The Torah is Political – Rabbis, Jews and Synagogues ought to be too

Given the contentious nature of public debate in this election year and in light of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the nation’s 45th President, my own synagogue and the American Reform Jewish movement have been challenged about the nature of our speech and activism.

What ought we to be saying and when should we be saying it? Should we as a synagogue community speak collectively about the great challenges confronting our nation in the area of health care, economic justice, criminal justice reform, the poor, women’s and LGBTQ rights, racism, immigration, religious minorities, civil rights, climate change, war, and peace?

Or should we refrain, as some have argued in my own community, and concentrate purely upon “spiritual,” religious and ritual matters? What, if any, limitations should rabbis and synagogue communities impose upon themselves?

Before I offer the principles that have guided me over many years, it is important to understand what we mean by “politics.” Here is a good operative definition from Wikipedia:

“Politics (from Greek πολιτικός, “of, for, or relating to citizens”), is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs. It also refers to behavior within civil governments. … It consists of “social relations involving authority or power” and refers to the regulation of public affairs within a political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply policy.”

The fundamental question before us is this: Should rabbis and synagogue communities be “political” in the sense of this definition?

I believe we should, and that we have an obligation to speak and act according to the above meaning.

There ought to be, of course, limitations.

First: When we speak our words ought to be based upon Jewish religious, ethical and moral principles, and our goals ought to promote justice, equality, compassion, humility, decency, freedom, and peace not only for Jews but for all people.

Second: We need to remember that we Jews hold multiple visions and positions on the myriad issues that face our community and society. Rav Shmuel (3rd century C.E. Babylonia) said “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim – These and those are the words of the living God” meaning that there are many authentic Jewish values even when they conflict with each other.

The American Jewish community holds no unanimous political point of view, though since WWII between 60% and 90% of the American Jewish community has supported moderate and liberal policies and candidates for political office locally, at the state and national levels. We are by and large a liberal community, but there is a substantial conservative minority among us as well.

The Reform movement (represented by the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., the social justice arm of the Union for Reform Judaism) has for decades consistently taken moral, ethical, and religious positions on public policy issues that come before our government and in our society as a whole, though the RAC does not endorse candidates nor take positions on nominees for high government positions unless specifically determined conditions are met. The RAC’s positions on policies are taken based on the Reform movement’s understanding of the Jewish mission “L’aken ha-olam b’malchut Shaddai – To restore the world in the image of the dominion of God,” which means that we are called upon to adhere to high ethical standards of justice, compassion, and peace.

The following guide me whenever I speak and write:

1. I do not publicly endorse candidates for high political office and have never done so in my 38 years as a congregational rabbi, except once – this year when it was clear to me that statements, tweets, and policy positions of the Republican candidate for President have proven to be contrary to fundamental liberal Jewish ethical principles;

2. When I offer divrei Torah, sermons, blog and Facebook posts, I do so always from the perspective of what I believe are Jewish moral, ethical and religious principles. Necessarily, there are times when my statements are indeed “political” but they are not “partisan,” and that is a big difference;

3. We as individuals or as a community ought never claim to possess the absolute Truth about anything. There are many truths that often conflict with one another. Respect for opposing views is a fundamental Jewish value and the synagogue ought to be a place where honest civil and respectful debate can always occur;

4. When I speak and write in the media, I have an obligation to clearly state that I am speaking as an individual and not on behalf of our synagogue community or any other Jewish organization.

The Mishnah (2nd century CE) teaches that  “Talmud Torah k’neged kulam – the study of Torah leads to all the other mitzvot.” (Talmud, Shabbat 127a) The Talmud emphasizes as well that action must proceed from learning.

Plato warned that passivity and withdrawal from the political realm carry terrible risks: “The penalty that good [people] pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by [people] worse than themselves.”

Rabbi Joachim Prinz, the President of the American Jewish Congress, who spoke in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 963 immediately before Dr. Martin Luther King delivered this “I have a dream speech, said:

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not ‘the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. … It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, … for the sake of the … idea and the aspiration of America itself.”

Last week at Temple Israel, Dr. Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, told my community that her father believed that the civil rights movement of the 1960s (of which he was an active and intimate partner with Dr. King), enabled the American Jewish community to affirm and reclaim its moral voice.

Perhaps this new administration and government offers the liberal American Jewish community yet again an opportunity to make our voices heard

Rabbi Prinz ended his speech at the Lincoln memorial that day by saying:

“The time, I believe, has come to work together – for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that [pledge of allegiance said every morning by children in their schools] from Maine to California, from North to South, may become a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.”

Mr. Trump – Withdraw your nomination of David Friedman as US Ambassador to Israel

Note: The following is a letter being signed by rabbis and cantors across the United States. It is co-sponsored by J Street and T’ruah – Rabbis for Human Rights. I am a signatory. I do so as an individual and do not represent my synagogue or any other organization. In addition to J Street and T’ruah, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has expressed concerns about this nomination.

We are writing today as rabbis and cantors asking President Trump to withdraw the nomination of David Friedman to be the United States Ambassador to the state of Israel. Failing that, we implore the US Senate not to confirm him.”

In this letter, we will address concerns around his denigration of American Jews who believe differently from him and his policy positions that we believe run contrary to the interests of the United States and Israel.

The Rabbis of the Talmud are adamant that we are to speak to and about other people — particularly those with whom we disagree — with love and respect. We are taught that shaming a person is tantamount to shedding their blood (Baba Metzia 58b).

Yet Mr. Friedman seems to have no qualms about insulting people with whom he disagrees.

Mr. Friedman has repeatedly compared members of the Jewish community whose views on Israel differ from his own to “kapos,” who were Jews who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. He called members of J Street, a pro-Israel organization that wants to see peace between Israelis and Palestinians, “worse than kapos.” He has even questioned whether its more than 180,000 supporters are really Jews — as if he has the right to decide such a weighty matter.

This is the very antithesis of the diplomatic behavior Americans expect from their ambassadors.

An ambassador is charged with representing our entire nation. It is historically perverse and wildly insulting to characterize Jewish advocates for peace, including many of the signers of this letter, as no better than Nazi collaborators plotting to destroy the Jewish people.

If Mr. Friedman cannot responsibly understand history, he cannot responsibly shape the future.

The situation in and around Israel is volatile. Mr. Friedman’s inflammatory comments about Jews, Palestinians and Muslims and the peace process itself are precisely the type of comments that can ignite further conflict and drive deeper wedges between parties.

While we believe the above should be enough to disqualify Mr. Friedman, we have grave policy concerns as well. Mr. Friedman vocally supports the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which American presidents since Johnson have seen as an obstacle to peace.

Moreover, Mr. Friedman opposes the two-state solution, which has been a policy cornerstone for Republican and Democratic administrations for the past quarter century. We are very concerned that rather than try to represent the US as an advocate for peace, Mr. Friedman will seek to mold American policy in line with his extreme ideology.

We yearn for an Israel that is secure, democratic and the national homeland of the Jewish people. Mr. Friedman’s pro-settler positions and opposition to the two-state solution are in conflict with our views and the majority of American Jews who see settlement expansion as an obstacle to peace and who strongly support a two-state solution. Mr. Friedman’s favored policies would weaken Israel’s security, democracy, and status as the national homeland of the Jewish people.

Mr. Friedman’s apparent inability to speak respectfully about and to people with whom he disagrees, and his advocacy of extreme policies which threaten the future of Israel and run contrary to American interests are both sufficient reasons to disqualify Mr. Friedman’s nomination. He is the wrong choice to serve as our nation’s Ambassador to Israel.

Woodmont Country Club in Maryland just lost a man of conscience

Jeff Slavin is the model of the American Jew who acts from conscience, and he is to be commended for his resignation from Woodmont Country Club outside of Washington, D.C. because its leadership refuses to welcome President Obama as a member due to his position of abstention on the UNSC 2334 resolution.

Whether one agrees with the President or not in this particular vote, there is no question that he has been a strong friend and supporter of Israel throughout his presidency. The Obama Administration is responsible for the largest security package that included Iron Dome that the US has ever given to any nation in the world. PM Netanyahu expressed his gratitude for American support.

President Obama is an eloquent exponent of progressive Zionism that affirms both Israel’s security and the necessity of a two-states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the only path that can assure that Israel will remain both Jewish and democratic. This is a position held by a majority of the American Jewish community and, in a just published poll, 68% of all Israelis (see http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.765146).

Woodmont Country Club would do well to reverse this intemperate and outrageous decision.

see – https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/76eb2e3c-dc05-11e6-ad42-f3…

Jeffrey Slavin, the mayor of Somerset, Md., called emails about whether President…
washingtonpost.com|By Julie Zauzmer

“With All Due Disrespect” – Paul Krugman is right!

Like so many Americans (the majority of whom did not vote for Donald Trump), I’ve struggled mightily with the results of this election because I respect so deeply the office of the presidency and everything it stands for in our democracy.

I’ve gone back and forth about how to think about the legitimacy of the Trump election, and in doing so I’ve tried to keep my emotional, moral, and spiritual revulsion of the man separate from the fact that he won the Electoral College and therefore, according to our Constitution, he will be legally President of the United States.

But this election is unlike any this country has ever endured, and so it has to be understood in the only way that’s true and honest – that this election was indeed corrupted by Russia, FBI Director Comey, and what I have come to believe is Trump’s constant “libel” of Secretary Clinton.

The definition of libel as understood by journalists centers around intent. If the person speaking the lie knows it’s a lie and does so anyway, that is libel. Trump will never admit that he knew that what he said on a daily basis were lies, but he did indeed lie over and over again in ways far exceeding any lie/untruth/exaggeration that Hillary Clinton committed. To compare them does truth-telling a disservice.

Paul Krugman is right – John Lewis is right – and patriotic Americans ought to take heed and follow their lead. I am now doing so.

[Note: I speak only for myself and not for my synagogue or any other organization]

See Krugman’s NY Times Op-Ed here

Op-Ed Columnist
John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 2015.

With All Due Disrespect

By PAUL KRUGMAN

The patriotic case for frankness about a tainted election.

“Shared Legacy – Honoring the Black-Jewish Alliance in the Civil Rights Movement” Tonight – Monday, January 16 – 7 PM at TIOH

In celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, we invite the community to be with us at Temple Israel of Hollywood tonight (Monday, January 16, 2017 – 7 PM) to view a 30-minute rough cut of a new documentary called “Shared Legacy – Honoring the Black-Jewish Alliance in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Dr. Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel and Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College will be with us along with Dr. Albert J. Raboteau, Emeritus Professor of African-American Religion at Princeton and a leading scholar of the African-American community, and Dr. Shari Rogers, President and founder of Spill The Honey/Building Relationships, an organization committed to advancing public knowledge of the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement as a means of promoting cultural tolerance, fighting injustice and encouraging young people to become compassionate, global citizens.

Rabbi Fred Guttman talks with Congressman John Lewis who speaks about that day in March 1965 when he was part of the march from Montgomery to Selma and the impact that Dr. King, Rabbi Heschel, and the civil rights movement have had upon America.

See and hear Congressman John Lewis – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEXnIhwc8K0

Graphic essay: What the Civil Rights Movement can teach us about surviving Trump

The election felt like an apocalyptic nightmare. Yet writer and illustrator Chris Noxon, a member of my synagogue community, managed to find some powerful inspiration on a recent trip and write it as a graphic essay.

Chris’ work is particularly well done and powerful. Given the most recent slander yesterday of one of America’s great heroes, Congressman John Lewis, by President-Elect Trump, it takes on even greater significance given what I fear we’re about to experience in Trump’s presidency, however long it lasts.

Scroll through it and be inspired on this weekend commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

https://www.google.com/amp/fusion.net/story/379938/comic-trump-election-protest-civil-rights-movement-memphis/amp/?client=safari

 

No matter where we think we are, we are still in Egypt

With Jacob’s death, the Israelites found themselves in Egypt living in relative safety under the protection of Joseph and the Pharaoh. However, history can change in an instant, as we ourselves have witnessed since the November election.

This truth is confirmed in next week’s Torah portion where it says that “There arose a king in Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8) and it is signaled at the beginning of this week’s portion.

The children of Israel had been protected by the benevolence of the Pharaoh through the agency of Joseph. But, after Joseph’s death, our people’s life in Egypt suddenly became a nightmare.

In Jewish memory, Egypt is synonymous with enslavement, injustice, and cruelty, which is, I believe, the principal reason that the mitzvah to welcome the stranger became so prominent in the Torah (it occurs thirty-six times).

We Jews learned early on that the way a nation treats the stranger, the foreigner, and the “other” who is unlike the majority of the population characterizes that nation’s morality, and our sages taught that a more welcoming, just, and compassionate community ought to be a core aspiration not only for Jews but for humankind as a whole.

True to that tradition, the Jewish people remains optimistic in spite of the history of antiSemitism. It’s significant that the Passover Seder attracts more Jews to the table in American than any other home-based ritual, and that it is celebrated at night, the only such night-time ritual in our tradition. When the ninth plague of blackness engulfed the Egyptians, Torah says that it was a darkness so thick that the Egyptians couldn’t see their own hands or the face of a person standing right in front of them. The fear that filled the hearts of the Egyptians and the disconnection between even members of their own families represent exile in its most stark nature.

To emphasize the timing of the ritual, we are reminded in the ninth plague that engulfed the Egyptians. Torah describes this darkness as so thick that the Egyptians couldn’t see their own hands or the faces of others standing in front of them. The plague of darkness inspired a fear of terrifying proportions. That state of disconnect with others is the precondition of exile (galut) which is precisely what Egypt-Mitzrayim connotes in Jewish tradition.

The beginning of this week’s Torah portion Vayechi alludes in a unique way to that exile in Egypt. The opening verse (Genesis 47:28) is closed – meaning that there’s no space of nine Hebrew letters separating this week’s Parashat Vayechi from last week’s Parashat Vayigash, an idiosyncrasy that occurs nowhere else in Torah except here.

Why?

Rashi (11th century France) explained that “…when Jacob our father died, the eyes and hearts of Israel were closed because of the affliction of the bondage with which the Egyptians began to enslave them.” (Rashi 47:28, based on B’reishit Rabbah 96:1)

Jacob wanted to reveal to his children the end of days, but nistam mimenu – “It was closed to him…” because, as the Talmud explains, “… the Shechinah (God’s presence) had left him….”. (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 56a)

Despite the many blessings that we in America enjoy and that our people enjoys in the land and State of Israel, the vision of an end of days will always remain closed to us and we will remain in exile until we succeed in ending the sufferings and correcting the injustices in our society and throughout the world.

In this sense, we are all still in exile even if we live in the State of Israel.

On this Martin Luther King national holiday weekend, his words and vision remain an inspiration to humanity as a whole. Two thousand years ago Rabbi Tarfon taught that “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)

Two thousand years ago Rabbi Tarfon taught that  Jews have an obligation to the world as a whole: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)

Shabbat Shalom!

Israel’s High Court requires a “good cause” argument why a woman cannot read Torah at the holiest site in Judaism

In a landmark High Court decision Wednesday, the State of Israel was given 30 days to find “good cause” why a woman may not read aloud from a Torah scroll as part of prayer services at the Western Wall.

A year ago the Israeli government coalition made an agreement with a wide range of Jews from around the world that included the Reform and Conservative movements, the North American Jewish Federations, and the Women of the Wall to create an egalitarian prayer space in the Southern Kotel Plaza under Robinson’s Arch that is equal in size and in access to the Northern Kotel Plaza that would be overseen by non-Orthodox Jewry and not the ultra-Orthodox.

This was a landmark decision that affirmed Israel as the great democracy that it is and that Jews around the world ought to have the right and freedom to pray according to their custom at the holiest site in Judaism.

The agreement was led by Prime Minister Netanyahu who had appointed Natan Sharansky, the Director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, to forge a consensus agreement that included the ultra-Orthodox administrator of the Wall and the non-Orthodox liberal streams of Judaism.

It took 3 years to reach a compromise agreement, and once that was done, the ultra-Orthodox members of the Israeli government dug in their heels and aggressively sought to undermine it that would essentially disenfranchise 80% of world Jewry that is non-Orthodox. These Orthodox politicians backed by their Haredi rabbis threatened to bring down Netanyahu’s government if the agreement was implemented.

At last – the Israeli High Court has ruled that egalitarian prayer and the rights of women to read Torah at the Kotel ought to be their democratic right. These reactionary forces have been given 30 days to make their case.

This is a limited victory and not the end of the struggle – stay tuned.

http://www.timesofisrael.com/in-sweeping-decision-high-cou…/

Government given 30 days to show ‘good cause’ why women can’t read from Torah scrolls at the holy site
timesofisrael.com

Urge your Senators to vote NO on Senator Jeff Sessions becoming US Attorney General

As the Senate of the United States prepares to confirm a number of President-Elect Trump’s cabinet appointments this week, among the worst nominations he has submitted is that of Senator Jeff Sessions for the position of United States Attorney General.

Senator Sessions is, of course, entitled to a fair hearing. However, it’s important to note that his many statements and actions over the course of his career are contrary to the values of and the positions taken and advocated by the American Reform movement.

Here are some highlights of Senator Sessions’ career that make this claim clear:

  • He voted to ban marriage equality;
  • He supports so-called “religious freedom” laws that would protect discrimination against LGBTQ people;
  • He voted against extending hate crimes laws to include gender and sexual orientation;
  • As a US Attorney in the 1980s, he persecuted civil rights workers who were helping to register to vote poor African Americans by bringing bogus election fraud charges against them;
  • He called the Voting Rights Act “a piece of intrusive legislation”;
  • He publicly applauded the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act;
  • He opposed the bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in the last Congress;
  • He was rejected by a bipartisan vote in the US Senate in 1986 for a federal judgeship when Senators heard testimony that he had referred to a black prosecutor as “boy” and said that he thought the KKK was fine “until I found out they smoked pot;”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights notes that Senator Sessions received awards from groups designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as anti-Muslim hate groups.

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) released today (January 9, 2017) through the Reform movements Religious Action Center (RAC) its “Statement on the Nomination of Senator Sessions for U.S. Attorney General (see complete statement at http://www.rac.org/statement-nomination-sen-jeff-sessions-us-attorney-general). Here are a few excerpts:

“The Reform Movement has significant concerns about the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the United States. As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Senator Sessions would be responsible for enforcing key civil rights laws that he has demonstrated hostility toward over more than 30 years in public life. On issues of vital importance to the Reform Movement, including voting rights, women’s rights, LGBT equality, and immigration, Senator Sessions has a voting record and a history of statements that raise alarm.

On civil rights in particular, Sen. Session’s record is deeply troubling. The Reform Movement is fiercely committed to protecting the right to vote and reinstating the full strength of the Voting Rights Act, which was partly drafted at our headquarters in 1965. Senator Sessions has called the Voting Rights Act “intrusive” and hailed the Shelby decision that eviscerated it as “good news.”

Now is the time to stand up for justice, equality, and human rights by calling your Senators today in Washington, D.C. (phone – 202 224 3121) and urging them to vote NO on the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General.

Note: I do not speak for my synagogue or any other organization. I thank Rabbi Fred Guttman for compiling the list of positions as cited above that Senator Sessions has supported over his career.

When a beautiful young life suddenly ends

nick-lineschNico (Nick) Linesch, son of Debra and Steve Linesch, brother of Julia, and life-partner of Gene, was only 31-years old when he died suddenly in an accident last week.

In my nearly forty years serving as a congregational rabbi, few deaths have shaken me and my community as this one has.

I’ve known Nico since he was very small. He was the friend to many people of all ages, including my son, and he and his family are as beloved and admired as anyone in our community.

We rabbis face special challenges in helping people who suffer the enormity of the loss of a young person. This is why I am writing this blog – to offer some thoughts about how best to do this even if we feel completely inadequate for the task.

As I prepared to lead Nick’s memorial service, I struggled to choose the right prayers and poetry, the right words and music sufficient to comfort the nearly 600 broken-hearted young and old who convened at our synagogue to mourn Nico’s death.

Every rabbi I know faces this terrible challenge. We begin by recognizing and accepting our inadequacy to do what the moment requires and that we will likely fail because there is no comfort in a time such as this. Yet, we hope that something we say will enter the hearts of the bereft and provide a measure of comfort.

I began Nico’s memorial service by reciting from the prophet Jeremiah (48:17):

“Bemoan him, all you round about him
And all you that know his name;
Say: ‘How is the strong staff broken,
The beautiful rod!”

I suggested that what we do now as we confront the world without Nick (I knew him always as Nick – he took the name Nico in recent years but he was accepting of whatever we wished to call him) is our greatest challenge. Thankfully, there is a font of wisdom in Jewish tradition from which we may draw and take sustenance. In addition to the careful selection of Biblical text, I offered this poem by Mary Oliver:

“…when death comes
Like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
…I look upon time as no more than an idea,
And I consider eternity as another possibility,
And I think of each life as a flower, as common
As a field daisy, and as singular,
And each name a comfortable music in the mouth
Tending as all music does, towards silence,
And each body a lion of courage, and something
Precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonderIf I have made of my life something particular,
And real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

(From New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press)

We sang Leonard Cohen’s Halleluja after Kaddish not only because Cohen was Nico’s poet and songwriter and this song was his most favorite song, but because the family wanted the mourners to leave the memorial service with the feeling of uplift as a tribute to Nico who lived his life so positively, productively,  joyfully, and lovingly (he worked for the County of Los Angeles in the transportation department as a civil engineer with special concern for the environment. The photo of Nick was taken this past summer at about 9600 feet in the Sierras, one of his favorite places on earth).

Nico’s family asked me as well to read this poem by Laura Gilpin called “Life After Death.” We read this at Nico’s bar mitzvah eighteen years ago:

“These things I know:
How the living go on living
And how the dead go on living with them
So that in a forest
Even a dead tree casts a shadow
And the leaves fall one by one
And the branches break in the wind
And the bark peels off slowly
And the trunk cracks
And the rain seeps in through the cracks
And the trunk falls to the ground
And the moss covers it
And in the spring the rabbits find it
And build their nest
Inside the dead tree
So that nothing is wasted in nature
Or in love.”

Nick will live on in the hearts of everyone who loved him and who he loved.

Zichrono livracha – May his memory inspire blessing.