Lamentation for a New Diaspora

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photo credit: NateHallinan.com

I’ve just written a new poetic take on Lamentations, the Biblical book traditionally read on the Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av (The Ninth of Av). The context of Lamentations is fall of the 1st Temple and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE; it is at once a funeral dirge for the fallen city, a lament over the communal fate of the people, a confession of the collective sins that led to their downfall and a plea to God to rescue them from their dismal fate.

When all five chapters of Lamentations are chanted on Tisha B’Av, its impact can feel shattering. Taken as a whole, it might be said that this epic lament has the raw power of a primal scream. As Biblical scholar Adele Berlin has described it:

The book’s language is highly poetic and extraordinarily moving. Even though often stereotypical, it effectively portrays the violence and suffering of the events. The experiences of warfare, siege, famine, and death are individualized, in a way that turns the natural into the unnatural or anti-natural—brave men are reduced to begging, mothers are unable to nourish their children and resort to cannibalism. The book’s outpouring is addressed to God, so that God may feel the suffering of his people, rescue them, and restore them to their country and to their former relationship with him. The entire book may be thought of as an appeal for God’s mercy. Yet God remains silent.

According to the Mishnah (an early rabbinic era legal text), Tisha B’v commemorates five historical calamities that befell the Jewish people, including the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples, and the crushing of the Bar Kochba rebellion. Over the centuries many other historical cataclysms have been added to be to be mourned on this day as well (including the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the beginning of World War I in 1914). Although Lamentations was originally written to address a historically specific context, it’s popularity over the centuries testifies to a uniquely timeless quality.

While Lamentations is an expression of Jewish communal loss, this new version places these themes in a universal 21st century context, set in a not-too-distant future that I fervently hope shall never come to pass. In this reimagining, it is less an elegy for what was lost than a spiritual/poetic warning about a cataclysm that may be yet to come if our world does not turn from the perilous path we are currently traveling.

May the grief of this Tisha B’Av give us all the strength to fight for the world that somehow still might be.

Click here for the pdf. Feel free to share.

For Tisha B’Av: A Lamentation for Gaza

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This Monday night begins the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av: a day of mourning for the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people over the centuries. Among other things, the traditional Tisha B’Av liturgy includes the chanting Biblical book of  Lamentations.

Given the profoundly tragic events currently unfolding in Gaza, I offer this reworking of the first chapter of Lamentations.  I share it with the hope that on this day of mourning we might also mourn the mounting dead in Gaza – along with what Israel has become…

A Lamentation for Gaza

Gaza weeps alone.
Bombs falling without end
her cheeks wet with tears.
A widow abandoned
imprisoned on all sides
with none willing to save her.

We who once knew oppression
have become the oppressors.
Those who have been pursued
are now the pursuers.
We have uprooted families
from their homes, we have
driven them deep into
this desolate place,
this narrow strip of exile.

All along the roads there is mourning.
The teeming marketplaces
have been bombed into emptiness.
The only sounds we hear
are cries of pain
sirens blaring
drones buzzing
bitterness echoing
into the black vacuum
of homes destroyed
and dreams denied.

We have become Gaza’s master
leveling neighborhoods
with the mere touch of a button
for her transgression of resistance.
Her children are born into captivity
they know us only as occupiers
enemies to be feared
and hated.

We have lost all
that once was precious to us.
This fatal attachment to our own might
has become our downfall.
This idolatrous veneration of the land
has sent us wandering into
a wilderness of our own making.

We have robbed Gaza of
her deepest dignity
plunged her into sorrow and darkness.
Her people crowd into refugee camps
held captive by fences and buffer zones
gunboats, mortar rounds
and Apache missles.

We sing of Jerusalem,
to “a free people in their own land”
but our song has become a mockery.
How can we sing a song of freedom
imprisoned inside behind walls we have built
with our own fear and dread?

Here we sit clinging to our illusions
of comfort and security
while we unleash hell on earth
on the other side of the border.
We sit on hillsides and cheer
as our explosions light up the sky
while far below, whole neighborhoods
are reduced to rubble.

For these things I weep:
for the toxic fear we have unleashed
from the dark place of our hearts
for the endless grief
we are inflicting
on the people of Gaza.

Israel in Gaza: A Statement by the JVP Rabbinical Council

photo: AFP: Menahem Kahana

photo: AFP: Menahem Kahana

Cross-posted with The Palestinian Talmud

We are currently amidst “the three weeks” – the annual Jewish period of quasi-mourning that leads to the fast day of Tisha B’Av. This is the season that bids us to look deeply into the soul of our community and examine the ways that our sinat chinam – baseless hatred – has led to our communal downfall.

Driven by the spirit of this season, we cannot help but speak out in response to the horrific loss of life currently taking place in Gaza, at the hands of the Israeli military. We deplore the Israeli government’s military crackdown in the West Bank that led to its lethal, military onslaught on the people of Gaza.  We mourn the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, including children.

We condemn Hamas’ rockets attacks on Israel and are deeply grieved by the anxiety, injury and death they have caused. But we cannot view this as a war between two equal sides. Israel has unlimited hi-tech weaponry; it dominates Gazan airspace, its borders, its utilities and economy.

Moreover, it was Israel who willfully launched this mission of death on the Palestinian people. Israel hides behind the pretext of avenging the still unsolved kidnapping and killing of three Jewish boys. Rather than seeking recourse through civil, legal means, Israel’s leaders have called for vengeance, with terrible consequences.

We can not stand idly by as the Jewish State acts with such wanton disregard, with such sinat chinam, for the humanity of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, children and elders of Gaza.

As Jews, we abhor the abuse of human rights that are standard practice of our fellow Jews in the Israeli government and Israeli military. This is not the path of justice.

As rabbis, we must speak out against collective punishment, the blowing up homes of innocent people, the terrorizing of an entire people, and the killing of innocent children.

This Jewish season asks us to engage in a collective moral accounting; to reckon seriously with the ways our own failings have historically led to our communal downfall. Mindful of this spiritual imperative, we call upon the government of Israel to end its military onslaught, which we believe will only lead to more tragedy for Jews and Palestinians alike.

We stand with all people of conscience who reject the ways of militarism and occupation and who seek a path to a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.

*Statements of the JVP Rabbinical Council represent the council as a whole but not necessarily individual members

Israel on the 17th of Tammuz: Confronting the Enemy Within

Cross-posted with Tikkun Daily:

Yesterday the Jewish world observed the fast day known as Shiv’ah Asar Be’Tammuz, (the 17th of Tammuz), a communal day of quasi-mourning that commemorates among other things, the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Roman army in 70 CE, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Interestingly enough, the 17th of Tammuz – as well as the upcoming fast day of Tisha B’Av – is not so much a day of anger directed toward our enemies, as much as an occasion for soul searching over the ways our own behavior too often leads to our downfall. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b), for instance, the fall of the First Temple was due to the idolatry while the destruction of the Second Temple was caused by sinat chinam – the “baseless hatred” of Jew against Jew.

I would submit that this year, the 17th of Tammuz has an all-too-tragic resonance, particularly given the internecine violence currently being waged on Israeli streets. Case in point: this past Saturday in Tel Aviv, in which hundreds of peaceful anti-war protesters were set upon by a violent mob whipped up by popular right-wing Israeli rapper Yoav Eliasi (whose stage name is “The Shadow.”)

According to reports in the Israeli press, Eliasi and his followers angrily confronted and intimidated demonstrators – and when an air raid siren caused the crowd to disperse, they chased them through the streets and attacked them with clubs. During the melee, the sky lit up as a Gazan missile was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.

In an extensive post for +972mag, Israeli journalist Haggai Matar reported that one demonstrator had a chair broken over his head and had to be evacuated to hospital. Others were punched, pushed, had eggs thrown at them or were attacked with pepper spray. According to witnesses, police did little to stop the violence and in the end, no arrests were made. (The Shadow later bragged about the support of Israeli police on his Facebook page.)

In what is undoubtedly the most deeply disturbing aspect of this entire affair was the discovery that some of the right-wing thugs who attacked the demonstrators wore T-shirts bearing a popular neo-Nazi symbol. According to a report in Ha’aretz:

As shown on journalist Tal Schneider’s Hebrew-language blog, some of the right-wingers wore T-shirts bearing the slogan “Good night left side.”

Neo-Nazis in Europe wear shirts with this phrase, which accompanies an image of a man attacking a left-wing activist, denoted by a star or anarchy symbol. The online store Final Resistance offers clothing bearing neo-Nazi slogans – popular attire at rock concerts by far-right bands.

If you’re still incredulous, check out this image below, from the Facebook page Occupy Judaism:

In a scathing editorial, Ha’aretz laid the blame on ultra-nationalist Israeli politicians for inciting and encouraging this ominously rising violence and for refusing “to internalize the real danger inherent in the type of violence displayed on Saturday.”  This is, indeed, one of the central messages of the 17th of Tammuz: for all of the concern about our external enemies, we ignore the dangers growing within our own community at our peril.

I can think of no more sobering example than this recent instance of Jews in fascist regalia violently attacking peaceful Jewish anti-war demonstrators while a missile launched out of Gaza literally explodes over their heads.

On the Trayvon Martin Verdict and the “National Conversation”

photo credit: Boston Herald

photo credit: Boston Herald

A few thoughts in the wake of Tisha B’Av yesterday…

According to Jewish tradition the Second Temple was destroyed because of the Jewish people’s sinat chinam – or “baseless hatred.”  On Tisha B’Av we affirm that isn’t enough to simply mark our collective tragedies and mourn our collective losses. We must honestly own the ways our own prejudices and intolerance have contributed to these losses.

I was particularly mindful of this spiritual insight this year, as Tisha B’Av followed directly on the heels of the Trayvon Martin verdict and the communal soul-searching it sparked on racism in America. Indeed, more than once over the past several days we’ve heard politicians and pundits call for yet another “national conversation on race.”  Witness Attorney General Eric Holder’s post-verdict remarks:

Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe that this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised. We must not – as we have too often in the past – let this opportunity pass.

This isn’t the first time, of course, that we’ve heard the call for such a conversation. I distinctly remember President Bill Clinton making just such a call back in 1997.  It was actually considered fairly controversial at the time  – sad to say we haven’t made much headway in the conversation over the past 17 years.

I don’t mean to be facetious about this. Part of the problem, I think, is that I’m not sure anyone really knows what something as monumental as a “national conversation” would actually look like, particularly on a subject as profoundly charged as race.  Though I hesitate to say so, in some ways I think this call does more harm than good. While I do believe in the importance of dialogue, I can’t help but think that the constant call for communal conversation on race mostly serves to help us to feel better while we dodge the deeper infrastructural realities of racism in America.

While we regularly call for “conversation,” for instance, hard facts such as these continue to go chronically unaddressed:

– Prison sentences of black men are nearly 20% longer than those of white men convicted of similar crimes;

– While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned;

– While people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, they have higher rate of arrests;

– Voter laws that prohibit people with felony convictions from voting  disproportionately impact men of color.

And the list of shameful statistics goes on and on…

This litany, quite frankly, is nothing short of institutional sinat chinam. And at the end of the day, its going to take much more than dialogue it we’re going to take down the patently unjust and racist laws that oppress people of color in our country.  In this regard, I’d claim national conversation is only truly valuable inasmuch as it leads to real socio-political transformation and change.

So where do we start?  Why not with the “Stand Your Ground” laws, one of which egregiously allowed a man go free after stalking and shooting an unarmed African-American teenager?  It’s critically important that we know that history of laws such this, many of which have been long been pushed through legislatures by the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and have subsequently been spreading across the country:

Ostensibly a network of state legislators, ALEC is a shadowy, $7 million-a-year organization funded by powerful corporate interests like the Koch brothers, Big Oil, and Big Tobacco.  The NRA has been a longtime financial supporter and served as the corporate co-chair of the ALEC Criminal Justice Task Force, voting with legislators on “model” bills.  Through ALEC, special interests groups like the NRA push their dream legislation through state legislatures. Wal-Mart was corporate co-chair of ALEC task
force approving FL’s “Shoot First” bill as a “model” for other states. The NRA was the next co-chair of that ALEC committee.

According to PR Watch’s Brendan Fischer, ALEC’s influence has has been behind other racially discriminatory legislation as well:

ALEC’s connections to those issues are not limited to Stand Your Ground. The group was instrumental in pushing “three strikes” and “truth in sentencing” laws that in recent decades have helped the U.S. incarcerate more human beings than any other country, with people of color making up 60 percent of those incarcerated. At the same time ALEC was pushing laws to put more people in prison for more time, they were advancing legislation to warehouse them in for-profit prisons, which would benefit contemporaneous ALEC members like the Corrections Corporation of America.ALEC has also played a key role in the spread of restrictive voter ID legislation that would make it harder to vote for as many as ten million people nationwide — largely people of color and students — who do not have the state-issued identification cards the laws require.

If you’d like to engage in action as well as conversation, you can click here to sign a petition urging Attorney General Holder to “review the application of Stand Your Ground laws nationwide and the importance of their repeal.”

And if you live in or around Chicago, I encourage you to join me and other activists of conscience at the ALEC Exposed Protest Rally, which will take place outside ALEC’s 40th Anniversary Conference on Thursday, August 8 at 12 noon.

I hope I’ll see you there.

Meditations on Tisha B’Av 5770

The Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av starts this evening. Some thoughts:

– According to Jewish tradition the Second Temple was destroyed because of the Jewish people’s sinat chinam – baseless hatred. In other words, it isn’t enough to simply mark our collective tragedies and mourn our collective losses. We must honestly own the ways our own prejudices and intolerance have contributed to these losses.

What does this mean for us today? Tisha B’Av is not only a day to mourn the past – it is a day in which we face the ways in which our sinat chinam gives rise to tragedy in our own day and age.

– While the destruction of the Second Temple represents a profound mythic loss for the Jewish people, we cannot deny that it also gave birth to Jewish tradition as we know it. Because of the churban (“destruction”), Judaism ceased to be a Jerusalem-based sacrificial cult and became a diaspora-based world religion predicated upon study, prayer and acts of compassion.

In other words, the tragedy of the churban contained the seeds of a Jewish rebirth.  What does this teach us? If we only regard Tisha B’Av as an occasion of unmitigated collective grief, then our observance of this day is incomplete. At its essence, the ninth of Av is a day for identifying the ways that our losses invariably point the way to life renewed.

Flesh of Our Flesh?

isaiah_58Learn to do good, seek justice; relieve the oppressed. Uphold the orphan’s rights; take up the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:17)

This classic verse comes from the Haftarah portion for this Shabbat. It is the final so-called “Haftarah of affliction” coming annually on the Shabbat before the festival of Tisha B’Av. Beginning next week our prophetic portions will offer messages of consolation, reminding us that the path of return to righteousness is always open to us. Indeed, it is this very message that will guide us into the High Holiday season itself –  the season of our return.

As I read this passage this year, I was mindful of a very similar passage that will appear in the Haftarah of Yom Kippur, also from the book of Isaiah:

No, this is the fast that I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of lawlessness; to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; to clothe when you see the naked, and never forget your own flesh (Isaiah 58:6-7).

In a way, these two similar Isaiah passages seem to represent spiritual bookends to the High Holiday season. These characteristically prophetic calls to justice and repentance guide us through our High Holiday journey, reminding us not only of our seemingly chronic hypocrisy but also of the eternally simple route to return: “learn to do good, free the oppressed, feed the hungry…”

As many of you know, our recently organized Fast for Gaza has cited Isaiah 58 as a kind of spiritual prooftext to our initiative. As it turns out, ever since we’ve launched this project I’ve been in a kind of dialogue with more than one correspondent over this particular verse. Several people have already written to me that we’ve misinterpreted Isaiah. It appears that for some, calling a Jewish fast in support of Gazan Palestinians rather than Jewish Israelis represents a betrayal of this prophetic imperative (not to mention the Jewish people.)  As one writer put it, “never forget your own flesh” means “charity begins at home.”

This criticism motivated me to do a bit of digging into the source material.  As it turns out the Hebrew word for “your flesh” – b’sarcha – can indeed refer to blood relations or kin. But interestingly, according to the Brown, Driver, Briggs Biblical Dictionary (p. 142), this term can also mean “all living beings” (occurring in this usage at least 13 times throughout the Bible.)

So, in fact, there is good, solid linguistic evidence to reject this narrow, tribal reading of Isaiah.  Now I’m certainly willing to admit that this passage might have referred only to fellow Israelites when it was originally written. But today we live in a fundamentally different time than the ancient Israelites. In our globalized, post-modern world, the Jewish community has become inter-dependent with others in profound and unprecedented ways.  Whether we are prepared to admit it or not, our Jewish security, our Jewish destiny is now irrevocably bound up with the destiny of all peoples and nations of the world.

I am well aware that this viewpoint represents a distinctly 21st century Torah. I also have no illusions that it will be a simple matter for the Jewish community to heed this call. Having only recently emerged from the ghetto, still living with a collective memory of anti-Semitism, still reeling from the trauma of the Holocaust, it will necessitate a radical shift in consciousness to understanding our place in the world in such a way.

It will not be easy, but I believe it will be essential.  It can no longer be us against them. At the end of the day, we are all one flesh.