On Humanity and the Rule of Law

On Tuesday, twenty three faith leaders were arrested on Spring St. in Downtown Los Angeles. They were sitting in a line in the street stretching from the former federal court house where the Attorney General has an office, to the Hall of Justice which houses the District Attorney and the Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles. As the sun rose high over the Hall of Justice and began baking the streets, officers with the Los Angeles Police Department began the process of putting zip ties on the hands of the faithful and transporting them to Parker Center. I was among those faith leaders.

We were disrupting morning traffic during rush hour because Jeff Sessions was disrupting, or rather, destroying the lives of thousands of refugee families seeking asylum in our country—families who fled violence and oppression in their own countries and ended up in a nightmare in ours. Children taken from their parents. Parents not knowing where their children were anymore. The Attorney General had come to Los Angeles to go to court to reinforce the separation and incarceration (by having the court overturn the Flores decision) and we had had enough. Twenty three clergy sat down to say, at a time when Jeff Sessions claims that it is lawful to incarcerate children, we too should be incarcerated.

But this is not a story about one demonstration and the civil disobedience that followed it.

Last week Thursday, there was a demonstration outside of the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Shocked and appalled by the stories that were being reported about children at the border being forcibly removed from their parents, some literally being torn from their mothers’ breasts, more than one hundred Christians, Jews, and Muslims gathered to pray and decry this inhuman treatment of other humans. A chalice was lit, a shofar was blown, the Qur’an was cited, a Psalm was recited, priests, pastors, rabbis, and imams spoke of the horrors that characterize this age and the hopes that we have for this country. Tears were shed and anger was expressed. I was one of the angry and the hopeful.

But this is not a story about a multifaith action in protest of the separation of families.

A week ago Tuesday I put an order in to our printer for signs that said “All Immigrants Welcome Here,” black letters for the first two words, then white, on a blue background, thirteen inches by nineteen inches double-sided on #24 stock paper. We, at Bend the Arc, had run out of the signs. That is to say, that at the many previous rallies and demonstrations demand by the urgency of this moment we had given out the all signs we had. So I ordered two hundred more. I was hoping that they might be ready for the Thursday prayer demonstration, however, since that action was called for 9am, I was not counting on it.

In the event, the posters were ready Thursday afternoon. I picked them up Friday morning at the shop in East Los Angeles. Mitchell Publishing is a print shop that is well known in liberal and progressive circles, and the poster examples on the wall, and the printed bags in neat piles, bear this out. When I walked into the shop I was presented not only with the two hundred posters, but with a large banner of the same design as the poster, thrown in for free.

Jullian Velasco who owns the business told me that he had found out about the rally the day before and had wanted to attend. He came downtown but could not find parking. (He was not the only one. One of the organizers despaired of finding parking and drove away.) However, Jullian drove past the rally and was impressed by the size of the gathering, and in true Los Angeles fashion beeped his horn in support—and also printed a banner for us to use, to amplify the message.

Jullian is Salvadoran. He told me that his family had come to the States to escape the civil war in the eighties. He had become succesful and tries to support the struggles of his community. (Among other projects, he installed an antenna tower on the roof of his shop to provide free internet access to the neighborhood.) He would rather stay behind the scenes, helping out this campaign or that, throwing in a banner, making sure there were enough bags to convey an organization’s message. Others would stand in front. Jullian was gratified that the Jewish community was taking up the cause of refugees seeking asylum.

This is not the story, however, of a really nice guy who is a really good printer.

Jullian told me the story of José Castellanos Contreras, a person I had never heard of. Contreras was a Salvadoran army colonel and a diplomat. According to the Yad Vashem database of the “Righteous Among the Nations,”

in 1941 Castellanos became Salvadoran consul in Geneva. During this time Castellanos decided to deviate from his [government’s] instructions and [the Salvadoran] consulate provided citizenship certificates to thousands of Jews in occupied Europe in an effort to protect them from deportation. The citizenship papers were given to Jews who had no connection whatsoever to El Salvador and who didn’t even speak a word of Spanish. Such documents, issued by neutral countries, provided a certain protection and were therefore life-saving. This rescue operation was a joint effort of Castellanos and George Mandel, a Hungarian Jewish businessman, who had assumed a Spanish-sounding version of his last name, “Mantello”. Mandel-Mantello had met José Arturo Castellanos in the years leading up to World War II, and after Castellanos was named El Salvador’s Consul-General in Geneva, he appointed Mantello, to serve as the Consulate’s first secretary. With the consent of Castellanos, George Mantello issued documents identifying thousands of European Jews as citizens of El Salvador. The papers were sent to Jews in France and other occupied countries, and starting in 1944 to Jews in Hungary. In May 1944 El Salvador’s government changed and the new president aligned himself with other western countries that were active in rescuing the Jews in Hungary. From that point on Castellanos received his country’s support for his rescue activity.

This is a story about a Salvadoran diplomat who had no reason to care about the fate of the Jews of Europe except for the fact that they were fellow human beings. That connection led to the rescue of over 10,000 Jewish souls. This is also a story about the connections that are made between humans in this amazingly diverse city, and the caring that can come from paying attention to those connections.

We distributed the signs at the demonstration on Tuesday where we disobeyed an order to disperse and were arrested as people sang “and before this movement fails, we’ll all go down to jail….” José Castellanos knew that when injustice was done under cover of law, just people must oppose those laws. He also knew that all people had a right to live. I’d like to think that we were honoring his memory.

Contra Jeff Sessions (On Justice and Righteousness)

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

Statement from the Jerusalem Community Relations Council

“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.”

On Exodus, the Election, & the Struggles that are Going On Out of the Spotlight

Mark Rothko no-8-1952

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

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

On Power and Violence (Baltimore, for example)

Watching, reading, and thinking about Baltimore, the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police, and the current nonviolent and violent reactions to that killing, I keep going back to Hannah Arendt. Arendt, in her essay on violence, draws an important distinction between violence and power.

Politically speaking, it is not enough to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.  (Reflections on Violence)

The power that concerns Arendt is the power of political communities. Power is the result of people coming together for political ends. Or as Arendt says: “Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities…”. However, Arendt here adds a supremely important caveat: “…what, however, it does need is legitimacy.” Power is dependent on legitimacy. This is why violence is the opposite of power. When the power of a political community is legitimate, when it is recognized as legitimate by those who form the community, then there is no need for the violence of domination. It is only when legitimacy disappears that violence takes center stage. Continue reading

On the way to Sinai (on racism and economic justice)

We are on a journey. This period that we are now moving through, the seven weeks that start on the second day of Passover and end at Shavuot or Weeks,  the next holiday in the calendrical cycle, is a journey from Egypt to Sinai. It is deeply symbolic that as the first day of Passover was waning this year, we were marking the 47th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year that anniversary was marked amidst the outcries of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, amidst the sounds of gunshots and the cries of unarmed black and brown men killed by officers of the law, of the state.

Africa shootingWe are on a journey—but where are we going? Continue reading

Are we still marching with King?

Speaking@SCLCThese are remarks I made at the annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California Interfaith Breakfast in honor of the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to open this reflection with a quote from the sixth century Babylonian Talmud: “Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage.” (Yoma 22b-23a)

Celebrating the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., one might think that I could have found a more appropriate quote than this one. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind and I think it appropriate. “But wait!” you might object, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” This is true. However, the Talmud is teaching us that there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for righteous rage is tar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Rabbi who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Rabbi. The Rabbi who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Rabbi. 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.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—3rd night

The Talmud reports that the reason for adding a candle to the menorah every night of Hanukkah is that “one may raise up within holiness but one may not lower within holiness.” This principle usually governs an action that may or may not be taken with regard to vessels, materials, and foodstuffs that are dedicated to the Temple. In one example, a priest’s worn clothes may be used for wicks in the Temple candelabra but not for more mundane purposes. How might we understand this in relation to our more modest candelabra?

We are moved to the deeper meaning of the candlelight. Just as with each added candle there is more light, we must constantly add to the quantity of holiness in the world. How does one expand holiness in the world? The Torah (Leviticus 19) commands “you shall be holy, for I God, your God, am holy.” This general statement is followed by a list of specific actions, including this: “You shall do no iniquity in justice. You shall not favor the wretched and you shall not defer to the rich. In righteousness you shall judge your fellow … You shall not stand over the blood of your fellow. I am God.”

The blood of our fellow citizens, black and brown, is spilled in our streets—by those who are part of the justice system. We may not stand by silently anymore.

We are doing pretty well with not favoring the wretched, but we can do way better with not defering to the rich.

We must get back to righteousness. We must get to justice.

kavvanot for previous nights are here and here