Saturday, August 12, 2017

Charlottesville, Eikev and Being In The Camp Bubble

I've been at Camp Harlam as faculty for the last week now. It's been amazing, as always, working with my unit and their staff, being with colleagues and comparing notes, focused on this cloistered microcosm of Jewish life here in the Poconos.

The emphasis is on the word cloistered. Even while taking the unit to New York City earlier this week it's easy to feel disconnected from the outside world. That is, as they say, a feature, not a bug; the point is to get the kids (and staff) to focus entirely on the Jewish world they're creating here in Kunkletown, rather than be distracted by what might be happening off-camp. Campers aren't allowed phones or connected devices, and staff are asked to keep theirs discreet and use them only for work or in their off hours. So it's easy to loss connection with the daily round, including what's happening in Virginia right now.

I was in Charlottesville for the first time only two months ago. I was down to do a wedding, and Marisa and I used the opportunity for a little R&R as well. While there, we toured the Old Grounds of the University of Virginia, and later (when my son arrived from my in-laws) Monticello.

I was struck by two things while in Charlottesville. The first was the kindness and diversity of everyone I met: the woman who cut my hair the day before the wedding, the local friends of the couple, the folks we met in passing, the guy behind the counter at the used book store who clearly could spin a yarn,  the folks at the coffeeshop we had breakfast in. Sure, you might say, it's the South, of course they were nice. But it was more than that: they were kind.  There was a real sense of community in this town. A sense that all of us are in this together.

The other was how the city--and UVA--are still wrestling with race and the legacy of slavery. As someone who went to Oberlin, a school rooted first in the Underground Railroad and Emancipation and later the Civil Rights movement, it was hard for me to tour the campus and process how much slavery permeated the origins of the school. But to the school's credit, it was neither hidden away nor whitewashed; there were clear exhibits and displays discussing their "original sin" and its legacy.

So to see what's happening in Charlottesville today is heartbreaking. The hate. The bigotry. The violence and terrorism. The lack of shame on the part of those who fly the symbols of racism and rage and intimidation. And to be here, surrounded by children of every color of the rainbow and every orientation celebrating their Judaism knowing that only a half-a-day's ride, people are being threatened, beaten, or run over, makes me feel pulled in two different directions, groping for answers in the dark.

This week, in our Torah portion, we read: "Remember the long way that The Eternal your God has made you travel in the wilderness...[in order to] test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep [God's] commandments or not."(Deut. 8:2). Clearly we as a country are still in the wilderness, still tested by hardship; is this truly what is in our hearts as a country? Is this who we want to be? A place of fire and rage and hate and bigotry? Or can we find our way back on the path? At this morning's Shabbat service, the unit head and assistant unit head of Galil reminded us that our values are not goals to achieve, they are not things we are meant to master. Rather, we are presented opportunities to strive toward them, and while sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail as well. But failure can lead to learning, can lead us higher, to strive harder for those moments where we might be our best selves. Today, as we continue in the wilderness of history, is a moment of failure. Today is a moment where we failed God's test. Not for Charlottesville or Virginia, but for all of us. Even those of us cloistered away at summer camp. But it will only remain a failure if we fail to learn from it, if we fail to act on that learning. Today is a day of hate. May tomorrow be a day of love, a day of peace--because we made it as such.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Parashat Mattot: Seeing The Other


The ad took up a full page in the newspaper. A prayer, a Jewish prayer, for soldiers going off to war, presented by the religious leader of the local community, beginning with the Shema in transliterated Hebrew, and ending with the words of the Psalms: “For thy salvation do I hope, O Lord!” The prayer, fitting a time of war, beseeches God to defeat the enemy, to inspire the young soldier and watch over them, and to watch over the welfare of the country and its leadership. The local Jewish community, having seen this prayer, watching their own children and their neighbors’ children go off to war, must have found it inspiring, and the Christian community, I suspect, found it encouraging as well.
The prayer I’m referring to is the Prayer for Confederate soldiers, written by Rev. M. J. Michelbacher, “minister” of the Hebrew Congregation, “House of Love” in Richmond Virginia, now headed by my colleague Scott Nagel. The enemy invoked in the prayer is, of course, the North, the Union…you know, the good guys. And here is a Jewish prayer celebrating what we know and understand, and what many of our Movement’s founders understood, to be the bad guys, the Confederacy.
It would be really easy for us to dismiss this as a particular stain of our history, but a minor one, that little shadow on the tablecloth where the wine got spilled at Seder once. We could blow it off, or explain it away, or justify it in a hundred different ways: a product of its time and place, the local Jews were afraid to speak out against injustice, etc. and so forth. Or we could just ignore it, and celebrate Jewish abolitionists and later civil rights leaders and pretend it’s not there. But there it is, beautifully and thoughtfully written by the local Jewish leader, publicized and memorialized at a time of great conflict, as Michelman writes, “this once happy country inflamed”.
That part should sound familiar to us. Perhaps you’ve moved on from the gnashing of teeth and bitter divide of 2016, and if you have, I commend you. I’m still a mess, and let me be clear; I’m a mess as much over the division between people—the anger, the howling rage and alienation—as I am over any particular policy or political stance. We are very quick to see one another as enemies instead of neighbors. We are being “Othered” from one another; along divisions old and new. And we are increasingly insulating ourselves from people who are different and with whom we agree, happily dismissing their lived experience. When the threat from the Majority leader in the senate is they may have to collaborate and compromise with the other side of the aisle, I think it’s safe to say that our ability to relate to each other is pretty trashed.
What happens when we see each other as enemies? Our Torah portion gives us an example of that. Moses is preparing Israel to finally, finally enter the promised land, when the tribes of Reuben and Gad make a modest proposal. You see, the lands just outside what would be Israel happen to be great land for cattle, which was Reuben and Gad’s thing. They ask, rather than enter the land, if they could settle just outside, where it makes more sense for their livelihood. “It would be a favor for us” they say.
Well, they may have thought that was a reasonable request, but Moses instead hears treachery and cowardice. Moses accuses them of being rebels, just like the previous generations, letting their brothers in the other tribes go to fight while they betray their loyalty to God. They don’t want land for their cattle; they just want to blow up the whole enterprise and ruin Israel, just like the previous rebels did. That Reuben—the tribe behind the last rebellion—was asking for this favor didn’t help. It takes both tribes declaring that they would go into the land and fight in front of the rest of the tribes as shock troops, as the vanguard, to calm Moses down from his wrath and help him see that they in fact were not trying to betray Israel, but do what was right for their families.
Moses doesn’t see fellow Israelites looking for their own interests asking permission and blessing for their choices; he sees—through the lens of previous experience—enemies trying to destroy God’s people. In fact we see a role-reversal of Moses here; instead of being the gentle and understanding one who patiently explains God’s commandments to a rebellious people, the commentator Abravanel imagines the leaders of the tribe stepping forward and explaining again, quietly, so Moses understands the request, desperately trying not to embarrass him.
How often are we Moses, quick to anger, to assume we know the other’s motivations, and those motivations have to be harmful, or naïve, or foolish? How much easier is it for us to speak to like-minded people about how we see them, those who would harm us, rather than step forward to speak patiently, quietly with those who would disagree with us? We talk about loving the neighbor and the stranger, but do we practice what we preach?
In her book “From Enemy to Friend”, Rabbi Amy Eilberg talks about different spiritual practices, even simple ones, to help us get beyond seeing the other as “Other”. Deepening our curiosity rather than our defensiveness by asking questions, checking in to our reaction to conflict and being self-aware of how we viscerally respond to others, trying to speak as our seeming opponent and explain from her point of view, even something as simple as asking ourselves “Are you sure?” when our inclination is to dig in. Any of those would give us the tools Moses lacked in the parasha, to truly see and embrace the other, minimize stereotyping and blame, while still upholding our own values and beliefs, in order to come to understanding. I think it is possible, but only if we put in the effort, the spiritual work of slowing down our own gut reaction to conflict.
The Prayer for a Confederate Soldier begins and ends with the Shema, our prayer from Deuteronomy, reminding us that God is One. But Oneness is not Sameness, and the rabbis remind us that God’s greatness is that we are all, as different and diverse as we are, created in God’s image, and that makes us sacred. So I pray not for victory against enemies, but to help us see those differences as holy; not for victory, but for love, not for victory, but for understanding. Not for victory, but Wholeness, for Shalom. May it be so. Amen.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Parashat Metzorah, or When to Ask for More Spoons

Once Rabbi Elimelekh had his friend Rabbi Mendel as a guest for dinner. As it happened, that night, Rabbi Elimelekh’s servant forgot to set out a spoon at Rabbi Mendel’s place. Everyone was eating except Rabbi Mendel, who sat looking at his soup. The Tzaddik observed this and asked: Why aren’t you eating? Well, said Rabbi Mendel, I don’t have a spoon.
Look, said Rabbi Elimelekh, one must know enough to ask for a spoon, and a plate too, if need be!
There are two ways to look at this story. One is that Rabbi Elimelekh should have made sure that Rabbi Mendel had a spoon. Quite rude and unwelcoming. But the other is Rabbi Elimelekh’s point; that Rabbi Mendel, seeing his situation, should have asked self-advocated, and asked for help. We can’t wait for someone to notice whether we’re in distress; we have to ask.
And here’s the thing; we’re not good at asking for help. We’re great at offering help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited someone in the hospital after surgery and asked if they wanted the caring committee to reach out, only to be told with a dismissive wave of the hand that they used to be on the caring committee. We’re happy to be the one who supports; we’re less thrilled to be on the receiving end. Maybe it feels infantilizing, or as Americans, it feels weak. I don’t know. What I do know is that our tradition teaches us that the point of being in community is as much to have a shoulder to lean on as it is to offer that shoulders to others. And that no one is keeping score. We see that in our torah portion, which talks about a person with Tzaraat; sometimes called leprosy but really some kind of spiritual skin disease. We are told right at the beginning that as soon as a priest hears about the person having tzaraat, he’s to go to that person outside the camp to address his needs. This tells us that someone had to tell the priest, and that the priest has to go to that person as soon as he hears of their suffering. I know that sounds self-evident, but too often I find that we’d rather suffer in silence or hope someone notices that we don’t have a spoon than admit frailty and get the help and support they need. And when we close ourselves off like that, in a way, we push our friends away, we tell them that we don’t trust them to be there for us. And we tell ourselves that we aren’t worthy of love and support.

Rabbi Mendel deserves a spoon. The metzorah—the person with tzaraat—deserves to be seen by the priest, to have his illness attended to so he can reenter the camp. And we are deserving of love and support. But sometimes, folks, we have to ask. Let’s be brave enough, trusting enough, to do so. Amen. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

We all need Shabbat this week.

It's been a hard week. A hard month.. A hard year (and it's only March!). Regardless of your political leanings it's clear that there's a lot of hurt right now. Too much pain, and fear, and anxiety.
Yet there has also been hope. There have been acts of kindness and solidarity large and small. Rallies. Calls for action. Notes and phone messages. Perhaps enough to fill in the cracks, perhaps not. But gestures of comfort and love nonetheless.
Tomorrow night begins Shabbat. That "palace in time" that comes every week for us as Jews. It is a chance for us to take a deep breath, to give ourselves permission to step away, if only for a moment, to cherish what is most holy in our lives. A reminder of why we do what we do the other six days.
As we look toward Shabbat, let me be so bold as to make a suggestion; find a synagogue, and go to services (we happen to have two tomorrow night, 6:30 and 8pm). Whether you're a regular or haven't been in a while. Or ever. Whether you're Jewish or not. Go and be in community. Go and be in sacred space. Go and simply be. Go and fulfill the words of the poet Ruth Brin:
God, help us now to make this new Shabbat.
After noise, we seek quiet;
After crowds of indifferent strangers,
We seek to touch those we love;
After concentration on work and responsibility,
We seek freedom to meditate, to listen to our inward selves.
We open our eyes to the hidden beauties
and the infinite possibilities in the world You are creating;
We break open the gates of the reservoirs
of goodness and kindness in ourselves and in others;
We reach toward one holy perfect moment of Shabbat.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Parashat Mishpatim: Cruelty or Solidarity?

If you went to Oberlin back in the 1990s then you would know that mild February weather would bring a special visitor to Tappan Square. Brother Jed. Who was Brother Jed? We never got his full name, but he was a part of a Christian religious organization where clearly part of the mission was to go to places of so-called godlessness and hedonism and bring the Gospel. So he would stand there in dress shirt and slacks with a sign quoting the Bible to justify some hostility to homosexuality (usually) and a Bible and would proclaim his values in a calm but loud voice. This being Oberlin there would be all kinds of shenanigans as a result: gay couples would frolic behind him, an Orthodox buddy from Hillel once stood about 15 feet away and countered his statements with quotes from the Talmud, a lot of people just ignored him. But a number of us would gather, listen, and debate and discuss with him. Sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for an hour. This was a liberal arts college, after all, and at liberal arts colleges you engaged in discourse. One time, as Brother Jed was packing up for the day, he made an off-hand comment about how he loved coming to Oberlin. It was hard to tell if he was being sincere or sarcastic so someone asked him why that was. He said it was because we actually engaged with him and listened to him. We talked to him. At the other colleges and universities he went to, they would throw beer bottles, yell obscenities at him and one time even chased him. They were hostile, they were cruel. To be sure our discussions could get heated and no one ceded any ground, but at no point were we cruel.

We weren’t cruel. This week we read parashat mishpatim, the portion of laws. It follows right after the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai and it always feels, narratively, like such a downer. After this amazing transformational moment Israel gets to listen about personal injury law, property management, criminal justice, witches, sexual morality, how to care for a slave, animal husbandry, holidays, a whole potpourri of regulations that seem to have nothing to do with each other. Except they do. Taken together, they are all an exhortation against cruelty. How you treat the slave, the widow, the orphan, your neighbor, the stranger, the animal in the field, how you participate in communal life--all pointing to a life that minimizes cruelty to others. That to be God’s people, to live by God’s light, to receive God’s blessing, we simply cannot treat others as obstacles, as things, as objects, as enemies. As Monsters. But people. And people are deserving of respect and love. Again and again, exhaustively, as my friend Josh Garroway wrote this week in Voices and Values, our portion exhorts us to care for the least of us, to protect the least of us, to see them not as strangers but as neighbors, as brothers and sisters.

We don’t have to be cruel. I have been thinking about the idea of cruelty more and more this last month, seeing families separated by religious bans, headstones overturned in Jewish cemeteries, as ICE agents take parents from their children at their kids’ football practices, and guidance come down reminding vulnerable transgender kids of their vulnerability. I’ve heard from teachers in the Christina school district that parents won’t come to conferences because they’re afraid it’s a trap set by ICE to take them away. The liberal thinker Richard Rorty often wrote that the choice before us wasn’t one of conservative versus liberal, but of solidarity versus cruelty. Were we going to, in policy, in behavior, in our the expression of our values, act out of cruelty, or were we going to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable, the most exposed to harm. Is it possible to disagree about values and beliefs without resorting to open hostility and cruelty? Well, we did it with Brother Jed. Why couldn’t we do the rest of the time?

Our Torah declares: You shall not follow a multitude to do evil; nor shall you speak in a cause to incline a multitude to pervert justice. That text speaks volumes today. Our age is presenting us Richard Rorty’s question, his choice, which is also God’s choice, though I doubt he would have thought of it that way. Will we act out of cruelty, hate, anger, hostility? Or will we act in solidarity, recognizing the humanity in the other, refusing to make the other ‘Other’ at all? The desecration of Jewish graves in St. Louis was met by a Muslim organization raising over $100,000. The Muslim Ban and Refugee restrictions have been met by Jews and Christians, including in our own community, saying loudly and proudly you are welcome here. Linda Sarsour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, has said “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression & denial of my humanity and right to exist.”. We can disagree and still love each other. We can choose solidarity. We don’t have to be cruel. We can choose solidarity. We don’t have to agree, we can hold onto our beliefs and cede no ground, but we can do it with respect and compassion for the other. But only if we choose. May we choose wisely, amen.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Parashat Yitro: It is enough

This past Wednesday I was having coffee with a friend and colleague, and we were talking about how insanely busy we are, especially right now with all that is going on in the world. And he said to me something that resonated; he said that he felt that what he was doing wasn’t enough. No matter how many calls he made or marches he went to or anything else he did, it didn’t feel like it was enough.

Well, “It me” as the kids say.

And it all of us too. Because I think one of the hallmarks of this moment in history is that it doesn’t matter what we do, it doesn’t quite feel like enough. That our individual efforts are too small. That no matter how much we may put our shoulder into whatever we’re doing, it isn’t making a difference.

And that’s as true in our personal lives as in our tzedakah lives. Perhaps it’s even more true there. Did I spend enough time with my family? Did I make a difference to the people around me? Am I making a difference in my life? I think many of us wrestle with these questions even as we find ourselves busier and busier with our obligations.

 In Exodus 18, Jethro watches his son-in-law Moses adjudicating before Israel all day long.
One man fixing the world's problems. All day long.
Baffled, he asks Moses what he's doing and he gets a bunch of superhero talk: only I can do it. They people need me. You know the drill.

And what does Jethro say?
ויאמר חתן משה אליו לא־טוב הדבר אשר אתה עשה׃
"And Moses’ father-in-law said to him, The thing that you do is not good.
נבל תבל גם־אתה גם־העם הזה אשר עמך כי־כבד ממך הדבר לא־תוכל עשהו לבדך׃
"You will certainly wear away, both you, and this people who are with you; for this thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it yourself alone."
So what?
That’s us. We’re Moses. We’re taking the world on our shoulders, feeling like no one else can do it, feeling like we alone are responsible, feeling like we have to keep ourselves going all day long.

And you know what? It's not good.
It's exhausting. For all of us.
And the Torah knew there would be moments like this, moments when we feel like Moses. So the text sends us Jethro to say:

You’re doing enough. And you don’t have to do it alone.
To say: remember your family, your friends, and your community.
To say: remember to pray, to sing, to breathe. To let others share the load; to trust others.
To say: go to shul. Call a friend you haven't talked to in a while. Break bread with some folks you like.
Jethro reminds us that Torah is not lived or fulfilled by one person, but by all of us.
All of us. Together. And that is good. May it be so for all of us. Amen.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

(Reform) Judaism: Politics or Values?

Last week I read this article from the JTA on how my movement--the Reform Movement--was responding to the many challenges of our time, including the challenges that have emerged for progressives from the most recent election. The article discusses the arrest of 19 rabbis as part of the Truah (formerly Rabbis For Human Rights-North America) conference, many of whom are Reform, and the joint statement and actions by the four major synagogual movements regarding refugees. One part struck me specifically, the challenge of addressing Jews who affiliate with the movement but may not share its articulated values. In particular, the article quotes Max Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who says

“The politics that the Reform movement engages in is disenfranchising a significant part of their own congregation,” Brooks said. “It is creating a false choice no one should have to make between their political views and their spiritual views.”
I've heard  similar statements from congregants, colleagues and friends who feel that the movement has become too political, or that it cannot define itself except by political terms. Many of us, of course, have heard the old joke about Reform Judaism is that it's the Democratic National Committee with Rosh Hashanah thrown in. But some of the feedback I've gotten has been a lot more raw, a lot more insistent that any movement's politics and spiritual views ought to be separate and distinct somehow. 

As I see it, there are two different arguments getting entangled here:

1. As a conservative, will I be welcome in a Reform Congregation?

This is a pretty serious question, and one that has gotten increasingly challenging in our time. It is harder and harder to speak to our differences in a way that is safe and nurturing. There are a number of reasons for that; the rise of abuse online (gaslighting, doxxing, general bullying, etc.), the exhausting, abusive nature of the presidential campaign and even the last several years. Smarter people than me have explored this pretty thoroughly, but it has translated into a near complete inability to hear the other side. As houses of worship, places of prayer and yes, sanctuary, this has to stop. If we take the text kol yisrael aravim ze ba ze, that all Israel is responsible for one another, that means taking each others' sacredness seriously.

2. Are Reform Judaism's values really spiritual or just politics? Or even worse, shallow spirituality?

I've heard this critique leveled at liberal religion for some time. And there are elements of truth to this (for example, a tendency to rely on the same prooftexts over and over again. Or worse, looking for prooftexts instead of allowing the text to teach on its own merit). I think it is interesting, however, that no one ever levels this critique on, say, the Catholic Church, or the Mormons. Somehow, their opposition to abortion is a deeply held spiritual belief based on an understanding of scripture; my support for a woman's right to make choices over her own body are not, but mere politics. The reality is this: Reform Judaism, and especially American Reform Judaism, has been social progressive since its earliest days.  Whether you want to point to the rabbis who preached for the abolition of slavery (based on an understanding of the Bible), the prayers in the Union Prayer Book that celebrated the coal miner, the repeated hope for a messianic age that appears in every Platform put out by the movement, our believes are rooted in our understanding of Judaism. Because of the very nature of progressive values, these ideas are going to be controversial, they're going to make people uncomfortable (David Einhorn preached vociferously against slavery, and was run out on a rail from Baltimore as a result; Reform congregations in the south were firebombed on more than one occasion during the Civil Rights era). And, the movement may use political means (rallies, lobbying) to help realize those values. That doesn't make the movement political per se; we are still rooted in Torah. Our values till emerge from our understanding of text and tradition and history and what God calls upon us to do.

So where does that leave us? Well, I think it means a couple of things. One, that we need to make sure we are welcoming to every individual to the best of our ability. That we see the divine in each person and celebrate that spark of holiness. Two, it means that we need to be up front about our values as a movement and congregation. When a congregant asks me if I'm going to teach 'my opinions' to our religious school kids, I make it clear: I'm going to teach how Torah calls upon us to care for the stranger, to love our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to relieve suffering, to protect the vulnerable, and all the ways the text challenges us. Finally, we need to hold both of these in balance. We can do both; we can be uncompromising of our values as rabbis and congregations and also welcoming of different ideas and different people. That is part of our brit, our covenant, and we must live it. That doesn't mean it will be easy, or comfortable; quite the contrary, we may find ourselves challenged by our ancient texts or our fellow congregants. That's okay, as long as we remember that we still sing the shema with one voice, together.

Thomas Mann wrote that "in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms." Maybe so. As a rabbi and Reform Jew, I believe the challenge is to reshape the narrative and present the meanings of our shared destiny in religious terms, as it says in our prayerbook: l'taken olam b'malchut shaddai, to repair our world for God's sovereignty. May this be so.