Category Archives: Spirituality

Israel and North America: A Tale of Two Judaisms

Nur Shlapobersky / Never Again Action

Observers have long suggested that two radically different visions of Judaism are currently unfolding in the contemporary world: one in Israel and the other in North America. While this isn’t a particularly new phenomenon, I can’t recall a time in which there were both so fully on display as they were last Sunday during the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av – when two very different Jewish communities observed the day in dramatically different fashion.

Tisha B’Av (literally “the 9th of the month of Av”) is a Jewish fast day of quasi-mourning that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In addition to chanting from the Book of Lamentations, Tisha B’Av contains prayers that yearn for the restoration of the Temple. But while traditionally religious Jews characteristically view this mythic restoration in the context of a far-off messianic age, there is a rapidly growing extremist movement in Israel that has been calling for the literal rebuilding of the Temple on the Temple Mount. The Temple movement also advocates the destruction of Muslim shrines – an act that would undeniably result in a violent cataclysm of unthinkable proportions.

Last Sunday, the Temple Mount became a flash point for violence on the day of Tisha B’Av – which happened this year to coincide with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. In anticipation of the day, Temple movement leaders were pushing hard on the Israeli government to upend the status quo and allow them to worship on the site (which is ruled off limits to Jews by Jewish law – and thus the state of Israel.) Eventually, the political pressure from the Temple movement and far-right Israeli politicians caused Prime Minister Netanyahu to cave and allow the extremist worshippers to enter the Temple Mount. In midst of election season, Netanyahu is loath to alienate the extreme rightist voters he has been desperately trying to court.

Thus, on Sunday morning. Temple movement worshippers gathered on the Temple Mount. Later that morning, violence erupted after Muslim worshipers finished their prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. According to reports, police forces fired stun grenades and tear gas canisters after, they claimed, “worshipers began hurling objects at officers and yelling ‘nationalistic remarks.'” The Palestinian Red Crescent said 61 Palestinians were wounded in the clashes, with 15 evacuated to nearby hospitals. The police reported that seven people were arrested.

This then, was how Tisha B’Av was celebrated in Israel this year: a politically emboldened group of Jewish zealots was given license by the Israeli government to provoke violence on a site considered holy by both Jews and Muslims.

(AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Now compare this with Tisha B’Av in the United States, when thousands of American Jews attended immigration protests and vigils in over 60 cities, organized by a broad network of Jewish groups, including Never Again Action, T’ruah, Bend the Arc, Jews for Racial and and Economic Justice, and a myriad of local immigrant justice organizations.

At one of the more substantive actions, more than 1,000 demonstrators sat down in an Amazon store in NYC to protest Amazon’s technology contract with ICE. 40 protesters took arrest, including numerous local area rabbis.  In downtown Los Angeles, members of Southern California’s Jewish community and other immigrant rights advocates held a “Close the Camps” rally at the Metropolitan Detention Center. Here in Illinois, it was my honor to be among the 250 Jews and allies gathered at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee for a Tisha B’Av ceremony that included the chanting from Lamentations, and the recitation of prayers, songs and personal testimonies.

It’s not an understatement to suggest that the nascent Jewish resistance movement embodied by Never Again Action is one of the most remarkable and significant religious-political developments in American Jewish life in generations, as Allison Kaplan Sommer recently pointed out in a feature for Ha’aretz:

Never Again Action’s emergence highlights a growing trend: progressive young American Jews interested in political activism while clearly identifying themselves as Jews – in causes that have no direct link to Judaism. They wear T-shirts with Jewish slogans, sing Hebrew songs and in some cases even conduct prayer wearing kippot and tallit.

Critically, Sommer noted, “the issues that energize such leftist activists have nothing to do with Israel,” adding that “Israel has become a topic that divides their community rather than uniting it, depleting people rather than energizing them.”

I’d suggest that last week’s Tisha B’Av events demonstrated an even deeper dichotomy between these two communities. In Israel, the day was commemorated through a distinctly land-focused, land-centric style of Judaism that ultimately resulted in violence on the Temple Mount. Zionism after all, is an ideology that views the return to the land in real terms, and redemption is not envisioned in a far-off messianic age but through the real time settling of Jews in the land – an act that resulted, and continues to result, in the violent displacement of the Palestinian people.

Given this land-centric focus, it was really only a matter of time before Tisha B’Av became an occasion for viewing the destruction of the Temple as a historic loss that could only be redeemed through its literal rebuilding. It’s particularly notable that the Temple movement, once considered a fringe movement in Israel, is rapidly ascending in political power and is increasingly considered to be an important political bloc by the government of Israel .

By comparison, the diaspora movement of Jewish resistance currently emerging throughout North America regards the destruction of the Temple in mythic – not literal – terms. Note for instance, this pointed description of the Tisha B’Av vigil at the Illinois detention center, taken from its Facebook event page:

Tisha B’Av is a Jewish fast day that honors and mourns the brokenness, loss, and shattered ideals in whose shadow we live every day, symbolized by the destruction of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

This Tisha b’Av we’ll mourn the brokenness of a nation that hunts down, detains and deports immigrants, separates families, cages children and turns away asylum seekers. We will also explore our communal culpability in this tragedy and ask honestly: how do we stand down this causeless hatred?

Here, the destruction of the Temple is not regarded as a literal tragedy/loss, but a mythic moment of brokenness that is embodied by the chronically broken world in which we live. According to this view, redemption occurs not through the quasi-pagan deification of bricks and mortar but through sacred actions of resistance to injustice and oppression. Could there be any greater demonstration of the radical dichotomy between these two fundamentally divergent spiritual approaches?

There is, of course, a much simpler way to describe the difference between these two Tisha B’Av moments: one the one hand, redemption occurs through the physical power of the state while on the other, redemption occurs through resistance to that power. 

Postscript: as of this writing we are receiving news that an ICE police guard has driven a truck into a peaceful crowd of Never Again protesters at a detention center in Rhode Island. 

May the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our day. 

Toward Shabbat Solidarity with Gaza

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Tzedakah saves from death. (Proverbs 10:2)

For religious Jews, Friday is typically devoted to spiritual and practical preparation for the Sabbath. Those who are traditionally observant will spend the morning and afternoon doing their shopping, housecleaning and cooking for Shabbat before sundown. Before Shabbat worship, there is a preliminary service known as Kabbalat Shabbat: a series of Psalms and prayers of welcome that serve as a spiritual precursor to the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. As any Shabbat observant Jew will attest, the sense of spiritual preparation and anticipation that takes place on Friday is deeply imbedded in the sacred rhythm of the Jewish week.

Speaking personally, this sacred rhythm has been disrupted – perhaps even profaned – for me for almost a year now. That is because every Friday afternoon, my news feed is regularly filled with reports of Palestinian civilians killed and maimed by the Israeli military during the protests taking place during the Great March of Return.

Every Erev Shabbat, as I prepare for the most sacred day of the week, I invariably learn that Gazans – including young adults and children – have been shot down by Israeli bullets as they protest hundreds of meters from the Gaza border fences. As of January 2019, Israeli soldiers have killed over 250 people and injured 23,000. Among the injured, many are grievously wounded; the Washington Post recently reported that doctors in Gaza are often unable to deal with such traumatic injuries because  Israel’s crushing blockade has left hospitals “overwhelmed and understaffed.”

Of course there is rarely a mention of these weekly events in the mainstream media – and when there is, news reports often treat the Palestinian demonstrators as the instigators of “violent clashes.” For its part, the Jewish communal establishment greets these crimes with silence at best and justification at worst – as if it is perfectly justifiable to regularly shoot down unarmed protesters with live gunfire.

I sometimes wonder if there are other Jews out there like me, whose personal preparation for Shabbat is regularly violated by the events transpiring every Friday afternoon along the Gaza border. Who approach Shabbat with an increasing sense of dread, often followed by anguish at the news of Gazans killed and injured by a military that acts in the name of the Jewish people. Who ask: how can we possibly prepare for this sacred weekly occasion as a Jewish army shoots down unarmed civilians for their “crime” of protesting for their human rights?

I have to believe there are other Jews for whom these weekly massacres at the Gaza border represent not only a human rights concern by an inherently spiritual violation and a profound moral/religious challenge. I would go as far as to say it is an aveirah – a religious transgression – for Jews to greet Shabbat without some kind of meaningful acknowledgement of what has been transpiring every week at the Gaza border.

What might this acknowledgement look like? A few thoughts occur to me: Since mourning rituals are traditionally lifted on Shabbat, we might pause before Shabbat candle lighting and mention the names of those who may have been killed or wounded in that week’s protest. Another idea: as it is traditional to give tzedekah before Friday night candle lighting by placing coins in a pushke – a tzedakah collection box – we could make giving tzedakah to a Gazan relief organization part of our weekly preparation for Shabbat. Such organizations might include the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine (UNRWA), Doctors with Borders, or American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA).

In the Talmud, there is a famous rabbinic discussion of the line from Proverbs, “Tzedakah saves from death.” According to the plainest meaning of this verse, this means simply that charity has the very real potential to save lives. This kind of attitude, however, represents the noblesse oblige approach to giving: i.e., that those who have more have the responsibility to give to those who are less fortunate than they.

Such a view betrays the very meaning of the word “tzedakah,” which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “justice.” Indeed, if tzedakah has the force of justice behind it, then it cannot simply be left to the whims and choices of those who might be feeling “charitable.” It is rather, an obligation for all people to right the wrongs that abound in our world. All the more so in the case of Gaza, which is not so much humanitarian crisis as an injustice created by one powerful nation state that seeks to control a population by blockading it inside a virtual open air prison.

I have no illusions that giving tzedakah at the onset of Shabbat will on its own save the people of Gaza. And I do not want to endorse it as a kind of “indulgence” to assuage the guilt of those who don’t want to enter into Shabbat burdened by the thought of this terrible and ongoing human tragedy. Rather, I’m suggesting this new weekly practice as a way to do the work of justice as a regular discipline – and to make our final act of the week an act of solidarity with a people who are suffering from injustice committed by those purporting to be acting in our name.

So here’s my suggestion: let’s make justice for Gaza part of our weekly regimen as we prepare for Shabbat. May this act of conscience contribute all the more to Kedushat Hayom (“the holiness of the day”). And may we emerge from this day of renewal that much more inspired to fight for a world in which justice is extended to all who dwell upon it.

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to order.

A Jewish Prayer for Nakba Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

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

Inspire us to make a full accounting
of the wrongdoing that was
committed in our name.

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

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

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

Ve’nomar
and let us say,
Amen.

A Seder Supplement for Passover 5778: “The 10 Sacred Acts of Liberation”

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Here’s the introduction to my new Passover seder supplement, designed to be used alongside or instead of the 10 Plagues section. Click here for the entire text to print out and read at your seder table this year. (Click here, here, here and here for supplements I’ve written in previous years.)

In the traditional seder, we are instructed to take one drop of wine for our cups to “reduce our joy” over the pain God inflicted upon the Egyptian people through the 10 plagues. Tonight, we choose to increase our joy by taking a sip of wine as we acknowledge 10 sacred acts of liberation we learn from the Exodus story. May we heed these lessons in every generation!

New for Passover: “Your Child Will Ask”

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Photo:Marko Djurica/Reuters

Your child will ask
why do we observe this festival?

And you will answer
it is because of what God did for us
when we were set free from the land of Egypt.

Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might hold tightly
to the pain of our enslavement
with a mighty hand?

And you will answer
we were set free from Egypt
that we might release our pain
by reaching with an outstretched arm
to all who struggle for freedom.

Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
because we are God’s chosen people?

And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
so that we will finally come to learn
all who are oppressed
are God’s chosen.

Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might conquer and settle
a land inhabited by others?

And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
that we might open wide the doors
to proclaim:

Let all who are dispossessed return home.
Let all who wander find welcome at the table.
Let all who hunger for liberation
come and eat.

What Will We Make Different this Year? A Guest Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur by Jay Stanton

neilah art wohl

Here is the guest sermon that was delivered by Tzedek Chicago member Jay Stanton at our Erev Yom Kippur service last Tuesday night:

Why is this night different from all other nights? I know – wrong holiday. Bear with me. Why is the Day of Atonement different from all other nights?

I] Asking permission

Tonight is the only time we ask permission to pray with other wrongdoers. When actively atoning, we easily acknowledge our wrongdoings. Each of us has transgressed. Today is the most obvious day to pray with transgressors. So why ask permission? Acknowledging our capacity to inflict harm could render us speechless, unable to continue repenting. Giving ourselves permission, having God grant us permission, gives us the courage to confront our failing selves. Is not confronting the self the goal of Yom Kippur?

In our Tzedek community, we face two major obstacles to achieving this goal. The first is feeling we have little merit. A few months ago, my friend Kelvin and I came to an intersection while walking. A car was coming, but there was a stop sign, so I stepped into the intersection, and Kelvin followed hesitantly. After we crossed, Kelvin confessed that, as a Black man, he cannot assume cars will stop for him even at a stop sign. I acknowledged my white privilege and thanked Kelvin for alerting me to this instance of it, of which I was previously unaware. Kelvin thanked me for being aware of my privilege.

From this interaction, Kelvin gained an ally; I gained guilt. How could I, someone actively engaged in antiracist work, be so oblivious to this white privilege? But my awareness of my privilege was enough for Kelvin that day. Our sense of immense guilt over our sins, collective and individual, could paralyze us. How do we move forward with teshuvah when the task is so great?

The other major obstacle we face is potential denial. We created our core values of a Judaism beyond borders, a Judaism of solidarity, a Judaism of nonviolence, a Judaism of spiritual freedom, a Judaism of equity, a Judaism beyond nationalism. We value these just ideals, so we could easily say: therefore, we practice a Judaism beyond borders, a Judaism of solidarity, a Judaism of nonviolence, a Judaism of spiritual freedom, a Judaism of equity, a Judaism beyond nationalism. We did teshuvah for the harms of border-obsessed Judaisms, insular Judaisms, violent Judaisms, coercive Judaisms, oppressive Judaisms, and nationalist Judaisms. We’re done now: we put justice on the agenda and only act justly. Anyone complaining of injustice in our ranks is wrong.

The fear of that outcome weighs heavily on many of us. Are we destined to abandon our values, or, worse, to become some dystopian entity talking justice while perpetuating injustice? I don’t share this fear, and my reason is not because I optimistically see Tzedek as a utopia immune from injustice or a meritocracy of the most righteous folks in the Chicago area. I do not think we can adhere to our core values completely. We will miss the mark. Even behaving our best, we were socialized in systems of oppression which we cannot leave at the door because we wish. We are still unlearning Islamophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, ableism, heterosexism, Ashkenormativity, militarism, capitalism, and nationalist exceptionalism, to name a few. We cannot completely unlearn these biases. So we will be wrong; we know that. That’s the best possible news for us going into Yom Kippur.

II] Tallit

We are practiced at calling out harmful behavior. The Rev. Stacy Alan teaches that defining sin abstractly is impossible, but that we all get the concept of “messing up.” Tokheja, rebuke, is the prerequisite for meaningful teshuvah. Understanding our wrongs is the only way we can amend our behavior.

We are also committed to becoming more just. As a new community, we are in danger of creating margins. Some people are in the center and some pushed to the edges. Tzedek, however, has another structure in mind. Brant asking me to speak tonight demonstrates this structure. No one would begrudge Brant speaking. We might learn something more interesting, and, we, most of all me, might prefer it. At Tzedek, we each have a say. How many Jewish communities are being addressed tonight by a young, less-than-able-bodied, Sephardic, transgender recovering addict who grew up in an interfaith household? In any other community I would be on the fringe, as I am also here. At Tzedek, Brant is on the fringe, too. We will function best if all at the margin, mimicking this garment, this tallit, evening wear traditionally only this night. The tzitzit, the fringes, are the parts that remind us to engage in mitzvot. At Tzedek, we strive to live at the edge, on the fringe of the community. We are not creating an insular circle, but facing outward, like tzitzit. That way, we avoid a power and oppression dynamic, and we have enough of a marginal perspective that we can call out injustice within our walls. The edge here defines the center, not the reverse.

III] Jacob and Esau

A good structure means little without substance. We need not to only identify injustice but also work to correct it. We need to do our part. We need to take Yom Kippur seriously; we need to take the project of teshuvah seriously.

Again, we face obstacles. Traditionally, the Yom Kippur liturgy dances between two problematic theologies of an authoritarian deity: one, a strict adherent of reward and punishment, and the other, a completely arbitrary megalomaniac. How can we reconcile our knowledge of justice with these concepts of the Divine?

So we are doing liturgy differently at Tzedek. Tomorrow, we will not read from the passage in Leviticus which describes the ancient practice of transferring our sins onto goats and arbitrarily killing one and sending the other away. We know we cannot make teshuvah by putting our sins onto any scapegoat. Instead, we will read the passage in Genesis about Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. With themes of generosity, transformation, and moving forward from wrongs done without revising or denying past harms, this text reflects the kind of teshuvah we wish to do. It provides hope for intractable conflicts to be resolved justly. We will read about a moment so transformative it turned Jacob from a conniving person into a gentle one. We want that for ourselves. Why is this Yom Kippur different from all other days? Because we can find an example of teshuvah in our text we wish to emulate.

Many say we can’t do this. We can’t establish a Jewish community beyond borders or nationalism, and we certainly can’t change the liturgy or Torah reading for the day. After all, hasn’t it been that way for thousands of years? To them, and to those of us who might be wondering if we should hedge more, I offer this history. Amram Gaon, a 9th century Spanish sage, called the recitation of kol nidre a minhag shetut – a foolish custom. Why? Even though the prayer was already beloved, it encouraged problematic thinking that we can escape responsibility for transgressions with a contract rider on the Covenant. Amram Gaon knew sins don’t transfer to goats and a string of words doesn’t negate injustice we cause. Changing ritual to conform to Jewish values isn’t new.

In tomorrow’s text, we identify with both twins. Jacob victimized Esau. He erred when he stole Esau’s birthright. But we root for Jacob in this reconciliation – not because of lineage but because we know a deep truth. God is the ally of those who seek forgiveness. The story makes us more inclined to forgive and to believe we can be forgiven. Because we are forgiven, for the record. The biggest spoiler in Jewish liturgy is vayomer Adonai salajti kidvarekha. God says I forgive you as I promised. But Jacob messed up. We get the guilt that lives in Jacob’s heart because it lives in ours. Even after we make amends or especially if we cannot, we need God’s help letting go. If our part is making teshuvah, the Lady Magnificent must forgive.

IV] Ne’ilah as protest

Normally, we view Yom Kippur as an end to a process of reflection. This year, Yom Kippur is a beginning. We can use the day of prayer to take stock of our sins. What would we say about our behavior if we had a marginal perspective? What needs to change for us individually and collectively to help us decrease injustice in the coming year? How will we respond when we mess up? When others do?

When we come to ne’ilah tomorrow as the sun sets on this Day of Atonement, let’s be radical. We usually take the idea that the gates of repentance will close as the impetus to finish faster, higher, stronger – to be Olympic penitents.   Instead, we should see it as a call to action. When we read:

פתח לנו שער בעת נעילת שער כי פנה יום. היום יפנה השמשה יבוא ויפנה נבואה שעריך.

Instead of reading it as a lament about the gates closing: Open the gate for us even though the gate is closing because a day turns. Today will pass, the sun will come and set, before it does, please let us enter the gates. Otherwise we’ll be stuck outside – guilty. Instead of reading it that way, let us read it as an exhortation to a Powerful Boss holed up in a gated estate. Ne’ilah is a sit-in, and this is our chant: Keep the gate open for us even at the imposed curfew time, when the day turns to night. We don’t care that today will pass, that the sun comes and goes, we will enter the gates!

When the sun sets tomorrow, we need to occupy Heaven. This won’t require occupying the Luther Memorial Church, but it will require calling out God to make repentance and transformation Her foremost priority not only on Yom Kippur but every day. Our covenantal benefits are not enough. Guaranteed forgiveness on one day a year out of more than 300? That’s less than 1% of the time. We need a better contract. We need better working conditions for creating God’s justice on Earth. We need a more involved, more present, more compassionate boss! We need fewer arbitrary injustices. Life outcomes for teenage boys in Chicago depend on whether the boy is Black. In the West Bank, they depend on whether the boy is Palestinian. And how about less injustice? We didn’t meet our own expectations this year, but why didn’t God soften the hearts of the Pharaohs, free the captive, uplift the fallen? When Jacob wrestled with the man the night before reconciliation with Esau, he did not let the man go until the man gave him a blessing. Similarly, we can’t let God go until She accepts everyone’s teshuvah, which might be until some people are ready to change. So tomorrow night, let’s occupy Heaven.

Strike that (pun intended)! The gates are open now. Let’s move in with our permission to pray with sinners, and let’s extend the opportunity for repentance until those with blood on their hands (literal or symbolic) repent. Let all who lost hope they can change, that those around them can change, enter the gates! Let all who are hungry for justice enter the gates! Let all who are thirsty for forgiveness enter the gates! We transgressors will keep them open until God grants the pardon She promised.

Tzom kal. May your fast be physically easy and spiritually meaningful.