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.

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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 Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

A Convenient Jew

I don’t do politics here, but I do worry about Jewish identity here. I put that disclaimer in

A photograph of Shmura Matzo - matzo baked specifically to stringent Jewish legal guidelines

Shmura Matzo – Creative Commons Licensed Image

because I’m going to talk about a political person, but not a political issue.

I encountered someone’s opinion on Bernie Sanders’s perceived authenticity as a Jew that, frankly, has me uncomfortable–not for its political content, but for its take on what it means to be Jewish.

On a Facebook post on a friend’s wall, a friend of this friend said that Sanders always seemed to be a “convenient Jew.”

This critique, for some reason, just struck home with me. I mean, it’s a logical fallacy wrapped in a larger one: whether he was or was not correct isn’t affected by the sort of Jew he is (that’s the “big” logical fallacy–an ad hominem argument), but there’s also the suggestion that Sanders isn’t Jewish enough (that’s a “no true Scotsman” fallacy). It’s that second one–that maybe Sanders isn’t Jewish enough–that struck me.

What exactly does that mean?

I think, picking away at the paint on the statement, what we’re really talking about is something like this: Sanders’s statements on Israel (the comment was in response to an article on Sanders’s statements on fatalities in Gaza) aren’t…something (?) or something enough (?)…and so Sanders’s Jewishness is a thing that’s convenient to trot out when it serves his purposes, but otherwise is not important to him.

That definition makes it so that Jewish identity’s primary arbiter is not the sum of one’s attachments and actions. It’s…something else. A demand that a Jew in public life be loud and proud about her or his identity? I’m not sure.

But ignoring the whole person’s attachments and actions with respect to Jewish life is a problem.

Secular Humanistic Judaism has long held to the following definition:

In response to the destructive definition of a Jew now proclaimed by some Orthodox authorities, and in the name of the historic experience of the Jewish people, we, therefore, affirm that a Jew is a person of Jewish descent or any person who declares himself or herself to be a Jew and who identifies with the history, ethical values, culture, civilization, community, and fate of the Jewish people.

See http://www.shj.org/humanistic-jewish-life/issues-and-resolutions/who-is/

If you meet this? You’re good with me. And we ought to be opening the gates wide, mindful that it will soon be Passover: “All who are hungry ― come and eat. All who lack ― come celebrate Passover.”

All the rest is commentary.

And if this makes me an INconvenient Jew? Well, I’m good with that, too.

(Also: I’ll mod the living beeswax out of your political comments on this post. I’m not having a political discussion here. To paraphrase Lesley Gore (also Jewish!), it’s my bloggy and I’ll mod if I want to.)

Photograph of face of Lenny Bruce, an American Jewish comedian

…And I Feel Fine

It’s the end of the world as we know it!

Oh, so many things in the Jewish communal world to think about over the past week. Let’s tick them off, one at a time:

All the panic makes my heart just go pitter-pat. I don’t even know where to start. (The section titles here are from REM’s “It’s the End of the World (As We Know It),” so now you can learn some of the lyrics!)

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The Forward Falls Behind…Again

Last week, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced a policy change, stating that they would no longer refuse admission to qualified rabbinical students who were married to or in long-term domestic relationships with individuals who are not Jewish. (Here’s the press release.) RRC was characterized as the first such institution to make a decision like this; I suppose this is true, since IISHJ, where I am a student, has never had a policy precluding admission of rabbinical students married to or in relationships with non-Jewish partners. So we’ll call RRC the first to rescind the prior, exclusivist policy.

This week, The Forward has run an editorial by its editor-in-chief, Jane Eisner, decrying RRC’s decision. Over in Humanistic Judaism World, we’ve had our fun poking at RRC for thinking itself first, and now at The Forward for getting bent out of shape. But I think it’s a good time to 1) blog again, and 2) actually address some of Eisner’s arguments, since Conservative and Reform clergy have started to make statements in support of Eisner’s missive. (Warning: logical fallacies are laid bare ahead. Also, if you think intermarriage is bad, you’re really not going to like what I have to say.)

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On Second Thought

I said here (in a comment to the repost of Rabbi Adar’s blog post responding to my prior post, which in turn was a response to a post of hers) that there is no real dispute between Rabbi Adar and myself over sacrifice vs. trade-off.

Upon reflection, I think that’s not entirely true, but not for the reasons either of us discussed in our posts (which I think sort of turned into an example of “things rabbis do in Talmud and midrash”).

The difference on our positions stems from a in baseline set of conclusions about what’s actually happening in Jewish tradition. If you ever wondered, “Why not just be Reform, Humanist Jew in Indianapolis?,” well…you’re about to get part of the answer.

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Jewish? Want a Saturday wedding? Find a Humanistic Jew.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, the Coffee Shop Rabbi, has a post explaining why it’s so difficult for Jews to get married on a Saturday. She gives three basic reasons:

  • Tradition: weddings are, in part, about tradition, and traditionally this is a sacrifice Jews have made. The tradition reason is a sort of emanation from two other reasons:
  • Shabbat: halakhically, Shabbat and a number of other Jewish holidays are off-limits for weddings, and the special nature of Shabbat and its biblical bases in particular militate toward leaving Shabbat as a day without weddings,etc.; and
  • Rabbis: most rabbis will not officiate on Shabbat, because Shabbat is the preeminent Jewish day of the week, rabbis care deeply about Jewish tradition, and rabbis have erected boundaries to permit their own observance of the holiday.
"Mazel Tov! wedding" by Brian Johnson - originally posted to Flickr as Mazel Tov!. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mazel_Tov!_wedding.jpg#/media/File:Mazel_Tov!_wedding.jpg

“Mazel Tov! wedding” by Brian Johnson – originally posted to Flickr as Mazel Tov!. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mazel_Tov!_wedding.jpg#/media/File:Mazel_Tov!_wedding.jpg

So, what can you do if you want a Jewish wedding on a Saturday? You can try to find a Reform (or maybe a Reconstructionist) rabbi who will officiate. You can wait until very late on Saturday night to get married (in Indiana this week, Shabbat on traditional reckoning ends at a little after 9 p.m.). You can have a Jewish officiant who is not an ordained rabbi perform the ceremony, and build Jewish elements in.

Or…

You can find a Humanistic Jewish rabbi or madrikh/madrikha. A madrikh/madrikha is a secular Jewish leader who has completed rigorous coursework and has been ordained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, but not one who has completed the full rabbinical program; many madrikhim lead or teach in Humanistic Jewish communities, and others lead or teach in other secular Jewish communities. (The Jewish Renewal movement, through its ALEPH Institute, also ordains pararabbinic leaders).

Humanistic Jews are committed to Jewish culture and identity, but we are more flexible when it comes to what can or can’t happen on Shabbat. Why? Because of how we value tradition and the role of the Jewish people in defining, refining, and remaking tradition:

For Humanistic Jews, Shabbat is a time of joy, a celebration of our connections to Judaism and to family, friends, and community. It is an affirmation of our Jewish identity, an expression of solidarity with the Jewish People. It is a chance to relax from the busy week, a space for self-exploration and discovery.

(This is from a fuller discussion of Humanistic Judaism and Shabbat here.)

Jews today routinely share families with non-Jewish members; a Sunday wedding may be difficult for non-Jewish relatives to attend, and connecting with family is one crucial function of weddings.

Humanistic Jewish rabbis and madrikhim will perform marriages between Jews and non-Jews. They will perform same-sex marriages. They will happily co-officiate with other clergy. Traditional Jewish elements can and are worked in in consultation with the marrying couple so that the ceremony reflects that couple’s interaction with and identity within Jewish life.

As a student rabbi, I have done almost all of the above–in one ceremony–though the couple in that case was not a same-sex couple. On a Saturday afternoon, so the couple could celebrate with their non-Jewish friends and family.

To be clear, all of this is a question of relative values, and of how one understands and interacts with Jewish traditions. As a Humanistic Jew, I recognize that all of Jewish tradition is the product of the Jewish people, and that we have the authority to remake it. This is one way that Humanistic Jews remake the tradition in light of the needs and demands of modern times.

And what’s more necessary in our world today than love?

Need a Saturday wedding? There’s a rabbi for that.

One Additional Thought on Schooling

I posted recently a broadside at the supposed panacea of Jewish day school education as a means of keeping Jews Jewish. There was an additional thought that, because it wasn’t squarely about the merits of the argument as a means of advancing Jewish affiliation and identity, I omitted. But I think it’s important, and it deserves a post.

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