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

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Third Night of Hanukah

IMG_1548Tonight we light the third Hanukah light.

We place the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, on the boundary between inside and outside, at the place where private meets public. The flames, except in times of great danger, must be seen from the public spaces. The public space is not nobody’s space—it is everybody’s space. It is the place in which democracy happens, in which people gather together to bring about change. It is the place in which we must play out our responsibility to everybody. Placing our hanukiyah in the window, or outside next to the door, is making the statement that the boundaries between my house and the world are permeable. I do not retreat to my house so as to shut out the injustice and pain of the world. I retreat to my house to gather my strength with my family and friends so that I can go out and make a change in the world—so that we can stand together in the public spaces, the streets, the halls of political power, and demand accountability, and articulate a vision for a more just city, and country, and world.

The public space is also, for some, a cold and threatening space. It is the only place that some folks have to lay their weary bodies down to sleep. When I place my hanukiyah on the permeable boundary between my house and the world, I also embrace those people who only have the public place, a dangerous and cold space—where our prayers are not enough, and nothing less than radical change will suffice.

A Kavanah [intention] for the Second Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the second Hanukah light.

The original Hanukah story is told primarily in the first Book of Maccabees (Sefer HaMakabim), which was written in near proximity to the second century BCE events which are recounted therein. Some scholars think that the original author was a witness to the events. I Maccabees, the book, tells the story of the victorious military revolt of a band of faithful Judean priests over the forces of the Hellenizers (called “sons of Belial”) and the army of the empire. The climactic scene is the capturing, purification, and renewal of the Temple in Jerusalem. The eight day holiday of rededication (from whence the name Hanukah/dedication comes) was originally a thanksgiving celebration for the miraculous military victory of the Hasmoneans over their internal and external enemies.

Hanukah, one of the two post-biblical holidays in the Jewish calendar, was recorded in the Scroll of Days on Which it is Forbidden to Fast. When incorporated in the Talmudic discussion (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b), the explanation for the holiday is radically changed.

For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oil in the Temple, and there was not enough oil to light [the candelabrum]. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they searched but found only one cruze of oil sealed with the seal of the High Priest which had not been defiled. There was only enough oil to light for one night. Miraculously, though, it burned for eight days.

From the point of view of the Hasmoneans, the rabbis seemed to have buried the lede! The military victory of the few over the many is overlooked in favor of the miracle of the oil. This was no simple oversight. The rabbis time and again, choose the path of nonviolent spiritual struggle over the bloody path of military victory. (The miraculous appearance of fire, is also a well-known sign of the presence of God.)

The rabbinic tradition is not necessarily a pacifist tradition—the Bible itself is filled with war and violent mayhem—however, the rabbis in their ultimate homeland, the house of study, labored to create a world of spiritual struggle rather than military clashes. Rabbinic heroes, such as Rabbi Akiva, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the decrees of the Roman empire—and paid the ultimate price for it. As we light the candles tonight we embrace the legacy of spiritual struggle, the nonviolent path of righteousness and justice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

A Kavanah [intention] for the First Night of Hanukah

Tonight, we light the first Hanukah candle.

Beginnings, true beginnings, are always hard. We live in a culture in which every week or so some gadget or technological innovation is trumpeted as the beginning of something new, something that will change the way we do things forever, a disruptive technology which will undo the old and start something else. In our tradition there are few truly disruptive moments. When Abraham saw through the fog of idolatrous power and recognized that there was one God, the God of everyone, and that therefore everyone was equally worthwhile—that was truly disruptive. When the People of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the voice of that God—a voice that said that cruel oppression is the opposite of the Divine way, that bearing one’s fellow’s burden is the prerequisite of accepting the Torah—that was truly disruptive.

Tonight, as we light the first Hanukah candle, we hope to take part in a truly disruptive moment. A moment where the cultures of oppression, of racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, transphobia are overthrown. With this first light we embrace the hope of more light. “For the light of God is the soul of a person.” (Proverbs 20:27)

Ben Carson’s Golden Calf Problem (on 2 more campus shootings)

A favorite saying of the gun rights absolutists is “an armed society is a polite society.” However, the essence of democracy is not politesse—it is argument and debate over core issues. The way to create a more perfect union is not by sitting politely and waiting for one to come by. The only way to perfect our democracy, to try to perfect our democracy, is by the time honored tradition of debate and dissent. None of this is polite. It is confrontational, loud, at times chaotic. It is engaged, at its best, it is educational—ideological opponents engaged in verbal and rhetorical give and take about the public good.

On the other hand, Wayne La Pierre and his NRA minions want everybody to be armed. In that way you will express your opinion only to the extent that you have more weapons. Once you are outgunned you will politely retreat to your corner. This is not democracy. Continue reading

Ten dead in Oregon: How many more?!

As I write this, there is an “active shooter situation” at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. 10 people are dead according to reports, while possibly 20 more are injured. Soon the politicians will express their regrets and condolences and the feeling that “what can you do?” and let’s not politicize this (from Republicans); or anger, and bluster, and then “Washington gridlock” what can you do? (from Dems). Right now I want the anger to burn. This is a terrorist conspiracy which has been unleashed on the American people by the NRA, the gun industry, and their lacky politicians from both parties. Right now as ten more people lie dead we have to focus our anger on our electeds and tell them that it is time that they looked into the contracts that the government has with the gun industry, and whether those contracts are directly or indirectly funding this kind of terror—by funding NRA and anti-gun control propaganda. We have to turn to our clergy, rabbis, priests, imams, and demand that they declare a state of moral emergency. It is impossible to create a just society in a state of war. It is impossible for people to come together in a state of war. We must stop the shooting, and get rid of the guns, before there is any hope of moving towards a more just society. Declare a state of moral emergency. Start investigating the NRA as being an accessory to murder. Stop contracting with companies that lobby against gun control laws. People are dying in the streets every day. Almost 10,000 people are dead this year. Over 20,000 are injured. From gun violence. Enough.

Call your congress people. http://www.contactingthecongress.org/

Call your state reps. https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials