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

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Fourth Night of Hanukah

IMG_1553Tonight we light the fourth Hanukah light.

One of the things that the Sages of the Talmud do best is designate times for rituals. Often according to the cycle of the sun—first light on the horizon, sparkling of the sun, sunrise, midway through the sun’s cycle, twilight, sunset. These time measurements (for prayer, for starting the Sabbath, for beginning and ending fast days and holidays) are relatively objective. It is surprising then that we find the following time designation for the Hanukah candles:

The obligation [of lighting the Hanukah candles] is from the setting of the sun until everyone has left the market. (Bavli Shabbat 21b)

Why do the Hanukah candles have to be burning until the marketplace is empty, rather than, say, two hours into the night, or some other “objective” marker?

There are two blessings for the Hanukah candles. One blessing is upon lighting the candles, and the other is for seeing them (and being reminded of the miracles God has done). When a person lights the candles, she makes both blessings since she has both lit and seen them. However, if a person is just passing by, he may make the second blessing, for seeing the candles without having lit them. This is where the marketplace comes in.

Hanukah lights are lit on the boundary of private and public with the intention that they are seen both inside the house and in the market. The purpose is to shine light on the marketplace. Flame, the symbol of the Divine, is sorely needed in the marketplace. The spiritual need for justice and righteousness is most acute in the market, where the illusion that “this is all the work of my own strength, my own hands,” is most rampant. The dazzling idol of wealth can blind one to the demands of justice, to the righteous needs of workers, to our covenantal obligation to the earth. The flame of the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, shines a light into the marketplace, binding us to the demands of justice. “Do what is just and right; rescue from the defrauder him who is robbed; do not wrong the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow; commit no lawless act, and do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place.” Jeremiah 22:3

A Kavanah [Intention] for the Third Night of Hanukah

IMG_1548Tonight we light the third Hanukah light.

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 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)

A Kavanah [intention] for the First Night of Hanukah

Tonight, we light the first Hanukah candle.

Beginnings, true beginnings, are always hard. We live in a culture in which every week or so some gadget or technological innovation is trumpeted as the beginning of something new, something that will change the way we do things forever, a disruptive technology which will undo the old and start something else. In our tradition there are few truly disruptive moments. When Abraham saw through the fog of idolatrous power and recognized that there was one God, the God of everyone, and that therefore everyone was equally worthwhile—that was truly disruptive. When the People of Israel stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard the voice of that God—a voice that said that cruel oppression is the opposite of the Divine way, that bearing one’s fellow’s burden is the prerequisite of accepting the Torah—that was truly disruptive.

Tonight, as we light the first Hanukah candle, we hope to take part in a truly disruptive moment. A moment where the cultures of oppression, of racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, misogyny, transphobia are overthrown. With this first light we embrace the hope of more light. “For the light of God is the soul of a person.” (Proverbs 20:27)

Ben Carson’s Golden Calf Problem (on 2 more campus shootings)

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

Ten dead in Oregon: How many more?!

As I write this, there is an “active shooter situation” at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. 10 people are dead according to reports, while possibly 20 more are injured. Soon the politicians will express their regrets and condolences and the feeling that “what can you do?” and let’s not politicize this (from Republicans); or anger, and bluster, and then “Washington gridlock” what can you do? (from Dems). Right now I want the anger to burn. This is a terrorist conspiracy which has been unleashed on the American people by the NRA, the gun industry, and their lacky politicians from both parties. Right now as ten more people lie dead we have to focus our anger on our electeds and tell them that it is time that they looked into the contracts that the government has with the gun industry, and whether those contracts are directly or indirectly funding this kind of terror—by funding NRA and anti-gun control propaganda. We have to turn to our clergy, rabbis, priests, imams, and demand that they declare a state of moral emergency. It is impossible to create a just society in a state of war. It is impossible for people to come together in a state of war. We must stop the shooting, and get rid of the guns, before there is any hope of moving towards a more just society. Declare a state of moral emergency. Start investigating the NRA as being an accessory to murder. Stop contracting with companies that lobby against gun control laws. People are dying in the streets every day. Almost 10,000 people are dead this year. Over 20,000 are injured. From gun violence. Enough.

Call your congress people. http://www.contactingthecongress.org/

Call your state reps. https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials

Isaiah’s State of Emergency (on homelessness in LA)

The good news is that Los Angeles has declared a State of Emergency on homelessness. This will enable the city to focus $100 million in resources towards housing those on the streets and preventing others from falling into homelessness. The bad news is that there has been a homelessness crisis for years. In fact, for much of that time, the city was part of the problem. At the beginning of the summer, City Council passed an ordinance which allowed LAPD or other city workers to confiscate (“steal”) the private property of people living on the streets—including their ID and medicines. While the summer in the poverty and homelessness committee of City Council has been spent in an attempt to gently walk back parts of the ordinance (which our mayor didn’t sign, but did not veto, and therefore it became law), the basic idea that being homeless is a criminal activity deserving of punishment still standsIMG_1393.

It is therefore a positive development that the same Council members from the Homelessness and Poverty Committee, were those who were, with the mayor, announcing a state of emergency. One, however, remains skeptical. In the last budget, approximately $100 million was allocated for homelessness. However, out of that $81 million was for LAPD while only $13 million was for homeless services. Criminalizing and jailing homeless folks will not solve the problem. This morning, the mayor again promised $100 million for fighting homelessness, and again said that $13 million would be put towards housing. In Los Angeles’ insane housing market, when there is not enough existing housing stock to house all those who need housing, $13 million is woefully inadequate. Luckily, along with members of the business community (a lot of the same folks who opposed the $15 an hour wage) there was a strong showing of housing and homeless advocates at the press conference this morning, to remind the mayor and the council that we will be keeping a wary eye on where the money ends up, and whether the community has serious input into those decisions. 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

Sitting with the powerful (on the women’s fast for $15)

I had the unique pleasure and privilege late yesterday afternoon to sit with six of the twelve powerful, brave women who were in the seventh day of a fifteen day fast. They are fasting to bring attention to the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It was a privilege to be brought into their circle.

They shared their challenges and their blessings. Martha Sanchez grew up in Mexico, and raised her seven siblings by herself as her mother had emigrated to the United States in order to send back money to support the family. She said that this was the first time she felt comfortableamong these women—to publicly recount the hardships of her childhood, the hunger and the abuse. She is driven by the hope that her children’s life will be better. That she and her husband won’t both have to work so much, because of low wages, that they don’t see their own children.IMG_0936

TJ Michaels is an organizer with SEIU 721 and the Fix LA coalition. She is fasting as a sacrifice to identify with the sacrifices of single mothers who, in her words, “make 26 sacrifices every morning before I wake up.” She spoke her frustration earlier yesterday at a City Council meeting. She pointed out to council members that 40% of Angelinos make under $15 an hour, and if they really wanted to do something about homelessness in the homelessness capital of the country, they would raise the minimum wage. (A living wage for an adult with one child in Los Angeles is $23.53 an hour. $15 an hour is a step in the right direction, but it is not the shores of Canaan.) Continue reading