Category Archives: Tzedek Chicago

Atoning for Gaza: A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5779

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

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

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

Since that time, of course, much has happened in Gaza. They’ve initiated the Great Return March, a popular protest action which has taken place weekly along their eastern border with Israel. Since the first day of the march last spring, the mostly nonviolent demonstrators have consistently been met by live fire from the Israeli military. To date, 170 Palestinians have been killed and tens of thousands wounded and maimed, most of them unarmed demonstrators, including children, medics and bystanders. Over the summer, Israel has also bombarded Gaza with its most sustained military assault since 2014, destroying numerous civilian targets, including the Said al-Mishal Cultural Center in Gaza City.

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

I do believe these debates are important as far as they go – but only up to a point. For one thing, it seems to me, these arguments too often end up fetishizing Gaza and Gazans, describing them either as murderous terrorists, helpless pawns of Hamas or poor, passive victims. Since most people only tend to think of Gaza when the bombs are falling and the bullets flying, this is generally about as far as its public image tends to go. Gaza becomes an objectified symbol of people’s fears, their political agendas and their own internalized prejudices.

So today, I’m going to try to do my best not to give that sermon. Instead, I’d like to offer you some thoughts and impressions based on my own experiences and on my growing personal relationship with Gazans. I’d also like share a little bit of Gaza’s culture and history with you. Information is virtually unknown to most of the world but is I believe, critical if we want to understand Gaza in a three dimensional, non-objectified way. And finally, apropos of this Yom Kippur, I’d like to explore what I believe is the moral and religious challenge Gaza presents to us Jews, as Americans and as people of conscience.

I’ll begin with a little geography. What we call the “Gaza strip” constitutes a 140 square mile piece of land on the southeastern Mediterranean coast. While we generally think of “Gaza” as this one little crowded land mass, is was historically actually part of a much larger Gazan territory that has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. In ancient times it enjoyed extensive commerce and trade with the outside world – difficult to imagine given Gaza’s current state of economic and social isolation. But once upon a time, Gaza was a major port and an important stop along the Spice and Incense Route. As such, it was located at a significant cultural crossroad, connecting a wide variety of different civilizations over the centuries.

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

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

As the authors write:

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

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

The so-called “Gaza strip” was created in 1949, when it became a repository for a flood of Palestinian refugees from cities and villages in the coastal plain and lower Galilee. Before the outset of war, the population of this small region numbered 60 to 80,000. By the end of the hostilities, at least 200,000 refugees were crowded into what we call today the Gaza Strip. The borders of the strip were drawn arbitrarily, determined by the position of Egyptian and Israeli forces when the ceasefire was announced. It ended up being smaller by at least a third than the entire area of the Gaza District during the mandate period.

At the time, most of the refugees fully expected to return home – some could even see their towns and villages through the fences. Those who crossed the border to gather their possessions or harvest their crops were considered “infiltrators” by Israel and shot on sight. Eventually, it became all too clear there would be no return. Over the years the tents turned into concrete buildings that grew ever higher in that narrow corridor. The numbers of that once sparse territory has grown to a population today of almost 2,000,000 people.

Given this context, it was natural that Gaza would become a center for the Palestinian resistance movement. We know from history that when a people are oppressed, they will inevitably resist their oppression. And yes, sometimes that resistance will be violent in nature. As early as the 1950s, groups of Palestinians known as “fedayeen” crossed over the border to stage violent attacks in the surrounding settlements.

One of these attacks offers an important insight into the course of Gaza’s history in ways that reverberate for us even today. In 1956, a group of fedayeen entered a field in Kibbutz Nahal Oz and killed a kibbutznik named Roi Rotenberg. The famed Israeli general Moshe Dayan spoke at his funeral – and during his eulogy he expressed himself with brutal and unexpected honesty:

Do not today besmirch the murderers with accusations. Who are we that we should bewail their mighty hatred of us? For eight years they sit in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled…

This we know: that in order that the hope to destroy us should die we have to be armed and ready, morning and night. We are a generation of settlement, and without a steel helmet and the barrel of a cannon we cannot plant a tree and build a house. Our children will not live if we do not build shelters, and without a barbed wire fence and a machine gun we cannot pave a road and channel water. The millions of Jews that were destroyed because they did not have a land look at us from the ashes of Israelite history and command us to take possession of and establish a land for our nation.

When I read Dayan’s comments today, I find them to be unbearably tragic – particularly when you consider how much time has elapsed since they were spoken. We have only to change the number of years in Dayan’s speech and the leave the rest intact: “For seventy years they’ve sat in refugee camps in Gaza, and opposite their gaze we appropriate for ourselves as our own portion the land and the villages in which they and their fathers dwelled.”

It’s clear that the descendants of the original Gazan refugees have lost none of their ancestors desire for return. Most of them know full well where their ancestral homes and fields are located, in some cases just a few miles from where currently live. As in other parts of Palestine, the memory of home and the desire for return are a palpable part of Gazan culture. I experienced this in a simple yet powerful way during my visit to Gaza last year. One afternoon, as we traveled north along the coast from Rafah to Gaza City, I noticed a series of colorful concrete benches along the beachfront. My colleague Ali translated the Arabic words on the backs of each bench, pointing out that each one bore the name of a Palestinian city or town where Gazans lived prior to 1948.

It’s not difficult to grasp the sacred significance of these simple seaside benches to the refugees of Gaza. Unlike most memorials, which commemorate what was lost and is never to be found, I’d wager that those who come to these beaches don’t believe their home cities and villages to be lost at all. On the contrary, I believe these benches testify that these places are still very real to them. And to their faith that they will one day return home.

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

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

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

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

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

Except they are not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Arc of the Moral Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Reagan signed the bill into law, he said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gaza and the High Holidays

great-return-march

My weekly message to congregants at Tzedek Chicago:

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

One passage in particular continues to haunt me:

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

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

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

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

Alfarra concludes his post with these words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Marc Ellis, Exile and the Prophetic (or Welcome to the New Diaspora Rabbi Rosen!)

IMG_4236My remarks at a Festshrift in honor of Marc Ellis held at Southern Methodist University, April 14-16, 2018. The gathering included presentations by a number of Marc’s colleagues and friends, including Naim Ateek, Sara Roy, Santiago Slabodsky, Robert O. Smith, Joanne Terrell, Susanne Scholtz, Robert Cohen and Marc’s two sons, Aaron and Isaiah Ellis:

I first learned about Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation” shortly after the first edition was published in 1987. I discovered it quite by accident on the shelf of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College library. Questions abounded: What on earth was Jewish Liberation Theology? And who on earth was Marc Ellis? Like any pretentious young rabbinical student, I thought I knew my contemporary Jewish theologians. Then I saw from the byline that he taught at Maryknoll. Wait, was he even a Jewish theologian?

It took me only a few paragraphs into the book to learn that he was in fact Jewish. As I read on however, it became clear that Marc Ellis was unlike any Jewish theologian I’d ever read. For one thing, he wrote about Palestinians. A lot. He presented Israel’s oppression of Palestinians as theological category. He wrote about the moral cost of Jewish empowerment. He wrote about Jewish collective confession to the Palestinian people. It was radical Jewish theology in every sense of the word.

I wasn’t ready to fully hear what Marc had laid before me at the time. I don’t think I even finished the book. It’s wasn’t for lack of concern for Palestinians – as a liberal Zionist, I had long identified with the Israeli peace movement and had supported Palestinian statehood back when such things were considered beyond the pale by the organized Jewish community. But I would never dare to view Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a theological concern. Like most liberal Zionists, I viewed the peace process in pragmatic terms. I didn’t necessarily support a two state solution for moral reasons – it was all about Israel remaining “Jewish and democratic.” I also don’t think I would have been too comfortable referring to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “oppression.” Like most liberal Zionists, I would have said it was “complicated,” with enough blame to go around.

Over the years however, I struggled with nagging, gnawing doubts over these talking points. Although I was able to keep these doubts at bay for the most part, I was never able to successfully silence them. When I was ordained as a rabbi in 1992, the stakes were raised on my political views. As you know, rabbis and Jewish leaders are under tremendous pressure by the American Jewish organizational establishment to maintain unflagging support for what Marc would later call “Empire Judaism.” Few, if any congregational rabbis would dare cross this line publicly.

I’d been a rabbi for about 10 years when I returned to “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation,” which had just been released in a much-expanded third edition. This time I was ready. I read it cover to cover. And this time, Marc’s unflinching moral clarity made a direct line to my head and my heart. Liberal Jewish thinkers typically treated Israel/Palestine as a complex political issue that needed addressing. Marc, on the other hand stated unabashedly that Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians was the issue – the central moral issue facing Jews and Judaism today. All the rest was commentary.

Taking his cue from the Holocaust theologians he analyzed so well in his book, he viewed Jewish empowerment following the Holocaust as a critical turning point in Jewish history. Like them, Marc embraced this empowerment – he had no desire to turn the clock back to an old diaspora of a bygone era. But unlike thinkers such as Irving Greenberg, Richard Rubenstein, et al, he was unwilling to view support for Jewish empowerment – embodied by the state of Israel – as a “sacred Jewish obligation” for the current era. Quite the contrary: if we had any sacred obligation at all, it was to repent and make confession to the Palestinian people for our collective sins against them.

However, there still remained the question: “Who is this guy?” I noticed that he was now teaching at Baylor University and had established its Center for American and Jewish Studies. Of course I understood that someone who espoused ideas such as these wouldn’t necessarily be welcome in Jewish institutional circles – but it was still astonishing to me that his name was not counted among the top Jewish thinkers of our day.

I discovered that he had become quite prolific since the publication of “Theology of Jewish Liberation.” I also discovered that his ideas had deepened and broadened. He had coined terms such as “Constantinian Judaism” and the “Ecumenical Deal.” He wrote extensively about “Jews of Conscience” and the “Jewish Prophetic.” He wrote about the end of ethical Jewish history.

As I personally evolved on the issue of Israel/Palestine, Marc’s work became a central guiding force for me. And while I wasn’t always ready to go to the places he did, it was liberating to know there was someone in the Jewish world who was actually saying these words out loud. More than anyone I had ever encountered, here was someone who embodied the essence of the prophetic. Frankly, liberal Jews had been bandying this word to the point that it has now become an empty cliche. But Marc understood that prophetic meant daring to utter aloud the unutterable.

Of course it also meant being regulated to what our Jewish communal gatekeepers considered the fringe of “normative” community.  I was deeply saddened to hear in 2011, that he had been forced out of Baylor – but by then I knew enough to understand why. And though I had never met him, I felt compelled to join the voices who were rallying to his support.

This is what I wrote in my blog at the time:

I first read Professor Marc Ellis’ book “Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation” as a rabbinical student back in the mid-1980s – and suffice to say it fairly rocked my world at the time. Here was a Jewish thinker thoughtfully and compellingly advocating a new kind of post-Holocaust theology: one that didn’t view Jewish suffering as “unique” and “untouchable” but as an experience that should sensitize us to the suffering and persecution of all peoples everywhere.

And yet further: Ellis had the courage to take these ideas to the place that few in the Jewish world were willing to go. If we truly believe in the God of liberation, if our sacred tradition truly demands of us that we stand with the oppressed, then the Jewish people cannot only focus on our own legacy of suffering – we must also come to grips with our own penchant for oppression, particularly when it comes to the actions of the state of Israel. And yes, if we truly believe in the God of liberation this also means that we must ultimately be prepared to stand with the Palestinians in their struggle for liberation.

When I first read Ellis’ words, I didn’t know quite what to make of them. They flew so directly in the face of such post-Holocaust theologians as Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim – all of whom viewed the Jewish empowerment embodied by the state of Israel in quasi-redemptive terms. And they were certainly at odds with the views of those who tended the gates of the American Jewish community, for whom this sort of critique of Israel was strictly forbidden.

Over the years, however, I’ve found Ellis’ ideas to be increasingly prescient, relevant – and I daresay even liberating. As a rabbi, I’ve come to deeply appreciate his brave willingness to not only ask the hard questions, but to unflinchingly pose the answers as well.

Three years after I wrote those words, I ran into some professional difficulties of my own. Up until that point, the congregation I had served for the past 17 years had found a way to countenance my increasing Palestine solidarity activism. But gradually, perhaps inevitably, discord grew in my congregation. In early 2014, I learned that a small group of members had organized and wrote an open letter to our board demanding that they rein me in. When I spoke out publicly during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, their calls grew even stronger. When I participated in a public disruption at a Chicago Jewish Federation fundraiser for the war effort, the tensions grew yet worse still. Then I was ejected from the Board of Rabbis of Greater Chicago. In the fall of 2014, I made the anguishing decision to resign from my congregation.

It was an enormously painful and traumatic time in my life and for the most part I’ve avoided speaking about it publicly. I’ll just say for now that when all this went down, I didn’t know if I could be a rabbi any more. I didn’t know how I would continue to be Jewish any more.

Less a week later, I learned that Marc had written about my resignation in his column at Mondoweiss. I was astonished – I had no idea he’d even heard of me. But here he was voicing his public approval and support of my actions, and in such classically Marc Ellis fashion:

The Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois is looking for a new rabbi. Rabbi Brant Rosen is moving on. No one who is really going to look Israel in the eye need apply…

The whole thing is sad beyond words – who we have become. Rosen is one of the few rabbis in America with an ethical spine. He’s an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights and co-chair of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. I’m not sure what more needs to be said to analyze the situation.

Jewish congregational life, no matter how divided, can’t support Jewish leadership that has the prophetic at its core…Maybe the war in Gaza was the final straw. Rabbi Rosen and his congregation came face to face with the end-times of Jewish history. Rosen stood fast. It seems that Rabbi Rosen’s synagogue leadership blinked. What happened behind the scenes will probably remain secret – except for the voluminous leaks that are part of the vibrancy of congregational life.

Voluntary or forced and probably a combination of the two, Rabbi Rosen has his ticket to ride.

The Jewish rails?

Exile it is Rabbi Rosen! Welcome to the New Diaspora!

Shortly after his post appeared, I spoke with Marc on the phone. At first he was apologetic, hoping that he did not make things even more complicated for me. I reassured him that at that point, nothing could really make things more complicated than they already were. During our long conversation he told me something that he’s told me several times since. He said I needed to grasp how my participation in the Federation disruption was, in fact, contrary to everything I was trained to be in rabbinical school. What rational reason could possibly explain why I did this? For a congregational rabbi to disrupt a room filled with hundreds of Jewish leaders and community members? Why did I do it? How could I possibly explain it rationally?

In a subsequent article, Marc wrote further:

Out of the blue the prophets arise, are shot down, then reappear. It hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. The prophetic is too deeply ingrained in Jewish life to pass quietly into our newly embraced colonial night.

Apparently, synagogues are not for prophets. Those who practice the prophetic and attend synagogue, should take note. Your expulsion is inevitable.

The prophetic was happening, in Evanston of all places. Now Rabbi Rosen is packing his bags. With his conscience intact.

While I realize that Marc was offering out his hand in friendship and support at that moment, I think his gesture went even deeper than that. Though I sense his ideas about the prophetic have been informed by his own personal experience, I don’t think they come from a place of self-aggrandizement. After all, personal and professional banishment is not a pleasant experience. It is anguishing. It is traumatic. It is emotionally wounding. Marc wasn’t simply joking when he wrote, “Welcome to the New Diaspora, Rabbi Rosen!” He was letting me know that he had been there too and that yes, this “New Diaspora” as he called it, could be a brutal place. But he was also reassuring me that despite the trauma I was experiencing, even though I had lost everything I had thought to be Jewish up until then, I needed to understand that I had indeed acted in authentically Jewish fashion.

To hear this from someone I considered to be an intellectual and spiritual mentor meant the world to me. Ultimately it helped me to understand my actions as something other than merely ill-advised career suicide.

Now that I’m a few years removed from that time, I’m delighted to say that I’ve been able to carve out a fairly comfortable corner in the New Diaspora. It is, in fact, a steadily growing corner – and much of this is due to the path Marc has painfully charted. We’re witnessing the growth of what Marc would call a Jewish community of conscience. It is primarily an activist community, expressed through organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace. I daresay those who have found a home in this community owe a significant debt to Marc whether or not they stop to realize it. I’ve tried to do my part in ensuring they know that Marc Ellis is, in no small way, their spiritual forbearer.

At the same time, I am acutely aware that he is not – and does not consider himself – an activist. As one who understands the Jewish prophetic to its core, he does not flinch from critique even of activist Jews of conscience like myself. As you all know, he perfectly willing to call out any behavior or analysis that he feels lacks depth – and the growing Jewish movement of solidarity with Palestinians is not immune from this critique. Like the prophets of old, he has no trouble serving as an equal-opportunity annoyance. Or maybe he just can’t help himself. Either way, Marc’s keen eye keeps us all honest.

In the spring of 2015, in an attempt to create a spiritual home for Jews of Conscience, I founded a congregation, Tzedek Chicago. True to form, Marc greeted this news with a characteristic blend of joy, skepticism, amusement and hope.

Here’s what he wrote in Mondoweiss:

We have arrived at the end of Jewish history and now another, prophetic, opportunity presents itself. Life is strange that way. Why worry about a failed future when the abyss we Jews inhabit is so obvious?

So fare forward, Tzedek Chicago. The deep and treacherous Jewish waters you ply are uncharted.

Or are they? Another way of being Jewish in the world is a return to our prophetic origins.

Yes, I hesitate. Yes, I join. As a witness at the end. With hope that there is more.

In more ways that he knows, he has helped to inspire our new “congregation of the abyss.” So yes, Marc Ellis has become a member of a synagogue. Yes, I am now Marc Ellis’ rabbi.

Last year, Tzedek Chicago brought out Marc to be our congregation’s scholar in residence, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of “Toward a Theology of Jewish Liberation.” For Marc, it was the opportunity to teach in a Jewish space for the first time in many years. For me, it marked the turning of a significant cycle in my life that began that day in 1988, when I took a book off the shelf of my rabbinical school library, with no way of knowing that it would become a kind of spiritual bellwether for my own journey.

Today we celebrate another important milestone – a long overdue gathering of Marc’s friends, colleagues, students and children. To quote Marc, “the deep and treacherous Jewish waters we ply are uncharted.” But we are charting them together. If we have indeed arrived at the end of Jewish history, I have faith that together we will discover how to begin it anew.

I will end with a quote from Marc’s book – it’s a passage that resonates with deeper meaning each time I return to it:

Prophetic Jewish theology, or a Jewish theology of liberation, seeks to bring to light the hidden and sometimes censored movements of Jewish life. It seeks to express the dissent of those afraid or unable to speak. Ultimately, a Jewish theology of liberation seeks, in concert with others, to weave disparate hopes and aspirations into the very heart of Jewish life.

I can think of no better mission statement for life in the New Diaspora.

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

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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.

Now Available: Wrestling in the Daylight 2.0!

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I’m very happy to announce that the 2nd edition of my book, Wrestling in the Daylight, has just been published by Just World Books. This new edition changes the overall context of the book considerably: while the first edition of Wrestling is a record of a congregational rabbi who charted a path into Palestinian solidarity, the second edition includes two new chapters that bring the book up to date, reflecting my decision to leave full-time congregational work. You can purchase the book here. For a sneak preview, I’ve posted the new Preface below.

As always I’m enormously grateful to Helena Cobban and the good folks at Just World Books for their encouragement and support. I’ll be doing book readings around Chicago and the US, so please check the JWB event calendar over the next few weeks to see if/when I’ll be coming to your town.

My official kick-off will take place on Monday evening May 15:  a joint appearance at Chicago’s Volumes Bookcafe with Palestinian cartoonist Mohammad Sabaaneh, whose awesome new book, White and Black: Political Cartoons from Palestine was also recently published by JWB.

Preface to the 2017 Edition

When I wrote the posts presented in the first edition of Wrestling in the Daylight, I hoped they might somehow help widen the discourse on Israel/Palestine in the American Jewish community. In the five years since that edition was published, I’m encouraged to be able to say this discourse has indeed widened in significant ways.

To cite just a few examples: Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that openly supports Palestinian human rights and endorses the Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), has experienced explosive growth in the past several years and has become a force to be reckoned with by the Jewish community. Open Hillel, an initiative initiated by Jewish college students to “promote pluralism and open discourse on Israel/Palestine and beyond” is increasingly active in campuses across the country. Another rapidly growing organization created by young Jews, IfNotNow, is challenging American Jewish communal support of Israel’s occupation through public acts of civil disobedience.

I do believe we are witnessing the growth of a very real Jewish movement of resistance to the status quo in the American Jewish community and Israel. Led largely by a younger generation, it is openly challenging Israel’s brutal occupation and in some cases, even the very premise of Zionism itself. Notably, it is growing and thriving outside the mainstream Jewish institutional world, finding common cause with other movements (i.e. Black Lives Matter) that struggle against systems of oppression.

As I write these words, Israel is currently ruled by the most right wing government in its history and is doubling down on its brutal occupation. In Europe, extreme nationalist parties are on the rise, and in the United States, the so-called “alt-right” has become politically normalized following the election of Donald Trump. White liberal Americans have suddenly been forced to confront the reality of institutional oppression that has been long familiar to black and brown people, gay, lesbian, queer and trans people, undocumented people and First Nation peoples – as well those who live at the intersection of those identities.

If my participation in the Palestine solidarity movement has taught me anything over the past several years, it is that the fight for justice in Palestine is inseparable from the fight for justice in Chicago, Ferguson, Baltimore, Standing Rock and too many other places around the world. If I have any hope at all in this fearful political moment, it comes from all that I’ve learned from those who live every day with the reality of institutional oppression and the allies and accomplices who stand in solidarity with them. I take heart in the knowledge that there is an active Jewish presence within this new movement of resistance – and I’m immensely proud to be part of it.

This second edition of Wrestling in the Daylight contains a few editorial changes and updates the book with two new chapters: “Toward a New Model of Interfaith Relations” and “Tzedek Chicago.” The former chapter also contains some posts and comments that were written during “Operation Protective Edge,” Israel’s military assault on Gaza during the summer of 2014. Later that year I decided to resign from my congregation to devote myself to activism full time. In 2015, I founded a new non-Zionist congregation, Tzedek Chicago.

As it has turned out, Wrestling in the Daylight is now bookended by two ruinous “operations” waged by Israel against Gaza. Nearly ten years since the first words of this book were written, two million Palestinians (the majority of them children) remain imprisoned in a tiny strip of land, subjected to increasingly subhuman conditions and regular onslaughts at the hands of the Israeli military. If the past is any indication, it is only a matter of time before Israel launches its next assault.

It is our collective shame that the world allows this outrage to continue—and it is to the people of Gaza that I now dedicate this book.

Syrian Trio Hewar Returns to Chicago this Sunday!

On of the most powerful moments of Tzedek Chicago‘s inaugural year last year was a benefit concert by the world-renowned Syrian trio Hewar in support of Syrian refugee relief. I’m thrilled to report that Tzedek is bringing to Chicago for return benefit concert this Sunday on May 7, 7:00 PM at the Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St.

Hewar (which is Arabic for “dialogue”) is led by Kinan Azmeh, a Damascus-born clarinetist and composer, graduate of Julliard, and member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Kinan has appeared worldwide as a soloist, composer and improviser; with Hewar, his trio of Syrian musicians engage in a breathtaking mash-up of Arabic music, jazz, scat and western classical melodies. Comprised of clarinet, oud and soprano, the band builds on the talents of each of its members, juxtaposing and meshing traditions to create truly unique, genre-breaking music.

I’m particularly excited that for this concert, Hewar will be joined by 15 members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, including the Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong. Following the concert, Jamil Khoury, the Syrian-American Founding Artistic Director of Chicago theater company Silk Road Rising, will moderate a Q&A with the musicians. The musicians are donating their time and proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Save the Children.

As those who attended last year’s concert will attest, this promises to be an incredible and important evening. If you live anywhere near the Chicago area this Sunday, I strongly encourage you to attend. You can purchase your tickets here or pay at the door on the day of the concert.

Kinan made the news earlier this year when he was stranded in Lebanon during Trump’s Muslim ban. You can read more about it in this interview with Rolling Stone. Click on the video above for a taste of last year’s concert. I hope to see you there!

Co-sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee – Chicago, Beth Emet the Free Synagogue, Chicago Area Peace Action, Congregation Hakafa, First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple, Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, Refugee One, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan Square, St. Nicholas Church; and the Syrian Community Network.