Friday, July 18, 2014

Od Yavo, a poem written for Shabbat Matot, 5774

od yavo
what will it take
for the rockets to stop
for the world to see
we are so capable
of remaining
to others
on the
other side
od yavo
so near
so distant
what will it take
to see
the common thread
of our humanity
what will it take
to hear
to change
to discard the hate
od yavo
od yavo shalom
no other way
salaam aleinu
what will it take
v'al kol ha'olam, salaam

(based on the popular Israeli-Arabic folksong, Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu by Mosh ben Ari)

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Day My Heart Sank, Delivered July 5, 2014

            It was nice having a week off.   I took what is, in the new lingo of our post-2008 depression era, a “stay-cation.”  Instead of biking though the hills of California’s wine country, the back roads of Vermont, or some other yet for me to explore area, I invested in some home projects and kept the biking local.  Mind you, I got in some quality biking logging well over 100 miles, spending most of my week covered in sweat, road grit, and trail dust and nurturing a nerdy cyclist’s tan that is sadly already fading due to too many hours indoors.  It was a bit of nirvana.  Then, I had to come back to reality on Monday.
            Monday.  It was definitely a day I wish I could have remained blissfully on my bike riding through the valley far away from the news headlines that came across the airwaves and the internet throughout the day.    If only I could have extended my “stay-cation” a few days longer.  If only ignoring the news could make it go away.   
            Monday.  Our nation’s supreme court ruled in favor of “closely held” corporations, such as Hobby Lobby, which desire to limit health insurance coverage benefits because said benefits, which, by the way, solely impact women's health coverage, could possibly challenge the CEO’s religious beliefs.
            Monday.  The Jewish community received confirmation of what we didn’t want to say aloud but what so many of us sadly expected.  The bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar, the three yeshiva students  kidnapped in the West Bank a few weeks ago were found in Hebron showing evidence of a triple homicide at the hands of members of Hamas.
            Monday.   It was a depressing day.  My heart sank twice.   I hope yours did too.
            These headlines may seem unrelated.  How dare I compare the brutal deaths of three young men to the now legally supported refusal to provide complete health care to women?  But both of these stories reveal the worst of humanity.  Both reveal our capacity to hold ever so tightly to our own belief systems that we are willing to do serious damage to other members of the human race.   Both stories give evidence of our inherent short-sightedness.   Why are we as a species so unwilling to see and respect those who may believe differently from us?  Why must we resort to tactics that physically harm others, or have the potential to put others in harms way, in our desire to be proven right?   Why can’t we be open to another’s narrative?
The immediate impulse for revenge that is currently waving through the Jewish community worldwide underscores this base tragic flaw of humanity.   How many Facebook posts did you see among your Jewish friends regarding the murder of the three Jewish teens?  I saw plenty.  How many posts did you see from these same Jewish friends about the equally tragic murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a young Arab studying to be an electrician like his father?  I saw only one.   So, I shared it.  And, when I did so, I immediately received a message scolding me for not highlighting the Jewish deaths over and above the Arab one.   
Really?  Is that what we’ve been reduced to: a tit for tat tally of death?
The conflict is loaded with hatred – plenty on both sides, but let’s be cognizant of one important bottom line.  Hate and vengeance expressed with violence and murder is wrong.  Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali, one of the three kidnapped and murdered teens found in Hebron, reminds us in her response to death of Mohammed Abu Khdeir “…there is no difference between blood and blood.”   We should be equally, if not more outraged if we confirm his death was by Jewish hands.
            Monday.  It was a difficult day.  I’m pained that Israel can’t find its way to a peaceful resolution to an ongoing conflict between two sides neither of which seem to be able to hear or respect the other long enough to make real progress.  I’m pained that in our own country, after living through a powerful feminist movement that expanded women’s rights, I am now living through a time when those rights are being chipped away by a group of white, Catholic men who fail to see the needs of someone other than themselves. 
            I’m pained by the use of religion, theology - things that are matters of faith -- as tools to do harm to others.   What happened to the prophetic impulse to use faith as a tool for acting justly and for forwarding God as a motivation for valuing kindness and humility?   Micah would be entirely disappointed in humanity today.  I must agree with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg,  “I fear [we have] ventured into a minefield.”

A Lesson of Korach: Vote! Delivered June 21, 2014

            Here we go again.  It was only a matter of time before another rebellion ensued.  As our medieval commentator, Rashi, counts, this is the fourth outburst among the people: they rebelled at Sinai by building that molten calf, they whined over their living conditions in the Sinai desert, and just last week, they caved in to the pessimistic and insolent reports of those 10 scouts.  Now Korach.  At the start of this Shabbat’s Torah reading, Korach incites the community with what appears on the surface to be a demand for a more equitable sharing of power, “You have gone too far,” they cry out under Korach’s leadership, “For all the community are holy, kulam kedoshim, all of them,…why, [Moses & Aaron] do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”  
No wonder, Moses falls on his face.  Like Rashi, I imagine Moses was fed up, frustrated, and feeling powerless in his role as leader of this community.  Recall, he was no eager candidate for the job.  He was called to serve and honorably stepped up to the task for the sake of his people.   Despite the quarreling and uprisings, Moses continues to do what he has been tasked to do, namely lead.   Here in response to Korach, Moses could have thrown up his hands at the repeated challenges he faced; but instead, he asks for patience – let’s wait til’ morning – and strives to keep the channels of communication open by addressing Korach directly and requesting meetings with his two subordinates, Dathan and Aviram, reminding him of their role and important contributions to the community.  Moses’ leadership isn’t at fault.
             Yet, Korach isn’t satisfied.  He wasn’t simply seeking a voice; he sought power for his its own sake and became a divisive figure splintering the community.  He may appear to be seeking a more democratic model of leadership for the Israelites, but our Talmudic tradition argues repeatedly that Korach was motivated, not by what was best for the community, but by his own ego and evil impulse.  He is viewed by the wealth of Rabbinic literature as a principle example of disharmony and conflict.  In one colorful Midrash, a regretful Korah is imagined to be heard long after his death.  If we listen closely enough through the cracks of the earth where he and his compatriots were swallowed, we are told, we would hear Korach praising Moses and Aaron and acknowledging that he was wrong to incite the community against them.   (I do love the midrashic imagination!)   Entirely deserved or not, the amount of attention spent on Korach’s character underscores how he is viewed so thoroughly as the ultimate rebel without any reasonable cause to substantiate his insurgence.
            As Progressive Jews faced with the challenge of reconciling the received tradition of this narrative with our modern views of equality and democracy, we are confronted with a number of questions as we read and study Parashat Korach.  Most pointedly: how do we voice our opinion, perhaps even challenge authority, without becoming Korach?  How do we speak up, enact change, without becoming divisive and destructive?   We value the individual and reject overly hierarchical models of leadership.  We all want a say.  We all demand a vote.
            Lucky for us, at least here in America, we get that opportunity for a vote.  Often our impatience and immediate self-interest, our Korach, gets in the way of our remembering that our leaders are not divinely appointed; we choose them.  We put them in office. It is easy to second-guess those in leadership.  It is easy to point fingers when we are not satisfied with how things are functioning, especially at those who forward different policies than ours.  That’s our Korach.  We must not be  so quick to attack those whose opinion differs.  We must strive to restrain that Korach impulse, trust the choices we as a larger community have made, and allow those individuals that we have elected to lead, to do just that.
            It is fully our responsibility to speak out and be proactive when we see injustices unfolding before us.  We must express our voice.   But to paraphrase political satirist John Oliver, we should “focus [what is often our] indiscriminate rage in a useful direction.” (Last Week Tonight, published 6/1/2014).   Even an equitable justice system, a democracy, where power is shared, requires a degree of hierarchy.  We need competent and confident leaders to guide who then require others to support them in that task.   Our government may not always function perfectly or even to our liking, but it isn’t the enemy.  It’s there to bring identity, cohesion, and benefit to our society.   Moreover, We have a responsibility to help it function well by being informed citizens, by channeling our opinions passionately, but also productively, by taking the time to vote in our elections, to choose those whom we feel would govern with righteousness and compassion as their prime motivations.  Lucky for us, this Tuesday offers us the chance to speak out without becoming Korach.  Take it!

Memorial Day Reflections, DeliveredMay 24, 2014

Growing up in America, in house with a pool in the back yard, Memorial Day weekend simply marked the start of summer as it was this weekend that our pool officially opened.  The weeks leading up to Memorial Day weekend involved cleaning and filling the pool and getting the chemical balance ready for swimming.  If it was ready & the weather cooperated, I could take a dip – a test swim, if you will - before Memorial Day weekend, but it was on the weekend when our extended family flocked to our house.   We were the hosts all summer long – for swimming, games, gathering, and food.  The now long since demolished giant, cement rectangular pool that extended from three to ten feet deep and my dad’s manning of the Weber grill defined summer, and Memorial Day weekend served as the official kick-off.  
I didn’t have much of a clue as to what Memorial Day was intended to be.  Sure, we put our flag out (as we did for Flag day and July 4th), but having not been directly impacted by war, let alone by loss due to war, the original intention of the holiday was lost on me.  Memorial Day was all about looking forward to another summer of seemingly endless days in the water.
I’m embarrassed by the lack of awareness I had; but, I’m far more embarrassed as an American by the fact that I was not alone.   My childhood years witnessed the end of the Vietnam War, and still Memorial Day was for bar-b-ques, family gatherings, the first swim of the season, and of course, it marked the day when you could start wearing white.  Ze-hu, that was it.
Israel does it better.   I doubt there is an Israeli that remains unaware of the significance of their Memorial Day.   Why the difference?  Is it because our country is so much older and larger than Israel?  Granted, it is hard for all Americans to be on the same page about much of anything.   In Israel, everyone serves in the military beginning at age 18; and, most – sadly - have a personal connection to the war dead.   The losses associated with assuring their country’s independence and value system is emblazed in the collective consciousness. 
Where is our collective consciousness regarding the sacrifices that so many have made so that so many more of us can live without concern for our immediate safety and with a trust that our rights will be respected.   Perhaps our general lack of appropriate American memory is due to the reality that most of us do not have a direct experience of the tragedy, heartache, and loss imposed by war.  It is difficult to remember something that has not touched us directly, but it seems to me, all the more reason why we must take note and remember those who have made personal sacrifice for the sake of our collective American values.
Zecher.  Zicharon.  The Hebrew root of the word for memory or memorial is identical to the Hebrew root of the word zachar.  Literally, zachar means male (as opposed to female), but linguistically zachar has connotations of strength and power (yes, our stereotypes often grow out of language).  Lizkor --  It is written that “death has no dominion where memory rules.”  Our Torah portion, B'midbar, spends a great deal of time listing names.  Naming, recalling, remembering.  A legacy survives only as long as we do just that.
I’m glad that our American Memorial Day is no longer the boundary for white in the fashion industry.  Now, if we could only take a break from hocking garden supplies and appliances in order to reflect upon, to remember, to take note of the courage, heroism, and ultimately the sacrifices of those who have died in service of our country.  Zichronam livracha – May the memory of those who have died in an effort to ensure our freedom and to promote American values inspire us to renew our commitment to the betterment of our community, our country, and our world.

Bechukotai: What to do When We Disagree with our Torah, delivered May 17, 2014

Shabbat B’chukotai.  What do we do when we don’t like, when we don’t agree with, what we read?  B’chukutai, with its litany of blessings and curses, draws attention to this seemingly simple question, a question that increasingly causes folks to distance themselves from Torah and from worship. 
B’chukotai opens innocently enough, “If you follow my laws, guard my commandments, and do them,” God tells us, in short, that all will be well in our world.   A virtually utopian vision of peace, abundance, virility and strength is imagined if only we follow God’s law.   Lovely, until we continue reading.  If we spurn God’s commandments, misery, however, and heartache will be wreaked upon us, a misery and heartache that is painstakingly detailed in our text.   There is little room for error, let alone, compassion in this literary precursor to the full expression of the Deuteronomic notion of Divine retribution that awaits us in the book of Deuteronomy.  If bad things happen, it must be because we failed to abide by God’s laws?
Which brings me back to the question: what do we do with text, sacred text – our Torah, no less – when we simply don’t agree with what it says?  What do we do when the theological notions laid out don’t comport with reality?
We have a number of options. 
1)                    We could follow the lead of Rabbinic tradition and create commentary that raises the text up, or dare I say offers an apologetic for a difficult passage.   For instance, the medieval Ibn Ezra argues that the focus shouldn’t be on the curses but rather on God’s bounty of blessing.  He points out that the enumeration of the curses was intended only to deter recurrent bad behavior.  The curses are carried out, according to Ibn Ezra and others, only for the repeated and constant rejection of the commandments.   An earlier midrash on the text, goes further, by virtually dismissing the wealth of attention paid to and perhaps even the substance of the curses by noting that they begin – bear with me here:  with the letter vav and end with the letter hey (two letters that are next to each other in the alphabet ) whereas the blessings began with aleph  and end with tuf (the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet).  From A to Z the blessings reach us.  The midrashist reminds that there is nothing between vav and hey.

2)                    Or, we could take the historical approach and read the text less as sacred doctrine but rather as a window into the ancient world from which our sacred traditions came.    Philip Kitcher, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University and the author of the forthcoming book Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism who was interviewed this week by The New York Times op-ed contributor, Gary Cutting, reminds us that “important ideas of major religions have [often] been introduced in response to the political requirements of some historical situation.”   Remember, as I mentioned last week, in the ancient world, there was no separation between religious and civil authority.  Obedience to God was enmeshed completely with communal and civic duty.  Even Kitcher, a self-proclaimed “soft-atheist,” who views God today as little more than a distracting “religious gesture,” recognizes that the idea of God was a central and consolidating force in the pre-modern world.

3)                    There is a third option to dealing with our question of what to do when we disagree with what is in Torah.  We could simply remove our literary traditions from the mantle of sacred canon. We could simply toss out that which is disagreeable.  Of course, then we risk severing our ties to the very history that defines us.

I don’t view any of these three options by themselves as entirely satisfactory responses to the question of how we deal with sacred traditions with which we don’t agree.  Perhaps that is why so many choose to disengage; because, to remain so demands attentive reflection and grappling with difficult and unsettling ideas that are easier set aside.    However, I’d argue, as our modern day liturgist, Richard Levy, writes,  “If we can hear the words from Sinai 
[– acknowledge them --] … and [then] serve with all of our intellect [as well as] passion…then we can do all that humans can do” to allow religion to guide us towards making the world hospitable and bountiful for all.   Perhaps that is too difficult a task to demand from most.  I hope not.