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.

The second moment is at the beginning of the second portion in Exodus. When Moses brought God’s promise of redemption to the Israelites when Moses told this to the Israelites, “they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” The latter half of the verse would be literally translated “from shortness of breath and hard bondage.” (6:9) This moment comes on the heels of Moses’ first very unsuccessful confrontation with Pharaoh. When Moses demanded, as God had commanded him, “Let my people go so that they may worship me in the wilderness,” Pharaoh’s response was defiant: “I do not know God, nor will I let Israel go.” (5:1-2) In fact, Pharaoh made the Israelite slaves’ working conditions more oppressive. This brought Moses to exclaim to God: “Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has dealt worse with this people; and still You have not delivered Your people.” (5:22-23)

There is a dangerous connection between the “shortness of breath” and the inability to listen to Moses’ message of redemption. The overwhelming oppression of servitude brings with it the inability to see the larger picture, to envision beyond the present. A slave is dominated by force to the point that they do not look up, let alone dream of a new future.

We are now in danger of being overwhelmed by the oppressive and immoral orders, regulations, and soon, laws that are emanating and will emanate from the Trump administration and the Republican Congress, to the point that we do not look up—that we resort to survival mode. It is important in this moment as a spiritual exercise to remember that times will change, that we have a vision of justice and we will fight for it.

Finally, the third Torah portion in Exodus begins with God’s command to Moses “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them.” (10:1) The Hebrew, however, might (perhaps should) be translated as “Come to Pharaoh.” Why would God use this turn of phrase? In all the previous times, Moses went out of the city, spoke to God, and God said to him “Go [lech].” (e.g. 7:16) There are two ways to understand this.

First one might say that God was telling Moses: “Do not worry, I will be there with you. You are going to Pharaoh, but you are coming to Me.” Or in other words, when you go to see Pharaoh you will not be alone.

On the other hand, there are those who interpret this as saying that God is teaching Moses that even Pharaoh was created in the image of God. Therefore when Moses was coming to Pharaoh he was actually coming to God. This might be harder to swallow, but every person is created in the image of God—even Pharaoh.

In our moment this means that we must remember that when we are practicing sacred resistance, when we are confronting our Pharaoh, that we are not alone. Furthermore, we must remember that even Donald Trump was created in the image of God, that there is a Divine spark which might be reached even in Trump. In fact, as Martin Luther King taught us, it is only because of this that nonviolence works. “Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.” Justice is love in action. (As King reminded us, we don’t have to like our enemies, only love them.) The only way we can successfully wield love to achieve justice, is by believing that our opponent is capable of changing.

And so, in this moment when we are called to sacred resistance we have to start with accepting that there is a new Pharaoh, we are beyond the time of mourning; we must not be overwhelmed; and we must remember that in the moment of confrontation God is with us, we are in fact coming to God.

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