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.

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

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

Pursuing Justice (Yes On Proposition 47)

Proposition 47, (which is being called Safe Neighborhoods and Schools), is personal for me. This is not because I will directly and personally benefit from either the reclassification of some felonies as misdemeanors, nor will I gain from the redirection of monies saved to schools and rehabilitation projects. Proposition 47 is personal because California’s judicial system in which I and all Californians are implicated is broken. In our name and by our (in)action the penal system is perpetrating injustices on a daily basis. Continue reading

A Time for Righteous Rage (on Martin Luther King Day)

(Here is my latest post published on Zeek.)

Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage. –Yoma 22b-23a

On the official anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, one might think that I could have found a more appropriate epigram than the one that graces this essay. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind, and I think it appropriate.

“But wait!” you might object along with the anonymous editorial voice of the Babylonian Talmud, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” “This is true,” that same anonymous sage answers, “but it only applies to monetary matters or business dealings or interpersonal relations around material things.” If I ask to borrow your shovel and you refuse, I may not tomorrow refuse to lend you my hose saying: “You did not lend me your shovel.” Nor may I lend you my hose and say: “I am not like you. I lent you my hose even though you refused to lend me your shovel.” In these instances, vengeance is forbidden and grudge-holding is prohibited.

However, there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for it istar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Sage who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Sage. The Sage who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Sage.

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