expands to include, honor your teachers, because one who teaches you Torah is like a parent, expanding your insights and showing you how to live. That's an ethical teaching about how to treat others. Honor Shabbat -- our tradition's core spiritual practice for experiencing abundance and blessing in our lives. Experience abundance and don't hoard your sense of blessedness -- trust that more good things will flow if you open your hands in gratitude. Those are internal teachings about how to carve healthy and holy grooves on our hearts so that blessing can flow in and gratitude can flow out.

Then we get a series of ethical and interpersonal instructions. When we harvest, leave the margins of the fields uncut so that those in need can glean. It is not holy to keep abundance for ourselves: holiness lies in ensuring that all who are hungry can eat and be satisfied. Don't steal or deal deceitfully with each other, or keep a laborer's wages until morning. Judge others fairly, not giving undue deference either to the poor or to the rich. Do not act vengefully. Do not engage in rechilut, gossip, or stand idly by when someone else's blood is shed.

Ordinarily I follow our sages in reading that one metaphorically. Harm to someone's reputation is considered tantamount to shedding their blood. Therefore we are commanded not to stand by when someone is being slandered, because that slander harms their integrity. But in a week that has contained yet another school shooting, the simple or surface reading of this verse leaps out at me anew. In allowing our nation's lax gun laws to stand, I fear that we are standing idly by on the blood of children who are slaughtered in schools where they should be most protected and safe. That is the opposite of holiness.

The culmination of the verses we read this morning is "Love your neighbor as yourself: I am Adonai." Love others: that is what it means to be holy as God is holy. The great sage Rabbi Akiva called this "The core principle of Torah." As though to underscore its centrality, this verse is at the literal heart of the Torah scroll -- in the middle of the middle book. This is the heart of Torah. Be holy as God is holy. The way to be holy is to love the other. Those are the words we've been singing all morning: "Here I take upon myself the mitzvah of the Creator, to love my neighbor as myself, my neighbor as myself."

These are our instructions for holiness:

1) Unclench our hands and trust that blessing will keep coming.

2) Share our abundance.

3) Be scrupulously ethical in feeding the hungry, treating workers fairly, enacting justice, and protecting the vulnerable.

4) And do all of these things not reluctantly or grudgingly but from a place of love.

Kein yehi ratzon -- may it be so.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at CBI this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Related: How to be holy: boundaries come first.


How to be holy: boundaries come first

I studied the most gorgeous text this morning from the Netivot Shalom (also known as the Slonimer, a.k.a. Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky). It's on the verse קְדֹשִׁ֣ים תִּהְי֑וּ / kedoshim tihiyu, "y'all shall be holy."

The Slonimer teaches: the way we do that is first through strong boundaries and ethical choices. The first step in being holy as God is holy is having good boundaries and being scrupulously ethical in our interpersonal interactions.

That's the only part of holiness that we can control. That's how far we can go through our own strength. If we do that, then God meets us there and lifts us the rest of the way toward a more complete kind of holiness, a holiness in which our every act is sanctified and we ourselves become sanctuaries for God. But that higher level of holiness isn't possible unless we first do everything we can to steer clear of boundary transgressions. 

The Slonimer cites a Noam Elimelech teaching that yir'ah (awe) is the vessel and ahavah (love) is the light that streams through it. And we know from our mystics that when there is light without a strong container to hold it, we wind up with broken vessels. When there is unbounded love without good boundaries -- when there is chesed without gevurah, or when chesed is overprivileged above gevurah -- we wind up with broken vessels. We wind up with unsafe communities.

Holiness comes through living with rigorous integrity and being scrupulous about ethics. We receive the gift of being lifted to that higher level of holiness when we respect the boundaries that can safely channel our love.

 

 

With gratitude to Rabbi Megan Doherty, my Slonimer hevruta.

Related: The need for justice to balance love, 2017


Communities of safety and repair - at Builders Blog

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Acharei Mot (“After the Death” — e.g. the deaths of Aaron’s two older sons, which took place a few parshiot ago) is full of instructions from our ancient sacrificial past. This parasha is one part OSHA safety manual, one part instructions for community cohesion and forgiveness practices, and one part ethical guidebook for avoiding power differential transgressions. And while instructions for correctly dashing blood on an altar are no longer useful to us as modern Jews, the need for strong systems (to ensure safety, offer pathways for healthy reconciliation, and maintain high ethical standards especially where there is power imbalance) seems to be eternal.

Among the laws covered in Acharei Mot are proper dress in the holiest of places (behind the curtain in the mishkan); which animals to offer up as we seek to draw near to God, and how to sprinkle their blood; and the origins of the “scapegoat,” a story many of us also hear each year on Yom Kippur. We also find, sandwiched between injunctions not to behave like other regional tribes in the Ancient Near East, a string of instructions about power differential transgressions. What leaps out at me from these instructions is their (very contemporary) insistence on the importance of systems for creating and promoting safety, justice, and ethical behavior.

So what does Acharei Mot offer us in terms of best practices for our communities today? ...

That's the beginning of my latest post for Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Building Jewish, with sketchnotes by Steve Silbert. Read the whole thing: Communities of Safety and Repair.


Worth reading: on ethics in the Jewish world

Lately there's been a lot in the press about Jewish ethics systems failing -- in Jewish clergy associationsday schoolssummer camps and campus contexts. My friend and colleague Rabbi David Markus has written an op-ed on this subject, calling for systemic change. Here's a taste:

...Whether alleged misconduct relates to sex, money, administration, asymmetric power or other ethics infractions, the Jewish context vastly raises the stakes. Alleged misconduct, or responses inviting fairness critique, can exacerbate emotional and spiritual damage when identity, values or faith are on the line. Ethics systems for clergy and schools teach and model ethics, so those systems especially must be above reproach.

Too many confirmed reports, however, depict Jewish ethics systems failing. Reports show whistleblowers gaslighted or shunned for seeking justice. Investigators lacking proper training commit flagrant fairness violations, even deciding matters without speaking to complainants. Confirmed offenders are sheltered to avert shame, or perhaps for career or political reasons.

Too many hurdles. Too little expertise. Too little proper support. Wrong understandings of justice and reconciliation. It’s a tribute to victims’ courage that they come forward at all... It’s time to end the damaging and sometimes dangerous practice of Jewish institutions policing their own ethics. Jewish life needs a new and functionally independent ethics regime.

Read the whole thing: Jewish ethics demands an independent path forward. Deep thanks to R' David and to the Jewish Week / Times of Israel for this essay. May the changes called for here come to pass, speedily and soon.