Achieving our Country (California Nation)

The days since the election have brought with them a torrent of self-criticism from the left, from the not so left, and from the never-was-left wings of the Democratic Party. Everybody accusing everybody else of the loss. The white working class was not given its due. There was too much attention paid to identity politics. Not enough attention was given to foreign policy concerns, or any concerns other than Trump’s vulgarity and panoply of hatreds. And on and on. In my humble opinion all of that is perhaps necessary venting but, ultimately, just so much noise.

The election posed a choice between two visions of what America is and/or could be. On the one hand was the claim that the more perfect union, which is presented as the very reason for the Constitution, is achieved by increasing and expanding the community of those who would receive the Blessings of Liberty, and be of those that the promotion of the general Welfare would impact. On this claim Justice is open to be claimed by all who reside in this country; domestic tranquility is a right of all; and the people who are being commonly defended are of every race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, immigration status, and ability. On this side of the argument, in broad terms, achieving our country means welcoming the stranger, caring for the resident, understanding that “citizens” are individuals who treat one another as bearers of the relevant kind of responsibility (as Jeffrey Stout has argued), and not only those who bear the relevant documents.

On the other hand was the claim that the protections and benefits of the US were to be narrow; that the more perfect union of the Constitution’s framers was to be limited to some randomly assigned group of folks who were here at a certain point in history (the undesignated object of “again”). The expansion of these benefits, protections, and opportunities to women, blacks, hispanics, Jews, other minorities has diluted America’s “greatness.” In order to achieve our country we must exclude those who are not white and Christian.

Fortunately, a majority of eligible voters (which does not include all citizens in the definition I used above), by approximately two million votes (as of today), embraced the expansive vision of America, and the expansive interpretation of the framers. Two million voters chose to continue to try to make sure that the “promissory note” of the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and Happiness was no longer returned marked “insufficient funds.”

Donald Trump and his narrow vision of this country won because of all the ways that our electoral system is undemocratic. While losing the popular vote by a larger margin than any candidate in recent memory, he gained razor thin margins in “battleground” states which gave him enough electors to frustrate the popular vote.

However, writing from America’s heartland, in Los Angeles, I can say that his vision for America is fading rapidly. The Coastal vision, which is America’s core vision, is far more vibrant, far more just, and looks like America’s future.

California is today the most liberal state in the country. All statewide offices are held by Democrats. Both chambers of the state legislature have comfortable Democratic majorities. We just elected our first Black and our first Indian Senator. As a state we just passed ballot propositions legislating criminal justice reform, extending taxes to support education and other public services. The city of Los Angeles passed bond measures (to be paid back by homeowners) to make serious progress in the fight against homelessness. We passed a sales tax to improve public transportation.

Yet, it was not always so. California used to be the cutting edge of conservative and racist politics. From the anti-Chinese laws in the nineteenth century, to the Concentration Camps at Manzanar where Japanese-Americans were relocated during WWII. The Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles—a week of rioting by white sailors and soldiers targeting Mexican-Americans and then African-Americans while the authorities (the police and the army) didn’t intervene to protect the civilians.  Anaheim’s history of being a KKK stonghold, with the KKK having once held a majority on the city council. The racist history of the LAPD which surfaced during the Watts rebellion, the Ramparts police scandal, the Rodney King beating and subsequent unrest, Mark Fuhrman’s racist testimony during the OJ Simpson trial, and the ongoing killing of black and brown men and women.

More recently, California passed anti-immigrant laws, anti-gay marriage amendment to the State Constitution. California started the tax revolt in Prop 13 which cripples public education and many other state services to this day.

The past three decades, however, have seen a growth in organizing and progressive political advocacy. The California of Ronald Reagan is no longer. Los Angeles is the most diverse city in the world. Yet, here, where one might expect the backlash, where diversity is an everyday occurrence, actually intergroup and interfaith solidarity and amity are the more common way. While there are ongoing crises (police shootings of unarmed black and brown men, antiMuslim threats and hate crimes) the reactions are usually based in interracial and interfaith coalitions. In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, the mayors and city councils of Los Angeles and San Francisco pledged to be sanctuary cities. Perhaps more significantly given the above history, LAPD Chief Beck said that he would not have LA Police do the work of immigration police. The Governor and the State Legislature{} issued statements that they would not let a Trump administration roll back the rights of the residents of California.

This state of affairs, in which the most diverse state in the country is also the most liberal has led Robert Reich to crown California the capital of liberal America. It also provides economic benefit. As Reich points out, while California has “among the nation’s highest taxes, especially on the wealthy; toughest regulations, particularly when it comes to the environment; most ambitious healthcare system, that insures more than 12 million poor Californians, in partnership with Medicaid; and high wages… California leads the nation in the rate of economic growth — more than twice the national average.” California has the sixth largest economy in the world. Meanwhile Texas and Kansas which have exactly the opposite profile in terms of taxes and regulations (and in regards to Kansas, diversity. Kansas is 87% white.) are among the worst in the US in economic growth (Kansas is the worst).

Moving forward, we have to take into account that those of us who believe in expanding the vision of a more perfect union are winning the argument. When we fight for low wage workers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, we also fight for low wage workers in the rust belt. However, we don’t lose sight of the fact that justice is not just a living wage. It is also equal rights and opportunities for everybody. California has been the vanguard for many things in this country—some good and some bad. Now more than ever we have to be the vanguard of the righteous America that we have been working and struggling to achieve for the past several decades. We must continue to move forward, while we resist the Trumpians at our borders. We must call out to the rest of the country saying: this is the path of the righteous.

Abraham sits by the tent (on political action in the age of Trump)

In terms of the Jewish year, which is in tune to the weekly readings of the Torah, we are now between lech lechah and vayera. The former portion, lech lechah—which literally means “go forth”—is named for God’s famous command to Abraham to do just that: “go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your ancestral home, to the place I will show you.” Abraham was not told where he was going. God did not say: Go to Canaan. He was going to an as yet unnamed place. All the important things that happen in the book of Genesis, happen at places that are only named once the important things happen there. Only after seeing God in a dream and receiving a covenantal promise, for example, is Jacob able to name that place Bet El, the house of God. Continue reading

Wake up! (On T’shuvah/Repentance & Criminal Justice Reform)

What does it mean to wake up? Maimonides, in his Laws of Repentance (Chapter 3) writes that the function of the shofar is to wake a person up. “Those who forget the truth in the emptiness of the passing time…” should heed the blast of the ram’s horn and stir from their slumber. Nowadays, it is common in activist quarters to speak of people who have recognized certain systemic injustices as being “woke.” Maimonides and the activists are speaking to the same point. There is a crying need to step out of the familiar and often lazy thinking about our own and society’s actions. We are called to take an unvarnished look at our society, and ourselves. Continue reading

Statement from the Jerusalem Community Relations Council

“While we agree with many of Isaiah’s sentiments, and we too think that the poor, and the orphaned should be protected, we cannot abide the extreme and unfair language that Isaiah employs to describe our beloved city. Calling the city a ‘harlot’ and ‘filled with murderers’!? Why is he singling out Jerusalem? Has Isaiah looked around at other cities? Jerusalem is doing pretty well. We live in a rough neighborhood. Moreover, the calumnies that he heaps on the Temple are just unacceptable. He has no right to claim that God would say: ‘I am sated with burnt offerings of rams, …And I have no delight in lambs and he-goats. … Trample My courts no more; … Incense is offensive to Me. … Your new moons and fixed seasons fill Me with loathing; …And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you.’

“And this is not all. After defaming our city and our Temple, he puts forward outlandish ideas of how to run our country. Is this a sustainable defense policy? ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.’ We have tried to cooperate with Isaiah on moderate and reasonable reforms. We too feel the pain of the marginalized, and the deficiencies of the sacrificial system. Yet, after the obviously malicious and slanderous language that Isaiah uses in his so-called platform, we can longer cooperate with him.

“Signed, the The Jerusalem Community Relations Council.”

On Exodus, the Election, & the Struggles that are Going On Out of the Spotlight

Mark Rothko no-8-1952

From childhood, it seems, we are inculcated with the grand themes of Passover: freedom from slavery! Liberation! Then, in different ways, we translate those themes into usable models for our lives: just as we were liberated, so too must we work for the liberation of others. As Michael Walzer documented in his book Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story has inspired many groups in many parts of the world to revolution, to radically change their material existence.

Sometimes however, the overwhelmingly large themes overshadow the equally important though smaller moments. Those moments are often the things that actually move the dial, make a difference in the world. There is a wonderful and very short story in the Talmud (Pesachim 115b). The story follows a detailed discussion of the intricate choreography of the seder meal, the liturgical meal that Jews celebrate on Passover eve. Food on trays is brought in and then taken out. Wine is poured and drunk, and then poured again. Foods are dipped. And so on.

The question is asked: why is all this done? That is, why is there so much choreography, so much disruption? The answer is given: so that the children will see and ask questions. Immediately, the following story is told:

Abaye was sitting before Rabbah,

[Abaye] saw the tray taken up from before [Rabbah].

Said [Abbaye] to them: We have not yet eaten, and they have come [and] removed the tray from before us!

Said Rabbah to him: You have exempted us from reciting, ‘Why [is this night] different?’ [mah nishtanah]

(Bavli Pesahim 114b)

Part of the seder ritual itself is pointing out the differences between the Passover night meal and other meals. This ritualized noticing is known as the the mah nishtanah or “Why is this night different?” Abbaye’s actual noticing that the tray was taken up at a surprising moment made the ritual recitation redundant.

This story comes to illustrate the point that the intricate and disruptive choreography is in order “that the children take notice and ask.” However, the “child” who notices is Abbaye, one of the foremost sages of the Talmudic academies.

The story raises another point. If the point of the evening is recounting the Exodus, why is it necessary to travel this long and winding road to the story of the liberation? Why does the seder not start with “We were slaves in Egypt…” and move on from there?

The digressions and diversions of the seder are, I would suggest, the point. At each stop of the ritual order we engage in some very specific activity which stops the flow of the conversation and forces us to focus on something else. The point of the ritual is not only, in the end, the largest themes—liberation, God, covenant. The point is engaging with others in community. The ritual of the seder happens around a table and not in a synagogue. Everybody is invited (ritually, too, all four children are present—the wise child and the wicked child, the simple child and the one who does not even know how to ask). It is in the small moments of social interaction, of give and take between people around the table, in which liberation happens. The point is not recounting the Exodus with great fanfare. The point is talking with others about it. Disagreeing, studying, learning.

This privileging of the smaller though perhaps more important moments comes to mind at this moment in our national history. We are engaged in a raucous presidential campaign. The differences between Democrats and Republicans are, as they say Yuge! However, at times, or to believe the pundits and my Facebook feed, the difference between Sanders and Clinton is also huge. While the campaign is truly important, and electing a Democrat president is important for future of our democracy, I want to suggest that right now, the cacophony of the internecine fighting is drowning out other work which is equally important.

150529_FightFor15-1250x650This past week New York State and California both passed minimum wage bills which will lift tens of thousands of people out of poverty. Last Thursday, in one of the largest national days of action, we celebrated that victory. However, we also marked the fact that there is more work to do. Activists from Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, Service Employees International Union, the Black Jewish Justice Alliance and tens of workers at six o’clock in the morning in a McDonalds demanding immediate access to a union and $15 an hour. (The current state legislation would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2022.) Thousands of people later marched through the streets of Los Angeles and other cities demanding that $15 an hour be the minimum wage nationally. The fact that we won in Los Angeles, and got legislation in California was not because of the electoral process but as a result of a movement from the streets up. This movement started with fast food workers walking off their jobs, not with elected officials.

There is plenty of other work in various stages of process. Reforming the criminal justice system. Banning youth solitary confinement. Reforming hiring practices so that formerly incarcerated people can get jobs and rejoin the community. Holding police accountable when they break the law. Abolishing the death penalty. Addressing the moral challenges of having tens of thousands of homeless people living on the streets in one of the wealthiest cities in the country. Strengthening voting rights. Addressing gun control. Addressing racism and demanding that Black Lives Matter. Stopping Islamophobia and antisemitism.

These issues can get lost in the clang and clash of presidential debates and rallies. However, in this moment, it is of the utmost importance that we also keep our focus on the smaller moments, the moments in which we engage each other, debate, disagree, join forces and bring the necessary democratic pressure of the people to create a more perfect union.

Show me what democracy looks like!

This is what democracy looks like!


Getting involved

Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice


Getting rid of the culture of the Pharaoh (on MLK and moderation)

Some thoughts that I offered this morning at the SCLC-SC annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Interfaith Breakfast. 

One of the two central prayers in the Jewish liturgy, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, is the declaration from Deuteronomy 6: Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one. In its Biblical context, this is part of Moses’ long parting speech to the Israelites. After recounting the moment at Sinai, the moment of God’s revelation, Moses reminds the Israelites of their loyalty to God.IMG_1735

The Rabbis embraced this statement as a theological pledge of allegiance. I believe in the one God. However, they also told a story about how this statement, Hear O Israel, originated in a more intimate moment. At the end of Genesis, when Jacob who is also called Israel, is dying, he summons all his children to his bedside. According to the Rabbis, he is worried that they will be swayed by the blandishments of Egypt, that they will be tempted by the power and riches of the Pharaoh, that they will be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry. Jacobs children turn to him as one and say: “Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.” We will not be seduced into the culture of oppression and idolatry, despite our access to power and riches.

Well, we know that the experiment in Egypt didn’t turn out so well. We know that a new Pharaoh arose who was driven by his own paranoia and hatred to enslave the Israelites, to kill every male newborn. And we know that God took Israel out of Egypt. And we know that the Israelites had kept the promise of their ancestors. As they crossed the Red Sea they were able to point and say: “This is my God and I will praise him.”

Why then, if the Children of Israel were at such a lofty spiritual place that they were able to literally point at God and say “this is my God!”—why did it take another two months of wandering in the desert before they were able to hear the revelation at Sinai? Exodus 19, the chapter that introduces the revelation, begins: “On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.” Why did they have to wait so long? The answer is that though they had left Egypt, they still had to get the culture of the Pharaoh out of them. They had to rid themselves of the culture of oppression, of hierarchy, of the concentration of wealth in the hands of one person, of the ideology that a person could be like a god. It was only when they had gotten Egypt out of them that they were able to hear, to really hear the word of God: “I am God, your God, who has taken you out of land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

This is God’s calling card. “I am God who does not tolerate oppression.” This is what God is. Immediately followed by the prohibition against idolatry, false gods—do not mistake that which is not a god for God. All oppression—racism, sexism, Islamophobia, antisemitism, homophobia—is based on the notion that there is a hierarchy of beings in the world and that WE are on the top, that WE are in the position of God. This is exactly what the revelation at Sinai came to undermine, to oppose, to destroy—but in order to hear that vision of what God is, and what God is in the world, and how to create a world in the image of God—first we need to rid ourselves of the culture of Pharaoh.

This is not easy. Removing the culture of hierarchy, of thinking ourselves better than others, more deserving than others, and therefore that others are less than full human beings created in the image of God, is hard work.

So when I stand here in front of you, I am haunted by the following paragraph from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham jail. Responding to a call from clergy to be more moderate in his demands he wrote:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This is the hard work of getting rid of the culture of Pharaoh. Recognizing that justice is more important than “order.” That the inconvenience of the struggle for freedom and justice is more important than the “convenience” of oppression.

And so we get back to the daily affirmation of God’s oneness. Hear O Israel, God is God, God is one. If there is only one God, and there is, then God is God of everyone, no matter what name we know God by.

And so this is our charge and our prayer. In the fierce urgency of now we are commanded to reach out to each other, to stand strongly together, and to say: “We do not build the world in the image of God by denigrating other peoples, other religions. The beautiful mosaic of God’s people cannot be contained within the parameters of one liturgical tradition, of one set of religious symbols. God who is beyond all cannot be grasped by one Scripture, one dogma, one law. God is refracted in all the facets of belief which are expressed by all the religious traditions.”

Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is One.

When the Police need to be Policed (on a Civilian Oversight Commission)

We, as a nation, are in the midst of a full blown crisis. While the carnivalesque debaucheries of the Trump run at the White House have taken much of the air out of the room, exposing a dangerous level of xenophobic hatred and racist violence in segments of the American electorate, there is another crisis which is not getting the attention it deserves.

This crisis is being acted out with the slow motion intensity of a car crash in Chicago, but also in Baltimore, in Texas, in Minneapolis, and here in Los Angeles. Though the details of the crisis change slightly from place to place, the bottom line is the same: as a result of a lack of transparency, a history of abuse, law enforcement agencies have lost credibility, and therefore a lack of legitimacy among the people and communities that they are supposed to be serving. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Seventh Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the seventh Hanukah light.חנוכיה

The Hanukah lights are about the boundary—between inside and outside, between public and private, between the market and the home. Also between the past and the present, and between ourselves and others.

The Torah portion that we read today in synagogue recounts the Joseph story. It is called miketz, at the end. The portion begins at the end of Joseph’s seven years of imprisonment on the false charge of attempting to rape his master’s wife. Joseph is called to Pharaoh from his cell to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which he does successfully. He is rewarded with the highest position in the kingdom—second only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph is given authority over all the lands and resources of the kingdom, authority to collect food and prepare Egypt for the famine to come. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fifth Night of Hanukah

I was asked to speak tonight at an interfaith gathering which was a memorial for the fourteen people who were killed in the San Bernardino attack, and a chance to come together as a broad and diverse community to reject Islamophobia. IMG_1564This is what I said:

One aspect of the traditional Jewish way of mourning is to recite the so-called Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish. The Kaddish, however, is not actually a prayer for the dead. It is a prayer that glorifies God.

yitgadal ve-yitkadash shmay rabbah. May the name of God be glorified and sanctified. Our tradition tells us that when we say the kaddish, God mourns saying: “They are praising Me, and yet look at my ravaged world.” (Bavli Berachot 3a) God’s tears mingle with our tears. We mourn together. Tonight we mourn the fourteen beautiful souls who were killed in San Bernardino in a horrific act of terrorism. An act that blasphemed the name of God, as all acts of murder do. Unfortunately, we are coming together more and more often to mourn the consequences of terrorist mass killings in the United States. In Charleston, in Colorado, and now in San Bernardino. Continue reading

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fourth Night of Hanukah

IMG_1553Tonight we light the fourth Hanukah light.

One of the things that the Sages of the Talmud do best is designate times for rituals. Often according to the cycle of the sun—first light on the horizon, sparkling of the sun, sunrise, midway through the sun’s cycle, twilight, sunset. These time measurements (for prayer, for starting the Sabbath, for beginning and ending fast days and holidays) are relatively objective. It is surprising then that we find the following time designation for the Hanukah candles:

The obligation [of lighting the Hanukah candles] is from the setting of the sun until everyone has left the market. (Bavli Shabbat 21b)

Why do the Hanukah candles have to be burning until the marketplace is empty, rather than, say, two hours into the night, or some other “objective” marker?

There are two blessings for the Hanukah candles. One blessing is upon lighting the candles, and the other is for seeing them (and being reminded of the miracles God has done). When a person lights the candles, she makes both blessings since she has both lit and seen them. However, if a person is just passing by, he may make the second blessing, for seeing the candles without having lit them. This is where the marketplace comes in.

Hanukah lights are lit on the boundary of private and public with the intention that they are seen both inside the house and in the market. The purpose is to shine light on the marketplace. Flame, the symbol of the Divine, is sorely needed in the marketplace. The spiritual need for justice and righteousness is most acute in the market, where the illusion that “this is all the work of my own strength, my own hands,” is most rampant. The dazzling idol of wealth can blind one to the demands of justice, to the righteous needs of workers, to our covenantal obligation to the earth. The flame of the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, shines a light into the marketplace, binding us to the demands of justice. “Do what is just and right; rescue from the defrauder him who is robbed; do not wrong the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; commit no lawless act, and do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3