28 May 2014

Let's Go to Washington for Gun Control

This is a tired routine, isn't it?  But not so tired that we can't shake it up a bit, right?

A shooting rampage.  Senseless deaths.  Moral outrage.  Opposing teams on their own side of the 2nd Amendment barricades.  And then the vast, amorphous medium of nothingness swallows any hope of meaningful legislation.  Until the next time, when those granted the blessing of time are robbed of their time by another outburst of powder, lead and steel.

We keep signing petitions.  Tweeting our elected officials.  Expressing our anger wherever we can.  But you know what I know what we all know:  Nothing happens until we throw the bums out.  Remove from office those officials and representatives who will not have the courage to stand up for a proper and moral and historically accurate understanding of the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution.  As Michael Waldman has been arguing in his description of the House debates of 1789--225 years ago!--"Twelve congressman joined the debate.  None mentioned a private right to bear arms self-defense, hunting or for any purpose other than joining the militia."  Individual rights, he noted, have trumped the public good of self-defense.

Truly Originalist readers of the U.S. Constitution know this.  Paradoxically, it will rely upon citizens like us to restore the Framers' original intent in order to pass the laws necessary to save future lives that, with our unforgivable inaction, will continue to be lost.

Michael Bloomberg, upon leaving office as Mayor of New York City, has vowed to invest millions of his own personal wealth in the cause of removing from office those who won't pass strong gun control and replacing them with legislators who will.

Let's start with a March on Washington.  Too young to be present for the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights, I was old enough to be present in 1987 with 250,000 others to help free Soviet Jewry.  I occupied the state capitol in Madison to support divestment and end Apartheid in South Africa.  A rally won't do it but it's a start.

Our synagogue in Brooklyn has 1000 families.  That's more than 3000 people.  I bet we could get several hundred people to spend a day Washington, DC, filling the National Mall, walking the halls of Congress, and standing on the steps of the Supreme Court and letting those justices and elected officials know that the time for meaningful gun control is now.

So what do you say Michael Bloomberg, Everytown, Moms Demand Action, Brady Campaign, New Yorkers Against Gun Violence?  Are my elected officials listening?  If we need to come closer to tell you, we will happily oblige.  My hand is on the phone.  The buses are coming.

Are we doing this or not?

I'm ready.  Are you?

27 May 2014

Hope Can Gladden the Heart

A friend recently gave us a bottle of wine--a 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape--that was quite delicious.  We drank it while preparing dinner, listening to news on the radio, and glancing here and there at headlines as they came on various refreshed news sites I habitually track all day.  Kidnapped Nigerian teenage girls; another violent day in the Ukraine; the denial of global warming's evidence; and some kid, again, with his hands on a gun.  Our dog Nathan gets up, meanders about, and finds a new spot on the floor.  Maybe this time, he figures, something will change. 

It often doesn't.  Or it least not in any immediate, discernible way.  Which can be frustrating.  Despite man's penchant for the urgent and exacting measurements of reality's existence, Time, alas, is its own master.  Perhaps this is the reason, as King David taught, that "wine gladdens the heart."  It eases us into a more compliant stance with Time and its corollary, Aging, bending us toward the wisdom of its will.

Right and Left.  Believers and Atheists.  Democrats and Dictators.  Each race against, bargain with, at times even attempt to out-wit Time.  

But not too much wine.  "Better a good name than good oil, and better the day of death than the day of one's birth," said Kohelet.  "Better to a house of mourning than to the bar, for that is the end of all men and the living may take the lesson to heart."

With each death--in Santa Barbara, in Jerusalem, in Nigeria, in Brooklyn--we think it will be the final death, the final time, to learn the lesson and get it right.  But we keep on learning, don't we?  And trying.  Over and over again.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape means the "Pope's New Castle," from a time in papal history more than 700 years ago, when Pope Clement V moved the center of papal power to Avignon and a new wine was dedicated in celebration of this blessed event.

The Pope's New Castle.  A fortress becomes a wine that gladdens the heart.  The ironies of Time.  I thought of this all weekend long, watching Pope Francis arrive in Bethlehem, touching his head to the Separation Barrier, the Eastern Wall of Palestinian self-determination and the Western Wall of Israeli security; giving honor to the Palestinian dream of statehood; secreting his own prayer in the infinite space of hope in the Kotel; deploring the Holocaust; laying a wreath at Herzl's grave.  I wondered if young Herzl, writing about the Dreyfus Affair more than a century ago, drank the Pope's wine as he penned the words to the Jewish State that launched Zionism.  I beamed with pride at seeing in an email that the Pope visited Jewish and Palestinian kids at Hand in Hand, a school in Jerusalem I've come to know and love.

I marveled all weekend long, from the safe distance of Brooklyn, at a man's imagination:  for so quietly, so simply, and with such grace and dignity, giving voice to Jewish and Palestinian aspiration.  This can happen on occasion.  It can shift discourse, however briefly, to hope.

It takes a long time to change the world.  But hope, like wine, can gladden the heart.

02 May 2014

Speaking Words of Peace

Sibling rivalry, they say, is as old as the hills.  As old as the very hill that Cain and Abel brought their gifts to, only to have Abel's accepted and Cain's rejected, resulting in the first murder of God's newly minted world.  This spurning of Cain triggered a sequence of events that ended with a killing and banishment, a disastrous destruction path of fugitive wandering that would last, for Cain and his progeny, for generations.

Was Cain's gift faulty from the start?  Could he have done something better, something different, dug deeper into his own soul to find what it was that would have truly been a gift to give?  Was his generosity false?  His giving facetious?  A feigned attempt to curry favor, gain an advantage, only to use it for his own edification and uplift?

The text provides a clue, embedded in Cain's emotional reaction, non-verbal, and God's spoken response.  "Why art thou wroth?  And why is thy countenance fallen?  If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up?  And if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it."

Cain is told a difficult lesson.  One of the most difficult lessons for any of us to learn:  When people say good things about us or when we achieve something worthy of someone's praise, we are proud and our faces show it.  But when we don't achieve; when we miss the mark; when we offer what is wrong, we sometimes run the risk in our own lives of the degenerative power of self-destruction.  Losing control, our anger and resentment control us.

Not a good situation, I'm sure you'll agree.

Once I sat with a dying man whose sons couldn't figure out how to get along in this critical moment in the family's history.  The brothers themselves had a history of a deep and bitter rivalry which was becoming an impediment to the ability of the family to move forward toward the ultimate of offerings--the return of a body to the earth from whence it came.  Key decisions like Burial and Cremation and Kaddish and Shiva and Minyans and Food and Mirrors Being Covered were, initially, as weapons of mass destruction, like primordial ancient objects, the hurled rocks of Id and Super Ego contending for the higher of the sacred offering.

Not a good situation, I'm sure you'll agree.

But a beautiful thing happened as the result of talking.  Everyone listened.  Harsh words were exchanged along with loving words.  Difficult things were said and were followed by words of compromise and comfort.  Space was created, in the rocky terrain of verbal and emotional cultivation that equalized what each brother had to offer, making both gifts acceptable to the Greater Cause.

This week's Parsha states:   "And the Eternal said unto Moses:  Speak to the the priests the sons of Aaron and say to them, 'There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people.'"

Now granted, the text here is primarily concerned with the fear of contamination, not an insignificant concern in the ancient world, far removed from our own era's contemporary professional practices of cleanliness in dealing with the dead in our current age.  (Of course, this has its own extremes, bound up in a troubling distancing that we create from the death experience by outsourcing to skilled professionals, housing in marginal areas of society, and not fully facing the inevitable in a way that has taught generations of human civilization to face what we all must face:  our own demise.)

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but read the text as one which warned families not to "defile" themselves with unnecessary rivalry in the face of profound and uneasy but necessary choices that we all must make to help those we love close out our lives, say goodbye, make arrangements, and die.  Some experience the process of dying with violence in their hearts, tear open continental rifts in the territory of family, and destroy, sadly, tragically, irrevocably, the very bonds that generate and regenerate who and what we are.

 Two different teachers read this text quite creatively with regard to importance of speaking, of using words and language in order to alleviate unnecessary suffering and the risk, even the danger of evil or violence, coming from matters related to the dying and the dead.

"None shall defile himself," says the Magid of Mezerich, means that when they stand before their people, "they must be very careful not to defile their souls through haughtiness or personal concerns."  I see this over and over with families:  a peace-making which occurs when people sublimate their personal desires for the greater good of the family unit in dealing with a reality which reflects people personally as well as the corporate body of the family.  Sublimation of rivalrous views by talking, by speaking, by saying -- to echo the text -- allows for the space of compromise and shared offering to be sanctified.

Similarly, the Hozeh of Lublin writes that as in Torah text, the speaking that is done should be like the priests, sons of Aaron, who were known for their words of peace.  In speaking words of peace before the dying and the dead, in speaking words of peace in the family at the moments before the dying and the dead, peace becomes the altar upon which all subsequent sacrifices are made.

I had one such conversation recently with a family, where some challenging conflicts were averted by speaking to each other, sublimating, listening and making peace.  And to celebrate, we all shared a drink.  It was 5:30 pm, after all, the sun was setting, and moving toward peace was a moment worthy of celebration.  Most of us had a bourbon but the dying man had pinot grigio ice chips, small, infinitesimal molecular constructs of pleasure.  There was a break from his headache; a smile on his face; a plan for his end coming in to focus.  We asked, "How's the pinot grigio?"

And with a smile and raised brow he whispered, "Delicious."

01 May 2014

Let J Street In

When I was Hillel director at NYU, I was honorarily inducted in to the Jewish fraternity AEPi.  This was a particular honor since the organization had been founded at NYU in 1913.  Though my father and uncles were members of Jewish fraternities at UW-Madison in the 1940s and 1950s (where, like in the case of social discrimination on campuses across the country, frats and sororities for Jews were a kind of social necessity) I was never a member.  By the 1980s, universities and colleges across the country had opened up to Jews (with still poor records on advancement for African Americans) and Hillel was the place where I went for Jewish learning and nourishment, charitable work and service.  In fact, while a young professional at Hillel in Madison, we had to intervene on a couple of occasions with ZBT, another Jewish fraternity, who had obnoxiously sponsored a racist celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday.  Working with the Dean of Students, Hillel brought discipline against the chapter and forced sensitivity training, with the hope of changing the minds of these young impressionable students.

My induction into AEPi was part of a secret ceremony, the contours of which I simply couldn't reveal.  Fraternities, like most private organizations, have their ceremonious rites, after all.  And so with a wink and a nod, I occasionally meet someone who was in AEPi, share the secret handshake, and that is about the extent of my involvement in the cloaked world of Jewish privilege.

Speaking of cloaked worlds of Jewish privilege, I was disheartened and bemused by the confidential vote yesterday to deny membership to J-Street at the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.  A well-known and well-positioned player on the national scene and a vocal proponent of the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, Jeremy Ben Ami unquestionably leads a "major Jewish organization," certainly as major as AEPi, the American Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, Workmen's Circle, the Women's League for Conservative Judaism or any of the other organizations, listed HERE, that sit and deliberate on all matters Jewish.

But unlike fraternities, which are run as charitable but ultimately closed and sometimes (wink, wink) secret organizations, the Conference of Presidents plays an important diplomatic role, in national and international politics as well as in the media, representing broad Jewish views to the Jewish community as well as the greater world.

A cursory glance at the list of member organizations and a quick survey of media appearances, activity on Capitol Hill, and influence among young Jews on campuses across the country, would seem to mitigate toward placing J Street at the table of leaders of major Jewish organizations.  Jeremy Ben Ami, whether or not you agree with him, is undeniably a major voice on the issue of peace and security for Israel and the two-state solution.  He commands the attention of politicians, synagogue membership roles, and college students across the country.  And his positions consistently line up with where American Jews are in regards to Israel in poll after poll.

That J Street is denied a place at the table, by dint of a secret ballot, as reported in the Forward and elsewhere, seems to lack the kind of transparency that we have come to expect at this stage in the ongoing evolution of Jewish civilizational ideas.

For goodness sakes.  Even yesterday's vote in the Senate against the Minimum Wage (unjust and cruel, if you ask me) was transparent enough for us to see the Ayes and Nays so that we might prod, cajole and advocate further for some alleviation to economic inequality in our fair land.

Equal transparency is owed to us by the leaders of the Conference of Presidents.  Show us the vote.  Explain its justification.  Let us call the leaders who voted to deny entry to J Street.  Behind closed door deliberations in 2014 to deny a seat at the table for an American Jewish leader who has the ear of thousands is bad policy.

Jews young and old:  if you don't like the vote, let your voices be heard.  Call and Tweet the Conference.  Let them know how you feel.