God is Close to the Broken Hearted: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5775

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One of the most celebrated rabbinical debates in Jewish tradition comes from the Midrash, as a commentary on the book of Leviticus. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ben Azzai, two 2nd century rabbinical sages are going at it, each challenging each other to pick the one verse that sums up the essence of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba opens by quoting Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For his part, Rabbi Ben Azzai chooses the verse from Genesis 5:1: “When God created humankind, God created humankind in God’s image.”

There are many interpretations of this Midrash: one of the more common ones views Akiba’s approach as the more particularistic philosophy: Judaism is rooted in the idea that we should love those around us – our family, friends and community – as we would love ourselves. Ben Azzai’s, one the other hand is more universal: Torah teaches that we should respect and honor all people whether we are in direct relationship with them or not.

Even beyond the content of this debate, however, I find its very premise to be extremely interesting. These two rabbis are doing more than just playing a pedagogical game here: they are challenging each other to offer their own personal take on their spiritual tradition. They are urging each other to take a stand – to go out on a limb and say out loud once and for all what they believe Judaism ultimately stands for.

I believe their challenge is our challenge as well. Jewish tradition is a rich and vast sacred repository – and one that can mean many things to many people. In a sense, I think we all remake Judaism in our own image, depending on our own particular predilections. Another sage, in a famous verse from Pirke Avot says this about Torah: “Turn it over, turn it over, because everything is in it.” In truth, you can find pretty much anything in Jewish tradition to support your worldview. Like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ben Azzai, each of us must make hard, conscious choices about those aspects of Judaism we will choose to celebrate and carry forward. For those of us who identify as Jews and with Jewish tradition, the question before us is not so much “what is Judaism?” but rather “what is the Judaism we will affirm?”

For this, my final sermon as your rabbi, I’d like to try and answer this question personally; to leave you with a few final thoughts about the kind of Judaism that I choose to affirm.  By my count, this will be my 68th sermon as rabbi of JRC – and whether they’ve inspired, enraged or bored you over the years, I will say the High Holidays have given me the amazing, often humbling opportunity to express myself publicly to my community. Of course, like all of us, my Jewish sensibilities have always been a work in progress.  I know I wouldn’t have given the sermon I’m giving now before I entered rabbinical school, nor would I have given it precisely this way when I came to Evanston to be your rabbi seventeen years ago.

But this is, I believe, as it should be. After all, as Reconstructionists, we hold that Jewish civilization is an ever-evolving organism from generation to generation. So too, it seems to me, that each of us is developing a sense of Judaism informed by our own growth, our own ongoing experience and changing sense of the world around us.

At the same time, however, it’s fascinating to me to chart the common denominators that remain firm over time, the parts of our vision that remain sacred and unshakable – the essence that Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai were so keen on uncovering together.

So with this in mind, I’d like to start by reading to you an excerpt from a sermon I gave during my first High Holidays at JRC, back in 1998. I’ll confess that I’m not in the habit of re-reading my sermons – and having just done it, I think I now know why. There were more than a few times in which I rolled my eyes at my own wisdom.  Thankfully, however, there were also some parts that truly felt as if I had written them yesterday.

Here’s the excerpt:

I would also claim that the power for renewal and rebirth is woven into the fabric of our lives. There are times for all of us where pain is all we know – times when it its impossible to envision the darkness ever truly lifting.

Those who have lost loved ones know this experience well. The first year of bereavement is considered to be a time of intense and sometimes crippling emotional pain. There is a gamut of uncontrollable feelings, from shock to rage; guilt to sadness and despair. It is also a time of isolation, when the mourner feels as if he or she dwells in a different emotional kingdom than the rest of the world.

Still, when we grieve in a healthy way, we eventually discover an eternal, almost miraculous truth: the heart heals. Like a deep physical wound, there is pain and there is trauma, but there is also healing if we manage to recuperate properly. In the case of grieving, this means finding a way or a place to express our emotions honestly. It means finding outlets through ritual. It means attaching ourselves to a community or support system. Most of all, it means allowing ourselves to be mourners, and giving ourselves the time and the permission to heal.

In any kind of healing however – whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual – we need to let go of the expectation that we’ll will end up the exactly the way we were. Pain is transformative in ways that we often don’t fully understand. Though there is healing, the physical and emotional scars will still remain. We have found our way back, but our lives have been transformed. We are not the same people any more.

Still, this transformation is not a wholly negative one. I am often told by people that they never really felt they had a spiritual life until they experienced some kind of pain or loss. To be sure, pain and loss are not certainly not pleasant experiences, and they are not they kind of things we would wish on ourselves. Nevertheless, through our trials we often manage to get in touch with parts of ourselves, parts of our souls that we never knew existed. Pain can offer us a spiritual opening. As we read in the Psalms, “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”

Judaism, at its core, is a tradition that affirms meaning in the face of disorder. It affirms our ability to overcome the chaos that often enters our lives. We may not always have faith in our tradition, but our tradition does have faith in us. As surely and inevitably as the cycle of the seasons, we have the power to start anew, to emerge whole from our hurt and our losses and our pain.

As I re-read these words, I believe I can honestly say they reflect a critical aspect of Judaism that I’ve been carrying forward for most of my adult life. I believe Judaism at its core is a tradition that affirms order in the face of chaos; a tradition that affirms, despite all indications to the contrary, we can heal what is broken. I’d like to think that if I was playing the debate game with Akiba and Ben Azzai, I may well have chosen that gorgeous line from the Psalms as my verse: “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”

I do believe that this verse has been weaving its way through Jewish tradition and Jewish history, in a sense, for time immemorial. We might date it back to the paradigmatic moment in which Judaism itself was forged, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a mythic moment of brokenness that resonates in so many ways in our collective psyche as Jews and as human beings.

We might well look at the moment known as the Churban as one of those paradigmatic “push/pull” moments I spoke of on Rosh Hashanah. The destruction of the Temple represents a timeless moment of pain and blood and turmoil that sent us out of the land and birthed us into the world as we know it.

It certainly represented the beginnings of Judaism as we now know it. After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism became, in a sense, a kind of spiritual road map for charting the reality of exile. But Jewish tradition didn’t only respond to the physical reality of exile – it viewed exile (or “galut”) as a spiritual and existential reality.  This, I believe, represents the intrinsic beauty and genius of the Jewish conception of peoplehood: we took our own unique experience and universalized it into a spiritual statement about the human condition. Because one way or another, we are all wanderers. One way or another, we all know the experience of being strangers in a strange land.

And so, from this moment of tragedy and pain, we grew up. We transformed an ancient cultic civilization into a worldwide spiritual peoplehood. We spiritualized the concepts of Temple and homeland and became a globally based, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation that viewed the entire world as its “home” and sought to perfect it. Our experience of exile became, as it were, a spiritual prism through which we viewed the world and our place in it. It might well be claimed that centuries of Jewish religious creativity resulted from this profound existential mindset.

In one of my very favorite midrashim, Rabbi Akiba teaches, “Wherever the people of Israel were exiled, the Divine Presence was exiled with them.”   I find this notion – the concept of “God in exile” to be such a powerful and radical theological image. Again, “Karov adonai l’mishberei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.” Judaism as we know it arose to assert that no matter what happens, God is with us wherever we go. Despite the experience of exile, the Jewish people would always be “home.” God was no longer geographically specific to one building or place. God was the place – HaMakom.  Spiritual meaning and fulfillment could now be found throughout the world, wherever the Jewish people might travel and create community.

I also believe that the destruction of the Temple birthed another central Jewish ideal, the idea best summed up by the famous line from Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” In a way, when the Jewish people finally fell victim to the mighty Roman empire, this ironically marked a victory for a central rabbinic precept: there is a Power even greater than the mightiest empire. That in the long run, those who put their faith in the physical might of powerful empires are, if you will, betting on the wrong horse.

This, in fact, is one classical rabbinic interpretation of the story of Jacob’s dream. According to a well-known midrash, the various ascending and descending angels on Jacob’s ladder represent the rising and falling fortunes of the various empires to which the Jewish people would be exiled. First the angel representing Babylonia ascends 70 rungs, (for seventy years of exile) then descends. Next the angel representing the Persian Empire ascends and falls, as does the angel representing the Greek empire. Only the fourth angel, representing the Roman Empire keeps climbing higher and higher into the clouds. Since Rome was represented in the Rabbinic imagination by Jacob’s twin brother Esau, Jacob fears that his children would never be free of Esau’s domination. But God assures Israel that in the end, even the mighty Roman Empire will fall as well.  And so it has been – throughout the centuries, many powerful empires have come and gone but the Jewish people still survive. Why? Because we put our faith in a Power yet greater. Greater than Pharoah, greater than Rome, greater than the myriad of empires we’ve seen enter and exit over the centuries.

The rabbis also knew all too well that prior to the destruction of the Temple, the last Jewish dance with empire was a fairly ignoble story in the annals of Jewish history.  I’m talking about the Hasmonean kingdom that was established in the wake of the Maccabees victory. The Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family who had fought against the Hellenized Jews of its day, eventually became fairly Hellenized itself. And when they weren’t persecuting the rabbinic Pharisees (our spiritual ancestors) they were busy killing one another and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations.

In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence lasted less than one hundred years. It’s not a coincidence that the rabbis chose Zechariah – and the verse “not by might and not by power” to be read as the Haftarah portion for the Shabbat of Hanukah.

And what is at the core of this Power we speak of? I’ll return to my earlier verse: “Karov Adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the brokenhearted.” I believe this this theological statement, so resonant on a personal and pastoral level, is equally powerful on a political and prophetic level as well. In other words: in every generation, God stands with the oppressed and calls out their oppressor. God is the Power that gives the gives strength to the marginalized and the vulnerable; the Power that causes even the mightiest of persecutors to eventually fall.

I think there is a profound message here for all religious communities. When it comes to the political use of religion, I believe the fusing of religion and empire has historically represented religion at its very worst. Jews historically know this all too well. But when religion is wedded to movements that speak truth to power and make demands upon it – whether it be the civil rights movement in this country, the struggles against the juntas of Latin America, or the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany – this is when we’ve witnessed religion at its very best.

My own thinking in this regard has been influenced significantly in recent years by reading the works of liberation theologians – Christian religious thinkers who promote this theology on behalf of liberation movements throughout the world. Liberation theology has its roots in Latin American Catholic figures of the 1950s and 60s, but it has since expanded to include African-American, feminist and Palestinian Christian theologies as well.

Lately I’ve begun to do some thinking and writing about what a Jewish theology of liberation might somehow look like – and as I’ve considered it, it seems to me that so many of these themes are deeply embedded in Judaism already: the Biblical imperatives to protect the stranger and the poor, the prophetic denunciation of the hypocrisy of the privileged, the rabbinic rejection of the corrupt power of empire, not to mention our historical experience of marginalization – an experience that has influenced our collective Jewish identity in so many profound ways.

This, I would submit, is one of the most central challenges of Judaism in the 21st century – particularly American Judaism. In an era in which we enjoy the benefits of power and privilege in unprecedented ways, will we affirm a Judaism that unabashedly proclaims God is close to the broken hearted and the down-trodden, or will we venerate the God of physical might and power over others?

I know I’ve asked versions of this question in a myriad of ways during the High Holidays – they have certainly been central to my work as a rabbi, both inside and outside the congregation. But in the end, if I was to identify one central sacred value in my work, it has been this: Judaism teaches that there is nothing so broken in our lives or our world that cannot be made whole once again.

Whether you agree with what I’ve said, in whole in part, or not at all, I’m grateful as always for the opportunity to share these words with you. Please accept them with the encouragement, as I said at the outset, to think more consciously about what Judaism you affirm, what Jewish values you consider to be the most sacred and unshakable – and how you will bear witness to them in the world. What is your Torah – and how will you advocate for it in the year and years to come?

I’d to conclude on a note of thanks – for the honor of letting me into your lives and for being allowed to guide this very special community. I’ve spoken many words to you from this podium over the years, but words cannot do justice to the myriad of emotions I’m feeling on this final High Holidays with you all.

I’ll end now with a short poem, my recent reworking of Psalm 66 – which probably says what I’ve been trying to say here today better (and much more briefly):

shout aloud for the one that is mightier
than any human power, soaring farther
than any eye can see, than any mind
can possibly fathom.

close your eyes just for a moment and see
if you are able this plenitude that
never ceases, this grace-filled universe
that gives and gives again but
is never depleted.

give glory to the one that cannot be contained
by any ideology, dogma or creed, greater than
religion, greater than god, do you think
you possibly can?

now empty your mind of judgment and
send up praises for this pain,
for this soul that can be trampled but
never broken, this spirit that endures
through white-hot fire and raging torrents
only to be reborn anew.

Thank you all.


The Push and the Pull: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

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Like most Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah goes by many names. We refer to the Jewish New Year as Yom HaDin, “The Day of Judgment;” we call it Yom Teruah “The Day of the Sounding of the Shofar;” or Yom Hazikaron “The Day of Remembrance.” I’d like to suggest another possible name to this list: Yom Yetziat Beiteinu – “The Day of our Leaving Home.”

Just think about it. In its way, Rosh Hashanah is a kind of spiritual farewell. On Rosh Hashanah, we take our leave. We say goodbye to the familiarity of a year that’s past, a year still resonant with memories, and prepare ourselves to head out into the unknown – a year yet to unfold. Indeed, the predominant emotions of this season are consonant with spiritual leave taking. It is a season of hope, of anticipation, of trepidation, of remembrance, of introspection.

You probably know where I’m going with this. This Rosh Hashanah, our JRC family is experiencing these emotions in a very real and immediate way. Tonight I am acutely aware that this is my final Rosh Hashanah with JRC – and that Hallie and I will soon be leaving the community that has been our spiritual home for the past 17 years. I’m also mindful that a new chapter will soon be beginning for JRC.

I’ll have more to say about the latter tomorrow – for tonight, I’d like to try and express a little bit about what this moment means for me – to share some of the spiritual lessons I’ve learned through this process of leave-taking. I offer these remarks with the hope that they might be of some help to us during this transitional season – one that is doubly transitional for our JRC family.

It actually occurs to me that Jewish tradition has a great deal to say about the spiritual practice of “leaving home.” If you stop to think of it, just about every classic story in the Torah involves individuals leaving home. And as a result, they are transformed in important and fundamental ways.

The first example, of course, occurs when Adam and Eve depart from the Garden of Eden. As I read this story, I’m struck that Adam and Eve experience their exit from Eden as the result of both a push and a pull. Yes, they are sent out of the Garden by God as a consequence of their actions, but the story makes it clear that they were compelled to eat from the Tree of Knowledge because they saw the fruit as beautiful and desirable, and they knew that once they ate of it, their eyes would be opened to the world.

So although it is traditional to view their departure in terms of punishment, I prefer to view their exit from the Garden as a moment of transformation. Their leave-taking is borne, yes, out of turmoil and struggle, but these are inevitable and perhaps necessary aspects of their transformation.

In a sense, we might read the Adam and Eve story as a spiritual allegory about leaving childhood behind. In Eden, they lived in the comfort of a naive and childlike existence, a Garden in which they wanted for nothing. Yes, when they ate of the fruit, they experienced pain in leaving the only home they had ever known – but at the same time they also became more fully human. They left Eden, a place where each day was essentially like the one before, for a more dynamic world: a place of potential; where transformation, growth and change are always around the corner.

Another paradigmatic “leaving-home story” occurs when God comes to Abraham and Sarah and tells them to leave their native land and head out to a place that God will show them. And in this instance as well, they experience both a push as well as a pull. According to a collection of well-known midrashim, when Abraham leaves his native home of Ur Kasdin, he is fleeing from an angry father and a murderous king who, shall we say, don’t exactly appreciate his way of viewing the world.

At the same time, we read in the Torah how Abraham and Sarah receive an invitation from God, how they were compelled to leave the comforts of their home for a land they do not yet know. And in truth, their final destination isn’t really all that important. It’s the act of leave-taking itself, the painful moment they leave behind the known for nothing more than a promise – this is the moment that defines their spiritual transformation.

The most dramatic and epic leave-taking moment in the Torah of course, occurs when the Israelites leave Egypt. Yet again, they experience both a push and a pull, both the oppression of their enslavement as well as the promise of their liberation. Just like Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah before them, the Israelites leave-taking involves great struggle and turmoil. It is, as we know, story with many casualties. Indeed, we recall them in great detail around the seder table every year: the terror of the 12 Plagues, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the waters of the Red Sea. Once again, we learn, leaving home is not an easy or painless experience.

And yet again, the Israelites leave behind the known for the unknown. They escape into the wilderness, where most of the action of the Torah takes place. Yes, the wilderness is wild and uncharted, but, notably, it is also the place where God is encountered. Interestingly, the word for “wilderness,” “midbar” and the Hebrew verb “to speak,” “l’daber” share a common root. The Torah may be suggesting here an important connection between the wilderness and speech – more precisely divine speech.

In other words, when we leave the comfort and familiarity of home and head into the elemental terrain of the wilderness, the voice of God is that much more accessible to us.  In this regard, I think the wilderness represents an existential place far from the surface noise of artifice and self. The journey into the wilderness is not only geographic, but experiential: it leads both to the outermost reaches of terrain and the innermost reaches of the human soul. This is the place, in short, where the Divine Presence dwells.

In a very real way, I believe our tradition is teaching us that we must continually leave home if we are to truly live. While we may well yearn for the comforts of home and hearth, home can too often become a place where comfort turns to complacency – a place we use to escape reality rather than truly experience it.

So in a sense, our lives are filled with moments of “home-leavings.” Sooner or later, we all reach a point in which we find we really have no choice. Yes, it’s usually not a particularly pleasurable experience; it generally involves some measure of push and pull, of struggle and turmoil. But when we find the strength and the courage to take a step beyond our front door, when we embrace the unknown terrain outside, when we truly encounter the world – these are the moments in which we come face to face with our most authentic selves.

Whether we prefer to call this “spiritual experience,” “inner growth,” or “personal transformation,” we leave home whenever we listen to a voice from deep within that tells us to depart from our comfort zones, to leave the familiar and the known behind, to head out with no guarantees. To struggle into our future with nothing but a promise beckoning to us from far away. And often, it seems to me, we’re so busy with the struggle we don’t even recognize that we’ve been involved in the process of leaving home for quite some time.

I’m sure you have all had these moments. I’d like to share one of my own with you now.

As many of you know, several years ago my relationship to Israel changed in a very profound and public way. As look back, I realize now that it was not a one-time event, but rather the culmination of a process that I had been experiencing consciously and unconsciously for many years. But when it finally occurred, it was a moment of leave-taking for me. To put it more specifically, I was taking a step out of a comfortable home that had been my Jewish identity for so many years of my life. And while this step came with no small measure of personal struggle and anguish, I knew – and I still know – that it was a step that I had to take.

The politics of all this are really not all that important to my point right now. Whether or not you happen agree with my politics, I think we can all recall those times we experienced a significant transition, usually involving some element of turmoil and struggle, a push and a pull, a process by which we eventually took a step out of the comforts of the known into the wilderness of the unknown.

At the time, it did indeed feel like I was entering a wilderness. And as liberating as it was to be able to speak my truth out loud, I was also terrified. I wasn’t sure I remain a rabbi and say these things. In some very deep place I wondered if I could even be a Jew and say such things. However, I soon found that the waters parted, if you will. I discovered that I could indeed find my way through this radically new terrain – due in no small part to this remarkable congregation.

I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had done and said these things in any other synagogue, I would have been given my walking papers immediately. JRC, however, is not any other synagogue. Our congregation has a long history of heading courageously into areas not typically embraced by the Jewish communal mainstream and together, finding its way through. And in this case, that meant that our leadership continually supported their rabbi’s right to follow his conscience on this most volatile of issues, even when it elicited strong criticism from inside and outside our congregation.

I will be forever grateful that JRC has been willing to accompany me through this difficult and often treacherous wilderness for the past several years. I’ve never underestimated the stress it put on us all, but as we’ve made our way, I’ve consistently heartened by the knowledge that I could continue to do this work as a congregational rabbi – and in particular, as JRC’s rabbi.

Indeed, for the duration of my entire rabbinical career, I’ve fervently believed that the mission of a congregational rabbi is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” In other words, I’ve always viewed both the “pastoral” and the “prophetic” as two essential poles of a rabbi’s job description. That’s not to say that these two poles do not cause tension at times, but I’ve always believed that a good rabbi was one who could combine them to create a creative tension and not a destructive one.

When I started down this new road, I think it was clear to most at JRC that I was not the rabbi they had hired ten years earlier. But it was profoundly heartening for me to know that JRC was able to adjust to the reality of their “new rabbi.” I was immensely proud that the response of our congregation was not to panic or to order me to “cease and desist or else” – but rather to create a method for true congregational conversation; our “Sicha Process” – a framework of civil discourse that would allow our congregation to create a safe space where all points of view could be heard and respected.

I regret deeply that in more recent years, our Sicha Process broke down. There is more to say about what happened, particularly the painful upheaval that has occurred at our congregation over the past year over my ongoing activism. Our board has already provided some opportunities for members to share their thoughts with one another over what has occurred and I know there will be more such opportunities in the future.

For now, I will only say this: I know my activism caused great pain to some of our members. The resulting turmoil was immensely painful and at times, ugly. The resulting upheaval has caused me great anguish as well. And as I’ve written to our members, my decision to leave JRC was in large part a decision I made for my own personal well-being.

However, if I’m going to be fully honest, I must also be ready to admit that my decision to leave JRC is being motivated by both a push and a pull. I must also be ready to admit that for some years now I’ve been going down a path that has slowly been pulling me away from the congregational rabbinate and toward a rabbinate more directly defined by social justice activism.

Now that I’ve made this decision, I can more clearly see how powerful this pull has been for me – and how the tensions it has caused at JRC were inevitable in so many ways. I’ve also come to understand how our recent congregational turmoil, painful though it has been, may well represent the birth pangs of a necessary new chapter for me and for our congregational family.

I’ve been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years – most of them here at JRC – and this has unquestionably been a deeply fulfilling period of my life. In recent years, it has been enormously challenging and even frightening for me to acknowledge that my activism might somehow pull me away from work that I love and the congregation that I have cherished for so many years.

But I’m ready to admit now that my journey has been leading me in a new direction. I’m ready to leave home. With hope, and admittedly with no small measure of trepidation, I am looking to this moment as an opportunity for new beginnings and possibilities I might never have imagined for myself. I genuinely wish the same for our JRC family – and know in my heart that this will invariably be the case.

As I said earlier, I will have more to say tomorrow about my hopes and dreams for our congregation as it begins this new chapter, but for now, I’d like to take my cue from the sacred season we’ve just begun. For tonight, I want to address you as individuals and present you with this challenge: How will you leave the familiarity of your home in the coming year? What pushes and pulls are you experiencing in this particular moment in your life? In what ways will you challenge your sense of comfort and complacency and find the strength to venture into unknown territory? To a place that holds out a promise, but no guarantees?

For some of you, this coming year might be a time of a significant life transition. How might you mark this experience so that it offers you real potential for transformation and growth? For others, this year might be not all that different from the last. How will you challenge that comfortable sameness? What might you do to, in a sense, build the doorway that leads you outward?

Now I am well aware – perhaps now more than ever – that going forth is no easy matter. I’d never dare say to someone who has to leave all she’s ever known, “Don’t worry, you’re actually gaining an opportunity for a deeper spiritual life.” I’m also aware that it’s all well and good for me to rhapsodize about the spiritual importance of leaving home when the homelessness is such a very real issue for us around the world and in our own country. Believe me, I know it’s all too easy for those of us who actually have actual homes to wax romantic about the experience of leaving home.

It’s not a simple matter at all to leave that which we know for that which we don’t.  Living as we do in a middle class culture that venerates comfort and security, it might seem like a radical suggestion that we should leave it all behind.  But what is our alternative?  Think about it. At the end of the day, we all have to leave home. Sooner or later, we all will have to leave what it is that we’ve come to know, cross over that threshold and greet the unknown.

After all, the most two basic aspects of life itself – namely, birth and death – are both essentially forms of leave taking.  In both cases – when we’re born and when we die – we leave the familiar comfort of the present for the uncomfortable unknown of the future.  In both cases, we resist leaving the comfort of our current “home” with everything in our being. But in both cases, staying home is simply not an option.

Our liturgy and rituals over the next ten days will offer us an incredibly precious spiritual gift: the opportunity to wrestle with the deepest, most element truths of our lives and our world. In the coming year we will face a myriad of transitions, large and small. For me and for JRC, this will be a year of significant transition and change, some of it known, most of it unknown. How can we enter a new year with such radical uncertainty?

For now, at least, we will come together. We will offer up prayers that express our most honest confessions and deepest longings. We will pray for a year of blessing. We will look to the future with optimism and hope. Ready and willing to embrace whatever blessings may come.

Baruch atah b’voecha, Baruch atah b’tzeitecha – in our coming home, in our leaving home, may we always travel in God’s presence, and in that presence may we find abundant health, wholeness, peace and Shalom.

Amen.


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.


Israel in Gaza: A Statement by the JVP Rabbinical Council

photo: AFP: Menahem Kahana

photo: AFP: Menahem Kahana

Cross-posted with The Palestinian Talmud

We are currently amidst “the three weeks” – the annual Jewish period of quasi-mourning that leads to the fast day of Tisha B’Av. This is the season that bids us to look deeply into the soul of our community and examine the ways that our sinat chinam – baseless hatred – has led to our communal downfall.

Driven by the spirit of this season, we cannot help but speak out in response to the horrific loss of life currently taking place in Gaza, at the hands of the Israeli military. We deplore the Israeli government’s military crackdown in the West Bank that led to its lethal, military onslaught on the people of Gaza.  We mourn the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, including children.

We condemn Hamas’ rockets attacks on Israel and are deeply grieved by the anxiety, injury and death they have caused. But we cannot view this as a war between two equal sides. Israel has unlimited hi-tech weaponry; it dominates Gazan airspace, its borders, its utilities and economy.

Moreover, it was Israel who willfully launched this mission of death on the Palestinian people. Israel hides behind the pretext of avenging the still unsolved kidnapping and killing of three Jewish boys. Rather than seeking recourse through civil, legal means, Israel’s leaders have called for vengeance, with terrible consequences.

We can not stand idly by as the Jewish State acts with such wanton disregard, with such sinat chinam, for the humanity of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, children and elders of Gaza.

As Jews, we abhor the abuse of human rights that are standard practice of our fellow Jews in the Israeli government and Israeli military. This is not the path of justice.

As rabbis, we must speak out against collective punishment, the blowing up homes of innocent people, the terrorizing of an entire people, and the killing of innocent children.

This Jewish season asks us to engage in a collective moral accounting; to reckon seriously with the ways our own failings have historically led to our communal downfall. Mindful of this spiritual imperative, we call upon the government of Israel to end its military onslaught, which we believe will only lead to more tragedy for Jews and Palestinians alike.

We stand with all people of conscience who reject the ways of militarism and occupation and who seek a path to a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.

*Statements of the JVP Rabbinical Council represent the council as a whole but not necessarily individual members


Israel in Gaza: Investigating the Ethics of a War of Choice

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

photo by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

In Michael Mitchell’s recent piece for Forward Thinking “Israel’s Moral Army?” (July 18, 2014), Mitchell impressively deconstructs the Israel Defense Force’s conduct during its current military operation in Gaza. Using a variety of pedagogical criteria (international law, Jewish tradition, ethical theory) he ultimately challenges Israel’s claim to being a “moral army” (or to use an title often wielded by its politicians and supporters, “the most moral army in the world.”)

Mitchell notes that while there is “evidence that Israel is taking significant measures to minimize civilian deaths,” it is also “quite possible that innocent people have been killed by IDF decisions to strike a target when it knew that doing so could put civilians at risk.”

He thus concludes:

If the IDF aspires to be a “moral army,” especially one that affirms both the universal dignity of each human life and the respect for the human embodiment of the divine image particular to the Jewish ethical tradition, it is in these instances that its conduct falls from regrettable to wrong.

Given the overwhelming support for “Operation Protective Edge” throughout Israel, the American political world and the American Jewish establishment, it is courageous indeed for Mitchell, a Tel Aviv resident, to openly label the IDF’s actions in Gaza as “ethically wrong.” But beyond his relatively narrow analysis of the ethics of warfare, there are larger issues he leaves crucially unexamined.

Most notably, while Mitchell invokes the principles of self-defense in wartime, he ignores the broader question of whether or not this war itself is, as Israel claims, an actual war of self-defense. Indeed, while Israeli and American politicians – and Israel-supporters the world over – have been defending Israel’s actions in Gaza by invoking Israel’s right to self-defense against Hamas rocket fire, the timeline of events leading up to Israel’s military assault on Gaza suggests otherwise.

According to the terms of the last cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas, signed back in November 2012, Hamas agreed to cease its rocket attacks against Israel, while Israel agreed to “stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land sea and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals.” Since that time, as Forward Editor-in-Chief JJ Goldberg recently pointed out, “Hamas hadn’t fired a single rocket …and had largely suppressed fire by smaller jihadi groups.” By comparison, Israel continuously violated the terms of the cease-fire during those two years with repeated military incursions and targeted assassinations into Gaza. Israel also failed to “facilitate the freedom of movement and transfer of goods within Gaza” as the terms of the cease-fire had stipulated.

This past April, Israel stepped up its rhetoric against Hamas following the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Then in June, Netanyahu publicly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping/murder of three Israeli teenagers – even though he provided no evidence to support his claims and Hamas repeatedly denied any responsibility.  It is now known that Israeli politicians and military leaders knew full well that the teens had been murdered shortly after their abduction – using the pretense of their kidnapping to brutally crack down on Hamas members in the West Bank and to re-arrest former security prisoners who had been released during the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap.

As Israeli public pressure to find the teens reached a fever pitch, right-wing Israeli politicians began to pressure Netanyahu to launch a military operation against Gaza. As Goldberg noted:

In Gaza, leaders went underground. Rocket enforcement squads stopped functioning and jihadi rocket firing spiked. Terror squads began preparing to counterattack Israel through tunnels. One tunnel exploded on June 19 in an apparent work accident, killing five Hamas gunmen, convincing some in Gaza that the Israeli assault had begun while reinforcing Israeli fears that Hamas was plotting terror all along.

On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire was over.

In other words, we cannot view the IDF’s actions during Operation Protective Edge in a vacuum. While Mitchell’s effectively analyzes Israel’s behavior vis a vis the ethics of wartime self-defense, he fails to reckon with the hard fact that Israel’s latest military adventure in Gaza was clearly a war of choice, initiated with cynically political designs.

If we factor in this larger perspective, the ethical categories invoked by Mitchell may well have deeper and more profound implications. For instance, Mitchell cites the Torah’s verse, “Justice, justice shalt thou follow” (Deuteronomy 16:20) together with Jewish value of Pikuach Nefesh (“saving a life”) to make the point that “we must be just not only because it’s right, but because by doing so we ourselves may live.” But while he applies this concept to the context of an army’s actions during wartime, it might be more appropriately invoked in regards to the sacred imperative to work for a just peace to the tragic crisis in Gaza.

If Israel was truly interested in following the course of justice in order to preserve life, it could have dropped its abject refusal to deal with Hamas following the November 2012 cease-fire and pursued further negotiations aimed at ending its crushing siege. It could have sought the course of diplomatic engagement – a truly just attempt at peace rather than merely a lull between its now regular military assaults into Gaza.

Moreover, when Hamas and Fatah announced its reconciliation agreement, Israel’s leaders could have seen this as an opportunity to enter into dialogue with a more unified and representative Palestinian leadership rather than reject another chance to engage in a truly authentic peace process. Instead, they opted for yet another brutally violent onslaught on Gaza that has, as of this writing, killed 370 Palestinians, including 228 civilians, 77 children and 56 women, as well as 18 Israelis.

In other words, before we seek to unpack the ethical question of whether or not the IDF can claim the title of “the most moral army in the world,” it might well behoove us to ask ourselves whether or not these useless, tragic wars need to be fought in the first place.

Israel on the 17th of Tammuz: Confronting the Enemy Within

Cross-posted with Tikkun Daily:

Yesterday the Jewish world observed the fast day known as Shiv’ah Asar Be’Tammuz, (the 17th of Tammuz), a communal day of quasi-mourning that commemorates among other things, the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Roman army in 70 CE, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Interestingly enough, the 17th of Tammuz – as well as the upcoming fast day of Tisha B’Av – is not so much a day of anger directed toward our enemies, as much as an occasion for soul searching over the ways our own behavior too often leads to our downfall. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), for instance, the fall of the First Temple was due to the idolatry while the destruction of the Second Temple was caused by sinat chinam – the “baseless hatred” of Jew against Jew.

I would submit that this year, the 17th of Tammuz has an all-too-tragic resonance, particularly given the internecine violence currently being waged on Israeli streets. Case in point: this past Saturday in Tel Aviv, in which hundreds of peaceful anti-war protesters were set upon by a violent mob whipped up by popular right-wing Israeli rapper Yoav Eliasi (whose stage name is “The Shadow.”)

According to reports in the Israeli press, Eliasi and his followers angrily confronted and intimidated demonstrators – and when an air raid siren caused the crowd to disperse, they chased them through the streets and attacked them with clubs. During the melee, the sky lit up as a Gazan missile was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.

In an extensive post for +972mag, Israeli journalist Haggai Matar reported that one demonstrator had a chair broken over his head and had to be evacuated to hospital. Others were punched, pushed, had eggs thrown at them or were attacked with pepper spray. According to witnesses, police did little to stop the violence and in the end, no arrests were made. (The Shadow later bragged about the support of Israeli police on his Facebook page.)

In what is undoubtedly the most deeply disturbing aspect of this entire affair was the discovery that some of the right-wing thugs who attacked the demonstrators wore T-shirts bearing a popular neo-Nazi symbol. According to a report in Ha’aretz:

As shown on journalist Tal Schneider’s Hebrew-language blog, some of the right-wingers wore T-shirts bearing the slogan “Good night left side.”

Neo-Nazis in Europe wear shirts with this phrase, which accompanies an image of a man attacking a left-wing activist, denoted by a star or anarchy symbol. The online store Final Resistance offers clothing bearing neo-Nazi slogans – popular attire at rock concerts by far-right bands.

If you’re still incredulous, check out this image below, from the Facebook page Occupy Judaism:

In a scathing editorial, Ha’aretz laid the blame on ultra-nationalist Israeli politicians for inciting and encouraging this ominously rising violence and for refusing “to internalize the real danger inherent in the type of violence displayed on Saturday.”  This is, indeed, one of the central messages of the 17th of Tammuz: for all of the concern about our external enemies, we ignore the dangers growing within our own community at our peril.

I can think of no more sobering example than this recent instance of Jews in fascist regalia violently attacking peaceful Jewish anti-war demonstrators while a missile launched out of Gaza literally explodes over their heads.


Empathy, Not Vengeance: A Rabbinical View on the Recent Violence in Israel/Palestine

Naftali-Frenkel-Gilad-Shaar-e-Eyal-Yifrach

Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar

Cross-posted with The Palestinian Talmud: Blog of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

03FAMILY2-master180

Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir

Like so many throughout the world, we grieve the loss of Naftali Frenkel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar – the three Israeli teens who were found murdered this week near their homes in Hevron. The loss of children through acts of violence strikes at the very core of our souls – we can only hope the outpouring of grief being exhibited throughout the world for these three young men is providing a measure of comfort to their parents and loved ones.

And just as fervently, we grieve for Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir, murdered in an apparent “price tag” act of vengeance for the deaths of the three Israeli youths. We also note with sorrow that at least eight Palestinians were killed by the Israeli military during the weeks following the abduction of the three Israeli boys, including 10-year-old Ali al-Awour, 15-year-old Mohammad Dudeen and 22-year-old Mustafa Hosni Aslan. Ali died of wounds from an Israeli missile strike in northern Gaza; Mohammad was killed by a single live bullet in the village of Dura; Mustafa was killed by live bullets in Qalandiya refugee camp during clashes with an Israeli military raid.

aliabdellatifawwar.gazanewsalert.11june2014

Ali al-Awour

We are also not unmindful that, according to the Israeli human rights organization, B’tselem, over 1,384 Palestinian minors have been killed by the Israeli military since 2000. Indeed, as the Jewish Voice for Peace statement issued yesterday affirms, “we refuse to mourn only the deaths of Palestinians, or only the deaths of Israelis. But that does not mean we can ignore the enormous power difference between Israelis and Palestinians, or pretend it is just a ‘cycle of violence’ with no root cause or context. Each of these horrific incidents that harms both peoples happen in the context of an ongoing occupation, itself inherently a system of daily violence. And it is a system that by its very nature puts the lives, dignity, and human rights of all in jeopardy.”

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Mohammad Dudeen

Just as we must understand the larger context of violence in which these acts occurred, we must also search our own souls to examine the ways in which we, as Jews, respond to our Jewish losses. We believe that too often, we use our grief as a barrier between our community and the outside world. We withdraw into our pain, holding tight to the conviction that the world ultimately believes “Jewish blood is cheap.”

And all too often, we use our grief as a kind of weapon to lash out at those around us. In this regard, we are deeply dismayed by the incitement of Israeli politicians and religious leaders against Palestinians, particularly Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public call for “vengeance.” It is impossible to separate this kind of incendiary rhetoric from the tragic violence perpetrated against Palestinians over the past few days.

aslan_killed

Mustafa Hosni Aslan

We stand with the great sage Rabbi Ben Azzai, who famously taught that the concept of humanity being created in the divine image is the most central value of Torah. If we ultimately view all life as sacred, then empathy – not isolation or vengeance – is the most healing response of all. Let us affirm that our losses are all ultimately connected in deep and profound ways. Let us affirm that the loss of Jewish children is inseparable from the loss of innocent children everywhere who fall victim daily to hatred and violence. Let our grief inspire us to grieve no less for children who fall victim to violence the world over – whether in Afghanistan, in Syria, in Iraq, in the West Bank and Gaza – or in cities throughout our own country.

Let us redouble our resolve to create a world of safety and security for our children and for all who dwell on earth. And let us do what we must to make such a world a reality once and for all.

May the memories of all our fallen children be for a blessing.

Rabbi Brant Rosen
Rabbi Alissa Wise

Founders, Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council


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