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

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.

Pursuing Justice (Yes On Proposition 47)

Proposition 47, (which is being called Safe Neighborhoods and Schools), is personal for me. This is not because I will directly and personally benefit from either the reclassification of some felonies as misdemeanors, nor will I gain from the redirection of monies saved to schools and rehabilitation projects. Proposition 47 is personal because California’s judicial system in which I and all Californians are implicated is broken. In our name and by our (in)action the penal system is perpetrating injustices on a daily basis. Continue reading

Practicing Democracy with Carwasheros

Democracy is a practice. And like any practice, whether praying or playing an instrument, social interaction or legislation, you have to work at it to get it right. In an early celebration of Independence Day, I joined about 30 carwasheros, organizers from the CLEAN car wash campaign, CLUE-LA, and community folks, walking a picket line in support of a boycott of Aztec Auto Detailing in Century City. 

Many of the workers at the carwash are recent immigrants who came to this country for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but had found themselves in jobs in which they were neither treated with dignity, nor given adequate safety and health protections, and were not adequately compensated. And yet, they still remained faithful to the vision on which this country was founded—a vision which is ever in the process of fulfillment.

Two hundred and thirty seven years ago this country was founded on the principle that people, as a result of all being created equal, were granted certain unalienable rights, among which were the above stated “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is for this reason, according to the Declaration of Independence, that government exists. Continue reading

Super Pacs, Democracy, and This Imperfect Union

The practice of democracy, the practice by which we may form a more perfect union, is not that different from the practice by which we try to move in deliberate but halting steps toward a more just world that embraces the presence of God. The practice of democracy does not begin at the ballot box, though the ballot is a necessary part of the practice. The actual democratic practice begins in the face to face conversation of two residents. The growth of this conversation outwards, in concentric circles, is the growth of a democratic movement. The essential moment is a moment of respect and response. It is a moment in which I hear your word as someone who is not me, someone who is outside me and not subject to my whims and wishes, yet someone who can and does challenge me to move toward the right and the just. By listening and responding, by arguing and parrying, by sharing essential concerns of community, we create a bond that can only be called political. The move beyond the dyadic conversation toward a third person and then on, is a move that differs in degree but not in kind. There is a challenge, as we move outward, to retain the essential core gesture of response, of recognizing the individuality of the voice as, in the move from one concentric circle to the next, the conversation grows to form a community and then a constituency. However, if grounded in that initial moment of face to face response, the constituency and even, ultimately, the country retains the aura of persons in a polity rather than the faceless mass of a “crowd” or a “mob”. This is what is threatened when the political conversation is controlled by Super Pacs and their mega-donors—the space and the ability to practice democracy. Continue reading

Ban the Guns, Strengthen Democracy

There are two different forces arrayed against gun control in the current debate—the forces of opposition and the forces of obfuscation. The forces of opposition are those whose allegiance to gun ownership brooks neither compromise nor debate. The forces of obfuscation are a more challenging opponent. Their stance is not a fealty to gun ownership per se, nor a mindless chanting of the fantastical slogans of opposition to government tyranny, neither are they simple supporters of easy and universal access to guns. They think gun owners should be trained, perhaps even licensed. Guns should be regulated. However, they stand on the peak of an Olympus of their own making from where they can discern that the territory is far more complicated than you know (you on the right, you on the left) and therefore none of your solutions are really helpful. Most mass killings were not carried out by people with rifles. Most of the gun violence in this country does not involve the types of weapons that the current and proposed laws would regulate or ban.

More importantly, nobody who is writing in support of gun control actually knows of what they speak. The editorial writers and pundits make rookie mistakes when speaking of weapons and ammunition. It’s enough to make you laugh out loud. Then, there is the fact that in the midst of a violent assault by a man armed with a gun it is better to be armed than unarmed; teaching people to defend themselves with furniture or their laptops is tragically absurd. Finally, those on the gun control side of the aisle need to admit that there are actually bad and violent people in this country and a person should defend themselves and their family. Ultimately, the obfuscator’s final argument (and Sam Harris has written one of the more eloquent of these) is that he has a gun, and he is trained to use it, and therefore he knows more about both the problem, and the problems with all the solutions, than you do. Continue reading

Occupy LA’s impact a year on

my latest piece on The Daily Beast:

On November 17 of last year, the two-month anniversary of the beginning of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, I found myself singing and dancing to a Hassidic tune in downtown Los Angeles’s Bank of America plaza. I was among more than a hundred protestors from Occupy L.A., and facing a phalanx of police with riot equipment. Singing and dancing seemed the most appropriate thing to do at that time in that place.

continue reading here.

On Prophecy and Democracy

My latest piece in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Ideas

The prophets were not democrats. Addressing a gathering of citizens petitioning their elected leaders for the redress of grievances, I have sometimes felt as though I were channeling Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Especially if I was “in the zone,” the exact words would flow through me and I would feel a direct and deep connection with the people I was talking to, and, at the same time, I would be able to focus the right amount of anger at the people I was talking about. I suspect that when King and Heschel were “in the zone,” they felt that they were channeling Isaiah or Amos. It is anybody’s guess who Amos and Isaiah thought they were channeling. This, however, is not democracy. The use of words and rhetoric in a manner moving and poetic in order to focus the righteous rage of citizens on the sources of injustice is not democracy. It may, at times, be one aspect of a democratic culture.

continue reading here

Best wishes to everyone for a sweet and just New Year.

Republican Rabbis and the Soloveichik Dynasty

This is my latest piece, published in the Daily Beast’s Open Zion blog.

Much has been made of the choice of Rabbi Meir Soloveichik as the invocation speaker at the opening of today’s Republican National convention. In part this is because Meir Soloveichik is the scion of a storied rabbinic family whose patriarch, a student of Rabbi Elijah Gaon of Vilna, established one of the great Lithunian Yeshivot in Brisk (Brest-Litovsk) in the eighteenth century. The unbroken continuity of that rabbinic line yielded one of the greatest rabbis, talmudists and Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century—Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, known to his students as “the Rov” or simply the Rabbi.

continue reading here