Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A dialogue with Christians about Israel

In 2005 I was invited to give the Hal Lustig Memorial Lecture at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT. That year, the lecture was actually a dialogue between a Presbyterian minister and me in the wake of some controversial resolutions passed by the Presbyterian Church, USA. This is what I said that evening:

Presented at the Center for Christian-Jewish Under-standing of Sacred Heart University (www.ccju.org), Fairfield, CT, May 3, 2005.
My task today is to try and explain to you, from my perspective as a rabbi, how I view the Land and State of Israel through the lens of my religious life and convictions. I want to begin with a disclaimer or perhaps
a warning. I spend quite a bit of my life presenting a Jewish perspective to non-Jewish and mixed groups,
and I always tell them one thing. If a speaker begins
a sentence with "the Jewish perspective on X issue is"
the rest of the statement is a lie. There is no one Jewish position on anything, as anyone who knows any actual Jews can tell you, including on the consistency of matzoh balls, which I like quite dense but my wife thinks should be as fluffy as possible. And yet, we get along.

And so please understand that I do not represent "the Jewish point of view" tonight. I represent only myself, a Conservative rabbi who has spent the last four years at a center very much similar to the CCJU, but soon to move to this very state to become once again the rabbi of a synagogue. So my perspective will be my own, but
I will try and represent the broad spectrum of thought within the larger Jewish community.

The first thing one needs to realize in discussing these questions is that both Israel and the American Jewish communities are incredibly diverse. Israel is a democracy and there is a wide spectrum of opinions on most of the crucial issues of war and peace. All of these various positions will find their supporters within the American Jewish community. What unites most everyone, though, is a vigorous commitment to the security and well-being of the State of Israel. Jews who are not so committed are marginal within the community and have virtually no constituency or credibility.
For rabbis, Jewish educators and other Jewish leaders, you should understand that Israel is a living reality for most of us. While only about one in five American Jews has ever visited Israel, the percentage is virtually one hundred percent for rabbis and other Jewish professionals. Most of us have studied for at least one year in Israel and all of the rabbinical seminaries and most Jewish education and communal service graduate programs now require their students to spend a year or more there. I myself spent both an undergraduate and
a rabbinical school year there, and lived there for two more years immediately following ordination. Most of
us have friends in Israel and visit quite frequently, so there is an existential connection to Israel. It's not just another "issue" we read about in the newspapers. There is tremendous "cross-fertilization" between Israel and the American Jewish communities. American Jews, especially the communal leaders, read Israeli books and periodicals, watch Israeli movies and listen to Israeli music. We eat Israeli food and bring Israelis over to serve as teachers and camp counselors. We also send our youngsters to experience Israel; the post high school "year in Israel" is a rite of passage in the Orthodox community and many non-Orthodox teens spend an Israel year as well. Israel is also seen, rightly or wrongly, as the "magic potion" for enhancing Jewish identity, and programs like "birthright israel" will provide a free ten-day trip to Israel for any Jewish college student who has not already been there.

So at least for the most Jewishly-involved among us, Israel is a very real part of our lives. But our commitment to Israel is not just sociological, it is theological. Throughout the ages, Jews have turned in prayer towards Zion. The Amidah, the central prayer of every Jewish service which is repeated thrice-daily, says "may our eyes behold Your return to Zion in mercy." Both the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur service, perhaps the two most widely-attended Jewish rituals, end with a climactic "next year in Jerusalem." According to the Talmud, Ketubot 110b, a husband can force his wife to go live in the Land of Israel, or vice-versa, and if the spouse refuses, she can be divorced against her will and suffer a financial penalty. The passage continues: "One should always live in the land of Israel, even in a village where mostly Gentiles live. No one should live outside the land, even in a city where mostly Jews live. For anyone who lives in the Land of Israel is like a person who has a God and anyone who lives outside the Land is like a person who does not have a God, as it is written, 'to give you the Land of Canaan so that I can be your God' (Lev. 25:37)." While these statements may certainly be understood as hyperbole, they do indicate the tremendous theological importance which Judaism has always placed on the unique sanctity of the Land of Israel.
Judaism is a religion of covenant and an important part of that covenant is the promise of the Land. The cycle of the Jewish year is based on the growing season in
the Land of Israel, and as someone who did a seminary internship in the Southern Hemisphere, there is a real cognitive dissonance celebrating
Sukkot (a fall harvest festival) in Australia where it is spring. There are three pillars of the Jewish covenant: the God of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the Land of Israel. You cannot pull one of these pillars out without collapsing the whole structure. Early Reform Judaism attempted to do just that and relatively quickly reversed course; today's Reform Judaism is as deeply committed to the cause of Zion as the rest of the Jewish community.
This connection to a specific piece of land is the Jewish "scandal of particularity" and Christians often find it unintelligible, bizarre or even bordering on idolatrous. And perhaps from a Christian perspective it is bizarre; if God is everywhere, how can Jews claim that God is somehow more present in this specific piece of territory? But Christians make a similarly scandalous and bizarre claim. If God is in every person, how can Christians claim that God is somehow more present in the Jew Jesus of Nazareth? Perhaps this is an area where each community ought to suspend its judgments of the other community’s core beliefs.
I have spoken so far of the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel but what of the State of Israel? Here I think that there is more theological diversity and it is
a complicated subject. I want to take seriously the warnings of Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and writer Amos Oz about the danger of identifying
any political state with the will of God. At the same time, I think it is appropriate for those of us who believe that God works in history and through history to express
our belief that the return of Jews to our land, and the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty there, has theological significance. Yet we have to also remember that the Bible warns us that our sovereignty has to be consistent with God's demands for justice. Serious Jews know this, and we spend more time agonizing over it than you might think.

As important as the theological attachment to the State of Israel is for Jewishly-sophisticated Jews, the existential attachment is stronger and more widespread. As I said earlier, there is tremendous disagreement within Israel and within world Jewry about the various policy issues facing the State of Israel. As Amos Oz notes, "Zionism" is a surname and there are many first names: Labor Zionism, Revisionist Zionism, Religious Zionism, and so on. What unites them all is a commitment that after two thousand years of powerlessness, we're not running anymore. There has to be a piece of territory on this earth which is under Jewish control. In an unredeemed world, powerlessness is a sin.
Having said that, I want to acknowledge that the moral use of power is the preeminent ethical question facing Jews today. This is not a simple task, trying to balance Israel's legitimate need for security with the Palestinians’ legitimate need for a homeland. But I want to humbly suggest that most Israelis and most American Jews are more attuned to the complexity of these issues than the PCUSA wants to give us credit for. There is certainly room for critique of Israel's use of power. Being critical of specific Israeli policies does not make one an anti-Semite, or many rabbis and other Jewish leaders would have to be considered as such. But the criticisms need to be balanced and aimed at curtailing abuses, not undermining the very existence and security of the State of Israel. Talk of divestment raises the specter of apartheid South Africa, and the South Africa divestment movement, in which I participated, was not about curtailing abuses. It was about dismantling a fundamentally evil system.
What concerns most of us about these resolutions is that they are one-sided. Only companies operating in Israel are mentioned as possible candidates for divestment. One of the resolutions refers to the "cycle of escalating violence -- carried out by both Palestinians and Israelis -- which is rooted in Israel's continued occupation of Palestinian territories." There is no acknowledgment that Israel offered to return 95% or more of the territories in 2000. While that offer may have been inadequate in Palestinian eyes, there was no counter-offer put on the table. The Palestinian response was terrorism and suicide bombings, not diplomacy. The resolutions condemn violence on both sides in a pro forma way, but they in essence blame Israel for the "cycle of violence" and call for punitive measures against Israel only.
It strikes me upon reading and re-reading these resolutions that there is a combination of both arrogance and naiveté coming out of the PCUSA bureaucracy in Louisville. The PCUSA's opposition to Israel's security barrier is a case in point. Now, I think that there are very valid concerns over the route of this barrier -- concerns shared by many Israelis and no less than the Israeli Supreme Court, which has ordered the barrier re-routed in places to lessen its negative impact on Palestinian civilians. But the PCUSA overture does not call for re-routing the barrier; it calls for its construction to be halted. The General Assembly Council says the need is to "build bridges of peace, not walls of separation." And the PCUSA staffer responsible for implementing these overtures wrote in the Christian Century this past February, in response to a critique from another Presbyterian leader, that "The solution is not about everyone being 'a little disappointed.' It is about choosing life over death for all parties involved. That does not come with giving 'a little bit here and a little bit there.' It comes, in Christian parlance, with both parties taking up their 'cross' and offering themselves to their 'enemies' in the 'restraint, humility and respect' for which Barbara Wheeler so aptly appeals." With all due respect, this kind of language may make Presbyterians feel virtuous that they have spoken out for peace and justice, but it is not likely to motivate Jews to take
their concerns seriously. I think that in fact we need both bridges and walls. In the long term, Jews and
Arabs will of course have to figure out how they can live together. In the short term, it would be enough if they stopped killing each other; and if the separation barrier can help achieve that goal -- which it has -- I am all for it.

I want to close by sharing a story I heard some months ago from Rabbi Daniel Gordis. Danny grew up in Baltimore, where I heard him speak back in October, and we actually worked together and shared an office suite at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Danny and his family now live in Israel.
There is a custom that during the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur, those who have not lost a parent, child, or spouse go out of the synagogue. Danny's grandfather Rabbi Robert Gordis, a prominent Conservative rabbi, considered this a superstitious custom and used to denounce it from the pulpit. In deference to his father, Danny's father would stay
in the synagogue during
Yizkor and raised Danny the same way; but when Danny moved to Israel, he decided to revert to the older "superstitious" custom.
A couple of years ago Danny was "confronted" by one of the founding members of his Jerusalem synagogue about his going out for Yizkor. Danny thought to himself, "Oh no, another lecture about following a superstition." But quite the opposite happened. The older man said to him: "When we founded this synagogue, we were all Holocaust survivors and there was not a single person who could go out for Yizkor. Then all the wars came, and again, there was no one who could go out for Yizkor. But now, look. Most of the congregation goes out for Yizkor. Ha-medina ha-zot nes. This State is a miracle."
My friends, that is a theological statement. For us, the State of Israel is a miracle. You do not have to agree with that assessment, but unless you understand it and take it seriously, Jews are going to react with anger and defensiveness and it is going to be very hard for us to have any kind of a civil dialogue. Hopefully we can move past this period of anger and rancor and talk and work together as the friends we usually are.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Separation of Church and State Should Mean Separation of Religious and Civil Marriage

Rabbis who work in areas where there are large numbers of retirees (Florida and Arizona in particular) are often faced with the following scenario: a widow and a widower have fallen in love and would like to get married. They may already be living together, but if they get married one or the other of the couple will lose survivor’s benefits, pension, health insurance, and so on. The combined Social Security they will get as a married couple is less than they get as two single people. It is financially disadvantageous to them to get married, but just living together without getting married doesn’t feel right. Will the rabbi be so kind as to conduct a Jewish wedding ceremony for them without them getting a civil marriage license?

Some rabbis will do this, perhaps, and some won’t. But the Rabbinical Assembly, our professional association of Conservative rabbis, strictly forbids its members to do so.

In Minnesota, clergy of many congregations have announced that they will no longer sign civil marriage licenses. The reason? In Minnesota, same sex marriage is not legal, and these clergy members feel that it should be. As a protest against “marriage inequality,” they will not sign marriage licenses for straight couples until they can do so for gay couples.

Here in Connecticut, same sex marriage is legal. But if a same sex couple were to ask me to officiate at their wedding, I would be in a quandary. The official position of Conservative Judaism supports same sex “commitment ceremonies” but cautions that they are not kiddushin, halachic marriage. Rabbis who conduct commitment ceremonies should avoid using the trappings of kiddushin so that it’s clear that what is going on is not halachic marriage. But is it possible for me to perform a wedding that is legally valid in Connecticut but not halachically valid? Frankly, for Conservative rabbis, life was simpler in Connecticut when the state recognized same-sex civil partnership but not “marriage.”

When my brother and I were both living in Washington, DC, one of his best friends asked me to officiate at his wedding. Neither the friend nor his fiance were Jewish. Neither one of them belonged to a religious community but they wanted something a bit more spiritual than being married by a Justice of the Peace. I agreed to perform their wedding, but when I sat down with them to do an intake interview I decided to back out. It turns out that the father of the bride was Jewish. While she did not consider herself Jewish, and by the halachic standards of the Conservative movement she was not Jewish, I decided that this looked a little bit too much like an intermarriage. And since I knew then that it was strictly forbidden for a Conservative rabbi to officiate at an intermarriage, I decided “better safe than sorry.” I am glad I did, because I did not know at the time that another policy of the Conservative movement prohibits Conservative rabbis from officiating at the marriage of two Gentiles.

If faced with the same request today, even if there were not a policy in place that forbade it, I am pretty sure I would tell the couple “no.” I am increasingly uncomfortable with the role of government functionary which officiating at weddings creates.

Rhode Island’s new governor announced in his inaugural address his desire to see same-sex marriage legalized in that state, just as it is legal here in Connecticut and in all the other New England states except Maine. The Roman Catholic bishop in that state, who was in the headlines some months ago with his criticism of then-Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s support for abortion rights, denounced Gov. Chafee’s speech in sharp terms. Like many other Christians, he believes that marriage was ordained by God to be between a man and a woman.

I am not unsympathetic to his perspective. As I wrote above, my own understanding of kiddushin is that it is a relationship which can only exist between one Jewish man and one Jewish woman. The difference is that as a Jew, I recognize that I am a member of a minority group. I do not ask or need state support for my particular moral or ritual perspectives. I have no problem with Bishop Tobin being critical of same-sex marriage, teaching his flock that it is wrong, telling the priests who report to him that they are not to officiate at such ceremonies. But the state is not obligated to conduct itself according to Catholic teaching, any more than the state should ban the sale of pork or require stores to close on Shabbat. That is a matter for each religious community and each individual conscience.

Religious people should not expect the state to reinforce their specific religious beliefs. But neither should the state expect religious people to ignore their own religious beliefs. When a clergy member serves a dual role, as marriage officiant for both the religious community and the state, these lines get blurred. On occasion, when I have been faced with telling a couple that I cannot perform their wedding, they have reacted with anger. “Who are you to tell us we can’t get married?” Of course, I am not really telling them they can’t get married, I am simply telling them that I personally cannot be the officiant. But since as a rabbi the state has given me the authority to make a marriage civilly valid, it is easy to see why the couple reacts as they do.

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the famous Lemon v. Kurtzman decision on Church-State issues. In this ruling, the Court decided that a government action is only constitutional if it meets the following three criteria:
1.) It must have a secular purpose;
2.) It must not have the primary effect of either promoting or inhibiting religion;
3.) It must not foster an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

Of course, the Supreme Court also considers history in making its decisions. Cases dealing with government chaplaincies have often noted that, despite the prima facie impression that having government-salaried clergy violates the Constitution, the fact is that the very same Congress which passed the Bill of Rights also had a paid chaplain. Clearly, clergy of all denominations have been registering marriages with the government for a long time, and I doubt that any court is going to rule that this practice is suddenly unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, the consensus in American society about what is or is not a proper marriage, who should marry whom, and so on, is quickly unraveling. Rather than having marriage as another battlefront in our society’s culture wars, I think both religion and state would benefit by separating civil and religious marriage. Let every couple that wants government recognition register their partnership at City Hall. And let every clergy person or religious community conduct whatever weddings they consider to be in accordance with their conscience, without government interference or oversight.

As always, I welcome your thoughts!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How I Became a Television Star -- And Almost Didn't

In early 2007 I appeared in a national television commercial. This is a story I wrote at that time explaining how it came to be:

      "Excuse me, Sir, would you be interested in . . .?" 
      "No. Whatever it is, I'm not interested." 
      Having grown up in and around New York City, I was suspicious when I was approached by a stranger with a clipboard in Grand Central Terminal. I thought it was either a request for a donation to a spurious charity or an attempt to sell me something I didn't need and didn't want. But when the man approached me a second time, saying "I'm not selling anything" and showing me a photo ID issued by Grand Central, I was at least willing to listen to what he had to say. 
      I'm glad I did, because it lead to an interesting experience, a stint as a very minor celebrity and a serendipitous payment of a few hundred dollars. You may have seen me on ABC television shouting "Frodo!" in a Spike Lee-directed commercial for the Feb. 25 Oscars telecast. My being approached in Grand Central was how it came about. 
      Two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, my wife Keleigh and I took the Shoreline East commuter train from Old Saybrook into the city to visit the Metropolitan Museum and have lunch and dinner in kosher restaurants. With the holidays coming up, I knew that it would be late October before we might have another chance. But when I was asked if I would be willing to audition for a commercial directed by Spike Lee, Keleigh and I decided to give up an hour or so of our museum visit, if both of us could audition. So we filled out some information sheets and release forms, had digital and Polaroid pictures taken, and were ushered into a large but unused waiting area where there were cameras and lights set up. 
      A couple of hundred feet away from where we were told to stand, a middle-aged Black man was sitting on a crate and saying lines to a young boy, who repeated them. My wife asked me why he looked familiar, and I looked closely and said "because that's Spike Lee." After two or three other would-be actors auditioned, Keleigh went up and gave her lines. It had been explained to us that the commercial would be for the Oscars telecast, and the idea was ordinary people saying famous lines from classic films. 
      I thought that Keleigh's audition was very good, and when she finished and it was my turn, Spike Lee told me that he thought so as well. He gave me some lines to say -- some of them were familiar, some not, and I didn't remember everything that I said, though I do remember saying "ET phone home" and "Luke, I am your father." 
      A month later we got a phone call from Chiat-Day, the Los Angeles advertising agency producing the commercial. They told me that they wanted to use some of my footage -- unfortunately only mine, not Keleigh's -- if I was still willing to allow them to do so. If so, they would Fed-Ex a release and a contract which was to be signed and returned immediately. 
      I didn't know what they would use until the morning the Oscar nominations were announced, at which time the commercial began running on abc.com,oscars.com and on television. I watched myself shout "Frodo", and I must have seen that moment a hundred times since. To be honest, I didn't even know who or what "Frodo" was until I "Googled" the word after seeing the commercial for the first time -- it's a line from "Lord of the Rings." I also don't know how much I will get paid, because the compensation formula in the contract was a bit complicated, but it should be between 600 and 1200 dollars -- much of which, God willing, Keleigh and I hope to use this summer in Jerusalem to help strengthen the Israeli economy. All in all, it was an interesting experience, but I'm not planning on giving up the rabbinate to go into acting full time.

Note: the actual payment for the commercial turned out to be about $3600, not the $600 to $1200 I anticipated it would be.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A talk for Martin Luther King Day

A couple of years ago I was surprised, but honored, to be invited to keynote the Norwich NAACP's annual Martin Luther King Day service. Here is the talk I delivered on that occasion:

Making King's Day Matter
Rabbi Charles L. Arian
Norwich, CT, January 18, 2010

I want to thank Rev. Barbara White and Evans Memorial for hosting this event, and I want to thank you for honoring me with this invitation to speak here today as we celebrate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Rev. Greg Perry called me several weeks ago and asked me to do this, there was no doubt in my mind that I would accept, but I was a little surprised and a little bewildered. But then I remembered a conversation that I had about a year ago with Brother Joseph Hemphill, who some of you certainly know. What you may not know is that some of my conversations with Brother Joseph work their way into the sermons I give at Beth Jacob. And it was just about a year ago, because we Jews read the entire Five Books of Moses every year through, and it is just about this time of year that we begin reading the book of Exodus. So freedom and liberation are on our minds, and it is always appropriate that we're reading the Book of Exodus at the time that we are also remembering Dr. King. And it was in that context that Brother Joseph said something that really stuck with me. He said, "you know, what Dr. King did, he didn't just do for the Black people."

And that's correct, and that's why it's OK for a white, Jewish person to give this talk today. What Dr. King did, he did for all of us. As Abraham Lincoln said so long ago, "as I would not be a slave, I would not be a slave master." It is not just that Black people needed to be liberated from the shackles of racism and oppression. White people needed to be liberated from their own oppression as well, because oppression is a product of fear. It is not just African Americans who are better off today because of Dr. King. All of us are better off, because we are working together for a society where we will be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character. Dr. King's dream was not a Black dream or a white dream, it was an American dream, and a human dream. And it was a dream influenced by the Abrahamic covenants of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I want to begin this afternoon with a story from the Talmud. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish legal and ethical materials, laws and stories, that was codified around 1500 years ago, but much of the material is quite a bit older than that. When I as a Jew and a rabbi read or hear stories of Jesus, they are familiar to me, because Jesus, too, was a rabbi, and he was not the only rabbi of his time to teach by means of stories and parables. So maybe those of you who are Christians will find something familiar in this type of story as well.

One day Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi encountered Elijah the Prophet. As you know, in our traditions Elijah is considered to be the harbinger of the Messiah. And so Rabbi Yehoshua asked him “when will the Messiah come?”
“Ask him yourself”, came the reply. “He sits at the gate of Rome with all the other beggars, but there is one way you can single him out. All of the beggars un-bandage all their wounds at once and then re-bandage them all at once. But the Messiah un-bandages one and then immediately re-bandages it, un-bandages another and then re-bandages it, thinking that perhaps he will be needed and have to go in a hurry.”
Rabbi Yehoshua traveled to Rome and found the Messiah as Elijah had said. “Shalom to you my Master and Teacher.” “Shalom to you, ben Levi.”
“When will Master come.” “Today!” the Messiah replied.
When Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah he was crestfallen. “Surely he lied to me, because he said he would come today and yet there is no sign of him.”
“You misunderstood what he was saying,” replied Elijah. “He was quoting to you from Scripture, Psalm 95. ‘Today – if you would but hearken to God’s voice.’”

Imagine a world where no child goes to bed hungry. Where no child lives in fear of the adults who control his life. Where the poor are not merely given what they need to survive but treated with respect, and given the tools with which to lift themselves out of poverty. Where workers are always treated fairly. Where disputes between individuals and between nations are settled on the basis of justice and reason, not on the basis of who has the greater might. Where animals are protected from human cruelty; where natural resources are treasured as God’s gift to humanity and used wisely, with concern for future generations and their needs. Where the elderly are not considered a burden but treasured for their wisdom and experience. 

Such a world is not a fantasy. That world is possible. You and I, with God's help, can bring that world into being. 3500 years ago at Mt. Sinai, God gave the Jewish people a plan to bring that world into fruition. And then Christianity and Islam came onto the scene to spread that plan, but we still -- all of us -- continue to fall short.

The Jewish people really became a people in Egypt. When Jacob and his family went down to Egypt, the entire nation consisted of one patriarch, his twelve sons and one daughter, the wives and children of the twelve sons and their household employees – a band of seventy souls in all, perhaps. After four hundred years that number had grown somewhat. Six hundred thousand adult males left Egypt -- together with wives and children probably 2.5 to 3 million.
The Jewish people, then, was forged in the crucible of slavery. Thirty seven times the Torah commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Not so we should seek revenge.  In fact, we are specifically commanded not to hate the Egyptians, because they provided us food when we faced starvation. No, the Torah reminds us of our origin as strangers in order to remind us that because we were strangers, we in turn have a special responsibility not to oppress the stranger but to love him.
At the time of Jesus, there were two other great rabbis of the age, Hillel and Shammai. Once there was a pagan who, for whatever reason, enjoyed making fun of rabbis. He went to  Shammai, and said to him: “I am willing to convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai like Jesus was a carpenter by profession and apparently brooked no nonsense. He took the yardstick that was in his hand and whacked the pagan over the head.
              So the pagan went to Hillel. And Hillel took him up on the challenge. He said to him “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary. Now go and learn."
     For us Jews, there are two sources of values. One is the Bible, and the other is Jewish history. I believe that it is no accident that Jews have been in the forefront of every struggle for human freedom.
Dr. King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel were close friends. The picture of them marching arm in arm during the March from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 is one of the great iconic images of the Civil Rights era. Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel first met in 1963 at a "Conference on Religion and Race" in Chicago. This is what Dr. Heschel said then:
"At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses.... The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses."
 Thus it is no accident that the two white volunteers killed by the Klan during Mississippi Freedom Summer in the United States almost fifty years ago alongside James Chaney were Jews named Schwerner and Goodman. It is no accident that in apartheid South Africa, for years and years the only anti-apartheid member of the all-white legislature was Helen Suzman, the Jewish representative of a predominantly Jewish district in Johannesburg. It is no accident that the two demographic groups in the United States whose voting patterns are most alike are African Americans and Jewish Americans. It is no accident; it is a direct result of the Torah’s repeated admonition to “not oppress the stranger, but remember that you were a stranger in the Land of Egypt.” What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.

    All the rest is commentary. But in our day Hillel’s teaching is not enough. It is not enough because it is merely passive. And as both Blacks and Jews learned so painfully within the memory of many sitting here today, it is not enough to merely personally refrain from doing evil. Rabbi Heschel said  "The opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference," while Dr. King said "To accept passively an unjust system is to cooperate with that system." Not to act communicates "to the oppressor that his (sic) actions are morally right." And so I would add a corollary to Hillel’s maxim: “what has been done to you, do not let be done to another.”

In February 1993 I was part of a group of rabbis and rabbinical students who spent a week in Haiti examining the human rights situation there and the U.S. government’s policy at the time of returning Haitian refugees who were intercepted trying to make their way by boat to our country. And interestingly enough, all ten of us cited exactly the same motivation for going on this trip: the St. Louis.
In 1939 a boat with 900 Jewish refugees steamed away from the shores of Germany. They were bound for Cuba, which had given them visas. But for one reason or another, the Cubans changed their minds and sent the refugees away. So the boat, the St. Louis, headed for New York harbor. And President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent them back to Germany, where most of them disappeared in the crematoria of the Holocaust.
So for a Jew, who knows Jewish history, seeing a boatload of refugees returned home to face likely death hit too close to home. When I am asked one day what I did when we sent the Haitians away to be killed, I won’t have to say “I was a good German. I did nothing.”
We are a people that learn from history. Because we were slaves and strangers in Egypt, we have tried to free the slave and honor the rights of the stranger. Because the world watched and did nothing while we were slaughtered, we were determined not to watch and do nothing as Bosnians and Rwandans were slaughtered. And because we are all of us people who learn from history -- whether as Jewish people, as Black people, or simply as American people -- we cannot sit idly by and watch and do nothing while people continue to die in Haiti.

    Brother Joseph was right when he reminded me that what Dr. King did, he did for all of us. Dr. King's genius was that his vision was rooted in the biblical texts that almost all Americans hold to be sacred. His dream was, as he himself said, "deeply rooted in the American dream." He called us, all of us, to be the kind of people that we know in our hearts that we ought to be. He called us to live lives of justice and of peace. He called us, finally, to join hands and build the kind of world that God wants us to have. He called us to hearken to God's voice.   
              When will redemption come? Today, if we would hearken to God’s voice.
              When will redemption come? When we bring it. Let’s not wait to begin the task.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Two-minute Torah: Lekh-Lekha: For Your Own Good

First, a Hebrew lesson. The fourth word of this week's Parasha provides us with yet another example of how it is impossible to truly understand the Torah without at least a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew. God says to Abram "lekh-lekha", but what does "lekh-lekha" mean? The "lekh" part is pretty simple, it is an imperative, a command, meaning "go." But the "lekha" part is not so clear. It can mean "to yourself" or "for yourself" or it could just be poetic alliteration.

Rashi understands it as meaning "for yourself" and amplifies it: "l'tovat'kha u'l'hana'at'kha" -- for your good and for your benefit. In other words, Rashi is telling us that God is promising Abram that the result of his journey will be beneficial to him.

In the midrashic tradition, Abraham (at this point still known as Abram) undergoes ten trials. The last, of course, is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. The first is this command, "lekh lekha."

But wait, the Sefas Emes, a Chasidic commentator who lived about 100 years ago says. How can it be a trial if Abram knows that God has already promised him that it will be for his own benefit?

And then he answers his own question. Knowing that it would be beneficial to him was precisely the trial that Abram faced. Abram's desire was to do everything purely out of obedience to God and not for any other motive. How could he maintain that purity of motive knowing that his obedience would also prove beneficial to him in a "this world" way?

What a counter-cultural thought. Those of us who are rabbis and Jewish educators often find ourselves in the position of "selling" Judaism, of convincing people to observe mitzvot which they don't currently observe, to support the community and so on. We generally try to convince people that they will benefit personally in some way: people need a day of rest, a Shabbat meal brings the family together, keeping kosher will help you feel closer to God, and so on. But the Sefas Emes is saying that's not what Judaism is about at all. Our only desire should be obedience to God; any other motivation simply gets in the way.

Does this speak to you at all? What motivates you to do the Jewish things you do?