Saturday, August 12, 2017
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
Friday, April 28, 2017
Thursday, March 2, 2017
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
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
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
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.
“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.”
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.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
Today is the 44th Anniversary of Roe V. Wade, BD I came across an image of a tombstone today. A plain marker, it read:
"Kate McCormick, Seduced and pregnant by her father's friend. Unwed, she died of abortion, her only choice. Abandoned by her family with but a single rose from her mother. Buried only through the kindness of an unknown benefactor. Died February 1875 age 21. Have mercy on us."
I shared these words as part of an interfaith anniversary service today, and I asked the question: were Kate alive today, could we say the world has changed? Has the stigma changed, or the shame?
Have mercy on us.