Friday, June 26, 2015

Nearing the Mountaintop - We Made A Difference

Forty-six years ago this weekend, June 28, 1969 in Greenwich Village at the Stonewall Inn, police raided a gay nightclub in an attempt to arrest its patrons because being gay was illegal in New York City. Being gay was illegal. Riots ensued and, in their aftermath, the LGBT rights movement was born.

In light of the situation in America five decades ago, today’s Supreme Court decision arguing that gay and lesbian individuals’ rights are ensured by the 14th Amendment, the equal protection clause, including the right to marry whomever they choose, could be seen as miraculous.

The Executive Director of the Central Conference of American Rabbis CCAR said:
As Jews, we believe we are all formed in God’s image. For many years, Reform Judaism rabbis have called for equal rights for all members of our communities, and we see today’s Supreme Court decision on marriage equality as a huge moral victory for the United States.
The Reform movement has been a strong advocate. Last March, the CCAR marked the 25th anniversary of a 1990 resolution calling for the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis, and installed its first openly gay president, Rabbi Denise Eger. I personally have performed a number of same-sex marriage ceremonies and spoke on several occasions at the Iowa Capitol about it. 

The majority opinion, written by Justice Kennedy is not a simple legal document. It is beautiful. For example, it states the following about the institution of marriage:

The annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations. The centrality of marriage to the human condition makes it unsurprising that the institution has existed for millennia and across civilizations. Since the dawn of history, marriage has transformed strangers into relatives, binding families and societies together.

Beautiful! Yet, the stories of the three couples cited by Justice Kennedy in the opinion are heart wrenching:
  1. 1.     A married couple wherein one spouse died from ALS, but because the state in which they resided didn’t recognize same-sex marriage, it refused to list the surviving spouse on the death certificate. Imagine not being listed as the spouse of your beloved because the state decided you weren’t allowed to marry.
  2. 2.     A married couple with children, wherein because the state would not recognize the couple’s same-sex marriage, neither would it recognize both parents as the legal guardians of their adopted children leaving not only the couple, but the children as well, at risk should anything happen to one of them.
  3. 3.     A couple including a soldier who served with the Tennessee National Guard in Afghanistan, whom when he returned home found that he was considered unmarried.

Justice Kennedy noted:

Even when a greater awareness of the humanity and integrity of homosexual persons came in the period after World War II, the argument that gays and lesbians had a just claim to dignity was in conflict with both law and widespread social conventions. Same-sex intimacy remained a crime in many States. Gays and lesbians were prohibited from most government employment, barred from military service, excluded under immigration laws, targeted by police, and burdened in their rights to associate… For much of the 20th century, moreover, homosexuality was treated as an illness…

Change was slow to come. It wasn’t until 1990 that even the highly progressive Reform Jewish movement was willing to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis and congregations were not exactly banging down the door to hire them when it did.

Justice Kennedy explained that times and our understanding of our world changes, something at the basis of Reform Judaism, discussed 130 years ago in the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform. The Justice wrote:

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed…

It is noteworthy that rather than speak to a definition of civil marriage, Justice Kennedy spoke of what marriage should be. He stated:

The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation… Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.

While, in the opinion there are many paragraphs about legal benefits based in marriage and problems caused by exclusion from it, how beautiful is the statement, that marriage “offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other?”

I’m personally not sure I would have needed any more than that statement alone to justify what the Supreme Court of the United States did today. Yet, the concluding paragraph offered by Justice Kennedy is worthy of sermon and will itself be long remembered and oft quoted.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

And so 46 years after the Stonewall Riot in Greenwich Village when simply being gay was cause to be arrested, today it is legal for two gay men to be married there and their marriage will be recognized everywhere in America.

I often urge us to action as I did last week. I point out that we can make a difference even if what our own actions contribute is but a drop of water. Many drops, as was all too clear this week here in Des Moines, create a river and sometimes a very flooded one. What we can clearly say, after this Supreme Court decision, is that our drops of water, all of our advocacy through the years, created that river. 

We made a difference.

I stand before you, thinking of my own family members, who were never able to publicly acknowledge that they were gay or lesbian.

I stand before you, thinking of those in our congregation and in our community who have struggled to have their freedom and rights recognized, often suffering persecution and discrimination because of their views.

I stand before you, having spoken often about Antisemitism and the Holocaust, remembering pink triangles and getting choked up about it. This has been a long and painful struggle.

I stand before you, knowing the elation of nearing the mountaintop, having labored so hard and long on the climb. What a feeling!

We are here on a day when these words ring more truthful, “We the people who hold this truth to be self-evident, that we all are created equal.”

Today, my friends, we live in a nation beginning to live up to the lofty promise made by its first President to a little community of Jews in Rhode Island 225 years ago. In the words of President George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in New Port Rhode Island and quoting the words of that congregation’s leader, Moses Seixas:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy, a policy worthy of imitation.

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of the inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…

May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

This is truly a momentous day.

And so, how can I conclude this sermon with anything other than Shecheheyanu, thanking God for bringing us to this long sought after day?

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, for sustaining us in life, strengthening us, and enabling us to reach the day!

Friday, June 19, 2015

We Still Have A Dream - On the Charleston Shooting and Faith

The Torah relates that when Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, were killed, that Aaron was silent. Speechless. Sometimes there are no words. Sometimes there are too many words, perhaps too many unhelpful words. Rage words. Too few understanding words.

Tonight, we lift our prayers and give strength to those in Charleston, South Carolina, to the members of the AME Church across our nation, to the African American community that has once again suffered a grievous wound, to all those of faith…knowing it could easily have been us, too often for we Jews it has been us,… we offer support. It is a great honor for me to be able to host this service, to have heard Pastor Black share her thoughts tonight, to be joined by so many faith leaders and so many caring hearts here to offer prayers and strength.

My friends, a confession.
I am a prejudiced man.
I am a man who discriminates.
I am a man who bears hatred.

I am prejudiced against intolerance.
I discriminate against those who proclaim it.
I hate those who act upon it.

Such people have caused endless suffering. The history of my people is replete with haters who have acted in ways not unlike what happened in Charleston, South Carolina. I do not have to struggle to imagine something similar happening in a Jewish context, in a synagogue, in a community center, in a kosher supermarket. It happens all too often. We know that suffering.

But to apply Rabbi Hillel’s famous statement,
“If I am not willing to take on the challenge of changing the world, can I expect anyone else to do so?
What will I become if I do try?” and finally,
“If I am not willing to stand up here and now and say ‘NO MORE?’ When will I?” Too late? When Maurice Ogden’s Hangman knocks upon my door to take me to the gallows?

Here we are on June 19, 2015 mourning the killing of nine members of an AME Church in South Carolina, including four pastors.

June 19 is an important date in Black History. On June 19, 1865, a date that came to be known as Juneteenth and has been celebrated annually since, Union Solders landed on the shores of Galveston, Texas with the news that slaves were truly free. 150 years ago, today.

150 years after the end of slavery in this nation, a young man joined a prayer service at a historic black church, sitting with those attending for an hour, before opening fire on peaceful prayerful men and women simply because of the color of their skin.

Heartbreaking…AGAIN.

I was asked by a man in despair over the martyrdom of the innocents in Charleston, how we may overcome the hatred in our world. I immediately thought of Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither may you desist from it.”

Tomorrow will not be the day that hatred vanishes from our world. It won’t be the next day either. It won’t be because you and I spoke out and said, “Hatred be gone!” or because God finally acquiesced and decided to make peace on earth because we sang a rousing chorus of Oseh Shalom as we will later on tonight.

When the time comes, when that day of peace finally arrives, when hatred and war are banished, it will be because each of us individually made a little bit of difference; little drops of water in the stream of justice will allow righteousness to flow like a mighty river.

We are in this together, my friends: as Americans and as people of faith.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous speech:

With this faith, we will indeed be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
With this faith, we will indeed be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
With this faith, we will indeed be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together.

Tonight, I am reminded of another line, often forgotten, in that same speech, the one introducing the dream. Dr. King said, “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

Do we still have a dream? Do we still have a dream? …I think we do.

We still have a dream.

We still have a dream that our children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

We still have a dream.

We still have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

We still have a dream today. Juneteenth, 150 years to the day.

We still have a dream of freedom from slavery, freedom from the shackles of hatred and the bonds of prejudice; freedom from those who see only skin deep and see otherness as inhumanity.

We still have a dream!

And we have faith! Look around you tonight. But don’t just look. Truly see! Perceive!
These people here tonight and all those around our nation gathering together in vigil after vigil are people who care. These are people who like you have had enough! These are people…We the People…who hold this truth to be self-evident, that we all are created equal. We all matter.

You are not alone.
We are not alone.
No one is alone.
We stand together.

That is our dream. Let us make it real.

Shabbat Shalom.



Friday, February 27, 2015

Boldly Go – In Memory of Leonard Nimoy

Tonight’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is focused on the priestly raiments. We learn about the Ephod, the Breastpiece, the robe, a fringed tunic, headdress and sash, the kinds of yarns that are to be used and metals and gems for adornment.  There was a whole lot of commentary connected to this Torah partion today with people arguing about whether the priestly dress was white and gold or instead blue and black!

After describing the priestly vestments, the Torah speaks of the method of consecration, of the sacrificial practices that must be performed. Finally, we hear of where God will meet with the priests, in the Tent of Meeting which will be sanctified by God’s presence.

The specifics of the discussion of priestly garments are not directly appropriate to the matters of the day, or perhaps considering the many discussions about the color of that dress, all too appropriate. Yet, the Torah which was taught this afternoon was indeed connected to the priests. It focused on the Priestly Benediction and the hand gesture of the character Spock from Star Trek. The much beloved actor who portrayed Spock, Leonard Nimoy, passed away today at the age of 83.

Leonard Nimoy, who grew up Orthodox in Boston to Ukrainian immigrant parents, helped to bring Jewish ideals into millions of homes through Star Trek. Nimoy, actor, director, photographer, poet, ended up so connected to the character of Spock that he struggled to make his own way. His two autobiographies were entitled, “I am not Spock,” published in 1977 and “I am Spock,” published in 1995.

Star Trek, which debuted September 8, 1966 took on the social issues of the day though a campy sci-fi show set in the distant future. Star Trek challenged numerous social norms from women’s rights, to race, equality and much more. Spock’s character presented and represented several challenges to social norms.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, called him the “conscience of Star Trek.” Spock was a vehicle used to bring science and reason to confront human emotional reactions and beliefs. Whenever a prejudice or some aspect of faith impacted a storyline, Spock was there to squash it or to highlight it.

My favorite Spock scene is one from the movie Wrath of Khan. Spoiler alert, I’m going to tell you how the movie ends. Plug your ears if you’d rather not hear.

The ship was crippled and the only way to save it was for Spock to enter a room full of a lethal level of radiation. The doctor discouraged Spock from entering. Spock incapacitated him, entered, and saved the ship along with all those onboard. When Captain Kirk arrived and interacted with Spock as he lay dying, Leonard Nimoy’s character explained himself by saying that, “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper."

It’s a very Kantian message, based in science and reason.

Star Trek’s real message, however, is in Captain Kirk’s response, the Jewish response, set up by Spock’s statement. It is found in the following movie, “The Search for Spock,” which was directed by Nimoy. In it, the crew takes a great risk to recover Spock’s now resurrected body from "The Genesis Planet," I won’t even bother to comment on the obvious religious overtones of that.

Spock, not remembering what happened, asks Kirk, “Why would you do this?” “Why go through this great risk, put the whole crew at risk, to help me?” Captain Kirk responds with a rabbinical statement, “Because the needs of the one, outweigh the needs of the many.” It is a statement based on Mishnah Sanhedrin, which teaches, “Whoever saves a life, it is as if he has saved an entire world.”

Nimoy’s character, Spock, was part of an inter-racial family--well, actually an inter-species family. Spock was part human and part Vulcan. His character and its narrative of nearly five decades of Star Trek episodes and movies about his character, helped people understand mixed-race, multi-cultural, and interfaith families. We followed many story lines about religious rites, cultural stereotypes, discrimination and prejudice. Star Trek taught tolerance and did so significantly through the character of Spock.

Spock showed that geeks could be leaders and helped make science cool. His was a character far ahead of his time, beloved by science fiction fans from the start.

Star Trek’s theme in its early incarnation was “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” The statement was about exploration, about human adventure. In retrospect, it was also what the show did in confronting the accepted ideas of its day. It was bold.

Commander Spock’s character, Start Trek as a show, and Leonard Nimoy throughout his life, went boldly forward and urged us to follow. “Lekh lekha!” Get up and boldly go from where you are used to being and what you are used to having around you. Things are going to change! It was a biblical message. It was the message of the 1960s. It was a Jewish message.

Today, was a day that fans of Star Trek have long dreaded. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock is now truly dead, not to be resurrected in the next movie.

His memory lives on. It was something special today, seeing people all around the world sharing a Jewish sign, the Priestly Benediction, with one another? How meaningful on this day of political argument, of fears of terrorism, of division, that so many offered each other a blessing? “Live long and prosper!”

Leonard Nimoy will always be remembered for his portrayal of the character of Spock, for his on stage portrayal of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, for his love of Judaism and for the many things he taught us all about how to live, to be proud of our Judaism, and to care for one another.

Live long and prosper, my friends. Live long and prosper! Shabbat Shalom.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On Bread Bag Shoes and Insulting the Poor

It's time for the unpopular prophetic voice. Friends, partisan politics aside: Please explain to me why we're making fun of Joni Ernst because she grew up poor in rural Iowa? Policies, argue away. Don't like her choice of camouflage footwear or "making them squeal," criticize away. You want to complain about Ernst playing up her poverty as a child, if she is, go ahead. You don't have to agree with her or like her.
I have to take exception with making fun of the fact that Joni Ernst's mother, wanting to protect her shoes because they couldn't afford new ones, had her put bread bags over them in bad weather. Anyone who cares for the poor shouldn't be making fun of that. Are we now going to make fun of which plastic soft drink bottles poverty stricken people in India or Africa tie around their feet? We're going to have jokes about Mountain Dew giving them a greater lift? "Hey, wonder if that guy knows he can get a pair of shoes 2 for 1 at Hy-Vee this weekend?" This whole meme about bread bags is highly elitist and offensive. If you wouldn't walk up to a homeless person and insult their clothing, heaping insults on Ernst because she shared a memory of being a poor kid is probably not an appropriate thing to do. It isn't a Jewish thing to do either.
Proverbs 17:5 "Whoever mocks the poor shows contempt for their maker."
Here endeth rant.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Clarion Call - The Death of Liberty

We do our best to be tolerant of religious sensibilities. Tolerance indeed requires a willingness to avoid offense. Yet, we cannot be tolerant of those who resort to violence because someone offended their sensibilities. Freedom requires the ability to say what others, and especially those in power, do not want to hear: the criticism and the challenge. Let's just recall a few quotes shall we:
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. - George Orwell
If Freedom of Speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter. - George Washington
Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of the opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.
(Special message to the Congress on the internal security of the United States - August 8, 1950) - Harry Truman
Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear! - Catherine of Sienna, 14th Century
We have been warned time and again.

We can neither ignore the fact that we face active threats from violent Islamists nor the threat that fear will additionally produce in limiting liberty. We know that:
Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech. - Benjamin Franklin
We now see the world's major media outlets refusing to offend. Oxford University Press is now discouraging the use of pigs in children's books because that might offend Muslim sensibilities. So prepare yourselves for the "Three Little Chickens and the Huffing and Puffing Wolf." Yes, we know with absolute certainty that there are people who are intolerant and even those who will engage in violence against those who challenge and disagree. Their goal it is to overthrow our liberty. Should we simply concede our freedom because the way we use it offends some?

Fran├žois-Marie Arouet's philosophy fueled the American and French revolutions. He is better remembered by his nom-de-plume used so as to avoid persecution by those eager to silence him. Perhaps, his words will motivate us today:
I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. - Voltaire
Let me add my own statement and my own warning to the list of those who spoke before:
Our freedoms are based on on our willingness to fight and die for them against those willing to fight and die to limit them.
We can watch freedom slowly erode and cower in fear under threat with Jews gradually or rapidly leaving for safety in Israel from all over Europe or we can accept the reality that the one thing the west cannot tolerate is a willingness to abdicate freedom to avoid offending those who disagree with how we put it to use.

On Sunday, January 11, hundreds of thousands rallied in the streets of Paris for the sake of freedom and in support of those who are threatened. Many others in France did not rally because they do not value the defense of freedom and support the threats. Today, France and truly all of Europe face a stark choice:

  1. Stand up and act against the growing tide of oppression that has developed because of toleration of the intolerant or 
  2. Watch liberty overthrown.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and The Jews - A Sermon for Shabbat Shemot

On Wednesday morning, three men, who are said to have claimed connection to Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, also known as Al Qaeda of Yemen, attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, killing a dozen people and injuring eight more. The four prominent political cartoonists working for the controversial satirical magazine were all killed. Among them was Georges Wolinski, a French Jew born in Tunisia in 1934 to a Polish Jewish father and a Tunisian Jewish mother, whose family had come to Tunis from Italy. After his father was murdered in 1936, he and his mother moved to France where he became a political satirist and cartoonist.

Other victims of the terrorists included two unarmed police officers on patrol to prevent attacks against the previously attacked Charlie Hebdo offices. One of the officers executed by the terrorists was Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim. In the attack, the perpetrators killed a cross-section of France: Jews, Christians, Muslims, secularists, native born and immigrants.

Much of what Charlie Hebdo printed on its pages was offensive. It was not offensive in the way that National Lampoon or Saturday Night Live might offend. It was offensive in the way that the old Totally Tasteless Jokes books, for those who are familiar with them, could offend. It was offensive in the South Park sort of way, from the social and political left, but with explicitly graphic cartoons. Yes, Charlie Hebdo’s pages offended Muslims. They also offended Jews, Christians, and just about anyone else whom the magazine’s authors and cartoonists thought they could target.

The response to the massacre of the staff of Charlie Hebdo has been significant.
The French Islamic community, fearing a backlash because of this week’s attacks, has responded very strongly. The French news service AFP stated today that:
French imams condemned the violence committed in the name of Islam during Friday prayers as the country reels from the double hostage dramas that followed the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine on Wednesday.
The same message — distancing the country’s five million Muslims from the jihadists responsible for the attacks — was relayed at more than 2,300 mosques across France.
“We denounce the odious crimes committed by the terrorists, whose criminal action endangers our willingness to live together,” says the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, Dalil Boubakeur.
He also appeals to “all the Muslims of France” to take part in demonstrations planned for Sunday to pay homage to the 12 victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the bloodiest in France in more than half a century.
Muslim theologian Tareq Oubrou, an imam in Bordeaux, in the southwest, said Muslims were furious that their religion had been “confiscated by crazies… and uneducated, unbalanced people”.
Numerous foreign leaders have said that they will attend the huge rally in Paris set for Sunday.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and Spanish Prime Minister Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose countries have suffered major terror attacks in the past decade, were among the first to say they would attend. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said they would also come.
President Obama stated today, “I want the people of France to know that the United States stands with you today, stands with you tomorrow,” and described France as America’s “oldest ally.” “We fight alongside you to uphold values that we share,” the President said.
Most of us who have offered our support for the value of free speech over the past few days would not also support the content of that speech as offered by Charlie Hebdo. In fact, most of us would decry much of it. Yet, we also must be concerned when the opportunity for us to become offended by the views of others is silenced, when protests and criticism that rattle us and disturb us are declared illegal or silenced by threat of violence. That is the highway to oppression. The hangman may well come for Charlie Hebdo first, but when the hangman comes, we know that there are others on the list as well, including us- selected for what we believe, what we say, how we look, where we're from... And in fact, in France this week, first they came for free speech and then they came for the Jews.

This morning we awoke to the news that two new people, Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddienne, were wanted in connection with the robbery of a gas station and murder of French police officer that occurred yesterday. This afternoon, Amedy Coulibaly entered a Kosher Deli/Supermarket with two AK-47s. He took nineteen hostage. Coulibaly called FBM-TV in Paris this afternoon and stated that he chose the store because he was targeting Jews. Furthermore, he claimed to be part of the Islamic State, stating that he had orders from the Caliphate.

Four hostages eventually were killed along with Coulibaly. Of the fifteen survivors, four were critically wounded. Meyer Habib, a Jewish Member of Parliament in France, said that among the dead was his best friend and that he knew two others who were also killed in the store.

No few synagogues around Paris chose not to hold Shabbat services this evening and to close for the weekend out of fear: not all of them, but no few of them. Many members of the Jewish community are simply too afraid to go to Jewish places tonight. For the first time since World War II, synagogues in France have shuttered their doors on Shabbat out of fear.

While many proudly declare “Je suis Charlie!” It will be interesting to see how many also declare “Je suis Juif!” What sort of support will the Jewish community of France receive in the aftermath of this attack, an attack that comes in a year following a dramatic upsurge of Antisemitism in France complete with numerous attacks against synagogues, a year that saw the highest emigration of French Jews to Israel in many years. It is two years after an attack on a Jewish day school in Toulouse in which a rabbi and three children were killed by terrorists. It is also merely months after a Summer that saw mobs marching through the streets of France shouting “Death to the Jews” and “Hitler was right.”

My friend Rabbi Audrey Korotkin pointed out today in answering the question, “What has changed?” that it is simply that the target of such violence and hatred is no longer just Jews. France did not say, “Je suis Juif” then, nor did it the numerous other times when Jews were attacked and killed as Jews, and it probably will not now. Charlie Hebdo, the magazine filled with hate and derision, deserves love simply because the French cherish freedom of speech. Do the French cherish the lives and freedom of Jews? So far the answer seems to be silence.

Silence…a silence that brings us to this week’s Torah portion.
The Israelites were fertile and prolific. They multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. Then new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
It has been four score years since a great evil took hold in Europe. In August of 1934, Germany came to have a Fuhrer. In September of 1935, it passed the Nuremberg Laws. We are of an age that has forgotten. It is not the good Joseph that we have forgotten, but the opposite, the evil, how it came to pass, how it grew and prospered. Europe has forgotten what allowing hatred to flourish in its streets can produce. We are the king who forgot.
The Nazis spread fear and hatred. They did not stand for enlightened modern values, but for contempt of many of them. Those Muslims who support and encourage participation in Al Qaeda, who seek the growth and spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who advocate for the ascension to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab nations through violent means also seek to spread fear and hatred. They do not support those values cherished in the west of Freedom of Speech and Religion or many others advocated by majorities in western nations. Many of them have as goals the completion of Hitler’s work in the genocide of the Jews and the domination of the globe.
There are voices seeking to bring change. My friend, Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy has spent much of the last three days being interviewed on national television. This is a link to one such appearance in Phoenix.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who took power by ousting the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, who appears by all evidence to be a successor to Hosni Mubarak as a military strongman, is also the one leader in the Muslim world who perhaps is positioned to speak out in condemnation of religious radicals with whom he and his government are at war.
Last week, on New Year’s Day in fact, Al Sisi spoke at Al Azar University, one of the leading Sunni religious institutions in the world. He stated:
“It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma (multinational community of Muslim believers) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible! That thinking – I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’ – that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world!
Is it possible that 1.6 billion [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible! … I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move… because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Canadian Muslim women’s rights activist Farzana Hassan, yesterday offered words in the Toronto Star that we all should hear:
Muslim organizations have naturally denounced the attacks.
However, the attitudes of many Muslims remain steeped in an ancient mindset that is anathema to the secular West, and the usual rationalizations have diluted these so-called condemnations.
The implied argument is that the victims have in a sense helped to bring the tragedy on themselves, because if they offend the sentiments of over a billion people, there are bound to be some who will take up arms.
In other words, this terrorist outrage deserves to be condemned, but the West needs to understand that Islamic sensitivities need to be respected; how can so many non-believers just not get it?
Yet, Westerners do get it.
It is just that they quite rightly repudiate it.
It may sound trite to say that freedom of expression is the cornerstone of Western liberal democracy, but it is true. Mockery, satire, even blasphemy form a part of this.
Of what use is the right to say only what everyone wants to hear?
It is only in challenging many so-called sacred values that the West has made progress towards formulating the best of societies where rights are guaranteed — ironically, even the rights of religious people who would deny those rights to others…
We are now faced with a sad and stark dichotomy where two worlds, one that cherishes individual freedoms, the other that suppresses them at every opportunity, are constantly pitted against each other.
The West must defend its liberties.
Cowering under Islamist intolerance would dilute some of the most treasured aspects of its civilization.

Rabbi Korotkin notes, using the words of Martin Niemoller:

First the Islamists came for the Jews. But the world by and large did not speak out, because they were not Jews. Now the Islamists have come for the satirists. Does the world stand by, because most of them are not satirists? Do they think that the cartoonists of “Charlie Hebdo” are in a different category, because they, like Zionists, were asking for it?

As Rabbi Korotkin essentially asks, “Is Europe ready to confront a hangman that has come for the Jews and the satirists?”

This year will almost certainly see a dramatic increase in the number of Jews leaving France for safety in Israel. Will it be a year that sees Europe care about that fact? Or be less than happy about it if they do care? They will march, but will they only march? Will they watch the hangman come, and even, in the words of Maurice Ogden, serve him faithfully? Or will they, and we along with them, stand against him in public square?

Our thoughts are with the people of France tonight and with our Jewish brethren, once again facing both tragedy and ongoing threats. May light and not darkness come into the City of Light tonight and in the days and nights to come. May we support those who seek to bring light into the darkness of hate-filled minds and be successful in our efforts. May the prayers and songs for peace and comfort that we and Jews around the world have offered tonight bring strength to our people everywhere.

Tonight, Nous Sommes Juifs Francais. We are all French Jews. Chazak, Chazak, v’Nitchazeik, be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.


Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

I Can't Breathe! M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R

The blow that knocks the wind right out of you and makes you gasp.
The asthma attack when your lungs just don't work right.
Choking when you swallow wrong.
Pneumonia, Emphysema, lung cancer that leave your lungs incapable of functioning properly.

Being choked.
Being thrown to the ground and held down.
"I Can't Breathe!"

How does one watch the video of Eric Garner's pleading and death without finding it difficult to breathe, to get choked up in fear and anxiety. 
Suffocation, drowning, these are two of our greatest human fears.
We watched a man grasped around the neck, put into what appears to be a choke-hold, and held down while he proclaimed time after time, "I can't breathe." Until, he stopped speaking because there was no more air for him.

I don't know why any officer moved to take him down to the ground. I don't know why anyone decided that a physical altercation was needed to stop a man selling individual cigarettes to homeless people who couldn't afford them any other way.

Being choked. M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R.
Being thrown to the ground and held down. M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R.
"I Can't Breathe!" M-E-T-A-P-H-O-R.

This was a father of six children. He'd had a troubled life. He'd been arrested 31 times. Now he was selling "loosies" to make a few bucks from people who were themselves struggling to breathe, to live.

I didn't sit on the Grand Jury. I have no idea what they saw and heard. I don't know if the officer who decided to take Eric Garner to the ground is entirely responsible for his death or even if he's the only one of the officers present who might be somewhat responsible.

I do know that I saw a man who was not violent thrown to the ground as if he was. 

I do know that he died at least in part because he was grasped around the neck and held down on the ground as he struggled to breathe.

I do know that he told the police officers that he couldn't breathe eleven times.

I do know he had been standing there on that sidewalk, assuming he was selling individual cigarettes, in order to make a few dollars because the government put so much tax on packs that poor people can't afford to buy a whole one.

I do know there are those in this country who feel like they're being choked and held down, perhaps by their own past mistakes, perhaps by those of their parents, perhaps by discrimination and racism, perhaps by a system that simply makes it difficult to rise.

I do know that there are far too many people in this country who wake up in the morning and long to be able to breathe: to have enough money, enough food, enough health, a roof over their head, enough love, enough hope for a better tomorrow.

But day after day, they wake up and say, "I can't breathe!"

I do know that we hear them. Sometimes they yell so loudly that we cover our ears. Sometimes they protest. Sometimes they riot. We see it on TV  and all over the internet. Sometimes we tune them out. Sometimes we change the channel. Then we stop hearing the voice. Quiet at last! Until the ambulance comes and we wake up momentarily and notice what we've done or not done.

Didn't mean it. Oh, there were opportunities. It wasn't all our fault. There were other factors involved. He was overweight. He didn't take care of himself. Not our fault. No officer's fault either according to the Grand Jury. No True Bill.

We heard but we didn't listen. Haunted:
  • I'm minding my business, officer.
  • I'm minding my business.
  • Please just leave me alone.
  • I told you the last time, 
  • Please just leave me alone.
  • Please, please don't touch me.
  • Do not touch me...
  •  
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.
  • I can't breathe.