What is citizenship? (Things I said at the #NoMuslimBanEver rally)

I was asked to speak today at the #NoMuslimBanEver rally and march, representing Bend the Arc: Jewish Action which started at the Japanese American National Museum, the place where, in December 1942, Japanese Americans were gathered and sent to concentration camps in various places in the Southwest. This is what I said:

One of the most profound questions that is facing our country today is this: What does it mean to be a citizen? Is citizenship merely the result of an accident of birth? the grant of a certificate? the culmination of a bureaucratic odyssey? Or is citizenship a commitment to certain bonds of mutual responsibility and care? Is citizenship perhaps the promise and practice of upholding the ideals of creating a more perfect union? Are the commitments of citizenship actually those commitments to supporting family and community? To working hard and creating human happiness for self and others?

The Jewish tradition teaches us that it is these latter commitments and obligations: the commitments to mutual care and supporting the weakest among us; to creating a more just and prosperous community and society which defines what a citizen is. And so it is time that we changed the conversation. It is beyond time that we recognize that the dreamers, and their families and all immigrants—documented and undocumented, who are in this city and this country to create a life, to find security or refuge, to enjoy and proliferate the benefits of justice and democracy, are already citizens. We just have to work out how to get them their papers.

The Jewish people is an immigrant people, a refugee people, and a diasporic people. We know in our bodies the precariousness of knocking at the door of countries who did not want us to enter, and the promise of those who opened their doors. The Jewish community in the United States, after a pretty rocky start, has enjoyed the benefits of security and stability that are the result of being welcomed to this country.

We also know what happens when citizenship is narrowly defined based solely on the accident of birthplace or skin color. We know what happens because we remember that when Jews were deported from Paris during World War II, the buses wound their ways through the streets filled with Parisians who knew who the passengers were, knew what was happening to them, and where they would end up, and did not protest—because they didn’t consider the Jews citizens.

This was a scene that played itself out throughout Europe when citizenship was narrowed so as to exclude those who were unwanted—Jews and Roma and the disabled, and LGBTQ people, and political opponents. So-called upstanding citizens with the right papers and the right blood and the right race, let this happen.

As Angelinos we also know this. During World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, on the background of xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism which was almost as old as the city, Japanese Americans were gathered right here, and placed on buses and interned in concentration camps—and those buses wended their way through these very streets to little or no protest.

We are standing here today to say: We will not let this happen again! Those of us who are recognized as citizens by accident of birth or the work or naturalization, must commit ourselves to the claim of care that citizenship has on us. We must commit ourselves to the proposition that we will not let this administration, or any administration divide us in order to exclude certain groups because of their race or religion. We will not be swayed by the false bromides of nationalism, by the mendacious rumors fueled by white supremacy. We will not be blinded by the false unity of exclusion, nor will we seek support from the weak reed of racial hatred.

Boundaries and borders have their places, but they must have welcoming doors and not be closed and locked to those who seek refuge or security. No Ban. No Wall. No Registry.

This week, in synagogues around the world, we started the cycle of Torah reading again, with the book of Genesis. In the creation story we read God’s pronouncement that לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, it is not good for the adam, the original human to be alone. This was not merely an analysis of a specific social drama. This was an eternal metaphysical principle. We, as creatures created in the image of God, are not intended to be alone. We live in relationship. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Look around you at this beautiful multifaith, multiethnic, multiracial gathering of humans. We are here to say: this is what America looks like. We are here to tell our racist and xenophobic president and his administration, who work diligently if incompetently to ban immigration from non-European countries, but cannot be bothered to voice a full-throated, unconditional, condemnation of racism or antisemitism: America does not look like you and your cabinet. This is what America looks like. We will not let you change that.

No Wall. No Registry. No Muslim Ban Ever

Jonah and Justice: Its Complicated

Why do we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur?

This is not a new question. There is a mini library of scholarship ancient and modern on this question. However, there is also a previous question to be asked, upon which there is another library of scholarship: What is the book of Jonah?

The Book of Jonah was summed up nicely by the Veggie Tales folks: Jonah was a prophet, oooh oooh/ But he never really got it, sad but true. and if you watch it you can spot it, a-doodley-doo!/ he did not get the point! 

However, this brings in its wake the further question: Why are all the human characters vegetables, and yet the animal characters are still animals?

So there is still room for us to ask the question: What is the book of Jonah? Is it a book of prophecy like Isaiah or Jeremiah? Is it a narrative like Samuel or Kings? Is it something else? Continue reading

A Conversation About Justice; The Case for Nonviolence; A Lecture on Radical T’shuvah

1. At T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Rabbinic Convening, I sat down for a conversation with the T’ruah’s ED Rabbi Jill Jacobs, moderated by Rabbi Mark Soloway for his podcast A Dash of Drash.

2. I also published a piece at the Forward called The Case For Nonviolent Resistance: It’s Right And It Works.

The question I have been pondering is this: does this week of White Nationalist racist violence give credence to the argument of the antifa that the only logical, rational and ethical response to these people is to beat them down? Cornell West, a student of nonviolence, said that the antifa and the anarchists at the demonstration in the Park in Charlottesville saved his life, and the lives of the other clergy who were under threat of violence from the racist thugs. Continue reading

Three Thoughts about Peace

1. This past week’s Torah portion included the so-called “Priestly Blessing.” This short text, only four verses long, is one of the oldest parts of the Torah. It has gained liturgical significance through its synagogue use as the priestly blessing, and through its home use as the way parents bless their children. The blessing ends with the following verse: “May God raise God’s countenance to you and give you peace.” The last phrase might be literally translated as “place upon you peace.” Its a very odd locution. It points to the extraordinariness of peace.

Priestly blessing from the time of the First Temple.

The rabbis expound this extraordinary type of peace by saying things like: “Great is peace for God’s name is peace.” This is a peace which is almost not of this world. It is a Divine peace. The problem with elevating peace to this transcendent level is that it is beyond reach. A peace that can only be granted by God is not a peace that can be achieved by human effort. A peace which is the name of God, is a peace which orders the heavens, and the heavenly beings; it lets the lion and the lamb lie down next to each other and not be afraid. This is not a peace which people can hope to accomplish. There is no road map which leads from here to there, when there is hunter and prey in the animal world striking up a friendship. If peace is so far beyond us, we then have nothing to do. We might as well go on about our business, and in the fullness of time, God will flip a switch and peace will reign. Continue reading

Sacred Resistance (on this moment)

There are three moments in the first three weekly portions of Exodus which help to define our moment of sacred resistance to the Trumpian onslaught. On the Shabbat which was the day after the inauguration we began reading the book of Exodus. Exodus begins with the declaration that “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8) As most commentators through the ages have mentioned, this cannot be taken literally. Even though Joseph was dead by this time, it is not believable that a Pharaoh could take the throne in Egypt without knowing of Joseph, the viceroy, the second most important person in the Egyptian monarchy. The “not knowing” must be metaphorical. Either the new Pharaoh spurned Joseph’s family, cutting them off from the privileges of being connected to the royal house; or the new Pharaoh intentionally cut Joseph out of the history of Egypt. Either way, of a morning, the house of Jacob was adrift with no protection.

The analogy to the current moment is all too obvious and painful. We, the liberal community in general, and the liberal Jewish community in particular, grew comfortable with access to power, with invitations to the White House, with steady though halting progress on certain social issues (despite uncomfortable lack of progress on other issues). We were not prepared for that morning when we would wake up and find that a new king had arisen who did not know Joseph. A new president who was intentionally trying to undo everything the previous president had accomplished. A new president to whom we had no access, and over whom we held no sway—even fanciful sway. No more Hanukkah parties at the White House for us. We were adrift with no protection. Worse, and more dangerous, front-line and affected communities (Latinos, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQI, Native Americans) were without a foothold or leverage in government. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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