Are we still marching with King?

Speaking@SCLCThese are remarks I made at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California Interfaith Breakfast in honor of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to open this reflection with a quote from the sixth century Babylonian Talmud: “Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage.” (Yoma 22b-23a)

Celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one might think that I could have found a more appropriate quote than this one. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind and I think it appropriate. “But wait!” you might object, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” This is true. However, the Talmud is teaching us that there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for righteous rage is tar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Rabbi who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Rabbi. The Rabbi who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Rabbi.

Around this time every year we memorialize the Martin Luther King who was a peacemaker, a conciliator, a lover and not a hater. In reality, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the master of the thunderous cadences of righteous rage. He preached nonviolence, he lived nonviolence. King had no illusions about the “valley filled with the misguided bloodthirsty mobs.” He agreed with Langston Hughes: “O, yes, I say it plain/America never was America to me,/And yet I swear this oath—/America will be!” Martin Luther King taught that nonviolence is the most powerful weapon we have to transform the world. Because the world is not only created by those with the guns and the truncheons.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look easily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

With clear vision and a burning soul, Martin Luther King saw the related ills of racism, and poverty, and violence, and war and called America out for not addressing those ills. With the prophetic cadences of his righteous rage King walked fearlessly into the forces of evil and did not let the evil of racism hide behind the mask of “our way of life.” He did not let the evil of poverty hide behind the mask of business and capitalism. He did not allow the evil of war to hide behind the mask of anti-communism.

We live in a day when the word of the Lord is rare and prophecy is not widespread. In the place of the righteous rage of prophetic justice we are offered a diet of macho anger masquerading as policy foreign and domestic. Thirty thousand people die every year of gun violence, and yet it seems that the second amendment is the only amendment which is inviolable. The rhetoric of “patriots” takes pride in wanton violence.

There are more than 1000 counties in which one in four children are at risk of hunger and yet we cut food aid and unemployment benefits.

There are still many in Congress who, when given the choice, would rather risk war against Iran than peace with Iran.

One hundred years ago a rabbi from a small town in the Eastern European province of Bialystok railed against the “the heroism of sticking a bayonet into the bellies of people with whom one has no complaint or difference, only in order to ‘find favor’ in the eyes of the masters the commanders and get from them a piece of round tin called a ‘medal’ for ‘dedication.’” Aharon Shmuel Tamares, that rabbi, also challenged “the god called ‘homeland’ and its rites called ‘war’—in which the evil portion of it is greater than the stupidity—which modern man has not abandoned, but rather has left in its place.” (Mussar HaTorah VeHayahadut) A century and millions of dead later we are still officiants at the same idolatrous rite.

The Jewish community is rightfully proud of the picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King and thousands of others into and through the forces of evil in Selma, Alabama. We must, however, ask ourselves: “What have we done to earn that legacy? Is the Jewish community in the forefront of the fight against racism? Is the Jewish community in the forefront of the fight against gun violence? Is the Jewish community in the forefront of the fight agains poverty and for good jobs with dignity? Is the Jewish community in the forefront of the fight against war?”

This anniversary should not be only a time of celebration. It is a time of accounting and it should be a time of rededication. All people of good will, all people who claim to worship the force that gives us breath, all people who recognize that at this moment it is of the utmost importance to rededicate ourselves to the proposition that Black Lives Matters. We must all ask ourselves: Are we still marching with King?

 

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A different form of this essay was originally published in Zeek magazine.

When Our Judges Need to Be Judged

IMG_0708_11At Leimert Park, the man was holding a sign that said “We now have judges that cannot judge.” Midst chanting “No justice, no peace” and “Hey Ho, racist cops have gotta go” I kept coming back to this plaintive sign. It brought to mind the midrash which comments on the first verse in the Book of Ruth: “In the days when the chieftains ruled.” The Hebrew uses the same root for both noun and verb and has the more poetic: biymay shfot ha-shoftim. When the judges judged, perhaps. The midrash comments: “Woe to the generation which judged its judges, woe to the generation whose judges needed to be judged.” (Ruth Rabba 1:16)

Police officers are part of the judiciary. When asked about the role of police officers in light of Jewish textual tradition, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevy the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv (in a small book called Dvar HaMishpat: Hilchot Sanhedrin 1:7) discussed the idea that the police are invested with judicial authority and not merely with punitive or protective authority. Therefore, the Talmud’s demand (Bavli Rosh Hashanah 26a) that a court has two obligations—both judging (deciding law based on the facts and testimony) and saving (attempting as best as they could to find a defendant innocent)—would also apply to police. This translates to the fact that police officers are in a situation wherein they are obligated to defuse, and deescalate a situation rather than to “put down” a threat.

We are now in a time when some of our police officers, and some of the officers of the courts, cannot or will not judge. They will not judge the judges. Woe to our generation for our judges surely need to be judged.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—eighth night

The deepest yet also the simplest truth of Hanukkah is that it is a holiday about a miracle. The real power of the miracle, however, is not that one cruse of pure oil was found after the Temple was defiled by occupying forces. Neither is the real power that that one cruse of oil burned for eight days when it should have burned for only one day. The real power is the story of the miracle itself.

In the earliest accounts of the Hanukkah story (the Books of Maccabees) and even in the earliest liturgy (the al hanisim prayer that is still recited today) the focus is on a military victory. The Rabbis refocus the holiday to celebrate a miracle of light. This is the powerful story. A narrative of uncontrolled violence—which is what every armed conflict becomes—is replaced by a vision of light.

Tonight as we shine the full power of the Hanukah lights into the public domain, let us draw from that miracle and proclaim that violence only ever begets violence and darkness. Only light begets more light. This is our charge. This is our time.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—seventh night

One of the interesting laws concerning Hanukkah candles is that they must be placed no higher than approximately 35 feet off the ground so that they might be seen by passersby.

The core reason for candle lighting on Hanukah is pirsumei nisa/publicizing the miracle. The miracle, as the Rabbis understood it, was that one cruse of pure oil was found after the Temple had been defiled, and that cruse burned eight days until fresh pure oil could be made.

The possibility that purity can remain amongst the impurity of the world, that righteousness can stand even through the onslaught of injustice, that good can remain in a world that sometimes seems to be more and more evil—this is the miracle of Hanukah. The obligation then is to announce that miracle to the world. It must be seen in the streets. It is not enough to support justice loudly behind closed doors. One has to demonstrate justice and demonstrate for justice at street level. So it can be seen, and heard, and felt.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—fourth night

There is an interesting difference between Shabbat candles and Hanukah candles. According to rabbinic law, eyn madlikin mi-ner le-ner, one is not allowed to light one Hanukah candle from another. That is, each Hanukah candle has its own holiness and therefore it cannot be used for any other purpose—even to light another Hanukah candle. (This is why we use a specially designated candle that is not part of the sanctified lights to light the other candles.) This is different from Shabbat candles that are essentially utilitarian—they are meant to light up the room—and therefore one candle can be used to light another candle.

The Hanukah lights then symbolize a deep truth about people. Ner Adonai nishmat adam/ The soul of a person is the light of God. Each person is unique to the extent that we cannot truly grasp another person and therefore—and this is key—we cannot use other people; we can only respond to their needs. As we light the Hanukah candles tonight we remember that each person is a light of God. Each person is uniquely different. Each person has infinite worth.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—3rd night

The Talmud reports that the reason for adding a candle to the menorah every night of Hanukkah is that “one may raise up within holiness but one may not lower within holiness.” This principle usually governs an action that may or may not be taken with regard to vessels, materials, and foodstuffs that are dedicated to the Temple. In one example, a priest’s worn clothes may be used for wicks in the Temple candelabra but not for more mundane purposes. How might we understand this in relation to our more modest candelabra?

We are moved to the deeper meaning of the candlelight. Just as with each added candle there is more light, we must constantly add to the quantity of holiness in the world. How does one expand holiness in the world? The Torah (Leviticus 19) commands “you shall be holy, for I God, your God, am holy.” This general statement is followed by a list of specific actions, including this: “You shall do no iniquity in justice. You shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich. In righteousness you shall judge your fellow … You shall not stand over the blood of your fellow. I am God.”

The blood of our fellow citizens, black and brown, is spilled in our streets—by those who are part of the justice system. We may not stand by silently anymore.

We are doing pretty well with not favoring the wretched, but we can do way better with not defering to the rich.

We must get back to righteousness. We must get to justice.

kavvanot for previous nights are here and here

Kavanah [Intention] for candle lighting—2nd night

The Talmud says that the time for the mitzvah of candle-lighting is until the last person has left the market. On a simple level this means that in order to publicize the miracle one should light candles while there are still people about. However, on a slightly deeper level, one should understand this as meaning that we need the light of the candles, the light of Torah to illuminate the world until the seemingly overwhelmingly powerful force of the marketplace is overpowered by that light. ad she-tichleh regel min ha-shook / Until all have left the market, are done with the commodification of life, and have returned to the light that shined from Sinai—the light of mutual obligation and responsibility.

 

kavanah for the 1st night is here

A Lament for Eric Garner

Eric Garner is the unarmed 43 year old black man, who was killed by the NYPD in Staten Island in July. The whole incident was recorded. He was placed in a choke hold and can be heard saying 11 times: “I can’t breathe,” before he died. The officer who killed him was not indicted. The coroner had ruled it a homicide.

Then the Lord God fashioned the human,

dust from the earth,

and blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

and the human became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7)

I can’t breathe.

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

into that dust,

like a female impregnated by a male,

for they join and this dust is filled with all.

With whom? Spirits and souls. (Zohar 1:49)

I can’t breathe.

Dust from the earth,

this dust is the holy land

and it is the place of the Holy Temple.

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

this breath of life is the holy soul that is drawn from that supernal life. (Zohar 3:46)

I can’t breathe.

Dust from the earth,

from the lower realms,

God blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

from the upper realms. (Breishit Rabba 12:8)

I can’t breathe.

Thus the dictum of Scripture, By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, is analogous to its dictum, And all the host of them by the breath of His mouth, in the same verse. For the terms His word and His saying are used figuratively in the same way as the terms His mouth and the breath of His mouth, the intention being to signify that the heavens have come to exist through His purpose  and will. (Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 1:65)

I can’t breathe.

Breathing in, I calm body and mind.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment I know

this is the only moment. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace)

I can’t breathe.

At the core is the breath, instinctive, not given

not taken, it is not a privilege or a right, it is

even independent of oneself, even on those

dark nights when in the loneliness of an empty bed

you try harder than you ever have not to breathe

you do, and the breath breathes you, and you are

again.

I can’t breathe.

I hate, I despise your feast days,

And I do not savor your sacred assemblies.

Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,

I will not accept them,

Nor will I regard your fattened peace offerings.

Take away from Me the noise of your songs,

For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments.

But let justice run down like water,

And righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5)

I can’t breathe.

Learn to do good.

Devote yourselves to justice;

Aid the wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan;

Defend the cause of the widow.

Alas, she has become a harlot,

The faithful city

That was filled with justice,

Where righteousness dwelt—

But now murderers. (Isaiah 1)

I can’t breathe.

The violence then of the decreation

of the moment when the breath no longer

comes. What did that feel like? What

unearthly panic? What desperate rage

and struggle brings to the surface

the cry for the basic elements of life.

I can’t breathe.

I can’t breathe.

Sit down to stand up

One of the earliest recorded labor actions occurred in Biblical Egypt. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites slaves go into the desert to worship their God. Moses, in other words, demanded that Pharaoh treat the Israelites as people with spiritual and physical needs, rather than as construction machines, useful for the raising of royal cities and monuments.

Pharaoh, as many a tyrant after him, refused to see the Israelites as full people worthy of respect and dignity. The only thing he could see was that they were “shirkers” who didn’t want to do a good day’s work. Pharaoh never dreamed that a rag tag people with a leader who stuttered and claimed to be speaking for an invisible God would ever be a threat to his rule and his country.

We all know how that turned out. Continue reading