Contra Jeff Sessions (On Justice and Righteousness)

In the summer of 1963 the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a crowd of thousands who had come to Washington DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He articulated the frustrations and anger of the crowds in front of him when he said that they were carrying an overdue promissory note, a note that had been signed by the founding fathers, guaranteeing that all would be granted the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. King was speaking on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s address at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery. Lincoln had radically altered the nation’s own myth of origins, saying that “four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that ‘all men are created equal.’” Four score and seven years, that is eighty seven years prior to the date of the Gettysburg address in 1863, brings us to 1776, when the United States was declared with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Lincoln bypassed the Constitution with its odious compromise about slavery, and declared that the origins of this country were rooted in equality.

King brought Lincoln’s words and, standing in front of the memorial to the lawyer from Illinois and facing the White House, laid those words and that promise out for all Americans to see. And he demanded that that promissory note be paid in full because he “refuse[d] to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”

King’s great gift to the American people was the possibility of embracing a new creation story. Of writing the history of this country with the ink of freedom and not the blood of black men and women.

With the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it seemed that the country was embracing this new narrative, that the forces of Jim Crow’s evil kingdom were in retreat, and that the dream of all Americans being equal might be realized.

We know, of course that that never really happened. The irredentist forces of the Old South and the Jim Crow South made common cause to undermine and resist the path to freedom. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, named for his father and his grandfather, who was named for Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, was a child of the South who answered the call to resist and undermine the ability of African-Americans in Alabama to exercise their right to vote. Sessions as US Attorney in Alabama led an unfounded prosecution of three black voter rights activists for legally helping elderly African-Americans to vote absentee—a practice widely used by white activists and white voters but never questioned or prosecuted. Of those charges that were not dismissed by the judge, the jury found the three civil rights activists not guilty. And so, Jeff Sessions’ political career was born in racism, and strengthening the structures of white supremacy.

However, this is not only about history. This is not only about the fact that Jeff Sessions was not confirmed as a judge because of the racist comments he had made. This is not only about the fact that during his long tenure in the Senate Sessions consistently voted against equal rights—that he

  • Voted NO on reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act.
  • Voted NO on the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
  • Opposed Title X funding legislation, which supports contraception, breast cancer screening and other health services for low-income women.
  • Voted YES on constitutional ban of same-sex marriage
  • Voted NO on adding sexual orientation to definition of hate crimes
  • Voted NO on setting aside 10% of highway funds for minorities & women
  • Voted YES on ending special funding for minority & women-owned business

Our objection to confirming Sessions’ nomination as Attorney General, our fear of having Jeff Sessions confirmed as Attorney General of the United States has to do with what his record says about his view of the country.

Sessions has consistently argued for stricter penalties and longer jail terms for drug crimes. He is a relentless drug warrior despite the fact that most scholars and politicians now recognize that the war on drugs has failed, and that the jail terms that are part of the war on drugs have led to the New Jim Crow—the mass incarceration which is bankrupting our States financially and morally. It is perhaps not a surprise that a son of the old Jim Crow supports the new Jim Crow. It is our duty, however, to say that the economic devastation, the harm to families and communities of color which are the legacy of mass incarceration must end. We will not stand idly by while a champion of these disgraced policies is put in charge of implementing them.

Jeff Sessions has consistently made common cause with the xenophobes who call for ZERO immigration, in order to ensure the hegemony of the white race—The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, among others. Sessions has approvingly quoted these white nationalists, who, not surprisingly are racists and antisemites and anti-Muslim bigots. He has attended their conventions and has lauded their ideas to the bigot ideologue in chief Steven Bannon, on Bannon’s radio show. The Senator was also among the first people to support Trump’s call for a ban on all Muslim immigration.

Sessions has been one of the fiercest opponents of immigration reform. At a time when it is only the stop-gap measure of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which keeps 700,000 undocumented immigrants who come to this country as minors, relatively safe; at a time when Trump has said that he wants to—as a start—deport 3 million undocumented immigrants; we cannot let Jeff Sessions, who is party to this same nativist view of America to be in charge of the enforcement of these laws.

If we are looking for a justice department which sees its job as being the voice of the voiceless, the protector of the marginal, and the defender of the defenseless—we cannot abide the appointment of Jess Sessions, a product of the old Jim Crow and a supporter of the new Jim Crow to lead that department.

The Rabbis teach us that judges must follow and interpret the law, but beyond that they must “follow the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the righteous.” (Prov. 2:20) A person who is responsible for the effective and fair disposition of justice must see beyond the details of the law to the paths of the righteous. Maimonides, the great 12th century Arab-Jewish philosopher teaches us that imitating God means acting in the way of “mercy, justice, and righteousness on earth.” In the Jewish tradition “justice”/tzedek is one of the names of God. The rabbis explain that the reason that the word justice is repeated in the verse “Justice, justice, shall you pursue” is to teach us that when justice is done on earth then justice is done in Heaven.

As the rabbis teach: one who judges truthfully is a partner with God in Creation.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has proven time and again that he is not up to the task, that he will not judge truthfully, that he does not seek the path of the righteous. We must say loud and clear, here and now and also in the halls of Congress that we will demand that the promissory note of the founding fathers be cashed in full; that we will create a more perfect union based on the principle that “all people are created equal,”; that we will give no quarter to prejudice or hatred; that we will not go back; and we will not support the nomination of Jeff Sessions and his dystopic vision of our country.

________________

Sources

Stephen Pigott, “Jeff Sessions: Champion of Anti-Muslim and Anti-Immigrant Extremists,” Southern Poverty Law Center.

Adam Serwer, “Jeff Sessions’s Unqualified Praise for a 1924 Immigration Law,” The Atlantic

Seung Min Kim and Josh Gerstein, “What Jeff Sessions thinks about immigration, police and terrorism,” Politico.com

Taking Action:

Call your senator right now and demand that they vote against the Sessions nomination. You can use this handy tool to find their phone numbers.

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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