Just in time for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, I strongly commend to you “Poverty, Chesed and Justice,” a text study just released by T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights together with Justice at Hyatt.
It is customary to engage in a late night study session on the eve of Shavuot – and since the story of Ruth is traditionally read on this festival, a study that focuses on the struggle of women workers at Hyatt feels profoundly appropriate.
As the introduction notes:
In the Book of Ruth, Ruth’s actions are lauded as acts of chesed, kindness. Ruth’s kindness is embodied through action: not just following her bereft mother-in-law Naomi back to the land of Israel, but taking on grueling work in the fields in order to keep them from falling into abject poverty. It is this determination and chesed that causes Boaz to notice Ruth and to perform his own acts of chesed in return. We hope that this Shavuot, the Hyatt Hotel Chain will display similar chesed toward the women who toil every day to change linens, scrub bathroom floors, and carry heavy bedding, all in the hopes of providing a better future for their children.
Right on. The story of Ruth is a story of solidarity, compassion and redemption. Here’s hoping the workers of Hyatt – and all workers everywhere – find an ample measure of each this Shavuot
Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course. In the meantime here’s a taste:
In honor of Yom Hashoah, please read about the sacred work of Pastor André and Magda Trocmé, the courageous pacifist Christians who saved 3,000-5,000 Jews from certain death in South Central France. May their memory be for a blessing.
The biography below is reposted from the Swarthmore College Peace Collection:
André and Magda Trocmé are perhaps best known for their work in the small French town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon where, during World War II, they inspired the villagers to help protect and sometimes to assist in the escape of Jews and other poltiical refugees. This quiet and courageous assistance was given without resorting to violence. Historians estimate that about 3,500 Jews were harbored in the area in and around Le Chambon.
André Trocmé (1901-1971) was born in St. Quentin in the north of France to Huguenot parents. After seminary in Paris and graduate work at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he was ordained into the French Reformed Church and served for eight years among the coal miners and steel workers of Maubeuge and Sin-le-Noble, two small towns in the north of France. He preached nonviolence at a time when such views were unpopular in France. In 1934 André Trocmé accepted a call to be pastor in the remote Huguenot village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon on the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon in South Central France. These parishioners were more sympathetic to his views on nonviolence.
Magda Trocmé (1901-1996) was born in Italy to an Italian father and a Russian mother. She graduated from the University of Florence with a degree in literature and earned further degrees in French. She and André Trocmé met in the United States while she was attending the New York School of Social Work, and they were married in 1926. The couple had four children, Nelly, Jean-Pierre, Jacques, and Daniel.
In 1938, André Trocmé, and his pacifist colleague Édouard Theis, founded L’Ecole Nouvelle Cévenol in Le Chambon, a Protestant, co-educational secondary school. In addition to the usual French secondary school curriculum, tolerance, honesty, and nonviolence were taught as well. L’Ecole Nouvelle Cévenole soon gained an international focus, and after World War II the name of the school was changed to Collège Cévenol. Magda Trocmé taught Italian at this school which is still in operation today.
During the first part of World War II Le Chambon was located in the “free”( unoccupied) zone of France. By 1942 the Germans had occupied the entire country. However, the population of the Plateau Vivarais-Lignon continued to aid an increasing number of refugees. In 1943, André Trocmé, Édouard Theis, and the head of the public school, Roger Darcissac were interned in a camp by the Vichy police. These men were arrested for their part in assisting the refugees of the area. Trocmé, Theis, and Darcissac were released from prison after one month, but Trocmé and Theis went into hiding for the next ten months.
In the late 1940s André and Magda Trocmé traveled as European Secretaries for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). After their move to Versailles (France) in 1950, the Trocmé’s founded La Maison de la Réconciliation. The Maison de la Reconciliation became an international peace center and the headquarters of the French and Continental Secretariat of the IFOR. During travels in the United States, under IFOR auspices, André Trocmé delivered the Robert Treat Paine lectures which became the basis for his book The Politics of Repentance, published in 1953. During the strife between France and Algeria, André Trocmé helped start Eirene (International Service for Peace), located in Morocco, which provided alternative service for conscientious objectors. He was also active in the movement against atomic weapons, becoming president of the French Federation Against Atomic Armaments in 1959. In 1960, André Trocmé accepted a call to become one of the ministers of the Saint-Gervais Church in Geneva, Switzerland. Many of the sermons he preached at Saint-Gervais were broadcast. His book, Jésus-Christ et la Revolution Non Violente was published in French in 1961 and subsequently in other languages (Orbis Books edition, 2004). In 1965, André Trocmé accompanied a peace mission to Vietnam.
After World War II André Trocmé was awarded the Rosette de la Résistance by the French government. The story of the Trocmé’s pacifist leadership inspired Philip P. Hallie, a professor at Wesleyan University, to write the book Lest Innocent Blood by Shed, published in 1979. Eleven years later Pierre Sauvage produced the documentary Weapons of the Spirit (1988), explaining how his family survived Word War II, through the efforts of the people of Le Chambon.
André Trocmé died in Geneva on June 5, 1971, just a few weeks after he had been scheduled to receive the Médaille des Justes from the government of Israel. As more and more people were recognized as “Righteous Gentiles,” the Yad Vashem honored all the residents of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and the surrounding area. In their memory an engraved stele and rock garden were installed in the park of Yad Vashem (Israel).
After the death of her husband Magda Trocmé moved to Paris with Alice Reynier (“Jispa”), a close family friend who had lived with the Trocmé family since 1942. Alice Reynier shared their family life and their work. Magda Trocmé received an honorary degree from Haverford College in 1981 in the name of the people of Le Chambon and the surrounding area She died in Paris in 1996. André, Magda, their sons Jean-Pierre and Daniel, and Jispa, are all buried as a family in the cemetery of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon.
I’ve just finished Chicago hip-hop poet Kevin Coval’s soon-to-be-released book, “Schtick” (Haymarket Books) – a collection of poems that takes aim and fires at the sensitive edge of every nerve ending in the American Jewish psyche. It’s a new take-no-prisoners Jewish classic.
Coval has long been known here in Chicago as one of our great local treasures. He’s probably best-known as the founder of “Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival,” which was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name. He’s also the author of numerous poetry collections, serves as Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, and offers youth writing workshops throughout Chicago and beyond.
While Coval has explored Jewish identity through his writing before, “Schtick” is his most extensive published collection of Jewish-themed poems thus far. It includes previously released poems such as “what i will tell my jewish kids” and “why i stopped going to shul” together with more recently written pieces – en masse, they serve to dissect the post-modern American Jewish experience in as devastating a fashion as you are ever likely to read.
Although I’m a longtime Kevin Coval fan, I will confess that there were more than few times in which I flinched at this unabashed, occasionally venomous assault on the hottest of Jewish hot buttons. I will also say without hesitation that these poems deserve to be read and discussed by the widest possible audience.
At heart, Coval’s work places him in long and venerable tradition of Jewish dissident writers – a legacy he very consciously celebrates. Indeed, this dissident tradition is palpable throughout virtually every poem in this collection. In “what will i tell my jewish kids,” for instance, he writes:
we are a bridge people. red sea parters. translators
between the warring. we see connections. the i in i
the i in thou. Buber taught us that or was it Haile Selassie
or Freud? and what was it Marx demanded, we live as Moses
bent and davening toward justice. a radical equity where everything is
sacred or nothing is. Einstein to unify the chaos.
Emma Goldman to arrange the pieces.
Though there will inevitably be those who find Coval’s writing to be the work of a “self-hating Jew” (he confronts this very issue in a poem entitled, you guessed it, “self-hating jew”), I’d suggest the poems in “Schtick” are quintessentially Jewish. Coval walks proudly in the “self-hating” Jewish steps of Abbie Hoffman, Philip Roth, Howard Zinn and Groucho Marx – a path trod by generations leading all the way back to the young Abraham, the Jewish upstart who one day grabbed a stick and smashed his father’s icons to shards.
As the title of his book implies, Coval’s counts the edgiest of the edgy Jewish comedians among his favorite iconoclasts. His clearest hero and spiritual ancestor is the great Lenny Bruce (“Lenny the Prophet!/Elijah, opening doors”). Coval also pays loving homage to Don Rickles, Sid Casear, Roseanne and Joan Rivers, with particular appreciation for the way they habitually skewer the goyishe power elite – and get away with it. (In “Don Rickles Roasts Ronald Reagan” Coval portrays Rickles as a sacrilegious Jewish court jester, peppering the poem with excerpts from his routine at Reagan’s Second Inaugural Ball.)
Of course, Coval finds equal inspiration from rappers, poets, freedom fighters and truth tellers as diverse as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Allen Ginsburg, Fred Hampton and (in a choice certain to stick in many a Jewish craw) Louis Farrakhan. His target of choice is the American majority culture of power, privilege and empire – and the Jews who make their bed in it. He rails against racists of various shapes and sizes, including anti-Semitic icons Mel Gibson and Henry Ford as well as the recently resigned Pope Benedict (“the pope is a nazi/and this is the truth.”)
In poem after poem, he delves deeply into the adventures and follies of Jewish assimilation into the white American establishment – an act that he paints as the ultimate betrayal of our minority Jewish heritage. In one notable series, he explores this complex, often absurd process through poetic profiles of show biz figures Irving “White Christmas” Berlin, Al Jolson (“the confused horrible hope of this new country”) and Jennifer Grey (a third generation Jewish performer whose nose job successfully derailed her film career.)
His poem, “how the jews became white” – a meditation on the tragic events that unfolded during the Springfield race riots of 1908 – unpacks the most extreme example of Jewish “assimilation” imaginable. Among the more infamous moments during the riots occurred when Abraham Raymer, a poor Jewish delivery man, was accused of participating in the murder and lynching of of William Donnegan, an elderly, relatively wealthy (and intermarried) African-American man in front of his wife and neighbors:
Donnegan is not isaac
Donnegan is the lamb
abraham sacrifices to the white
g-d of america
slit throat and strung up
front lawn of a house they’d burn
the yiddisher lyncher
the jury of peers
the freshly born
After reading this poem, I couldn’t help but think that while the lynching of Leo Frank has entered deeply into Jewish mythic consciousness, the name Abraham Raymer remains utterly unknown to most American Jews. And that, of course, is precisely Coval’s point.
Coval’s forte has always been poems that seamlessly mix the personal with the political – and in the chapter entitled “the family business,” he explores Jewish identity politics through his own personal family history. While I doubt his family members will kvell at some of his revelations, his remembrances of his 1980s Bar Mitzvah (by turns mortifying, hilarious and heartbreaking), family seders and Thanksgiving dinners resonates with a deep truth and the kind of love that refuses to profane his memories with shallow nostalgia.
While American Jews of a certain generation will likely nod in recognition with many of his family reminiscences, Coval’s family poems manage to be both brilliantly universal and nakedly specific at the same time. He shines a particularly unflinching light on the painful dissonance he experienced growing up in an economically struggling Jewish family living in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Among other things, these profoundly personal reflections go a long way to explain his own deep identification with the Jews as a “bridge people.”
The chapter entitled “all the pharaoh’s must fall” contains his most directly political pieces, most of them centering on the subject of Israel/Palestine. And for all of his deeply edgy poems, I have no doubt that it is from here that “Schtick” will almost certainly receive the most venomous reception from the Jewish establishment.
While Coval has long addressed the issue of Israel in his work, he took on these themes on in earnest in 2009, when he publicly declared himself to be “a Jewish-American man in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” In a widely read article for the Huffington Post, Coval wrote:
I am in solidarity with Israeli and American and all people who work and risk their lives and livelihood for justice. I am not restricted to working within the confines of the Jewish-American community. Justice and the resistance to imperialism is a global, human concern for all people down to struggle. For Jews, yes, but not Jews alone. For Palestinians, yes, but not Palestinians alone. It will take us all to push and demand governments and corporate interests to create fair, equitable living conditions. It will take all people to hold history accountable for the atrocities that occur.
Coval has expressed these convictions in numerous poems he has written since then, many of which are included in this latest collection. The poignant “explaining myself” is written as a plea for understanding to his father. The title poem of the chapter, a stirring call to action written in response to the Arab Spring, deserves to become a seder table staple. And in his final poem, appropriately entitled, “post-schtick,” Coval uses an attempted lynching of Palestinian youths by Israeli teenagers as a frame for understanding the sorrows of Jewish empire: “you don’t ask the mouth/from which the rope hangs/to explain the reasons/it’s being lynched.”
In “on becoming a man,” Coval recalls that before his Bar Mitzvah service began, his rabbi made him promise that he would not return to be confirmed. By standing so firmly on the third rail of Israel/Palestine, Coval is virtually ensuring that he will remain outside the proclaimed borders of the American Jewish establishment. No matter. In the meantime he continues to carve out an authentically Jewish place in the borderlands – a place where Jews have always made their most productive homes.
But make no mistake, Kevin Coval is not simply interested in tossing spitballs from the back of Hebrew school class. On the contrary, he’s knocking loudly at the door. His Jewish vision is carefully and mindfully cultivated, his grasp of Jewish cultural memory undeniable, his respect for his spiritual Jewish ancestors deep and palpably real. And he is among the leaders of an eloquent generation that seeks to find a genuinely Jewish voice to sound a universal message of liberation:
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
Here is a guest post written by my friend and colleague, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, founder of Shomer Shalom Institute for Jewish Nonviolence. Read it around your seder table:
Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10a) associates the four verses that describe the liberation of the families of Israel from subjugation with the four cups of wine at the Passover table. As it is written, “Say, therefore to the Families of Yisrael, ‘I am Adonai and I will take you out from under the burdens of Mitzryim, and I will save you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments and I will take you to Me as a people…and you shall know the Spirit that draws you forth from under the burdens of subjugation.”
The four words imply a process a process of transformation. This process has four parts: Mitzryim is the Hebrew word that refers to the condition of structural subjugation. Pesakh moves from limping under the burden of the oppression to leaping like a liberated lamb through the parting seas that lead to freedom. The process happens in stages.
V’hotzayti~I will take you out: Complete subjugation is resisted by resisting the occupation of the mind that oppression imposes. In this stage we must ask questions that release us from the narratives that justify subjugation. That is why the seder begins with a collective invitation to the poor and oppressed to speak their stories and share a meal. The four children are a way of exploring one’s own relationship to subjugation.
V’he’tzal’ti~I will save you: Mitzryim is not mentioned by name, implying a lessening of the power of subjugation. At this stage, the community engages in acts of resistance and noncooperation-direct action in order to embody the liberation and begin the long journey of stepping out of subjugation. The midwives boycotting Pharaoh’s order to harm children, and instead, made the healing of children their first priority. Some traditions say they were non-Jewish midwives, and other traditions equate them with Miriam and Yochevet. What is clear for all of us? Liberation depends on multicultural, intergenerational and multifaith solidarity. Freedom is a country without borders.
V’ga’al’ti~I will redeem you: Redemption requires collective mass action and the building of pillars of support in sections of society that have not yet taken action. Systematic and structural violence can be overcome when the society as a whole no longer accepts the normative status quo. Oppression is moved out of the margins into the center as a social issue. During this stage oppression can increase because people are moving closer to the goal of overcoming subjugation. Pharaoh sends his armies to attack those seeking liberation. At this moment we need to call upon the entire nation’s faith that the seas will part.
Lakach’ti~I will take you in beloved relationship: Liberation requires a communal effort to building alternative institutions, and to create alternatives to the violent narratives of oppression. Liberation is the creation of a new reality outside the subjugation framework where the dignity of every single human being is valued. Dignity is a country without borders, it is the promised land.
As the process of liberation proceeds, we come to V‘yadatem~and you shall know. This knowledge is the knowledge of the heart that comes from faith in nonviolence and compassion. When liberation is internalized it is a powerful turning point in the healing process. It is awakening to the realization that we are all equal and precious in the eyes of the Creator.
Here’s a new Passover seder supplement that I’ve just written for Jewish Voice for Peace. Click here if you’d like a pdf to print out and read at you seder table next week.
As Jews, how do we respond when we hear the tragic news regularly coming out of Israel/Palestine? How do we respond to reports of checkpoints and walls, of home demolitions and evictions, of blockades and military incursions?
It might well be said that there are four very different children deep inside each of us, each reacting in his or her own characteristic way.
The Fearful Child is marked by the trauma of the Shoah and believes that to be a Jew means to be forever vulnerable. While he may be willing to accept that we live in an age of relative Jewish privilege and power, in his heart he feels that all of these freedoms could easily be taken away in the blink of an eye. To the Fearful Child, Israel represents Jewish empowerment – the only place in the world that can ensure the collective safety of the Jewish people.
The Bitter Child channels her Jewish fears into demonization of the other. This child chooses to view anti-Semitism as the most eternal and pernicious of all forms of hatred and considers all those “outside the tribe” to be real or potential enemies. She believes that Palestinians fundamentally despise Jews and will never tolerate their presence in the land – and that brute force is the only language they will ever understand.
The Silent Child is overwhelmed with the myriad of claims, histories, narratives and analyses that emerge from Israel/Palestine. While he dreams of a day in which both peoples will live in peace, he is unable to sift through all that he hears and determine how he might help bring that day about. At his most despairing moments, he doesn’t believe a just peace between these two peoples will ever be possible. And so he directs his Jewish conscience toward other causes and concerns – paralyzed by the “complexities” of this particular conflict.
The Courageous Child is willing to admit the painful truth that this historically persecuted people has now become a persecutor. This child understands and empathizes with the emotions of the other children all too well – in truth, she still experiences them from time to time. In the end, however, the Courageous Child refuses to live a life defined by immobilized by fear, bitterness or complacency. She understands it is her sacred duty to stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed, particularly when she herself is implicated in that oppression.
At one time or another we have heard within ourselves the voices of any or all of these children.
How will we respond to them?
In honor of Passover, I’d like to share an excerpt from article I’ve recently finished that attempts to articulate a Jewish Theology of Liberation. The longer piece will hopefully be published soon – in the meantime, I offer this snippet to you as “food for thought” for your seder table. All the best for a liberating Pesach!
The Exodus is, of course, the sacred liberation story par excellence, in which God hearkens to the cry of the persecuted, rebukes the oppressor Pharaoh and frees the enslaved. While this narrative is clearly presented within a particularist context (God hearkens to the cry of God’s oppressed people), it has historically resonated with universal power. As the social and political scientist Michael Walzer has observed, a myriad of liberation movements have been indelibly marked with Exodus consciousness throughout the course of Western civilization.
On the most basic level, then, a Jewish theology of liberation must necessarily view the Exodus as both a particular narrative of a certain people as well as a universal narrative that encompasses all humanity. The oppression of the Jewish people must be understood as inseparable from the oppression of all peoples – likewise the liberation of the Jewish people must be inextricably linked to the liberation of all peoples. While the historical events may differ in the details, they are all bound by a common sacred truth: the voice of the God of Liberation calls out in every language and in every generation to demand the liberation of the oppressed.
However, if we read the Exodus story honestly and unflinchingly, we must be ready to admit the presence of another, darker voice present in this narrative. The Exodus does not only describe the liberation of an oppressed people from bondage – it also contains the story of a journey toward and entrance into a “Promised Land” inhabited by other peoples – indigenous inhabitants whom the Israelites are commanded to dislodge and exterminate without pity.
As difficult as it may be to read morally repugnant passages such as these in one’s “sacred” text, it is even more unsettling when we consider that these imperatives are deeply embedded within our cherished liberation narrative. In a sense, the “Exodus” is only the first half of a much longer story – a saga that begins with the Israelites exit from Egypt (Exodus) and ends with their entrance in Canaan (Eisodus). As the narrative would have it, we cannot have the Exodus without God’s promise of the land – and this promise cannot be fulfilled without the Israelites obedience to a commandment that demands nothing less than ethnic cleansing and even extermination.
There is something sadly skewed with my community’s moral priorities.
I’m sure many of you have been following the growing uproar – in Israel and America – over the curtailment of women’s prayer rights at the Western Wall. In protest, an Israeli group called the “Women of the Wall” has been holding monthly services there for the past twenty years, advocating for their “social and legal recognition of (their) right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.” This right, of course, is denied by the Israeli foundation that essentially runs the site – widely considered holy by Jews the world over - as the world’s most famous ultra-orthodox synagogue.
The cause of the Women at the Wall was recently re-galvanized when its chairwoman Anat Hoffman was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl and leading a service there. Since then protests have been spreading across the US – led by an organization called “Wake Up for Religious Tolerance” that has organized monthly solidarity services throughout the Jewish community.
At one such service yesterday, organizer Hallel Silverman commented:
This was hundreds of people with different beliefs coming together to fight for one thing they all have in common—Jewish equality.
Oh, would that the Jewish community might galvanize this level of moral outrage for the cause of simple human equality in the state of Israel.
Case in point: during the course of these recent protests, another news item passed far lower across the organized Jewish community’s ethical radar: UNICEF’s recently released report that concluded that the ill-treatment of Palestinian minors held within the Israeli military detention system is “widespread, systematic and institutionalized.” The 22 page report carefully examined the Israeli military court system for holding Palestinian children found evidence of practices it said were “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.”
From a recent HuffPo feature on the report:
In a step-by-step analysis of the procedure from arrest to trial, the report said the common experience of many children was being “aggressively awakened in the middle of the night by many armed soldiers and being forcibly brought to an interrogation center tied and blindfolded, sleep deprived and in a state of extreme fear.”
Many were subjected to ill-treatment during the journey, with some suffering physical or verbal abuse, being painfully restrained or forced to lie on the floor of a vehicle for a transfer process of between one hour and one day.
In some cases, they suffered prolonged exposure to the elements and a lack of water, food or access to a toilet.
UNICEF said it found no evidence of any detainees being “accompanied by a lawyer or family member during the interrogation” and they were “rarely informed of their rights.”
“The interrogation mixes intimidation, threats and physical violence, with the clear purpose of forcing the child to confess,” it said, noting they were restrained during interrogation, sometimes for extended periods of time causing pain to their hands, back and legs.
“Children have been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault, against themselves or a family member,” it said.
Most children confess at the end of the interrogation, signing forms in Hebrew which they hardly understand.
It also found children had been held in solitary confinement for between two days and a month before being taken to court, or even after sentencing.
During court hearings, children were in leg chains and shackles, and in most cases, “the principal evidence against the child is the child’s own confession, in most cases extracted under duress during the interrogation,” it found.
“Ultimately, almost all children plead guilty in order to reduce the length of their pretrial detention. Pleading guilty is the quickest way to be released. In short, the system does not allow children to defend themselves,” UNICEF concluded.
I can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in my community over this report? While I certainly believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with “Jewish rights” in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish children who live in it. Such are the sorrows of Jewish political nationalism: even the more “tolerant “among us seem only to be able to express that tolerance on behalf of those who are in our “tribe.”
A Ha’aretz article covering yesterday’s solidarity service in NYC reported:
People traveled to the event from as far away as Philadelphia. Similar gatherings took place around the U.S., including a demonstration outside Israel’s embassy in Washington, D.C. on Monday, and solidarity prayer services in Cleveland, Chicago and at Brandeis University and the University of Pennsylvania, said service organizer Rabbi Iris Richman. A “sing in” is slated outside Israel’s consulate in San Francisco for Sunday.
In fairness, I’m sure many of the individuals involved in these actions have also advocated for human rights in Israel/Palestine. But the sad truth is that our community would never see fit to mobilize this scale of collective protest in support of Palestinian children. It is well within our comfort zone to protest at Israeli consulates on behalf of Jewish rights. For reasons I understand all too well, universal human rights are still well outside that comfort zone.
Like many Jews around the world, I dutifully celebrated Purim last week. In my case, it meant hearing the Book of Esther read aloud in my synagogue while drinking an occasional shot of scotch, enjoying our annual “Oy Vey Cafe,” (a beloved congregational tradition that mixes member-written and performed show tune and classic rock parodies) and attending our synagogue Religious School’s costume parade and Purim carnival.
I’m sure that many middle-class American Jews celebrated Purim in similar fashion. I’m also fairly sure that most middle-class American Jews are unaware that Purim has long been “celebrated” in a very different manner by ultra-nationalist Jews in Israel.
Last week on the day after Purim, it was reported that a Palestinian woman was attacked by ultra-orthodox women at a light rail station in Kiryat Moshe, Jerusalem. According to the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman walked by the Palestinian woman and began punching her (see pic above). Others soon joined in the attack and eventually tore off her hijab. According to the report, the light rail security guard, as well as some 100 religious Israeli men, stood by and did nothing. Eyewitness Dorit Yarden Dotan, who was horrified by the violence and took photos of the beating with her telephone, reported that the security guard even “watched and smiled”. “It was simply terrible,” she added.
By the way, this was not the only act of Purim violence this year. On the same day as the Jerusalem attack, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Hassan Usruf (right), was attacked by drunken Jewish youths whom police suspect had been participating in Purim celebrations during the evening. Usruf was punched, hit in the head with a bottle and kicked after he fell to the ground. He sustained injuries to his head, eye socket and jaw. The police have yet to arrest any suspects.
Those who follow the news must surely know that this kind of Jewish violence against Palestinians have become an annual inevitability in Israel. The most infamous Purim moment, of course, occurred in 1994, when Baruch Goldstein walked into the Cave of Machpelah in Hevron wearing an Israeli army uniform and opened fire on Palestinian worshipers, killing 29 and wounding more than 125. By committing this act of mass murder, Goldstein believed he was fulfilling the the Book of Esther, which describes the slaughter of seventy five thousand Persians at the hands of the Jews. Since that time, Goldstein has become venerated by ultra-orthodox, ultra-nationalist Jews and for rest of us, Purim has never been quite the same.
I’ve recently finished Elliot Horowitz’s 2006 book “Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence” – a deeply troubling (but to my mind, profoundly essential) book that traces the history of Jewish violence on Purim over the centuries. Among the many disturbing revelations of Purim history in Horowitz’s book, I was surprised to learn that bad Jewish behavior on Purim has a long and not so venerable history – one that most Jewish histories either gloss over or simply choose to ignore.
Horowitz also parses the history of Purim violence in contemporary Israel, going back to Purim 1981, when Jewish settlers brought down the roof of a Palestinian upholsters’ home, expelled its owner and took over the house. (The house had once been a Jewish infirmary and synagogue, “Beit Hadassah.”) Since then, the settlers’ Purim parade in Hevron has become an annual tradition of Jewish pogroms against Palestinians. As last week’s events have demonstrated, however, this brutality is now ominously expanding into Israel proper.
Yes, the Book of Esther does come off as a kind of Jewish communal revenge fantasy, one that portrays the Jews’ massacre of the ancient Persians with sick kind of relish. As for me, I’ve always read the book according to the satirical spirit of the day: an expression of the “Jewish Id” that gives us the chance to indulge our darker fantasies in this one cathartic moment, perhaps so that they might have less of a hold over us during the rest of the year. But of course, there are – and apparently have always been – religious literalists who are all too prepared to treat what is essentially a secular tale of palace intrigue as a sacred imperative to engage in xenophobic violence against others.
In his book, Horowitz quotes the venerable Jewish scholar Samuel Hugo Bergman (1883-1975), a former rector and professor at Hebrew University, who expressed dismay at boorish and violent behavior of Jews on Purim. Bergman – a religiously observant Jew – commented that its continued observance as a religious holiday was a sign of “the deep decay of our people.” (p. 277)
In the post-Goldstein era, I’d say Bergman’s words resonate with ever-increasing urgency.
Here is a text of my keynote speech at last night’s annual Vision Keepers dinner of Interfaith Action - a faith-based direct service organization that serves the hungry and homeless population of my hometown of Evanston:
I’d like to begin my remarks tonight by sharing you with one of my chronic pet peeves – and I’d like to apologize at the outset to my congregants and loved ones, who are probably getting very tired of hearing me complain about this: I really, really don’t like the saying “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.”
Now I say this with all due apology to any of you who might have this bumper sticker on your car – I mean you no disrespect. And believe me: I am a huge fan of encouraging kindness and beauty. It’s just that personally speaking, I would argue the exact opposite. I would argue for “non-Random acts of kindness and mindful acts of beauty.” After all, if by kindness we mean simple human respect and dignity – qualities that are essential to the core of our basic humanity – I think we would all agree that there should be nothing random about it. Kindness shouldn’t be random – quite frankly, it should be mandatory.
In its way, I think this slogan reflects something very profound about contemporary American culture. As a society that values individual initiative, it is natural that we will view compassion as a random, voluntary enterprise. We act compassionately whenever we feel compassionate. And yes, we might well feel a great deal of compassion: for our loved ones, we may even feel compassion for people we don’t actually know. But the problem with this approach, of course, is that feelings cannot be guaranteed. They come and go. Feelings are, by definition, elusive and transient.
Biblical tradition provides us with a different model. Compassion is not random – it is an imperative. Even love itself is commanded: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall love Adonai your God.” “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In other words, feelings are wonderful, but feelings are not enough. Kindness and compassion should not be relegated to random feeling – they should be cultivated as a mindful, ongoing conscious practice. We have to teach ourselves how to be compassionate even if we are not feeling particularly compassionate – even if we are too overwhelmed to feel compassionate. Compassion is, for lack of a better word, a discipline.
In the Bible, kindness and compassion are complex and profound concepts. In fact, there are many different Hebrew words for compassion. The most well known word, “rachamim,” comes from the root rechem, or “womb” and suggests the kind of unconditional compassion that comes with parental love. More broadly, we might understand rachamim as the kind of compassion that we show toward those with whom we have a unique personal connection. The word “chen” is usually translated as “grace.” This form of compassion generally refers to gestures of favor or goodwill.
And then there is “chesed,” a word that is usually rendered as “lovingkindness.” As I learned back in my Rabbinical school Biblical Hebrew class, “lovingkindness” is probably not the best definition for chesed. It’s a little too general, a little too mushy. Most contemporary Hebrew scholars suggest that a better definition of chesed is “covenantal loyalty.” Indeed, if we look at the way this word is used in the Bible, it has less to do with a feeling of lovingkindess than a deep sense of responsibility that comes out of sacred relationship. God shows chesed for the Israelites – and the Israelites for God – when they remain loyal to the mutual covenant they established together at Sinai. In another example, Ruth is praised in the Bible for the chesed she demonstrates to her mother-in-law Naomi when she remains loyal to her promise to stand by her side.
In Jewish tradition, this abstract notion of chesed was applied by the ancient rabbis to the everyday life of the community. Chesed societies, for instance, were the prototypical communal welfare institutions that were the cornerstone of Jewish communities for centuries. They too were guided by the central ethic of covenantal loyalty – “commanded compassion,” if you will. At my congregation, as at yours, I’m sure, we have a committee of members helps members in need, usually due to illness or the loss of a loved one. We call it, naturally, the Chesed Committee. And the members who participate in it will surely at attest that they don’t participate out of a desire to be randomly kind, but rather out of the sense of responsibility that comes through belonging to a community. Probably more often than not, the members of the Chesed Committee serve people they don’t even know personally – and that, of course, is precisely the point.
So in its way, chesed presents us with a compelling and important way of understanding collective compassion. It is intimately connected to the concept of covenant and mutual obligation. Chesed is the kind of love and compassion that comes from a deeper sense of communal accountability. When a people live in a covenantal context –with chesed – it is with the fundamental understanding that the community is accountable to the individual just as much as the individual is accountable to the community.
By the same token, all of us in the room tonight – we are part of a covenantal community as well. All of us: the congregations that make up Interfaith Action understand on a deep, spiritually cellular level, that we have an abiding sense of covenant with the Evanston community. The Interfaith Action soup kitchens, the warming centers, the homeless hospitality centers, the Producemobile, are much, much more than mere direct service projects – they are expressions of our sacred sense of commitment to the city in which we live – and of the conviction that our compassion for every single member of this community must not be regarded as random or voluntary. On the contrary, we are compelled to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless out of a collective sense of sacred, covenantal imperative.
In this regard, I want to honor the work of our honorees tonight – and all who participate in Interfaith Action – for the sacred work you do. I know you don’t do it just because it makes you feel good. I’m willing to bet there have been plenty of times you went over to soup kitchen when you were tired or just plain didn’t feel like going. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say there may have been times that you went even while you were doubting that your actions even made a difference. But in the end, you did go – and you continue to go – and you are here tonight because you know that at the end of the day, kindness should not be optional.
I’d like to go a bit further now, however, and offer a few thoughts about what an even deeper covenantal obligation might look like for our community. I’ve always believed that religion is at its best when it not only comforts the afflicted, but challenges the oppressive status quo that afflicts them. What does it mean when we literally feed the hungry, but fail to challenge a system that countenances hunger in its midst? Is it enough to provide warming centers, or should we also see it as our religious obligation to ask whether or not our city is also doing everything in its power to provide something as essential to life as heating for all its citizens? On an even deeper level, shouldn’t we be finding ways to challenge an infrastructural reality that makes “warming centers” even necessary in the first place?
I believe that religion is at its best when it manages to balance what I would call the “pastoral” with the “prophetic.” In other words, when our Biblical tradition demands that we clothe the naked and feed the hungry, this is a pastoral imperative. And when we are commanded to speak truth to powerful Pharaohs, to create societies of fairness and equity, to proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof – this is a prophetic imperative.
And so I’d like to take this opportunity to ask those of us in this room – those of us who act on a deep and profound sense of pastoral commitment to the Evanston community: what would it look like for us to create a similar kind of covenantal coalition out of a prophetic commitment? More to the point: do we believe that our city of Evanston is doing what it must to ensure that its citizens are not going to bed hungry, that they have roofs over their heads and heat in their homes? And if the answer is no, then I believe we must ask ourselves: do we believe that holding our own city accountable is just as much a religious obligation as running soup kitchens and warming centers?
Now I know that there are a myriad of complicated policy discussions to be had on these kinds of issues, and I obviously don’t intend to parse them all right now. But I do think that too often we hide behind a mantra of “it’s complicated” to avoid dealing with some fairly simple truths. And just as often, I think, we shy away from policy debates because we feel as though we shouldn’t be mixing religion and politics.
But at the end of the day, however, it’s really not all that complicated. There’s nothing complicated about food, shelter and heat – these are among our most human basic needs. And when it comes to mixing religion and politics, I’ll repeat again: religion should not only about comforting the afflicted – it’s also about afflicting the comfortable. It’s about challenging the attitudes of those who view the world with a scarcity mentality that claims there is only so much to go around – and that it’s not our problem if there are those who will inevitably go without.
I hope that gatherings such as this will redouble our resolve to both the pastoral and the prophetic aspects of our faith traditions. I hope that as we go forward with this sacred work, we will find ways to open conversations about what a truly covenantal Evanston faith community might look like. And I hope that in doing so, we might provide a truly prophetic voice of conscience.
Thank you again for all you do. Congratulations to our honorees tonight. May all of our efforts continue to transform the lives of others – may they ultimately transform our world as well.