Monday, May 4, 2015

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Just Taught the Most Important Torah of Our Time

Embracing Same-Sex Marriage is Modern, American—and Jewish

Ruth Bader Ginsburg says unions, once defined by gender dominance, are fundamentally changed. It’s time for the Jewish community to catch up.

The proceedings about same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court last Tuesday began on a tense note. I was there. Almost immediately, Justice Roberts asserted that we are talking not simply about expanding marriage to include same-sex couples, but about fundamentally redefining marriage in America. The term “millennia” was echoed around among the justices: Hasn’t marriage “for millennia” been defined as a union between a man and a woman? Who are we to suddenly change it? 
As a rabbi present for the deliberations, I found it remarkable that the justices seemed to speak of marriage in such binary terms. After all, in the Jewish tradition, we have a long view on “the millennia.” As I listened, I wished I could pass a note to the chief justices in order to point out that for millennia, polygamy was in fact the essential definition of marriage.  In Judaism, it wasn’t until about one thousand years ago that Rabbeinu Gershom famously enacted a ban on husbands taking multiple wives.
When Justice Bader Ginsburg joined in the conversation, her voice was quiet and the room palpably leaned forward to hear her insights.  And indeed, she didn’t disappoint. “Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition,” she said. “[Same-sex couples] wouldn’t be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn’t possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was marriage between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him.  There was a change in the institution of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn’t…fit into what marriage was once.”
As the blogger Ian Millhiser pointed out on the Think Progress, Bader Ginsburg meant that same-sex marriages were inconceivable when marriage was defined by gender roles that assert male dominance. By removing patriarchy from marriage, the inherent egalitarianism of same-sex marriage becomes an undeniable possibility.
Sitting in that courtroom, I realized that Justice Bader Ginsburg just unwittingly forwarded a critically important insight about the Torah that I have been trying to articulate for some time. In the book of Leviticus, we read the infamous injunction against homosexuality (Leviticus18:22): “Do not lie with a male as you lie with a female. It is an abomination.” Justice Bader Ginsburg clarified Leviticus’ problem with homosexual unions:  in a patriarchal society, putting a male in the “role of a woman” was considered an act of abuse and debasement. In our modern discourse, however, we have moved on to egalitarianism. We seek no longer to define gender or marriage by roles of dominance and subordination.
In effect, Justice Bader Ginsburg pointed out that marriage has already been fundamentally redefined in our society; that limiting the definition of marriage solely to a man and a woman is dangerously anachronistic if we indeed strive for the more just value of egalitarianism.  And indeed, in non-Orthodox Judaism we have moved on. When I sit with couples who are about to get married, I explain to them about the patriarchal language of the ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract. I point out the way that the wedding ceremony had its roots in the male “acquiring” the female. We acknowledge this past together and then agree to add onto the ceremony rituals that reflect our modern values of equal partnership in marriage.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, therefore, has taught some of the most important Torah of our time. Like Rabbeinu Gershom, who responded to the changed reality of his time a millenium ago by banning the abusive practice of polygamy, Bader Ginsburg sees a need to respond to the changed realities of our time as well. She teaches us not in a Jewish context, but in an American one, as her insights resonate deeply with Jewish wisdom.
Jews have a long tradition of re-framing and changing our understanding of injunctions and permissions based on new insights about justice and compassion. Bader Ginsburg’s wisdom shows us how we must respond to ancient texts that vilify homosexuality and seemingly preclude same-sex marriage: by following the rabbinic process of embracing change for the sake of human dignity, justice, and holiness.
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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Closet of the Religious Right

When Governor Mike Pence signed the discriminatory RFRA bill into law, I reacted like any other gay man--with sadness and anger at the rejection of lgbtq individuals based on someone’s notion of a religious ideal.  But my anger has given way to a sobering realization:  I am not as different from the Christian religious Right as I would like to think.  
When repeatedly challenged, Governor Pence dug in his heels and worked hard to avoid acknowledging how this bill enables citizens of his state to discriminate.  For months as this issue has reared its head in similar legislation in this country, I have seen this kind of reaction many times in interviews and conversations with those on the religious right.
Every time I see this behavior--otherwise intelligent and thoughtful people desperately avoiding acknowledging the truth--I recognize it fundamentally.  I have been there.  For forty-five years of my life, I lived in a closet that I had made for myself.  There was nothing in the world that I wanted more than to deny the truth of who I am.  I honestly believed that the truth was unthinkable, a betrayal not only of who I wanted to be in the world, but of all those I loved.  The more life showed me who I really am, the more I clung to a false personal narrative of who I desperately wanted to be.  
In the story of Passover, the Torah says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart for the first five plagues.  Surprisingly, for the final five, it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  It would seem that Pharaoh lost his free will, that he became a puppet of God’s will.  I read this differently.  When the text says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, it means that Pharaoh’s reason for hardening his heart shifted.  Instead of merely reacting against Moses, Pharaoh, on some very deeply-felt level, began to understand that Moses was in the right, and that he himself was wrong.  The more the undeniable truth confronted him, the more he denied it from a place of fear and desperation.  For Pharaoh, the Truth  was unthinkable: that there is a God, higher than any human being, who demands justice for oppressed, a world of ever-increasing compassion for those who suffer.  In this way, it was the Truth (God!) that hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
There are many kinds of closets in our human experience.  Some closets are about sexuality, others about religion, others are about power.  The Torah doesn’t use the term “closet.”  Instead, it is called a “hardened heart.”  The religious right is in a closet of religious sensibilities and denial that they are now desperately using as a weapon of discrimination.  Make no mistake, their behavior is identical to that of Pharaoh and his hardened heart.  Their hearts are hardened because of a desperate fear of losing their cherished version of a world that they want so badly to be true, a world and a truth narrowly defined by their pastors along Biblical precepts.
I have come to see that the Bible is not inherently synonymous with truth.  Rather, the Bible is a precious tool to help us to find the truth in our lived experience.  Another name of God is Truth, no matter how unthinkable and frightening that truth may be.  God, the Truth, can never be reduced to a text.  God, the Truth, is bigger than we are, bigger than any stories or ideas we can project about what we want life to be.  I have come to see that all closets and hardened hearts--no matter how well-intended--bring about far worse plagues than the truth that we feared to be so unthinkable.  The inevitable reality is that the truth is on the side of anyone who stands up for the oppressed.  The religious right knows this at the core of their being.  That’s why they are so frightened and their hearts are hardened.   Like Moses, may we stand and act courageously in the face of all those with hardened hearts.   And may we  watch the modern-day version of the miracle of Passover unfold in our time.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Election results in Israel: The triumph of fear over vision in the Jewish State

On election day, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted on Facebook that "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out." With this fear-mongering, he succeeded in bringing out the far-right votes to secure his victory.  When I learned of these tactics, and of Likud’s victory, I was not angry.  I was overwhelmed with sadness and grief.  My sadness wasn’t only on account of dashed hopes for peace, or of an alienated American Jewry.  My deepest grief was on the triumph of fear over vision in the State of Israel. 
In many ways, the story of the Jewish people over centuries has been about the struggle between fear and vision--between the trauma of persecution and the mission to be a holy people, a light of justice and peace for the world.  On Passover we tell the story of how our people we were liberated from a fear-mongering Pharaonic state.  Our national narrative bears a message of justice and hope.  At our seders, we also acknowledge that “ every generation [enemies of the Jewish people] rise up to destroy us…”At the very core of our identity as a people, vision and fear exist together in a tense and competing partnership.
In the Zohar, a central medieval Jewish mystical text, this tension between a loving vision and a fearful darkness exists as an earthly reflection of a similar tension within the Godhead itself.  Even God struggles between the Divine “Attribute of Compassion”--an infinite desire to love and to embrace--along with the “Attribute of Judgment,” the inevitable need for limits and disappointments, for death itself.  Our rabbis teach us that God seeks to exist always with the Attribute of Compassion in ascendancy over the Attribute of Judgment. So, too, on earth, we must live so that our choices and actions place compassion over judgment.  If we incline more toward fear and judgment than compassion, we unleash greater potential for evil in the world.
The dream of the modern State of Israel came into being on the heels of the Shoah, when the world turned on us and sought to annihilate us.  Once again--now in real statecraft--the holiest dreams and hopes of the Jewish people were inexorably linked with trauma and horror.  Whether we realized it or not, the grand experiment of the Jewish state was a test of the Jewish people:  can we, despite six million reasons to incline toward the Attribute of Judgment, build a state that inclines toward the Attribute of Compassion?  Netanyahu would say that dreams and visions are nice, but the reality of Iran and an increasingly radicalized middle east calls for extreme defensive response.  He is not wrong about the realities of the Middle East and the very real existential threats to Israel. 
But in this election, and recently in the US Congress, Netanyahu has taken tactics deliberately aimed at striking fear into the hearts of the Jewish people, and of the world.  By playing partisan politics in the States, by eliciting a standing ovation for Eli Wiesel--thereby invoking the trauma of the Holocaust--by blanketly painting the political Left as in cahoots with the enemies of Israel and of Democracy, Netanyahu has tipped the scales toward the Attribute of Judgment.  The stage is now set for fear itself to be the defining characteristic of the Jewish state.  Under Netanyahu’s leadership, trauma and mistrust itself become the central bases of the future Jewish State, in all the ways Israel will respond to its neighbors, and to the world.
I grieve the results of this election because it represents the abandonment of the dreams of Israel’s founders, who sought a Jewish state that cherished all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. I grieve this election because it replaces the core Israeli value of “Hatikvah,” of Hope, with cynicism.  The grand experiment of Israel was whether a vision of hope, justice, and peace could overcome centuries of exile and trauma in the hearts of the Israeli people.  I grieve because Netanyahu’s leadership presents an answer to this experiment, and that answer is no.  May those of us refuse to give up on a vision of hope and justice remain undaunted, despite our grief.  And may we live to see the day when the Attribute of Compassion beats at the deepest heart of the Jewish State.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, the oldest and largest conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. He is the first openly gay senior rabbi in the institution's 150-year history, and speaks publicly on matters of Israel, LGBT Justice, and Jewish Spirituality throughout the Nation's Capital and the world.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

What it Really Means to be Jewish

On Rosh HaShanah, I shared a message about the sacred purpose of the Jewish people:  we are here to find every kind of brokenness in this world and to repair it.  In every broken shard of life, there is a hidden spark of Divine light that we must find and return to its source in God’s oneness.  It’s up to us to take the initiative in overcoming hatred and judgment; it’s up to us, and not anyone else, to teach the world what it means that we are all one human family in the image of God.  In these times of so much violence and polarization--the violence, racism and outrage in Ferguson; the contempt-ridden polarization of left and right in so many political spheres, the missiles and tunnels of Hamas, the atrocities of ISIS, and the scourge of anti-Semitism around the globe--we, the Jewish people, must rise to our sacred purpose.  Why are we constantly beset by hatred and violence in our lives?  It actually all boils down to one root cause: it’s the propensity that lives in each of us to ‘other-fy,’ to reduce individuals and groups to the status of alien or different or inferior to “me” or to “us”.  We see this phenomenon in various forms--in the political polarization in this country, in the scourge of racism, as well as in the atrocities of Hamas and Isis.  This living in a state of alienation from other human beings violates an essential value in Judaism. The Torah exhorts us over and over to Remember the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt.  
It’s ironic, however, that with this clear universalist ethic in Judaism, we Jews also exult in being the “other” in the world.  As Leviticus says, “Kedoshim t’hiyu,” “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.”  According to most biblical scholars the Hebrew term Kadosh, or Holy, is best translated as “separate-and-elevated.”  For example, in biblical times, special objects were “Hekdesh,” consecrated, or set aside--made as ‘other’--in a separate and elevated way so that they could not be used for profane purposes, but rather for Divine purposes.  So the standard interpretation of all of this is that we, the Jews, are to be a Holy people--separate and elevated above the rest of the world--the “chosen people” with a special and Divine purpose in the world.  If you’re anything like me, this notion of being a ‘Holy-Other’ and Chosen people leaves you ambivalent at best, and downright alienated at worst.  This chosen to be other idea can even feel a little creepy:  if other-fication is the root of so much evil, and we celebrate our otherness, does that mean, God forbid, that we are to blame for anti-Semitism?  
...Don’t worry, the answer is no!  Not at all.  On this Yom Kippur, I am going to suggest today  a deeper understanding what it means not only to be Kadosh--holy-- but what it means to be Jewish in the first place!  I am going to explain today that being Jewish is not, and was never about us vs. the world.  Rather, it’s in how we can transform our relationship with the other that can truly sanctify the world.  I will show us how the great purpose of the Jewish people begins with each one of us today, and how we choose to live in every one of our relationships in our lives.   
The problem is, of course,  that people can be crazy-making!  You may have further noticed that life is constantly a mess:  for all our attempts at order and creating a life that meets expectation--free from drama--life keeps surprising us, and not often in pleasant ways.  “Der mensch tracht un Got Lacht,” as the Yiddish proverb goes:  “Man plans and God laughs.”   In truth, this proverb is an overriding theme of Yom Kippur:  on Kol Nidrei we ask to be released from vows knowing full well that we will mess up again and ask to be released the following year.  In our services today, we acknowledge that some of us in this room may be dead next year at this time, and we can’t predict who or how or when.   It’s all too easy, as happens to many in our society today, to become nihilists or atheists, to believe in nothing but chaos.  But Judaism rejects chaos and Godlessness.  Despite the messiness of life, we are called to sanctify the “sacred messiness”--as my teacher Irwin Kula calls it--of life itself.  In other words, whenever life is a mess, whenever bad things happen to us, whenever life itself feels “other” and alienating and terrifying, all of Judaism can be boiled down to a simple question:  “What can we do now?”  And do you know what we do?  We defy the chaos!  We bless this life, despite everything.  As the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof says, “There’s a blessing for everything.”  Sometimes that blessing is literally a bracha, sometimes it’s a life-affirming act of tzedakah or kindness or courage; and even in the face of death itself, we respond with the Kaddish--an ultimate affirmation of life’s holiness.
My wife, Batya, is the Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives at the JCRC of Greater Washington.  Through her work with leaders of other faith traditions, she learns not only about their traditions but about what it means to be Jewish.  Once she was having a meeting at our dining room table with clergy from various faiths.  Batya put out a bowl of fruit and a Catholic priest expressed his understanding that that fruit isn’t kosher unless it is first blessed and declared holy by a rabbi. Now, this priest’s misconception makes a lot of sense:  in Catholicism,  objects like holy water are not holy until a Priest, a holy man, blesses them and declares them to be holy.  In that priest’s confusion, the fundamental difference in worldview between Catholicism and Judaism became clear to Batya.   For that priest, the world is not holy.  It needs to be made holy.  For Judaism, the world IS holy; we sanctify our lives by recognizing the holiness inherent in the world.  Whenever we perform a ritual mitzvah in Judaism, we invoke the phrase “Asher Kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu,”  Blessed is God “Who sanctified US through the commandments and commanded us…”  In other words, what makes us a Holy people is our actions, our words, our very outlook on all things as inherently holy and belonging to God.  In other words, we’re not inherently holier and closer to God than everyone else; rather, we’re the ones who can see how we--together with everyone else--are holy and close to God!  In other words, to be Jewish, to be an ‘Am Kadosh, a holy people,  is to learn to see the world and all of life through the eyes of God!
Imagine with me what it would be like, over the course of a lifetime, to relate to everyone and everything with this understanding of holiness.  Imagine with me cultivating God’s perspective on life, and not just our own.  Where we see life’s messiness, life’s darkness, life’s violence, and apparent chaos--God sees the world as Tov Me’od, very good--perfection in its very imperfection!  Where we might only see life’s Otherness, God sees Holiness.  Where we might see fear or despair, God sees infinite potential for the good, for justice, for beauty, for peace.  Batya has a beautiful way of practicing this Holiness-perspective even when walking down the street or stuck in traffic:  when she encounters people who are rude or angry, she repeats to herself over and over:  “You don’t know what he/she is going through.  You don’t know what he/she is going through.”  She does this practice because it helps her feel more at peace with whatever is annoying her.  Now that may be so, but I think she is blessing them even as they might make her life more difficult.  She is blessing them by acknowledging God’s perspective, by recognizing that what they truly are is infinitely more than how she might judge them based on one encounter or behavior.
So to be a Jew in the world is not about being a “separate and elevated” tribe above and beyond other peoples in the world.  Being a Jew is not limited by shared history or ethnicity or brilliance or neuroses.  In this day and age of so much other-fication in this world, we must indeed start by  celebrating what makes us unique and different.  But as individual human beings, we are not inherently unique or different because we’re Jewish.  We are not holy by being separate and elevated.  We are holy by relating to the world as God’s sacred Creation.  Kedushah, Holiness, at its core is a quality of awareness, of mindfulness that everything--even those things that frighten us, that make us feel out of control--everything belongs to God, is of God.  Our sacred purpose as the Jewish people in the world is--as individuals, as families, as communities--to teach the world how to transcend Otherness!
This sacred purpose is so important, so central, that I want to spell out how each and every one of us can do this:  the very moment you perceive another human being or situation as Other, as frightening or alienating or inferior to you--stop!  And find a way--no matter how agonizing or painful--to find the image of God, the spark of the Divine at the very core of that Other.  Our job is to replace all Otherness with Holiness!   Judaism serves as a technology to get us there.  In our service, in the Kedushah, we say “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh,  Adonai Tzeva’ot, Melo Kol Ha’Aretz Kevodo,” “Holy holy holy is the God of all the forces of nature, the whole world is the fullness of God’s Presence.” Our ancient rabbis teach us over and over that all of the mitzvot, the commandments, come as one piece, one package to live every moment of our lives with this insight!  In this day and age, we like to think that the ethical commandments of Judaism take precedence over the ritual actions.  Not so, insist the rabbis.  A famous passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a) says that the act of simply studying Torah is equal to all the great ethical injunctions like honoring parents, visiting the sick, caring for the needy, and even making peace!  How could just sitting and studying be equal to making peace in the world?!  Other teachings insist that rituals like prayer, like lighting Shabbos candles, are equal to acts of justice.  How could this be?!  When we light Shabbos candles, what is it that we are really doing here?  An empty ancient tribal act?  Or, are we recognizing that there is Divine light in the world, despite all the darkness and otherness we perceive during the week?  
In this way, this practice of seeing with the eyes of God is equal in ritual and in ethical acts.  One informs the other.  So when the time comes in each of our lives to stand up for justice, or to stand even in the face of our enemies--are we doing these acts out of a  place of anger, out of a place of seeing our adversaries as alien Others?  Or are we engaging in these actions in the spirit of Kedushah, of that Divine Holiness perspective, where even in the moment where we are in the presence of our enemy we have the courage to remind ourselves “You don’t know what he/she is going through.”  Even as we struggle against overwhelming odds when all seems hopeless and despairing, are we able to defy that darkness and otherness and find even the smallest spark of light and hope?
Just as our people, even in the darkness of Hitler’s Europe, even in the Warsaw ghetto and elsewhere, continued to light Shabbat candles and acknowledge the possibility of light and renewal in the midst of apparent chaos, we are still here to continue to bless the possibility of light, to overcome the fear in our hearts of all those who terrify us, and recognize how they too, however distorted they may seem to us, are in the image of God.
At Ne’ilah, we will be distributing cards with the phrase “Ani v’Atah,   Me and You.”  It’s the name of a famous Israeli song, sung by Arik Einstein.  We do this as a simple reminder to take with us into the New Year of 5775 our sacred purpose as the Jewish people.  It’s what the philosopher Martin Buber taught in his famous work “I and Thou”:  It’s a reminder that just as we try to be Havruta partners with each other whenever we study Torah, we must understand ourselves to be Havruta partners with everyone whom we encounter in our lives--however briefly, however painfully or frighteningly, however alien and Other they may appear to us.  It is only together as Ani v’Atah, me AND you, not me versus you, that we sanctify this world.  It’s only when we set as our chiefest goal and purpose as the Jewish people to be the ones to transcend otherness that we can begin to create the possibility of peace and lasting justice.  We can’t wait for the rest of the world to live this message of transcending otherness.  This, and only this, is what we were chosen for in the first place.  So this year, let’s resolve together as a community to live in Havruta, Ani v’Atah, with all those in our lives and in our world.  Let’s make use of the ancient technology of holiness that we have received from our ancestors and learn to see the world not as a dark place of hostile others, but rather as an imperfectly perfect work in progress, one where God is always present, seeing it for all its beauty and potential, where we have the power to help the whole world see one another with the eyes of God.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The One True Narrative of Israel

A few weeks ago, I was working with a bar mitzvah child as he prepared for his simchah.  At some point, we were discussing the terrible events that had been going on in Israel this summer.  After this talk, his mom pulled me aside and said to me, very simply, “It’s hard to be Jewish at this time.  It’s just so hard.”  I think she expressed a sentiment that we all feel as we enter this Jewish New Year.  It began with the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli boys, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar.  Next, some Jew, in retaliation, decided to murder a Palestinian boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir.  And the terrible theme of this summer, along with the missiles and the world condemnation of Israel, was the murder of children and other innocents.  Hundreds of children in this conflict as a result of the Hamas policy to place the innocent in as much danger as possible and use the innocent as human shields knowing the power of these deaths and images to tear at our souls.
        Here at home, we have watched in horror and fear as missile after missile was fired at Israel, relieved at Iron Dome’s effectiveness, but still deeply terrified, knowing that their aim is to kill our people--men, women, and children.  Our fears and heaviness have only multiplied as the world, it seems, has chosen to utterly vilify Israel as a cruel and vicious oppressor.  And our hearts were breaking knowing that so many innocent Palestinians were dying because of Hamas’ cruel tactics--and because of Israel’s need to defend itself nevertheless.  I’m sure many of you join me in feeling like the world is going mad.  Everywhere, we are moving to extremes, hatred, and violence.  The specter of Anti Semitism is springing up all over the world again. We are all so scared, and indeed, it is so hard to be Jewish right now.
        While I so wish I could point to a clear way out of the pain we all feel right now, what I can do for us this Rosh HaShanah is to at least point us in the direction of hope.  And indeed, that message of hope did rise up in Israel this summer--and many of us may have missed it in the shuffle of events of the summer.  After the Palestinian boy, Muhammad, was murdered in retaliation for Hamas’ murder of the three Jewish boys, something remarkable happened. Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barakat paid a shiva call to Naftali Fraenkel’s home.  While there, the Mayor called Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy’s father, and suggested that he speak to the family.  The uncle of the slain Jewish boy got on the phone and had an emotional conversation with the father of the Palestinian boy.   “We expressed our deep empathy with their sorrow, from one bereaved family to another bereaved family,” Yishai Fraenkel reportedly said. “I think it’s very good they seem to have found the culprits. We expressed our absolute disgust with what had happened. He accepted our statements, it was important for him to hear it.”   The Fraenkel family also issued an official statement:   “There is no difference when it comes to blood. Murder is murder; there is no justification, forgiveness or atonement for any murder.”
        In these extraordinary actions and words, the seeds of a way out of the out of control hatred and violence were planted…
        There is simply nothing in our human experience more despicable than the murder of children.  Such murders send shockwaves through all of humanity, engendering not just horror and anger, but the deepest of fears.  The fallout from such murders--be they by kidnappers or by Hamas’ tactics--turns otherwise good and decent people into extremes of fear and judgment--on both the political left and right about Israel.
        On the left, Israel has become the ultimate villain of western imperialist domination, one of the great impediments--literally and symbolically--of all oppressed peoples in the world.  In other words, age-old anti-Semitism, dressed in progressive liberal drag, has invaded the left.  For those of us who are proud Jewish liberals, this has felt like an incredible betrayal.  This insidious anti-Semitism--that so perverts true liberal values of compassion for all troubled peoples on all sides--has effectively muzzled those of us who feel that current Israeli policies and approaches deserve criticism in a respectful and democratic fashion.
        On the political right, as well, fear and rage have pushed not only some Israelis, but many here as well into ever-more hateful vilifying of all Palestinians, and delegitimizing of valid Palestinian claims. As much as Israel has every right and need to defend itself, I have heard too many Jews callously write-off the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children as collateral damage; who refuse to acknowledge the horror and immediately deflect the conversation away from the children to hatred of Hamas and Palestinians.  The great tragedy of Israel these days is not just the war casualties--it’s the very humanity of all people in their fearful reaction to this war.  This diminishing sense of the humanity on all sides is also a betrayal of what it means to be Jewish, and the deepest Jewish value that every human life is sacred.
        Indeed, it is so hard to be Jewish right now….
At a moment like this, we need to go back to basics.  We need to remember who we are as Jews, and why we are here, and what the vision and dream of the State of Israel is in the first place.  On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion spoke these words.
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Thank God, the modern state of Israel is indeed all of these things.  Within these words we hear of Israel’s commitment to be based on prophetic values of justice.  In the haftarah of Yom Kippur, we will recite the words of Isaiah who tells us that God wants us to “...unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  To let the oppressed go free; to break off every share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
        Contrast the Israeli Declaration with the foundational “Covenant of Hamas,” where article 7 quotes the Koran and reads, “ 'The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: 'O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”
           Our own Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for the Atlantic, brought in a quote where the famously left wing writer Amos Oz--one of the founders of Peace Now, in fact--poses two questions to his interviewer at the beginning of an Interview with Deutsche Welle:
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
And indeed, with this apt metaphor, we, the Jewish people, pass the simple truth onto the world.
           There is a stark contrast  between the two foundational documents.  There is no moral equivalence between Hamas and the Israeli government. And yes, Hamas’ aims are terrifying.  Their hateful, barbaric, extremist ideology, echoes the barbarism and contempt for human life we have seen from ISIS.  Yes, these terrorists are motivated by an anti-Semitism as pure as that of Hitler.  But on this New Year, as we face the unshakable truth of anti-Semitism in Gaza and the world, and reel from the deaths of children--we must, above all else, resist the urge to sink to Hamas’ level.  Instead, we must stand strong and hold fast to the foundational principles of Israel and Judaism.  If we are to play our part in overcoming the darkness of our time, the narrative of Israel must NO LONGER be about Jews vs. Arabs, or Israelis vs. Palestinians anymore.  It is NOT about the powerful vs. the powerless. The struggle in the Land of Israel is a struggle between those who yearn for peace, and those who do not yearn for peace.
        What must rise up from the terrible ashes of this summer is that Jew and Jew, left and right, Jew and Muslim, Jew and Christian, religious and secular, Israelis and like-minded Palestinians-- must all come together with voices joined to speak out against extremism on all political sides.  We must recognize that not all Palestinians are evil.  Hamas and their ideology are evil.  There is a famous story in midrash Tehillim (Psalm 104) about how there were once “ruffians,” or evil people living in the neighborhood of the great Rabbi Meir.  Rabbi Meir began to pray that these evil-doers die.  Upon hearing this, Rabbi Meir’s wife, Bruriah, was outraged.  She quoted the 104th Psalm to him, that says, “Yitamu Chataim min ha’aretz” which means “May sins be uprooted from the earth.” She said to her husband.  It does NOT say May sinners be uprooted from the earth, rather their sins.  “Pray that the sinners repent of their ways, NOT that they themselves would perish.”  Bruria reminded her husband that the role of the Jewish people in this world is not to seek the death of others, but overcome sins and all sources of evil.  The story ends that Rabbi Meir took his wife’s advice.  He prayed on behalf of the evil-doers, and lo and behold, they ceased to be evil.
Judaism tells us over and over again--all hope for Tikkun Olam--repair of the world--MUST begin with us, the Jewish people to create a world that is whole and just.  In Kabbalah, we are taught that our role as the Jewish people is to respond to every kind of brokenness that we encounter in this world,  to redeem the broken shards of every brokenness, and to liberate the spark of the Divine in every shard so that that spark may return to its source in God’s Oneness .  We have to break the chain of hatred and see through our fear to the real humanity of the other.  And, equally importantly, we must DEMAND that others must recognize our humanity as well!
        It is essential that we, like the Fraenkels, grieve the loss of innocent Palestinian children as much as we grieve the loss of our own.  We must learn from the Fraenkel and Abu Khdeir families, and realize that no one people or ideology owns the claim to the worst victimhood in this world.  There is, in truth, only one story of victimhood in the entire human saga, and that is the loss of innocent life at the hands of any and all people who do not value peace and justice and the dignity of life itself.  The Mishnah itself, in Sanhedrin (4:5), explains: God created the world from one single person, from Adam, “...for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, "My parent was greater than your parent".  Remarkably, it’s not only the Talmud that teaches this wisdom.  There is a parallel teaching to this in the Koran itself!  The evil that we struggle against is not in Islam.  Yes, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has its problematic texts--but as a religion it is not evil.  It is in the twisted, distorted ideas of Hamas and other fanatics.
        Now is the time, more than ever, for us to lift up Judaism’s message for all peoples of the world:  We are one human family--the children of Abraham--Jews, Christians, Muslims, and together with all families of the earth, we are all the children of God.  And our Torah teaches us that the Land of Israel contains the seeds of turning the hearts of brothers and sisters, parents and children toward one another, recognizing the sanctity of life and God’s creation.  This summer, the Fraenkels and the Abu Khdeir families lived this truth.  Now we must all do it.  We express this vision every day when when we say the Aleinu in our services:  that the nations that today seem so scattered and dissonant, will one day come together and recognize the oneness that we all share.  We can and must hold our heads high and speak the truth of what Israel can and will be to this world.  It is most clearly summed up with the words that we end every Kaddish with in our Machzor:
“Oseh Shalom bimromav,”  “May God who makes peace in the Heavens above,” “Hu Ya’aseh Shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teivel,” “May God bring peace upon us, upon all Israel, and upon all inhabitants of this world,”  “V’imru Amen”!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Technology of Moral Choices

This has been quite a week of crisis over Syria.  But even with immediate crisis postponed, we are left with many difficult moral questions.  Last week, President Obama proclaimed that  President Assad of Syria crossed a red line.  He deployed chemical weapons against his own people.  According to the Obama administration,  1,429 people died in that war crime, including 426 children --  and this act warranted a response because it clearly violate s the norms of the international community.  In the ensuing arguments and political deals in the past few days, one question gnaws at us:  why, in particular, are chemical weapons worse than all the countless atrocities that Assad has been perpetrating for years now?  It’s a good question, and that’s why it gnaws at us. You see, deep down, we Jews in particular, we know well—very well—why chemical weapons cross the line from pedestrian atrocity to unacceptable horror.  It was our people who were forced into the gas chambers.  It was our people who were the targets of the total genocide of men, women, and children at the hands of a vicious dictator.  We, in fact, know, from centuries of experience, what it is to be the innocents wiped out en masse.  In our very marrow we, the remnant of Israel, live to tell the story of the evil of which humanity is capable.  
        As I beheld the awful pictures of the victims buried in mass graves, including the children, I couldn’t help but think not only of the Holocaust, but also of a story from the Torah that we all know well.  In the book of Exodus, we read the slaying of the first-born of Egypt the night before our escape from Pharaoh.  We are told that about midnight, HaMaschit—the Destroyer—came into the Land of Egypt and wiped out the firstborn, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh to the firstborn of the maidservant at the mill, and even the cattle.  Our ancient rabbis explain that this Mashchit, this Destroyer, was a force of unspeakable terror: it did not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.  It simply killed.  But we, the Israelites in Goshen, we had our own, very different sort of red line:  we had the lamb’s blood that we spread on our doorposts and lintels.  I would like to ask us all to take that famed story and just sit with it for a moment:  imagine that you are an Israelite, looking from your safe place out on that dark night, when all around you are screams of terror and grief as God indiscriminately kills the firstborn of Egypt.  How do you feel?  If you’re anything like me, you feel horror, guilt, anger, unworthiness, alienation, powerlessness, humbled even as you are grateful to be alive.
      I share this story today because, through its similarities and differences to Syria, it gives us a unique perspective.  At first blush, the Maschit/Destroyer is like a Divine chemical weapon.  But it’s not.  It’s from God.  It’s destroys, but it is there as an instrument for the good!  The Maschit is a response to evil.  It’s a response that works evil even as it opposes evil!  Inherent in the story of the Maschit is that evil is sometimes so profound in this world that there is no way to counter it without bringing about some collateral evil.  It is a profoundly challenging story on a moral level.  Every year when we sit at our seder, we are forced to confront this painful truth:  that if that Mashchit hadn’t destroyed so many lives in Egypt on that dark night, we would not have been saved.  Indeed, we would not even exist now.  And this, of course, is why we take out the ten drops of wine from our cup of joy at our seders every year.
        And now we struggle over more killing in the Middle East because a red line has been crossed, and the security of the region—of Israel—is at stake.  Today, I’m talking about Syria, about the intense moral challenge that Syria poses to all of us.  What I’m talking about is how our every choice to do good has consequences—often good together with bad consequences.  What I will show today is that, while we certainly have the moral high ground with respect to Syria—the greatest danger is for us to forget that we never, ever, have an absolute moral high ground over anyone.
In attacking his own people, even the innocent children, Assad is worse than Pharaoh.  He is once again the ancient Amalek, the sworn enemy of Israel and all that is good in the world, because Assad, like Amalek, respects no rules of human dignity and life, and attacks even the defenseless. This most certainly, from a Jewish perspective, seems to be a clear open and shut case.  But wait a minute.  The same God who tells us never to forget the atrocities of Amalek in all generations, was also the God who commanded us to wipe out the Canaanites, the Jebusites, and other peoples living in the Land of Israel in our conquest of the land.  And in that command, God had us wipe out all these peoples—the men, the women, and the children.  Yes, we were commanded by God to commit mass killings! And just as in the slaying of the firstborn, I want to ask you to just sit with that for a moment:  your ancient ancestors attacked and killed countless people, including children, in order to inherit the Land of Israel.
              Our Torah is such a frustrating document!  It would be so easy for it to be only inspiring, with a God who is nothing but love and goodness.  But it just doesn’t work that way!  Yes, it has plenty of inspiration and love.  But it is full of horror, injustice, and a God who is so often angry, distant, cruel and cold.  For generations, our people have sought to avoid all the challenging, uncomfortable parts of the Torah.  As soon as we encounter God, the killer of innocents, we squirm.  And we typically do anything to avoid these texts and stories.   One of my teachers, Rabbi Irwin Kula, taught me that we typically avoid these texts in two ways:  the first way to avoid uncomfortable parts of the Torah is the Ultra-Orthodox way.  That is, if you don’t like God’s actions or commandments, it’s your fault, and it’s your problem.  The Torah is perfect, so you have to be the confused one.  The second way of avoiding a disturbing text of the Torah is the modern, academic, secular way of avoiding it:  A disturbing text with a vengeful angry God?  No problem!  It’s obviously an ancient text from primitive times, reflecting barbarian values of the ancient world.  The pretty, inspiring texts are more sophisticated.  We’ll keep those, and reject the ones we don’t like.  The problem with the Orthodox avoidance is that you get Jews who say that the Holocaust was the Jews fault because they didn’t do enough Mitzvos, and they didn’t check to make sure their mezzuzahs were Kosher (an ultra-Orthodox man once explained this to my face).  The problem with the secularist avoidance of the text is that by deconstructing it, you reduce it to just a piece of literature that doesn’t necessarily have moral sway over your particular opinion.
        What I say is that both these approaches are equally evasive of the Torah itself.  I teach a class called Making Torah Personal (I will be teaching it again this fall in the Beit Midrash).  In that class, I instruct students not to avoid, but to sit with these texts. They’re disturbing for a reason!  The Torah is a technology that exists to change us, to humble us, to make us more compassionate and thoughtful people.  But you can’t get there if you avoid these texts.
        Last week, I talked about God.  I taught how the Da’at, the deepest knowing of God is to acknowledge What-Is, to acknowledge Reality itself.  This week, as we think about the painful implications of our potential involvement in Syria, we must turn to our Judaism, to our Torah, for guidance.  This week, I teach that the technology of the Torah is to serve as a perfect mirror of What-Is.  It’s a mirror we hold up to Reality in order to find our own moral clarity in that reflection.  In that reflection, we are forced to ask ourselves:  Why does God seem to kill indiscriminately?  Why does God let bad things happen to good people?  Why does pursuing the good sometimes lead to terrible consequences?  Why  does the Torah have all these things?  I’ll tell you the answer:  Look around at the world around you.  That’s exactly What-Is!  That’s the Face of Reality, the Face of God!  The Reality of this life does not only contain Abraham and Moses, Gandhi and MLK; Reality also includes Pharaoh, Amalek, Hitler, and Assad.  You can’t be a true moral actor in this life until you acknowledge that all our actions exist in one singular continuum, and all actions are inseparable from one another.
        In light of this, the greatest Jewish response to the beautiful, terrible, awesome fact of Reality, of What-Is, is simply this:  Now what?  Given that good and evil are so often inextricably intertwined, what do we do next?  The Torah itself rings out with a magnificent answer.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses stands before the Israelites and says “I call on heaven and earth to witness against  you this day, that I have set before you Hachayim v’hamavet, life and death, habrachah v’haklalah --the blessing and the curse; uvacharta bachayim, therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed.”
        When you really look deeply into the Torah, you begin to see that we’re not better than anyone else.  We’re not inherently more moral.  God loves us, commands and instructs us, but even these Divine acts manifest imperfectly in this imperfect world.  And so, despite this incomprehensible world, uvacharta bachayim!  Choose Life!  With all of it, the good and the bad, the message is that we must choose the path that sanctifies life above anything else.  There’s a reason we know that, deep down, Syria really has crossed a profound moral red line.  If anything our thousands of years of redemption, genocide, blessings and curses, life and death has shown us, it’s that life is sacred.  
        Any choice we make as nations or as individuals, must be guided at its core with this simple fact of choosing life—whether it be choosing to attacking Syria verses diplomatic means, or choosing to put  criminals in jail, or becoming a whistleblower, opposing corruption or speaking our mind to our loved ones.  Every choice echoes out into the universe, both for the good and for the bad.  And so we must be ever-mindful that our every choice upholds life and rejects death; our every choice must affirm peace and reject strife; it must affirm compassion and reject abandonment.
        And even when we make our choice, we must know this:  we can never, ever know in this life if it was absolutely the right choice.  We can never know for absolutely certain that we are 100% on the side of life, and our adversary is 100% on the side of death.  We can be pretty darn sure, but there’s a universe of difference in acknowledging and owning the consequences of our uncertainty.  It is very tempting for us to reduce our world to good vs. evil, black vs. white, as all fundamentalists and dictators do.  But this is not the Jewish way.  The Jewish way is to choose life, and choosing life means acting with the greatest of humility, fear, and knowledge that the shades of moral difference that separate any of us human beings are so very slight…
        …And yet, the Torah says Lo Tuchal Lehit’alem:  you MUST act—“You must never remain indifferent.”  Even with all the ambiguous consequences, the greatest sin in Judaism is not to act at all when action can be taken.
        So this Yom Kippur, I pray that we will do everything in our power to affirm life, to understand that we cant ever be sure, but that we must do the best we can.  I believe that the last thing that God wanted was for that Mashchit/Destroyer to kill the firstborn; the last thing God wanted was to command us to wipe out the Canaanites and Jebusites; the last thing that God wants is a world with chemical and nuclear weapons, that contains the ever-present possibility of genocide.  I believe that God grieves each and every desecration of the sanctity of life itself.  Indeed, that’s why we’re here:  to help God, to help finish Creation itself; to be God’s partners in making this world what it yet could be.  In this year, 5774, may we finally come to make true God’s vision for this world, that it indeed be Tov Me’od, that it fulfill it’s potential to be very good.  May we make that possibility real through the works of our hands, and the choices that we make for the sake of life.