I was invited to the Valley Bet Midrash by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, the President and Dean of the VBM, and an important and impressive social justice activist. We had this conversation.
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
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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
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.
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
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