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—eighth night

The deepest yet also the simplest truth of Hanukkah is that it is a holiday about a miracle. The real power of the miracle, however, is not that one cruse of pure oil was found after the Temple was defiled by occupying forces. Neither is the real power that that one cruse of oil burned for eight days when it should have burned for only one day. The real power is the story of the miracle itself.

In the earliest accounts of the Hanukkah story (the Books of Maccabees) and even in the earliest liturgy (the al hanisim prayer that is still recited today) the focus is on a military victory. The Rabbis refocus the holiday to celebrate a miracle of light. This is the powerful story. A narrative of uncontrolled violence—which is what every armed conflict becomes—is replaced by a vision of light.

Tonight as we shine the full power of the Hanukah lights into the public domain, let us draw from that miracle and proclaim that violence only ever begets violence and darkness. Only light begets more light. This is our charge. This is our time.

Kavanah [intention] for candle lighting—fourth night

There is an interesting difference between Shabbat candles and Hanukah candles. According to rabbinic law, eyn madlikin mi-ner le-ner, one is not allowed to light one Hanukah candle from another. That is, each Hanukah candle has its own holiness and therefore it cannot be used for any other purpose—even to light another Hanukah candle. (This is why we use a specially designated candle that is not part of the sanctified lights to light the other candles.) This is different from Shabbat candles that are essentially utilitarian—they are meant to light up the room—and therefore one candle can be used to light another candle.

The Hanukah lights then symbolize a deep truth about people. Ner Adonai nishmat adam/ The soul of a person is the light of God. Each person is unique to the extent that we cannot truly grasp another person and therefore—and this is key—we cannot use other people; we can only respond to their needs. As we light the Hanukah candles tonight we remember that each person is a light of God. Each person is uniquely different. Each person has infinite worth.

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

Kavanah [Intention] for candle lighting—2nd night

The Talmud says that the time for the mitzvah of candle-lighting is until the last person has left the market. On a simple level this means that in order to publicize the miracle one should light candles while there are still people about. However, on a slightly deeper level, one should understand this as meaning that we need the light of the candles, the light of Torah to illuminate the world until the seemingly overwhelmingly powerful force of the marketplace is overpowered by that light. ad she-tichleh regel min ha-shook / Until all have left the market, are done with the commodification of life, and have returned to the light that shined from Sinai—the light of mutual obligation and responsibility.

 

kavanah for the 1st night is here

Mitzvah Day 2.0 (on Walmart)

In many Jewish communities in the United States, Mitzvah Day is celebrated annually. Mitzvah (literally: commandment, colloquially: a good deed) Day is a day on which Jewish communities come together to perform all manner of community service. Atlanta’s mitzvah day announces that it contributed 570 hours of service by 190 volunteers at 10 project sites. At Temple Emmanuel in New York City people made totes for women undergoing chemotherapy, sandwiches and 300 meal bags to combat hunger, and baked fresh cookies which were packaged with organic milk boxes for children at the local day-care and after-school programs. In Los Angeles, (which seems to have been the originator of the concept) Mitzvah Day outgrew the Jewish community and was adopted by the whole city as Big Sunday.Nov 13 2014 Save the Date Flyer

All the Mitzvah Day projects seem to be well-intended and worthwhile (at least the ones I’ve seen). However, I want to suggest that the vision of Mitzvah Day is too narrow. There are some commandments which are not included in any Mitzvah Day or Big Sunday I’ve seen. These are the commandments to protest against injustice, and to treat workers fairly. Therefore, I would like to think that this Thursday, (November 13) in front of the Walmart in Pico-Rivera, will be Mitzvah Day 2.0. Workers, clergy, and community members will be protesting against Walmart’s mistreatment of its workers and demand that Walmart pay its employees at least $15 an hour, and that they have access to full time employment. Continue reading

For Holocaust Memorial Day: “Be Not Silent”

Emmanuel Levinas, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, dedicated the second of his two major works (he wrote many, many more than that) Otherwise than Being with the following:

To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism.

On the bottom of the same page, in Hebrew, he dedicates the book to the memory of his father and his mother, his brothers, his mother-in-law and his father-in-law, all of whom were killed by the Nazis. The dedication is sealed with the traditional Hebrew acronym for the statement: “Let their souls be bound in the binds of life.” Continue reading

Fiscal Cliff or the Path of the Righteous

My latest piece in the Jewish Journal
There is a lot of talk about the fiscal cliff — the self-imposed Jan. 1 deadline by which time a budget agreement must be passed and signed or there will be automatic cuts to defense and social programs of more than $1 trillion. In order to avert this self-imposed disaster, President Barack Obama has proposed to sunset the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, those earning more than $250,000, while maintaining needed tax cuts for the other 98 percent.
A fascinating story in the Talmud discusses labor relations in late antiquity. A certain rabbi by the name of Rabbah bar bar Hannah hired two porters to carry jugs of wine for him. Something happened — whether negligence or accident is not clear — and the jugs broke. Rabbah bar bar Hannah was understandably angry and grabbed their cloaks as compensation for the damage. The porters went to another rabbi named Rav to adjudicate the dispute and perhaps get them their cloaks back. Rav immediately ordered that the garments be returned.
The porters then cried out: “We have been working all day, and now we have no money and nothing to eat.” Rav ordered that Rabbah bar bar Hannah pay them their wages. Rabbah was not happy. He challenged Rav: “Are you ordering me to do these things because it is the law? Or are you doing this in your capacity as a pastor and you are urging me to hold myself to a higher standard than the law?” Rav answered: “It is the law. The ruling is grounded in a verse from Proverbs: ‘So follow the way of the good and keep to the paths of the just.’ ”
Rav, 1,500 years ago in Babylonia, laid claim to the principle that one cannot morally separate economic issues from matters of justice. A just community is a community of obligation, according to the Jewish tradition; it is a community in which residency is measured by the legal obligations that one has to support the various parts of the social safety net (funds for food, clothing, housing, etc.). The ancient rabbis recognized that the needs of the community were not going to be met by personal philanthropy. Even the biblically mandated tithing and gleaning and gifting to the poor were geographically based and therefore inefficient in reaching the largest number of needy people with the maximal resources. They therefore set it up as an obligation on the city itself, through its political mechanisms, to support the needy.
continue reading here

The Jewish People is in Danger of Destruction

This post was written together with Ruhama Weiss, an Israeli poet, author, and Talmud scholar. The post appeared in Hebrew on YNet, as Ruhama’s weekly column on the Torah portion. The English post is not an exact translation, and in fact there is a section here that is not in the Hebrew and vice versa. The whole piece was written in collaboration and the first person voice of the author is sometimes me (Aryeh) and sometimes Ruhama.

In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob comes close to doing battle with Laban face to face. In this week’s Israeli portion, we almost deepened our battle with Hamas and with the residents of Gaza. In the end Jacob sealed a treaty with Laban. Will we succeed in sealing a lasting treaty with Hamas and the residents of Gaza?

Jews in the world and in Israel spend a lot of time engaged in the question of whether the Jewish people is in danger of being destroyed; we worry about assimilation, antisemitism, and wars. I do not find myself worried about the question of the survival of the Jewish people, but especially recently I find myself very worried about the danger of the disappearance of Jewish culture. A culture that we built with the sweat of our brow, rare courage, creativity, and pain, over thousands of years (the majority of which were in Exile).

I turned to my hevruta, my study partner, Prof. Aryeh Cohen, an alumni of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and today a professor of Talmud at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. I asked him to help me write a short dictionary of words of war and peace which are in danger of destruction. Here is the beginning of our sad, destroyed dictionary. Continue reading

Should we be saying Kaddish for the Jewish Left?

Michael Walzer’s book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible makes a slightly controversial though eminently plausible argument. The book is an interesting analysis of the politics of the Bible by a political scientist, who is not a biblical scholar, but has written an important book on the uses of the Exodus story by liberation movements (Exodus and Revolution). After all the caveats, Walzer’s central claim is that the Bible writes in the tension between being born into the covenant, and affirming the covenant or taking it on of one’s own free will. This is the central theme of the Bible, and not any specific manner of governance. There is no room, according to Walzer for politics in the Bible, since all authority ultimately rests with God. There is also no call for communal action. The Bible, according to Walzer has an anti-politics. Isaiah, for example, rails against those who would ignore the widows and the poor on their way to the Temple, yet he does not try to organize the poor or lobby the priesthood. Or when Ezekiel castigates Judah for rehearsing the sins of Sodom—the sins of hoarding their riches and not sharing them with poor—he is not looking for a legislative or political remedy—he is channeling God’s rage at injustice.

It is an interesting book, and Walzer recognizes and notes all the difficulties in making specific claims about a text whose interpretation has been contested for centuries. He notes the usefulness of the scholarly and traditional interpretive literature for understanding certain questions, but not others.

Walzer apparently reprised the gist of his argument at a YIVO conference on the demise of the historical partnership between Jews and the left. Some on the right trumpeted Walzer’s presence as a final sign that there is no basis in traditional Judaism for a politics of the left. Walzer, after all, is the long-time editor of Dissent and a social-democrat—and he is claiming that the left-Jewish alliance is as a castle on sand. Check-mate. There is no, nor has there ever been a basis for leftist politics, for social justice advocacy grounded in any traditional Jewish textual framework. The Tablet’s Adam Kirsch and Jewish Ideas Daily‘s Alex Joffe could barely contain themselves.

Something, however, is seriously off here. Continue reading