During the course of the tragic violence coming out of Jerusalem in the past week, I’ve been reading with familiar frustration the American Jewish establishment’s predictable accusations of “Palestinian incitement.” But I must confess I’m finding the reactions of some liberal Jewish leaders to be even more infuriating.
One prominent rabbi, for instance, who I know personally and would surely describe herself as on the progressive side of the Israeli peace camp, recently wrote this on her Facebook page:
Punching back with violence as a response to violence is the easy reaction. Each side has much to point to on the other side — each claims the mantel of victim, each claims the justice of their violent response. It takes courage to commit to non violence and lasting justice for all.
This is, indeed, the liberal Jewish meme when it comes to these outbreaks of violence in Israel/Palestine: “the level playing field.” According to this narrative, there is violence on both sides and peace will only come when courageous leaders on both sides commit to nonviolence.
The only problem with this narrative of course, is that it utterly ignores the all-pervasive and overwhelming nature of Israeli state violence. And given this structural imbalance of power, it is disingenuous in the extreme to somehow claim that “each side has much to point to on the other side.”
Yes, all violence is ugly and it is tragic – but this violence also exists within a context. Logically and ethically speaking, we simply cannot equate the brutal reality of state violence with the violence of those who resist it.
Yes, it does take “courage to commit to nonviolence and justice for all.” But when a state regularly employs violence to control and dominate another people, it is so very wrong to blithely call for “nonviolence” on all sides when that people inevitably fights back.
Nelson Mandela (once a “terrorist” now a “statesman”) certainly understood this when then South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha offered him the chance to be let out of prison (for the sixth time) if he publicly renounced violence – and Mandela famously responded, “Let him renounce violence.”
And even the most revered nonviolent leader of our day – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – had this to say in 1967 after speaking to the “the desperate, rejected and angry young men” who resorted to violence in America’s black ghettos:
I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government.
Yes, those in the Jewish community who purport to support the cause of peace must first reckon with the reality of the context of violence that exists every single day by a people who live under military occupation.
How many liberal Jewish leaders have called for “nonviolence” when last year, one Palestinian was killed by the Israeli military every 4.26 days? How many called for Israeli “nonviolence” last month after the killing of Hadeel al-Hashlamoun, an 18 year old Palestinian woman who was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier in Hebron in what Amnesty International has described as an “extrajudicial execution?” For that matter, how many called for “lasting justice” this last July, when a Palestinian family was burned alive by settlers and the Israeli government stated it “had chosen to prevent legal recourse” even though it knew the identity of the murderers?
Frankly, given this constant and all pervasive context of Israeli state violence, it’s remarkable that these kinds of Palestinian uprisings don’t break out more often than they do. But when they invariably occur, we do the cause of peace no favors when we proclaim that “each side has much to point to on the other side” and call for a renewed commitment to “nonviolence.”
How will we achieve lasting justice for all? To paraphrase the oft-quoted Nelson Mandela: “Let Israel renounce violence.”
Here is the guest sermon that was delivered by Tzedek Chicago member Jay Stanton at our Erev Yom Kippur service last Tuesday night:
Why is this night different from all other nights? I know – wrong holiday. Bear with me. Why is the Day of Atonement different from all other nights?
I] Asking permission
Tonight is the only time we ask permission to pray with other wrongdoers. When actively atoning, we easily acknowledge our wrongdoings. Each of us has transgressed. Today is the most obvious day to pray with transgressors. So why ask permission? Acknowledging our capacity to inflict harm could render us speechless, unable to continue repenting. Giving ourselves permission, having God grant us permission, gives us the courage to confront our failing selves. Is not confronting the self the goal of Yom Kippur?
In our Tzedek community, we face two major obstacles to achieving this goal. The first is feeling we have little merit. A few months ago, my friend Kelvin and I came to an intersection while walking. A car was coming, but there was a stop sign, so I stepped into the intersection, and Kelvin followed hesitantly. After we crossed, Kelvin confessed that, as a Black man, he cannot assume cars will stop for him even at a stop sign. I acknowledged my white privilege and thanked Kelvin for alerting me to this instance of it, of which I was previously unaware. Kelvin thanked me for being aware of my privilege.
From this interaction, Kelvin gained an ally; I gained guilt. How could I, someone actively engaged in antiracist work, be so oblivious to this white privilege? But my awareness of my privilege was enough for Kelvin that day. Our sense of immense guilt over our sins, collective and individual, could paralyze us. How do we move forward with teshuvah when the task is so great?
The other major obstacle we face is potential denial. We created our core values of a Judaism beyond borders, a Judaism of solidarity, a Judaism of nonviolence, a Judaism of spiritual freedom, a Judaism of equity, a Judaism beyond nationalism. We value these just ideals, so we could easily say: therefore, we practice a Judaism beyond borders, a Judaism of solidarity, a Judaism of nonviolence, a Judaism of spiritual freedom, a Judaism of equity, a Judaism beyond nationalism. We did teshuvah for the harms of border-obsessed Judaisms, insular Judaisms, violent Judaisms, coercive Judaisms, oppressive Judaisms, and nationalist Judaisms. We’re done now: we put justice on the agenda and only act justly. Anyone complaining of injustice in our ranks is wrong.
The fear of that outcome weighs heavily on many of us. Are we destined to abandon our values, or, worse, to become some dystopian entity talking justice while perpetuating injustice? I don’t share this fear, and my reason is not because I optimistically see Tzedek as a utopia immune from injustice or a meritocracy of the most righteous folks in the Chicago area. I do not think we can adhere to our core values completely. We will miss the mark. Even behaving our best, we were socialized in systems of oppression which we cannot leave at the door because we wish. We are still unlearning Islamophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, ableism, heterosexism, Ashkenormativity, militarism, capitalism, and nationalist exceptionalism, to name a few. We cannot completely unlearn these biases. So we will be wrong; we know that. That’s the best possible news for us going into Yom Kippur.
We are practiced at calling out harmful behavior. The Rev. Stacy Alan teaches that defining sin abstractly is impossible, but that we all get the concept of “messing up.” Tokheja, rebuke, is the prerequisite for meaningful teshuvah. Understanding our wrongs is the only way we can amend our behavior.
We are also committed to becoming more just. As a new community, we are in danger of creating margins. Some people are in the center and some pushed to the edges. Tzedek, however, has another structure in mind. Brant asking me to speak tonight demonstrates this structure. No one would begrudge Brant speaking. We might learn something more interesting, and, we, most of all me, might prefer it. At Tzedek, we each have a say. How many Jewish communities are being addressed tonight by a young, less-than-able-bodied, Sephardic, transgender recovering addict who grew up in an interfaith household? In any other community I would be on the fringe, as I am also here. At Tzedek, Brant is on the fringe, too. We will function best if all at the margin, mimicking this garment, this tallit, evening wear traditionally only this night. The tzitzit, the fringes, are the parts that remind us to engage in mitzvot. At Tzedek, we strive to live at the edge, on the fringe of the community. We are not creating an insular circle, but facing outward, like tzitzit. That way, we avoid a power and oppression dynamic, and we have enough of a marginal perspective that we can call out injustice within our walls. The edge here defines the center, not the reverse.
III] Jacob and Esau
A good structure means little without substance. We need not to only identify injustice but also work to correct it. We need to do our part. We need to take Yom Kippur seriously; we need to take the project of teshuvah seriously.
Again, we face obstacles. Traditionally, the Yom Kippur liturgy dances between two problematic theologies of an authoritarian deity: one, a strict adherent of reward and punishment, and the other, a completely arbitrary megalomaniac. How can we reconcile our knowledge of justice with these concepts of the Divine?
So we are doing liturgy differently at Tzedek. Tomorrow, we will not read from the passage in Leviticus which describes the ancient practice of transferring our sins onto goats and arbitrarily killing one and sending the other away. We know we cannot make teshuvah by putting our sins onto any scapegoat. Instead, we will read the passage in Genesis about Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. With themes of generosity, transformation, and moving forward from wrongs done without revising or denying past harms, this text reflects the kind of teshuvah we wish to do. It provides hope for intractable conflicts to be resolved justly. We will read about a moment so transformative it turned Jacob from a conniving person into a gentle one. We want that for ourselves. Why is this Yom Kippur different from all other days? Because we can find an example of teshuvah in our text we wish to emulate.
Many say we can’t do this. We can’t establish a Jewish community beyond borders or nationalism, and we certainly can’t change the liturgy or Torah reading for the day. After all, hasn’t it been that way for thousands of years? To them, and to those of us who might be wondering if we should hedge more, I offer this history. Amram Gaon, a 9th century Spanish sage, called the recitation of kol nidre a minhag shetut – a foolish custom. Why? Even though the prayer was already beloved, it encouraged problematic thinking that we can escape responsibility for transgressions with a contract rider on the Covenant. Amram Gaon knew sins don’t transfer to goats and a string of words doesn’t negate injustice we cause. Changing ritual to conform to Jewish values isn’t new.
In tomorrow’s text, we identify with both twins. Jacob victimized Esau. He erred when he stole Esau’s birthright. But we root for Jacob in this reconciliation – not because of lineage but because we know a deep truth. God is the ally of those who seek forgiveness. The story makes us more inclined to forgive and to believe we can be forgiven. Because we are forgiven, for the record. The biggest spoiler in Jewish liturgy is vayomer Adonai salajti kidvarekha. God says I forgive you as I promised. But Jacob messed up. We get the guilt that lives in Jacob’s heart because it lives in ours. Even after we make amends or especially if we cannot, we need God’s help letting go. If our part is making teshuvah, the Lady Magnificent must forgive.
IV] Ne’ilah as protest
Normally, we view Yom Kippur as an end to a process of reflection. This year, Yom Kippur is a beginning. We can use the day of prayer to take stock of our sins. What would we say about our behavior if we had a marginal perspective? What needs to change for us individually and collectively to help us decrease injustice in the coming year? How will we respond when we mess up? When others do?
When we come to ne’ilah tomorrow as the sun sets on this Day of Atonement, let’s be radical. We usually take the idea that the gates of repentance will close as the impetus to finish faster, higher, stronger – to be Olympic penitents. Instead, we should see it as a call to action. When we read:
פתח לנו שער בעת נעילת שער כי פנה יום. היום יפנה השמשה יבוא ויפנה נבואה שעריך.
Instead of reading it as a lament about the gates closing: Open the gate for us even though the gate is closing because a day turns. Today will pass, the sun will come and set, before it does, please let us enter the gates. Otherwise we’ll be stuck outside – guilty. Instead of reading it that way, let us read it as an exhortation to a Powerful Boss holed up in a gated estate. Ne’ilah is a sit-in, and this is our chant: Keep the gate open for us even at the imposed curfew time, when the day turns to night. We don’t care that today will pass, that the sun comes and goes, we will enter the gates!
When the sun sets tomorrow, we need to occupy Heaven. This won’t require occupying the Luther Memorial Church, but it will require calling out God to make repentance and transformation Her foremost priority not only on Yom Kippur but every day. Our covenantal benefits are not enough. Guaranteed forgiveness on one day a year out of more than 300? That’s less than 1% of the time. We need a better contract. We need better working conditions for creating God’s justice on Earth. We need a more involved, more present, more compassionate boss! We need fewer arbitrary injustices. Life outcomes for teenage boys in Chicago depend on whether the boy is Black. In the West Bank, they depend on whether the boy is Palestinian. And how about less injustice? We didn’t meet our own expectations this year, but why didn’t God soften the hearts of the Pharaohs, free the captive, uplift the fallen? When Jacob wrestled with the man the night before reconciliation with Esau, he did not let the man go until the man gave him a blessing. Similarly, we can’t let God go until She accepts everyone’s teshuvah, which might be until some people are ready to change. So tomorrow night, let’s occupy Heaven.
Strike that (pun intended)! The gates are open now. Let’s move in with our permission to pray with sinners, and let’s extend the opportunity for repentance until those with blood on their hands (literal or symbolic) repent. Let all who lost hope they can change, that those around them can change, enter the gates! Let all who are hungry for justice enter the gates! Let all who are thirsty for forgiveness enter the gates! We transgressors will keep them open until God grants the pardon She promised.
Tzom kal. May your fast be physically easy and spiritually meaningful.
One of the most celebrated lines in the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy is the verse “Hayom Harat Olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.” As you might imagine, these words have an added resonance for me on this particular Rosh Hashanah. Hayom Harat Olam indeed. On this day the world was created – and recreated anew for us all.
As our new congregation celebrates its very first Rosh Hashanah, it is difficult to put into words just how profoundly humbling this moment is for me. At this very moment, we are creating a community out of whole cloth, a fabric of connection out of deeply shared communal values. I am so very grateful to be granted this opportunity and so inspired by the many people who have stepped forward so readily and so eagerly to make Tzedek Chicago a reality.
This Rosh Hashanah, I’m feeling, if you pardon the expression, as if we’re celebrating a New Year on steroids. This is truly a season of newness, of potential, a blank canvas upon which we can throw our deepest hopes and dreams and visions. More than any other Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah is the time in which we proclaim without hesitation that anything is possible in our lives and our world. And I am truly blessed to be sharing it with you.
I’ll be honest with you: I still can’t quite believe that we pulled this off. It was only a short time ago that we even began to think about creating this new congregation. The leadership of Tzedek Chicago began these conversations a few months ago, and we held our first orientation meeting just this last summer. Our start up period has been astonishingly short – but I think I can speak for the entire leadership of Tzedek when I say I’m not surprised by how far we’ve come in this relatively brief period of time. I’ve known in my heart that there is very real need in the world for a congregation such as ours.
We are at heart, a values-based congregation. As the name of our congregation makes clear, our community is deeply informed by the sacred values of social justice. In this regard, the establishment of Tzedek Chicago is a very mindful attempt to create a Jewish spiritual home for those in our community who cherish these values and are seeking a spiritual community in which to express them.
If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to go to our website and read our six core values carefully. While they are listed separately, I do believe they are part of a larger unified story: a narrative of liberation that runs through the heart of Judaism and Jewish history. It is a narrative rooted in the Exodus story that tells of a God who stands by the oppressed and demands that we do the same. It resonates through the words of Biblical prophets who spoke truth to corrupt power. And it can be found in the courageous example of ancient rabbis who responded to the trauma of exile from the land by creating a global religion with a universal message of healing and hope.
It is particularly relevant to invoke this liberatory narrative on Rosh Hashanah, of all days. Indeed, one of the central themes of this day is the concept of Malchuyot – God’s ultimate sovereignty over our lives and our world. Even if you don’t adhere to the literal belief in God as a supernatural King sitting on his throne on high, I believe we have much to learn from this concept. At its core, I would suggest affirming Malchuyot means affirming that there is a Force Yet Greater: greater than Pharoah in Egypt, greater than the mighty Roman empire, greater than the myriad of powerful empires that have oppressed the Jewish people and many so other peoples throughout the world.
I would argue that this sacred conviction has been one of the central driving forces of Jewish tradition throughout the centuries: that it is not by might and not by power – but by God’s spirit that l our world will ultimately be redeemed. I would further argue that this belief in a Power Yet Greater sustained Jewish life in a very real way during some very dark periods of our history. After all, the Jewish people are still here, even after far mightier empires have come and gone. It might well be said that this allegiance to a Power Yet Greater is the force that keeps alive the hopes of all peoples who have lived with the reality of dislocation and oppression.
I will submit to you, however, that we have tragically betrayed this Jewish narrative of liberation in our own day. With the onset of modernity, we have largely surrendered the ideal of “not by might and not by power” through a kind of Faustian bargain with might and power. We now embrace a new narrative – one that responds to trauma not with a message of healing and hope, but by placing our faith in humanly wielded power. Our new narrative teaches that the pain of our Jewish past will inevitably become our future unless we embrace the ways of power and privilege; nationalism and militarism.
Historically speaking, we know what can happen when religion has been used to justify the aims of empire. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Constantinian religion, in reference to the Emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century began the process of making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In that one critically historic moment, what had previously been a small and persecuted religious community in the first century after Jesus, became a religion of state power. We know the rest. The Jewish people in particular know all too well the sorrows that inevitably ensued from Christianity’s bargain with empire.
In our own day, however, the Jewish people have made a similar kind of tragic bargain. Jewish theologian and thinker Marc Ellis has coined a term for it: “Constantinian Judaism.” With the onset of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel, Judaism has now itself become wedded to empire. The unavoidable focal point of Jewish life is now a Jewish nation-state that venerates Jewish power, Jewish militarism and Jewish privilege. Although Israel was established through a mythology of Jewish liberation and a “return to the land,” it has done so on the backs of that land’s indigenous inhabitants. The unavoidable truth is that the Jewish nation state has come into existence – and is continuing to justify its existence – through the oppression of the Palestinian people.
It is difficult to underestimate the extent to which Jewish life now centers on the rationalization and perpetuation of this new Jewish narrative, this new deal with empire. As Marc Ellis points out, we American Jews are deeply implicated in this new Constatinian Judaism:
(The) Jewish establishments in America and Israel have made their own empire deal. Jews are blessed in America. America blesses Israel. What is good for one is good for the other. For the protection American foreign policy offers Israel, Jews offer their support to the American government. (“Future of the Prophetic,” p. 36)
This new narrative has also become an indelible part of American synagogue life. There are so many examples I could point to. Here in Chicago, almost every synagogue has a sign in front with American and Israeli flags that proclaim, “We Stand With Israel.” Congregational religious schools and Jewish camps routinely cite “cultivating a connection to Israel” as an essential part of their curriculum. Perhaps most symbolically telling: it has become standard in most American synagogues to place a US and Israeli flag on either side of the Aron Kodesh.
In other words, in our most sacred Jewish spaces, we are literally bowing down to physical symbols of national power. This is a powerful demonstration of how completely this new narrative has taken hold of post-Holocaust Jewish identity. To my mind, it is nothing short of idolatry – and our inability to recognize it as such shows just how deeply we have bought into a religious mindset that radically values physical power over spiritual power.
So yes, Tzedek Chicago makes a point of stating the following in one of our six congregational core values:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.
We reject any ideology that insists upon exclusive Jewish entitlement to the land, recognizing that it has historically been considered sacred by many faiths and home to a variety of peoples, ethnicities and cultures. In our advocacy and activism, we oppose Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people and seek a future that includes full civil and human rights for all who live in the land – Jews and non-Jews alike.
With these words, we are intentionally standing down the new Jewish narrative. I know full well what it means to do this. I certainly have no illusions how a Jewish congregation describing itself as “non-Zionist” and openly protests “Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people” will be received by the Jewish establishment. Given centrality of Zionism and Israel advocacy in Jewish communal life, Tzedek Chicago is clearly a dissident congregation in the Jewish world.
I do believe, however, that we must make room in our community for Jews whose values dissent from what the communal establishment deems “mainstream.” It bears noting that dissent has historically occupied a venerable and even sacred place in Jewish life. (It also bears noting that Zionism itself was once a dissident movement in Jewish life.) Our congregation consciously and proudly seeks to lift up this dissident legacy – one that has long been central to Jewish tradition itself in so many critical ways.
After all, we are not promoting dissent for its own sake. We are seeking to reclaim a sacred legacy – a liberatory narrative that has long been indigenous to Jewish life. But I want to underscore – this is not simply a nostalgic exercise in venerating the past. Jewish life in the 21st century is radically different than any in which we have lived before. We live in a global world in which we are connected to individuals, nations and cultures, in unprecedented ways. Having just come out of the ghetto, we have no desire to build new ghettos of our own making. To quote our core values once more:
We celebrate with a Judaism that builds more bridges, not higher walls. Our religious services and educational programs promote a universalist Jewish identity – one that seeks a greater engagement in the world around us. Within our congregation, we view our diversity as our strength. In our activism, we advocate for a world beyond borders and reject the view that any one people, ethnic group or nation is entitled to any part of our world more than any other.
Through our activism and organizing efforts, we pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”
As I said at the outset, I do believe there are many out there who are thirsting for a Jewish community that espouses values such as these. At the same time, however, I am all too mindful that Tzedek Chicago is not for everyone. But that’s OK. In fact, I think, that’s how it should be.
I daresay if you go to the websites of most liberal American congregations and read their core values, you’ll read words like “welcoming,” “inclusive” “warm” and “open.” When you stop to think of it, most of these terms are actually pretty value-free. They aren’t really values per se so much as virtues. They don’t really represent anything anyone would object to and they don’t tell you anything about what the community ultimately stands for.
The reason for this, I believe, is that the overwhelming number of American liberal synagogues simply don’t view political action as part of their mission. Many will articulate a commitment to Tikkun Olam, or “repair of the world,” but whenever this term is invoked, it invariably refers to direct service projects such as soup kitchens or coat drives for the homeless. Now there is of course, a dire need to support service work – particularly in a day and age when our social safety net is under constant and unceasing attack. As you know, here at Tzedek Chicago we are coordinating a High Holiday food drive in conjunction with the Greater Chicago Food Depository – and we thank you for your support of this sacred effort.
But while every religious community should and must engage in service work, we must also ask: what does it mean to ignore the wider context of this reality? What does it mean to do direct service to people in need without directly addressing the political conditions that creates these needs in the first place?
In truth, most liberal congregations are not designed to make waves. They might connect their Jewish identities to political action – they might invoke Jewish community support of the civil rights movement for instance – but when pushed to take a stand on the real political issues of our day, they ultimately fall back on “being inclusive” of the diversity of opinions in the congregation. They won’t mix religion with politics – the notable exception being, naturally, support and advocacy for the state of Israel.
So yes, you might say Tzedek Chicago isn’t really an inclusive congregation. We’re a intentional community driven by very specific values. We’re a community bound by the conviction that a Jewish congregation should be more than simply a fee for service institution for the Jewish middle and upper middle class. We hold that a synagogue should not merely comfort the afflicted, but also afflict the comfortable. We understand that a congregation should not only be about personal transformation, but socio-political transformation as well.
There has been a fair amount of press about our new congregation of late – and one of my favorite lines came from one of our detractors who was quoted as saying about us, “Statistically speaking, they don’t exist.” Now that may actually be true. There aren’t really congregations such as ours in the Jewish world. But I can’t help but be deeply gratified at how far we’ve come in such an astonishingly amount short time. By the growing numbers of people who have formally joined us as members; including many who are joining a Jewish congregation for the very first time in their lives. And by those who have stepped forward to volunteer considerable time and energy on our behalf.
And I will say moreover, that ever since our announcement, I’ve been hearing consistently from people all over the country who have told me they wish that something like Tzedek existed in their community. So while we might not statistically exist in the institutional sense, I believe we are very much alive out there in the borderlands of Jewish life. I just know in my heart that there is a place for a Jewish congregation such as ours. And while we are starting off modestly, mindful of our capacity, of what we are able and not able to do during this first year of our existence, I do believe the response we’ve received thus far indicates that the time has truly arrived for a congregation such as Tzedek Chicago.
And finally, on a personal note, I want to express once more how blessed I feel that I have been granted such an opportunity at this point in my life and my career. I am so very grateful and excited to be embarking on a journey such as this with all of you and many more who will be joining us as we make our way. I know it will be a complex and challenging journey in many ways. We’ve set our sights high and it goes without saying that we will be learning together as we go.
To be sure, it is not easy to do this kind of work. It is challenging, it is painful, it can often mean being alienated or isolated from family and friends, from the larger community. But for so many of us, we don’t have a choice but to do this work – and we know that we will ultimately find the strength to continue this work through the sacred relationships we cultivate along the way. In the end, this is a journey we have no choice but to take – and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather take it with than all of you. Speaking for myself and the leadership of Tzedek Chicago, thank you for putting your faith in us and in one another. Wherever our steps may lead us, I know we will be going from strength to strength.
And finally, please join me in expressing gratitude at having been sustained long enough to reach this incredible new season together:
Holy One of Blessing, your presence fills creation, you have given us life, sustained us and brought us all to this very sacred time together.
I’m honored and very, very excited to announce the creation of a new Jewish congregation: Tzedek Chicago. We recently held our launch program in our new home at Luther Memorial Church in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago – and I’m sure all who were present would agree there was a joyous excitement in the room as we shared our vision for our new congregation.
We’ll continue to reach out to potential members during the course of the summer and will officially kick off our religious programmatic calendar with High Holiday services this fall. I will be serving as the spiritual leader of Tzedek Chicago on a part time basis while continuing in my full time position as the Midwest Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee. I feel blessed indeed to be returning to congregational life in addition to my important work at AFSC, which has itself become a meaningful professional, spiritual and political home for me in so many ways.
How to describe our new congregation? Let me begin by sharing our core values with you:
…a Judaism beyond borders:
We celebrate with a Judaism that builds more bridges, not higher walls. Our community promotes a universalist Jewish identity – one that seeks a greater engagement in the world around us. Within our congregation, we view our diversity as our strength. Membership is not restricted to Jews or those who are partnered with Jews; our community welcomes all who share our values.
We advocate for a world beyond borders and reject the view that any one people, ethnic group or nation is entitled to any part of our world more than any other. Guided by the values in Jewish tradition that bids us to care for the earth that we share with all peoples and all life, we promote personal behaviors and public policies that will ensure preservation of our planet’s natural resources and its survival for future generations.
…a Judaism of solidarity:
We are inspired by prophetic Judaism: our tradition’s sacred imperative to take a stand against the corrupt use of power. We also understand that the Jewish historical legacy as a persecuted people bequeaths to us a responsibility to reject the ways of oppression and stand with the most vulnerable members of our society. We emphasize the Torah’s repeated teachings to stand with the oppressed and to call out the oppressor.
We actively pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”
…a Judaism of nonviolence:
We honor those aspects of our tradition that promote peace and reject the pursuit of war as a solution to our conflicts. We openly disavow those aspects of our religion – and all religions – that promote violence, intolerance and xenophobia.
Our activism is based upon a vision of shared security for the world; we support the practices of nonviolence, civil resistance, diplomacy and human engagement. We take a stand against militarism and colonialism, particularly when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.
We oppose all forms of communal, family and interpersonal violence and support organizations working to strengthen community health, and peaceful, supportive coexistence. In all aspects of our communal life, we expect our members to treat each other with respect, engagement, and openness to the differences among us.
…a Judaism of spiritual freedom:
We promote spiritual exploration and encourage our members’ diverse beliefs. Some of our members adhere to more traditional views of the divine while others view God as a human expression of our highest, most transcendent aspirations. Others do not define themselves as religious, but identify with the humanist and cultural aspects of Jewish tradition.
We honor the inherent integrity of all faith traditions and reject all forms of religious exceptionalism. We actively partner with other faith communities in ways that celebrate our shared values and common humanity. In our activism, we actively work for religious freedom in our country and throughout the world.
…a Judaism of equity
In accordance with Torah’s imperative that there should be no needy among us, we work in solidarity with those who assert that poverty has no place in a civilized and moral society – and that all people have the right to safe food and water, safe living spaces, health care and education.
We are committed to transparent and egalitarian governance and decision-making in our congregational life. We value the contributions of all members equally, regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, wealth or social standing.
…a Judaism beyond nationalism
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.
We reject any ideology that insists upon exclusive Jewish entitlement to the land, recognizing that it has historically been considered sacred by many faiths and home to a variety of peoples, ethnicities and cultures. We oppose Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people and seek a future that includes full civil and human rights for all who live in the land – Jews and non-Jews alike.
I’m leading with this list because Tzedek Chicago is first and foremost a values-based community. What we do will be deeply informed by the values that drive us. By establishing this new congregation, we are very consciously attempting to create a Jewish spiritual home for the growing numbers of American Jews who cherish these values and seek a spiritual community in which to express them.
I’ve served as a congregational rabbi in liberal Jewish congregations for most of my adult life. And while I have found this work to be professionally meaningful and spiritually nourishing in its own right, I am now eager to explore a fundamentally different approach to Jewish congregational life. In particular, I’m interested in building an intentional Jewish community that views the pursuit of social justice as its central driving force.
I realize of course, that by espousing values such as these, our new congregation crosses any number of the contemporary Jewish community’s red lines. I certainly have no illusions how a Jewish congregation describing itself as “non-Zionist” and openly protests “Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people” will be received by the Jewish establishment. Given centrality of Zionism and Israel advocacy in Jewish communal life, it would be fair to say that Tzedek Chicago is very much a dissident congregation in the Jewish world.
I do believe, however, that we must make room in our community for Jews whose values dissent from what the communal establishment deems “mainstream.” It bears noting that dissent has historically occupied a venerable and even sacred place in Jewish life. Our congregation consciously and proudly seeks to lift up this dissident legacy – one which has long been indigenous to Jewish tradition itself in so many critical ways.
Indeed, the values I’ve listed above reflect a distinct liberatory narrative that runs through the heart of Judaism and Jewish history. It is a narrative rooted in the Exodus story that tells of a God who stands by the oppressed and demands that we do the same. It resonates through the words of Biblical prophets who spoke dangerous truths to power. It can be found in the courageous example of ancient rabbis who responded to the trauma of exile at the hands of the world’s mightiest empire by creating a religion with a universal message of healing and hope.
Among other things, the founding of Tzedek Chicago is an attempt to reclaim this Jewish narrative of liberation. As such, it reflects our desire to stand down a decidedly different Jewish narrative that has taken hold of the Jewish community since the end of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel – one that teaches that traumas of the past will inevitably become our future unless the Jewish people embraces the ways of empire, nationalism, physical might and militarism.
There is clearly much more to say about this phenomenon (and those who have followed this blog surely know that I’ve had a great deal to say about it over the years.) For now I’ll only add this: there are increasing numbers who believe this new Jewish narrative represents a betrayal of our most sacred legacy – and who seek to place solidarity, liberation and justice back on the Jewish agenda.
A few more specifics about our new congregation:
– In addition to major holidays, we will be holding two Shabbat programs per month – one on Friday evening and one on Saturday morning.
– We have intentionally kept our annual dues affordable – at $150.00 per member – so that the baseline expectation for full membership can be accessible to as many as possible.
– We will provide children’s programming during the course of the year. We will not be establishing a formal religious school at the outset because we believe it should emerge organically out of the community we create (and not vice versa).
– Rather than engage in social justice activism, our community will focus on organizing to help build movements for social change. To this end, we will participate actively in the growing grassroots solidarity movement that is organizing for a just peace in Israel/Palestine. We will also participate in Chicago’s rich and venerable organizing tradition by partnering with local community groups working for justice.
Needless to say, I will be posting about the work of our new community over the coming months and years. If our values and vision resonate with you please join us. You can visit our website here and our Facebook page here. If you have questions, feel free to email us at email@example.com
Finally, as I am filled with awe and gratitude to have reached this moment, I can only conclude with:
Source of all that lives and all that is:
We are so very grateful that you have given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this very sacred new beginning.
Throughout the organized Jewish community, the mainstream media and academia, we’re hearing increasing talk of a sharp increase in anti-Semitism on American college campuses. In response to recent incidents at UCLA and elsewhere, one congregational rabbi from LA has warned of “something deeper, more troubling, insidious, and pervasive…on college campuses nationwide.” Another rabbi has declared ominously, “This is a war — a war for the heart, mind, and soul of the American university.” Barry Kosmin of Trinity College, who co-authored a recent study alleging rising antisemitism on campus, has opined that the “the events in California” were not “isolated incidents” and that this “type of hatred, stereotyping and bias is a worrying new development that suggests a generational problem.”
To judge from these comments, it would appear that colleges and universities have become virtual petri dishes of Jew-hatred. Have our campuses indeed become overrun by anti-Semitism?
I would argue that something very different is going on. As the movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel grows and student divestment campaigns increasingly find traction throughout the United States, we’re witnessing a new kind of tension forming between Palestinian solidarity activists and Israel advocates on college campuses. And while it doesn’t surprise me that some Jewish community leaders are raising the all too familiar cry of anti-Semitism, I believe it’s critical to carefully examine the context that lies beyond the hysteria.
Some background: the UCLA incident occurred last February, when a student candidate for the Judicial board of the Undergraduate Students Association was asked by a student member how, given that she was Jewish and affiliated with Jewish campus organizations, would she “see (herself) being able to maintain an unbiased view?” After a subsequent discussion, the council first voted to reject her nomination – but after a faculty adviser pointed out that it was not appropriate to view a student’s affiliation with Jewish organizations as a conflict of interest, the students voted again and unanimously approved of her nomination.
This incident, which was captured on video and posted on YouTube, led to an intense and at times painful reckoning throughout the UCLA campus community. The four students who initially opposed the student’s nomination wrote a public apology in the campus newspaper, stating that their “intentions were never to attack, insult or delegitimize the identity of an individual or people” and that they were “truly sorry for any words used during this meeting that suggested otherwise.” UCLA’s chancellor, referred to the incident as a “teaching moment.” Later, the student council unanimously passed a sweeping resolution condemning anti-Semitism.
Many observers have referred to the board members’ line of questioning as “anti-Semitic,” claiming that their questions raised the infamous anti-Jewish tropes of dual loyalties. But whether their comments were anti-Semitic, obnoxious, or merely naive, it is important to note that in the charged world of campus divestment politics, attitudes toward Jewish students – particularly those who serve on student boards – do not exist in a vacuum.
To begin with, any serious analysis of this issue must factor in the heavy-handed interventions of off-campus advocates of Israel into student politics. Perhaps the most infamous example is Adam Milstein, a businessman and convicted felon who is connected to right-wing Zionist groups and has reportedly funneled money through UCLA Hillel to influence student elections and oppose divestment campaigns.
Blogger Richard Silverstein has written extensively on the controversies surrounding Milstein’s activities at UCLA:
For at least the past three years, Milstein has donated funds via UCLA Hillel (another comprehensive review of the entire scandal is here) to support the pro-Israel student government slate Bruins United, an affiliate of Bruins for Israel. Though we know that Milstein personally donated $1,000 to the slate (e-mails confirming this are published here), he also solicited funding from other pro-Israel donors. Both he, Hillel, and the slate have refused to reveal how much external funding was given. Milstein was much more than a mere donor. He held strategy sessions with the executive candidates. He held a gala fundraising event at his home attended by Hillel staff, prospective donors, and UCLA faculty and staff. The purpose was to encourage donors to participate in the project to benefit both Hillel and Bruins United and to oppose BDS.
In addition to individual actors such as Milstein, there are many Jewish institutional initiatives (such as AIPAC Campus Initiatives, Hasbara Fellows, the JNF Campus Fellowship Program) that receive direct support from the State of Israel to train students to advocate for Israel and combat divestment initiatives. Last year, in fact, the Judicial board of the UCLA Undergraduate Students Association heard a complaint that two student government members had taken trips to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee prior to voting on a student divestment resolution.
Although this context has not been widely reported, it is crucial to our understanding of the most recent incident involving the questioning of the student Judicial board candidate. Given the high profile of professional Israel advocates in student affairs, it is fair to assume that these interventions might well affect attitudes and assumptions about the loyalties of Jewish students at UCLA.
Having said this, it would be a mistake to characterize these campus tensions in simple binary terms as a conflict between Jewish students and Palestinian solidarity activists. In truth, there is a significant and growing percentage of Jewish students actively participating in campus divestment campaigns through Students for Justice in Palestine and student chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace. I know first hand that many of them are motivated to their activism by their deeply held Jewish values of justice and the dignity of all. I took it as something of a sign of the times when just a few months ago, I was contacted by a undergraduate at Northwestern University who grew up in my congregation. This young man, whom I had not seen since his Bar Mitzvah, told me he was involved in the student divestment campaign and invited me to speak in support of it on campus.
By the same token, it would be mistaken to assume that all campus Israel advocates are necessarily Jewish. There are for instance numerous Christian Zionist campus groups that work alongside Jewish Israel advocates, the most prominent of which is CUFI on Campus – the student affiliate of Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel.
On their website, CUFI on Campus notes:
As anti-Semitic activity on American college campuses has steadily increased, CUFI recognizes that Christian students have a responsibility to speak up on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.Field Organizers travel the country actively developing student leaders. Our Field Organizers travel the country actively developing student leaders to ensure they have the skills, resources, and guidance they need to do this successfully on their campuses.
Anyone familiar with the right wing Evangelical theology of Christians United for Israel might well find it puzzling that CUFI on Campus is concerned with rising anti-Semitism on college campuses, particularly when you consider that CUFI Pastor John Hagee has long preached that the Holocaust was God’s will, that the Jewish people need to accept Jesus to avoid going to hell, and that the contemporary Zionist settlement of Israel is a necessary precursor to Armageddon.
Despite these its embrace of these wildly anti-Semitic beliefs, Jewish Federations and Zionist organizations have had no qualms about partnering with CUFI when it comes political Israel advocacy. The same can be said for student groups. Earlier this month, for instance, CUFI on Campus co-sponsored a program with Rutgers Hillel which focused, ironically enough, on “how to combat anti-Semitism.”
Given these realities, I would suggest we avoid simplistic narratives that blame Palestinian solidarity activists for creating an “unsafe environment” for Jewish students. The truth is that there are Jewish students and non- Jewish students on both sides of this issue.
We should also think seriously about what we mean by the term “unsafe” – an oft-heard complaint of Jewish Israel advocates on campus. I have no doubt that some Jewish students are uncomfortable with divestment resolutions and other actions employed by Palestinian solidarity activists. I also have no doubt that on occasion such actions might spill over into the inappropriate or offensive. But as a rabbi who has worked together with activists from SJP and JVP on several campuses over the years, I can personally attest that I have found these student leaders to be smart, passionate organizers who are motivated by deeply held anti-racist values – and who understand full well the difference between anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.
And if, on occasion, the line between the two sometimes get blurred, we might well ask ourselves: is this due to the abject Jew-hatred on the part of Palestinian solidarity activists or a contemporary Jewish communal mentality that has placed support for the State of Israel at the center of Jewish identity?
In fact, for all of the hue and cry about the rise of campus anti-Semitism, statistics show otherwise. In fact, a recent Forward editorial entitled “The Anti-Semitism Surge that Isn’t” dismissed the Trinity College report as flawed, citing studies by the Anti-Defamation League that show campus anti-Semitism is in fact at “the lowest it’s been since the ADL started keeping track in 1999:”
In its audit of 2014, set to be released April 1 and shared with the Forward, the ADL said there were 47 incidents of anti-Semitism on campuses nationwide, where hundreds of thousands of Jews study. The number organically fluctuates year to year … but this is one trend that’s unmistakeable. Overall, anti-Semitic incidents are at the lowest point in 15 years.
47 incidents of anti-Semitism on campuses nationwide. Now compare that to the institutional repression faced by Palestinian campus activists during the same year. According to Liz Jackson, a staff attorney with Palestinian Solidarity Legal Support:
The reality is that, for every real incident of anti-Semitism on campus, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support has documented many more false accusations aimed solely at thwarting serious discussions about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In 2014 alone, we documented over 240 incidents of repression and requests for legal advice, nearly 75% on campuses. These ranged from disciplinary actions against students for peaceful speech activities, to attempts to cancel events, to smear campaigns against groups, students and professors, to death threats and anti-Arab and Islamophobic slurs and assaults against activists because they voiced their views. Virtually all of these cases resulted from unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism and unrelenting pressure from Israel advocacy groups to censor and punish those organizing and engaging in speech activities advocating for Palestinian rights. So far this year, we have already documented over 80 such cases, 40 of which occurred in California.
In the end, I would suggest this concern over the “new campus anti-semitism” is really a red herring. Anti-semitism, like all forms of racism should certainly be condemned and stood down in no uncertain terms. But for all the concern over anti-Jewish attitudes, it is worth noting that Jewish students and Israel advocates face absolutely no institutional restrictions to their cause or to their freedom of speech on campus.
It is far from clear that the same could be said for students who advocate on behalf of Palestinian rights.
Last 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.
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.