28 August 2015

When Truth Is Cruel We Talk Our Way to Justice

I shared this D'var Torah with the BYFI list.  Enjoy.  Shabbat Shalom
Reading through this week's Torah portion, Ki Tetze, with the many commandments and injunctions about proscribed behavior in wartime as depicted through the perspectives of our ancestors, one is reminded of the Tradition's unique capacity for remaining totally relevant to our own lives.  While the words of Torah are ancient, its ethical dimension is eternal and ever-renewable.  Though spoken long ago atop Mt. Sinai, they still matter today.  How could they not?
The human capacity for cruelty ought to humble, if not shame us; and so at the very least our Torah seems to be teaching us that given the reality of our existence, we ought also to create rules for engagement, not just in the best of times but the worst of times.  Sure, wouldn't it be great if our most sacred book was only wonder and poetry and beauty and peace!  Alas, we come from a people who count among their greater contributions to religious discourse the ability to wrestle with what it means to be human and to strive for justice and righteousness as an act of covenantal responsibility as Jews.  
Edgar Bronfman's famous story about learning Talmud for the first time, later in his life, comes to mind.  At first glance he found the laws described in this week's parsha to be outmoded.  Who cares about oxen and asses or birds in their nests?  How is this relevant to us?  But as Edgar plowed deeper into the dialogue, he found himself facing ultimate questions of justice.  And as a non-believer, he often said that this gave him entree to generations of teachers and students who asked similar questions on the journey of building a better world.
I got to share that story again this summer on Bronfman with the 2015 Fellows against the backdrop of a particularly wrenching summer in Jerusalem.  From the first moments of orientation to our last goodbyes at Ben Gurion Airport, we were never far from the sounds of the world calling out to us, to our identities, to our history, demanding a response.  We arrived still in the shadow of Charleston and the cruel legacies of race and violence in America; we encountered speaker after speaker throughout the summer weighing in on and trying to come to terms with the many dimensions of the Iran deal and what it would mean for Israel, for America, for the Jewish people; and perhaps more than any other summer in my own experience as a Bronfman faculty member, we heard and shared the anguished thinking of Jews and Palestinians on the Right and on the Left, struggling to find the language and maybe even a new paradigm for the seemingly interminable impasse on the road to an ever-elusive peace.
In typical Bronfman fashion, we listened, argued, opened up ourselves to new perspectives, and pushed our boundaries of comfort and ease with who we were as Jews in an effort not so much to know but to understand; not to be right but to be judicious; not to win but to be kind.  If you think I sound pollyannish, that's okay.  All I'm saying is that when you see twenty-six Fellows' souls grow over the course of a summer, you have faith in the system and the ways in which its purposeful ambiguities spur us on to new depths of understanding.  To quote Rabbi Jim Diamond, of blessed memory, "If you're not confused, you're not thinking straight."  
If a man as great and successful as Edgar Bronfman could be confused about his relationship to the Tradition but then digs in, engages, and learns, it seems a worthy aspiration for us as well.  
Of course, and tragically, there are then times in which there is no confusion.  Times when the clear, blinding light of morality calls out for our voices to be lifted up, even as our hearts are torn in grief.  Because besides the stroke of genius in building BYFI around learning and dialogue, BYFI is centered in Israel, in the roiling, boiling living laboratory of Jewish history and identity.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no mere abstraction.  Its tenuous borders are within our grasp; a taxi driver's opinion about Iran or Obama or Bibi can be as nuanced and relevant as that from some of the most skilled diplomats. Plurality, diversity, triumphs and grievances all play out in loud and messy ways.  And while most of the time this dynamic serves a wonderful pedagogic end, at other times it shocks us into clear-eyed declarations of right and wrong.  No playful Bronfman ambiguity but hard truths that demand declaration.
A 16 year old girl, Shira Banki, was stabbed and killed marching in the Jerusalem Pride Parade.  That dark and cruel act was a gut-punch to the Fellows and the Faculty.  It stunned us into silence, sadness and shame, provoking anger that, through talking, we turned into love and the reified commitment to continue the struggle for the right to love as we love despite the twisted theologies of those who kill in the name of God.  And of course, no sooner did we begin to wrap our minds around the tragedy of the Pride Parade than we were forced to confront the outrageous and disgusting murders of Ali and Saad Dawabshah by Jewish extremists, hell-bent on terror and havoc wreaking.  Jerusalem yet again became the place where we as a people are commanded to explore not only the lofty, spiritual aspirations of our souls but the cruel evil expressions of our humanity as well.  
It turns out that when the Torah speaks of how one behaves when one is at war or conflict, it is, in the words of the Sages, "speaking human language."
And so it was, with human language, that we kept up our talking and learning and understanding, even with tragedy in our midst, because to quote Bryan Stevenson, who quoted Martin Luther King, who quoted Theodore Parker, "The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward Justice."  We weren't meant to figure it all out this summer; but for BYFI, we know that the more we talk and the more we learn and the more we understand, the closer we get to where we need to be going.
Isaiah seems to intuit this in the Haftarah for Ki Tetze.  "In slight anger for a moment I hid My face from you; But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love."
It was a meaningful summer; it had moments of depth and beauty and hilarity and yeah, even cruelty.  But the journey we took together, the road we traveled, was one constructed on a commitment to upholding one another's inherent integrity and individuality, as part of a people, rooted in a Tradition that demands, especially in the face of abhorrent acts of evil, that we show our faces to one another in kindness and love.  
It seems to me to be a legitimate way to get to justice.  But hey, that's me.  Feel free to argue.  That's the Bronfman tradition.
Shabbat Shalom

15 August 2015

From Shore to Shore

This morning's NY Daily News carried the alarming news, recently released by Mayor de Blasio's office, that complaints about the homeless to the city are up 59%.  This number reflects data from 311 calls to the city's information line and is comprised mostly of calls made by city residents' own objections to illegal encampments or homeless people in need of assistance.  There are disputes among officials about whether homeless is going up or down in the city and as the article states, the city hopes to take a census later in the summer to determine this more definitively.  And long term there is the structural attempt to create more shelters and more affordable housing, which will require a joint city and state effort--hopefully not too herculean a task, given the oft-times tense bickering that moves up and down the Taconic between Albany and New York City.

Stories like this flesh out in more focus the complications inherent to so many cities and articulated as cogently as usual by the News' Harry Siegel, in a piece he wrote this week called "The Architecture of Segregation," where Siegel decried the painful and shameful reality that the "poor are getting poorer," especially in the smaller cities of America.  This creates a situation, Siegel writes, "which often means bad schools, lousy services, and a lot of crime and policing."  He backs up his argument with data and analysis from the Century Foundation.  It's worth a look.

It's true, isn't it? -- that we don't just live where we live but in fact we live, with some perspective, in an ever expanding circle of connectedness.  Choosing to know the brokenness of others' lives requires a willful opening of the eyes, hand and heart.  Easy as it may be to ignore -- to look the other way, to close our hands and harden our hearts, is an ignorance we exercise at our own peril.

It can make all the difference between living in a society rooted in a sense of blessing or mired in the dissonance of curse.  The world we live in today often seems to suspend us in that place, between the starkness of the good and evil everywhere and especially when, powerless as we may feel in the face of it, we don't know which way the scales will tip.  There is so much work to do.

The blessings and curses of faith are made manifest when extreme fanaticism and the desire to do good collide.  While I'm all too aware of the justified skepticism out there for the certainty of religious truths in an age of rising and violent fundamentalism, I'm also a strong believer in the power of faith and religious narratives to do enormous good.

"If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Eternal your God gives to you, do not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother; rather, you must surely open your hand to him and lend him sufficient need for that which he lacks," warns Moses in Deuteronomy 15: 7-8.  He continues, "For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall surely open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land.'"

It's a curious challenge, isn't it?  A seemingly perfect God creates a land to be inhabited by fallible human beings who, by definition, will always have poor living among them.  Is it as simple an equation to posit that the main reason there are poor among us is because of the choices we make as people?

Stay with this notion:  Poverty is a choice--for those who are poor and for those who live among the poor.  Each of us bears responsibility for changing the situation.  One cannot simply lift oneself up and out with a helping hand; and when can not simply bestow largesse and expect an instantaneous transformation from destitution to success.  It takes two, back and forth, together, in an endless, ongoing commitment to the continual commitment to eradicate injustice from the world.

"The poor shall never cease out of the land."  So don't get tired.  Or rest up when you need to.  We're in this for the long haul.

The Rabbis embrace this notion.  They understand, in most commentaries to this section of Torah, only in a perfect world, with everyone doing good deeds all the time, is the eradication of poverty possible.  We humans, they long concluded, are responsible for our own souls as well as making up for the lack of generosity in others.  I'm reminded of a great story Bryan Stevenson tells in his book Just Mercy about sitting with Rosa Parks and talking to her about all he was going to do bring justice to those mistreated or wrongly accused.  Expecting her praises for his ambition, he was humorously humbled by her pronouncement that this work would make him "tired, tired, tired."  Johnnie Carr, another woman who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, added, "And that's why you've got to be brave, brave, brave."  You can watch Bryan's Ted Talk here.

It's takes an act of moral courage, daily, to open one's hand and heart to the poor.  It requires an exercise in muscular control to open a fist, to allow for warmed blooded flow of compassion to keep our hearts soft and responsive.  It begins within and emanates outward.

Maimonides, who famously conceptualized giving and the creation of justice in society as a ladder of progression, wrote about these verses in his Mishneh Torah, "The poor person who is in your family takes precedence over all others who are in need and the poor person of your house takes precedence over your town and the poor person of your town takes precedence over other towns, as it is said, 'to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy in your land."

It's a brilliant and challenging read on an already challenging text.  Charity--or the establishment of justice--begins at home, some say; but the Rambam would argue it only begins at home--it then moves, in ever expanding circles, outward to the rest of the world.  Like waves in an ocean, deeds of goodness, kindness of open hands and hearts, beating back poverty from shore to shore.

12 August 2015

Skeptically Enwrapped

During the High Holy Days of 2013, I decided to share a personal sermon about the ways in which I struggled mightily with my faith during the year that my mother died after a seven year fight against cancer.  As an experience, it was easy to write and hard to deliver, so weighted with emotion and an inner terror that I was revealing too much to those in attendance who, on the holiest day of the year, look to their rabbis for stability, promise, and depth of faith.

But I knew I couldn't stand before them and "confess" as the tradition demands of us as the service leaders; I knew I couldn't represent the community with integrity, through the agency of liturgical drama, without total honesty.  After all, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem in ancient days, the High Priest would confess his own sins before God along with those of the community and so one of the sacrifices I needed to lay on the altar of our community's offering was my own doubt.  I knew, both intuitively and from numerous conversations with members over the years, that doubt plagues all of us.  Many look right past it and build structures of meaning in their lives beyond faith; others double-down on faith in order to crush or silence the doubt; and still more look into doubt's face, call God into question for the experience of His seeming absence and decide, as I had, to fight back.

One morning, unaware of the obvious tension and anger coursing through my hands and arms and head -- the wrapping hands, the leathered arm, the in-between eyes squinting into the glare of endless questions bound up in obligation to God -- but cognizant of my place at the frontline of this battle, the leather strap of the tefilin snapped in my hands.  I pulled so hard at that tenuous connection that it broke.

I rooted the rupture in an incident 18 months earlier.  My brother and I were bathing our mother from the devastation that the chemotherapy had wrought on her fragile body.  I felt radically loving toward her and furious with God.  The tear of the tefilin straps represented for me true doubt.  Here's what I wrote:

That’s when my Atheism crept in.  

I began to allow myself to rebel.  My brother was silent and devoted and I was furious at God for allowing such a kind and decent person to suffer.  Not just now at the end of her life but at the beginning.  And in the middle.  The famous Talmudic legend of the Messiah cleaning and bandaging the wounds of the sick at the gates of the city fell flat.  I took off my Tefilin.  I stopped praying.  I felt like a fraud and a fake leading services on Shabbat.  I wondered if families knew?  If there was a Golem like ALEF on my forehead, seen by all.  “Mi chamocha be’elim?”  Who is like you among the gods? sang Bnai Yisrael after their escape from Egypt.  But the Sages, having witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, said, “Mi chamocha be’ilmim?”  Who is like you among the deaf?  You, God, ignore suffering.  You’re powerless to stop it.  And I joined that accusation.
It was there I remained.  If not atheist, certainly agnostic.  Too wounded to speak to God.  The bindedness of obligation a shadow, at best.  The funeral I ran on fumes. The high of seeing family and old friends, of the absorption into sympathy.  I said Kaddish at my grandparents shul in Milwaukee and came back to Brooklyn to the embrace of this generous and remarkable community.  The outpouring of support was fundamentally beautiful and restorative.  But my faith was shattered.

The torn Tefilin strap from the arm; the ש for God's name on the head Tefilin transformed to the monstrously destructive א of the Golem.  I was in new, terrifying territory.


My friend Rabbi David Kedmi told me at Shiva that "when our parents die, we still have Moses our Teacher to talk to."  And that line sustained me.  Teaching and doing deeds of lovingkindness were the floor beneath my feet.  My friend Mishael Zion reminded me that sometimes our job is not to wait for God to seek us out but for us to demand for God's presence in His absence.

I weighed these two ideas in the balance for the better part of two years and then finally decided this summer in Jerusalem that it was time for a new set of Teflilin.  I met a wonderful Sofer named Steve Bar Yakov Gindi, a member of the Syrian Jewish community from Brooklyn who has been living in Israel for many years now.  We spent the better part of two hours together over three visits, talking, laughing, and, at his urging, creating the Tefilin together.

There was something so irreducibly reparative about fulfilling this mitzvah, of helping to write and sew together the material that would then, after a three year absence, bring me back in to conversation with God.

Here are couple of photographs from our sessions.

Adding crowns to the letters of the Shma

Securing one scroll with calve's hair

The finished product
On the day the Sofer delivered to me the Tefilin, an oppressively hot Jerusalem Tuesday, with our staff and Fellows still reeling from the horrific killings at the Gay Pride Parade and in the Palestinian village of Duma, each of us searching high and low for God in what seemed like an exceptionally cruel world, I began to share with the Bronfman Youth Fellows this story of the Tefilin.  And while sitting in front of these outstanding, searching, kind-hearted seventeen year olds, I remembered back to my own youth, to a story that Abraham Joshua Heschel tells in his book about the Hasidic masters Baal Shem Tov and Menachem Mendl of Kotzk and their divergent views about God's nearness to man.  The book is called A Passion for Truth.

Heschel tells the story of his friend "Mr. Sh. Z. Shragai," a Jewish Agency representative who traveled back to Poland and German after the Holocaust to facilitate the movement of Jews from Displaced Persons Camps to either Israel or other places willing to take these refugees from the horrors of the war.  Shragai described to Heschel that a poor Jew, with a small sack, joined him in his train car as they traveled from Warsaw to Paris.  Each evening and morning, Shragai would pray but the poor Jew refused.  When asked why he said, "I am never going to pray anymore because of what happened to us in Auschwitz...How could pray?  That is why I did not pray all day."

But when Shragai woke up the following morning, he noticed that the man had gotten up first and was wearing Tallis and Tefilin, saying his prayers.  When Shragai asked what happened, he replied, "It suddenly dawned on me to think how lonely God must be; look with whom he is left.  I felt sorry for Him."

How lonely God must be.  With our disdain for his absence and those among us whose disdain for others absence Him.

Part of faith, I have come to realize, is comprised of the component pieces of explaining things to ourselves and others, and building worlds upon those bricks, those truths.

If God was anywhere when my mother suffered, He was in the hands and hearts of her daughters and sons and family and caregivers who helped usher her, compassionately, to the door of death.  If God was anywhere when Shira Banki was stabbed and killed in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, He was present in the moral outrage at the murder, at the civic failure in not tracking a dangerous, fanatical man; and in the fearless expressions of hope and love for all those who love, regardless of who they love.  And if God was anywhere when members of the Dawabshah family were killed by fire at the hands of evil youth deluded in their thinking that they were fulfilling God's will, God was in the still small voices of compassion and love and condolence as well as in the moral outrage that justice must be done.

To carry out such acts in the name of Torah is to erase God's name from our holiest of books.

Having come back in to conversation following a three year protest, my faithfully fragile certainties are bruised and battered.  But wrapped in words worn and spoken by those who generations came before me, provides a humbling comfort.

One of the verses from Torah in Tefilin speaks of placing the words of God's oneness "on" our hearts, not "in" our hearts.  The Kotzker Rabbi, writes Heschel, explained that it is absurd to think one can have Truth "in" one's heart--given that our hearts are often such compromised and troubled places. Rather, he said, Truth should be like a stone "on" our hearts because there were moments when the heart opened up and if the Stone of Truth was there, those words might seep in.  Heschel said, "One could become a different person, one realized what to do, what to correct...and the words were absorbed into one's very being."

The Stone of Truth on my heart demands an expression of gratitude for friends, family and teachers, who listened, as we all must, when one seeks repair.  The Stone of Truth demands as well, especially for those in our world whose hearts are hardened in hatred and who do acts of evil in the name of their god, that Truths are spoken neither thrown, whetted at the end of a knife, or set ablaze by delusion. I pray, skeptically enwrapped, with words again on my heart, that we may merit finding a path to peace.