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.
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
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
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
Tonight we light the seventh Hanukah light.
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
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 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