A Conversation About Justice; The Case for Nonviolence; A Lecture on Radical T’shuvah

1. At T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, Rabbinic Convening, I sat down for a conversation with the T’ruah’s ED Rabbi Jill Jacobs, moderated by Rabbi Mark Soloway for his podcast A Dash of Drash.

2. I also published a piece at the Forward called The Case For Nonviolent Resistance: It’s Right And It Works.

The question I have been pondering is this: does this week of White Nationalist racist violence give credence to the argument of the antifa that the only logical, rational and ethical response to these people is to beat them down? Cornell West, a student of nonviolence, said that the antifa and the anarchists at the demonstration in the Park in Charlottesville saved his life, and the lives of the other clergy who were under threat of violence from the racist thugs.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued that it is immoral to demand that oppressed people act nonviolently. He argues that in US history, starting with the famous Boston Tea Party, all American gains have been achieved through violence or the threat of violence. Even during the civil rights movement, Coates argues, it was the threat of Malcolm X that gave Martin Luther King’s opponents the motivation for dealing with him.

Peter Beinart argues, on the other hand, that the antifa’s tactics are troubling. (It’s important to stress that he draws a strong distinction between the Antifa violence and the nazi and white supremacist violence.) Beinart’s argument is that Antifa violence is used by conservatives to justify right wing violence, which allows the right to portray itself as victims, and by using violence, the left loses the moral high ground.

I agree with Coates’ arguments but with Beinart’s conclusions.

Read the whole piece here: http://forward.com/scribe/380583/the-case-for-nonviolent-resistance-its-right-and-it-works/

3. I also gave a lecture to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California called “A Radical Approach to T’shuvah”.

 

 

A Kavanah [intention] for the Second Night of Hanukah

Tonight we light the second Hanukah light.

The original Hanukah story is told primarily in the first Book of Maccabees (Sefer HaMakabim), which was written in near proximity to the second century BCE events which are recounted therein. Some scholars think that the original author was a witness to the events. I Maccabees, the book, tells the story of the victorious military revolt of a band of faithful Judean priests over the forces of the Hellenizers (called “sons of Belial”) and the army of the empire. The climactic scene is the capturing, purification, and renewal of the Temple in Jerusalem. The eight day holiday of rededication (from whence the name Hanukah/dedication comes) was originally a thanksgiving celebration for the miraculous military victory of the Hasmoneans over their internal and external enemies.

Hanukah, one of the two post-biblical holidays in the Jewish calendar, was recorded in the Scroll of Days on Which it is Forbidden to Fast. When incorporated in the Talmudic discussion (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b), the explanation for the holiday is radically changed.

For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oil in the Temple, and there was not enough oil to light [the candelabrum]. When the Hasmoneans defeated the Greeks, they searched but found only one cruze of oil sealed with the seal of the High Priest which had not been defiled. There was only enough oil to light for one night. Miraculously, though, it burned for eight days.

From the point of view of the Hasmoneans, the rabbis seemed to have buried the lede! The military victory of the few over the many is overlooked in favor of the miracle of the oil. This was no simple oversight. The rabbis time and again, choose the path of nonviolent spiritual struggle over the bloody path of military victory. (The miraculous appearance of fire, is also a well-known sign of the presence of God.)

The rabbinic tradition is not necessarily a pacifist tradition—the Bible itself is filled with war and violent mayhem—however, the rabbis in their ultimate homeland, the house of study, labored to create a world of spiritual struggle rather than military clashes. Rabbinic heroes, such as Rabbi Akiva, engaged in nonviolent resistance to the decrees of the Roman empire—and paid the ultimate price for it. As we light the candles tonight we embrace the legacy of spiritual struggle, the nonviolent path of righteousness and justice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit—said the Lord of Hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6)

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

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

Sit down to stand up

One of the earliest recorded labor actions occurred in Biblical Egypt. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the Israelites slaves go into the desert to worship their God. Moses, in other words, demanded that Pharaoh treat the Israelites as people with spiritual and physical needs, rather than as construction machines, useful for the raising of royal cities and monuments.

Pharaoh, as many a tyrant after him, refused to see the Israelites as full people worthy of respect and dignity. The only thing he could see was that they were “shirkers” who didn’t want to do a good day’s work. Pharaoh never dreamed that a rag tag people with a leader who stuttered and claimed to be speaking for an invisible God would ever be a threat to his rule and his country.

We all know how that turned out. Continue reading

Glocks, Glatt Mart, Walmart, and Nonviolence

glocks@walmartThis past Thursday night, in need of Whole Wheat flour and sugar to bake challah, I attempted to use voice commands on my iPhone to find out when the local kosher supermarket closed. I said: “Find Glatt Mart.” Siri (the voice of the iPhone) returned a page labelled “Glocks at Walmart.” (see picture)

What is one to do with this information?

(Glocks, according to Wikipedia, is a series of semi-automatic pistols designed and produced by Glock Ges.m.b.H., located in Deutsch-Wagram, Austria.  By way of a rather brilliant marketing strategy (targeting Police Department with discounts, and then using the “cred” of being used by those Police Departments to move into the civilian market) the Glock has become the most popular American hand gun — for police officers, civilians, and criminals. It is easy to learn how to use and easy to fire. Once the guns age a bit, the Police Departments gets new guns and the used guns go on the largely unregulated second hand market.) Continue reading

“Awaken Sleepers!”: Wal-Mart and Non-Violent Resistance

One of the reasons that we sound the shofar during services on Rosh Hashanah (the income-inequalityJewish New Year) is, to quote the great Jewish jurist and philosopher Maimonides, to announce: “Awaken sleepers from your slumber … search your actions and repent and remember your Maker.” This Thursday hundreds of people will begin a process of trying to waken Wal-Mart from its slumbers—from its denial of the welfare and dignity of the hundreds of thousands of its workers who are paid poverty wages. We will also be trying to awaken the customers who go to Wal-Mart for cheap products, but either don’t know or don’t care that those products come at the expense of the Wal-Mart workers who sometimes cannot afford to buy those very products. Continue reading

Isaiah’s vision and Our Blindness (Justice and Trayvon Martin)

Yesterday, in the Jewish tradition, was the “Sabbath of vision.” It is named after Isaiah’s bleak vision described in Chapter One of his eponymous Scripture. Isaiah, speaking, no, screaming at those who would sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem declares in the name of God: I am tired of your sacrifices, I am sated already with the fatted calves that you offer, your offerings are now abominations to me. I no longer wish for you to celebrate festival days and Sabbaths. When you reach out to me, when you raise your voices in prayer, says God, I will ignore you, I will turn a blind eye. Why? First you must “Learn to do well; demand justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

Finally, Isaiah turns to the city of Jerusalem and wails: “O! How the city full of justice, where righteousness dwelt, now dwell murderers!” It was not a true question, of course, it was the strangled scream of a prophet pointing to the everyday injustices, which led to the larger injustices, all hidden behind a veil of righteousness, of holy celebrations and fatted calves upon the altar and the smell of spices in the Temple.

As Sabbath finished and I performed  the ceremony of differentiation with wine and candle and spices with my family, I turned on my computer to news of the acquittal in the George Zimmerman case. How do we answer Isaiah’s lament? What were the steps that led from there to here? From the quotidian racial injustices to the loosening of gun laws to the ignoring of the history of racial discrimination. 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

The New Right to Life Movement

Violence rests heavy in the mythological and religious womb of our civilization. The first murder happens just verses after Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden. According to legend, Cain was stunned after he struck and killed Abel, as death had not yet inhabited the world. He was literally at a loss as to what to do. The birds taught him about how to bury the body.

Violence has never left us from that wayward moment. However, our biblical religions do not glorify the violence. When God commanded Israel to build a Tabernacle so that God might rest amongst the people Israel, part of the package was that the altar would not be hewn with metal. Metal brought death in the form of swords and the altar was a symbol of life. Death would not bring life. If a priest fought in a war, even a commanded war, a righteous conflict, he was forbidden to do the Temple service if he had taken life. King David was not allowed to build the Temple because his hands were bloodied.

The Torah might sanction war and violence in limited cases (self defense, perhaps), however even sanctioned violence is not glorified. Extinguishing the life of a person, even an enemy, even a bad person, is still an act of evil. Continue reading