One Credible Statement

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, in his essay “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire,” wrote of efforts at post-Holocaust theology, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”

I agree with almost none of the rest of Greenberg’s theology, but I agree with that statement.

If you are capable of seeing the reports of children ripped from their parents at the U.S. border, of seeing children fenced in cages, of hearing a child scream for her mother, and are capable of then saying, “But…,” you have violated Greenberg’s dictum. If you cannot acknowledge that this is an absolute moral wrong, you have violated Greenberg’s dictum. There is no, “But why aren’t you talking about Hamas?” There is no, “What about North Korea?”

Children are being torn from their parents and left in camps, huddling under blankets, behind chain-link fences below lights that never turn off. Cruelty is being used as a tool. Cruelty is being made into policy for cruelty’s sake.

This is, as Bend the Arc has declared, a “moral emergency.” It takes no special understanding of the Torah or of anything else to recognize this.

If you are a Jew (however identified) living in the United States, let me be clear to you: this is the moment. This is the moment when “Never again” actually puts an obligation upon you to act. Because this is a moment Jews have known for centuries.

We have seen this before. We know where this can go. It doesn’t matter that “it probably won’t” or “this is different.” This is our government committing ethical wrongs because it can and because its leaders relish the ability to do so.

This is your fight. This is our fight. This is our obligation to prior generations’ burning children.

Need a starting point on how to fight? Here’s one.

There is one credible statement to make in the presence of burning children: “We are fighting this. We will fight this. We can’t promise we will win – but we will fight. Once we couldn’t – now we can. And we are, and we will.”

I’ll see you on the protest lines.

Advertisements

Step Forward

Rev. David Breeden, a Unitarian Universalist minister and Humanist, recently wrote an article on Medium that included the following explanation of Humanism:

As a set of ethical principles, Humanism’s core value is that people matter more than ideas. Humanists see people as of central concern not because of our specialness as a species but because of our capacity to both heal and destroy ourselves, the planet, and all living things. Devotion to nature and life is a core value.

Since Humanists do not speculate concerning an afterlife, we focus on growing beyond systems of oppression here and now. These systems include race, gender, nation, location, class, patriarchy, and hierarchy. In other words, any boundaries that damage the human heart and mind or prevent the full expression of each individual to be fully human.

Humanist commitments are always both individual and communal because human beings can’t be fully human in isolation.

I’ve been dwelling on these three paragraphs as my congregation enters b’nei mitzvah season (we do group ceremonies that tend to be concentrated toward the end of the school year). Some of what has made it stick is that it’s just well expressed, and catches some of what I want to make sure my congregation conveys to our students.

But the greater part of its stickiness for me is connected to the daily reminders that our current political and social climate is simply an affront to human dignity, which is the bedrock of Humanism. The revelation of the U.S. government’s policies of separating, upon apprehension, undocumented immigrant parents from their children is the latest example, and is perhaps the most individually grotesque and dehumanizing of the Trump administration’s policies.

It is unquestionably cruel to knowingly adopt legislative measures that have the obvious consequence of destroying individuals’ ability to obtain health care. But in some ways, it’s exactly the sort of thing governments do all the time: it’s anonymized, almost automatic distribution or redistribution of money. It’s heartless, and it’s cruel, and it’s bad policy and bad governance from both a financial and a human perspective.

But destroying the private insurance market is orders of magnitude different from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents stripping parents of their children and planning to place those children in detention areas on military bases. This isn’t detached enactment of changes to federal taxation and expenditure provisions; this is requiring that humans tear other humans from one another.

There’s no excuse for this. Even if you (erroneously) believe that the U.S. economy cannot sustain additional immigrants, and even if you (erroneously) believe that immigrants take jobs from other Americans, we can perhaps discuss legitimate policy questions about how much immigration is appropriate. But if you believe that tearing children from their mothers and potentially warehousing them on military bases is in any way appropriate policy simply because of undocumented immigration status, or is in any way not needless trauma upon those victimized and even upon the rank-and-file ICE and CBP agents who are tasked with engaging in this behavior, we have nothing to talk about.

Tearing children from their parents because their parents are undocumented immigrants is oppression. It damages the heart and mind of each person wrapped up in the system – victim and perpetrator alike. It damages the social structure as well as individuals.

If you claim to be a Humanist, you have an obligation to speak up and to try to find ways to help.

If you are Jewish, you likewise have an obligation to speak up and to help. Our obligation as Jews is even greater, because our history is one of wandering and of children being torn from their parents. Ours is a tradition that had this pain forced upon it time and again for the better part of two millennia. If you are willing to claim that your father was a wandering Aramean – if you are going to declare that your forebears were slaves in Egypt or anywhere else – you are doubly obliged to step forward and to say “No.”

So, what can you do?

  • At the very least, you can sign this ACLU online petition
  • You can contact your Congressperson, your Senator, and executive branch agencies and demand this practice end
  • You can donate to organizations like the ACLU and its allies, who are pursuing litigation to stop the practice
  • You can donate to organizations like the American Immigration Council and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which are stepping into the breach and providing attorneys to represent detained immigrants – because there’s no right to appointed counsel in most immigration proceedings

Step up and take action. Human lives and human dignity hang in the balance.

A photograph of an opened Torah scroll, housed at the Glockenglasse Synagogue

10,000 Lawyers for Shavuot

Tomorrow evening marks Shavuot. Among many Jews, Shavuot is called z’man mattan torateinu, the traditional reckoning of the day when the Torah was given to the Israelites at Sinai (literally the time of the giving of our Torah).

In some respects, the biblical story tied to Shavuot is more foundational to Judaism’s self-understanding for much of the past 2000 years than is Passover: engagement with the text and the rules laid out in the Torah is in large part what gave Judaism its shape after the destruction of the Second Temple. Many Jews mark Shavuot with some amount of Torah study, including the notable practice of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which is more or less an all-nighter of Torah study.

Finding special meaning in the rules of the Torah on account of the idea of revelation – which is what Shavuot essentially celebrates – isn’t much of a Humanistic Jewish pastime, and so the traditional understanding of Shavuot doesn’t fit easily for many Humanistic Jews. There’s a historical foundation underneath Shavuot that connects to the first fruits of the harvest in the land of Israel, and that connection to nature moves many Humanistic Jews. Others take the idea of study and broaden it out, so that Shavuot ties to the broader ideas of Jewish learning and the vast expanse that is Jewish literary history.

This year, however, I’ve found myself centering the ideas of Torah and covenant – though not revelation – in my own understanding of Shavuot. And I promise that, by the time we’re done, you’ll understand the title of this post.

Continue reading

Of Sex, Leprosy of a House, and Humanism

(NOTE: The following was the script I prepared for delivery as a d’var Torah, aimed at folks who had never encountered Humanistic Judaism before, at a special Humanistic Jewish Shabbat service I led at Sixth & I Synagogue on April 27, 2018. As it happens, I forgot to print my talk, and delivered substantially the same talk – but not in these words. So, here’s the prepared speech that went…sort of…undelivered.)

If you follow the Torah reading cycle – and actually, even if you don’t, because it turns out calendars don’t ask for our opinions – this week is a double Torah portion: Achrei Mot and Kedoshim.

Achrei Mot and Kedoshim are usually pretty high up on the list of Torah portions that, if you’re having a bat or bar mitzvah, you really don’t want to get. They’re not quite as apparently boring as last week, when there are multiple chapters on what to do about leprosy. There’s even a process for what happens if your house gets leprosy!

Even if they’re not as weird as all that, this week’s Torah portions aren’t exactly the easiest topic-wise, because they touch on all manner of rather adult topics: other than setting up the process for Yom Kippur, these portions spend a lot of time talking about forbidden sexual relationships.

In fact, when you double-up Achrei Mot and Kedoshim, you double-up how much time you spend reading about forbidden sexual relationships. I mean, sure, there’s also a sort of affirming chunk in Leviticus 19 that seems to restate some of the really basic, “everyone agrees murder is bad” rules. Do we really need both Leviticus 18 and 20? Do we really need to read twice about the people you’re not permitted to have sex with?

But, I’m actually sort of excited to talk about this section of the Torah. As seemingly weird as some of these laws are, they’re actually really important – even if you don’t follow any of them. Continue reading

A Museum Review for You—A Review of the Museum of the Bible

You may or may not have heard that a Museum of the Bible opened in Washington, D.C. I have…feelings about putting a museum like this across the street from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a block from the FBI’s headquarters and from the U.S. Department of Education, and catty-corner from a State Department facility. The symbolism of that choice ought not be lost upon those of us concerned about separating church and state. (If you think it’s some neutral facility with no axe to grind, I have lovely real estate in the Everglades to sell you.)

Looking for field trip opportunities for the students at the congregation’s school, I went with our school director to the Museum to see whether and, if so, how students from our school might benefit from a field trip. Since we did the legwork, it seemed like a good idea to write up my impressions.

And, having written it up, why not share it with you?

Continue reading

Hanukkah is Calling

(A substantially similar version of this was delivered as a Hanukkah meditation at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church’s Spirit Experience: Winter Holidays & Holy Days event on December 16, 2017, in Kensington, MD.)

Hanukkah is kind of a weird holiday.

Even if you know that it’s not “Jewish Christmas,” the story of Hanukkah is probably a little fuzzy to you.

Many Jews celebrate Hanukkah as a holiday about freedom. In fact, some of the founders of the State of Israel imagined themselves as modern-day Maccabees, the freedom fighters of the Hanukkah story.

But it’s not a holiday about freedom—not really. Even if you really like Peter Paul & Mary’s “Light One Candle.”

It’s a holiday created by Jewish religious zealots after they defeated a coalition of Greeks and Greek-friendly Jewish allies in a war. Once in power, those religious zealots became as corrupt as any who came before them. They weren’t so religious any longer, and turned out to be just like any other bunch of kings: out for themselves.

One of the last descendants of the original Maccabees invited the Romans to Palestine to resolve a family squabble. That ended any form of Jewish political independence for 2000 years.

Oppressive tyrants who manage to lose their country? Hanukkah as freedom festival sounds a little silly after all that.

Or there’s the story of the oil in the Temple. Sometimes we tell a story about how, when the Maccabees—the religious zealots—regained the temple in Jerusalem, they only had enough oil to keep the temple’s lamps lit for one day. But miraculously, somehow, the lamps stayed lit for eight days, long enough to make more oil.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The rabbis of the middle ages didn’t really think this story was the point of Hanukkah. They told it in order to remind children about the basics of the holiday. The real miracle, as far as the rabbis were concerned, was that the Maccabees—the Jewish Taliban of its time—could defeat the Greeks. They were certain that this could only happen through divine intervention.

So Hanukkah wasn’t really about the oil, or freedom. For centuries, Hanukkah was about divine intervention. That makes a lot of sense if you’re victims of pogroms and persecution, but it’s not something that speaks as clearly to many Jews today.

So if the stories we usually tell about Hanukkah aren’t quite right, and if the history of Hanukkah isn’t a nice one, why have Hanukkah? What is Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is often called, in Hebrew, the chag urim—the Festival of Lights. Before Hanukkah—for perhaps a thousand years of Jewish history!—Jews had no winter holiday. There was no celebration of the solstice. We had no way to chase away the darkness with our own light! Our Roman neighbors had Saturnalia; our Greek neighbors had Dionysia; we had…nothing.

Nothing—until we had Hanukkah. And then we had a festival of lights. Each night of Hanukkah we could light one more candle, bringing more and more light into a world getting increasingly dark as the winter solstice—the darkest, shortest day of the year—drew near.

Hanukkah is also called chag Chanukat ha-bayit: the festival of rededicating the Temple. Hanukkah is a holiday of dedication. That is what Hanukkah means in Hebrew—dedication, or rededication. The Maccabees rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem after Greeks took it over and used it for their form of worship, and gave Hanukkah its name.

Hanukkah: festival of rededication, and festival of light.

Eight nights long, Hanukkah demands dedication—not of a physical temple, but of ourselves.

The days are getting shorter, the nights longer, the wind colder. But it is when it is darkest that even a little new light shines the brightest.

In the darkest days of the year, in dark days for justice and for righteousness and for love, on this Hanukkah I invite you to hear yourself calling.

Hear yourself calling upon you to bring a little new light, so that it may shine in the darkness. Hear your inner self calling you to dedicate yourself to making sure that the warmth of new light is not overcome by the cold winds that trouble our times.

And so, I offer this blessing—this dedication for our celebration of light: May we find in this deepening winter the light within ourselves that needs so desperately to brighten the darkness, and may we find the strength to let our light shine for all. Let us dedicate ourselves to doing the work needed to bring forth better, brighter times—speedily, and in our days.

Kein yehi—may it be so.

Listen up!

I’m happy to announce (after recovering from Thanksgiving) that rabbi school is done and I’ve been officially installed as the rabbi at Machar, the Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

As part of the graduation/ordination process, which occurred during Shabbat services on November 10, 2017 at the Birmingham Temple (the founding congregation of Humanistic Judaism), I gave a talk, which you can watch below:

The talks of three madrikhim/ot (a lay leadership/para-rabbinic leadership program) graduates, another rabbinical ordination, and a posthumous honorary ordination, can also be viewed.

The following weekend, I was installed at Machar. I gave a talk there, too, and if the video worked as planned, hopefully I’ll be able to post that, too.

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

A Stumbling Block

So, there’s a joke that’s funny to rabbis and cantors (and almost no one else!) that their favorite day is Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the new month) Cheshvan, the first day of the second month of the Jewish calendar year. Why? Because Cheshvan has no holidays–finally, a break!

Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan is on Saturday. 🙂 Not that I haven’t been or won’t be busy. Just that, you know, it’s a little bit lighter of a schedule in theory.

More seriously: presently the US social and political system is in a state of ongoing chaos, and it’s definitely the case that there are so many serious issues to address in an urgent manner that you can experience decision fatigue just trying to figure out where to place your efforts, or you can spend your time jumping from issue to issue and gaining little traction. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I have another issue for you to be aware of.

Let’s talk about stumbling blocks.

Leviticus 19:14 conveys as a law for Israelites, “and before the blind (Heb. v’lifnei ivver) do not put a stumbling block.” Thus, in Jewish tradition, this principle is called lifnei ivver. The rabbinic tradition takes this principle and expands it beyond its literal meaning to include cases of deception based on bad information. Rashi explains lifnei ivver to mean that one should not put a stumbling block “before the person who is blind with respect to the [particular] matter: do not give him improper advice. Do not say, sell me your land and take for yourself an ass: for you are skirting around him and taking it [the field] from him.” In a sense, then, the rabbinic tradition regarded the plain sense of lifnei ivver as being completely obvious. Of course you don’t put a stumbling block before someone who is actually blind; the Torah doesn’t bother with the completely obvious stuff. It must, they thought, mean something deeper.

And now, let’s talk about the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Enacted during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the law placed affirmative obligations upon (among others) places of public accommodation to ensure that their premises and services were accessible to individuals with various forms of disability. This was to be done by means of “reasonable accommodation.” Heaven and earth need not be moved, but reasonable steps must be taken to ensure access.

How does one make sure this happens, since the federal government wasn’t going to send out inspectors to measure ramps, assess sound levels, test gas pumps, etc.? One of the enforcement mechanisms in the ADA permits lawsuits by individuals affected by the failure to provide reasonable accommodation. The fact of inaccessibility, together with proof that there were no reasonable accommodations made, is enough to succeed in many of these cases. The ADA permits the payment of attorney fees for the plaintiff who succeeds in such cases, but otherwise no damages are assessed; instead, the business is required by the court to remedy the situation.

But that was 1990, and this is 2017.

This year, Representative Poe (TX), with several others, has introduced H.R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017. (See bill details here.) I’ve read it so that you don’t have to. It would amend the ADA to bar a lawsuit unless notice has been provided and a fixed period of time (60 days after notice for a reply, plus another 60 days for implementation of an accommodation) has passed without compliance by the possible defendant.

Understand precisely what this does. This kills an enforcement mechanism of the 1990 law.

“Why?,” one might ask. “After all, it’s giving the business a chance to fix the problem.”

Here is what the notice must be: “written notice specific enough to allow such owner or operator to identify the barrier.” And from the date of the notice, the owner or operator can’t be sued unless they “fail to provide [within 60 days of the notice] … a written description outlining improvements that will be made to remove the barrier,” or “fail[] to remove the barrier or to make substantial progress in removing the barrier” within 120 days after the notice.

Questions to ask:

  • How specific is specific enough? What does “identify” mean? What does “barrier” mean? (In case you’re wondering, the law doesn’t actually define “barrier,” and ordinarily uses “barrier” in conjunction with physical or institutional features of premises.)
  • What kind of description outlines improvements? Is a written statement of, “Yeah, we’ll take care of that” enough? What does “outlining” mean?
  • What is “substantial progress”? And if you start, do you have to finish? Or can you point to your progress and stop there?

So, let’s sum up: your average person is not going to be able to meet a lot of these requirements. They need a lawyer to make that happen in many cases.

Lawyers usually want to get paid so they and their families can eat. Under the ADA, the lawyer gets paid in a successful suit or – only if the client has money – because the client pays out of pocket.

And now, here are hundreds, and maybe thousands of dollars of legal work that has to be done on spec, because lots of persons with disabilities don’t have money to pay a lawyer.

So, we have 1) delays, 2) inability to hire lawyers, and 3) a law drafted so poorly that maybe nothing ever really has to be fixed.

In any case, I think Sen. Tammy Duckworth has it right:

This offensive legislation would segregate the disability community, making it the only protected class under civil rights law that must rely on “education” — rather than strong enforcement — to guarantee access to public spaces.

Take the time to read her op-ed, as she explains how unnoticeable differences become stumbling blocks that she didn’t recognize and never would have – until she herself became a person with a disability.

Justice delayed is justice denied, and legislators who no doubt parade their adherence to “biblical principles” are sponsors of this bill. Rep. Poe, the principal sponsor, “is a student of the Bible, and loves the Old Testament.”

Leviticus 19:14 is in “the Old Testament.” Perhaps Rep. Poe forgot? Or perhaps Rep. Poe and others care more about business’s desires than individual persons’ needs.

What can you do? You can contact your representatives and the members of the House Judiciary Committee and, if you oppose this bill, let them know.

And there you go: no break for Cheshvan.

Illustration of Zelophehad's daughters petitioning Moses and Elazar from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons"

“Give Us an Inheritance”: Patriarchy and the Five Daughters of Zelophehad

I had reason recently to read the story of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27 and 35, and…

I lost you right there, didn’t I? Because you’re thinking, “Zelo…who? I can’t even say that.” (Ze-lof-e-had. Now you can say it.)

Illustration of Zelophehad's daughters petitioning Moses and Elazar from

The Daughters of Zelophehad from “The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons”

Right, so, back to his daughters.

In Numbers 27, we find a story in which Zelophehad has died without any sons, but with five daughters–Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah. No surviving sons poses a problem for inheritance purposes: who gets the land if there are no sons but there are daughters? Israelite law is constructed around inheritance through sons, after all.

Zelophehad’s daughters go to the tent of meeting (we’re still in the wilderness here–this is before the story of crossing the Jordan River in the book of Joshua) and, we are told, say to Moses and Elazar (this is also after Aaron’s death, and Elazar is his son and successor), “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the group that rebelled against Yahweh–among Korach’s group. He died on account of his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from among his family [i.e., his specific tribe] because he didn’t have a son?! Give us an inheritance among our father’s brothers.” In other words: our father died, but our family shouldn’t disappear–so give us the portion of land our father would have received.

Continue reading