Debating Israel/Palestine on Chicago Tonight

mezzanine_916.png.resize.768x432_0Last night I appeared on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight” with my friend and colleague Rabbi Andrea London to discuss the issue of Israel/Palestine in the wake of Netanyahu’s re-election. Andrea spoke to the J Street position while I represented the Jewish Voice for Peace point of view. Although the station tried repeatedly to find a local rabbi to represent the AIPAC line, none were willing to participate. I’m sad to report that several of the rabbis contacted cited my presence on the panel as the reason for their refusal.

On the other hand, I was so heartened that Andrea and I were able to model a principled and respectful Jewish communal debate on this issue and I was so grateful for her willingness to engage.  Click here to watch.


Building a Jewish Community of Justice: My Remarks from the 2015 JVP National Members Meeting

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I’d like to begin my remarks this morning with a verse from the Torah – it’s one of the central lessons at the heart of the Exodus story. It comes from the Burning Bush episode, when God reveals God’s self to Moses and tells him, “Now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them.” (Exodus 3:9)

Now regardless of your theology – or even if you have a theology at all – I think there is a very profound lesson being taught to us by this verse. In a way, it provides us with a kind of physics approach to understanding liberation. Throughout human history, we have seen these moments – the moments when the experience of a community’s oppression reaches a tipping point. They invariably come when a community’s oppression becomes impossible to ignore, when the cry and the outrage becomes too great; when it becomes impossible to look away. It is at these critical moments in which the process of liberation inevitably begins.

I think of this lesson often when I think about the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace and the Palestinian solidarity movement over the past few years. It is sobering to contemplate, but it’s true: most of the significant periods of growth of our organization have occurred as responses to devastating human tragedy. We all know how JVP has grown so dramatically in the wake of the tragedy of this past summer. I myself became actively involved in JVP following Israel’s military assault on Gaza in 2009-09. In truth, the growth of our movement has been exponentially linked to the cries of the oppressed. Perhaps it has ever been thus.

During my remarks to you this morning, I’d like to offer a few brief meditations on how we at JVP might take advantage of this moment – this time which is clearly so critical in the movement for justice in Israel/Palestine. Specifically speaking, I want to take my cue from JVP’s recent strategic plan, in which our leadership set our organizational goals for the next 3 to 5 years. I’d like to use two of these formal goals in particular as a frame; and use them to offer you a few thoughts on this critical time for our organization and our movement – and where the journey might lead form here.

I’ll start with Goal #4: “Shifting Culture and Public Discourse:”

Changing the public discourse and shifting cultural understandings of what is happening in Israel/Palestine is a prerequisite for changing policy.

In short, we are attempting to change the narrative on Israel/Palestine. I think we all know how central narrative change is to the process of political transformation. Speaking personally, I know how transformative it was for me to embrace a new narrative on Israel/Palestine – and how absolutely key it was to my participation in this movement. It represented a fundamental shift – it meant abandoning, painfully, the liberal Zionist narrative that had been at the center of my Jewish identity for my entire life.

I’d like to read to you now from a blog post that I wrote on December 28, 2009 – exactly one year after the onset of Israel’s so-called “Operation Cast Lead.” Though I don’t know that I fully appreciated it at the time, this post was ultimately about the transformative power of narrative change:

As I read this post one year later, I remember well the emotions I felt as I wrote it. I also realize what a critical turning point that moment represented for me.

As a Jew, I’ve identified deeply with Israel for my entire life. I first visited the country as a young child and since then I’ve been there more times that I can count. Family members and some of my dearest friends in the world live in Israel.

Ideologically speaking, I’ve regarded Zionism with great pride as the “national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Of course I didn’t deny that this rebirth had come at the expense of another. Of course I recognized that Israel’s creation was bound up with the suffering of the Palestinian people. The situation was, well, it was “complicated.”

Last year, however, I reacted differently. I read of Apache helicopters dropping hundreds of tons of bombs on 1.5 million people crowded into a 140 square mile patch of land with nowhere to run. In the coming days, I would read about the bombing of schools, whole families being blown to bits, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated at all any more. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.

Of course I think we’d all agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is technically complicated. But at the same time I think we all know that at the end of the day, there is nothing complicated about persecution. The political situation in Darfur, for instance, is enormously complicated – but these complications certainly haven’t stopped scores of Jews across North America from protesting the human rights injustices being committed there. We do so because we know that underneath all of the geopolitical complexities, oppression is oppression. And as Jews, we know instinctively that our sacred tradition and own tragic history require us to speak out against all oppression committed in our midst.

I’d suggest that if there is anything complicated for us here, it is in possibility that we might in fact have become oppressors ourselves. That is painfully complicated. After all, our Jewish identity has been bound up with the memory of our own persecution for centuries. How on earth can we respond – let alone comprehend – the suggestion that we’ve become our own worst nightmare?

More than anything else, this is was what I was trying to say in that anguished, emotional blog post one year ago: is this what it has come to? Have we come to the point in which Israel can wipe out hundreds of people, whole families, whole neighborhoods and our response as Jews will be to simply rationalize it away? At the very least will we able to stop and question what has brought us to this terrifying point? Have we become unable to recognize persecution for what it really and truly is?

Those who know me (or read my blog) surely know that it has been a painfully challenging year for me. My own relationship to Israel is changing in ways I never could have predicted. Since I started raising questions like those above, I’ve lost some friends and, yes, my congregation has lost some members. If Zionism is the unofficial religion of the contemporary Jewish community then I’m sure there are many who consider me something of an apostate.

But at the same time, I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the large number of people I’ve met who’ve been able to engage with these questions openly and honestly, even if they don’t always agree with me. I suppose this is what I decided to do one year ago: to put my faith in our ability to stand down the paralyzing “complexities,” no  matter how painful the prospect.

One year later, I still hold tight to this faith.

When I wrote back then that my relationship to Israel had changed in ways I could never have predicted, I was openly acknowledging that my accepted narrative had shifted – and it led to life changes that are still ongoing for me. It certainly transformed the way I saw myself as a Jew and how I would do my work as a congregational rabbi.

But on a deeper sense, I think this narrative change transformed me on what I can only call a spiritually cellular level. It challenged me to reckon with the meaning of solidarity in its truest, most universal form. It reaffirmed that lesson that comes straight from the heart of the Exodus story; the story that teaches God hearkens to the cries of the oppressed and demands that we do the same. And it empowered me to speak my truth in unprecedented ways – as I put it in that blog post, “to stand down the paralyzing ‘complexities,’ now matter how painful the prospect.

I’ve also come to believe that narrative change is not only true on the personal, but on the political level as well. We know from experience that narratives which were formerly unthinkable can eventually become all too politically real. A big part of the challenge is learning how best to articulate our discourse; understanding when, where and in what ways it can be most effective.

The most challenging place to do this narrative changing work, I think we all agree, is within the mainstream Jewish community. And that brings me to Goal #1: “Challenging institutional Jewish communities.” Again I’ll quote:

We are challenging institutional Jewish communities to act on values of justice, and we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.

Having made a home in the institutional Jewish community for my entire adult life, I will say that I do believe there is important work to be done in engaging the Jewish establishment on this issue. When I started doing Palestinian solidarity work openly and unabashedly, I had been working in my congregation in Evanston for 10 years. And I take great heart in the fact that for the next 10 years, I was supported by my congregational leadership and by the majority of my congregants, even when many didn’t agree with me.

So yes, I believe there are indeed signs that we are seeing a nascent paradigm shift beginning in the Jewish community on this issue. Open Hillel is providing us with an inspiring important model of how to fight for a wide Jewish communal tent. This past summer, “If Not Now, When” showed us magnificently what principled Jewish communal dissent might look like. I don’t think it is a coincidence that both of these initiatives have been organized and led by young people – and this should give us very real hope for the future of this discourse in the American Jewish community.

At the same time, however, I don’t have any illusions about the ability of the Jewish establishment to be pushed to act on values of justice when it comes to Israel/Palestine. I have many rabbinical and Jewish professional colleagues who must remain in the closet about their work with JVP – because to make their affiliation would constitute a very real professional risk. There are actually JVP members at this very gathering who have to wear stickers on their name plates that say “no photos please” for fear that they might endanger or lose their jobs – a reality that should rightly appall each and every one of us.

So at the end of the day, I think we need to be realistic about the challenge before us when we talk about engaging the mainstream Jewish community on the issue of Israel/Palestine. It is and will continue to be a daunting and perilous task. And frankly: on a strategic level we need to be honest about how much time, energy and resources we need to spend trying to engage the Jewish institutional community on this issue.

Actually, when it comes right down to it, I’m much more excited by the second half of this Goal #1: we are paving the path toward justice-centered Jewish communities.

In this regard, I was so pleased and excited to hear Rebecca Vilkomerson talk during the opening plenum – and Cecile Surasky last night – about the ways JVP is creating a new and unprecedented form of Jewish community. For the remainder of my remarks, then, I’d like to explore what a justice-centered Jewish community might actually look like. I’d like to suggest a vision that is fundamentally, perhaps radically different than our customary notions of Jewish community.

I’d like to read an excerpt to you now from a Rosh Hashanah sermon I gave three years ago entitled, “Judaism With Tribalism.” Although I did not specifically intend it so at the time, I believe it promotes a vision I believe is deeply relevant to the kind of community we are trying to create here at JVP:

I know personally how hard it is for many of us to challenge our tribal Jewish legacy.  But as for me, I believe to my very core that whether we like it or not, our collective future will depend upon building more bridges, and not more walls, between peoples and nations.  I believe the most effective way for us to survive – the only way we will bequeath our traditions to the next generation – is to affirm a Judaism that finds sacred meaning in our connection to kol yoshvei tevel – all who dwell on earth.

I also believe this because I know that while Judaism certainly contains tribal and parochial teachings, it also has also a strong tradition of religious humanism – mitzvot that demand we love all our neighbors as ourselves.  After all, one of the first – and most powerful – teachings in the Torah is that human beings are created B’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God.  From the outset we learn that all human beings are equally worthy of respect, dignity and love – and, I would add, equally worthy of one another’s allegiance and loyalty.  Moreover, a key rabbinic concept, Kavod HaBriyot, demands that we ensure all people are treated with honor and dignity.  In a famous verse from the classic rabbinic text Pirke Avot, Rabbi Ben Zoma teaches: “Who is honored?  The one who honors all human beings.”

All are created in God’s image.  Honor comes to the one who honors all people.  To my mind, these are the strands of Judaism we must seek out and affirm in no uncertain terms.  In this day and age, when the fates of all peoples are becoming so very deeply intertwined, I believe we must consider values such as B’tzelem Elohim and Kevod HaBriyot to be among the most sacred of our tradition.

Perhaps we can also take our cue from these values in order to affirm a new kind of tribalism.  To forge “tribal” connections with others not simply because they happen to be Jews, but because they share our values of justice and equity.  In other words, I believe our ultimate loyalties should lay with the powerless, the vulnerable, the marginalized – and all who fight on their behalf.  Whether they happen to be Jewish or not – why shouldn’t we consider these to be the members of our most cherished tribe?

Here’s a personal example.  As a rabbi, I do a great deal of work with clergy, both inside and outside the Jewish community.  And over the years I’ve come to notice that the most meaningful and important community work I do is not necessarily exclusively with other rabbis.  When it comes to the values I hold most sacred, values of social justice, human rights, community service, I find myself working and finding common cause with clergy of many different faiths.  Some may be Jewish, some not, but it in the end it doesn’t really matter.  These are the ones I consider to be my primary faith colleagues – my primary clergy community.

In one sense, then, perhaps our most sacred religious values actually compel us to look past the feelings of tribal loyalty.  Needless to say, if we are going to do this on a communal scale, it’s going to take a radical shift in consciousness.  We’re going to have to step out from behind the walls we’ve built and understand many of our real sisters and brothers have been there all along.  And we will have to recognize that in the end, their hopes, their dreams and their suffering are irrevocably connected to ours.

I have no illusions that it would be a simple matter for the Jewish community to heed such a call. Having only recently emerged from the ghetto, still living with a collective memory of antisemitism, still reeling from the trauma of the Holocaust, it is no small matter to go beyond our own fears and feel the pain of the other as our pain as well.

To do this, I believe, we’ll have to construct a distinctly 21st century Torah – one that reflects a world in which the Jewish community has become inter-dependent with other peoples in profound and unprecedented ways.  One that lets go of old tribal assumptions and widens the boundaries of our tent in new and creative ways.

Perhaps we can start here: with a reconsideration of the Jewish value Ahavat Yisrael – Love of the Jewish People.  What do we really mean when we use this term?  Certainly it might mean an abstract sense of connection and kinship with other Jews throughout history and around the world.  And it’s true – we do feel a special connection to Jews we meet in unlikely places throughout the world.  It is also quite powerful to know that the words we pray and study are the same words have Jews prayed and studied for centuries.  But beyond this, what do we mean by Ahavat Yisrael?  What does it mean to love a culturally constructed community that includes people with whom we may or may not share basic, fundamental values?

In truth, the definition of who is a Jew has always been disputed – and what we call “the Jewish community” is more diverse and dynamic today than ever before.  It is also being increasingly enriched by the participation of many non-Jews who are marrying into the community.  So what do we mean when we talk about “Love of the Jewish People” when the very truth of our “peoplehood” is so complex and ever–changing?

I’d like to suggest that a deeper understanding of this value shouldn’t stop at love for just fellow Jews.  After all, while the word “Yisrael” does refer to the Jewish People, it also literally means “Wrestles With God.”  Seen thus, we might render “Ahavat Yisrael” as “Love for All Who Struggle.”  To love all who fight, as we have, for freedom and justice and tolerance in the world.  To stand in solidarity with those who struggle against tyranny and are beaten, imprisoned, tortured or killed for doing so.  To throw our allegiance to those who wrestle deeply for meaning in their lives; who seek to tear down the limits of religious dogma or ideological coercion.  These are the members of our tribe – perhaps our most sacred tribe.  And whenever we reach out to them and celebrate our inherent connection with one another here, around the world, or throughout history – that is truly when we fulfill the mitzvah of Ahavat Yisrael.

I realize that this new understanding might seem like radical change to many.  But in truth, the Jewish world is changing, as it has from time immemorial.  The only question before us is: will we have the courage to recognize these changes – and to see in them as a precious opportunity rather than as a threat to be fought at all costs.

Since I am no longer working a congregational rabbi, I am more mindful than ever that JVP is now my primary Jewish community. It is, truly, an unprecedented form of Jewish community: one that is based on the universal ethics of justice and liberation for all, not on the tired tribal boundaries of the past. If we are members of any tribe, it is the one that extends to include those who seek a better and more just world and are willing to work together to make it a reality.

This past summer, like so many of you, I was in deep anguish over the carnage Israel was inflicting on the people of Gaza. My anguish was all the deeper as I realized I was self-censoring my public voice due to the turmoil in my congregation. But if there was one redemptive Jewish moment for me last summer, it was thanks to JVP, when I participated in a Chicago chapter action that disrupted a Jewish Federation fundraiser in support of Israel’s war effort. Similar JVP actions were occurring around the country: which for so many represented critical Jewish voices of conscience during that dark, dark time.

While I did not participate in the actual disruptions, I was present in the hotel ballroom to give my fellow protesters support, to film the action taking place and tweet pictures of the disruptions as they unfolded. I will say that attending this event was beyond painful – to witness firsthand an organization that purported to represent my community cheering on Israel’s sickening violence as it was still ongoing. But when my friends finally stood up, pointed their fingers at Rahm Emanuel and Michael Oren and shouted, “We are Jews – Shame on You!” – at those moments, I truly felt that my Jewish soul had been given back to me.

I submit it is moments like these – and so many more – that demonstrate why we are all so proud to be part of this movement. I am so very proud to be standing here with you all. Now let us go together from strength to strength.


Living our Values: Quaker and Jewish Connections – Part 2

Quakers Demonstrating Outside the White House

Crossposted with “Acting in Faith”

In my previous post, I explored the ways that Quakers and Jews have been historically connected and proposed a deeper spiritual connection between our respective faith traditions. As a rabbi who now works for AFSC, I can say without hesitation that my spiritual life has greatly benefitted from my encounter with Quaker thought and practice. The more I dwell in these two religious communities, the more I am able to discern important parallels between them.

I’ve found particularly fertile ground in my study of Quaker Testimonies, which have clear commonalities with Jewish spiritual values. Here, then, are some excerpts from the AFSC booklet, “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” juxtaposed with parallel values from Jewish tradition. I present them with the hopes that such a consideration might point us toward a deeper place of Quaker-Jewish encounter, collaboration and solidarity.

Peace: Peacemaking at Home and Abroad

Friends oppose and refuse to engage in war and violence. In pursuit of lasting, sustainable peace, they seek to eliminate causes of violent conflict, such as poverty, exploitation and intolerance.

For us, peace is not just ending war or violence, but nurturing the capacity of individuals, communities, and societies to sustain harmonious relationships based on mutual respect and caring for the welfare of all. We seek to reconcile enemies and serve the needs of all sides torn by violent strife.

Shalom: The Pursuit of Peace

Jewish tradition is replete with commandments that exhort the pursuit of peace as a central religious precept. As the great Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel wrote, “Be disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them closer to Torah.”

While Judaism contains a vast repository of positions on the subject of war and peace, it is certainly possible to discern a distinct tradition of Jewish pacifism. In fact, Judaism itself was born out of an act of non-violent cultural resistance, when in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai refused to join the ill-fated Jewish revolt against Rome and instead negotiated to establish a center of Jewish learning in Yavneh. Ben Zakkai’s courageous rejection of Jewish violence enabled Judaism to survive and grow as a global religious faith. Moreover, throughout Jewish history, Jewish pacifism has been promoted by important figures such as Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret, Rabbi Judah Magnes, Rabbi Leonard Beerman, and Rabbi Everett Gendler, among many others.

Equality: Seeking Social Justice

Friends hold that all people are equal in the eyes of God and have equal access to the “inner Light.” This profound sense of equality leads Friends to treat each person with respect, looking for “that of God” in everyone.

AFSC supports the development of societies and structures that recognize the dignity of every person. We seek to work with all people in pursuit of justice – the economically impoverished and the materially comfortable, the disenfranchised and the powerful – inviting the Spirit to move among all these groups, making great change possible.

Tzelem Elohim - Humanity Created in the Divine Image

One of the central universalist values in Jewish tradition is the Biblical teaching that allof humanity is created in God’s image. In a celebrated classical Jewish commentary on the book of Leviticus, Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ben Azzai debate the central principle of Torah. Rabbi Akiba cites the verse from Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In response, Ben Azzai chooses the verse from Genesis 5: “When God created humankind, God created humankind in God’s image.”

Akiba’s approach is the more particularistic philosophy; according to him, Judaism is rooted in the idea that we should love those around us – our family, friends and community. Ben Azzai’s, citation, the other hand, holds that we should respect and honor all people whether we are in direct relationship with them or not. From this we learn that all people – regardless of religion, ethnicity, nationality, age, mental faculties, physical capabilities, etc. – are of intrinsic and inestimable value.

Integrity: Consistency in Word and Deed

In the AFSC community, we are committed to making our words, actions, and beliefs consistent. We “speak truth to power” – and to each other – even when it is difficult and our message may be unpopular. We deal honestly and fairly with colleagues and partners. We take responsibility for our actions and their results. We fulfill our commitments, and we give credit to others for their contributions.

Derech Eretz: The Way of the World

Derech Eretz  is often understood to mean “common decency,” its essential meaning is even more fundamental. A classic Jewish saying teaches: “Derech Eretz precedes Torah” – suggesting that even before we engage deeply spiritual behaviors such as prayer or study, we must first ensure that we are living lives of fairness and integrity.

The Jewish value of integrity is also deeply rooted to the prophetic ideal: i.e., “speaking truth to power,” even when (or especially when) that truth may well not be particularly popular. In the words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who famously commented after marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma:

For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.

Community: Living in Fellowship

At AFSC, we nurture relationships and partner with communities, believing that, in gathering together, people increase their strength, vision, wisdom and creativity. We accompany and support communities in their efforts to seek justice and improve their own lives and circumstances. Where people are divided, we strive to build bridges, encourage trust, and create spaces for dialogue and cooperation.

Kehillah - God in Community

In the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “Hermits and monasteries are noticeably absent from Jewish history; we are hopelessly communal people.”

According to the Talmud, “When two or three people study Torah, God is present.” Not only does this teaching reinforce the central importance of study; it illuminates the sacred nature of relationship itself. Quite simply, God is most immediately present in fellowship. The personal and political implications of this idea are powerful indeed.

Simplicity: Spirit-Led Restraint

In contemporary terms, Friends try to live lives in which activities and possessions so not get in the way of open and unencumbered communication with others and with one’s own spirituality. Clearing away the clutter makes it easier to hear the “still small voice within.”

In (AFSC)’s work, simplicity requires focusing our efforts on what is most important rather than diffusing our energies too broadly. In our personal lives, simplicity may mean limiting our consumerism – and resisting over-commitment, so that we have time to care for ourselves and to be present with one another.

Histapkut – Simplicity

These words remind me in particular of the values of Musar – a Jewish ethical movement that arose in Eastern Europe in the 19th century and has undergone something of a contemporary popular revival in recent years.

The importance of living a life of simplicity (in Hebrew: “Histapkut”) lies at the center of the Musar way of life. On this subject, the contemporary Musar teacher Rabbi Ira Stone has written powerfully:

Defined as temperance, Histapkut is often seen as embracing simplicity, being content with less. Not focusing on trying to fulfill never-ending needs and desires frees us to be fully present to the moment and available to the others in our lives…

(Histapkut) asks us to respond to the basic questions about our relationship to the acquisition of the material in our lives. “What is enough?” “Do I have enough?” “Can I choose to be content with less?” “What am I consciously choosing to acquire?”

Stewardship: Care for the Earth and Its Inhabitants

Friends strive to use God’s gifts wisely, with gifts conceived in the broadest of terms. These gifts include our talents and our possessions, as well as our natural environment. Friends believe that such gifts are not ours alone.

(At AFSC), we are attentive to conserving energy, recycling, and reducing waste. Concern for the ecosystem also leads us to strive to reduce our personal consumption and develop a simple yet adequate lifestyle.

Shomer Adamah/Ahavat Habriyot – Guarding the Earth/Love for All that Lives 

The importance of human stewardship over creation has deep roots in Jewish tradition. The very first chapter in the Torah makes it clear that the earth belongs to God and that humanity are its stewards. Judaism later expanded this idea to develop a host of commandments focused on the care of the earth and its creatures.

Judaism teaches us over and over again that acts of care for our natural world are among the most essential in our tradition. According to an oft-quoted classical Jewish commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes:

When God created the first human beings, God led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.

In this era of climate change and an ever-increasing reliance on fossil fuels, this sacred rejoinder has clear and obvious ramifications.

Though the examples above merely scratch the surface of a larger Quaker-Jewish inquiry, I offer them here in the hopes that they might offer us a useful place to start. Indeed, as I think more deeply about these Quaker-Jewish points of spiritual connection, I can’t help but hope that such an investigation might eventually take us to a place beyond simple interfaith dialogue.

Might this spiritual exploration have real movement-building implications for Jews and Quakers? I’m genuinely excited by the prospect.


A Rabbi at AFSC: Quaker and Jewish connections – Part 1

American Quaker Marjorie McClelland with Jewish refguee child, Vichy France (photo: Ha'aretz)

American Quaker Marjorie McClelland with Jewish refugee child, Vichy France (photo: Ha’aretz)

(Crossposted with Acting in Faith)

When I tell people that I’ve just started working for the American Friends Service Committee, some will inevitably scratch their heads and ask, “What is a rabbi doing working for a Quaker organization?”

Those who know me well, know enough not to ask. During my twenty-plus years as a congregational rabbi/activist, I’ve often worked alongside AFSC staff and progressive Quakers, particularly on the issue of Mideast peace and justice. I’ve cultivated a wonderful ongoing relationship with the Friends Meeting in my hometown of Evanston and have spoken there on more than one occasion. During the course of my travels throughout the peace and justice activist community in Chicago and beyond, I can say without hesitation that some of my best friends have been Friends.

For those who do ask, I explain that while AFSC is a Quaker organization, it is wonderfully multi-faith in its composition. I’m certainly not the first Jew to work for AFSC (nor am I even the first rabbi – my friend and colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb served as Co-Director of AFSC’s Middle East Program in San Francisco from 2007 to 2009). Since the announcement of my hiring, in fact, I’ve heard from increasing numbers of Jewish friends and colleagues who have told me of their involvement in AFSC in various capacities over the years.

Of course this connection is more than merely anecdotal; there are in fact important historical affinities between Quakers and Jews. During the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, our respective communities have been proportionally well represented in progressive movements of social change, particularly in the American civil rights and anti-war movements. Our faith communities are also historically linked by the heroic efforts of Quakers and the AFSC to help save thousands of European Jews during the Holocaust and to provide relief for scores of Jewish refugees in the war’s aftermath.

Quakers from AFSC handing out blankets in Gaza, 1948 (photo: AFSC)

Quakers from AFSC handing out blankets in Gaza, 1948 (photo: AFSC)

In more recent years, it would be fair to say that the Quaker-Jewish connection has become somewhat fractured over the Israel-Palestine issue. While this subject deserves consideration in another blog post, I will only say for now that I have long been dismayed at the hypocrisy of those in my community who applaud the Quakers’ work on behalf of Jewish refugees, yet bitterly criticize them for applying the very same values and efforts on behalf of Palestinian refugees. I would add as well that there are increasing numbers of Jews like myself who reject the nationalism/militarism of Zionism in favor of a Jewish vision that promotes peace with justice and full rights for all who live in the land. I do believe that this trend is providing an important new place of connection between Jews and Quakers – particularly among a younger generation of activists and organizers.

Beyond these historical connections, I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring a different form of Quaker-Jewish encounter: namely, the deeper spiritual commonalities between our respective faith traditions themselves. I do believe that this Jewish-Quaker connection transcends simple political affinity. In this regard, I’ve been particularly struck by Jews who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Jewish tradition while at the same time unabashedly embrace Quaker practice and spirituality.

For instance, Claire Gorfinkel, who worked for the AFSC for many years and attends both a Quaker Meeting and a Jewish synagogue, explored this territory memorably in her 2000 Pendle Hill pamphlet, “I Have Always Wanted to be Jewish – And Now Thanks to the Religious Society of Friends I Am.”

For Gorfinkel, the most critical point of commonality between these two faiths lies in their rejection of Divine intermediation as well as their powerful ethical traditions:

For both Quakerism and Judaism, God is directly accessible to the seeker, without need for priests or other intermediaries. God appears in the faces of our community and in the wonders of our natural world.

For both traditions, faith and the words we use are far less important than how we treat one another and our environment. Our human worth is measured in acts of loving kindness, “doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with your God.” (p. 31)

More recently, Jonathan Zasloff, a Jewish law professor at UCLA wrote a powerful piece for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal entitled, “Some of My Best Jews are Friends.” In his article, a commentary on Prophetic portion for the Sabbath of Hanukkah, Zasloff revealed that he regularly attends a Quaker meeting – and that the practice of silence “has deeply enhanced (his) Jewish practice.”

Contending that “silence and individual spiritual expression” are “absent from modern Judaism,” he suggested “there is no reason why Jews cannot adopt Quaker practice:”

Some form of silent worship has a long tradition in Judaism, one that our people has regrettably allowed to lapse. The Talmudic sages would “be still one hour prior to each of the three prayer services, then pray for one hour and afterwards be still again for one hour more.” (Moses Maimonides) interpreted this as silent motionlessness in order “to settle their minds and quiet their thoughts.”

As a Jew who also finds a comfortable spiritual home in the Quaker community, I’m encouraged and excited by these kinds of connections. In our increasingly multi-faith 21st century, I firmly believe it is time to seek out those places where we might lift up and celebrate our spiritual commonalities rather than simply fall back upon a religious tribalism for its own sake.

As I think more about potential areas of further Jewish – Quaker encounter, I am particularly intrigued by the parallels between Quaker Testimonies and Jewish religious values. Indeed, when I first read AFSC’s booklet “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” I was immediately struck by a myriad of connections – causing me to think more deeply about the similar ways these ideals have been understood and acted upon in unique ways by our respective faith traditions.

As I read through them, I’m struck by a number of questions. As a Jew who has found a comfortable home in the Quaker community, I wonder:

To what extent do these testimonies/values reflect the unique experiences of our respective faith communities?

What is ultimately more important: the uniqueness of our paths or our shared vision of universal peace and justice?

And how might we find the wherewithal, despite our differences, to travel this road together?

 


Talking JRC and AFSC on WBEZ: My Interview with “The Morning Shift”

MicI had the pleasure this morning of being interviewed by Chicago Public Radio’s Jason Marck for the “The Morning Shift” program on WBEZ.

Here’s their description of our conversation:

After 17 years as the rabbi and spiritual leader at JRC-The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston–Rabbi Brant Rosen conducted his last service on December 19th. His views, work, and words on the Israel/Palestine issue caused deep rifts among the members at JRC, and Rosen ultimately believed it was best for himself and the community that he resign. Rosen joins us to talk about the decision, the controversies, and his new job with the American Friends Service Committee.

Click here to give a listen.


Responding to European Anti-Semitism: A Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5775

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According to legend, the U’netaneh Tokef – the High Holiday prayer in which we publicly ponder “who shall live and who shall die” in the coming year – was originally written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany. As legend would have it, this 11th century sage was pressured to convert to Catholicism by the Archbishop. The rabbi asked for three days to think it over, presumably as a delaying tactic, and later refused to respond to the Archbishop. When he was brought before him, Rabbi Amnon asked that his own tongue be cut off to atone for his sin of even considering conversion.

The Archbishop ordered something even more ghastly: he decreed that Rabbi Amnon’s arms and legs to be amputated limb by limb as punishment for refusing to come when ordered. At each point, he was given the opportunity to convert – and at each point, the Rabbi refused. As this was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue where he composed and recited the U’netaneh Tokef prayer in his dying breath. Three days later, the Rabbi’s spirit appeared to one of his rabbinical colleagues and asked that this prayer be included as part of the High Holiday service. And so, the legend tells us, U’netaneh Tokef became part of the regular liturgy of this season.

It’s not the most heartwarming legend – but then again, U’netaneh Tokef isn’t exactly the most heartwarming of prayers. It’s actually among the most emotionally raw prayers in Jewish tradition: a collective crying out against the randomness of our world and the vulnerability of our lives. It might well be called the quintessential prayer of the High Holiday season.

It also seems to me that this legend is a commentary on the ways that the U’netaneh Tokef is a product of the Jewish communal experience. This prayer might well be viewed as the liturgical expression of a people that has experienced more than its share of randomness and vulnerability over the course its collective history. Indeed, it’s not difficult to read the words “who shall live and who shall die” and not imagine how they must have resonated for Jews living under the very real existential threat of anti-Semitism throughout the centuries.

For the majority of 21st century Jews, this resonance is far less powerful than it has been for previous generations – perhaps than at any other time in Jewish history. Still, I’m sure there are those who would claim that the words “who shall live and who shall die” have been gradually taking on renewed power for the Jewish people in recent years.

I’m speaking in particular about the reports of a significant rise of anti-Semitic attitudes and incidents in Europe. In past year in particular, press reports and polls have been painting an alarming picture. In a recent survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 66% of the Jewish respondents felt anti-Semitism in Europe was on the rise. 76% said anti-Semitism had increased in their country over the past five years. In the 12 months after the survey, nearly half said they worried about being verbally insulted or attacked in public because they were Jewish.

Much of this ominous news comes from France. According to France’s Society for the Protection of the Jewish Community, totals of anti-Semitic acts in the 2000s are seven times higher than in the 1990s. This past summer, during the war in Gaza, there were disturbing reports that protests against Israel’s actions spilled over from anti-Israel calls into anti-Jewish rhetoric and even violence. Over a two-day period, protesters marched through the streets of the predominantly Jewish suburb of Sarcelles, reportedly chanting “Death to Jews” and “Gas the Jews.” Protestors also firebombed Jewish-owned businesses and two synagogues and one Jewish-owned pharmacy was burned to the ground.

Last May in Belgium, a country with a much smaller Jewish population, a gunman murdered four people in front of the Jewish Museum in Brussels. And this past month, during a Holocaust Memorial dedication on their European Day of Jewish Culture, youths hurled stones and bottles until the police arrived. Three days later, a fire erupted on an upper floor of a Brussels synagogue; the authorities investigated the incident as arson.

In Germany, there have been reports of similar incidents, including the attempted arson of the Bergische synagogue in Wuppertal. In an interview with the Guardian magazine, Dieter Graumann, president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews, said:

These are the worst times since the Nazi era… On the streets, you hear things like ‘the Jews should be gassed’, ‘the Jews should be burned’ – we haven’t had that in Germany for decades. Anyone saying those slogans isn’t criticizing Israeli politics, it’s just pure hatred against Jews: nothing else. And it’s not just a German phenomenon. It’s an outbreak of hatred against Jews so intense that it’s very clear indeed.

There have also been reports of similar incidents in Italy as well as throughout the Netherlands. A few months ago, a Dutch Jewish watchdog group reported a 23 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the Netherlands since 2012. In Malmo, Sweden, for instance, there has been a rise in anti-Semitic violence over the past several years, causing some members of the Jewish community to emigrate.

My very good friend, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian has lived in Malmo for several years and has reported frankly to me about the impact of anti-Semitism on her adopted hometown. In 2012, the Malmo JCC, where Rebecca lives, was vandalized by heavy rocks and an explosive device that thankfully did little damage. In a recent e-mail to me, she described the issue of anti-Semitism in Europe as a “festering sore,” adding “it’s ugly.”

Rebecca added that the recent upswing of incidents in Malmo, as in the rest of Europe, was mostly in response to the violence in Gaza, which she said “naturally spurred a lot of random, violent hate directed at Jewish people and Jewish places.” She said the Chabad rabbi there was attacked several times, but fortunately was never hurt. Another one of her friends, a modern orthodox Jew who wears a kippah, was so tired of being harassed that he has taken to wearing a baseball cap over it. She wrote to me, “Even I was a bit fearful of, for example, taking a taxi to the JCC where we live. I would ask to be left on the corner, even with luggage.”

What do we make of reports such as these? As Jews, as people of conscience, what should be our response to news of a resurgence of anti-Semitism throughout Europe? There is, of course, one answer on which I believe we can all agree: we must call it out. As with any form of racism or prejudice, silence equals assent. When we hear these kinds of reports, it is our sacred duty to speak up – and to act.

Beyond this basic answer, however, it gets more complicated. When confronted with the reality of anti-Semitism in this day and age, what we say and do will depend on our analysis of its causes. I would go even further and suggest that the nature of our analysis may well define what kind of Jews we want to be – and what kind of Judaism we seek to affirm.

Many Jews will look at the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and conclude that this demonstrates the critical importance of the state of Israel. After all, Zionism itself arose in response to European anti-Semitism. Political Zionists dating back to Theodor Herzl have posited that the only thing that could effectively safeguard the collective security of the Jewish people is a Jewish state of their own. And since its founding Israel has become the symbol of Jewish empowerment: a Jewish nation-state with a Jewish army that ensures the security of Jews not only in Israel, but around the world.

It is not uncommon today to hear the claim from some in the Jewish community that Israel is a kind of “Jewish insurance policy” – that if (or when) things invariably go bad for the Jews anywhere in the world they will always have Israel to go to. For many Jews, in fact, the critical importance of a Jewish state is the central lesson of the Holocaust. Never again will we depend upon other nations to keep us safe. For so many in our community, a Jewish state is our island of security in a dangerous world.

While I certainly understand the logic and psychology of this response, particularly living as we do in the post-Holocaust era, I find this narrative to be problematic in many ways – grounded more in ideology than reality. At the end of the day, I simply don’t believe that statehood has provided us with a real or effective answer to the problem of anti-Semitism.

In some ways, it might be claimed that the exact opposite has occurred. While Israel was largely created to ensure Jewish safety and survival, it has become, ironically enough, the one Jewish community in the world that lives in a near-constant state of vulnerability and insecurity. Indeed, for all of the troubling reports of European anti-Semitism this past summer, the most indelible images of Jewish insecurity came from news footage of Israelis traumatized by missiles coming from Gaza, running for bomb shelters at the repeated sounds of air raid sirens. This was not – to put it mildly – the picture of a “safe haven” for Jews.

I believe these images sadly drive home the tragic reality behind the Zionist dream. Israel, the nation that was created to be a safe home for the Jewish people, has been in a perpetual state of war since its’ founding. Israel, the nation founded to normalize Jewish collective existence, routinely characterizes itself as a small country surrounded and besieged on all sides by hostile enemies. Whatever else we might believe about how a nation can achieve safety and security in the 21st century, I would posit that the founding of Israel has not provided the Jewish people with a panacea.

It is certainly true that Israel has historically opened its arms to oppressed Jews around the world – and we certainly should not understate its importance in this regard. More recently it has been reported in the media that European Jews – particularly Jews from France – are starting to immigrate to Israel in response to rising anti-Semitism. The predominant narrative here is that there is now a new European exodus of oppressed Jews to the Jewish state.

Again, however, I believe these reports have more to do with ideology than reality. According to data from the Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, there has indeed been an increase in the number of immigrant from Western Europe in recent years: from 3,339 in 2012 to 4,694 in 2013. What many news reports fail to mention, however, is that Israeli Jews are immigrating to Western Europe at nearly the same rate. In fact, the number of Israeli Jews living abroad has been estimated at 1,000,000with most émigrés citing the economy and war-weariness as their main reason for leaving Israel. Berlin alone is home to 17,000 Israelis, according to the German embassy in Tel Aviv. Though it is remarkable to even contemplate just decades after the Holocaust, there is a thriving and growing Israeli expat community in Germany, with its own radio station and cultural arts scene. When we take a close look at what is really going on, then, the reality is much more complex that what the media has been reporting.

When all is said and done, the tragic reality is that Israel was born in conflict and has lived with conflict as its daily reality for its entire existence. Since 1967 Israel has been militarily occupying another people – and I don’t believe it is a stretch to suggest that this ongoing, often brutal occupation impacts attitudes toward Jews not only in Israel but worldwide.

By every indication, whenever violence connected to the Occupation has risen, so too have the incidence of anti-Semitic attitudes and acts around the world. I’ve already mentioned that European anti-Semitism spiked during the Gaza war this summer – as it did during the Gaza wars of 2012 and 2009 as well as the First and Second Intifadas. But it is also worth noting that this linkage works both ways. During periods of peace and diplomacy, particularly during the optimistic days of the peace process under Yitzhak Rabin, in the early 1990s period, global anti-Semitism was at an all time low. As much as violence begets violence, so too, apparently, does tolerance beget tolerance.

What should be our response as we read these reports of rising European anti-Semitism? I would suggest that the answer is not to put our faith in nationalism and militarism to keep the Jewish people safe. I believe our first response should be to understand that anti-Semitism is but one form of racism and prejudice – and as such it is no different than the intolerance that is directed toward any people or group in the world who are perceived as “other.” The appropriate response, it seems to me, is not to recede behind higher walls or build stronger weapons, but rather to find common cause and solidarity with all who are being targeted in this way. To publicly affirm that the well-being of the Jewish people is irrevocably connected to the well-being of every group victimized by racism.

Here’s an concrete example of this response in action: back in 2012, Rabbi Rebecca Lillian wrote that when the Jewish Community Center in Malmo, Sweden was attacked, she was appalled to read quotes by American Jewish leaders proclaiming that Malmo was an unsafe travel destination for Jews and that they should prepare to flee to Israel or another country. In fact, Rebecca pointed out, immediately after the attack, Malmo’s Network for Faith and Understanding held a solidarity vigil, in which women, men and children gathered in front of the JCC with candles. Leaders of several Christian churches, two Muslim groups, and other spiritual and social organizations came together and offered public speeches of support and solidarity.

Indeed, while much attention is paid to the fundamentalist Muslim perpetrators of anti-Semitic attacks throughout Europe, relatively little is devoted to the local actions of Jews and Muslims who come together to stand up against the bigotry that ultimately affects both communities. I was heartened to hear from Rebecca that despite the recent uptick in anti-Semitism in Malmo, their interfaith group is “stronger than ever.”

As she wrote to me in her e-mail:

Even during the (Gaza) war, we spoke candidly about the need to work together to fight any type of hate crime. At a panel discussion, I spoke as a Jew for humanitarian aid to Gaza and for an end to the killing and injuring of civilians. The Imam on the Board spoke about the need for Muslim youth to not attack Jewish people and property. We all spoke of co-existence. In the words of my friend who wears the kippah, the answer lies in education. We need to learn about one another. And the good news is that is indeed happening.

When we contemplate our response to this new anti-Semitism, I believe we should also take pains to differentiate between individual anti-Semitic acts and the much more serious phenomenon of state sponsored anti-Semitism. While we should be alarmed and should rightly protest whenever we hear about anti-Semitic incidents and attacks, historically speaking the most insidious and deadly form of anti-Semitism has been the legislated variety. We must not forget that the Holocaust, like all genocides, occurred when a government directed it own state institutions and resources against minorities in its midst.

Thus, as troubling it is to read of shootings and firebombings, I believe we should be far more disturbed when we hear reports of far-right and even neo-Nazi candidates being elected into Parliaments throughout Europe. My friend Rebecca referred to this phenomenon as the “dark underbelly” of Swedish anti-Semitism. She pointed out that in recent elections, “a relatively large percentage of the voters went for Sweden Democrats, a hard-line anti-immigrant group that has roots in neo-Nazism. There is a group of thugs that are equal opportunity haters, who are fans of neither Muslims nor Jews.”

For all of the recent news coming out of Europe, we should be heartened by the knowledge that there are no longer and Jewish communities anywhere in the world that are collectively targeted and oppressed by its government for being Jewish. And we should be likewise heartened when we hear the heads of European governments pledging their support to minority communities plagued with hate crimes. In response to the recent anti-Semitic incidents in his country, for instance, French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, has publicly said, “to attack a Jew because he is a Jew is to attack France. To attack a synagogue and a kosher grocery store is quite simply anti-Semitism and racism.” Likewise, at a recent rally, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, has called the recent incidents “an attack on freedom and tolerance and our democratic state.”

In the end, this may well be the most important, profound and effective response of all. The answer to anti-Semitism, as with all forms of racism is not to adopt a victim mentality or to circle the wagons, but to demand more democracy, more civil rights, more humans rights for all. As American Jews, we should know this better than anyone. We should understand that our new-found engagement with the world has resulted in freedoms truly unprecedented in our history. Today, in our globally engaged 21st century world, I believe we of all people should be on the forefront of this call.

I’d like to conclude now where I began: with the U’netaneh Tokef prayer. As it happens, the legend of the martyred Rabbi Amnon turns out to be precisely that: merely a legend. Scholars tell us that in fact, this prayer was actually composed several centuries earlier, and was likely an edited product of many different authors, influenced by a variety of early Christian hymns. As always, the reality is more complex than our often fatalistic mythology would have it.

And in the end, I believe it is a more hopeful reality. Yes, as this prayer reminds us, the world can be a dangerous place. No, we do not know what this new year has in store for us. It may be a year of blessing or a year of curse, or more likely something in between. But no matter what emotional or historical baggage what we bring to this prayer, we would to well to remember that we always end with the uplifting words, “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezeirah” – “Repentance, Prayer and Tzedakah lessen the severity of the decree.”

In other words, we must respond to the often harsh nature of our world by engaging with it. Not by hiding from it or fighting against it, but acknowledging all that is good and right and just about it – and then by fighting for these values in no uncertain terms.

In the coming year, in all the years to come, may we do what we can to mitigate the harshness of the decree.


For Tisha B’Av: A Lamentation for Gaza

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This Monday night begins the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av: a day of mourning for the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people over the centuries. Among other things, the traditional Tisha B’Av liturgy includes the chanting Biblical book of  Lamentations.

Given the profoundly tragic events currently unfolding in Gaza, I offer this reworking of the first chapter of Lamentations.  I share it with the hope that on this day of mourning we might also mourn the mounting dead in Gaza – along with what Israel has become…

A Lamentation for Gaza

Gaza weeps alone.
Bombs falling without end
her cheeks wet with tears.
A widow abandoned
imprisoned on all sides
with none willing to save her.

We who once knew oppression
have become the oppressors.
Those who have been pursued
are now the pursuers.
We have uprooted families
from their homes, we have
driven them deep into
this desolate place,
this narrow strip of exile.

All along the roads there is mourning.
The teeming marketplaces
have been bombed into emptiness.
The only sounds we hear
are cries of pain
sirens blaring
drones buzzing
bitterness echoing
into the black vacuum
of homes destroyed
and dreams denied.

We have become Gaza’s master
leveling neighborhoods
with the mere touch of a button
for her transgression of resistance.
Her children are born into captivity
they know us only as occupiers
enemies to be feared
and hated.

We have lost all
that once was precious to us.
This fatal attachment to our own might
has become our downfall.
This idolatrous veneration of the land
has sent us wandering into
a wilderness of our own making.

We have robbed Gaza of
her deepest dignity
plunged her into sorrow and darkness.
Her people crowd into refugee camps
held captive by fences and buffer zones
gunboats, mortar rounds
and Apache missles.

We sing of Jerusalem,
to “a free people in their own land”
but our song has become a mockery.
How can we sing a song of freedom
imprisoned inside behind walls we have built
with our own fear and dread?

Here we sit clinging to our illusions
of comfort and security
while we unleash hell on earth
on the other side of the border.
We sit on hillsides and cheer
as our explosions light up the sky
while far below, whole neighborhoods
are reduced to rubble.

For these things I weep:
for the toxic fear we have unleashed
from the dark place of our hearts
for the endless grief
we are inflicting
on the people of Gaza.


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