Friday, February 9, 2018

Parashat Mishpatim: Radical Empathy

I don’t know if you heard the news, but Wilmington has a Kosher restaurant for the first time in years, perhaps decades. And it’s not what you’d think. Last month, the Va’ad certified Dropsquad Kitchen, on the riverfront at Justison Landing, as our first kosher eatery. This is a big deal; sure, we’ve had froyo and ice cream joints and a cupcake shop with kosher certification, and you could get kosher food at Lodge Lane and the JCC, but it’s been a while since you could buy lunch or dinner out at a kosher place.

The question then becomes, what is Dropsquad kitchen? It’s not a new place; they’ve been on the riverfront since 2012. They’re a vegan, African American owned and operated soul-food restaurant. The name was chosen by the owner, Abundance Child, who took it from a Spike Lee movie. It’s a quirky place, filled with books and board games, the kind of place I would have loved to hang out in when I was in high school. The staff (who are mostly family) are thoughtful and welcoming and kind, and the food is delicious.

I’d been there before they got their heksher, and you know something? I’m absolutely thrilled. I have to tell you, I love the fact that it’s not what you’d expect from a kosher place; it’s not a deli, not a bagel place. Nothing about it says ‘Jewish’: no kreplach, no latkes, and certainly no gribnes. But so what? Why does that have to be our idea of kosher? And why not an African American business, downtown on the Riverfront as opposed to another eatery in Trolley Square or on 202 in North Wilmington? We had our DERECH meeting there this Tuesday and it was so great to get out of our own ruts, our own comfort zones, and I can’t wait to see as others in the Jewish community do the same.

For Dropsquad Kitchen to become kosher (and for the Va’ad to give them the heksher) is, of course, a business decision. But it’s more than that; it’s an experiment in radical empathy. Will Jews who want Kosher be willing to go downtown and eat vegan tacos (which are pretty awesome by the way), and will Dropsquad Kitchen want to welcome these folks in? Why wouldn’t the restaurant stick with its usual clientele and the Va’ad wait for someone to open up a more “classic” Jewish eatery? 

Specifically, because it gets us to see each other as part of a shared community, a shared experience. By eating kosher soulfood, it challenges us to understand the value of kashrut as more than just a particular ethnic cuisine but as a collection of values that are meant to lift us up and better ourselves and the world around us. When we get beyond our own boundaries, we stop being strangers to each other, and we become neighbors. And I can think of nothing more Jewish than that.

A few minutes ago I reminded us that the idea of loving and caring for the stranger, something that we are so familiar with in the Torah that it verges on pablum, is one of the most radical ideas in the ancient world and, I would argue, today. To say that we should take our shared experience of being the stranger, the resident alien, in Egypt, our narrative of being oppressed and ostracized, and transform that memory into radical empathy, is nothing short of revolutionary. As Rabbi Shai Held reminds us in The Heart of Torah, Scripture could have said, “since you were tyrannized and exploited and no one did anything to help you, you don’t owe anything to anyone; how dare anyone ask anything of you?” But that’s not what it said and not what I read; “You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Our memory is transformed from ethnic experience to intense ethical obligation, from an act of remembering for its own sake to one of moral responsibility. It’s not rational; we aren’t told “be kind to strangers because you might get something out of it”, or, “be kind to the resident alien in case they take over and you find yourself on the wrong end of a sword,” or, “let’s be kind to the resident alien, but only the good ones, the right ones who look like us and bother to get off the couch.” The appeal is entirely emotional. We’ve been there, we know what it’s like, and because we do we have an obligation to help when no one helped us; the immigrant Dreamer who dreams American dreams, the refugee fleeing persecution and death, and the African migrant coming to Israel hoping for safety and refuge, raising families and children, converting sometimes to Judaism, only to be told by the Jewish state that they should go to Rwanda. To forget our shared experience, our narrative, or to think it doesn’t make a moral demand of us, is to betray God, our Torah and ourselves. That’s what makes Dropsquad kitchen being kosher so amazing; a simple act of radical kindness. And that’s what makes our current debate around immigration, both here and in Israel, so infuriating. Yes, there is a comfort in hiding behind walls of our own making, but Torah compels us, compels us as surely as it compels us to keep the Sabbath or the holidays, to do differently, and to do better.  That’s why we must act and work with JFS Rise program to welcome refugees. That’s why we must join with the Religious Action Center to call for a clean DREAM act. That’s why we must do what we must do to make sure those who are not from here, the resident alien, the stranger, know that they are welcome.

One of my favorite stories goes like this (you might know it from that great source of midrash, The West Wing): "This guy's walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can't get out.
"A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you. Can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.
"Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on
"Then a friend walks by, 'Hey, Joe, it's me can you help me out?' And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here.' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before and I know the way out.'"

We’ve been down here before, and we know the way out. And Torah reminds us what to do; we jump into the pit with them. Just let’s grab some vegan kosher tacos for the road first. 

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