Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Parashat Re'eh and Charlottesville

            Shabbat Shalom. As most of you probably know by now, I was in Charlottesville on Saturday, and it was a bit of a rough time, but I was spared experiencing and even directly witnessing the worst of the events of the day. On Sunday, I was asked to speak at a vigil in D.C. organized by Indivisible, a progressive grassroots network. Still feeling very raw and looking for inspiration to articulate my feelings and experiences of this weekend, I turned toward this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh.  It opens, as many in Deuteronomy do, with Moses preparing the Israelites for their imminent entrance into the Promised Land. They are told that when they enter, they must wipe out idolatry and paganism, destroy idols and foreign altars and monuments.
            At first glance, it’s a little hard to stomach with our modern sensibilities. Remember, when the Israelite clan left Canaan to seek food in Egypt, there were about 75-80 of them. Now there are thousands of them, about to go around smashing other people’s holy sites? Today, we try to live pluralistically, respecting other people’s ways of worship, and the idea of desecrating someone else’s sacred is jarring. However, the sentiment shifts a bit when what is being worshipped is no god, but something evil. Other parts of the Bible describe the idolatry happening in the Holy Land as horrific: human sacrifices, children being thrown into fires, self-mutilation, and other such forms of prayer. Though there is no historical or archaeological evidence that human sacrifice was ever as prominent anywhere as it has been in Western popular imagination, if the Israelites truly believed they were saving babies and helping murderers find God, does that change things? 
            Given my state of mind as I was reading the parasha on Sunday, the first thing I thought of was an essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel escaped Warsaw just weeks before it would be too late to leave Warsaw. He opens his essay, “No Religion is an Island” with this reminder. He made it to New York City. If he had stayed just six more weeks in Poland, his destination would have likely been Auschwitz or Treblinka. With this as his starting point, he goes on to explain that the heart of Nazism is Godlessness, and that to survive hatred and bigotry, all people of faith must work together. I remember feeling mildly unconvinced by this essay the first time I read it, a couple years ago in rabbinical school, despite my deep love and respect for Rabbi Heschel as an activist rabbi. Christian hegemony and ancient Catholic anti-Judaism have played major roles in creating and informing modern day antisemitism, and I don’t think we can be successful in overcoming white supremacy without acknowledging that. But on Sunday, as the essay sprang into my mind, I thought about all the Christian clergy that stood up against hate in Charlottesville, and the white nationalists fighting to keep their idolatrous monuments to failed, treasonous, racists. And it has never been clearer to me how right Rabbi Heschel was. We are in this together. All people of faith, people who believe in goodness and the Golden Rule and Tikkun Olam, and whatever other names we might call such concepts, must work together to topple the evil that plagues this Earth mimicking religion. And not only MUST we work together, we proved this weekend in Charlottesville and at the subsequent vigils this week that we ARE working together. Just as Righteous Gentiles hid Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, just as Heschel and others walked with Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., cross-cultural and intersectional social justice movements will continue, and will ultimately prevail.
            Also in this week’s Torah portion is the commandment to rejoice at festival times, an interesting commandment because it’s not proscribing specific actions, but actually demanding certain emotions. That too was something I felt I needed to hear this week. I might not have felt very joyful this week, but now it’s Shabbat and I’m ready for this special spiritual time to uplift my soul. Someday, when we defeat hatred and bigotry – and that’s when, not if – it will be such a time for rejoicing and celebrating, and we will do it together. May that time come quickly.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Parashat Eikev: Korach Returns to Challenge Chosenness (sort of)

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Eikev, deals in the question of Chosenness. Moses tells the people of the Israelite camp that if they obey all the commandments, then God will love them and bless them above all the other peoples of the Earth. In Ellen Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, she offers an objection from “Our Daughters”, the feminine voice responding to the text: “Many of us no longer feel comfortable with the notion of Jewish chosenness … By what right do we hold ourselves above and apart from other peoples?” 
This question has of course plagued men and women, daughters and sons, rabbis and laypeople for generations. The claim to Jewish chosenness and its perception from non-Jews has led to a lot of grief for our people. As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “I know we are Your chosen people, but every once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” But beside the antisemitism that Jews have suffered for this perceived insult against non-Jews, there is also the nagging question of what being “chosen” actually means. I don’t know any Jewish person who would claim any sort of Jewish superiority, though some might exist. Many rabbis and commentators have read into the covenanted language used when the Torah imparts the idea of God’s Chosen People to understand that Jews are only “chosen” when they choose to accept Torah, and that the act that we are chosen for is Tikkun Olam, to repair the world in the ways the Torah commands. In this reading, anyone who follows the ethical commandments and the teachings of the prophets is a part of this holy endeavor to repair the world, and can be considered chosen for such work as well.
However, even as some leaders of the Jewish community have offered this view on chosenness as an act of choosing, when it comes to their own power, they are blind to the need to be as open and inclusive. For example, this Torah portion also references the story of Korach, who challenged the authority and supremacy of Moses in a previous parasha. I think Korach was advocating for a similar broad sense of chosenness in his encounter with Moses, but Moses painted him as a villain and clings to his own authority, both in Parashat Korach and in this parasha. Korach insisted that it wasn’t just Moses who was chosen by God, for the Divine presence dwelled in the Israelite camp among all the people. I think we can extrapolate one step further and understand now that not only Jewish people who can be chosen for the holy work described in the Torah, but anyone who chooses to do it.
In last week’s episode of the podcast Judaism Unbound, co-host Lex Rofes discusses the idea of Korach in a similar way. Korach’s defiance of Moses wasn’t a defiance of Judaism or God, but rather it was offering another route into Judaism and a relationship to the Divine. Just as we are told in the Mishnah that the Torah is passed down from Moses to Joshua to the men of the Great Assembly and so on to the rabbis of the time, Lex suggested that maybe Korach passed down his own Torah to the destroyed and lost tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and then to Elisha ben Abuyah (The Other), to Baruch Spinoza (the First Secular Jew), and so on. People considered in their time to be heretics and sinners, but whose voices were still so thoroughly Jewish in their challenges to institutional Judaism that they refused to be silenced and washed away in history.
I’m excited to see who is the next inheritor of this Torah. I agree with the general sentiment of Judaism Unbound that the nature of institutional Judaism is changing in our time, and while this is mildly worrying to me as a professional rabbi, it’s also hugely exciting. I think Judaism is moving more toward decentralization, where lay people will feel empowered to create personalized rituals and communities will lean more on each other than on their leadership. Those doing the work to make Judaism more inclusive and personalized are the chosen people who want to choose Tikkun Olam even when it means challenging their own leaders and institutions. And by offering a Judaism that allows for that and has a big wide-open tent for variations on Jewish expression, decentralized Jewish movements will absorb many of those who would otherwise be lost to Judaism, the Korachs and the Elisha ben Abuyahs and the Spinozas, those who feel exiled by the leadership structures of institutional Judaism, but who are so thoroughly Jewish in their kishkes that they can’t be silenced or washed away from Jewish life.
These changes will not come tomorrow, of course, and as of now there is still great reason to be dues-paying members of the synagogue and look to your rabbi for support or learning. But it’s interesting to consider how Ner Shalom might be able to be ahead of this curve. How can we be more fully inclusive now? How can I empower you to take on meaningful home rituals and direct you in self-education? How can you support each other and teach one another the unique Torah each of you has to give? How can we show each other, the wider community, and God that we do indeed still choose Judaism and that we see the chosenness and Divine spirit in others? May we grapple meaningfully with these questions in the coming weeks, and let all who seek the Divine presence know that they too can be chosen for this community and for the important work of repairing the world.   

Friday, August 4, 2017

Parashat Va'etchanan and Tisha B'Av

Shabbat Shalom. As you may know, this past Tuesday was Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av, a fast day to commemorate the destructions of the First and Second Temple, among other things. I didn’t fast. I rarely do. I wasn’t raised with any observance or even knowledge, really, of the day, and even as I became more observant as an adult and rabbi, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples just wasn’t really something that connected with me. Each year, I’d consider the tragedies that have befallen our people and think about ways to incorporate this observance into my spiritual practice. Many other horrors have occurred on this date: medieval expulsions, the beginning of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and more, but ultimately, I find the liturgy and the writings around it to be very Temple-centric, and that’s hard for me to reconcile spiritually with the beauty of post-Temple Judaism. I would never want to rebuild a Temple in Jerusalem for a host of reasons, political and spiritual, so fasting to mourn its loss has always felt inauthentic.
But, on the 9th of Av, 5772, I attended the wake of a close friend who died suddenly at the age of 24. It was the first time I ever fasted on Tisha B’Av, and now that’s the first thing I think of every year as the date approaches. This wake gave me reason to mourn and feel deep loss on Tisha B’Av. I found that I simply didn’t have any appetite, and out of authentic grief, I ended up completely refraining from any food or water.
Our Sages teach that the destructions of the First and Second Temples, said to have both occurred on the 9th day of Av, befell our ancestors because of the senseless hatred the Israelites showed toward one another. In the absence of dutiful worship, care for one another, and observance of the many commandments to care for the poor, the stranger, and the widow, they were doomed to Divine punishment, carried out by the Babylonians and the Romans.
Our people today suffer from another form of senseless hatred, against people suffering from addiction. Proposals to enact harsh measures against people suffering from addiction and withhold life-saving measures during an overdose mean society is turning its back on those who need our support. Someone suffering with addiction needs attention as much as the Torah’s poor, stranger, and widow. Perhaps if addicts were treated less like criminals and more like people suffering a mental health condition, if there was less senseless hatred and more compassion, if there was better public healthcare generally speaking, my friend would still be alive today, and Tisha B’Av wouldn’t always just feel like his yahrtzeit.
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat VaEt'chanan, is always read on the Shabbat following Tisha B’Av, and it begins with Moses telling a story that modern commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg finds very confusing. She discusses it in at least two of her books, pointing out how odd it is that Moses begins this parashah by telling the Congregation of Israel, as well as his readers, this tale of pleading with God to revoke the decree banning him from the Holy Land, and how God shuts down the conversation and upholds the ban. It’s a moment of extreme vulnerability for Moses before the people, offered seemingly of his own volition--considering this conversation between himself and God isn’t directly recorded elsewhere in the Torah. Perhaps it is this unusual vulnerability, this admission of the uselessness of prayers to undo consequences of tangible actions, that links it to Tisha B’Av.
Prayers are well and good, and important for the upkeep of our souls and spiritual connections, but actions are what matter. No amount of begging could undo Moses’s violent actions that led to his banishment from the Holy Land. Empty prayers and meaningless sacrifices could not protect the fractured Israelite community from the destruction of the Babylonians or the Romans. Prayers and intentions alone cannot help an addict quit their substance of choice. Whereas Moses had no other option but to concede defeat, the communities of exile made a point to try to learn from the Divine punishments of the Babylonian and Roman oppressions. They honored Tisha B’Av and fasted to commemorate this tragedy, they taught justice and sought to overcome the senseless hatred that led to their predecessors’ demise, they prayed fervently for redemption and created new homelands for themselves. In doing so, they created beautiful, loving Jewish communities all over the world.
We too can take meaningful action to undermine the needless destruction of drug addiction and the mistreatment of addicts. Join the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in advocating for improved and universal access to treatment, especially naloxone, which blocks or reverses the effects of opioids, as well as safe injection equipment to reduce transmission of HIV and hepatitis C. Continue to protect the ACA for its insistence that all plans cover mental health and substance abuse disorders. Support Jewish initiatives to help care for those in our own communities suffering from the disease of addiction. And may we someday find a future where the pains caused by addictions are recognized and reduced.