Do We Really Need to Say “Gun… Violence”?

My rabbinic colleagues of ancient times were masters of textual interpretation…and they noticed everything – every phrase, every word, every letter. They took nothing for granted and very little if anything at face value. For example, they noticed that in the book of Numbers, when the Jewish people arrive at the borders of Canaan (the Promised Land) for the first time, the text says more than what is necessary. God says to Moses, שלח-לך, “Shelach-lecha”, usually just translated as the command-form, “(You) Send!”. The commentaries point out that to say “(You) Send!” all the text needed was the word שלח, shelach, which, as you can see by the way I translated it, already implies the word “You”, a purpose which is served, apparently redundantly by adding לך, lechawhich also means “You”! Why say “You” twice, ask the rabbis? And, of course, because they are the rabbis, they have an answer! The rabbis imagine that the Jewish people came to Moses demanding spies enter the land first because they were afraid to enter, despite God’s promise that they would inherit the land and their enemies would fall away before them. When Moses shared the people’s demand with God, God was taken aback by their cowardice in light of God’s promise. So the word “You” is repeated in the phrase שלח-לך, “Shelach-lecha” to indicate that God is saying to Moses, “YOU can send in spies if you want, you know you don’t need to. “I told them long ago that [the land] is good, as it is said, (Exodus 3:17): ‘I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt … [unto a land flowing with milk and honey]’.”

In light of the insanity that occurred in Las Vegas a few days ago, even though we are not as discerning and creative as the ancient rabbis, we should all take note of a similar redundancy in our lives that leads us to misunderstand our true state of affairs. We don’t need to say phrases like “Gun Violence“. If its a gun, it’s purpose is violence. Guns aren’t really made for anything else. Some may say that they only shoot at targets. If the target shooter keeps a gun (or more) at home, in their car, at the office or secretly carried, the intended purpose of that gun is to defend against someone who is perceived as a threat, i.e., to do violence to the perceived threatener before, or in response to, violence on the part of the threatener. I emphasize the words “intended” and “perceived” because the statistics bear out neither the intention nor the perception holds true in most cases. In most cases, very unlike what happened in Las Vegas, most guns are used by “normal” individuals to do violence to someone the shooter knows, often family. This happens when the “normal” range of human emotions is coupled with a gun, a piece of technology whose sole purpose is to do violence. To say gun violence is redundant.

One more redundancy: The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, like the shooting in Las Vegas, is referred to as a “mass” shooting. I’m on the mailing list of “Sandy Hook Promise”, the organization begun by the families of those who were killed, 20 children and 6 adults. In their emails, they rarely speak about the “massiveness” of the event. For each family, the impact is massive. It will always be massive for the surviving loving ones and friends.

When he spoke at our synagogue, Beth Shir Shalom, only a few weeks after Sandy Hook, Pastor Shane Scott of Macedonia Baptist Church in Watts,  reminded our combined congregations that Watts experiences a “mass shooting” every month, if not every two weeks if you add up all the shooting incidents in that period. For the individual who died and for his/her family and friends, it’s a “mass shooting” every time an individual is murdered, accidentally killed or uses a gun to die by suicide. To say that what happened in Las Vegas is somehow more impacting or more important because of the numbers involved is easier said by those of us who weren’t there and it’s insulting to the dead or the wounded and their families in Watts, Las Vegas and anywhere else. Those who were, or those who are in mourning or who are wounded or supporting someone who was wounded, they speak about one death or pray for one emotional and physical recovery for one person. 

Every time, every shooting is “violent” and “massive” because they already are “violent” and “massive”. No need to repeat ourselves.

The rabbis took words seriously. We should, too.

I invite you to listen to the song I wrote after the shootings at

Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Such a shame that it’s still relevant. THIS time?!

 

 

My Sermons from Yom Kippur 5778 – “Resist” and “Real Miracles”

“RESIST”

This year it is so hard to come up with sermons that are relevant to the moment. What’s a rabbi to do?! Every news cycle, no, every half-cycle, no, any given minute, some press release, or tweet or leak can turn everything upside down. As a result, I decided to begin this sermon by referencing an “old-school” technology that is still in use and it’s hard to change quickly because it involves adhesive. Yes, you’re correct, I’m talking about…bumper stickers. You know that a word or phrase is woven into the philosophical perspectives of our contemporary culture when it turns up on a bumper sticker. Some of my favorites over the years have been: “If I knew grandchildren were this much fun, I would have had them first,” “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” “What if they gave a war and nobody came,” and “Question Authority”. That last one became a theme for me in my younger days. In fact, that bumper sticker is one of the reasons I decided to become a Reform rabbi and not attend the Conservative movement’s seminary. As part of my decision-making process, I had a preliminary discussion with one of my rabbinic role models. He told me that a mandatory component for attending the Conservative seminary was for me to sign a contract that bound me to observe Shabbat and the laws of Kashrut according to the movement’s standards. Immediately, I thought of that bumper sticker, “Question authority!” and what it meant to me. The ability to question authority has always been one of the primary issues in my relationship with Judaism. I thought about my role model’s words and the Conservative movement’s mandates and I made an appointment with Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary.

My early Jewish upbringing was solidly within the Reform movement. My authority figure for that was my father, who loved his classical Reform Judaism and the decisions the movement made over the years about what mitzvot/commandments Reform Jews would follow, those to which we would not under any circumstances give any credence and those that were still under discussion or open to individual choice. When we switched affiliation to the Conservative movement, I realized that this more traditional Judaism didn’t speak the same “language” as my father taught me, so I adapted. My authorities became my Conservative clergy, my teachers and my friends. That adaptation worked, for a while, but I couldn’t stop wondering why some components of Judaism, some mitzvot, some customs, some ceremonies, some prayers were elements whose raison d’etre and format shouldn’t be queried and probed. My questions returned. Today my questions are more vital to my being Jewish, American and human as are my momentary answers. I continue to question authority.

The latest popular bumper sticker is one word, “Resist”. It’s powerful. It’s seductive. It’s emboldening. It’s evocative. It’s a call to a revolt in the name of all that is good and right. And, it’s a command and I don’t do well with those unless I’m allowed to question. My internal mandate pushes me to question: “Resist? Resist what or whom? On whose authority? For what purpose? What are its means and what are its ends?” So, let me take you on my journey to find out what it means to me as a Jew, as an American, as a rabbi, and as a human to resist.

The journey begins in the Torah and it doesn’t take too much knowledge of the Torah to realize that the great paradigm for a resister, although not in the most positive sense, is the Pharaoh. Moses held ten legendary negotiations with the Pharaoh to attempt to convince him that it was in his and his people’s best interest to let the Jews go free. He resisted, he refused each time. Each refusal resulted in a plague upon him and the all or some of the Egyptian population. Only after the tenth plague, a plague that took the life of his own son, did he relent. The Hebrew word that is used for Pharaoh’s resistance is “miyun”, מאיון. The famous image that goes along with it is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. The rabbis have various opinions as to whether Pharaoh was inherently “hard of heart”, whether Pharaoh hardened his heart or it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.

When I think about resistance in the Jewish context, I think about the word l’hitnaged (להתנגד) which, in modern Hebrew, means both to oppose and to resist. In rabbinic Hebrew it can also means to stand in equality to something, as in its use in the Talmudic phrase “v’talmud torah k’neged kulam”, “the study of Torah is equal to them all”, referring to a list of moral and social actions that are so important, they are priceless. The study of Torah, in its greatest sense, is considered the equal of all these actions because it embraces them and ultimately leads to them. The first Torah use of k’neged is in the text regarding Adam and Eve when God decides it is not good for Adam to be alone and resolves to make an ezer k’negdo, variously translated as a helpmate, “a suitable helper-for-him,” or “a partner equal-to-him.” In the same way that the Rabbis consider the study of Torah equal to a core list of primary mitzvot, so too, was Eve put in place not “against” Adam but as an equal.

Where does that leave those of us who feel that the strengthening of the White Supremacy movement in this country and the current emergence of anti-Semitism need to be “resisted”? I can’t react like Pharaoh because there’s a difference between purposeful resistance and obstinacy. On the other hand, what can the layered meanings of l’hitnaged teach me? Can my resistance be informed by a word that also implies some kind of equality, some kind of relationship? That’s tough. It is futile to attempt to rationally resist those who are in philosophical or ideological opposition to us. Both parties end up becoming Pharaoh-like, refusing for the sake of refusing, not budging for the sake of not budging. On the other hand, what’s the alternative? Should we be silent when anti-Semitism and bigotry rear their ugly heads? Won’t White-Supremacists, Nazis and others take our silence as their victory? What is clear from what the Torah teaches is that engaging in a continuous debate with those whose hearts are already or pre-disposed to be hardened only makes them more rigid in their views and more convinced of their rightness and our foolishness and/or delusion. And that is why many biblical scholars say this about the purpose of Moses’ and God’s ten audiences with the Pharaoh and the ten plagues that followed: those meetings were not at all designed to try to turn the Pharaoh from his malevolent ways but rather to convince the embryonic Jewish people of God’s omnipotence. In any case, we’ve learned that such debates don’t always conclude with a positive change or compromise.

History has taught us that ignoring the increasing amplitude and boldness of the anti-Semitic voice can lead to catastrophe. We have also learned that our experience with such baseless-hatred, when compared to the experiences of other groups, is differentiated primarily by the number of the murders the technology that was used to murder us. Of all peoples in the world, we know what it is to be hated, marginalized, vilified, scapegoated, demeaned and dehumanized. We experienced it for millennia and we have a special awareness when we perceive it coming for others and/or for us even in America. Each death by bigotry is a death by bigotry. The exercise of trying to determine who is the most “Who is Most Persecuted” is ultimately moot and futile. Every death by bigotry is a death by bigotry.

In America, a land in which we take so many of our freedoms and rights for granted, there are ways afforded us by those freedoms and rights for resisting the haters and the bigots, not merely to stand stubbornly in their way or to try to out shout them or create protest signs that are more biting and vicious than theirs. The best opportunity we have for our resistance is our collaboration with others. When we see the similarities in the venom that is being spewed at a variety of groups what we need to do is stand side-by-side, yes, very much in the mode of “I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine.” Ironically, the White Supremacists and Nazis who marched in Charlottesville played right into our potential strength when they articulated their vilification of people of color, immigrants and Jews. They identified our coalition! I am people of all colors, all races and all religions who stand for a vision of America that includes everyone. I am k’neged, standing equally and strongly for myself and others who are similarly targeted. Perhaps I’m not standing when I do this. Perhaps I’m taking a knee. We Jews understand that is a mitzvah for us to stand with our neighbors, facilitating their best selves while they do the same for us. We are each other’s helpmates, each other’s partners. We must be. I am the African-American parent who sits down to have “the discussion” with a young son instructing him how to interact with the police so that he will simply live through the encounter. I am the “Dreamers” and the DACA kids who are struggling to stay in the only country they have ever known and to which they contribute in a manner that is completely out of proportion to their numbers and certainly their blurred status as Americans. I am a member of the Muslim community seen as suspect by some because of the holidays I celebrate or the garb I wear or the hue of my skin or the accent with which I speak. I am a member of the LGBT community who is not living a lifestyle, but a life that should be respected in every corner of society, including the restroom. I am the woman who is still marching for equalities long-overdue from our free society. I am the person who is imprisoned not because of the viciousness of a crime or the risk I pose to others but only because of an inability to pay my bail. I am the worker who was modernized out of a living-wage job, now feeling forgotten by a society that used to value my hard day’s work. I am the worker hidden in the dark folds of the garment industry or the tunnels of a car wash or flipping mattresses in a hotel room or in the galleys of someone’s favorite restaurant whose waking hours are filled with one or more of those jobs and I am still poor. I am the person who, simply because of life’s many vicissitudes and its capriciousness, becomes ill without enough insurance to pay for my healing or comfort.

We resist by linking hands, hearts and souls with all of these hearts and souls and many more. We resist by singing into the menacing face and the venom-tipped slogan. We resist by truly grasping that we rise or fall together. We resist, we do not merely jam our feet into the dirt, in donkey-like refusal. We become helpmates, equal partners for others who are also in the crosshairs of hatred and ignorance. Resistance means honing our responses so that they are complex, nuanced and flexible not a Pavlovian reaction. Bumper sticker phrases are nice…but inadequate. Resistance isn’t about a short-term success or being stubborn. Resistance is a permanent attitude. Resistance is a commitment. Resistance cannot only be for ourselves – it must be for others as well. Today, on this Day of Days, we pledge to develop that attitude and make that commitment. Amen and amen and, in the best of senses – “Resist!”


 

“REAL MIRACLES”

The renowned Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, says: “People say walking on water is a miracle, but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.”

“Vision Statement: Israel as a Jewish Democratic State”, is the work of two rabbis, Uri Regev and Marc Angel. Rabbi Regev is an Israeli Reform rabbi and the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Rabbi Angel is an Orthodox rabbi and is emeritus at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. Together they make an impactful pair to issue such a statement. Their document was spawned by two major shifts in Israeli policy regarding progressive Judaism. First, a 2016 plan to create an egalitarian area at the Western Wall where men and women could pray together and in equality…was scrapped. Then, came an attack on the authority of rabbis in the diaspora who were listed as unworthy of determining whether a person is Jewish.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow looked at the statement authored by Rabbis Angel and Regev and found a glaring omission. While bolding calling Israel to adhere to its own principles by honoring the basics of Jewish tradition (including, kashrut, Shabbat the teaching of the Tanach, the Jewish bible), ensuring religious freedom and removing government entanglement with the choice of local chief rabbis and the governmental sponsorship of Orthodox institutions, eliminating Orthodox authority over marriage, divorce and conversion and calling for the elimination of special exclusions for Orthodox citizens when it comes to serving in the military, the text also calls for freedom of religion in the more universal sense.

Still, Rabbi Waskow is stunned that a document about Israel’s simultaneous identities of being both Jewish and democratic does not mention that Israel is currently beginning its second half-century of occupying the Palestinian people in land with, minimally, disputed possession. How, he asks, “in any values-based (my emphasis) sense” can Israel call itself either Jewish or democratic “so long as the State rules over millions of people and denies them the power to govern themselves.” “Privileges for Reform Jews to have their rabbis marry their congregants,” he says, “do not equal democracy while the whole structure of the State leans more and more on subjugation of the Palestinians.”

He then offers what I believe to be a most pointed and apt comparison. Rabbi Waskow writes, “It is as if US Jews in 1855, facing a society heavily invested in economic and political support for slavery, had focused on discrimination against Jews as anti-democratic without even mentioning the monstrous denial of democracy involved in slavery.”

As I have always taught, the key word in Hillel’s adage: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and, if when I am only for myself, what am I?” is the word “and”. Neither of these self-imposed obligations can operate independently. THAT is the problem Rabbi Waskow had with the vision statement, “Israel as a Jewish [and] Democratic State”. Let’s say we somehow establish religious freedom within Israel for non-orthodox Jews, secular Jews and non-Jews. Nothing about that situation would make Israel particularly Jewish (other than Israel’s official days off are for Jewish holidays and holy days and for significant anniversaries in Israel’s history, which they already are). The establishment of true religious pluralism in Israel may guarantee democratic protections for some, but it would do nothing to address Israel’s 50-year-old undemocratic malignancy, the occupation of the Palestinians. In other words, Israel could be the most democratic state in the world when it comes to religious freedom, but it wouldn’t really amount to much of a sea change if, while Israeli Reform Jews and others are free to practice their religion in the way we see fit, the Palestinians are not free at all! As in Hillel’s saying, the word “and” is vital for Israel as well, Jewish “and” Democratic, Israelis “and” Palestinians.

As do some of us here, I remember June 5, 1967. The tension had been building for at least a couple of weeks as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq began massing troops in an overt threat to Israel. After Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in late May, Israel decided to pre-emptively attack rather than being on the defensive. Six days later it was all over and the Middle East had drastically changed. There is debate over whether Israel offered a land-for-peace deal to any or all the major players after the war. U.N. Resolution 242 tried to put that notion into writing only months after the conflict…but the wording is vague. The Resolution has been interpreted by any player as it suits that country or entity’s perspective. As a result, Resolution 242 is now part of the muck that is the situation between Israel and her neighbors. One of Israel’s demands regarding the Resolution is that other nations (or nation-to-be as it is for Palestine) first recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation before any negotiations ensue.  Of course, I understand the demand of recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation…but what does a Jewish nation mean? At a time when the ultra-Orthodox in Israel have gained inordinate power and influence, most of the country’s population is secular, the majority of whom rarely step foot in a synagogue. In fact, many Israeli cyclists’ observance of Yom Kippur is taking advantage of the country’s nearly empty roads and highways. I don’t begrudge anyone not going to synagogue or even riding bikes on Yom Kippur. These realities don’t detract from Israel being Jewish. On the other hand, those who go to synagogue all the time and spit on women praying at the Western Wall because they’re wearing tallitot, kippot, tefillin and reading from the Torah are dismantling Israel’s Jewish identity. An Orthodox rabbinate that is more concerned with who other Orthodox rabbis in the diaspora deem to be Jewish than they are that Israel has been an occupying force over another people for half a century are also helping to destroy Israel as a Jewish nation. It’s not unlike our president’s obsession with the peaceful protests of players, coaches and owners in the NFL when millions of Americans and non-Americans are isolated on hurricane-ravaged islands with no provisions or power. Americans are asking, where are our values? What are our priorities? Unfortunately, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out, too few Israelis and, I would dare say, even too few diaspora Jews, are asking, after 50 years of occupying the Palestinian people, “Where are our values? What are our priorities? Where are Israel’s values?” “What are Israel’s priorities?” No matter what anyone else does or says, how can this status quo be tolerable for the Israeli people, for the Jewish people? Is this how we act out being a “light to the nations?” Is this how we live out being “God’s treasured people”? Is this how we live out being a “holy people?” Is this how we live out century upon century of being occupied ourselves and detained and limited and denied full status and access to education and opportunities and ghettoized and dispossessed and marginalized and hated and stereotyped?

I love Israel and I support Israel through many avenues. I don’t love the ways in which some Israelis behave toward Palestinians or some of their fellow Jews and I don’t love Israel’s governmental policies that prolong and perpetuate Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and the Palestinian people. I love Israel because I fervently believe in its promise. That is why I become angry when Israelis or the government of Israel act in ways that aren’t very Jewish. I am a Jewish American who has a diaspora Jew’s sense of what it is to act Jewishly. I also understand responding to terrorism and the need for security.

Some of you know that our daughter, Eden, got off a bus in London during the terrorist bombings in 2005 literally seconds before the bus went around the corner and blew up. Thirteen people died in that explosion. Those terrorists tried to kill my daughter. Eden and the rest of our family could have decided to become haters that day. We could have begun to stereotype anyone associated with those terrorists by name, ethnic background, religion, country of origin and more. Where would the hatred get us? What does the hatred do besides breed more hatred?

A former member of this congregation who moved up north is fighting a very aggressive form of cancer. He’s an amazing writer. He wrote this in a post he calls “Cancerland”: “The challenge of Cancerland, as I see it, is to balance the unknown consequences of the treatment with the unknown amount of time you might receive from doing it. It’s not an easy decision…

The cards have already been dealt; all I can do is decide how to play my hand and how much to bet.”

Israel, like all nations, is always facing the possibility of a malignant aggression. Some of it comes from across her borders. Some grows within. The challenge of the cancer that invades will always be there. However, the fury of the outer cancer might be reduced if Israel treats the cancer within, the cancer of hatred and fear that will erode Israel from the inside, in its kishkes, disintegrating the possibility of Israel being Jewish or a democracy. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba-zeh, all Jews are responsible one for the other.

This Jew will not give up on Israel. The cards have already been dealt; all we can do is decide how to play our hand and how much to bet. I’m betting on peace. I’m betting on love over hate. I’m betting on religious pluralism. I’m betting on sovereignty for Palestine. I’m betting on Israel. I’m betting on the Jewish people. I’m betting on real miracles.