04 March 2016

History Matters

I had the honor of teaching a noon-time program at City College yesterday in the Jewish Studies Department, a kind of sneak preview of the full semester course I'll be giving on "Jews and Social Justice" next September.  The hour-long preview was an excuse to share some background on the varieties of events that led to Rabbi Joachim Prinz's moving and historic speech that he gave to those attending the March on Washington in 1963.  Of course, it's a speech unknown to many Americans because Rabbi Prinz, a refugee from Nazi Germany and activist rabbi in his adopted homeland, was sandwiched between the stirring music of Mahalia Jackson and the earth-shattering brilliance of Rev Dr Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.  Mere mortals are to be forgiven their forgetfulness.  

Teaching in this esteemed bastion of public education has been a long-held dream and I felt a particular fealty to the role coming from a great public university in the Midwest, my beloved University of Wisconsin-Madison.  After all, it was in Madison where I first really learned, as George Mosse taught us, that "history matters."  And that the facts arrayed in a pattern have the power to tell a story about seeing the contemporary world through the vital refractions of the teachable, knowable past.

So the goal was trace patterns of migration--Central European Jews coming to America in the mid-nineteenth century; Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow; the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacist movements (are you listening Donald Trump?); the next great wave of immigrants, including more than three millions Jews, between 1880 and 1920 and therefore the first mass encounters between Jews and Blacks; and the birth of the modern Civil Rights movement, including the founding of the NAACP, which during the odious period of lynchings in the United States, would regularly hang the above banner from its 5th Avenue office until 1938 and which one can now see in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  Students were fascinated to hear about birth of Jewish rights organizations as well, like the ADL, the American Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee, among others, who adopted partnerships with Black organizations in the shared efforts to ensure that America's values would hew true to those embedded in our foundational civic documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  

Because "history matters" I shared stories about Julius Rosenwald, whose philanthropy built more than 5000 schools throughout the Black South; about the lynching of Leo Frank; of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi; and the famous "footnote 11" in Brown v Topeka, the landmark Supreme Court case that threw out "separate but equal," finally undoing Plessy v Ferguson, which had encoded legal segregation in the United States for sixty years.  "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."  Truer words never spoken.

"Footnote 11" allowed me to get personal, because my mentor Naomi Levine, who was a staff attorney at the American Jewish Congress at the time, worked on the legal strategy and the various sociological and psychological research initiatives, made most famous by Dr. Kenneth Clark's, which demonstrated, unequivocally, that segregation was causing social and psychological damage to Black children.  I even called Naomi the night before the talk to rouse her into more anecdotes and let me tell you, at 92 years old she is still firing on all cylinders!

Naomi and her colleague at the Congress, Phil Baum, also helped Rabbi Prinz (who was President of the American Jewish Congress at the time) craft his remarks.  They were titled "The Most Tragic Problem is Silence."

You can see Prinz deliver the speech on film at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis--at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated--and you can listen to it online, here, which we did.  

In stirring, prophetic prose, through eloquent English in a German accent, Prinz argued that the greatest sin he experienced in fleeing Germany was not Nazism but that "the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence."  

I let that claim hang there, as it should, before emphasizing for clarity the critical notion that at various stages in history, our silence in the face of oppression is our greatest sin as a nation.  And that especially today, in an election where terrible, threatening, mean-spirited and even violent words are spoken against people from all backgrounds (and often the most vulnerable) we must be vigilant, cognizant, and be willing to take the risks necessary to not remain silent.

To tell one small story of two peoples with a history of suffering and triumph in the face of oppression, finding ways to work together to advance the cause of justice, especially now, is so important.

History matters, indeed.  

And so do our voices--of all races, faiths, nationalities and backgrounds--lifted up together, bending our moral universe and political arena away from hatred and toward a kind and compassionate foundation in justice.

02 March 2016

My Sack of Duties and Comforts

After a long break, I'm back.

For ten years, this blog has been a mechanism for sharing my thoughts and teaching in a transparent way as possible while setting out to build community.

It started when we founded Brooklyn Jews; continued for the nearly ten years that I served CBE as their senior rabbi; and then I decided to go dark.  Hunker down.  Do some deep thinking.  I've read a lot and am learning to relax by reading the meditations of Thich Nhat Hanh.  He sure seems like a righteous fellow.

Part of that process has been looking back on the journey--not just the meanderings and achievements in Brooklyn but to explore my thinking and development as a college student in Madison; on my first trip to Israel; in graduate school at NYU; and then rabbinic school.

I've learned a lot about myself:  my restlessness; my impatience; my earnest moral voice; my righteous anger, good humor, and pathological need to be honest, even when it gets me in trouble.

On balance, I learned I'm not a bad guy.  But clearly, I could be better:  a better husband; a better dad; a better brother; a better friend; even a better citizen of our troubled, confused and angry land.

Anyway, easing back in here, I thought I'd share an exchange from the spring of 1994.  Twenty one years ago if you do the math.  It's an excerpt from a theology class I took at Hebrew Union College as part of my rabbinic training, taught by the late Eugene Borowitz.  Dr. Borowitz, as he was reverently called, died recently.  He was the last standing giant of liberal Jewish thought in the United States and in an era of DIY and Indie Minyans, we're not likely to see another systematic thinker in quite some time.  He was a daring writer and famously, with many other rabbis, put his life on the line in June 1964, jailed with other clergy for protesting abuses toward Black Americans during the Civil Rights protest era.  You can read his moving letter from St. Augustine here.

Anyway, Dr. Borowitz's class required of us our reading the assigned material and writing a response, to which he would respond in turn.
I found the following exchange from April 14, 1994 to be particularly illustrative of this unique teacher-student relationship, noted by many for its vigor and candor.

A rabbinic student writes:
"I sometimes feel like a monkey in a jungle, swinging back and forth between branches of mercy and despair.  The readings on the Holocaust have made me climb those ropes (sic); the climb itself testing my strength, challenging my optimism, shaking the foundations of my faith.  Mercy:  there is pain in life, injustice, cruelty.  That I know such things, from experience and observation, can often necessitate for me the imperative that I act morally and ethically and that I ground my faith and actions in God.

And then, on the opposite side of the spectrum, is the continued existence of evil--evil of every imaginable variety.  And I begin in waver.  Despair:  never really seeing change or knowing change. But sensing that headlines melt into one another, life itself becomes murky, redundant, too accepting of the "banality of evil."

And finally, maybe the problem is the the very paradigm I have employed:  Maybe it's not a spectrum I should consider but a whole--LIFE'S WHOLE--and in so doing accept mercy and despair as two elements seemingly opposite but part of the whole of life.  Distinct, separate elements held together loosely.  Here Rosenzweig is helpful in maintaining the separate realms via channels.

And here also Cohen is ultimately not satisfactory, somehow not allowing for radical evil, since ethical striving is an infinite enterprise.  Or is that despair in its truth?  Do I object because I fear it? Do I despair the potential admission that the ethical strivings infinite enterprise forces me to face a different, less comfortable, more difficult reality--where suffering may have a place if it comes as the consequence of one's ethical striving missing the mark?

In bouncing between mercy for and despair in myself, I postpone deciding to say what I really think. Help."

Borowitz responds:
"I must fail you here.  I know no theoretical, therapeutic or practical way to end the dialectic of facing life openly--idealistically & realistically at the same time.  I agree with you on Cohen, for he had such confidence in human capacity that he felt we could handle an infinite truth and even make progress.  I am quite a chastened liberal on that issue, enough so to say that my sense of hope ultimately derives from there being a good God in the universe.  And that is the source of my messianism.  And like all such believers I must find a resolute way not to turn my eye (&hand) away from the multitude of sickening and evil-doing that is so often part of our every day news.  Yet try as I do, I often find the ubiquity of sin outstrips my will to realism.  So I am caught, for the moment, in the same dialectic you know.  And then I pick up my sack of duties and comforts & try to move on."

A find piece of wisdom then.  And an even better one today.  Thank you, Dr. Borowitz.  May your rest with the wise be rich in comfort and ever more learning.