Purim, Proximity, and Radical Love

Purim is hard. The way we usually deal with that is by making it into a children’s holiday and then a frat party for the adults. That way we don’t have to deal with the Purim story and its implications.

If we don’t want to go the children’s party/frat party route there are two adult choices.

On the one hand, the Purim story itself is a dark tale of dubious redemption. As the story ends, Mordecai and Esther have gained the upper hand and slaughtered all their enemies. However, they have only done this at the pleasure of the manipulative and manipulated King Aheuserus. While at the beginning of the story the king gave his ring to Haman with permission to wipe out the Jews, the story ends with the king giving the ring to Mordecai and Esther with permission to wipe out those who might harm the Jews. The rub is that the ring still belongs to the king. It is obvious that sometime in the not too distant future, a new Haman will arise who will seek to destroy the Jews and the king will give him the ring.

The rabbis of the Talmud characterized the Purim story as happening just after the Jews were supposed to be redeemed. Purim is the reckoning with the lack of redemption. For this reason the fourth century Babylonian Rabbi Rava says that one of the obligations of Purim is to get drunk to the point of being unable to distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. In the long arc of history there is no difference as long as Ahaseurus is in charge. We all dance to the same fiddler. We are all caught up in the same system of oppression.

The other choice is found in a little remarked comment in tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud. Sometimes there is a comment which offers a blinding insight after which you are never able to see the same way again. In Tractate Sanhedrin, a list of the worst enemies of the Jewish people is cited (those who destroyed both Temples, those who exiled the people and killed them, and so on). In the middle of the list we find this: “Haman’s descendants taught Torah in Bnei Brak.” In order to understand this statement we have to know that Bnei Brak was one of the main centers of Torah study in Palestine. So teaching Torah in Bnei Brak is being in the heart of the heart of the rabbinic enterprise. We also have to know that Haman was descended from Agag, the king of Amalek. There is a biblical command to destroy Amalek, to literally blot the nation of Amalek from the face of the planet because they attacked the Israelites when they were in a weakened state as they were leaving Egypt (Deut. 25:17-19). So rather than being physically destroyed, according to this rabbinic text, the descendants of Haman were teaching Torah at one of the most important centers for rabbinic learning. How are we to resolve this paradox?

There is a hasidic teaching which says that Haman’s descendants’ teaching Torah in Bnei Brak is the fulfillment of mehiyat Amalek, wiping out Amalek. Sit with that. At some point, rather than killing them, some visionary brought Haman’s children into the bet midrash, the study hall to learn Torah. What was he thinking? Well, perhaps he was thinking that if these haters were able to be in proximity with the object of their hate, and they were given access to the treasures of Jewish culture, then, maybe, they wouldn’t hate anymore. The ideology of Amalek—attacking those who are different (Esther 3:8), those who are weak and marginalized (Deut. 25:18)—would be blotted out because it could be replaced with an ideology of welcome and love. This changes the system. This gives us hope that there is no next scene in which the king gives the ring to Haman—because Haman has been welcomed and is teaching Torah.

In the fierce urgency of now; in this moment of growing antisemitism and racism and xenophobia; it is our urgent task to undo the system and not try to patch it by gaining favor with the powerful. We must be in proximity with other impacted communities, and, yes, also with the haters. However, first we must recognize the system for what it is. The system of white supremacy, the ideology which claims that whites are, and deserve to be, superior to other people, is the cause of myriad evils. Jews are perhaps the main demons of the white supremacy conspiracy theory, since we are seen to be manipulating people of color to replace Europeans (“Jews will not replace us”). Therefore anitsemitism and other forms of racism often sound very different.

The way we defeat white supremacy is first, to be in proximity with other impacted communities. To, in essence, welcome them into our bet midrash/study hall, and go to their batei midrash/study halls. We are each others’ allies in this struggle.

After that, we must also bring the haters, the antisemites and the racists into the bet midrash and wipe out their ideology—”this is the blotting out of Amalek.” I want to be very clear that this second stage can only come once we have secured our primary alliances. However, it must happen.

The rituals of Purim do what rituals do. They perform a possible future. The four rituals are 1. Reading the megillah (the Esther Scroll), 2. Giving gifts to the poor, 3. Giving gifts to our friends, 4. Having a Purim feast.

Giving gifts to the poor brings us outside of our comfort zone and into proximity with the most marginalized populations. (My community usually goes down to Skid Row.) This is not a delusional effort to say that “we are helping the poor/solving the problem of poverty.” This is a reminder that the poor, the homeless, are part of our community and with the scope of our responsibility.

Giving gifts to our friends is a way to reinforce our organizing. This is us. We are all committed to this together. Finally, we have a feast. We create community. We celebrate. We are joyous warriors who are armed with Torah, love, welcome and copious amounts of alchohol. In this moment of transcendence we can say that a different world is possible. Hopefully, it is that moment that we take with us to the streets on the days after Purim.

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. 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

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. 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 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)

Muslims, Jews, Friends, Politics

I have always been terribly moved by the signs that some Israelis and Palestinians carry at nonviolent demonstrations against the occupation which read: “Israelis and Palestinians refuse to be enemies.” The power of this statement is in the recognition that there is a choice to be made. Instead of staying in the entrenched narrative, which might lead to winners or losers—at least temporarily—but will never lead to peace, they chose to change the narrative itself.

Nonviolence is about putting pressure on change points, forcing oppression out into the open, or forcing the agent of oppression (the State, the police, etc.) to choose between good and evil. Nonviolence is also about changing the narrative. Nonviolent resistance, as Martin Luther King taught us, focusses the struggle on good and evil, on right and wrong, rather than on black and white or Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian.

The Israelis and Palestinians who “refuse to be enemies” refuse the narratives that are supposed to be written into their DNA.

How does one educate to this? How does one instill in one’s children, the next generation of Jewish and Moslem young adults, that they do not have to be enemies? Continue reading

Paranoia as Policy?

This month, when a group of New York City police officers showed up for their required counter-terrorism training, they got to watch a movie. … The film is called The Third Jihad. It is 72 minutes of gruesome footage of bombing carnage, frenzied crowds, burning American flags, flaming churches, and seething mullahs. All of this is sandwiched between a collection of somber talking heads informing us that, while we were sleeping, the international Islamist Jihad that wrought these horrors has set up shop here and is quietly going about its deadly business. This is the final drive in a 1,400-year-old bid for Muslim world domination, we’re informed. And while we may think there are some perfectly reasonable Muslim leaders and organizations here in the U.S., that is just more sucker bait sent our way. (Tom Robbins, Village Voice, January 19, 2011)

The New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, through a top aide, acknowledged for the first time on Tuesday that he personally cooperated with the filmmakers of “The Third Jihad” — a decision the commissioner now describes as a mistake. (Michael Powell, New York Times, January 24, 2012)

The book of Exodus famously starts with a new Pharaoh, “who did not know Joseph,” falling into a paranoid fantasy that the Israelites would constitute a fifth column, collude with the Egyptians’ enemies and, finally, leave the land, and leave Egypt in a shambles. Most of this comes true, you might say, so why call it a paranoid fantasy? The Israelites did leave the land of Egypt, and when they left, the country that formerly ruled the world was a destroyed shell of a nation—its people killed, its army drowned, its agriculture and livestock wiped out, and its personal wealth stolen. Was Pharaoh paranoid or prescient? Continue reading