Category Archives: Judaism

Building a Global Congregation of Conscience: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5782

As many of you know, in January of 2020 it was my great honor to become Tzedek Chicago’s full-time rabbi. Among my first orders of business at the time was to find an office and a more suitable facility for our congregation. As it turned out, my search didn’t last too long. Soon enough, along with the rest of the world Tzedek had to hunker down and make our home in the land of Zoom. 

We weren’t at all sure what to expect in this strange new virtual world, but we certainly weren’t prepared for what happened next. In a word, we grew. We grew from two Shabbat services a month to weekly services, Torah studies, festival services and family programs. We instituted a weekly Wednesday afternoon gathering as a check-in for our members. We also held increasing numbers of adult educational opportunities and concerts. The pandemic truly transformed the life of our congregation in astonishing and unexpected ways.

It didn’t take us long to figure out why. It was a time of profound social isolation. We all felt it palpably, some of us more than others. The world craved connection – and in this strange new world, religious congregations had a particularly crucial role to play. Like so many other houses of worship, Tzedek served as a sacred virtual space where we could regularly gather and overcome our increasing separateness from one another. 

But there was another way Tzedek grew as well: we grew geographically. Almost overnight, we gained regular members and attendees from around the country and around the world: from Canada, the UK, Germany and New Zealand, among many other places. Again, it didn’t take long to understand why. We’d always drawn our members from a wide swath of the Chicagoland area and even some surrounding states. We were never strictly a local congregation; from the very beginning we’ve been a community bound together by our convictions. 

Those of us who founded Tzedek Chicago were very clear on this point: we really weren’t interested in creating another liberal Jewish congregation. We wanted to build a congregation on a foundation of core values. We emphasized “standing with the oppressed and calling out the oppressor.” We took “a stand against colonialism and militarism, especially when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.” We made a particular point of disavowing Zionism, stating that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this day.”

When we founded Tzedek, we drafted our core values even before we recruited a single member of our congregation. We wanted to make sure that those who joined us would join because they sought a Jewish community that shared their values. We just knew that there was a significant and growing constituency for the vision of Judaism we sought to promote. 

It’s been so gratifying to see how our faith has been validated these past six years. Speaking personally, it’s been a blessing for me. When I left my former congregation, I really never thought I’d work as a congregational rabbi again. I’m so grateful that Tzedek has given me this opportunity – and I’ve never, ever taken it for granted. 

Over the years, I’ve received regular emails from folks from across the country and around the world asking if there was a congregation like Tzedek in their home communities. I’d almost always have to say no, I didn’t think there was. But starting in 2020, of course, that question became moot. We became a global congregation in ways we never could have dreamed. As the world opens up (may it happen soon in our day!) we’ll certainly reinstitute more in-person services and programs. But our congregational leadership has made it clear that going forward, we’ll continue to be a primarily virtual congregation. The pandemic has changed us indelibly – and we welcome this change. We’re excited by the prospect of broadening our membership even further around the world to include anyone and everyone who shares our particular vision of Jewish community. 

While I’m on the subject of vision, I’d like to return for a moment to our core values, and why they continue to be so critical – perhaps now more than ever. I mentioned that when we drafted our values, we wanted to be explicit about the fact that we weren’t Zionist. Unlike other congregations, we weren’t praying for a “just peace” or “coexistence” between both sides. We didn’t claim that our members held “a variety of views” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We stated quite explicitly that we opposed the very concept of Jewish nation-statism. On that point we were, and continue to be, unequivocal. 

We weren’t the first progressive congregation to take this stance, but we were certainly among the very few. Over the past few years, the numbers of non and anti-Zionist communities has grown to a certain extent. Not long after our founding, Jewish Voice for Peace created a Havurah Network for spiritual communities such as ours, and we’ve been a proud, participating member of the network from the very beginning. Still, I confess to some disappointment that there still aren’t more congregations willing to take this kind of a public stand.

There’s no question that the narrative on Israel/Palestine is changing. Last May, the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, released the results of a poll in which 34% of US Jewish voters agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States,” 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state” and 20% said they preferred “establishing one state that is neither Jewish nor Palestinian.” As you might expect, when these findings are narrowed down to Jews under 40, they skew significantly higher. 

It’s clearly getting harder and harder to ignore what Zionism has wrought. This past year was also the occasion of a report from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem entitled, “This is Apartheid: A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” The report ended with these astonishing, unprecedented words:

As painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot…Nevertheless, people created this regime and people can make it worse – or work to replace it. That hope is the driving force behind this position paper. How can people fight injustice if it is unnamed? Apartheid is the organizing principle, yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary: it is a call for change.

Tragically, last year was also the occasion of yet another devastating military assault on Gaza, killing 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children. As with past Israeli attacks on Gaza, I found those weeks in May to be utterly unbearable. The massive loss of life. Entire families wiped out. Scores of Palestinians left grievously wounded and homeless. On top of that, of course, there was the appalling response of the Jewish community. Not just the organized Jewish community, whose craven support of Israel we’ve come to expect, but the so-called liberal, progressive Jewish community, who reacted to this moral outrage with equivocation – responding to war crimes committed in their name with rationalizations and hand wringing; with “yes, buts” or “both sides-isms.” 

When we openly state that our congregation is not Zionist, that’s more than mere semantics. It is a statement that the Judaism we lift up will not and cannot include apartheid, settler colonialism and militarism. This is not merely a political position – it’s a spiritual statement of conscience about what it means to be Jewish and what kinds of Jewish communities we seek to create. I’ve personally come to the conclusion that among all the issues that divide the Jewish community today, the role of Zionism is far and away the most critical. Can we truly imagine any other ideological divide that is more important – more morally consequential – than this? 

Lately, we’ve been hearing news of fairly prominent congregations that promote an “open tent” approach when it comes to Zionism – i.e., congregations that openly make room for the views of non and anti-Zionists along with liberal Zionists in their communities. As welcome as such a development is, however, I have to ask myself, is this so-called open-tent ultimately tenable? Is it sustainable? Is it even desirable: to build congregational communities in which members have such fundamentally different moral approaches to being Jewish? In which some congregational members cherish and celebrate Israel, while others view it as an apartheid, settler colonial state? However well meaning, I cannot view this as anything other than an untenable, unbridgeable divide. 

In my very first sermon for Tzedek Chicago, I said the following:

I daresay if you go to the websites of most liberal American congregations and read their core values, you’ll read words like “welcoming,” “inclusive,” “warm” and “open.” When you stop to think of it, most of these terms are actually pretty value-free. They aren’t really values per se so much as virtues. They don’t really represent anything anyone would object to and they don’t tell you anything about what the community ultimately stands for.

Six years later, I feel this even more strongly: too often, liberal Jewish congregations wield the word “inclusion” to provide them with convenient cover for taking a stand. But sooner or later, there’s a point in which the value of inclusion must give way to moral conviction. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to come clean about what kind of Judaism we seek to affirm, what kind of Jewish spiritual communities we seek to build. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for Tzedek, a Jewish home in which I can speak my truth as a rabbi unabashedly and without compromise. I hope and trust it’s a community where you can openly express your most consequential Jewish truths as well. 

On Kol Nidre, we affirm the vows we make that we know we will not or cannot fulfill in the coming year. This Kol Nidre – and every Kol Nidre – let us also affirm the vows on which we will not and cannot compromise. Let us affirm that our Judaism does not depend upon the dispossession of others, but on the liberation of all. Let us continue building our congregation into a global community that is the living breathing embodiment of this vow. 

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek – may we all go from strength to strength in the coming year and beyond.

Mir Zaynen Do – Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5782

When I tried to think of the most appropriate saying I could offer you this Rosh Hashanah, I kept coming back to those famous Yiddish words from The Partisans Songmir zaynen do – “we are here.” It somehow feels right to invoke words of resistance at this particular moment, doesn’t it? It’s been a hard and painful battle for us all this past year, but we are here. Tragically, too many of our comrades are no longer with us, but, nevertheless, mir zaynen do. We are here. 

In an age of pandemic, just surviving itself can feel like a victory. So here we are: to date, COVID has claimed 640,000 lives in the US and over 4.5 million worldwide. And though it felt as if we’d finally turned a corner last spring, the arrival of the Delta variant was a brutal reminder that the pandemic is not at all behind us. The number of deaths is climbing again. Hospitals around the country are filling up, in some states to over-capacity. And though Trump is no longer our President, the Republican party continues to politicize the pandemic with ever-astonishing cynicism.

Despite a slight rebound last spring, things are still economically dire in our country. The percentages of those who are unemployed and uninsured are still shamefully high. Just this last August, the Supreme Court struck down eviction protections for most of the US, putting as many as 3.5 million households at risk of losing their homes, including hundreds of thousands of tenants this year alone. 

Last Rosh Hashanah, I suggested that, in a very real way, we’re all in a state of grief over the world we’ve lost. If we were to continue with this metaphor – and I still believe it’s an apt one – we’ve now gone through one full year of mourning. In Jewish tradition, the year following a loss is a spiritually intense time for mourners, traditionally marked by the regular recitation of Kaddish. When the first year is up, the intensive part of our observance is lifted and we begin our reemergence back into the world. We know, however, that we won’t be reentering the world as it was. That world has been forever changed. 

And so, even though the year of formal mourning is over, we’ll continue to say Kaddish regularly for the rest of our lives. We will never stop grieving what we’ve lost. The pain may come and go, but it never goes away entirely. Indeed, sometimes it will grip us when we least expect it. At the same time, however, we know that things can get better. If we work at it. If we affirm the truth of our healing and actively participate in the healing process. 

So all of this to say yes, it is one year later and yes, we are still experiencing the pain of the loss of the world we once knew. But while the reality of what was lost is still brutally painful for us, it is also true that there has been healing. We are not, in fact, in the same place that we were last year. 

Most obviously – and most importantly – last Rosh Hashanah, I don’t think any of us would dare to imagine that we would see a COVID vaccine any time soon. Then just a few months later, the first fully-tested immunization was approved. Let’s pause now and just try to grasp the enormity of this. It is actually unprecedented in scientific history to go from the onset of a deadly new virus to the creation of a tested vaccine in less than a year. There is really no other word for it: the vaccine is a blessing. It is saving scores of lives as we speak and it remains our greatest hope to finally reach the end of this pandemic. 

It has often occurred to me, when we gather for the High Holidays and pray to be written in the Book of Life for the coming year, we’re essentially coming to grips with the terrifying truth of our mortality. Every Rosh Hashanah we say the unsayable out loud: this time next year, some of us will still be alive and some of us will not. The Book of Life is a stark liturgical metaphor of this immensely painful truth. 

But it also occurs to me that maybe it’s not quite that simple. Maybe the book is a work in progress. Maybe, just maybe, there are a myriad of ways that we take the radical, audacious step to write ourselves into the Book of Life. If we ever needed a reminder of this, just think: last year, after the holidays were over and the gates were supposedly closed, so many people from around the world: doctors and scientists and researchers and immunologists and donors and vaccine developers and caregivers heroically took it upon themselves to write scores of human souls into the Book of Life.

So before I continue any further, I’d like us to pause and honor the blessing of this moment – to offer a blessing of gratitude for having been kept alive long enough to reach this New Year. Please join together with me: 

Blessed are you, spirit of the universe, you have given us life, you kept us alive and you have brought us all to arrive at this season together.

Now of course, while the arrival of a vaccine has been a game changer, it has decidedly not brought about the end of the pandemic. And in some ways I think this kind of magical thinking has contributed to the pain and confusion of our current moment. Last spring, when the shelter orders ended and the re-openings began, we all experienced a collective euphoria and elation that the world was finally getting back to normal. That’s why the mutations of the virus and the arrival of variants has been so brutal. That’s why we’re asking the questions now: will this ever end? Will it ever get any better? 

Again, these are the very same questions we ask when we go through the experience of grief: will things ever get back to normal? Will it ever get any better? Yes, the questions are the same – and the answers are the same as well. No, things will not get back to “normal.” But yes, it can get better. If we work at it. 

We know that this coronavirus will never be eradicated completely. The key is to suppress it to the point that it no longer poses a significant threat to us. When enough people have gained some immunity through either vaccination or infection – preferably vaccination – the coronavirus will transition from pandemic to “endemic.” It won’t be eliminated, but it won’t upend our lives anymore. It won’t cause our ICUs to overflow, force us to shelter at home and wreak havoc with our economy. We can learn to live with it

So therein lies both the blessing and the challenge for us this Rosh Hashanah. The arrival of the vaccine last year was an undeniable blessing. And this year, it seems to me, our challenge is to not squander that blessing. Our challenge is to advocate in no uncertain terms for the blessing of this vaccine to be spread as widely as is humanly possible in this country and throughout the world. 

I would go as far as to say that vaccine advocacy is, in fact, nothing short of a sacred obligation. In Jewish tradition, the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – is our most sacred religious value, the one that supersedes all others. That means fighting misinformation is pikuach nefesh. Advocating for vaccine mandates is pikuach nefesh. Making vaccines available to underserved populations that lack access to health care is pikuach nefesh

And there is every reason to believe we can succeed in these efforts. Strategically speaking, I don’t think it makes much sense to try to convince people who utterly refuse to get vaccinated to change their minds. I think the more effective strategy is to make the vaccine as widely available as possible to anyone and everyone. According to a recent poll, nearly four out of five adults in this country say they are ready and willing to get vaccinated. As well, the number of parents who report they are planning to vaccinate their children are increasing – more than at any other time during the pandemic. This is particularly critical, given that vaccines for children five years old and up will likely be authorized soon – and clinical trials are currently underway for children as young as six months old. 

I also want to stress that this sacred obligation is not merely local but global. Truly, one of the most shameful aspects of 2020 – and this was a year that had no shortage of shameful moments – is the phenomenon known as “vaccine apartheid.” The development of vaccines was indeed the result of the unprecedented cooperation between researchers, governments, and businesses throughout the world. But when it came time to roll them out, wealthy countries hoarded enough to vaccinate their citizens several times over. Now these countries are already administering booster shots – while fewer than 1% of people in low-income countries have received any vaccinations at all. 

But ironically enough, it is actually in our self-interest to ensure global vaccine distribution. Because the longer the world goes unvaccinated, the greater the risk for new variants to emerge that are even more dangerous than Delta – and the longer it will take for those of us in wealthy countries to achieve endemic status. This is one of the many tragic realities of the current moment: in this age of rising nativism and hyper-nationalism, we’re discovering that viruses don’t respect national borders. Economically powerful countries might find safety for their citizens in the short term, but as ever, our well-being is ultimately tied to the well-being of all who dwell on earth. 

Here are some links that will give you more information about how you can participate in advocacy for global vaccine distribution. I encourage you to get involved in this sacred effort, whether in your own home country or abroad, to ensure that this life-saving blessing is made as widely available as possible. 

On Rosh Hashanah, we undertake a cheshbon nefesh – a soul accounting – of ourselves and of the greater community. We examine deeply and unsparingly the ways we as individuals are accountable to the collective. In our 21st century world, I believe it’s imperative that we define the collective as nothing less than the global community. I can’t think of a better kavanah – spiritual intention – for the New Year than that: to affirm that our well-being is irrevocably tied to the well-being of all who dwell on earth. 

So this Rosh Hashanah, let us joyously say to one another, Mir Zaynen Do – We are here. Let us grieve those we’ve lost and celebrate the lives we’ve saved. Let’s continue to show up for one another.  Let us fight every moment of this New Year to write ourselves and our neighbors into the Book of Life. 

May it be a Shanah Tovah – a good year, a Shanah Bri’ah – a year of health, a Shanah Shel Hayyim – a year of life – for us all.

Who is the Stranger Here? Reading the Torah through a Decolonized Lens

Photo credit: 
Paul Connors/Media News Group/Boston Herald

Cross-posted with Jewschool.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, contains the well-known commandment: 

“You must love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

(Deuteronomy 10:19)  

While it’s often characterized as the most repeated commandment in the Torah – occurring a total of 36 times, that’s actually a bit of hyperbole – it actually appears only six times.[1]  The number 36 seems to have originated from a passage in the Talmud [2] but in the end, I’d suggest that the accuracy of this claim is really irrelevant. For liberal Jews in particular, this commandment looms large because it’s a powerful statement of collective empathy. The Jewish people, who have historically lived as “strangers in strange lands,” are as such commanded to love and protect all who know the experience of the stranger. 

The Hebrew word for “stranger,” is ger – a legal term in the Bible for “resident non-citizen.”[3] Throughout the laws of the Torah, there is a clear concern expressed for the legal status of gerim, who are often included in the ritual life of ancient Israel. In the commandment to keep the Shabbat, for instance, the “ger within your settlements” is included in the list of those who must cease from work.[4] God also adjures Israelites repeatedly that there must be “one law” that governs the ger as well as the Israelites.[5] 

Given the Torah’s tolerant attitude toward the “stranger,” this commandment is popularly invoked by Jewish communal leaders, particularly in reference to the issues of immigrant justice and refugee rights. This statement from the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism is a classic example, using the commandment to highlight the classic American dream of immigrant “opportunity.”

Our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today, and we affirm our commitment to create the same opportunities for today’s immigrants that were so valuable to our own community not so many years ago.  

Upon deeper examination, however, this use of the commandment to “love the stranger” is not as powerfully straightforward as it may first appear. This commandment – like all commandments in the Torah – is directed toward the Israelites as they prepare to assume a position of power. Even more critically, their position of power will be attained by means of conquest

In fact, this week’s Torah portion – the very same one that contains this famously empathic commandment – also contains a divine command to the Israelites to brutally dispossess and destroy the peoples of Canaan:

You shall destroy the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity…The Lord your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic, until they are wiped out. He will deliver their kings into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.

(Deuteronomy 7:16, 22-24)

In this context, we would thus do well to ask ourselves, what does it mean for Jews – particularly white Jews – to invoke this Biblical verse as we dwell on land stolen by a settler colonial power from its indigenous population? Or to put it another way, before intoning the commandment to love the stranger, we might first ask ourselves, “who is the real stranger here?” 

Indeed, we cannot deny the fact that the Biblical conquest tradition has historically been used – and continues to be used – to justify colonial dispossession, turning indigenous peoples into strangers in their own lands. In other words, the definition of who is a “citizen” and who is a “stranger” is – and has always been – determined by those who wield the power.

Where does this leave us, then? Is it even possible for Jews who cherish Biblical tradition to read the Torah through a decolonial lens? 

I believe it is. I would suggest that the first step is to ask questions precisely such as these. To avoid the temptation to ignore or wish away these kinds of texts; to actively challenge and interrupt the Biblical conquest tradition head on. For there is no getting around it: the Exodus story is not only about a people liberated by God from slavery – it is also about a people commanded by God to conquer and annihilate the Canaanites before occupying the land they inhabit.  

Reading the Torah through a decolonial lens also means coaxing out and amplifying the voices of the “strangers” in the text – the disenfranchised and colonized who might otherwise be voiceless to us. In this regard, I’ve learned a great deal from the pedagogy of commentators from outside Jewish tradition. One such teacher is the Indigenous Studies scholar Robert Warrior, who has written powerfully about the Biblical conquest tradition in his essay, “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians:”

The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land. As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stands in solidarity with other tribal people around the world, I read the Exodus stories with Canaanites eyes. 

I find another important teacher in the work of black womanist theologian Delores S. Williams, whose book “Sisters in the Wilderness” lifts up the voice of the Biblical character Hagar as a role model for African-American women: 

Hagar’s heritage was African as was black women’s. Hagar was a slave. Black women had emerged from a slave heritage and still lived in light of it. Hagar was brutalized by her slave owner, the Hebrew woman Sarah. The slave narratives of African-American women and some of the narratives of contemporary day-workers tell of the brutal or the cruel treatment black women have received from the wives of slave masters and from contemporary white female employers.[6]

I realize that interpretations such as these are undeniably challenging for Jews who read the text literally, identifying Jewish experience exclusively with the experience of the Israelites. It is even more challenging for white Jews who benefit from power and privilege to reckon with the ways we are complicit in the European Christian legacy of colonization – a legacy that continues to do harm even now.

I would suggest that the commandment to “love the stranger” can never be truly honored if it comes from a position of power or noblesse oblige. It can only be honored when those in power step back and amplify the voices of strangers so that they may assume a rightful place of prominence in the narrative. In so doing, we may yet come to see that the decolonization of the text is in fact inseparable from the decolonization of the world in which we live. 


[1] Exodus 22:20, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:19, Deuteronomy 24:17-18, Deuteronomy 24:21-22. Some versions of this commandment read “Do not oppress the stranger…” 

[2] Baba Metzia 59a

[3] The word ger would later be defined by rabbinical tradition to mean “proselyte” or “righteous gentile.”

[4] Exodus 20:10

[5] Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 24:22, Numbers 15:15

[6] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, (New York: Orbis, 1993, 2013), p. 2. 

Judaism Beyond Zionism: Toward a New Jewish Liturgy

Introduction

In the spring of 2015, I helped to establish a Jewish congregation, Tzedek Chicago, motivated in part by a desire to create a religious space for those in the Jewish community who did not consider themselves to be Zionists. The founders of the congregation articulated this intention openly, in a core value we called “Judaism Beyond Nationalism:”

While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its Indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.

In the contemporary Jewish community, of course, identification with the Zionist narrative has become the sine qua non of Jewish identity. While it is beyond the scope of this essay to analyze the process by which Zionism – a 19th century European nationalist ideology that represented a radical departure from traditional Judaism – became normalized in the American Jewish community, it is fair to say that since the founding of the state of Israel, Zionism has become thoroughly enmeshed in the culture of American Jewish life.

There are signs, however, that the linkage between Zionism and Judaism has begun to loosen in the Jewish community – particularly among younger Jews. According to a widely read 2013 Pew Research Center Study, 27% of American Jews aged 18 to 29 do not feel “very attached” to Israel and another 11% feel “not at all attached.” In a 2017 study commissioned by the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco reported that among Bay Area Jews, 22 % of the respondents reported that a Jewish state’s existence is “not important” or were “not sure.”

Beyond individual attitudes, the nascent beginnings of a “Judaism beyond Zionism” are organically developing outside the bounds of the Jewish communal establishment. As Atalia Omer has written,” we are witnessing the emergence of a “grassroots movement that seeks…to transformatively reimagine American Jewish identity outside the Zionist paradigm.” 1 Though still a distinct minority, the growth of American Jewish organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, #IfNotNow, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence and Open Hillel attest to burgeoning desire for a Judaism that unabashedly challenges Jewish communal support for Israel’s occupation – and in some cases, the very concept of Jewish statehood itself. 2

Another important indication of this shift occurred when Jewish Voice for Peace – an organization that promotes Jewish solidarity with Palestinians and “unequivocally opposes Zionism” – broadened its mission to include the goal of “Jewish Communal Transformation.” In 2011, JVP created its Rabbinical Council to provide “a prophetic Jewish voice inside the Palestine solidarity movement (and) create meaningful ritual, tradition and culture accessible to our growing membership.” JVP subsequently established its own Havurah Network, which it described as “an emergent network that gathers, supports and resources anti-zionist, non-zionist and diasporist Jews and Jewish spiritual communities across the country yearning for a vibrant Jewish life beyond nationalism that condemns and challenges white supremacy within and outside Jewish communities.”

1 Atalia Omer, Days of Awe: Reimagining Judaism in Solidarity with Palestinians, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019, p. 68.

2 Another important sea change occurred in July 2020, when prominent Jewish journalist Peter Beinart, a long-time Liberal Zionist, wrote the New York Times op-ed, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.”

Jewish Diasporism

This newly emergent Judaism beyond Zionism is increasingly being described in positive terms as Jewish diasporism. While this term may seem redundant, we cannot underestimate the extent to which the importance of the Jewish diaspora 3 has been undermined in the era of Zionism. In an age when the idea of Jewish statehood has become thoroughly normalized, however, it is well worth remembering that Rabbinic Judaism originally emerged as a spiritual response to the experience of Jewish dispersion. 

Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ACE, Judaism was a land-centered, Temple-based sacrificial system that was splintering into several competing sects. When the Temple was destroyed and the center of Jewish life shifted from land to diaspora, the rabbis adapted to this new reality accordingly, developing a religious system that could be observed anywhere in the world.

In truth, thriving Jewish diaspora communities existed well before the destruction of the Temple. When Cyrus the Great allowed the exiled Jewish community of Babylon to return to the land in 538 BCE, scores remained in Persia where they enjoyed relative economic stability, “unswayed by the promises of a distant homeland they had never seen.” 4 There were also significant diaspora Jewish communities throughout the Hellenistic world. Between the third century BCE and the end of the first century CE, Alexandria, Egypt became one of the most populous Jewish communities in the world, numbering at least several hundred thousand.

Judaism’s foundational Jewish text – the Talmud – was itself composed and compiled in Babylonia. In a similar way, the myriad of lands in which Jews have lived have provided fertile soil for Jewish spiritual creativity throughout the centuries. Indeed, the most important Jewish religious figures clearly reflect their specific cultural time and place: the great 10th century Jewish philosopher Saadia Gaon, the founder of Judeo-Arabic literature, integrated Jewish theology with the Hellenistic Greek philosophy of his day; Maimonides’ classic philosophical treatises were deeply influenced by the neo-Aristotelian philosophy of medieval Spain; Franz Rosenzweig’s work clearly reflects the ideas of modern German liberalism.

This is not to say that the land of Israel ceased to become important in Jewish tradition. The symbolism of the major Jewish holidays is deeply rooted in the seasonal/agricultural rhythms of the land. A great deal of rabbinic debate in classical Jewish writings focused on how Biblical laws specifically pertaining to the land might be observed in a diasporic setting. There was also extensive theological speculation as to whether or not the land itself was inherently holy or whether it’s holiness derived from the commandments that were fulfilled there. 5

The rabbis also debated whether or not it was a mitzvah (religious obligation) for individual Jews to emigrate to the land. 6 At the same time, however, rabbinic authorities were virtually united in their opposition to the political reestablishment of a Jewish commonwealth. While a yearning for the restoration of Zion is undeniably central to rabbinic Judaism, this ideal was expressed within a decidedly messianic context. Jewish tradition is replete with strong warnings against the creation of a sovereign Jewish state via human agency. 7

When political Zionism arose in the 19th century, it consciously sought to overturn the diasporic focus of Jewish life. A central Zionist dictum known as shlilat hagalut (“negation of the diaspora”) viewed the diaspora as an inherently inhospitable place for Jews; only through the establishment of a Jewish state in their “ancient homeland” would the Jewish people normalize and safeguard their existence among the nations.

Many classical Zionist figures were so vehement in their rejection of the diaspora that their descriptions of European Jewry reflected a palpable sense of internalized antisemitism. Zionist writer/journalist Micha Josef Berdichevski opined for instance, that the Jews of the pale were “not a people, not a nation, not human.” 8 Hebrew poet/author Joseph Chaim Brenner called diaspora Jews “Gypsies and filthy dogs” 9 and the Labor Zionist icon A.D. Gordon wrote that diaspora Jewish life was the “parasitism of a fundamentally useless people.” 10 The views of Revisionist Zionist founder Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was clearly influenced by European fascist ideology, infamously referred to religious diaspora Jews as “ugly, sickly Yids” and Zionist settlers as “Hebrews.” 11

Now six decades after the founding of the state of Israel, however, it might be claimed that the Jews who live there are experiencing a new form of exile. 12 On the eve of its establishment, the celebrated Jewish German political theorist Hannah Arendt presciently warned that the new Jewish state would be “secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities.” 13 Today, Israel is one of the most militarized nations in the world, a virtual garrison state with a traumatized national culture. More tragically, the movement that ostensibly sought to end Jewish exile ended up exiling another people in the process. The state of Israel was created through the expulsion of the Palestinians, who today live under military occupation, as second-class citizens in their own land, or else in a diaspora of their own – as refugees or citizens of other countries – and are forbidden to return to their homes.

The Jewish population of the world is currently split almost in half between Israel and the diaspora. Where does this leave those in the diaspora who choose not to center our Judaism on the state of Israel; who refuse to celebrate a Judaism that glorifies ethnic Jewish nation-statism? Is there a place for Jews who want to celebrate the diaspora as dynamic and fertile ground for a new kind of Judaism? One that embraces Jewish existence among diverse nations as a multi-ethnic, multi-racial peoplehood? One that advocates for the universal redemption of all peoples?

Over the past two decades, prominent Jewish scholars have been reclaiming and reframing the concept of Jewish diaspora in compelling ways. Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, for instance, has advocated a conscious celebration of the diaspora as part of a larger project of Jewish empowerment:

Celebrating dispersion, Diasporism challenges the Edenic premise: once we were gathered in our own land, now we are in exile. What if we conceive of diaspora as the center: an oxymoron, putting the margin at the center of the circle that includes but does not privilege Israelis?… Jews worldwide number only about 13.3 million, a tiny minority except in Israel. Diasporism means embracing this minority status, leaving us with some tough questions: Does minority inevitably mean feeble? Can we embrace diaspora without accepting oppression? Do we choose to be marginal? Do we choose to transform the meaning of center and margins? Is this possible? 14

Daniel Boyarin has argued that the Babylonian Talmud itself is a “diasporist manifesto,” imagining its own community and sense of portable homeland:

The Talmud in its textual practices produces Babylonia as a homeland, and since this Babylonia is produced by a text that can move, that homeland becomes portable and reproduces itself over and over. The Talmud, I would submit, is not only the only classical work of the rabbinic period produced outside the Land of Israel; it is a diasporist manifesto, Diasporist Manifesto Number 1. 15

More recently, Susannah Heschel has suggested the concept of diaspora as a prophetic alternative to the traditional Jewish “embrace of exile:”

As prophetic, the diasporic Jew is never entirely at home, never content or complacent in a world of injustice. Diaspora transforms exile into Jewish creativity, as has happened for over two millennia. The prophet is a diasporic exemplar, leaving home and journeying to the urban seat of the political, military, and economic power to demand an end to corruption, exploitation, cruelty, and indifference. The prophetic position cannot exist by trying to end exile with statehood or by embracing exile as the essential mentality of Jewishness. To abandon diaspora in favor of exile is to walk away from the prophetic; to reject exile while embracing diaspora is to retain the prophetic passion for justice.

In short, we are currently witnessing the emergence of a new Jewish diasporism: one that neither stigmatizes existence outside the land nor romanticizes the experience of exile, but rather seeks to center the diaspora as the essential locus of Jewish life, creativity and purpose.

3 While I use the term “Jewish diaspora” here for the sake of clarity, it might be more accurate to refer to Jewish “diasporas,” as Jewish life throughout the world has existed in very different social, cultural and political milieus and throughout unique, distinct periods of world history.

4 H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976, p. 168.

5 See Mishnah Kelim 1:6: “What is the nature of (the land’s) holiness? That from it are brought the omer, the firstfruits and the two loaves, which cannot be brought from any of the other lands.”

6 From Talmud Ketubot 110a: “Whoever lives outside of Israel may be regarded as one who worships idols.” From Ketubot 111a: “Whoever returns from Babylon to Israel transgresses a positive commandment of the Torah.”

7 The classic rabbinic prohibition against reestablishing the Jewish commonwealth before the coming of the Messiah is known as the “Three Oaths.” See Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 110b, Shir Hashirim Rabbah, 8:11.

8 Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel, New York: Schocken, 1972, p. 61.

9 IBID.

10 IBID.

11 Alan Wolfe, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014, p. 17. For more on Zionist ideals of Jewish masculinity, see Daniel Boyarin, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

12 See Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon, Exile Within Sovereignty: Critique of “The Negation of Exile” in Israeli Culture, from “The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic Perspectives on the History of a Concept,”edited by  Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Sefanos Geroulanos, Nicole Jerr, pp. 393-420, New York, Columbia University Press, 2017.

13 Hannah Arendt, The Jewish Writings, New York: Schocken, 2007, p. 396.

14 Melanie Kaye Kantrowitz, The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism, Indiana: Indiana University  Press, 2007, p. 200.

15 Daniel Boyarin, A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, p. 32.

Jewish Diasporism at Tzedek Chicago

Since its founding, Tzedek Chicago has become a practical laboratory for the development of this new Jewish diasporism, particularly through the creation of rituals that explicitly celebrate the idea of “diaspora as homeland.”

During the holiday of Sukkot, for instance, instead of the traditional lulav and etrog – the four species native to the Biblical land of Israel – we use symbolic species indigenous to the prairie of the Midwestern United States. 16 We are exploring diasporist approaches to other Jewish holidays as well. On the festival of Tu B’shvat, which typically falls in late January/early March, I offered this teaching to the Tzedek Chicago community:

In the land of Israel, the “harbinger of Spring” festival of Tu B’shvat is marked at this time of year by the blossoming of the white almond blossoms through the central and northern parts of the land. However, those of us who live in the diaspora of the American Midwest, often celebrate Tu B’shvat surrounded by several inches of white snow and leafless trees. Is this any way to celebrate a harbinger of Spring?

I’ll suggest that it is. I actually find it very profound to contemplate the coming of Spring in the depths of a Chicago winter. It reminds me that even during this dark, cold season, there are unseen forces at work preparing our world for renewal and rebirth. Deep beneath the ground, the sap is beginning to rise in the roots of our trees – although this fructification process might not be as visually spectacular as the proliferation of white almond blossoms exploding across the countryside, I believe this invisible life-giving energy is eminently worth acknowledging – and celebrating.

It is true, of course, that the Biblical land of Israel was central to Judaism centuries before the ideology of political Zionism emerged. As such, some might well claim that the decentering of land-based symbolism represents a kind of “radical surgery” to Jewish tradition. If, as I noted above, Judaism originally spiritualized the concept of homeland, might we still retain its land-centric aspects for their symbolic, mythic power?

Such a question fails to confront the radical way Zionism has transformed Judaism itself and how deeply it has influenced Jewish attitudes toward the diaspora. Just as radically, diasporic Judaism seeks to re-right this imbalance by lifting up and centering the idea of Jewish home wherever we happen to live in the world. In Kaye Kantrowitz’s words, “Where Zionism says go home, Diasporism says we make home where we are.” 17 For those of us who affirm that the entire world is and has been our actual Jewish homeland, these new, reframed rituals seek to celebrate the Jewish people’s adaptability – and the unique nature of the homes we have created for ourselves throughout the diaspora.

Another, related issue is the concept of “Zion” itself, an idea that is undeniably, indelibly imprinted upon Jewish tradition and Jewish liturgy. How might a diasporic Judaism understand this concept, whose meaning has been thoroughly literalized by political Jewish nationalism?

As stated above, the idea of the Jewish return to Zion was traditionally understood in messianic terms. This belief is particularly embodied in the concept of kibbutz galuyot (“ingathering of exiles”), which emerged during the Babylonian exile as expressed in the Biblical books of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. 18 In Jewish liturgy, this concept is prominent in a number of prayers, including the Daily Amidah and Ahavah Rabbah (“Abounding Love”), a prayer that is traditionally read before the Shema during the morning service and ends with the line, “May we be glad, rejoicing in your saving power, and may you reunite our people from all corners of the earth, leading us proudly to our land.”

Zionism lifted kibbutz galuyot out of its messianic context and reframed it in explicitly nationalist terms. It is notably referenced in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as well as the Prayer for the Welfare of the State of Israel, both written in 1948 to explicitly celebrate the literal “exilic ingathering” of modern Jewry to the state of Israel. The Zionist interpretation of kibbutz galuyot has been internalized in American Jewish life as well. In many synagogues, for instance, it is even customary to sing the line “may you reunite our people” in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer to the melody from Hatikvah – the Israeli national anthem.

How might kibbutz galuyot be reimagined in a diasporist context? At Tzedek Chicago, our version of Ahavah Rabbah is rendered thus, “May it lead us toward your justice, toward liberation for all who dwell on earth; that all who are exiled and dispossessed may safely find their way home.” Our new reading replaces Jewish particularism and exceptionalism with a universalist, decolonial ethic. As such, it is neither messianic nor Zionist. In this post-modern diasporist reimagining, Zion is not unique to the Jewish people and does not exist in any particular place. So too, kibbutz galuyot does not refer to the Jewish exiled alone but to all who have been – or continue to be – dispossessed throughout the world.

16 In 2018, a small group of radical Jews published a zine that offered “reflections, tips, and resources about creating your own diasporic lulav,” explaining, “Our lulavs – both the ritual object and the ritual acts – are situated in diaspora, and explicitly reject the colonization of Palestine and the mandate to use the “four kinds” (“arbah minim”) of plants associated with the biblical Land of Israel.”

17 Kantrowitz, p. 199.

18 See Isaiah 11:12; 27:13; 56:8, 66:20, Jeremiah 16:15; 23:3, 8; 29:14; 31:8; 33:7 and Ezekiel 20:34, 41; 37:21. The term itself was coined in the Talmud (see Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 12a) and was later connected to the coming of the Messiah by Moses Maimondies (see Mishneh Torah, “Laws of Kings,” 11:1-2).

Jewish Anti-Militarism

In addition to re-centering diaspora, any attempt at promoting a Judaism Beyond Zionism must reckon seriously with the culture of militarism that thoroughly pervades the ideology of Zionism and Israeli society. As Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb has pointed out, “During the past sixty years, the assumption that a highly militarized Jewish state ensures Jewish security has become entrenched as an article of faith… To critique Israeli militarism is to critique Zionism in the minds of many contemporary Jews.” 19

Prior to the onset of Zionism, Jewish tradition promoted nonviolence and quietism over the glorification of war, 20 a doctrine generally traced to the aftermath of the Bar Kochba rebellion (132-135 CE). As Reuven Firestone has written, in the wake of this catastrophic event, “Jewish wisdom would teach that it is not physical acts of war that would protect Israel from its enemies, but rather spiritual concentration in righteousness and prayer.” 21

The rabbis were also painfully aware that the Hasmonean revolt centuries earlier had ended disastrously for the Jewish people. This uprising, chronicled in the Books of the Maccabees and commemorated by the festival of Hanukkah, was waged by the Maccabees, a priestly family who led a rebellion against the religious persecution of the Seleucid empire. Their victory resulted in the establishment of the Hasmonean Kingdom – the second Jewish commonwealth – in Palestine in 164 BCE. 

The militarism of the Hasmoneans however, would eventually prove to be its downfall. Following the Maccabean victory, their brief period of independence was wracked by internecine violence, anti-rabbinic persecution and ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In 63 BCE, the Hasmonean Kingdom was conquered by the Romans (with whom they had previously been allied). In the end, the last period of Jewish political sovereignty in the land lasted less than one hundred years. 22

The rabbis of the Talmud were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees – secular stories of a violent civil war that were never actually canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light the Hanukkah menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. 23 Notably, the rabbis chose the words of Zechariah 4:6, Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

Hanukkah remained a relatively minor Jewish festival until it was revived by early Zionists and the founders of the state of Israel, who fancied themselves as modern-day Maccabees engaged in their own military struggle for political independence. At the end of his book, The Jewish State, Zionist movement founder Theodor Herzl famously wrote, “The Maccabees will rise again!” 24 Even today, the celebration of the Maccabees as Jewish military heroes is deeply ingrained in Israeli culture.

This Zionist sacralizing of militarism and conquest represented a radical overturning of these central tenets of traditional Judaism. The term kibush ha’aretz (“conquest of the land”) was one of the terms used by Zionist settlers to describe their colonization of Palestine. 25 As noted above, many Zionist ideologues promoted the ideal of the muscular, heroic “New Jew” in contrast with Diaspora Jewry. Zionists were also instrumental in helping to form the Jewish Legions that fought against the Ottomans in Palestine in World War 1. During the British Mandate, Zionists created armed militias such as the Haganah (which later became the Israeli Defense Force after the founding of the state) as well as the more militant Irgun and Lehi.

In 1948-49, during what Jewish Israelis refer to as their War of Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba (the “catastrophe”), these armed forces engaged in the widespread ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from villages and cities throughout Palestine. Notably, these military operations often used names associated with Biblical history and Jewish religious tradition. For instance, a joint force of the Haganah and Irgun dispossessed 61,000 Palestinians from Haifa on eve of Passover 1948, in a campaign known as “Operation Biur Chametz,” (“Operation Cleaning Out the Leaven”) – a reference to the commandment to remove leaven from Jewish homes before the onset of the festival. 26 Another campaign, waged in the southern Negev desert and the coastal plain was given the name “Operation Ten Plagues.” 27

The Zionist movement and the fledgling state of Israel notably looked to the Biblical conquest tradition – and in particular, the Book of Joshua – as a model for its own conquest of historic Palestine. Though largely secular, Israel’s founders utilized the Bible as a canvas for promoting a national myth of a glorious military past. As scholar Nur Masalha has pointed out, “The Book of Joshua provided Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and muscular Zionism with the militaristic tradition of the Bible: of military conquest of the land and subjugation of the Canaanites and other ancient people that populated the ‘promised land.” 28 Ben Gurion himself viewed the book of Joshua as the most important book of the Bible; in 1958 he convened a study group at his home where Israeli generals, politicians, and academics discussed the book of Joshua against the founding of the modern state of Israel. 29

19 Lynn Gottlieb, Trail Guide to the Torah of Nonviolence, France: Earth of Hope Publishing, 2013, p. 19.

20  Reuven Firestone, Holy War in Judaism: The Fall and Rise of a Controversial Idea, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

21 IBID, p. 62.

22 For more on the history of the Hasmonean Kingdom, see Kenneth Atkinson, A History of the Hasmonean State: Josephus and Beyond, London: T&T Clark, 2016.

23 See Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b.

24 Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea, Canada: Atheneum, 1959, p. 225.

25  Firestone, pp. 181-182.

26  Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 186-211.

27  IBID, p. 462.

28 Nur Masalha, The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Israel-Palestine, London: Zed Books, 2007, p. 24.

29 See Rachel Haverlock, The Joshua Generation: Israeli Occupation and the Bible, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.

Jewish Anti-Militarism at Tzedek Chicago

At Tzedek Chicago, our core values clearly and unabashedly condemn the glorification of war and violence. This is both a return to the traditional rabbinic approach as well as step beyond it. Our vision of Jewish nonviolence does not emerge from quietism but rather from the value of solidarity: the conviction that security for Jews is irrevocably bound up with security for all.

As we state in our core values:

In our education, celebration and communal observances, we honor those aspects of our tradition that promote peace and reject the pursuit of war as a solution to our conflicts. We openly disavow those aspects of our religion – and all religions – that promote violence, intolerance and xenophobia.

Our activism is based upon a vision of shared security for the world; we support the practices of nonviolence, civil resistance, diplomacy and human engagement. Through our advocacy, we take a stand against militarism and colonialism, particularly when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.

Liturgically, we express this value in a variety of ways. For instance, in our poetic rendering of the prophetic portion for Hanukkah (Zechariah 2:14-4:7), the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees is reframed as a dedication to ideals of nonviolence and justice for all people:

Let loose your joy for
your prayers have
already been answered;
even in your exile
the one you seek has been
dwelling in your midst
all along.

Quiet your raging soul
and you will come to learn:
every nation is my nation
all peoples my chosen
anywhere you choose to live
will be your Holy Land,
your Zion, your Jerusalem.

Open your eyes and
look across the valley
look at this ruined land
seized and possessed
throughout the ages.

Look upon your
so-called city of peace
a place that knows
only debasement
and desecration
at your hand.

Turn your gaze to the heavens
and there you will find
the Jerusalem that you seek:
a city that can never be conquered,
only dreamed of, yearned for, strived for;
a Temple on high that can never be destroyed.

No more need for priestly vestments
or plots to overrun that godforsaken mount –
just walk in my ways
and you will find your way there:
a sacred pilgrimage to the Temple
in any land you call home.

Enter the gates to
this holiest of holy places,
lift up its fallen walls,
relight the branches of the lamp
so that my house will truly
become a sanctuary
for all people.

Yes, this is how you will
restore the Temple:
not by might, not by power
but by the spirit
you share with every
living, breathing soul.

These values are also reflected in our Prayer for Reparation and Restoration. which we read in lieu of the congregational Prayer for Peace or Prayer for the Welfare of the Government. (Compare our prayer below for instance, with the Reform Movement’s “Prayer for Peace and Strength:”)

To the One who demands justice:
inspire us to become rodfei tzedek,
pursuers of justice
in our lives and in our communities.

Give us the strength to resist power
wielded with fear and dread;
fill us with the vision and purpose
to build a power yet greater,
a power rooted in solidarity,
liberation and love.

Grant us the courage to dismantle
systems of oppression –
and when they are no more,
let us dedicate our wealth and resources
toward the well-being of all.

May we abolish all forms of state violence
that we might make way for a world
free of racism and militarization,
a world where no one profits
off the misery of others,
a world where the bills owed those who have been
colonized, enslaved and dispossessed
are finally paid in full.

Inspire us with the knowledge
that real justice is indeed at hand,
that we may realize
the world we know is possible,
right here, right now,
in our own day.

May our thoughts and our hopes,
our words and our deeds
guide us toward a future of reparation,
of restoration, of justice,
al kol yoshvei teivel
for all who dwell on earth,
amen.

As a response to the issue of domestic militarization, the prayer below was delivered at a Tisha B’Av vigil, co-sponsored by Tzedek Chicago, at an immigrant detention center in Kankakee, IL. The text is an adaptation from the Biblical book of Lamentations, traditionally read on the festival of Tisha B’Av:

We are beyond humiliation
beyond shame
we incarcerate children without pity
we deport parents without a thought
and build systems that destroy families indiscriminately
now we truly know what it means to be dishonored
our so-called glorious past is now seen
for the sham that it was
the way of life we celebrate is but a privilege
for the few and the powerful
we can’t see that our own might
will be our downfall.

We venerate leaders
who should be tried for their crimes
we never dared imagine a power
greater than our own
like so many before us
we conquered the land then drew borders
as a testament to our fear and dread
now we build higher walls
to keep out those who seek shelter
we built massive checkpoints
we lined up human beings
like cattle in cages
now children cry out for parents
who will never answer their calls
their voices echo endlessly
through the camps but there
is no one left to hear.

We ask one another with bewilderment
have we ever seen such cruel violations
yet in truth we ourselves have inflicted
such cruelties on children here
and around the world
we sentence minors to life in prison without parole
we remain silent as a cruel occupation
abducts and imprisons children in military prisons
convicts them in military courts
and yet we dare to act surprised when
we hear news of children thrown into cages
at our southern border.

Our silence betrays us
these walls will soon encircle us all
soon there will be no one left
only a single mass of mourners
whispering broken hymns of lament
grieving what was lost
and what might have been
one day we will know the sorrow
of the dispossessed.

We who never heard the cries of migrants
and their children will know what it means
to be uprooted detained and discarded
those who we scorned and abandoned
will bitterly welcome us to the world
of the dispossessed
the enemies we created
through our own fearful actions
will surely come back for us all.

Let us hope and pray
there is still time
let the cries of our children
pour into our hearts like water
the cries of any who have been forced
from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden
forgotten forsaken
let their cries compel us
to take down oppressive systems
built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful.

Let their cries remind us
that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no ICE no police
a place where we no longer need to struggle because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely.

From the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
we beseech you chadeish yameniu
renew our days
that we may build the world
that somehow still might be
kein yehi ratzon – may it be your will
and may it be ours.

Jewish Solidarity with Palestinians

At Tzedek Chicago, we understand solidarity with Palestinians not merely as a political position, but a sacred imperative. As we state in one of our core values, that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people.” Accordingly, we reject the ways that the establishment of the state of Israel has become sacralized as redemptive in most American synagogues.30 Needless to say, for those Jews who consider the Nakba to be an historic – and ongoing – injustice, the birth of the Jewish state has a decidedly different religious meaning.

We express our sacred solidarity with Palestinians in a variety of ways. One Passover, for instance, we invited Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, to our congregation to speak about BDS as a liberation movement. In our advertising, we described the program thus: “Taking our cue from the season of Passover we will engage in a deep exploration of this important call for Palestinian liberation, and explore its profound challenge to all people of conscience.”

Tzedek Chicago also expresses Jewish solidarity with Palestinians through the use of sacred ritual. For instance, while most American synagogues celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) as part of the Jewish religious calendar, we observe this occasion through our recognition of Nakba Day – the day Palestinians mark as the day of their catastrophic dispossession. In our “Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day” we use traditional Jewish liturgical/theological imagery to reflect our observance of this day as an occasion for mourning, remembrance and repentance:

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires return:

Receive with the fulness of your mercy
the hopes and prayers of those
who were uprooted, dispossessed
and expelled from their homes
during the devastation of the Nakba.

Sanctify for tov u’veracha,
for goodness and blessing,
the memory of those who were killed
in Lydda, in Haifa, in Beisan, in Deir Yassin
and so many other villages and cities
throughout Palestine.

Grant chesed ve’rachamim,
kindness and compassion,
upon the memory of the expelled
who died from hunger,
thirst and exhaustion
along the way.

Shelter beneath kanfei ha’shechinah,
the soft wings of your divine presence,
those who still live under military occupation,
who dwell in refugee camps,
those dispersed throughout the world
still dreaming of return.

Gather them mei’arbah kanfot ha’aretz
from the four corners of the earth
that their right to return to their homes
be honored at long last.

Let all who dwell in the land
live in dignity, equity and hope
so that they may bequeath to their children
a future of justice and peace.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

Le’el she’chafetz teshuvah,
to the One who desires repentance:
Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

Help us to face the terrible truth of the Nakba
and its ongoing injustice
that we may finally confess our offenses;
that we may finally move toward a future
of reparation and reconciliation.

Le’el malei rachamim,
to the One filled with compassion:
show us how to understand the pain
that compelled our people to inflict
such suffering upon another –
dispossessing families from their homes
in the vain hope of safety and security
for our own.

Osei hashalom,
Maker of peace,
guide us all toward a place
of healing and wholeness
that the land may be filled
with the sounds of joy and gladness
from the river to the sea
speedily in our day.

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

In another example of communal Palestinian solidarity, we dedicated a portion of our 2018 Yom Kippur Service to the Palestinians who were then being killed weekly by the Israeli military in Gaza’s Great Return March. In the introduction to this ritual, we stated:

 It is traditional at the end of the Yom Kippur morning service to read a Martyrology that describes the executions of ten leading rabbis, including Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Yishmael, who were brutally executed by the Roman Empire. This liturgy is included to honor those who have paid the ultimate price for the cause of “Kiddush Hashem” – the sanctification of God’s name.

At Tzedek Chicago, we devote the Yom Kippur Martyrology to honor specific individuals throughout the world who have given their lives for the cause of liberation. As we do, we ask ourselves honestly: what have we done to prove ourselves worthy of their profound sacrifices? And what kinds of sacrifices will we be willing to make in the coming year to ensure they did not die in vain?

This year, we will dedicate our Martyrology service to the Palestinians in Gaza who have been killed by the Israeli military during the Great Return March. This nonviolent demonstration began last spring with a simple question: “What would happen if thousands of Gazans, most of them refugees, attempted to peacefully cross the fence that separated them from their ancestral lands?”

Since the first day of the march last spring, demonstrators have consistently been met by live fire from the Israeli military. To date, 170 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands wounded and maimed, most of them unarmed demonstrators, including children, medics and bystanders.

30 This sacralization is reflected in a myriad of ways, whether it be through the placement of the Israeli flag next to the ark containing the sacred scrolls of the Torah, the regular recitation of the “Prayer for the State of Israel” (which refers to its establishment as “the first flowering of our redemption,”) or the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) alongside traditional Jewish festivals.

Decolonial Judaism

As we have explored the meaning of Judaism beyond Zionism, we have quickly come to realize that many of these issues are rooted in more foundational concerns. For instance, we cannot interrogate the meaning of the Jewish diaspora without also understanding the diasporas of other transnational and/or dispossessed peoples. As we grapple with issues of militarism we must invariably confront the connections between state violence and structural racism. Solidarity with Palestinians cannot be viewed in isolation from the larger legacy of settler colonialism and the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples in the US and around the world.

These connections have, in turn, given rise to critical questions, such as:

• In North America, white Jews are participants in the ongoing colonization of stolen land. How can we celebrate diaspora in a way that respects the land upon which we live and the Indigenous Peoples for whom it remains sacred? 

• In the United States, 12 to 15% of the American Jewish community are Jews of color, many of whom have their own history of colonization and enslavement. How will white Jews center their experience and stand down the culture of White supremacy in the American Jewish community? 

• If we view atonement as a sacred imperative, how can we, as a Jewish congregational community advocate and participate in a process of reparations and rematriation for the members of Indigenous Nations and descendants of enslaved people? 

As a response to questions such as these, Tzedek Chicago has convened an internal task force “to explore how Tzedek as a community can best participate and support reparative justice efforts, especially regarding the harms of slavery and colonization.” We are also exploring ways to address these questions through Jewish ritual. In 2019, for instance, we celebrated a Sukkot festival celebration jointly sponsored with Chi-Nations Youth Council – a Chicago-based group that organizes on behalf of Native Youth in the region. Our celebration included the prayer, “Earth Shema,” written for Tzedek Chicago by poet/liturgist Aurora Levins Morales:

There is no earth but this earth and we are its children.  The earth is our home, and there is only one.  The ground beneath our feet was millions of years in the making. Each leaf, each blade, each wing, each petal, each hair on the flank of a red fox, each scale on the sturgeon, each mallard feather, each pine needle and fragment of sassafras bark took millions of years to become, and we ourselves are millions of years in the making.

The earth offers itself and all its gifts freely, offers rain and sunlight, and the shimmer of moon on its lakes, offers corn and squash, apples and honey, salmon and lamb, and clear, cold water and all it asks in return is that we love it, respect its ways, cherish it.

We shall love the earth and all that lives with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our intelligence, with all our might.   

Wherever we walk, wherever we sleep, wherever we eat, wherever we pray upon the face of the earth, we shall uphold the first peoples of that place, those who have loved it longest and know its ways most deeply.  We shall listen to them, learn from them, follow their lead, defend them, and join with them to protect each other and our world, and of every two grains in our bowls, we will give one to the first peoples who sit beside us at the earth’s table. 

The names of those who were here before us are syllables of the earth’s name, so know them and speak them, and speak the first names for the places where you dwell, the water you drink, the winds that bring you breath.  Say the name of this place, which is Shikaakwa, and say the names of its people: Myaamiaki, Illiniwek who are also the Inoca, the Asakiwaki and Meskwaki, people of the yellow earth and the red earth, the Hochagra, and the Bodewadmi who keep the hearth fires, for the land held many stories before we came and the places that were made for us were made by shattering their worlds.

Take to heart these words with which I charge you this day.  Cherish this land beneath your feet. Cherish the roots and the waterways, the rocks and trees, the ancestor bones in the ground and the people who dance on the living earth and make new paths with their feet, with their breath, with their dreaming.  Love and serve this world, this creation, as you love the creator who gifted it to us.  Defend it from those whose hunger for riches cannot be filled, who devour and destroy, bringing death to everything we love. 

Fight for the earth and protect it with all your heart and soul and strength, and hold nothing back, so that the rains fall in their season, the early rain and the late, and we may gather in the new grain and the wine and the oil, the squash and beans and corn, the apples and grapes and nuts, so that the grass grows high in the fields and feeds the deer and the cattle, so that the water flows clean in river and lake, filled with abundant fish, and birds nest among the reeds, and all that lives shall eat its fill. 

Do not be lured into the worship of consumption, comfort, convenience. Do not suck on the drinking straws of extraction, or bow down to the hoarders of what is good. For if we do, the breath of life that is in all things will empty the skies of clouds, and there will be no rain, and the earth will not yield its blessings, but will be laid waste.

So summon all the courage which is in you and in your people, stretching back to the dawn of time and remember this promise by night and by day, with every breath, whatever you are doing.  Let nothing stand in your way.  Put your hands into the soil of this moment and plant good seed that we and all our children may live long in the land and be a blessing. 31

31  This prayer was written as part of Morales’ Rimonim Liturgy Project, a network of which Tzedek Chicago is a participating member. Rimonim seeks the creation of new liturgies that reflect, among other things, “a full integration of the lives and experiences of Indigenous Jews and Jews of Color of all backgrounds, diaspora-centered Judaism that is rooted in global Jewish cultures, and explicitly replaces Zionist content in our liturgy… and acknowledgement and accountability to Indigenous peoples on whose land non-Indigenous Jews are settlers.”

 Conclusion

In her analysis of Tzedek Chicago, Omer referred to our congregation as a “prefigurative Jewish community.” 32 I believe this to be an extremely apt description: Tzedek Chicago is part of a nascent movement that is consciously attempting to build and model a future Jewish community guided by the transformative core values of justice that we hold sacred. In the end, however, it is not only the Jewish world we seek to transform – it is the world at large.

This idea is perhaps most prominently expressed during our Shabbat celebrations, when we liturgically welcome the Sabbath as a weekly taste of olam ha’ba (“the “world to come.”) 33 As opposed to the traditional messianic view of this concept, we define it as “the world as it should be” – i.e., the very real world of equity and justice for which we work and strive and struggle during the week. When Shabbat arrives, our liturgy provides us with the opportunity to experience this world, so that when Shabbat ends, we will be reinspired, replenished – and ready to continue the sacred work that will bring it that much closer to reality.

With this vision in mind, I will conclude with one final prayer – Tzedek Chicago’s poetic rendering of Psalm 92 (The Song for the Sabbath Day):

Tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.

They said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.

Memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.

See how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.

So tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.

32  Omer, p. 155.

33  From the Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57b: “Shabbat is one sixtieth of the world to come.”

Punishing Gaza: When Narratives Collide

I delivered this sermon yesterday at Second Unitarian Universalist Church of Chicago:

When Reverend Jason invited me to give the sermon to you today, I had some idea of what I wanted to talk to you about. My original thought was to address the idea of collective narrative. To explore the stories communities tell about themselves – and the often unintended impact those stories have on our lives and on our world.

I think it’s important to understand the way collective narratives can blind us to the narratives of others. It’s particularly critical for communities of power and privilege to understand how the stories tell about themselves affect their actions toward disenfranchised communities. Or more to the point, the communities they disenfranchise.

I think it’s safe to say that white America is starting to challenge the dominant narratives that are told about the birth of this country – and the harm they continue to cause to this very day. In a very similar way, increasing numbers of us in the Jewish community are now starting to confront the Zionist narrative that has been instilled in us for the past 73 years. Much like the American narrative, it is also rooted in colonialism and racism – i.e., the story of about a nation created on the backs of a dispossessed and disenfranchised people. 

However, given the terrible, tragic events that are still ongoing now in Palestine/Israel, I’ve decided to address this issue in a more immediate way – and a more personal way. In particular, I want to talk to you about Gaza. I’ve chosen this subject because that’s where the greatest and most tragic violence is occurring right now. I also believe Gaza epitomizes the ways Israel’s national narrative has inflicted harm on Palestinians – and how it continues to inflict such unthinkable harm even as we speak.

The subject of Gaza also has a special place in my own heart. In 2008, Israel launched a military operation on Gaza known as “Operation Cast Lead” not unlike the one we are witnessing at this very moment. This event became a pivotal turning point in my own relationship to Israel/Palestine – and to Zionism in general.

By the end of this “operation,” the Israeli military killed over 1,300 Palestinians, including 300 children. Beyond my anguish over these horrific casualties, it was the response of many in my Jewish community that shook me to my core. The rationalizations. The moral equivocation. The inability to face with the wider context in which these actions were occurring. The vilification of those – including many reputable human rights organizations – who suggested that Israel’s actions constituted war crimes and even crimes against humanity. 

Then it happened again in 2014: the Israeli military killed over 2,000 Palestinians were killed, 495 of whom were children. And now today: Israel is once again unleashing overwhelming military firepower against a population of 2,000,000 whom they’ve blockaded in a tiny strip of land and who literally have nowhere to run. This is not a difficult moral calculus for me anymore – as a rabbi, as a Jew, and as human being of conscience. 

Like many American Jews, my identity growing up was profoundly informed by the classic Zionist narrative: the story of a small underdog nation forging a national and cultural rebirth out of the ashes of its near-destruction. The redemptive nature of this narrative assumed a quasi-sacred status for me, as it did for many American Jews of my generation and older.

Politically speaking, I identified with what tends to be referred to today as “liberal Zionism.” I connected in particular with Israel’s Labor Zionist origins and generally aligned myself with positions advocated by the Israeli left and the Israeli peace movement. When it came to the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, I’d invariably intone a familiar refrain of liberal Zionists: “It’s complicated.”

2008, however, was a tipping point for me. I read about the bombing of schools, whole families wiped out, children literally burned to the bone with white phosphorous. Somehow, it didn’t seem so complicated to me anymore. At long last, it felt as if I was viewing the conflict with something approaching clarity.

My relationship to Gaza deepened yet further in 2017, when I visited Gaza as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee to meet with our programmatic staff there. I don’t know any other way to say it other than that I now take Gaza very, very personally. I have been indelibly transformed by my experience of there and by the friendships that I cherish to this day. As a result, it has given me an even deeper sensitivity into a narrative about a place that has become hideously twisted, even by the most well-meaning of people.

Too often, I believe, we tend to fetishize Gaza and Gazans, describing them alternatively as murderous terrorists, helpless pawns of Hamas or poor, passive victims. And since most people only tend to think of Gaza when the bombs are falling, this is generally about as far as its public image tends to go. Gaza becomes an objectified symbol of people’s fears, their political agendas and their own internalized prejudices.

So for some time now, it’s been something of a personal mission of mine to try and expand the one-dimensional narratives that are routinely told about Gaza. To contextualize Gaza’s history with information that is generally unknown to most of the world but is absolutely critical if we want a deeper understanding of the events currently unfolding there. I also see it as a mission to shine a light on the moral and religious challenge that Gaza presents to the Jewish community – and to all people of conscience. 

First, a brief geography tutorial: what we call the “Gaza strip” constitutes a 140 square mile piece of land on the southeastern Mediterranean coast. While we generally think of “Gaza” as this one little crowded land mass, this term historically refers to a much larger territory that has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. In ancient times it enjoyed extensive commerce and trade with the outside world and was a major port and an important stop along the spice and incense route. As such, it was located at a significant cultural crossroad, connecting a wide variety of different civilizations over the centuries.

Of course if folks associate Gaza with anything today, it’s with violence, refugees and refugee camps. But it’s important to bear in mind that this is a relatively recent phenomenon in its history. The so-called “Gaza strip” was created in 1949, when it became a repository for a flood of Palestinian refugees from cities and villages who had been expelled from their homes by Zionist militias. Before the outset of war, the population of this small strip of land numbered 60 to 80,000. By the end of the hostilities, at least 200,000 refugees were crowded into what we call today the Gaza Strip. The borders of this area were drawn arbitrarily, determined by the position of Egyptian and Israeli forces when the ceasefire was announced. It ended up being smaller by at least a third than the entire area of the Gaza District during the British mandate.

At the time, most of the refugees fully expected to return home – some could even see their own towns and villages through the barbed wire fences. Those who crossed the border to gather their possessions or harvest their crops were considered “infiltrators” by Israel and shot on sight. Eventually, it became all too clear there would be no return. Over the years the tents turned into concrete buildings that grew ever higher in that narrow corridor. The population of that once sparse territory has now grown to almost 2,000,000 people.

Given this context, it was natural that Gaza would become a center for the Palestinian resistance movement. We know from history that when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression. And yes, sometimes that resistance will be violent in nature.

As early as the 1950s, groups of Palestinians known as “fedayeen” crossed over the border to stage violent attacks in the surrounding settlements. One of these attacks offers an important insight into the course of Gaza’s history in ways that reverberate for us even today. In 1956, a group of fedayeen entered a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz and killed a kibbutznik named Roi Rotenberg. The famed Israeli general Moshe Dayan spoke at his funeral – and he expressed himself himself in his eulogy with remarkable candor:

Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us?  For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…

This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water. The millions of Jews that were destroyed because they did not have a land look at us from the ashes of Israelite history and command us to take possession of and establish a land for our nation.

It’s now 73 later and Israel continues to rule with a barbed wire fence and the barrel of a gun. Just as importantly, the descendants of the original Gazan refugees have lost none of their ancestors’ desire for return. Most of them know full well where their ancestral homes and fields are located – in some cases just a few short kilometers from where currently live. 

As in other parts of Palestine, the memory of home and the desire for return are a palpable part of Gazan culture. I experienced this in a simple yet powerful way during my visit there. One afternoon, while we were traveling north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches along the beachfront. My colleague Ali explained that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town where Gazans lived prior to 1948. 

It’s not difficult to grasp the sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Unlike most memorials, which commemorate what was lost and is never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their home cities and villages to be lost at all. On the contrary, I believe these benches testify that these places are still very real to them. And to their faith that they will one day return home.

When we consider the narrative of Gaza, I believe we must keep this critical piece of context in mind: long before there was a Hamas, Palestinians in Gaza have been resisting their oppression – and Israel has been retaliating brutally against their resistance. Of course, when we do the moral calculus, we can argue about the strategic sense and morality of the rockets Hamas fires into Israel – as many Palestinians do.  But if we truly seek to understand Gaza’s narrative, we must honestly ask ourselves – what would we ourselves do in their situation?

As I noted earlier, many white Americans are starting to reckon seriously with the colonial narratives instilled about the birth of this country. The narratives of the powerful and the privileged have great power. But when they collide with the narratives of those they’ve disenfranchised, the impact can sometimes create a spark of transformation – it can indeed, lead to the construction of a new and more just narrative. The Black Lives Matter protests that were born last summer are a powerful example of this phenomenon. I think we’ve all been astonished and inspired by a new narrative struggling to be born in this country.

I fervently believe there is a potential for a similar transformation in Israel/Palestine. It will not happen easily, or painlessly, but I do believe it can happen. In a very real sense, it has to happen. 

May we commit ourselves to this transformation – and may it happen soon in our day. 

Hanukkah Is About Resistance. Let’s Resist This COVID Spike Through Mutual Aid

Volunteers from a nonprofit organization provide food supplies to people who line up ahead of Thanksgiving amid the COVID-19 pandemic in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City on November 20, 2020. (TAYFUN COSKUN / ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Cross-posted with Truthout

With Hanukkah now upon us, the internet is abuzz with articles offering guidance on how to celebrate the holiday in the age of COVID-19. While most of them focus on practical issues such as socially distanced Hanukkah parties and Zoom candle lightings, I’ve been thinking a great deal on what the story of Hanukkah might have to offer to all of us as we gear up for a winter like none we’ve ever experienced in our lifetimes.

Hanukkah, of course, is based upon the story of the Maccabees, the small group of Jews who successfully liberated themselves from the oppressive reign of the Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE. The legacy of this story, however, is a complex one because the Jewish struggle against religious persecution took place within the context of a bloody and destructive Jewish civil war. In contemporary times, the meaning of Hanukkah has become even more complicated given its proximity to Christmas, subjecting it to the uniquely American religion of unmitigated commercialism.

Beyond all these complications, I’d argue that the essence of Hanukkah is the theme of resistance. At its core, the Hanukkah story commemorates the victorious resistance of the people over the power and might of empire. On a deeper level, we might say that the festival celebrates the spiritual strength of our resistance to an often harsh and unyielding world.

In this regard, it is significant that Hanukkah takes place in the winter. Apropos of the season, the festival prescribes resistance to an increasingly colder and darker world by lighting increasing numbers of candles during this eight-night festival. Those of us who celebrate this holiday are instructed to place our menorahs in our windows as an act of “spiritual defiance,” directing the light outward into the night where it may clearly be seen by the outside world.

There have indeed been moments in Jewish history in which lighting the menorah was literally an act of resistance. One powerful example can be seen offered in a single image: the famous photograph taken in 1932 Germany showing a menorah on the window sill of a Jewish home, with a Nazi flag clearly visible across the street. Another well-known moment of Hanukkah resistance occurred in 1993 when, after a brick was thrown through the window of a Jewish home in Billings, Montana, scores of citizens showed their solidarity with the Jewish community by taping paper menorahs in their windows. More recently, on the Hanukkah after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, one local Jewish leader commentedthat the menorah is “not just something that we display in our homes for ourselves … but something we light so that passersby can see. For us, this year that feels like an act of resistance.”

In 2020, we find Hanukkah arriving amid a winter that medical experts are calling “the darkest days of the pandemic” and “COVID hell.” In a recent interview, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said, “the next three to four months are going to be, by far, the darkest of the pandemic.” Another expert has predicted that more lives will be lost in December than the U.S. saw in March and April combined.

With such an unprecedented and terrifying winter bearing down upon us, I’d suggest that the ideal of Hanukkah resistance is more powerfully relevant than ever. This resistance, of course, presents us with profound challenges. After living with the pandemic for the better part of a year, so many throughout the U.S. are succumbing to “COVID fatigue” — following months of social isolation and anxiety, increasing numbers of people are becoming less vigilant about the pandemic practice of masking and social distancing, even as infection rates spike precipitously.

With the darkest days of the pandemic ahead of us — even as we agitate for rent cancellationeviction resistance and universal health care — we have another form of resistance at our disposal: We can resist government inaction/abandonment of its citizens by participating in the grassroots, self-organized networks of support known as mutual aid.

While these community-based efforts are not new, they have proliferatedwidely since the onset of the pandemic. As Jia Tolentino pointed out in a New Yorker article last May:

[Mutual aid] is not a new term, or a new idea, but it has generally existed outside the mainstream. Informal child-care collectives, transgender support groups, and other ad-hoc organizations operate without the top-down leadership or philanthropic funding that most charities depend on. Since COVID, however, mutual aid initiatives seemed to be everywhere.

The concept of mutual aid was coined in 1902 by the Russian anarchist/scientist/economist/philosopher, Peter Kropotkin, who arguedthat mutual aid could be traced to the “earliest beginnings of evolution.” Kropotkin posited that solidary provided the human species with the best chance of survival, particularly given the emergence of private property and the rise of the State:

It is not love and not even sympathy upon which Society is based in mankind. It is the conscience — be it only at the stage of an instinct — of human solidarity. It is the unconscious recognition of the force that is borrowed by each man from the practice of mutual aid; of the close dependence of every one’s happiness upon the happiness of all; and of the sense of justice, or equity which brings the individual to consider the rights of every other individual as equal to his own. Upon this broad and necessary foundation, the still higher moral feelings are developed.

Some of the most well-known examples of mutual aid in U.S. history, in fact, were the survival programs created by the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the community-based initiatives organized by the Puerto Rican Young Lords Party in the 1960s and ’70s. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself grasped the radical power of these mutual aid projects. In a now infamous internal memo, he wrote that the Black Panther breakfast programs represented “the best and most influential activity going for the BPP, and is as such, the greatest threat to efforts by authorities.”

Another important aspect of mutual aid is the understanding that disenfranchised people cannot ultimately depend on state institutions to save them. According to Puerto Rican scholar Isa Rodríguez, “‘Solo el pueblo salva al pueblo’ — ‘Only the people save the people,’ became a rallying cry for Puerto Ricans following the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 as multiple organizations — mostly based on grassroots groups that existed prior to the hurricane — quickly organized to channel aid.”

The community-based solidarity of mutual aid is also fundamentally different from the approach of private humanitarian charities in which the needy are “saved” through the beneficence of those of greater means. And it must not be viewed through the lens of “crisis response.” Mutual aid, rather, is rooted in long-term alliances between people engaged in a common struggle. As historian/writer, Elizabeth Catte has observed:

Mutual aid can be a form of resistance, but the practice itself requires discipline. We can’t do it because it helps us sugarcoat our trauma, or because it lets us say we have claimed goodness in a world where it is often lacking. Mutual aid is incompatible with charity and should offer no pleasure to the well-resourced person or do-gooder who hopes to find worthy recipients of their kindness, because the practice of mutual aid is intended to destroy categories of worth.

Since mutual aid is rooted in the ideal of solidarity, the first step for anyone interested is to cultivate genuine and accountable relationships within their own local communities. This will be undeniably challenging in a time of pandemic, when our mutual safety literally depends upon socially distancing from one another.

Mutual aid projects, however, are adapting to meet these challenges through creative use of commercial internet platforms, online databasesand toolkits. Additionally, mutual aid projects in the age of COVID insist on strict adherence to public health protocols.

In the words of anarchist organizer Cindy Milstein: “While ‘social’ aka ‘physical’ distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing are necessary tools to help stop the spread of this virus, they will only be effective if it’s grounded in an ethics and practice of social solidarity and collective care.”

The most famous Hanukkah story says that when the Maccabees entered the Temple to relight the menorah, they only found enough oil to last for one day. Miraculously, however, the menorah burned for eight days. At the core of this seemingly simple parable are profound lessons about the power of sustainability and resilience. We know from history that popular movements of resistance have the ability to succeed even against the most daunting of foes.

The prospect of the coming winter — and the new year ahead — are undeniably daunting. Amid it all lie fundamental questions: Where will we find the strength to meet these challenges? How will we keep the fire of our commitment to each other from burning out? Who can we depend upon to see us through the coming season and beyond?

The resistance embodied by mutual aid provides us with a compelling answer — in the end, we have each other. As Dean Spade, who recently published a book titled Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During this Crisis (and the Next)so aptly puts it, “what happens when people get together to support one another is that people realize that there’s more of us than there is of them.”

True resistance can never occur as long as we expect an external human force to somehow show up to save us. In the end, the true miracle of resistance occurs when we show up for one another.

Interregnum: Sermon for Yom Kippur 5781

photo credit: Getty Images

On Rosh Hashanah I addressed the powerful feeling of uncertainty that pervades our lives and our world at this unprecedented moment. I want to return to this theme for this Yom Kippur – to speak to a parallel level of uncertainty that I know has been weighing deeply on us all. More specifically, I’d like to address the current political moment in our country; one that is more fraught, dangerous – and frankly more terrifying – than any of us have ever seen in our lifetimes. 

I know this isn’t a pleasant topic to talk about. Frankly, this was not a particularly pleasant sermon to write. I know that most of us feel beaten down by political events as they’ve unfolded over the past four years. I know it’s become something of a routine in our social gatherings to set a strict time limit on discussing the latest outrage committed by our President and his administration – or to even declare such talk off limits entirely. And I get this. I know how depleting the past four years have been on our own emotional and psychological well-being. I’m all too familiar with the ways we instinctively compartmentalize the news of the outside world for purposes of self-preservation.

But even so, painful though it may be, I believe we need to talk about it. Our avoidance, while understandable, has come with a cost. On a certain level, I think our denial and incredulity reflect an unwillingness to admit to ourselves that what is happening is really happening. In a very real way, I think this unwillingness has kept us from meeting the challenges of this unprecedented moment.

Jewish tradition teaches us that the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is an immensely critical period, spiritually and existentially speaking. It’s said that during the days between these two festivals the gates of heaven are at their widest; the time in which God is most open and receptive to our prayers. It is, if you will, “time out of time:” a liminal, marginal period during which we’re given the unique power to change the course of our lives and our world. There’s no other time on the Jewish calendar when it feels as if there is so much at stake. 

I’d suggest that politically speaking, we’re in a very similar place. Indeed, there seems to be a kind of synchronicity between the ten days and the current political moment – as if the confluence of this High Holiday season and this particular election season is demanding us to take stock in a deeper and more fundamental way than ever before. And I believe we’d be remiss if we didn’t take this opportunity to step out of time and honestly face up to what is at stake in our country. 

Now that the gates are open, there’s no time for denial. It’s time to say some painful things out loud. It’s time to name the hard fact that we are sliding steadily into an age of authoritarian rule in this country. It has become clearer and clearer with each passing day, even if it’s difficult for us to fully accept. And it’s even harder to contemplate what we must know in our hearts to be true: that if this president gets the opportunity to serve for another four years, authoritarian rule will take hold in our country in ways that will be truly frightening to behold.

From the moment our President first announced his candidacy, there actually were observers who warned us about precisely this. While most of them were dismissed as alarmists, their words now ring with chilling kind of prescience. Here’s one such warning, written by anthropologist and journalist Sarah Kenzidor just two weeks after the 2016 election:

It is increasingly clear, as Donald Trump appoints his cabinet of white supremacists and war mongers, as hate crimes rise, as the institutions that are supposed to protect us cower, as international norms are shattered, that his ascendancy to power is not normal. 

This is an American authoritarian kleptocracy, backed by millionaire white nationalists both in the United States and abroad, meant to strip our country down for parts, often using ethnic violence to do so.

This is not a win for anyone except them. This is a moral loss and a dangerous threat for everyone in the United States, and by extension, everyone abroad. 

I have been studying authoritarian states for over a decade, and I would never exaggerate the severity of this threat. Others who study or who live in authoritarian states have come to the same conclusion as me. 

And the plight is beyond party politics: it is not a matter of having a president-elect whom many dislike, but having a president-elect whose explicit goal is to destroy the nation. 

But for all of these warnings, I think the most compelling words came from the President himself. There are so many examples to choose from; I’ll quote a 2014 interview with Fox News, when he was asked how he would solve the problems with the US economy:

You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell, and everything is a disaster, then you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be, when we were great.

If we’re going to be completely honest, however, our current moment didn’t begin with the election of this particular President. It has been unfolding over a period of many years: the erosion of our voting rights, the creation of the surveillance state, the incarceration of human bodies for profit, the deporting of our immigrants, the rise of a kleptocratic billionaire class in our country. And it’s not incidental that this gutting of our democracy and civil rights has disproportionately harmed black and brown and poor people in our country. In truth, our descent into authoritarianism has actually been decades in the making. The election of this President has only accelerated the process much faster than any of us dared anticipate.

We should also note that this phenomenon isn’t unique to the United States – it is, in fact, a global reality. It’s no accident that our President routinely praises and curries favor with the strongmen leaders of countries like Russia, North Korea, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and yes, Israel. As American Jews, we should have no illusions about this. 

So here we are. Our President has been systematically dismantling and plundering the institutions of our government in broad daylight and now he’s openly committing election fraud before our very eyes. We know what is happening: his dismantling of the US Postal service, his baseless claims of voter fraud, his clear intention to sow as much chaos as he can to cast doubt on the election. Most recently, he’s been announcing unabashedly that he has no intention to concede this election, no matter what the outcome. 

In American political life, the period between the election on November 3 and the Presidential inauguration on January 20 is called the “interregnum.” This term originally referred to the period between the reign of monarchs. Longer, more complicated interregna have invariably been accompanied by widespread unrest, civil wars and succession battles. Historically, failed states would often fail during an interregnum.

In the US, we’ve taken for granted that there will be an orderly transition of power from one to the other whenever we elect a new President – but I wonder if we’ve ever understood how technically fraught this in-between period really always been. We’re currently on the verge of an interregnum like none other we’ve ever experienced in our lifetimes – and I fear we’re waking up to this reality too late. 

But I also believe there is much we can still do. That we must do.

The medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides famously interpreted the call of the shofar as a wake-up call. The blast of the shofar, he wrote, is meant to say to us “Sleepers, wake up from your slumber! Examine your ways, return, and remember your Creator!” This new year, I’d suggest that this wake-up call is resonating for us with profound urgency: to awaken from our incredulity, our denial, our comforting belief that “it could never happen here.” 

And it’s also calling us to wake up on a deeper level: to face up to the very real possibility that this President could be staying in the White House for another four years. And while we might say that prospect is too frightening to contemplate, we must contemplate it. No matter how unthinkable, we must accept in our hearts and our guts that God forbid, it might well happen. It’s calling us to accept that if this does happen, it will not be the end. It will mean the onset of a new fight. And we will need to be prepared to fight it. 

So now that I’ve said this out loud, let me say this: we are not there and we don’t have to be there. There is a little over a month until the election – and while we may have been late in our awakening, it is not too late. There is still much we can do, and I know so many of you are doing these things already: registering voters, preparing get out the vote campaigns, fighting against voter suppression on every level. 

Yes, we need to vote. We need to vote because it’s clearly the most potent force we have at our disposal at this particular moment. But at the same time, we cannot view politicians as our saviors. We shouldn’t forget that our current situation was caused in no small part by politicians on both sides of the aisle. Too often we assume that politicians are the only change agents in the world – and that political change only happens on the electoral level. Too often we underestimate the historic role of social movements and the power of people to move politics and politicians. In the end, elections are but one tactic among many. More often than not, voting serves more as a form of harm reduction than a means for progressive change. We are most certainly in one of those moments right now. 

Even if we fight like we’ve never fought before during this election, we can’t be sanguine about the morning after. We must be prepared for the chaos that is sure to follow. Fomenting chaos is one thing this President knows well and it’s clearly his primary strategy in this election. If there was ever any doubt consider this: last June an organization called the “Transition Integrity Project” convened a group of more than 100 bipartisan experts to simulate what might happen the day after Election Day — a kind of electoral “war game.” They simulated four different scenarios, and each one but one – a Democratic landslide victory – indicated significant levels of post-election chaos, with both sides contesting the election until inauguration day. 

What will we do if this happens? In all likelihood, we’ll need to do what citizens of every other authoritarian nation have done when their elections are stolen from them. We’ll have to be prepared to take to the streets and stay in the streets. While this is certainly daunting to contemplate, we would do well to learn from the history of popular protest. We’d also do well to learn from the history that is unfolding as we speak. Indeed, if there’s anything the Black Lives Matter movement has taught us these past several months it’s that sustained popular protest has the very real power to make real change. 

I know that given the pandemic, each of us will clearly need to make our own personal health decisions when we consider participating in any form of mass demonstration. And those who do must certainly be prepared for a violent response that will inevitably follow. Whether it comes from armed forces mobilized by the government, from white supremacist militias, or agent provocateurs, we know what will be coming. Even though the overwhelming majority of the recent racial justice protests have been non-violent, the backlash against them has been brutally violent. The unleashing of state violence against public protest is, of course, a hallmark of authoritarianism, and we’ve witnessed it ourselves throughout our country these past several months. We should have no illusions about this. 

Beyond mass demonstrations, there are other forms of civil disobedience such as general strikes, boycotts and other acts of noncooperation large and small citizens have historically organized in moments such as this. We know that these kinds of tactics have the potential to succeed when carried out with unity, a clear strategy, and widespread participation. If campaigns of mass resistance are indeed mobilized, we’ll all need to be ready to help organize and participate in them, at whatever level is possible for us. 

Whatever comes, the most basic form of resistance will be our readiness to show up for one another. To participate and support mutual aid initiatives in our communities. To learn about and support the areas of greatest need. To stand in particular with those who are most vulnerable, most at risk, those who have always been the first to be impacted by a government that views their lives as disposable. Such is as it’s always been in resistance movements throughout history: in ways large and small everyone has a part to play. There is still a great deal of love and freedom in our world and there is still a myriad of ways we can make a difference. And we must never forget this.

OK. If you haven’t turned off your computer by now, thank you for going to this place with me. I know, as I said earlier, that none of this is easy to hear out loud. This is an enormously frightening moment. Personally, I’m scared shitless. But when I went over the things I felt I should talk about this Yom Kippur, I frankly couldn’t imagine anything more critical to our current moment. And I wouldn’t have said any of this if I felt things were hopeless. As I said on Rosh Hashanah, true hope is in our readiness to act precisely when things feel hopeless. Not to passively hope for the best, but to find courage in each other to fight on, no matter what may happen. 

At sundown tonight, they say, this sacred interregnum of the ten days will conclude – and soon enough, another will begin. But this time, it seems to me, we won’t passively ask to be saved. No, this time we’ll have to demand that the gates open and remain open. We’ll need to take responsibility for writing our own names and the names of our neighbors in the Book of Life. If we’re going to be sealed for life, it is we who must affix that seal.

And so, in that spirit I’d like to end now with a prayer I wrote a few years ago. We’ll be saying it at the end of Yom Kippur, at our Neilah service later tonight. But I’d like to offer it now as a prayer for our upcoming interregnum – with the hope it might awaken us all to the possibility of new life in the year to come:

when the final tekiah sounds
anyone still sleeping will have to
rise up and join the strategizers
and schemers the marchers and
rabble rousers to chant that
final neilah prayer ki fana yom
there’s no time left it’s time
to storm the gates.

we’ll blow away the wasted years
the work undone the dreams denied
the lazy thinking and careless complicity
so that we may clearly see the road
leading to a world we always
knew was possible.

yes finally we’ll break the insatiable
unquenchable appetites threatening
to consume everything we’ve ever known
our hunger will turn into desire
our hollow emptiness into wide open spaces
that roll on without end.

when that final tekiah sounds
the barrier walls and security fences
will come crashing down
no one will be forced to wait in line
no one turned away at the border
no unseen hands opening and closing
the gates on a whim.

so let every shofar
send forth one unbroken call
quick while the sun is setting
we’ll gather together and march forward
under cover of darkness
in the halls of the most high
we’ll make sure there’s
room for all.

The World to Come: Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5781

photo: Thahitun Mariam/Bronx Mutual Aid Network

On Rosh Hashanah, Jewish tradition comes to tell us every new year that everything we’ve ever known is on the line. The zodiac sign for Tishrei, the first Jewish month of the year, is the scale, and for good reason. Over and over again our liturgy tells us that the world is hanging in the balance. The Books of Life and Death have yet to be sealed and we pray the rawest of prayers, literally pleading for another year of life. In ancient times, so we’re told, the Jewish people would gather outside the Temple in Jerusalem, hoping against hope that the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies to let them know the world would indeed be sustained for one more year.

I don’t think we’ve ever experienced a Rosh Hashanah in which it felt more viscerally that the world was indeed actually hanging in the balance. In our communities, throughout our country, around the world, the new year is arriving in time that feels completely and utterly uncertain. For me – and I suspect for you as well – our Rosh Hashanah prayers this year have a powerful, even unnerving resonance.

It’s difficult to know where to even start, and it’s almost unbearable to contemplate all at once: a global pandemic has taken over 200,000 lives in the US and almost one million worldwide. It has permanently changed our world in ways we’ve barely begun to understand. Our health system is overwhelmed and overtaxed. The leaders of our country have been criminally negligent in their response to the pandemic. As a result, in a moment when we desperately need to come together, they are politicizing community health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing, further tearing our national community apart. 

And of course, none of this is occurring in a vacuum. It’s astonishing to witness how quickly COVID has unleashed this terrifying domino effect of economic chaos in our country and around the world, leaving increasing numbers of people unemployed, homeless and uninsured. And contrary to the cliche, the pandemic is not a great equalizer: its impact has been particularly devastating for communities of color, the poor and too many other disenfranchised communities in our midst. 

There is no getting around it: this Rosh Hashanah, we’re greeting this new year in a state of genuine grief over the sheer enormity over what we have already lost and fear over what is yet to come. That’s why, I believe, the first order of business this new year is to give ourselves the space and permission to grieve our collective loss and name these fears out loud. To acknowledge what is no more and affirm openly and honestly that the world has been forever changed in ways we cannot yet fully grasp. Frankly, I don’t know how we can pray these prayers unless we find a way to acknowledge this together.  

I think grief is an apt metaphor for this moment. As anyone who has experienced grief knows all too well, there is a period of deep shock and disbelief that occurs immediately after the loss of someone we love. In many ways, this feels like what we’re going through now: the disbelief, the magical thinking, the inability to fully grasp our new reality, the uncertainty of everything except the hard truth that nothing in our lives will ever be the same. 

When we grieve, however, we do know some things for sure. We know that isolation is our enemy. We know that we have to depend upon each other to move forward. We know that we need community more than ever before. Though this new world is a painful and uncertain place, we must resist the temptation to withdraw from it. This will be a particular challenge in this new age of social distancing: when our survival literally depends upon our being physically apart, we know instinctively that we must find new ways to connect with one another if we are to survive. 

Over the last few months, people have found ways to connect with each other with resilient creativity. Yes, life in the COVID era is surreal, frustrating, and often downright bizarre. Yes, I never, ever dreamed I would one day find myself leading a High Holiday Zoom service, and yes, I’m very sure you never expected you would ever attend one. But over the last few months, as we’ve negotiated this brave new world in our congregation, we’ve discovered that these challenges have come hand in hand with new opportunities we never could have anticipated. 

Here at Tzedek Chicago, since the pandemic began, we’re busier than ever before. We now have four weekly programs and our attendance has grown exponentially. We’ve inaugurated a communal care Hesed Committee to check in on the immediate needs of our members. We now have new members participating regularly in our services and programs from across the country and around the world, from as far away as New Zealand and the UK. In the end, however, this isn’t just a matter of greater access. On a deeper level, I think, this new growth is a testament to the deep desire folks have to connect with others, to overcome their isolation, to find new ways to create community in this moment of profound loss. 

At the same time, amidst all of this massive change, even as we adjust to this new world, there’s that nagging question lurking in the background: how long will we actually have to do this? When will we get our lives and our world back? When will things get back to “normal?” Again, as with the experience of grief, I personally think it’s important to challenge this kind of magical thinking; to resist the temptation to assume that this is only a temporary moment; a period we just have to muscle through before things get back to the way they were. As with the experience of grief, I think it’s important for us to accept that the world we once knew is gone. Something will indeed come in its place, but whatever it is, we need to accept that things will never be the same.  

It occurs to me that Rosh Hashanah might actually be coming at just the right time to help us with this acceptance. After all, when we pray the words “t’chadeish aleynu shanah tovah u’metukah” – “renew us for a good and sweet new year” – we’re not asking for the world the way it used to be. On Rosh Hashanah, we center renewal. Over and over again we proclaim throughout our liturgy that every new year, the world can be recreated and reborn.

This idea is actually the exact opposite of that famous line from the book of Lamentations,“chadeish yameninu ke’kedem;– “renew our days as days of old.” Whatever else it may be, Rosh Hashanah was never meant to be an exercise in nostalgia, a yearning for an idealized, mythic time that never really was. On the contrary, it is an occasion for dreaming of the world that might yet be.

No, we will not go back to “normal.” But amidst the grief, it’s worth asking, do we really want to?  Should we want to?  The great activist poet Sonya Renee Taylor has written powerfully to this point:

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature. 

That’s right. For far too long, too many in this country have assumed it’s somehow normal to live in a world with a deep and deepening economic divide separating rich from poor, to tolerate a toxic environmental crisis, to treat endemic state violence and systemic racism as just a given.  But none of this has been in any way “normal.” 

In truth, we’ve been living unsustainably for far too long. Deep down, we must have known that one day this bubble would burst. And now it has. The world as we knew it has broken wide open. So yes, if there is a spiritual imperative to this particular moment, it’s not “renew our days as in days of old” – it must be “recreate this word anew.” 

Judaism actually gives us a powerful paradigm for this – a framework for living when the only world we’ve ever known has fallen away from beneath us. It is, in fact, one of the central mythic moments at the heart of Jewish tradition itself: namely the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ACE. Jewish spiritual memory views this as the formative moment in our history: the cataclysmic moment when Jewish life was cracked wide open. As we have come to understand it, this was the moment when everything in our world changed forever. 

Yes, the destruction of the Temple constituted a massive collective crisis for the Jewish people – but it’s also important to note that it represented an opportunity to stitch a new garment as well. After all, this was the moment that Judaism as we know it came into being. The diaspora might have been a place of exile, but it was also the fertile ground upon which the Jewish people staged their spiritual rebirth. In short, when the only world we ever knew was shattered, we responded in the spirit of hope, resilience and creativity. 

A line from a famous midrash teaches, “when the people of Israel were exiled, God went into exile with them.” Among other things, this means that God wasn’t destroyed along with the Temple. God accompanied us into this new and unknown world. And while this spiritual truth may speak directly to the Jewish experience, it’s certainly not unique to it. It’s a universal truth: at the moments of our deepest loss, we become more spiritually attuned. We can see God more clearly: in the hearts that have been broken and in the wells of strength we never knew we had. In the memory of those we’ve lost, the faces of those we love and who have suffered loss as well. And I would suggest it is this very Presence that is accompanying us right now as we face this uncertain new world. 

So, if we are ready to fully enter this changed and changing new kingdom, what do we do now? I think it goes without saying that the order of the moment is care for each other. Too many lives have been devastated already and we know that this devastation will continue in the coming year. For now – and forever more – we must view mutual aid as a mitzvah – a sacred imperative. I know many of you are involved in these kinds of projects, which are founded on the ethics of solidarity and not mere charity. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve been compiling an ongoing list of efforts in which we can participate locally – mutual aid that supports those who were already economically vulnerable before the onset of the pandemic, in particular low-income workers, day laborers, domestic workers, those who work in the gig economy. If you know of initiatives that are not on our list, please let us know about them so we can make them available to our membership.

It’s also important for us to bear in mind that radical empathy is not only a means to an end. Yes, we empathize with each other because we are social animals that depend on each other for our survival – and this must certainly never be underestimated. But at the same time, it’s worth considering that our empathic support for another actually creates the world we want to see in real time. When we support and find comfort in one another, we need not yearn for the world to come because in a sense, it’s here right now. Beyond the pain, beyond the loss, we would do well to realize that the world we’ve been struggling for all along is being built by our love and support for one another. 

And how do we find hope when that pain and loss feels like it is too much to bear? For me, I’ve always been taken with the definition of hope offered by folks like Vaclav Havel and Cornell West. Optimism, they say, is the shallow expectation that things will naturally get better. Hope, however, is the conviction that some things are worth fighting for no matter what may happen. Hope is the courage to act, even in – especially in – those times when doubt might be warranted.

So let this be my blessing for us all this Rosh Hashanah-like-no other, when so much in our world is hanging in the balance as never before: let us grieve for the world that we’ve lost, show up for those who need it most, and fight like hell for the world we know is possible.

Shanah Tovah to you all. 

Peter Beinart Crosses Over: On Game Changers and Historic Injustices

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photo: Flash90

It’s fair to say that Peter Beinart’s recent article for Jewish Currents, in which he publicly announced his abandonment of the two-state solution, represents something of a milestone in American discourse on Israel-Palestine. As a well-known political thinker and commentator, Beinart’s ideas carry a great deal of weight in the liberal Jewish establishment. His 2010 article in The New York Review of Books, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” and his subsequent book, “The Crisis of Zionism” were widely read and touted as critical cautionary manifestos for the American Jewish community. For years he has positioned himself on the left edge of the Liberal Zionist camp, and has regularly sounded warnings about the increasingly illiberal nature of Israel’s actions. It is thus hugely significant that he has now officially crossed a red line (his term) by so publicly and openly declaring the two-state solution to be dead.

Indeed, many are saying that his article is a game changer. Mondoweiss editor Phil Weiss, pointing to Beinart’s “prominent stature in liberal Jewish communal life,” wrote that he now  “joins a list of liberal Zionists who have abandoned the two-state solution,” predicting that “his joining that list means it is only going to grow.” Liberal commentators are likewise singing its praises;` the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg called it “brave and persuasive” and Vox editor Matt Yglesias claimed it has now “widened the boundaries what is acceptable on Israel/Palestine.”

In his Jewish Currents article, (which the New York Times published today in a much shortened version under the headline, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State“), Beinart begins by describing how central Zionism has been to his Jewish identity. With sadness, he notes that “with each passing year, it has become clearer that Jewish statehood includes permanent Israeli control of the West Bank.” He continues:

The painful truth is that the project to which liberal Zionists like myself have devoted ourselves for decades—a state for Palestinians separated from a state for Jews—has failed. The traditional two-state solution no longer offers a compelling alternative to Israel’s current path. It risks becoming, instead, a way of camouflaging and enabling that path. It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish–Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality.

Beinart does not formally break with Zionism, however. He claims that the “essence of Zionism is not a Jewish state in the land of Israel,” but rather, “a Jewish home in the land of Israel, a thriving Jewish society that both offers Jews refuge and enriches the entire Jewish world.” Unfortunately, Beinart writes, such a “Jewish home” is impossible under the classic two-state solution model, which he now declares “dead” because it “requires subjugating another people.” It’s time, he says, to explore new one-state options, “from a confederation to a binational state.”

To drive his point home, Beinart invokes the history of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, in 70 CE, changed the paradigmatic nature of Judaism itself from animal sacrifice to prayer/study after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. So too, Beinart writes, “our task in this moment is to imagine a new Jewish identity, one that no longer equates Palestinian equality with Jewish genocide. One that sees Palestinian liberation as integral to our own.”

Beinart then goes on to write a long, impassioned and impressively researched essay on how this new one-state paradigm might be realized, quoting a number of Palestinian activists and thinkers including Ali Abunimah, Walid Khalidi, Edward Said and Yousef Munayyer. He ends up advocating for a binational state using Belgium and Northern Ireland as potential models: a “democratic Israel-Palestine” that would ” protect not merely individual rights but national rights as well,”

He concludes his essay with this moving paragraph:

Imagine a country in which, at sundown on the 27th of Nissan, the beginning of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—Jewish and Palestinian co-presidents lower a flag in Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem as an imam delivers the Islamic du‘a’ for the dead. Imagine those same leaders, on the 15th of May, gathering at a restored cemetery in the village of Deir Yassin, the site of a future Museum of the Nakba, which commemorates the roughly 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled during Israel’s founding, as a rabbi recites El Malei Rachamim, our prayer for the dead. 

I agree with those who believe that this article is powerful and significant. It may well represent a tipping point – and to the extent that his primary audience is his fellow Liberal Zionists, this is all to the good. But without denying what Beinart’s article represents, I remain troubled by his essential analysis. In the end, I believe the very framing of his essay ultimately compromises his brave vision of “a Jewish home that is a Palestinian home, too.”

Beinart’s article is at its heart a political argument. And as such, it locates the central issue of the “conflict” as the failures of the peace process, which he largely places at the door of successive Israeli governments. However, while the injustices of the peace process were undeniable, nowhere does Beinart mention a deeper and more fundamental injustice: i.e., the Nakba itself. In fact, throughout this long and powerfully argued manifesto, Beinart never once states that Jewish statehood resulted in the dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people – a dispossession that is in fact ongoing even now.

In a very telling sentence, Beinart writes “averting a future in which oppression degenerates into ethnic cleansing requires a vision that can inspire not just Palestinians, but the world.” Whether inadvertently or not, he treats ethnic cleansing as something we must forestall in the future, not something that has been very much ongoing since 1948. And therein lies the problem: such an attitude betrays a mindset that views this issue as a political conflict to be solved, not a moral injustice to be confronted. 

In the end, however, both of these things are intrinsically connected. There can be no political solution without a restorative/reparative process through which Israel ends its oppression of the Palestinian people and formally admits to the historic wrongs it has committed against them. For a contemporary model, we have to look no farther than South Africa and the creation its Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It would have been unthinkable to pretend apartheid could have been dismantled without such a process. And while it was by no means perfect or completely successful, South African leaders understood that there would never been any hope for reconciliation if white South Africans did not engage in some form of political confession and repair.

I am struck that Beinart chose to end his article with poetic images of reconciliation, in which Palestinians and Jewish Israelis mourn the dead of the Nakba and the Holocaust respectively. But it is deeply problematic to leap to such a vision without honoring the difficult and painful process of restorative justice that would make it at all possible. Even more problematic is Beinart’s juxtaposition of the Nakba – a wrong perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians – with the Holocaust: a wrong committed against European Jewry that had nothing to do with the Palestinian people. To be sure, the legacy of the Holocaust is a complex and painful one – but it is difficult in the extreme to share Beinart’s hope in this restorative vision if he is unable to admit the need for a restorative process at all.

I know that for Liberal Zionists, defining Israel’s birth with the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of another people is very likely a bridge too far. It might well be that Beinart made a conscious calculation that if he was to reach his desired audience, he would not be able to go there in this particular essay. But in the end, if there is to be a just and sustainable peace in Israel/Palestine, this essential injustice will sooner or later have to be confronted.

In the end, Liberal Zionists will not only have to give up on the two-state solution, but on the myth of innocence at the heart of political Zionism itself. I’m not sure that this is a place Liberal Zionists, including Beinart, will ever be able to go – but if and when that happens, what a brave step that would be.

Israel’s Annexation is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

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photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

The day of Israel’s annexation of major West Bank settlement blocs has now come and gone. But while it didn’t actually happen, it’s not quite time to breathe a sigh of relief.  The Israeli government has made it clear that annexation plans are continuing apace and has now moved the deadline to later this month.

There’s so much to say about Israel’s plans to extend its sovereignty over major portions of the West Bank. For my part, I anticipated the response of the American Jewish communal establishment with particularly morbid fascination. How would these organizations, hardwired to defend Israel’s actions at all costs, possibly respond to what most would consider to be a patently immoral and undemocratic political move? As it would turn out, their contortions were truly something to behold.

The American Jewish Committee, true to form, doubled down unapologetically. In an article for the Times of Israel, AJC’s Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer openly stated that when annexation came to pass, “we will make the strongest possible case for a decision reached by an elected Israeli government and supported by Israel’s (and anyone’s) most powerful partner, the United States.” In its FAQ sheet, the Jewish Federations of North America attempted to explain the nuanced differences between “annexation” and “applied sovereignty.” And the Anti-Defamation League, in a leaked internal memo, tellingly agonized over how they might “find a way to defend Israel from criticism without alienating other civil rights organizations, elected officials of color, and Black Lives Matter activists and supporters.”

In the end, the tortured moral/political posturings of these Jewish establishment institutions didn’t really surprise me all that much. They are who they are. But it was much more troubling to read the responses of the “liberal” institutions of the American Jewish community, who continue to enable Israel’s institutional oppression of Palestinians by trotting out their increasingly meaningless talking points of “Jewish and democratic” and “two-state solution” while consistently expressing little to no concern for the well-being of Palestinians themselves.

The Union for Reform Judaism began its statement by announcing its bona fides as “a proud Zionist movement.” It went on to express concern that annexation would “create significant diplomatic risks for Israel, jeopardize Israel’s security, jeopardize North American strategic interests,” and “repudiate the two-state solution.” In a particularly delicate turn of phrase, the URJ mentioned its potential “deleterious impact on the Palestinian people.” Even here, however, the issue was not Palestinian human rights per se, but Israel’s “moral standing,” which depended on “its commitment to ensuring that Palestinians do not live as second-class citizens.”

Another statement, signed by the ten members of the “Progressive Israel Network” (a coalition that includes J Street, the New Israel Fund, Truah, Americans for Peace Now, and my denomination, Reconstructing Judaism) pointed out that annexation would be counter to international law, endanger the well-being of the Palestinian Authority and harm the US-Israel relationship. Carefully avoiding use of the word “apartheid,” the statement expressed concern that annexation “would enact an institutionalized, formal system of discrimination between two ethnic-national populations, both living in the same territory, with each governed by a separate set of laws.”

I’ll confess that when I first heard of the unity government’s plans for annexation, I had a glancing thought that we’d finally arrived at a “moment of truth” for the American Jewish community. I immediately thought better of it, of course. As a former liberal Zionist myself, I’m very familiar with the “window is closing on the two-state solution” trope. It’s a desperate and hollow ploy, designed to avoid facing (or distract attention away from) the hard truth that one-state apartheid has been the reality in Israel/Palestine now for decades. Palestinian activist/scholar Yousef Munayyer put it well in a recent post for +972mag: “Contrary to the popular narrative, annexation will not kill the two-state solution — you cannot kill something that has long been dead. Rather, annexation is dragging and displaying the two-state solution’s corpse before the world.”

So here’s the thing: for years I’ve harbored the assumption that one day the time would come when these liberal Zionists organizations would finally say enough is enough. There is no way Israel can possibly be “Jewish and democratic.” The two state solution is a pipe dream that will only enable further oppression on the ground. The only answer is to give up on the notion of Jewish political nation statehood and advocate for full equality for all who live between the river and the sea.

But no more. I cannot honestly imagine any political event in Israel that would cause these so-called “progressive” Jewish institutions to ever cross this rubicon. Does anyone honestly believe the URJ, who defines itself as a “proud Zionist movement” will ever advocate for one democratic state of all its citizens in Israel/Palestine? Can we truly envision J Street or Americans for Peace Now, organizations that stake their very existence on a “Jewish and democratic” state of Israel, pulling their support for a Jewish state because it has finally become too undemocratic for them?

I have no doubt that when Israel does finally announce its formal annexation, these organizations will move the goalposts yet further down the road. They will studiously avoid use of the word apartheid while implying it could still happen if Israel does not change its ways. It will continue its warnings that Israel’s democracy is under threat, even as its institutional oppression of Palestinians continues to remain so tragically obvious for the world to see.

Consider this: while these organizations agonized over the issue of annexation, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) released a report that revealed the Israeli military had demolished at least 70 Palestinian buildings in the West Bank during the first two weeks of June, displacing 90 Palestinians. This represented a 250% increase over the weekly average of home demolitions since the beginning of 2020. It was also reported that the during this period the Israeli military forced 20 Palestinian households in East Jerusalem to knock down their own newly-built homes themselves.

This, to put it plainly, is annexation. Annexation is an institutional process by which Israel dispossesses Palestinians so that it can maintain a demographic advantage on land it has long sought to control. Annexation is not a line to be crossed by the Israeli government sometime down the road. It has been happening since 1948 and it is happening right now. And it will continue to happen until the racist system that enables it is finally dismantled.

I know this sounds harsh – perhaps terrifyingly unthinkable – to many in the American Jewish community. But in this powerful political moment, it should be clearer than ever that equity, justice and rights for all people will only happen when we honestly reckon with the legacy of institutional racism. So yes, let’s protest annexation. But let us also commit to fundamentally changing the structures that have been enabling it for far too long.