The Unforgivable Government

(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.

Rousing the rabble at the DuPont Circle fountain

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.

Turning red errors to white hopes

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.

And let us say together, Amen.

If You Steal My Sunshine

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:

“Cultural Marxism” is a well-known antisemitic dog whistle. See: https://jewishcurrents.org/the-lethal-antisemitism-of-cultural-marxism/

And that is to say nothing of the fact that the President’s closing campaign argument used antisemitic tropes.

So the irony here, then: non-Jewish conservative politicians crying antisemitism, and even claiming personal offense as though they were personally targeted by antisemitism, while trading in antisemitism when beneficial to them.

Nothing quite says being like Balak quite like trying to appropriate the blessings and curses piled onto others for one’s own benefit, propriety be damned.

Sticky paws making straws out of big fat slurpy treats, piled eight-feet deep indeed.

Purim and Religious Freedom

Franc Kavcic’s “Esther Before Ahasuerus”

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!)

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Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

Hanukkah Is not Your Cell Phone

Eight colorful Hanukkah candles, lit, against a dark background

By אליעד מלין (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

At least two organizations, PJ Library and JewBelong, are floating around memes about Hanukkah that have me…unimpressed. Basically, they tell you that your cell phone with a near-dead battery lasting for eight days is what Hanukkah is about. (I put these two memes at the bottom of this post.)

I can’t even with this idea. (And yes, here’s a preliminary “get off my lawn.”)

Let’s talk tachlis here. (“Talk tachlis” = Yiddish phrase that’s pretty equivalent to “let’s get down to brass tacks.”) These memes basically peddle the idea that modern, educated Jews should rest assured that their knowledge of the story of “the miracle of the oil” is enough to understand Hanukkah. It’s like when your cell phone is going to shut down, but somehow manages to just keep on plugging.

Um…no. 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

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

Finding Hope, a Rosh Hashanah Sermon

(Written as a Rosh Hashanah sermon at Machar: The Washington Congregation for Secular Humanistic Judaism; delivery slightly different from the written product. Who doesn’t improvise a little?!)

I’ve become convinced that there’s a Leonard Cohen lyric that can work in almost any situation—especially for a pessimist like me. One of Cohen’s last songs—the title track to his last album—speaks to an absent god through the words of the Kaddish and at each chorus asks, “You want it darker? We kill the flame.”

The last year took it upon itself to act out those words.

Charlottesville reminded us that antisemitism never really went away.

Racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and nearly every other prejudice we can name have found new strength. Even as ocean levels rise, understanding and acceptance of climate science continue to fall. Public discourse on almost any issue is as hostile as many of us ever remember it.

Charlottesville reminded us that antisemitism never really went away. A recent data set from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, shows hate crimes nationwide rose about 5 percent from 2015 to 2016—with Washington, D.C., alone seeing a rise of 62%. 2017 looks to be as bad or worse. White supremacism is alive and is doing far too well.

Photograph of the U.S. Capitol Building at dusk

Capitol at Dusk by Martin Farbisoner – CC BY-SA 3.0

And now here we are, only a little more than a month after Charlottesville at the High Holidays. These days are called, in Hebrew, Yamim Nora’im—the days of awe. The nora part of that means awe, but it also means fear. And fear is a pretty good description of how many of us feel about the current state of affairs.

“You want it darker? We kill the flame.”

I told you I’m a pessimist!

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Photograph of painting of Gerbrand van den Eeckhout portraying Hannah presenting the biblical judge, Samuel, to Eli the priest

Be Like Eli…A Little Bit

Humanistic Jew, Jr., when I return from an outing, often greets me with, “Dad! You’re back!” And I’m not your dad, but I’m back!

Where have I been? My teaching load exploded last year on top of regular work and rabbi school, so my opportunities to write non-work things and stay sane have been few and far between. Stacked on top of regular work, editing work, and all the other stuff, well…Alexander Hamilton’s example to the contrary, we can’t all “write like [we’re] running out of time.” But I’m still kind of non-stop.

(And there’s my little Easter Egg for “Hamilton” fans.)

Okay, now, part of what I have been doing is working on term papers and projects. Among the things I’m working on is some lifecycle ceremonial material for individuals with chronic–not critical, but ongoing and life-affecting–illness. And that’s what this post is really about.

In rabbinic Jewish practice, there’s a commandment to visit the sick, biqqur cholim. The oft-identified basis for biqqur cholim is the story of Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18, part of a Talmudic discussion on imitatio dei: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, visited the sick, as it is written, ‘And Yahweh appeared to him at the oaks [sometimes, “plains”] of Mamre’ (Gen. 18:1)–so should you visit the sick.” b. Sotah 14a. Abraham is considered by the rabbis of the Talmud to be sick because Genesis 18 follows immediately upon the narrative in which the Torah portrays Abraham circumcising himself and all the males traveling with him. Abraham is thus sick–i.e., in pain from having recently been circumcised–and, shunting aside the plain text of the narrative in which Abraham and Sarah end up doing work for their visitors as rabbinic textual interpretation is wont to do, the rabbis portray the appearance of messengers as a visit by God to the ill Abraham.

And, I guess, we could interpret it that way. But in working on the question of a lifecycle ceremony, this narrative is far from satisfying as an example. It doesn’t take free interpretation of a text to know that visiting the sick is a good thing to do, after all. And if we take the rabbis’ premise in Sotah 14a about Abraham at face value, Abraham and Sarah scrambling to play host so that the messengers can tell Abraham about the imminent conception of Isaac isn’t exactly the ideal paradigm for visiting a sick person.

And so, looking for a better example, I remembered the story of Hannah and Eli in I Samuel 1. (It is, as it happens, another of the Bible’s numerous conception stories. Genesis 18 is one; Judges 13, the beginning of the story of Samson, is another; and so, too, is I Samuel 1.) As the story goes, Hannah has not born her husband, Elkanah, any children, and she is much aggrieved by this–particularly because Elkanah’s other wife mocks Hannah as a result of her childlessness. And so, on a trip to the temple of Yahweh at Shiloh, Hannah prays silently, her lips moving, requesting that she bear a male child for Elkanah.

The priest at the temple, Eli, sees Hannah, concludes that she must be drunk, and tells her to stop drinking. (Literally, “set aside from yourself your wine”; the New JPS translation more artistically translates this as “Sober up!,” which I actually kind of like.) Hannah explains that she has been praying and is aggrieved, but doesn’t tell Eli why that is so. Eli then tells Hannah to go in peace and that he hopes the God of Israel grants her prayer.

Photograph of painting of Gerbrand van den Eeckhout portraying Hannah presenting the biblical judge, Samuel, to Eli the priest

Hannah presenting Samuel to Eli by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (ca. 1665)

Why this story as a model, rather than the story of Abraham at Mamre? Well, if you’re looking for a lifecycle ceremony, there is often a communal dimension to such ceremonies, and the Hannah/Eli interaction comes in a public context: at the temple in Shiloh. It holds additional communal dimension because it’s an interaction with the closest thing to clergy: a temple priest. And it involves the kind of final blessing that often has to come along with illness: a hope that the thing desired comes to pass, without guaranteeing it or suggesting that one’s merit will determine whether the problem will be corrected.

This story also illustrates a no-no. Eli’s assumption that Hannah is drunk is a bad example of what to do in this kind of interaction. As it happens, the term biqqur cholim is well chosen: it’s visiting the sick, not chastising the sick.

So, as the title of this post says: be like Eli…a little bit.

Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting, "The Destruction of the Second Temple"

The Confession of a Tish’a B’Av Truther

Tish’a B’Av (or Tisha B’Av, or Tisha Bov, or…) will soon be upon us, on the evening of August 13. I’ve previously discussed the holiday a bit, and so I won’t revisit the basics here. (Revisiting the basics, especially how the holiday is viewed from a Humanistic Jewish perspective, is what the first of those two links is for. The second link is sort of connected to how the rabbis of the Talmudic period understood the causes for the destruction of the Second Temple, which to some degree plays into their understanding of Tish’a B’Av.) And perhaps the word “truther” in the title of this post isn’t the best description for what I’m about to say, but hey, we all need a little clickbait in our lives.

Photograph of Francesco Hayez's painting, "The Destruction of the Second Temple"

Francesco Hayez’s “The Destruction of the Second Temple”; from Wikimedia Commons

So, here’s the thing. We continue, into the 21st century, to commemorate with some form of lamentation (pun intended) the destruction of a building that literally enshrined a view of the Jewish people and, for that matter, the entire universe that clashes with our modern conceptions of these things. We don’t generally think that the large-scale slaughtering of animals, scattering their blood on a stone altar, burning some of them whole and only parts of others, and pouring wine or meal or honey on an altar effect atonement.

And yet we mourn the loss of that sacrificial cult.

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Interior photo of the synagogue in Oni, Georia; facing wooden pews in multiple rows, ornate columns, and a raised dais.

Everyone Belongs Here

Though he published it a couple of years ago now, for some reason I only recently encountered Rabbi Menahem Creditor’s article at Huffington Post entitled “Children in the Sanctuary.” Rabbi Creditor’s article reflects on occasions when he observed a child crying or making noise in a synagogue service. On several occasions, Rabbi Creditor observed a congregant telling a child’s parent that the child should be removed and saying, “‘perhaps your child doesn’t belong in synagogue.'” He calls these “the least synagogue-ish” words he has ever heard.

He’s right. But it’s not only children.

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