Category Archives: Religion

My New Chapbook: “Songs After the Revolution: New Jewish Liturgy”

fullsizeoutput_32I’m thrilled to announce that my new chapbook, “Songs After the Revolution: New Jewish Liturgy” has just been published by my congregation, Tzedek Chicago.

I’ve been writing original prayers for some time now and I’ve used many of my prayers in a variety of worship settings. This new collection offers a sample of my efforts: new versions of traditional prayers for holidays, re-imagined Psalms and wholly original prayers for new occasions (such as my “Jewish Confession for Nakba Day”). It also includes “A Lamentation for Gaza,” a prayer I wrote for the festival of Tisha B’Av 2014, which occurred during Israel’s devastating military assault of that year.

I fervently believe that the function of prayer is not simply to worship but to challenge, to provoke, to motivate action and to transform the world around us. To this end, I’ve purposely designed this anthology to be read and appreciated by a wide readership. I hope and trust you will find this collection meaningful – even if you are not Jewish or do not not consider yourself a particularly “prayer-ful” person.

At the moment, “Songs After the Revolution” is available exclusively through the Tzedek Chicago website. 100% of the proceeds from sales will benefit the congregation.

Click here to order.

A Yom Kippur Martyrology Service for Gaza

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This Yom Kippur Martyrology ritual was written by Tzedek Chicago rabbinic intern May Ye and myself and was used in observance of our Yom Kippur service last week.

Reader: 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.

Reader: The words of Ahmed Abu Artemi, one of the organizers of the Great Return March:

“On that day in December, as I watched the birds fly over the border I could not cross, I found myself thinking how much smarter birds and animals are than people; they harmonize with nature instead of erecting walls. Later that day, I wondered on Facebook what would happen if a man acted like a bird and crossed that fence. ‘Why would Israeli soldiers shoot at him as if he is committing a crime?’ I wrote. My only thought was to reach the trees, sit there and then come back…

What has happened since we started the Great Return March is both what I hoped and expected — and not. It was not a surprise that Israel responded to our march with deadly violence. But I had not expected this level of cruelty. On the other hand, I was heartened by the commitment to nonviolence among most of my own people.

We have come together, chanting and singing a lullaby we’ve all longed for— ‘We will return’ bringing all that we have left to offer in an attempt to reclaim our right to live in freedom and justice.”

Reader: The words of Khuloud Suliman, a 23 year old woman who studies English language and literature at the Islamic University of Gaza:

“My hometown is Al-Jiyya, which means ‘delightful place full of flowers and trees.’ It is very near here, just 20 km from Gaza City. When I get close to the northern border of Gaza, I can see the village. Yet I cannot go there. I am not allowed to touch the sand and smell the fragrance of citrus fruit, figs and grapes. I cannot walk in the valley that separated my village into two halves, and that filled with rain in winter.

Can you imagine how I feel when this image comes to my mind? I feel hatred toward the Israeli occupation and the settlers who live in the land from which my ancestors were expelled. Every day, mum tells me about it and my yearning for the village begins to invade my heart. I do not have even one picture of my village, so I Googled its name, hoping to find some images. But, unfortunately, I found only pictures of the Israeli settlement that replaced it. When I see other countries where the residents live in peace and comfort, I think of the situation here and ask myself, ‘Will I even be alive when we can return to our cities? Will I ever be able to enjoy a homeland like everyone else?’”

Reader: We will now learn about four of the almost 170 Palestinians who have been killed by the Israeli military since the Great March of Return began last spring. After each of the readings, we invite you to join us in singing a niggun adapted from the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement. It was sung as protesters were being taken to jail and was also uses as a method by prisoners to learn the names of others in the cells.

After each reading, we will insert the name of that Palestinian martyr into the niggun.

Reader: Tahrir Mahmoud Wahba, 18 years old.

Tahrir, a deaf and mute teen, was shot and killed while participating in the Great March of Return. He died of his wounds on April 1 in a village east of Khan Younis, in the southern part of the Gaza strip.TahreerAbuSibla (1)

After he died, Tahrir’s mother told the press,

“My son cannot speak or hear, and I frequently tried to prevent him from protesting near the border area. But he would get angry, and would shake his head, refusing to stay home, and insisting on being part of the struggle.”

 

We sing: Tahrir, my friend, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirit home.

Reader: Yasser Mortaja, 31 years old.

One of Gaza’s best known photo/video journalists, Yasser was killed on April 1 by IsraeliYaser Murtaja forces who shot him in his abdomen – below his ‘PRESS’ flack jacket – while he was out covering the border protest in East Khan Younis.

Shortly before he died, Yassar posted this tweet: “I wish I could take this picture from the air. My name is Yasser. I am 30 years old. I live in Gaza. I have never travelled.” Yassar’s mother said: ” I was sad he wanted to leave Gaza Strip. Now he’s left Gaza for the sky,”

We sing: Yasser, my friend, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirit home.

Reader: Razan al-Najjar, 21 years old.

Razan was a volunteer paramedic who was shot and killed on June 1 near Khan Younisrazan_orjwan (1) while wearing her white medic’s uniform. She had been less than 100 yards from the fence bandaging a man who was struck by a tear gas canister.

Razan wanted to prove that women were able to play an active role in the struggle. During an interview last May, she said, “Being a medic is not only a job for a man. It’s for women, too. Women are often judged. But society has to accept us. If they don’t want to accept us by choice, they will be forced to accept us. Because we have more strength than any man.”

We sing: Razan, my friend, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirit home.

Reader: Mohammad Na’im Hamada, 30 years old.

HamadaAMohammad was shot with live fire east of Gaza City. He was rushed to a Palestinian hospital and his condition apparently witnessed a brief partial recovery.

A few days before his death he celebrated his daughter’s sixth birthday from his hospital bed, but his condition deteriorated and he later died from his wounds.

We sing: Mohammad, my friend, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirit home.

Atoning for Gaza: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5779

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One year ago, on the morning after Yom Kippur, I traveled to Palestine in my capacity as a staff person for the American Friends Service Committee. Among other things, my trip included several days with our staff in Gaza.

AFSC has a particularly significant connection to Gaza. In 1949, at the onset of the Palestinian refugee crisis, the organization was asked by the UN to organize relief efforts for refugees in the Gaza Strip. The AFSC agreed, believing their service to the new refugees would be temporary. But when it became clear Israel had no desire or intention to let Palestinian refugees return to their homes, the organization’s General Secretary Clarence Pickett, told the UN that they could not in good conscience enable the situation, insisting that there must be a political solution to the crisis. Shortly after, the UN created UNRWA (The United Nations Relief Works Agency), the organization that has served the needs of Palestinian refugees ever since. AFSC has, however, retained its programmatic presence throughout Israel/Palestine to this very day.

As you might expect, I came away from this experience with a myriad of feelings and emotions, most of which continue to resonate powerfully for me even one year later. First and foremost, I’ve been transformed by the collegial and personal relationships I created with our staff and the Palestinian Gazans we met there. I remain moved by the efforts of so many people creating communities of dignity and purpose, doing their best to live their lives with something approaching normalcy while they are so utterly choked off from the world outside. While they cannot access the most basic necessities of life. While they are literally waiting for the next bomb to fall.

Since that time, of course, much has happened in Gaza. They’ve initiated the Great Return March, a popular protest action which has taken place weekly along their eastern border with Israel. Since the first day of the march last spring, the mostly nonviolent 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. Over the summer, Israel has also bombarded Gaza with its most sustained military assault since 2014, destroying numerous civilian targets, including the Said al-Mishal Cultural Center in Gaza City.

I’ve written a great deal about Gaza over the years, most of it in the form of commentary and political debate. As you know, I certainly have my own strong opinions – and I’ve engaged in my share of spitting matches on this issue over the years. And I will admit I’m tempted, given the events of this past year, to give an angry political sermon about Gaza. But I’m going to resist the temptation.

I do believe these debates are important as far as they go – but only up to a point. For one thing, it seems to me, these arguments too often end up fetishizing Gaza and Gazans, describing them either as murderous terrorists, helpless pawns of Hamas or poor, passive victims. Since most people only tend to think of Gaza when the bombs are falling and the bullets flying, 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 today, I’m going to try to do my best not to give that sermon. Instead, I’d like to offer you some thoughts and impressions based on my own experiences and on my growing personal relationship with Gazans. I’d also like share a little bit of Gaza’s culture and history with you. Information is virtually unknown to most of the world but is I believe, critical if we want to understand Gaza in a three dimensional, non-objectified way. And finally, apropos of this Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore what I believe is the moral and religious challenge Gaza presents to us Jews, as Americans and as people of conscience.

I’ll begin with a little geography. 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, is was historically actually part of a much larger Gazan territory that has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. In ancient times it enjoyed extensive commerce and trade with the outside world – difficult to imagine given Gaza’s current state of economic and social isolation. But once upon a time, Gaza 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.

While this is literally ancient history now, it has left a cultural impact on Gaza that continues to this day. One example that was very obvious to me during my stay last year was the unique nature of Gazan cuisine. Anyone who knows Gaza knows that the food in this region is filled with distinctive flavors and spices that are dramatically different from other regional forms of Palestinian food. One common example is Gazan tahini, which is made from roasted sesame seeds, making it a dark shade of red. Gazan food is also typically made with chiles, eastern spices like cardamom, cloves and cinnamon and lots of dill.

For more on this subject, I strongly recommend reading “The Gaza Kitchen” by Laila El-Hadad and Maggie Schmitt – a cookbook that offers local recipes, placing them in the context of Gaza’s cultural history and politics. The authors point out that since the strong majority of Palestinians living in Gaza today are refugees from other parts of Palestine, other regional Palestinian foods have been introduced into their culinary mix. And the authors point out that many Gazan fast food joints serve Israeli-style food such as schnitzel, which was brought to the region by European Zionist immigrants.

As the authors write:

Now, with Gaza totally isolated, it is easy to forget that for decades thousands of Gazans went every day to work in Israel, that Israeli and Gazan entrepreneurs had partnerships, that both commerce and social relations existed, albeit on unequal footing. Adult Gazans remember this, and many speak admiringly of aspects of Israeli society or maintain contact with Israeli business partners, employers and friends. But for the enormous population of young people who were not old enough to work or travel before Israel sealed the borders in 2000, this is impossible. Because their lives are completely conditioned by Israeli political decisions, they have never laid eyes on a single Israeli person except the soldiers that have come in on tanks or bulldozers, wreaking destruction. And the generation of young Israelis to which those soldiers belong has likewise never met a single Gazan Palestinian in any other context. A terrible recipe for continued conflict.

When most people think of Gaza of course, they don’t think of trade routes or cuisine; if they associate Gaza with anything at all, it’s refugees and refugee camps. But it’s important to bear in mind that the creation of these camps is a very recent phenomenon in its history. As I mentioned earlier, Gaza was historically a much larger district in historic Palestine. Under Ottoman and the British mandate for instance, the Gaza District included what would later become the Israeli cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot, Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Malachi, among others.

The so-called “Gaza strip” was created in 1949, when it became a repository for a flood of Palestinian refugees from cities and villages in the coastal plain and lower Galilee. Before the outset of war, the population of this small region 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 the strip 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 mandate period.

At the time, most of the refugees fully expected to return home – some could even see their towns and villages through the 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 numbers of that once sparse territory has grown to a population today of 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 during his eulogy he expressed himself with brutal and unexpected honesty:

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.

When I read Dayan’s comments today, I find them to be unbearably tragic – particularly when you consider how much time has elapsed since they were spoken. We have only to change the number of years in Dayan’s speech and the leave the rest intact: “For seventy years they’ve sat 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.”

It’s clear that 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 miles 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 to Gaza last year. One afternoon, as we traveled north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches along the beachfront. My colleague Ali translated the Arabic words on the backs of each bench, pointing out 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.

In the end my trip to Gaza affected me in ways I could not predict at the time. Most importantly, for lack of a better term, I find I’m taking the issue much more personally. When Israel drops bombs on Gaza, I invariably get a sick, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and immediately send emails to my colleagues and friends to check on their welfare. When a young Gazan is killed during the weekly Return March demonstrations, it’s not unusual for me to read a grief stricken testimony on social media by a friend, or friend of a friend. I increasingly hear their stories of their loved ones whose visas were denied or who cannot travel to access proper health care – and increasingly, I find myself taking their stories to heart.

Of course, I also take it personally when I hear so many in the Jewish community rationalizing this oppression away or worse – blaming Gazans for their own misery. When Israel was bombarding Gaza with bombs this past July, for instance, I recalled the fall of 2014 and how the American Jewish communal establishment characterized Israel’s war as a moral and religious imperative. In their view, the leadership in Gaza posed nothing short of an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people – and in the wake of the Holocaust, ensuring Jewish survival is the most sacrosanct commandment of our time.

In early August of that year, Elie Wiesel wrote a public statement that was published as a paid ad in many prominent newspapers, including the New York Times. It was entitled “Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn.” Wiesel’s words, I think, are a perfect representation of the ways the Jewish communal establishment framed the religious challenge of Gaza:

More than three thousand years ago, Abraham had two children. One son had been sent into the wilderness and was in danger of dying. God saved him with water from a spring. The other son was bound, his throat about to be cut by his own father. But God stayed the knife. Both sons – Ishmael and Isaac – received promises that they would father great nations.

With these narratives, monotheism and western civilization begin. And the Canaanite practices of child sacrifice to Moloch are forever left behind by the descendants of Abraham.

Except they are not.

In my own lifetime, I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites.

What we are suffering through today is not a battle of Jew versus Arab or Israeli versus Palestinian. Rather, it is a battle between those who celebrate life and those who champion death. It is a battle of civilization versus barbarism.

I remember when I first read these words. I remember how deeply, how viscerally, I reacted to them – particularly while I had been reading day after about Gazan children like the four Bakr boys, who were shot down not as “human shields” but while they were playing soccer on the beach one morning. I remember how desperately I wished there were other Jews or Jewish communities ready to provide an alternative religious understanding of what was going on in Gaza.

There was only one religious response to Wiesel I recall reading at the time. It came from scholar and theologian Marc Ellis, who addressed Wiesel’s statement head on:

The problem is the news that keeps coming from Israel. Israel’s bombing of residential areas, hospitals and UN schools and shelters is international news. In Gaza, even after Israel’s proclaimed “withdrawal,” the death toll mounts. Among the dead are children sacrificed for Israel’s obvious goal – to deny Palestinians statehood, their political and human rights, which include the right to resist occupation.

The question for Elie Wiesel and the Jewish establishment is not about Abraham’s binding of Isaac – a treasure trove for interpreters of all types – but how many Palestinian children in Gaza will be sacrificed on the altar of Israel’s national security.

If God stayed Abraham’s knife, who will stay Israel’s?

“If God stayed Abraham’s knife, who will stay Israel’s?” This, to me is as profound an articulation of the moral and religious challenge presented to us by Gaza as we are likely to find. And I simply cannot understand how Jewish communities can gather for Yom Kippur every year without even thinking to consider this question. This is after all, the season of our cheshbon nefesh – our moral accountability. On Yom Kippur we are asked to come together and dig deep as a community to search our collective soul and confess our collective sins. How many synagogues will include confessions for what Israel is doing to Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere?

On Yom Kippur we chant over and over an annual liturgy that literally asks “who shall live and who shall die,” while the people of Gaza ask themselves that question every waking day. In a very real sense, Israel is playing God with the people of Gaza. Who shall live and who shall die? In the end, it is not God but Apache helicopters and drone fire that will provide the answers to that question. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to change the Une’taneh Tokef prayer to read, “Who will we kill and who will we spare?”

On Yom Kippur we gather to confess our sins and vow to do teshuvah – to actively repair what we have broken in the past year. But if we do believe that Israel is oppressing Gazans and Palestinians in our name, how can this day have any meaning for us at all? How can it be anything but an empty ritual? If we do believe this day still has religious relevance for us, what are we ready to do to make this teshuvah we speak of real?

My friend and colleague Jehad Abusalim was born in Gaza and is now earning his Phd from NYU. This past year he joined the Chicago staff of AFSC to work on our campaign “Gaza Unlocked.” I’d like to end with his words, because like so many of the Gazans I’ve come to know, he presents us with a question that highlights what I believe is the current religious challenge of Yom Kippur:

Our message is that we are human beings. Despite 70 years of exile, 50 years of occupation, and 11 years of a blockade, we still can carry signs in Arabic, Hebrew, and English that say, “We are not coming to fight — we are coming to return to our lands!” Gazans who saw wars and blood, who lost relatives to graves and prisons, who have four hours of electricity, who are besieged and tired — these Gazans still have faith that the international community cares. Will the rest of humanity hear them?

On Yom Kippur we plead to God, “Shema Koleynu” – “Hear our voice!” The people of Gaza – indeed all Palestinians – are calling out to us “Shema Koleynu!” Are we ready to their prayer? And if we are, what will we do to ensure our Yom Kippur prayers have not been made in vain?

G’mar Hatimah Tovah – may this be the year we write the people of Gaza into the Book of Life.

 

Reckoning with the Arc of the Moral Universe in the Age of Trump: A Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5779

Arc of the Moral Universe

Writing topical High Holiday sermons is a process fraught with peril. It’s common knowledge among rabbis that if you sit down to write at the beginning of the summer, chances are pretty good that your chosen issue will be obsolete by the time the holidays roll around. In the current political moment however, where current events have accelerated to warp speed, it feels as if issues become obsolete every hour on the hour. Thus my challenge this year: how do I respond without contributing to the ever-increasing barrage that has become our current reality?

More to the point: how do I avoid contributing to the widespread despair that so many of us are feeling? I’m sure most of us are experiencing current events as an onslaught. They come at us faster and faster: every new policy strike-down, every new act of deregulation, every new appointment feels like yet another kick to the stomach.

To put it simply, the world that so many of us fought for seems to be unraveling before our eyes. So many of the socio-political gains we’ve struggled so hard for for so long are being rolled back on an almost daily basis.

So this Rosh Hashanah, I want to forgo the topical sermon in favor of some deeper questions. Namely, how can we maintain our equilibrium during the current political moment? How do we respond to the onslaught? How do we resist the despair that for so many of us, characterizes the nightmare age of Trump?

Since the election, we’ve been hearing from mental health experts that there’s been a dramatic spike in anxiety and depression since the election – a kind of “political stress disorder” – but that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, I’d like to explore why so many of our previously held beliefs about our world seem to have come crashing down on top of us. In particular, I want to look closely at the assumptions that Americans – particularly liberal Americans – use to understand the history of progress in our country.

I’d like to ask, have they been harmful in ways we don’t often stop to realize? And if they are, might there be different frames we can use to understand the world around us? Ones that will help us stand down the despair and give us the strength to fight for the world we want to see? And finally, on this new year, I’d like to explore how Torah and Jewish tradition address this question in ways that might help us find a way forward together.

Let’s start with one very common assumption: the view that history is a march toward progress. This view is considered a central tenet of liberalism and it dates all the way back to the Enlightenment. In fact, this idea is so deeply embedded in the mindset of so many Americans that it is almost taken for granted.

Now certainly, when we look at the unfolding of American history, we could make a very strong case for this view. It certainly seems that the arc of history bends toward justice. Our march toward progress is well known: the abolition of slavery, the creation of labor laws, the right of women to vote, civil rights legislation, environmental regulation.

The idea in a nutshell: “We struggled, we won, progress was achieved.” This linear view of socio-political progress is deeply ingrained in the mythos of liberal America. When these historical moments occur, they enter into our national consciousness and become part of a collective narrative of progress. We venerate them, we celebrate them – often on an annual basis – and then either consciously or unconsciously, we assume that history will continue to progress in a linear fashion from that point onward.

The only problem with this assumption is that it doesn’t. And it never has.

Let’s use the first example on the list I just mentioned: abolition. Most of us date the abolition of slavery back to 1865 with the adoption of the 13th amendment – but in truth, abolition resulted from over century of struggle on many different fronts. But it wasn’t a linear struggle. And the struggle is far from over.

During Reconstruction, former slaves did make meaningful political, social and economic gains. Black men voted and even held public office across the South. Biracial experiments in governance flowered. Black literacy surged, surpassing those of whites in some cities. Black schools, churches and social institutions thrived.

But as W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” After the formal fall of slavery in the South, there was sharecropping, in which black farmers became debt slaves to their white landlords; there was the convict lease system, in which black men were leased out to wealthy plantation owners and corporations; there were widespread lynchings in the South and yes, often in the North as well. There was Jim Crow – a legal caste system that literally divided black and white Americans.

And after the civil rights movement helped bring down segregation, we’ve seen the emergence of the “New Jim Crow” as a result of mass incarceration. As scholar Michelle Alexander and others have pointed out, more black men are currently behind bars or under the thumb of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved at the height of slavery.

Yes, the abolition of slavery was a significant victory and yes, we should celebrate our victories. But we cannot assume that injustice will simply end or evaporate with these victories. More often than not, it morphs into different forms in insidious ways.

It seems to me that liberal Americans – particularly white liberal Americans – chronically underestimate the tenacity and staying power of injustice. Why? Well for one thing, although we don’t often acknowledge it, this country was founded on injustice – on the original sins of indigenous genocide, slavery and the economic supremacy of white property-holding men. Injustice is part of our national DNA. As long as we fail admit this, it’s too easy to ignore the ways injustice is chronically manifest in the life of our country.

Our American political culture reinforces the notion that struggles for liberation invariably lead to the eradication of injustice. The way we memorialize the civil rights movement provides a good example. In her recent book, “A More Beautiful and Terrible History,” Professor Jeanne Theoharis writes powerfully about the ways political elites – who historically fought the passage of civil rights – regularly use this history as proof of how great our country is. President Ronald Reagan for instance, repeatedly resisted efforts to turn Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday into a national holiday. He finally relented however, when he realized he could co-opt MLK and the civil rights movement.

When Reagan signed the bill into law, he said,

We’ve made historic strides since Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. As a democratic people, we can take pride in the knowledge that that we Americans recognized a grave injustice and took action to correct it. And we should remember that in many countries, people like Dr. King never have the opportunity to speak out at all.

But it’s not only conservative politicians who promote this new mythic history. Theoharis also quotes Barack Obama from a 2007 speech in Selma, Alabama. Referring to the civil rights generation, he said, “They took us 90 percent of the way there, but we still got that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side.” The implication that we have eradicated 90% of the racial problems in our country is of course, serious political hyperbole. And it speaks to a very common trope in our national culture: that our great nation was founded on a struggle for freedom, that these struggles are what make this country great, and that these struggles somehow eradicate injustice from our midst.

In reality, however, these struggles don’t succeed because of our country – they succeed in spite of our country. And they certainly do not end racism and injustice once and for all. Whether they stem from hyperbole, ideology or unconscious assumptions, I believe that these false tropes breed complacency. After all, why worry too much if we believe history proves our struggle will eradicate injustice in end? And when injustice metastasizes into new and different forms, it upsets our neat, linear assumptions about American progress. As a result, we’re ill-equipped – emotionally and strategically – to respond properly to this new reality.

I’d like to turn now to Jewish tradition and explore whether or not the Torah has anything to offer us on this particular question. It’s often been observed by liberal scholars in fact, that this linear view of historical progress can be traced back to Biblical tradition. According to this school of thought, the polytheistic traditions of the Ancient Near East viewed history as circular, embodied in the never ending, constantly repeating cycles of nature. Israelite monotheism however, upended these traditions, sublimating the gods of nature to the one God of history, who alone could control nature and events according to his will.

Here’s a good representation of this view – I’m quoting from an essay by Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary:

The consequences of this shift from nature to history reinforce the idea of ethical monotheism. Judaism develops a linear concept of time as opposed to a cyclical one and sanctifies events rather than places. The mountain of Sinai is not holy, or even known, but the moment of revelation is. The Torah intentionally conceals from us the place where Moses is buried. Time is a medium less susceptible to idolatry or polytheism, in which God’s presence is made manifest audibly rather than visually. Time becomes for Judaism the realm in which humanity and God join to complete together the work of creation…The triumph of morality will eventually render nature perfect, bringing history to its messianic conclusion.

While this is a popular view of many Jewish scholars, I find it to be problematic on so many levels. Particularly this notion that “the triumph of morality will eventually render nature perfect, bringing history to its messianic conclusion.” This kind of linear messianic thinking leads to a concrete end game, a victory that will solve all our problems. Messianic movements of course, have historically arisen during periods of acute crisis – times in which the vision of the ideal world becomes profoundly exciting and intoxicating to the growing numbers of people. But as we know all too well, messianic movements almost always end in upheaval, disillusionment and too often, tragedy.

You don’t have to be fundamentalist or even particularly religious to engage in linear messianic thinking. We all have a tendency, particularly during difficult times, to focus our expectations on an idealized conclusion. While this is undeniably inspiring and motivating, we too often end up mistaking the victories we experience along the way as the end game itself. We fall into the trap of viewing progress as an entitlement rather than something that must be constantly, constantly struggled for in every generation. It sometimes feels to me that this fixation on the end game is itself a kind of idolatry. We might say that we create a false god whenever we objectify one idea or concept or movement as the ultimate panacea for the problems of the world.

This is not however, the only Jewish frame for understanding history. I’d like to suggest another – one that I personally find to be much more helpful and inspiring. It is embodied by the word,“Yisrael” which literally means “one who struggles with God.” In the book of Genesis, Jacob’s name is changed to Yisrael after he wrestles with a mysterious night visitor that turns out later to be God. Jacob is victorious – and this moment marks a critical turning point in his life. But at the same time, he is wounded by the encounter – he limps as he crosses the river the next morning.

It’s also notable that Jacob’s struggle does not end with this one episode. His life certainly does not follow a straight line from this point on. Nor does the journey of the people of Israel who bear his name. In fact, the Torah narrative always ends before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Just when they arrive at the threshold, we literally rewind the Torah back to the beginning and we start the journey anew. The cycle begins once again.

In other words, redemption is not located in any particular place or point in time – it is experienced in the act of struggle itself. God cannot be found in a land or place, nor at some literal end time. God is in the struggle. We might even say, God is the struggle.

Now I know for some this might seem on the surface to be a bit on the bleak side. Some might of you might be thinking, “Is this all we have to look forward to? Life is just one long endless struggle? And we never even get to the Promised Land? How is this inspiring?

Please understand: I’m not saying we can ever give up on our vision of our the world we want to see. I am suggesting that at some point it is important to let go of the expectation that we must inevitably get there – because I really do believe that holding on too tightly to that expectation is a set up for despair and disillusionment.

Yes, this spiritual frame does involve an acknowledgement that we will not literally arrive in the Promised Land; that the Messiah will not actually come. But at the same time, its worth considering that we do indeed enter into messianic time in ways we never stop to consider: when we show up for our fellow strugglers, when we celebrate our victories along the way, when our efforts are infused with our highest values of justice and equity and sacrifice, at those moments we find ourselves dwelling in the world we’ve been fighting for all along. We experience the world we want to see because we create it for one another.

Struggle is hard work, but if we view it exclusively as a means to an end, we will be only that: hard work. However, if we view struggle as an inherently sacred act, we may yet see the face of God in our comrades and those who have gone before us. We may come to understand that the messianic age is not simply a far off dream. We may yet find we are dwelling in the Promised Land in ways we have never been able to realize before.

According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is a kind of “spiritual reboot” for ourselves and our community. In the traditional liturgy we say “Hayom Harat Olam” – it is the birthday of the world! On one level I think this means we never forfeit the ability to view the world with different eyes, through new and different frames. And if we can do this, we may well be able to transform the world itself. Yes, we live in painful, difficult times, but this is nothing new. Yes, there have been significant setbacks to many hard won battles in our country, but the struggle is far from over. In fact, as our liturgy would have it, it may be just beginning.

To all of you in Am Yisrael – and by this I mean all who struggle side by side for the cause of justice in the world – I wish you a heartfelt chazak ve’ematz – strength and courage. May it be a sweet and victorious year for us all.

 

Our Wayward and Defiant Children

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My weekly message to congregants at Tzedek Chicago:

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, we read:

If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town: “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon, the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid. (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)

So what is this, some kind of sick joke?

In fairness, it should be noted that many classical Jewish commentators have properly recoiled from these infamous verses. In a well-known Talmudic passage, R. Judah and R. Simeon went as far as to claim that this law was never actually enacted, stating, “There never was and never will be a wayward and defiant son. (BT Sanhedrin 71a)

Why then, you might ask, was this law included in the Torah? Rabbis Judah and Simeon cryptically respond: “Seek and you shall find reward” – a comment commonly understood to mean parents should study this passage and be appropriately scared enough to set their children on the right path.

In this Talmudic understanding, then, the commandment of the wayward and defiant son thus seems to serve as a kind of parental shock therapy. Whether or not we find this advice “rewarding,” I do think that these Torah verses reflect every parent’s deepest insecurities – and society’s latent fear that it might somehow lose control of its children.

When I think of this week’s Torah portion, I can’t help but think of our own city of Chicago, where the police’s customary response to youth violence too often, is more violence. As Tamar Manasseh, founder of the local South Side organization Mother’s Against Senseless Killings recently wrote:

Putting more police on the streets or sending in the National Guard will not solve the scourge of gun violence in our communities. There will be no reduction in crime; in reality, nothing will be reduced except the number of people who are left in these neighborhoods. That’s what happens when you eliminate schools and allow food deserts to exist: People who can afford to move will do so, and the people left behind will be over-policed.

“Seek and you shall find reward.” Or, as Tamar so wisely noted,

It’s time to invest in our public schools, in job creation and in training programs to give back hope to people who have so little of it left. Chicago’s ghettos are in dire need of repair; they can be healed only when our politicians pursue policies that will raise our communities up instead of keeping us under the heel of the police.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Gaza and the High Holidays

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My weekly message to congregants at Tzedek Chicago:

Yesterday I read a devastating blog post by Abdalrahim Alfarra, a Palestinian Gazan activist who wrote about his cousin Ali Firwana, who was recently was shot and paralyzed at the Great March of Return.

One passage in particular continues to haunt me:

At the protest, we found the usual: tear gas canisters falling thickly, leaving us barely able to breathe or talk; ambulances and paramedics fanning out everywhere; and the sound of live bullets whizzing past.

The sound of a bullet elicits contradictory feelings. All of us know that it will hit someone. But if we hear it, we are safe, just like when we hear shelling it means it has exploded but not on us.

It’s a powerful a description as we might find of what it must be like for unarmed demonstrators to experience an overwhelming military assault such as this. But it also made me think of something else.

We’ve just begun Elul – the month that precedes the Jewish New Year. Among other things, this the season in which we begin to contemplate the randomness and fragility of our world. We look ahead to a year to come and ask with uncertainty: “Who shall live and who shall die?” I can’t think of a more gut-wrenching expression of this question than the testimony of this young Palestinian man. And I can’t think of a more critical collective moral imperative for the Jewish people than the crimes Israel is committing against Palestinians in Gaza.

Alfarra concludes his post with these words:

Ali requires further surgery. He is still hoping to move his legs again. He is still hoping to defy the treacherous bullet fired by a heartless sniper, and a world that answers Israel’s crimes with shocking silence.

When Jewish congregation gather next month for the High Holidays, it is safe to say many will “answer Israel’s crimes with shocking silence.” Others will actually attempt to justify Israel’s criminal assaults on Palestinians in Gaza. I’m proud to be part of a congregation that will choose a different way:

For blockading 1.8 millon Gazans inside an open air prison; and for unleashing devastating firepower on a population trapped in a tiny strip of land.

For wedding sacred Jewish tradition to political nationalism and militarism; and for rationalizing away Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

For all these, source of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, receive our atonement.

May our prayers inspire us to hasten the day in which all Gazans and Palestinians are free.

Faith Floods the Desert: Humanitarian Aid is Never a Crime

IMG_4568.jpgI’ve just returned from a weekend at the border in the southern Arizona desert where I participated in a delegation of 60 faith leaders from around the country in an initiative called “Faith Floods the Desert,” supporting the of No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes. It was a powerful and at times overwhelming experience. I’ll try to do my best to do it justice here.

As I mentioned in my previous post, No More Deaths is an organization that provides humanitarian relief to migrants, mobilizes search and rescue operations for disappeared migrants, and documents how border enforcement pushes migration into some of the most remote and dangerous areas in Arizona’s deserts. “Faith Floods the Desert” was an initiative sponsored jointly between NMD, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and the Unitarian Universalist Association in response to the increasing criminalization of migrant relief work by the US government.

Earlier this year Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider with No More Deaths, and two people receiving humanitarian aid were arrested by US Border Patrol. Now Warren is facing a federal felony charge and eight other No More Deaths volunteers have been charged with federal misdemeanor charges relating to their humanitarian aid work on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge – a vast and remote stretch of land that shares 56 miles with the US-Mexico border. (Warren’s arrest is particularly suspicious as it occurred eight hours after NMD released a video of border police dumping water and destroying supplies left by relief workers.)

Our delegation gathered last Saturday in Ajo, AZ, a small former copper mining town located 40 miles north of the US/Mexico border. While the majority of clergy were UU ministers, I was honored to be a part of a five-person rabbinical cohort (with my colleagues Rabbis Margaret Holub, Ari Lev Fonari, Shahar Colt and Salem Pearce). On our first full day, we attended a briefing with leaders and volunteers from NMD, who explained the history and context of the crisis at the border. For those interested in learning more, I strongly recommend their report, “Disappeared: How the US Border Enforcement is Fueling a Missing Persons Crisis.” Among other things, the report does a thorough job of describing how the US Border Patrol adopted an enforcement strategy called “Prevention Through Deterrence” in 1994 – the same year that the US signed the NAFTA treaty.  As the report notes:

With the implementation of this policy, the Border Patrol sought to control the Southwest border by heightening the risks associated with unauthorized entry. To do so, the agency concentrated enforcement and infrastructure to reroute migration away from urban ports of entry and into wilderness areas. By pushing traffic into remote and hostile terrain, the agency speculated that border crossers would now find themselves “in mortal danger” when attempting to enter the US without authorization. The increased danger was intended to then deter other people from considering the journey, with the overall goal of preventing migration….

As a consequence of Prevention Through Deterrence, thousands of people have perished in the borderlands due to dehydration, heat-related illness, exposure, and other preventable environmental causes. Extreme heat and bitter cold, scarce and polluted water sources, treacherous topography, and near-total isolation from possible rescue are used as weapons of border enforcement.

In other words, the US government is responsible for the policy that is knowingly causing the migration of immigrants into “remote and hostile terrain” – as well as the policy that sends the border patrol to literally hunt them down. And now our government is actually arresting those who are trying to keep them alive.

On Saturday evening, our delegation gathered in the Ajo town plaza for a press conference. I was particularly moved by the remarks of Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association:

We need to recognize that this system of criminalization and cruelty is devastating the lives of children and parents and families here at the border, all over the world, and also in the interior of the United States. These same mechanisms of criminalization are aimed not just at migrants and activists, but they are aimed at the poor, they are aimed at communities of color, they are aimed at people with mental health issues. Everywhere, criminalization is undermining human rights and civil rights here in the United States. Those of us who identify as Americans lose some of our humanity when we allow this to continue.

In my remarks, I made a similar point, connecting the criminalization of relief work at the border with the very same phenomenon in Gaza and Palestine:

I can’t help but be mindful of the fact that just last week there was a boat that was taking humanitarian goods to Gaza that was intercepted by the Israeli navy. The volunteer workers on board were brutalized, incarcerated and ultimately deported. This is the same work that we are doing, ultimately and I think it’s very important for all of us to understand that what’s going on here at the border is going on in Gaza and too many places around the world. As we stand in solidarity here, we need to be mindful that we are standing in solidarity in so many other ways as well.

On Sunday morning, our delegation was split into two groups. One went south to distribute water via the Devils Highway – a well-known and infamous road extending through some of the most remote and desolate regions of the Sonaran Desert. Our group traveled to the Charlie Bell Road, a trail in the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge along the Growler Mountain Range. Both of these are among the few entrances to West Desert that are open to the public.

Our group of 20 consisted of faith leaders, media and NMD medics and EMTs and we traveled into Charlie Bell in four trucks. Because our action was well publicized beforehand, we fully expected to encounter law enforcement and as it turned out, several officers from the Department of Fish and Wildlife stopped us at the entrance to see our entrance permits (picture below). They also asked to see the ID’s of everyone who was is the lead car. Although it was not entirely a surprise, volunteers from NMD told us this was the first time any of them had been stopped by the “Fish Cops” at the entrance to the refuge.

The day quickly became blisteringly hot – by noon it was already 110 degrees. We walked carrying two to three gallons of water each approximately one and a half miles down the trail along the mountain range. When we arrived at a well marked with a beacon and flag, we wrote messages of hope and solidarity on our plastic jugs of water and set them down. Afterwards, several of us distributed additional bottles at another site close by.

This well, by the way, is not intended for use by human beings – it was constructed by the nature preserve to water a nearby trough for wildlife (picture below). As we peered inside, we could see that the water inside was dirty and mossy, clearly unfit for human consumption. The irony did not need to be pointed out to any of us: those who maintain this area provide water for animals – while water left for human beings is confiscated and destroyed.

We also saw clear signs in the vicinity that migrants had passed through. Among them: slippers made out of carpet worn over shoes to hide their tracks and a wrapper of electrolyte powder purchased in Mexico (pictures below). The evidence of the presence of migrants was not hard to find and it all seemed fairly familiar to our NMD guides.

All in all, we spent the better part of the morning and afternoon in the open desert, traveling on foot approximately 3.5 miles. The final 1/2 mile was uphill and though I made a point of hydrating constantly, the heat was constant and overpowering. (It was so hot, in fact, that the glue on the bottom of my shoes literally melted the soles off of my feet.)  I cannot begin to comprehend how migrants to walk 80 to 100 miles through such extreme terrain and hostile conditions – and I cannot consider it anything but a sacrilege that our government knowingly drives human beings into a region such as this under the guise of “deterrence.”

In the evening, we attended a monthly memorial vigil in the Ajo town plaza for migrants who perished in the West Desert region. The majority of names spoken aloud were  “Desconocido” (“Unknown”). According to NMD, at least 128 bodies were recovered just last year, including 57 in the desert where we focused our action. Many of them will never be identified. And many more will continue to remain undiscovered in the wilderness in areas that are inaccessible to relief workers.

At the end of our stay, my colleague Rabbi Ari Lev Fonari wrote the following on his Facebook page:

What I know to be true:

1. Water is life.

2. Migration is an organic part of life, a human right and a tactic of survival.

3. The border is an unnatural divide generating industry and environmental harm.

4. People have been crossing dangerous deserts by the light of the moon seeking safety and freedom, hunted by the state and sustained by their faith, for as long as human beings have been alive.

Ari Lev speaks my head and my heart. I’ve visited several militarized borders now – and I am more convinced than ever that they serve no other purpose than to shore up the power and profit of those who design, construct and maintain them. Now more than ever we must fight for a world without borders, for a world where freedom of movement over our shared earth is respected and honored.

In the meantime, however, we must reckon with the world as it currently is: a world in which nations hunt down those who dare to cross these unnatural lines in search of a better life for themselves and their families. A world in which governments criminalize those who offer migrants life-saving relief and assistance. A world in which the powerful assume no one will ultimately care about the humanity they deem disposable.

In the end, it will be up to all of us to prove them wrong.

I’m deeply grateful to those in the UUA and UUSC for convening this delegation, the volunteers of No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes, whose work taught us simple but powerful lessons about the discipline of human decency, and the wonderful people of Ajo who opened their community and their homes to us.

Please support the work of No More Deaths by signing this letter to the land managers of the West Desert, demanding that they “acknowledge the gravity and severity of the humanitarian crisis occurring on the lands (they) steward, and take immediate action to protect the lives and dignity of all people on these lands by upholding the right to receive and provide humanitarian aid.”

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Lunch at Immaculate Heart Catholic Church, Ajo, AZ

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Fish and Wildlife officers at the entrance to the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge (photo: Ari Lev Fonari)

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Feeding trough that provides water to wildlife in the Cabeza refuge

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Carpet slippers worn by migrants to cover their tracks.

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Rabbi Salem Pearce, holding a used packet of electrolyte powder purchased in Mexico .