Good morning. I’m here today representing T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
We know, all of us here, that Executive Order 13888 is unconstitutional, just another example of the Trump Administration’s cruelty and xenophobia.
As a rabbi, I know this not only because I know wrong and right. I feel this in my bones, in pain from a past in which my people’s lives were scarred over and again by the trauma of dislocation and rejection.
For more twenty-five-hundred years, the Jewish people have known what it means to be adrift. We have long known what it is to be ejected from one home and forced to find a new one — only to have our new home reject us simply for who we are. That experience as refugees inspired the creation nearly 140 years ago of HIAS, one of the parties to today’s lawsuit. It continues to inspire HIAS’s work today on five continents on behalf of refugees from around the world.
As Jews, we know it is our duty to welcome refugees, and to ensure their well being once they make our country their home. It is with us from ancient times. The book of Leviticus says it plainly: “when a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your own citizens” (Lev. 18:33 – 34). Yet this administration, hiding behind a mask of piety, shows its true face when it encourages state and local governments to discriminate against refugees.
The Biblical book of Lamentations reminds us — all of us — that we know what it is for our eyes to be spent with tears, to feel our hearts in tumult (Lam. 2:11). We know what happens when refugees are left to languish, and we know what we must do: welcome the stranger and ensure their security. We know what we must do: dry the tears and soothe the grief-worn hearts of those who become our neighbors.
Executive Order 13888 makes a mockery of these values. And so, on behalf of my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues at T’ruah, I call on the court to stop the Trump administration’s latest act of bigotry toward those who seek security — for no reason other than that welcoming the stranger is, simply, right.
May this administration come to understand all this, speedily and in our days.
We’ve come to the part of our proceedings where the rabbi talks at you for a while.
Before I begin, I need to let you know that we’re talking about anger, and we’ll be talking about trauma. I won’t be going into deep detail, but — if you find that you need space, or need to step out, please do what you need to take care of yourself.
Every year that I’ve led High Holidays services — here, in Indiana and Arizona as a student rabbi — I’ve been asked, “What if I can’t forgive?” Sometimes it’s asked simply as a matter of curiosity. But often, that question isn’t the real question that’s bothering someone when they ask.
Often, the real question is whether it’s okay to be angry. Because we’re angry often: sometimes over small things, sometimes over not-so-small things. Many of us here today are at least a little angry almost all the time, as we — and I include myself in this group — watch the ever-accelerating betrayal of the values we thought our society stood for.
(This was delivered at a HIAS event in DC on September 24, 2019. The event was co-sponsored by several congregations, including the one I serve, Machar.)
I’d like to ask you this question: What can we do when our government does something unforgivable?
We are here to support refugees in 5780 — and in all years. Many of us are here because our families were once refugees. Without the protections this country used to give to those fleeing persecution, without the chance to prosper the United States once gave the oppressed and downtrodden, many of us would not be here. I know I would likely not be here: my great-grandfather would probably have been dragged into the Czar’s army, consumed like so many other young men by war, revolution, or starvation.
But today, our government rejects the very best of the American character, enacting upon others the very worst of its treatment of the oppressed, rejecting them and consigning them to lives of despair because of who they are.
And so I ask you to think about the question: What are we to do when our government, with little more than the stroke of a pen, commits acts of callousness, cruelty, and discrimination? When it does so in our names? What forgiveness can there be for the suffering of millions imposed in our names?
Jewish tradition tells us that when our people transgress, even if we ourselves have not committed the same offense, we are responsible. The Al Cheit that many will recite during the High Holidays says, over and over, al cheit she-chatanu — for the sin we have sinned — even if no one in the room has committed the listed sins. The Vidui — the confessional recited by many on Yom Kippur — has each member of the community take upon themselves the misdeeds of others. The Vidui reminds us v’hirshanu — we have caused others to do evil.
We may not be guilty, but we are all responsible.
We do not have the luxury of saying “not in my name” or even “not my president.” The High Holidays remind us: say what you must. Disapprove of what you will. It matters not, for our country’s cruelty is upon all our heads. Fixing what we can is upon all our shoulders.
What can we do when our government commits unforgivable acts of cruelty?
What can we do?
Millennia-old Jewish wisdom’s answer is simple: we own this. We may not be guilty, but we are responsible. We must treat our government’s transgressions as our own and do what we can to atone — even if there can be no forgiveness.
We must take action to bring love where there has been cruelty. We must shout, pitchu li shaarei tzedek — open up the gates of righteousness for me — to make it clear to all our representatives that we, as a country, must. Do. Better. For refugees, this means fighting to keep our country’s doors open. Win or lose that fight, opening the gates of righteousness means supporting refugees in our communities. It means showing true love of the stranger in our land so that they are strangers no longer, but are truly our own.
Whether we have transgressed, these transgressions are ours. And so, I ask that you resolve this with me, in the spirit of tochekha, of loving rebuke:
In 5780, may we act to correct our society and our government. May we speak out against the cruelty of 5779. May we act to open the doors to refugees. May we act to make refugees truly our own people. May we act to straighten our path and our nation’s path. And may we thus atone — even if we might not be forgiven — so that justice and kindness light our path forward and guide our future.
So, now you know that I spent way too much time in software development. (For the “considered harmful” bit, see here.)
But beyond that, I’m here to weigh in (surprise!) on the latest developments in Trumpland. (I won’t ever link to anyone in Trumpland directly, however. You’ve got Google or Bing or whatever; you can figure it all out.)
This episode should make it plain to those not intentionally fooling themselves that the current President of the United States is an antisemite. Exactly what kind of antisemite is up for grabs, but it is also irrelevant. He’s the sitting president, and he’s making unambiguous statements concerning the loyalty of 78% of American Jews while sitting in the Oval Office with a Romanian leader. (The Romanians were among the fiercest of the Nazi collaborator regimes.)
Loyalty/disloyalty to whom? It doesn’t matter whether he thinks it’s disloyalty to Israel, or the country, or to him personally, or the broader Jewish people. That he didn’t specify makes it worse: it provides the thinnest veneer of deniability, while signaling exactly what it means to those who would do harm to Jews.
Christian groups are entirely too quiet about all of this — and to be clear: we see you in your silence.
Christians, you need to call in your people.
So, frankly, do a few secular groups. As a Humanistic Jew and a Humanist Celebrant, I’m not terribly impressed at the moment by the silence of my fellow travelers in the secular world, as charges of disloyalty for ethnic and religious identities, or lack of them, are pretty plainly serious issues for secularists.
Responses to this from most of the Jewish community is as one would expect: Jewish organizations (too slowly, and in predictably milquetoast fashion) have made public statements condemning the President’s statement. Jewish Twitter is afire, including folks using #DisloyalJews or #DisloyalToTrump hashtags as a way of subverting the disloyalty charge.
I’m never, ever going to use one of these tags, whether they assert loyalty to the country or disloyalty to the President, because I’ll never, ever concede an inch on the loyalty claim. No one should. We should never concede the argument to anyone who seeks to harm us or others as groups. If nothing else, because the Constitution makes it plain that disloyalty is something the government has to prove, one person at a time.
Don’t concede the argument. Push back — not just for American Jews, but for all minority communities who are treated to “go back to where you came from” slurs.
This week’s Torah portion features a talking ass, a bad guy who won’t get the point, and a not-very-low-key condemnation of intermarriage.
So, it’s busy. I’m going to leave for next year the murderous intermarriage condemnation. That’s not because that theme is unimportant; it’s very important, but the Bible’s complicated interaction with the idea of Israelites marrying non-Israelites is not what grabbed my attention this week.
But the talking ass and the bad guy who won’t get the point? That’s some interesting stuff right there.
If you turned on a Top 40 radio station in 1999, you couldn’t avoid this song:
Okay, so I know lots of people don’t like that song, but tough. It’s catchy and has a pretty great hook, and makes great use of a sample of the guitar from “More More More.” And, while we’re at it, some of the lyrics are almost wildly inscrutable: “My sticky paws were into making straws out of big fat slurpy treats/An incredible eight-foot heap.”
Inscrutable lyrics, a great hook…sounds like an ancient near eastern prophecy! How’s that for a tie-in to parshat Balak, which is all about Balak trying to more or less force the non-Israelite prophet, Balaam, to bless his efforts to defeat the Israelites?
To expand on the recap: parshat Balak is in the book of Numbers, which, after a census, spends a whole lot of its time telling stories about a period of years in which the Israelites are said to have lived in the wilderness, moving from place to place, not entering into the land of Israel itself because of their recalcitrance. Story after story centers on Israelite complaints against Moses and Aaron. By the time the reader gets to Balak, the story has come to a point where the Israelites are said to be moving from one ancient near eastern kingdom to another. In each new territory they enter, they try to obtain passage along a road with the promise that they will not despoil the land in which they are traveling. In each territory, they are rebuffed, often leading to wars which the Israelites win.
The Israelites, as Balak begins, arrive at Moab and seek passage, promising again not to despoil the land. King Balak of Moab has, however, received word of the Israelites’ travels, has learned of their numbers, and refuses passage. Knowing the Israelites’ numbers, Balak seeks assurance that he’ll defeat the Israelites when he meets them with his army. So Balak turns to a non-Israelite prophet whose activity is even reported outside the Bible (in the Deir Alla inscription): Balaam son of Beor.
Balaam’s reputation is such that Balak recognizes that those whom Balaam blesses prosper, so Balak sends messengers to Balaam multiple times, offering Balaam fabulous wealth if he will bless Balak. Balaam insists that this is not how it works, stating that Yahweh tells him who will prosper, and refuses the first demand for him to see Balak. Balak sends another set of messengers. Balaam again wants to decline the invitation, and Yahweh appears to Balaam and tells him to do only what Yahweh commands. But Balaam gives in to Balak’s second set of messengers, saddles his ass (notably, a female donkey), and sets off.
This wasn’t what Yahweh told him to do, and so an angel appears to the donkey to frighten it and trap Balaam. Eventually Balaam starts to whip the donkey, the donkey steps on his foot, and Balaam keeps whacking away until the donkey talks — I said there was a talking ass — and explains, in essence, “Uh, dude? I’ve served you loyally, and you should trust me here — there’s a freaking angel with a sword in the middle of the path!” Balaam finally sees the angel, has a “whoops!” moment, and is told to continue on his journey but only to say what Yahweh says he should say.
This leads to a series of misadventures. Balak gives Balaam a hard time about not being willing to take his money. Balaam has Balak set up altars and offer sacrifices, and says, in essence, “I’ll talk with Yahweh and we’ll see what he says.” Yahweh causes Balaam to return as a prophecy a blessing for Israel — not Balak. This begins a series of shleps from one high place to another, with Balak setting up altars and offering sacrifices to obtain Balaam’s blessing. Each time, Balaam comes back with a blessing for Israel, not for Balak. After three go-arounds of this, Balak sends Balaam on his way, dropping his effort to get a blessing — in essence, a prophecy from the god worshipped by Israel — promising that he will triumph over Israel.
So, first: let’s remember that the Bible is often pretty weird, and this story is a great example of that.
Second: rabbinic midrashic tradition twists this story around and makes Balaam an unsympathetic character attempting curse the Israelites, but instead blessing them against his will. That’s not exactly how the plain sense of the biblical story goes: Balaam is instead portrayed as attempting to avoid Balak’s entreaties, and constantly adds provisos that he can only say what Yahweh tells him to say.
Third: this story has some interesting present-day resonances, which is what grabbed my attention when I read it this year. Of late, there has been quite a bit of outrage on the part of the Christian Right, accusing various members of the U.S. Democratic Party of antisemitism. At the same time, Christian Right and various U.S. Republican Party politicos have expressed sentiments that can safely be called antisemitic themselves.
Take, for example, this tweet from a Trump campaign official:
(This was delivered at the rally prior to a July 5, 2019, march in Washington, D.C., organized by CASA, an organization advocating for immigrant rights . The march began at Benjamin Banneker Park and continued to the headquarters of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where we sat down and blocked the street in front of the building for about a half-hour before disbanding, promising to return in later weeks. I was there with Jews United for Justice, a D.C. organization that works in coalition with CASA and other organizations representing marginalized groups.)
I’m Rabbi Jeremy Kridel; I serve the Machar congregation here in D.C., and I’m a leader with Jews United for Justice.
Yesterday was the Fourth of July. Today, we remind our government — our government, all of ours — that its actions make yesterday a farce.
George Washington, quoting the prophet Micah, wrote to American Jews, expressing his hope that all Americans would be able to sit under their vine and fig tree, and that no one would make them afraid (Mic. 4:4). Yet today, a day after the Fourth of July, we see our government doing just that — making our neighbors, our family members, and our friends afraid in their homes, at school, and at work.
And so we are here to demand that our government stop making people afraid. If the Declaration of Independence meant to ensure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if our country is to be the beacon of freedom it claims to be, its first step is clear.
It must stop rounding up our friends, families, and neighbors from their homes, jobs, and schools.
ICE must stop.
As a Jew, and as a rabbi, I know that nothing could be more clear. My people’s history shows what comes when a government — any government — starts mass round-ups of those living in its borders. What starts with mass arrests leads to camps; and from there, darker things still. We’ve seen this before, and it’s a slippery slope.
There is still time to stop this slide. There is still time to be who we believe ourselves to be, to follow the words of the prophet Isaiah: to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty, and to loose the prisoner (Is. 61:1).
And it must begin here. We call upon our entire government to proclaim true liberty: to free the captive, to raise up the fallen, and to leave our friends, family, and neighbors unafraid, no matter where they are from.
(The following was delivered at an Immigration solidarity rally hosted at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, MD, on June 23, 2019, and was organized in part by Rep. Jamie Raskin (D – MD 8th), a member of Maryland’s delegation to the U.S. Congress. Full video of the event is available here. It’s worth a watch just to hear the DC Labor Choir’s performance!)
As a Jew, I recognize that if today’s immigration system had been in place, I would not be standing here today: my great-grandparents would likely never have left the Russian Empire or Poland.
As a rabbi, I remember the statement of my predecessors nearly 1500 years ago in the Talmud: “All Israel is bound up with one another” (b. Shevuot 39a). Even more true is that we all are bound up with one another.
As a Humanist, I ask that we look to the power we all have, and all in our country share: the power of conscience.
We have come together as people who believe that the dark in our country can and must change. We believe in our responsibility to care for all of our neighbors. We believe in the possibility of a just society: one built upon equity, not pure legalism; a society built on love.
As people of conscience: may we be mindful that our fates are bound up with those of our neighbors, whatever their place of origin. May we find inspiration and common cause. May we build power to work together for justice — true justice, based on equity and the fundamental worth of each person — for our immigrant neighbors, for our refugee neighbors, for our asylum-seeking neighbors, and for all those to whom we are bound in common humanity, wherever they may be — and especially for those tramped upon by the power of our federal government’s executive branch. May we go forth and take action to protect our neighbors from cruelty, and ensure that this episode in American life is never repeated.
We come together in dark times. But in the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” In this dark time, let us be the crack, so that we can let the light in.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York has published an open letter to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, taking her to task for referring to the detention facilities the Trump administration is using to hold undocumented persons as concentration camps. The JCRC’s letter claims that “concentration camps” and “never again” are terms connected with and that should only be used with reference to Nazi crimes, and using it with reference to asylum seekers and others “diminishes the evil intent of the Nazis” to eradicate all Jews.
Here’s their tweet, with a scan of the letter attached to it.
DHS and (soon) Defense Department detention facilities satisfy that definition.
As a Jew, I refuse to limit the application of “never again” to only genocide. Mass displacement and mass political detention of a specific ethnic group, or of a number of people, carried out for political reasons are enough reason to apply the label.
A crime against humanity is enough.
Nothing else is credible in the presence of burning children, to follow Yitz Greenberg’s dictum.
The NY JCRC is wrong. You can tell your friends that this rabbi said so.
This was written for use as a liturgical piece. It can be read responsively, in call-and-response, or in whatever other pattern one likes.
As the title of this post notes, this was written in response to portions of A.J. Heschel’s widely-read book, The Sabbath, in order to raise up the idea that Shabbat exists — and we celebrate Shabbat — as a result of human recognition and need. This is in contrast to Heschel’s assertion, “It is not a different state of consciousness but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed. The primary awareness is one of our being within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us. We may not know whether our understanding is correct, or whether our sentiments are noble, but the air of the day surrounds us like spring, which spreads over the land without our aid or notice.”
This poem is a response as well to Ahad Ha’am’s assertion that “more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.”
As a Humanistic Jew, I think there’s no inherent magic or force to Shabbat, but that Jewish celebration of Shabbat and Shabbat’s powerful hold on Jewish people is a matter of mutual reinforcement that began with human needs.
Permission is hereby given for use of this work, provided: any use must include acknowledgment of the source, and any use must be for ceremonial or educational purposes only. This work cannot be reproduced, in whole or in part, for any commercial purpose without permission of the author.
It has been said that Shabbat is a palace in time.
Places are built by human hands, time marked by human measures.
It has been said that more than the Jewish people keeping Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.
Shabbat has kept the Jewish people, because the Jewish people have kept Shabbat.
It has been said that Shabbat is an atmosphere, a climate.
We perceive atmosphere. We change climate.
It has been said that Shabbat is a queen.
Queens and kings have power because we yield it to them.
Let us now build the palace. Let us now note the time. And as we do, we create the atmosphere of Shabbat.
We welcome Shabbat by giving some of our power away. Let us now keep Shabbat, so that Shabbat can keep us.
NOTE: The lines above in italics are intended for use at the beginning of Shabbat. If you wish to use this poem at Havdalah, marking Shabbat’s conclusion, you can replace the italicized lines with the following:
On entering Shabbat, we may yield some power away.
Let us now reclaim the palace. Let us now note the time. And as we do, we draw Shabbat to a close.
We’re coming quickly to Purim. Yay, noisemakers and parties and costumes and drinking ad lo yada (until you can’t tell the difference between blessed be Mordecai and cursed by Haman), right!?
As an introvert, Purim as a big party is pretty hard for me to get into. I’m thinking about wearing a suit and saying I’m dressed like a rabbi. (Get it?!) But Esther, the book many communities read on Purim and which almost all communities at least talk about during the holiday, is an interesting read. (There’s always some way to make lemonade from lemons!)