Category Archives: Tisha B’Av

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.

Your Safety is Continually in My Thoughts…

Last week I noted that we are currently in the midst of reading the seven Haftarot of Consolation that follow the Jewish communal mourning of the Tisha B’Av festival. Our prophetic portion this week comes from Isaiah 49:14-51:3 – a prophetic address that begins with these powerful words of comfort:

Can a mother forget her babe, or stop loving the child of her womb?
Even these could forget, but I could not forget you!
Indeed, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your safety is continually in My thoughts.

It is not difficult at all to understand why these words were chosen to be among those that offer the Jewish people consolation in this seven week season. By specifically invoking the divine attribute of rachamim (“motherlove”), this week’s portion suggests that we never truly lose our childhood need for emotional attachment and safety. It also underscores the truth that children are among the most vulnerable members of society and it is thus our sacred duty to ensure their safety – particularly during times of conflict.

As last week, I’d like to take the lead from this season of our consolation and highlight the sacred work being done around the world to provide comfort and healing in the wake of trauma. Taking my cue from the opening words of this week’s portion, I want to introduce you to the good works of a joint Israeli-Palestinian effort called Project CHERISH (Child Rehabilitation Initiative for Safety and Hope.)

Project CHERISH is a multidisciplinary project that focuses on psychological and social rehabilitation created to address the trauma of Israeli and Palestinian children by helping them regain their confidence, their ability to function in daily life, and their hope for the future. (Project CHERISH is particularly notable for its unlikely project partners: the Israel Center for Treatment of Psychotrauma of Herzog Hospital, the Center for Development in Primary Health Care at Al Quds University and the Joint Distribution Committee.)

Wishing you Shabbat blessings of safety and hope…

Comfort in the Wake of Trauma

This evening begins Shabbat Nachamu (“The Shabbat of Consolation”), the Sabbath immediately following the festival of Tisha B’Av. Last week we highlighted our collective experience of pain and loss; beginning this week we begin the road to recovery through the consoling themes of the Haftarah portions chanted during the next several Shabbat services. These reminders will lead us into the High Holidays themselves – the quintessential Jewish expression of healing and hope.

In the wake of Tisha B’Av, Shabbat Nachamu comes to remind us that healing from trauma is not only possible, but inevitable – as long as we become active participants in the healing process. In a sense, it is not enough to affirm healing in our lives and our world: we need to admit that healing from pain and loss involves very real work. Yes, it is painful work, but it if we devote ourselves to it with a faith and commitment, it is truly sacred work.

This Shabbat Nachamu, I’m suggesting we learn about and support the sacred work of healing that is currently being done around the world by organizations that aid those who are traumatized in the wake of violence and war. Though there are many important national and international centers doing this work, I’d like to spotlight the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s Global Trauma Relief Mission. The CMBM Global Trauma Relief Mission has remarkable global reach, treating victims of psychotrauma in such diverse locales as Kosovo, Israel, Gaza, Macedonia, Bosnia, in post – 9/11 New York and the post- Hurricane Katrina Gulf Coast region.

This Shabbat Nachamu and beyond, may we do all we can to bring healing and hope to a too-often traumatized world…

Soul Accounting on Tisha B’Av

One of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about the holiday of Tisha B’Av came in Jerusalem during the summer of 1988. At a vigil sponsored by Shalom Achshav, one speaker (I wish I can remember who) compared Tisha B’Av to the Jewish High Holidays. During the latter, Jewish tradition requires Jews to do a Cheshbon Nefesh Prati (“personal moral accounting”); on Tisha B’Av, however, the Jewish people are commanded to undergo a Cheshbon Nefesh Leumi (“national/collective moral accounting”).

I’ve been thinking about that simple insight a great deal this year. Too often, I think, Tisha B’Av feels like a masochistic exercise in collective self pity – a numbing recitation of a long litany of woe that has befallen the Jewish people over the centuries. To a certain a extent this is certainly justified: more than any other holiday, Tisha B’Av puts the spiritual themes of grief and mourning firmly at the center. But I do believe we do the holiday – and ourselves – a great disservice if we only treat it exclusively as an expression of our communal Jewish pain and angst.

In the midst of the often overwhelming grief of this holiday, it is too easy to forget that Tisha B’Av also asks us to examine the collective responsibility we bear for the misfortunes that befall us. After all, the Rabbis hastened to remind us that the Jewish exile was mipnei chata’einu (“due to our sins”) and the destruction of the Second Temple was a result of the Jewish People’s sinat chinam (“baseless hatred”). In other words, the central question on Tisha B’Av is not “why do these horrible things always happen to us?” but rather, “how have we contributed to our misfortunes?”

Too many of us seem to feel that since we Jews have experienced more than our share of collective tragedy, that we are somehow given a free walk on this question. That to even suggest such a thing is tantamount to blaming the victim. Others choose to turn away from this question because of its troubling theological implications, rejecting outright the notion of a God who would punish in such a fashion.

Still, I believe that we ignore this question at our peril. At the end of the day, Tisha B’Av asks us to reject the notion that the Jewish People are only a victimized people; the passive recipients of injustices meted out against us from time immemorial. If anything, Tisha B’Av reminds us that we bear a collective moral responsibility – that what we do matters in the world, and that our actions have had very real consequences for us as a people. And so on Tisha B’Av we are asked to make a communal moral inventory so that we might better understand the part we play – wittingly or not – in our own history.

In this regard, there is no getting around the fact that there are important political implications to this holiday. Indeed, the questions we might ask about our collective responsibility are more than merely academic. Tisha B’Av demands this collective accounting: how have we contributed to the ongoing crises in our own country and around the world? How have we – as Jews, as Americans, as world citizens – sown the seeds of our own tragedy?

If we are truly able to find honest answers to questions such as these, I can’t help but believe that our collective mourning will eventually give way to a more hopeful future for us all.