Category Archives: Sermons

Surviving the Apocalypse: Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 5783

Hayom Harat Olam – “Today is the birthday of the world.” It’s one of the signature lines of Rosh Hashanah, and it might be the best, most basic definition of the holiday. Every new year, we celebrate the renewal of yet another cycle. Every Rosh Hashanah we anticipate a new round of possibilities for our lives and our world.

Judaism is deeply rooted in multiple cycles, actually: daily, weekly and yearly rhythms that revolve around each other simultaneously. We observe them as a way of maintaining our own personal balance and equilibrium – but also as an expression of our empowered faith. As Jewish tradition would have it, when we live according to these sacred cycles, it is said, we help maintain the equilibrium of the world itself.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow described this phenomenon beautifully in his classic book “Seasons of our Joy:” 

Long ago our people believed that if we celebrated the cycle, the cycle was more likely to continue. The rains would come when they were due, the sun would shine more warmly in its season, the crops would grow – and die, and grow again. 

And if we celebrated the cycle, we believed, our deliverance from slavery would come again. The spiral of history would keep on circling upward if we lived through the spirals of our past… And the cycle would also help us as individuals. It is intended to help us feel more deeply, more intensely, the cycle of feelings that make us fully human. 

While I’ve always connected with this spiritual approach, I’ll confess it hasn’t come so easily to me in recent years. Over the past few Rosh Hashanahs, I’ve wondered: what does it mean to affirm a cyclical worldview in the era of global climate change? With each passing year, we render our planet that much less livable. Every Rosh Hashanah, we seem to inch ever closer to a deadline that represents the earth’s point of no return. How do we celebrate the birthday of the world when the world itself is literally unraveling before us?

It isn’t just an academic question. There’s a strong case to be made that the disruption of our planet’s rhythm is affecting the natural rhythm of our lives as well. In a sense, it’s flattening out our cyclical view of the world and making it more linear. We’re experiencing the world less in terms of cycles and more as “beginning, middle and end.” 

There’s a time-honored word for this ominous concept, and I’ll put it plainly: it’s called apocalyptic thinking.

Now I know this is a religious term, but when I use it, I’m not just talking about theology. I’m interested in something deeper. I’m interested in the ways we ourselves engage in apocalyptic thinking – those of us who aren’t religious extremists, or even religious for that matter. I want to explore how end-of-days thinking has become culturally normalized in this 21st century moment to become part of the very oxygen we breathe. 

Statistics seem to bear this claim out. It’s been reported that over the past two decades, there’s been a marked increase in the stockpiling of food, provisions and weapons in preparation for an upcoming cataclysm. According to one study, nearly three in 10 adults in the US think it’s likely that there will be an apocalyptic disaster in their lifetime.  There’s also been increasing enrollment in survivalist courses; schools that train people in the practical skills they need to live in the wake of catastrophe. The owner of one such course recently commented on this phenomenon in the press: “I feel like people sense an impending doom … they feel like something’s about to happen, a shift in our society, a shift in our way of life – and they want to be prepared for whatever, be able to forage off the land, be able to do whatever it takes to get by.”

On a less quantifiable level, I believe that apocalyptic thinking is harbored even by those of us who aren’t hoarding food and drafting survival plans. I’m willing to wager that a growing number of folks are fantasizing about leaving it all behind to live off the grid – if not in anticipation of an upcoming disaster, then at least to move to higher ground. To escape to a place where they can keep the perils of 21st century life at bay.

It’s been observed that this attitude has become an indelible part of our cultural zeitgeist, reflected, among other things, in the explosion of post-apocalyptic movies, TV shows and video games. It’s certainly not difficult to understand the appeal of these dystopian fantasies. They function as a kind of cathartic outlet of our innermost fears, yet at the same time, they reassure us. They simplify the complex, overwhelming truth of our world. They give us the chance to start over again. After the apocalypse, life might be hard, but it would be simpler and more understandable. The good guys and bad guys would be clear and obvious. We’d have a straightforward sense of what we needed to do to survive. 

While I enjoy a good zombie movie as much as anyone, I do think these entertainments are a reflection of something very deep in our collective subconscious. And that’s what scares me – even more than the zombies. Indeed, there’s something deeply conservative and reactionary at the core of these dystopian fantasies. They almost always look to a strong hero or a messiah to save the day. By definition, there is always an in-group and an out-group: those who will be included in the future world and those who must be annihilated. They always focus on the journey to a better, safer future for the survivors. At their core, these stories reflect a deeper desire to wipe the slate clean and recreate a kind of mythic idyllic past that never actually was. 

More than anything, I think, these dystopian narratives reflect the fears of a privileged group that feels its power slipping away. Bear this in mind the next time you watch the armies of the undead coming to eat the flesh of the brave survivors. Just remember the rhetoric of many white Evangelicals and QAnon followers: how they utterly dehumanize and demonize those who don’t fit into their view of the world. As we indulge in our post-apocalyptic fantasies, we shouldn’t forget that there are increasing numbers of religious extremists in the US who are actively laying the political groundwork for the apocalypse in order to remake the world in their image.

On another level, when we engage in apocalyptic thinking, whether we realize it or not, we’re engaging in a form of surrender. We’re essentially admitting that it’s over – that we’ve lost. Apart from the abject defeatism of this attitude, I can’t help but think that it’s a profoundly privileged way of thinking. Because, quite frankly, there are millions of disenfranchised people in our own communities and around the world who are already living through the apocalypse and have been for some time. Perhaps we need to stop fearing the future and pay closer attention to the cataclysm that’s going on right now.

This is, for me, the most insidious thing about apocalyptic thinking: it focuses on the future at the expense of the present. Even as there’s every indication that the climate-related apocalypse that so many fear has actually been well underway. As I speak these words to you, Puerto Rico is reeling from the devastation of yet another hurricane – one that left the entire island without power and most of its residents without running water. In Pakistan, heavy monsoons have washed away whole villages, displacing more than 33 million people. Last year, over 59 million people became involuntary migrants – most of them displaced by climate related disasters. Yes, there are millions in our own backyard and around the world who are already experiencing the apocalypse in a real way right now, in real time.

One of the most impactful books I read this past year was “The Next Apocalypse: The Art and Science of Survival.” It was written by Chris Begley, an anthropologist, archaeologist and wilderness survival instructor who has studied the collapse of ancient civilizations throughout history. Begley convincingly argues that everything we assume about the coming apocalypse is wrong. He points out that most civilizational collapses were not the product of abrupt cataclysms. Rather, they were the result of extensive, multiple crises that had various causes that took place over a long period of time. In general, collapses of societies tend to be characterized less by sudden catastrophe than by change and transformation

Begley also makes it clear that when it comes to global climate-change we need to accept that this process of change is, in fact, already underway. He writes,

From our data about the past, I imagine that the process of collapse has already started, with environmental problems as one cause and political and social issues – particularly inequities in wealth and power exacerbated by neoliberal policies over the last half century – as the other. How quickly the unraveling will proceed, and how long until we realize that the process is going on, are harder to devine. Some processes, like climate change, are understood sufficiently well that, while unknowns exist, evidence suggests it will create profound and negative changes on a global scale. 

As a survival course teacher himself, Begley definitely advocates being prepared for emergencies – and he writes extensively about the skills that will likely be needed to survive the cataclysms that are most likely to occur in our lifetimes. But he also points out that survival skills are short term solutions, designed for the self-preservation of individuals. In the long term, he writes,

Adaptability and flexibility will be key to survival. Surviving and thriving after the next apocalypse will be all about community. None of us will be able to go it alone…If we are tempted to exclude people, we must find another route through the disaster. We must include everybody, or we are not in a sustainable pattern.

“Surviving and thriving after the next apocalypse will be all about community.” I can’t think of a better antidote to apocalyptic thinking. So often this mindset starts and ends with “how will I make it through?” “How will I protect myself and my loved ones?” But if or when a cataclysm occurs, our sustainability will ultimately depend upon our ability to cooperate for the long haul. We will have to accept that in the end, it must be all of us or none. 

What does this mean in practical terms? One example comes immediately to mind: in the face of unprecedented climate migration, I strongly believe we must become unabashed advocates for a world beyond borders. On this particular subject, I’d like to quote to from another must-read book for Rosh Hashanah: “Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval,” by Gaia Vince:

Migration, whether from disaster to safety, or for a new land of opportunity, is deeply interwoven with cooperation – it is only through our extensive collaborations that we are able to migrate, and it’s our migrations that forged today’s global society. Migration made us. It is our national identities and borders that are the anomaly…

I’ve visited people in refugee camps in different countries across four continents, where millions of people live in limbo, sometimes for generations…As our environment changes, millions more risk ending up in these nowhere places. Globally, this system of sealed borders and hostile migration policy is dysfunctional. It doesn’t work for anyone’s benefit.

Here’s another practical example: those of us who live in the Global North, who are responsible for around half of all emissions since the Industrial Revolution, who produce a carbon footprint 100 times greater than that of the world’s poor nations combined, must continue the fight to reduce the carbon emissions that are endangering life on our planet. And locally, we must keep fighting for emergency funding, for stronger infrastructure, for rapid response capacities, most particularly for our most vulnerable communities. According to Jewish tradition, pikuach nefesh – saving a life is sacrosanct. And even as we pass various doomsday deadlines, yes, even in the midst of an apocalypse, these kinds of policies and measures still have the very real power to save lives. 

Finally, we would do well to remind ourselves that the most committed and inspired climate activists are those who are most directly affected by climate change. Indigenous peoples in particular have long been on the front lines of this struggle. We would do well to learn about their efforts, support them, and most important, to follow their lead. Because if they have not succumbed to despair, then neither can we. In the words of the great Cherokee leader and activist, Wilma Mankiller, z”l: “The secret of our success is that we never, never, give up.”

When we engage in apocalyptic thinking, we reduce the climate crisis to a singular future cataclysm, while holding tight to the illusion that everything is still somehow “normal.” But if we resist the impulse to project our dread into the future, we can better recognize and respond to the transformative changes that are occurring even as we speak. Particularly those of us who have the luxury to live in parts of the world that are relatively safe from the disastrous impact already being experienced by so many. 

Accepting that it is already happening frees us up to discern more clearly what we can do right now. It allows us to live in the world and to respond to its changes with knowledge, creativity and compassion. When we admit that this transformation is already underway, we can stand down the fear and dread that is so prevalent in our culture. It gives us permission to move with these changes. It reminds us there is still a great deal we can – and must – do.

After all, as our liturgy will remind us, even in the midst of the most devastating of changes, our actions “ma’avirin et ro’ah ha’gezeirah” – “avert the severity of the decree.” Or as Chris Begley puts it, “there are no natural disasters, only natural phenomena that we convert into disasters via our responses.” When you think about it, the essential message of the High Holidays is the polar opposite of apocalyptic thinking. On Rosh Hashanah, we are asked to look deep into the latest turn of the cycle and face the all of our world. Then, and only then, can we go forth and greet the new year. 

So, this Rosh Hashanah, let us continue to dance to the rhythms of the cycle even when it becomes increasingly painful to do so. After all, it has ever been thus. Every new year, we pray these prayers that are filled with trepidation. We will say out loud that in the coming year there will be no guarantees – that some of us will live and some of us will die. But at the same time, we will affirm that this world is worth fighting for, no matter what may happen in the coming year and beyond. And most important we will affirm this all together. Because we know that however much time we have left, it must be all of us or none.

Shanah Tovah – may it be a healthy and liberating New Year for all. And may we commit together to making it so.

There’s More of Us Than There are of Them: Sermon for Yom Kippur 5782

An op-ed version of this sermon was published in Truthout.

I’d like to begin my remarks this Yom Kippur with a sacred refrain that has surely been uttered aloud by many of us over the past several weeks:

Texas, what the hell? 

That’s right Texas, what the hell? Just when we thought we’d heard it all from you, there was the news on September 1. In just one day the Texas state legislature all but banned abortions in their state, passed the most restrictive voting laws in the US, and allowed Texans to carry handguns openly without a license. And if that was not nearly enough, this past June, Texas’ governor signed a bill limiting the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools. 

Now, I mention all of this very advisedly because I know we have members who live in Texas – and I’m sure some of them are attending our service at this very moment. And I must also note that these trends are not at all unique to that state. If truth be told, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and South Dakota, are currently preparing abortion bills identical to the Texas legislation, there are twenty other states other than Texas that allow permitless handgun carry, and as of August 26, twenty seven states have introduced bills or have otherwise taken steps to restrict Critical Race Theory.

So while it might feel satisfying for progressives to pile on Texas, it’s probably more accurate to say that this particular state represents a larger phenomenon that has been part of our national culture for some time. For lack of a better term, let’s call it the rage of the white American man. 

White rage is, of course, nothing new, but it might be argued that it’s currently entering an era of renewed ferocity. Last month we learned from the Census Bureau that the percentage of white people in the US has actually decreased for the very first time. Since the last report ten years ago, the overall white population in the US has declined by almost 10%. In that same amount of time, the Latinx population grew by 23%, the Asian population increased by over 35% and the Black population grew by almost 6%.

When you consider that the United States was built on a foundation of white supremacy – that is, by white men, for white men – it’s not difficult to grasp the impact of news such as this. While the ranks of white supremacists may be shrinking, we can be sure that they won’t go away quietly. We know from history that a dying beast can still do a considerable amount of damage on the way down. Indeed, this is precisely what we’re seeing unfold in Texas and around the country: the anger of white supremacist, misogynist Americans increasingly galled by what their country is becoming. 

And they are galled. They’re galled by the fact that the US actually had a black president for eight years. They’re galled that there’s a new national reckoning going on over the legacy of slavery and structural racism in our country. They’re galled by the increased national attention being paid to police violence against black people and by a Black Lives Matter movement that mobilized the largest mass protests in US history last summer. They are galled every time another statue of a Confederate is toppled in a Southern state, as was the case at the Virginia statehouse last week. 

And it doesn’t stop there. They’re also galled when women, non-binary and trans people seek power over their own bodies – and really, when they just seek more power in general. They’re galled that there are now a record number of women serving in Congress, including a Palestinian-American and a hijab-wearing former refugee from Somalia. They’re galled by the #MeToo movement, which is literally removing sexually violent men from positions of power. Last November, they were particularly galled when a powerful voting rights organizing effort largely led by black women helped turn Georgia blue in both the Presidential and Congressional elections. 

Of course, white anger over voting rights in this country didn’t begin last year. It surged in 1870, when the 15th Amendment technically gave black men the right to vote. It surged again in 1920, when the 19th Amendment technically gave women the right to vote. And it surged again in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act went into effect. Even as we celebrate these landmark legislative events, we can’t look away from the immense resentment and rage they engendered – and continue to engender – throughout the US, which makes it all the more crucial that we keep fighting for real universal enfranchisement.

As we contemplate how to respond to the events transpiring in Texas and around the country, it’s immensely important for us to understand the historical power of white rage. This phenomenon has been part of US national culture since this country’s founding on stolen land, and its dependance upon the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The current brand of self-righteous white rage is reminiscent of the racist backlash that played out during Reconstruction. So we shouldn’t be surprised by the current devastating setbacks to public policy; on the contrary, should expect them. 

The staying power of white supremacist anger in this country sometimes reminds me of a certain Biblical trope. We’re all, of course, familiar with the story of creation in Genesis 1, in which an omnipotent God creates light out of darkness and separates the primordial waters of chaos. It’s a satisfying, deeply aspirational myth that expresses the vision of the world as it should be: a neat and tidy process by which the world moves from chaos to greater order and progress. 

However, scholars have pointed out that there is another creation story embedded in the Bible, influenced by the epic myths of the Ancient Near East that portray a battle between the gods and powerful sea monsters that represent the primordial forces of chaos. Biblical books such as the Psalms, Job and Isaiah describe God’s battle with a mighty sea monster named Leviathan, among others. Unlike the orderly movement toward progress that we read about in Genesis 1, this other myth portrays creation as an ongoing and even desperate struggle. And while God generally gets the upper hand, it’s not at all clear in the Bible that the primordial sea monster is ever completely vanquished. 

It sometimes occurs to me that our conventional, liberal view of history reflects a “Genesis 1 mindset,” i.e., an orderly movement toward greater progress, proceeding neatly from victory to victory. And while these landmark moments certainly represent political progress, they do not fundamentally change the foundational truth of this country. To put it differently, we too often forget that the sea monster is never fully vanquished. Yes, victories should be celebrated. But even more than that, they must also be protected

If we were ever sanguine about the threat of white supremacist resentment in this country, we should have no doubt about it after the past four years of Trump, which literally culminated in an armed insurrection on the US Capitol. This rage is real and it’s mobilizing in truly frightening ways. It’s no coincidence that among the bills passed in Texas earlier this month was legislation loosening restrictions on gun carry laws. Indeed, the dramatic spike in gun ownership and the erosion of gun control measures around the country should make it clear to us that the threat of white nationalism is deadly serious.

So where do we go from here? How do we possibly resist such fierce and unrelenting rage? Perhaps the first step is to remember that more than anything else, white resentment is fueled by fear – and in truth, white supremacists have genuine cause to be fearful. They’re afraid because they know full well that there are more of us than there are of them – and that our numbers are growing. We should never forget that while fear may be their primary motivation, it’s also a sign of their fundamental weakness. 

White nationalism is essentially a reactionary movement; that is to say, it has historically reacted to changes that genuinely threaten its power and hegemony in this country. But even though by definition, they’ve been playing defense, throughout American history, the liberal response to white supremacy has been to resist a strong offense as “too much,” “too radical,” or “too extreme.” White liberals often distance themselves from revolutionary people-of-color-led movements in this way. Those of us who are white must consciously resist this form of distancing, because this phenomenon is itself a form of white supremacy preservation. 

During the years of the civil rights movement, many white liberal leaders would publicly criticize movement tactics they felt were too radical or extreme. This is precisely what Martin Luther King was addressing when he so memorably wrote from a Birmingham jail, “the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” The black playwright Lorraine Hansberry put it even more succinctly; in a 1964 speech entitled “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” she said publicly, “we have to find some way to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” 

In other words, as long as white supremacy is baked into the very systems that govern our country, we can ill afford to play defense. If anyone has any doubts, consider this: two months before the census reported the decrease in the white population in this country, the Reflective Democracy Campaign released a report that demonstrated how radically white minority rule pervades politics across the US. Despite the recent electoral gains for women and people of color, white men represent 30% of the population but 62% of state and national officeholders. By contrast, women and people of color constitute 51% and 40% of the US population respectively, but represent just 31% and 13% of officeholders. 

When the Reflective Democracy Campaign released these findings, their director, Brenda Choresi Carter, said it very well: “We have a political system in general that is not built to include new voices and perspectives. It’s a system built to protect the people and the interests already represented in it. It’s like all systems. It’s built to protect the status quo.”

As I read those words, I can’t help but ask: isn’t this what Yom Kippur is ultimately all about? Every year at this season, we’re commanded to take a hard, unflinching look at the status quo, openly admit what needs changing, and commit to the hard work it will take to transform it. It’s an inherently radical idea: to proclaim every year that the status quo is unacceptable and that nothing short of genuine intervention will do. If our Yom Kippur prayers are to mean anything at all, we must be prepared to act upon this radical idea. 

I know that many of you are involved in organizing and activist work that intervenes in our racist, inequitable systems so that they may more accurately serve the interests of all who live in this country. Truly, your efforts are an inspiration to me. Because in the end, when we fight for voting rights, reproductive justice, racial justice, economic equity, or any other issue, we’re not only advocating for specific causes that have suffered setbacks – we’re fighting to transform systems that are fundamentally unjust. 

So when we sound the shofar with a long blast at the end of Yom Kippur, let’s not only regard it as the conclusion to this season. Let’s consider it a call to action for transformation in the year ahead. And when the inevitable setbacks occur, let us not respond with surprise or dismay; rather, let’s remind each other that setbacks and backlashes are a sign of their fear, not their strength. Let us never forget that there are more of us than there are of them – and if we see fit to summon our strength, we can indeed recreate the world we know is possible. 

Gmar Hatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed for a year of life, of justice, of transformation. 

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.

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. 

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. 

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 day 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 sniper 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, it 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.

 

Sermon for Yom Kippur 5778: Another World is Possible – A Jewish View on Police/Prison Abolition

Cages-Kill-Freedom-Rally-Abolish-prison-build-community-Santa-Cruz-012415-by-Scott-Nelson
In 1902, Clarence Darrow delivered a speech to a group of inmates at the Cook County Jail. Never known for mincing his words, he made the following point:

There should be no jails. They do not accomplish what they pretend to accomplish. If you would wipe them out, there would be no more criminals than now….They are a blot upon civilization, and a jail is an evidence of the lack of charity of the people on the outside who make the jails and fill them with the victims of their greed.

There’s no record of what the prison administration thought of his remarks, but I think it’s fair to assume they weren’t happy.

Another anecdote, this one more recent: Two years ago, after the killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and several Dallas police officers, Fox News hosted a panel discussion on police violence. One of panelists was a young African American activist and rapper named Jessica Disu. The discussion inevitably started to get heated. Disu didn’t mix in for the most part, but when someone accused Black Lives Matter activists of calling for the death of cops, Disu finally spoke up.

Speaking over the din, she said, “This is the reason our young people are hopeless in America.” Then she added, “Here’s a solution, we need to abolish the police.” The panel quickly descended into pandemonium.

Disu later commented that she had never previously considered herself to be a police abolitionist. But since that evening, she said, abolition has come to be the only way forward that makes sense to her. “It’s more than a repair, she said. “We need something new.”

It’s safe to say that liberal White Americans are starting to struggle with the deep legacy of institutional racism in our country. There seems to be something of an awakening to the ways that racism so painfully intersects with policing and the prison industrial complex. Of course this is an awakening to a reality that marginalized peoples have long known: that the problems of racism and violence are systemic to American society and always have been.

But while increasing numbers of liberal Americans understand this larger system of oppression, we’re nowhere near consensus on what to do about it. However, I think it’s fairly safe to say that most would not call themselves abolitionists – to say that the prison industrial complex is so incorrigibly violent, it needs to be completely dismantled. Most would likely believe such thoughts to be the product of naive, utopian minds.

This Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore the contemporary movement for police and prison abolition more deeply. I don’t believe that the contemporary abolitionist movement is anywhere near as simplistic as its critics make it out to be. At the very least, I think there’s a need for real debate on this issue. Should we be seeking incremental or fundamental change? Which approach will ultimately be the most effective? What theories of change have historically yielded results? Whether we agree with them or not, abolitionist arguments have an important place in this debate.

I think it is altogether appropriate to explore these questions on Yom Kippur: the day in which we look out across the year to come and vow that a better world is possible; a world free of injustice, oppression and violence. This is the day that we stand together and swear that we are indeed better than this. This is the day we imagine collectively what it will take to set the world right.

I’m sure many people struggle with the very word “abolition.” When most hear the term they’re likely to think of the 18th-19th century movement to abolish the American slave trade. The end of slavery however, did not signal the end of racist institutions that oppress black and brown people in our country – on the contrary, they have morphed into different more “socially acceptable” systems of oppression. Michelle Alexander put it very well in her book The New Jim Crow:

Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time. (p. 21)

As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s much too easy to assume that since we’ve abolished slavery and dismantled Jim Crow, institutional racism is now a thing of the past. Indeed, the statistics show otherwise: 1 out of every 4 African American males born this decade can expect to go to prison in his lifetime; black women are incarcerated at a rate nearly 3 times higher than white women; someone who is black and unarmed is 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than someone who is white and unarmed; in the federal system black people receive sentences that are 10% longer than white people for the same crimes. The litany of course, goes on and on.

The contemporary abolitionist movement began in the early 1970s and gained steam in the late 1990s, when the activist/scholar Angela Davis co-founded Critical Resistance, an organization that coined the term “prison industrial complex.” According to its mission:

Abolition is a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives to punishment and imprisonment.

From where we are now, sometimes we can’t really imagine what abolition is going to look like. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of buildings full of cages … An abolitionist vision means that we must build models today that can represent how we want to live in the future. It means developing practical strategies for taking small steps that move us toward making our dreams real and that lead us all to believe that things really could be different. It means living this vision in our daily lives. Abolition is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

Many may be surprised to learn that number of prominent national organizations are avowedly abolitionist. Two years ago, for instance, the National Lawyers Guild adopted a resolution calling for “the dismantling and abolition of all prisons and of all aspects of systems and institutions that support, condone, create, fill, or protect prisons.” Last year, the Movement for Black Lives released a platform that stated, among other things:

Until we achieve a world where cages are no longer used against our people we demand an immediate change in conditions and an end to all jails, detention centers, youth facilities and prisons as we know them.

Over the past decade, Chicago has become an important hub for abolitionist organizing. This is due in no small way to the efforts of organizer/activist Mariame Kaba, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before recently moving back to New York. During her years here, Kaba influenced a generation of young organizers who now lead some of the most important local organizations that protest police brutality and have created new models for community safety and restorative justice.

In an interview two years ago, this is how Mariame Kaba defined abolition:

(W)hen I talk about abolition, it’s not mainly a project of dismantling, though that’s critically important. It’s actually a project of building. It’s a positive project that is intended to show what we believe justice really looks like…For me, abolition involves how we are going to organize ourselves to be safe. And right now we devolve the authority for keeping us safe to the state. If you were to begin a conversation around abolition, the question is, “How would we, as communities, as autonomous spaces, decide what we would do when harm occurs?” We would have to think those things through together. That’s a collective project.

One of the primary goals of the new abolitionist movement is to shine a light on the vast amounts of wealth we spend on policing, prisons and surveillance – and to advocate for a greater investment in our communities. Currently, the United States spends more than $80 billion annually on our criminal justice system. Here in Chicago, we spend $1.5 billion on police every year—that’s $4 million every single day. Nearly 40% of our city budget is allotted to the Chicago Police Department (compared to around 1% for Chicago Public Schools).

But it’s not just a numbers game. Examining how we use public funds goes to the heart of the question of what actually creates safety. Is it more police or more community investment? Benji Hart, a Chicago abolitionist activist/educator wrote about this powerfully in one of my favorite blog posts on the subject, “You are Already an Abolitionist:”

Last summer, while working as a camp counselor during the week that Alton Sterling and Philando Castle were both shot by law enforcement, I ended up sitting down with a group of almost entirely wealthy, white elementary-aged kids to talk about the police. One of the questions we asked ourselves was why there was so much violence in certain parts of our city, namely on the South and West sides, and not in others. One student suggested that maybe it was because there weren’t enough police to protect those neighborhoods.

We sat on the floor of an arts studio in Lincoln Square, a majority white and very wealthy neighborhood on the North side, in which many of the students lived. I asked them how often, when walking to camp, they had seen police cars patrolling the neighborhood, or stopping people on the street. Almost none of them had. I admitted that I hadn’t, either.

“If there are so few police in this neighborhood,” I asked, “why do we feel safe here?”

It took a moment for the young people to think it through, but they got there on their own: Resources. There was low crime in Lincoln Square because most people there had places to live and good food to eat. There were lots of stores and restaurants, and people could afford to shop and dine there. There were quality schools, libraries, parks and after-school programs, many of them within walking distance from one another. It was access to the basic things people needed, not the presence of police, that made its residents feel secure.

Last week, Tzedek Chicago held an action for the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah outside of Rahm Emanuel’s office in City Hall in support of the #NoCopAcademy campaign. This new initiative is protesting the Mayor’s recently unveiled plan to spend $95 million to build a Police and Fire training center in West Garfield Park – a neighborhood that recently closed six schools. The campaign is demanding a redirecting of this $95 million into Chicago’s most marginalized communities. As the campaign’s statement puts it:

Real community safety comes from fully-funded schools and mental health centers, robust after-school and job training programs, and social and economic justice. We want investment in our communities, not expanded resources for police.

While it’s certainly a daunting prospect to organize against a project this massive, it’s important to note that abolitionist organizations have played key roles in some notable political victories over the past several years. We Charge Genocide and Project NIA were integral to the coalition that won a $5.5 million reparations settlement for victims of torture by the Chicago Police Department. Here’s another example: many states across the country use cash bail systems that force poor defendants to remain in jail while awaiting trial – sometimes for months – because they cannot afford to pay their bail. This past summer, Cook County Chief Judge Tim Evans signed an order which will strengthen the directive to judges to set bonds that defendants are actually able to pay. This victory was due in no small part to the organizing efforts of the Chicago Community Bond Fund – a local organization that raises money for people who cannot afford to pay their own bail. The CCBF and other advocates for the abolition of monetary bond continue to monitor courtrooms to ensure judges are complying with the new law.

Critics of abolition invariably say it’s unrealistic and naive to advocate for something so radical – something we know can never and will never happen. To my mind, however, this claim misses the essential point of this movement. Contemporary abolitionists begin by asking the questions: What is the world we wish to see? How would this world promote real collective safety – through armed policing or community investment? How would it handle transgressive behavior – through restorative or retributive justice? After these questions have been fully explored, local community initiatives are created to demonstrate such a world in action. I’m sure many of you are familiar with some of these organizations here in Chicago: the Chicago Childcare Collective, Curt’s Cafe, Circles and Ciphers, the People’s Response Team, the Let Us Breathe Collective and Mothers Against Senseless Killing are just a few examples.

In addition to local initiatives, abolitionist organizations also develop strategies for organizing toward policy change on a wider scale. If you visit the website of the Movement for Black Lives, you will see a plethora of extensive policy recommendations on community control, economic justice, ending the war on black people and more. In the words of the platform: “We recognize that not all of our collective needs and visions can be translated into policy, but we understand that policy change is one of many tactics necessary to move us towards the world we envision.”

Abolitionist thinking thus focuses on the world we are trying to create, not merely the individual problems we are trying to solve. For abolitionists, a vision of the world as it should be is always the starting point. And when you think about it, why not? Why not aim for the world that we want rather than the world that we are willing to settle for? If our starting point is “the ideal is not possible” aren’t we automatically rendering it impossible? At this current moment there are forces in our country who have no compunction about abolishing wholesale the institutions that actually protect the public good. If we ever hope to stand them down we’re going to have to be at least as visionary as they are.

Now I realize that there may be some here who aren’t able or ready to go to this place – who feel the concept is just too extreme. And I’m not standing here making a pitch for us to formally become an abolitionist congregation. But I do think these ideas are at the heart of an immensely important debate. And if there is a congregation anywhere in the country that can have this conversation, I believe it’s Tzedek Chicago.

After all, this isn’t only a political issue – it’s a religious one as well. Jewish tradition, like all religions has a great deal to say about “creating the world we all want to see.” Indeed, one of the most important functions of religion is to assert that another world, a better world is possible – and to help us live our lives in such a way that we may ultimately bring it about.

I would suggest that there is a significant tradition of abolitionist thinking in Judaism. The sabbatical and Jubilee years are perhaps the most prime examples, both of which are commandments that come directly from the Torah. The Sabbatical (or “Shemitah”) year is commanded to be observed every seven years, when all debts are to be forgiven, agricultural lands to lie fallow, private land holdings are open to the commons and basic staples such as food storage and perennial harvests are freely redistributed and made accessible to all. On the Jubilee (the “Yovel”) year, which comes every fiftieth year, all Israelites who had been enslaved during the previous forty nine years are granted their freedom and any properties purchased during that time are returned to their original owners.

There’s been a great deal of rabbinical commentary over the centuries that attempt to explain how something so economically and socially radical could possibly be have been observed. Whether or not this ever was the case, it’s important to note that these commandments are still read, studied and debated in our tradition’s most sacred text. Moreover, they continue to have political impact centuries after they were written. The Liberty Bell, which became the central symbol of the original American abolitionist movement contains the Biblical commandment for the Jubilee year: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” The Jubilee also inspired the debt forgiveness initiative known as Jubilee 2000, which sought to cancel the crippling debts that plague the poorest nations in our world.

I would claim that Shabbat is at heart an abolitionist concept as well. When you think about it, the notion to cease from creative work every seventh day is an exceedingly radical concept. Shabbat essentially commands us to take one day every week to leave the world as we know it and experience the world as it should be. According to traditional liturgy, Shabbat is a day in which there is no “tzarah, ve’yagon, va’anacha” – “distress, pain or mourning.” On the seventh day, the sages teach us, we get to experience a taste of “Olam Ha’ba” – the “world to come.”

In other words, Shabbat is not merely a day of personal rest and replenishment. It’s a day in which we pause from our efforts to change the world so that we may dwell in the world we are praying and working and struggling for: the world as it should be. And when Shabbat ends hopefully we are that much more inspired to make that world a reality.

Just as Shabbat is much more than a long litany of prohibitions, abolitionism is so much more than dismantling of oppressive institutions. In the words of Mariame Kaba, “You can’t just focus on what you don’t want, you have to focus also on what you do want. The world you want to live in is also a positive project of creating new things.”

I’d like to end now with my new version of Psalm 92 – the Song for the Day of Shabbat – to give you a sense of how we might understand these values in spiritual context. We’ve already used this Psalm several times at Tzedek Chicago Shabbat services. I offer it to you now in honor of this Shabbat Yom Kippur 5778:

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.

May this be a new year in which we find the strength to affirm that another world is possible. May that vision keep us going – and may it inspire us to do what we must to make it so.

Amen.