Non-Random Acts of Kindness

sky085.jpgMany of you are familiar, I’m sure, with the ubiquitous bumper sticker that says, “Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty.” I will confess to you (with all due apologies to any of you who may have this sticker on your car) that I am not a big fan of this particular message.

Of course there is nothing wrong at all with encouraging kindness and beauty. But personally speaking, I would argue the exact opposite. I would argue for “Non-Random Acts of Kindness and Mindful Acts of Beauty.” If you really think about it, kindness shouldn’t be random – frankly, it should be mandatory. (God forbid if we could only depend upon the kindness of strangers when they happened to be “randomly kind” toward us…)

Actually, I think this slogan reveals something very important about contemporary American culture. As a society that values individual initiative, it is natural that we will view compassion as a random, voluntary enterprise. So we act compassionately whenever we feel compassionate. And to be sure, we might well feel a great deal of compassion for others – for our loved ones, and even for people we don’t actually know. The problem, of course, is that feelings cannot be guaranteed. They come and go. Feelings are, by definition, elusive and transient.

Jewish tradition provides us with a different model. Compassion is not random – it is an imperative. Even love itself is commanded: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “You shall love Adonai your God.” “You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In other words, compassion should not be reduced to random feeling. Judaism teaches that compassion should be a mindful, ongoing conscious practice. We should teach ourselves how to be compassionate even if we are not feeling particularly compassionate – even if we are too overwhelmed to feel compassionate. Compassion is, for lack of a better word, a discipline.

The most well known Hebrew word for compassion, “rachamim,” comes from the root rechem, or “womb” and suggests the kind of unconditional compassion that comes with parental love. More broadly, we might understand rachamim as the kind of compassion that we show toward those with whom we have a unique personal connection. The word “chen” is usually translated as “grace.” This form of compassion generally refers to gestures of favor or goodwill.

And then there is “chesed,” a word that is usually rendered as “lovingkindness,” but might be more accurately renedered as “covenantal loyalty.” Chesed is the kind of love and compassion that comes from a deeper sense of mutual obligation and communal accountability. When people live “covenantally,” it is with the explicit understanding that the community is accountable to the individual just as much as the individual is accountable to the community.

Though the Torah presents this covenantal model in a Jewish context, I would suggest that as Americans we would do well to apply it to our national community at large. Too often, it seems, American culture venerates individual freedoms to such an extent that we often view the suggestion of communal obligation as a personal violation. In a covenantal context, however, our individual freedom is necessarily refracted through the experience of our mutual responsibility to one another.

Clearly this notion has very real political implications – and in the end, I’m not sure what it would take to create an authentic sense of convenant in our increasingly divided American body politic. But I do believe that as long as we view our mutual responsibility to one another as random or voluntary, true compassion will be in increasingly limited supply in our country. If we affirm that our compassion is not dependant on how we happen to feel, but is rather guided by a sense of obligation and responsibility to one another, then maybe, just maybe, we might find that our compassion is not as limited or arbitrary a commodity as it often seems.

So here’s my new bumpersticker: “With Compassion Comes Responsibility.”

People You Should Know About: Shoaib Choudhury

shoaib.jpgI urge readers to act on behalf of Salah Udin Shoaib Choudhury, a courageous Muslim journalist who was imprisoned for promoting interfaith understanding in his country.

Choudhury is a prominent, award winning Bangladeshi newspaper editor who has promoted religious tolerance, spoken out against Islamic radicalism, and urged his country to recognize Israel. In 2003, he was charged with sedition (a capital offense in Bangladesh) and subsequently imprisoned for 17 months. He was released in April 2005 and is currently awaiting trial.

In the meantime, Choudhury continues to advocate his positions publicly, despite the growing threat to his safety. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that on October 5, he was attacked and beaten in his office by a crowd that allegedly included leading officials of the country’s ruling party.

Choudhury’s case has been tirelessly advocated by Dr. Richard Benkin, a Chicago-area Jewish activist. Click here to learn more about Benkin’s efforts. The American Jewish Committe website offers ways you can act on Choudhury’s behalf.

Complete Immobilization

scream.jpg“Dancing is the complete immobilization.”
– The 2000 Year Old Man

“These are people who want to come and kill your families.”
– President Bush to Matt Lauer on The Today Show, (September 12, 2006)

“The whole world is a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear.”
– Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav

The 2000 Year Old Man (aka Mel Brooks) claims that most of our cultural rituals were originally created out of fear. Singing, for instance, evolved from the need to invent louder and louder ways of crying for help. The handshake was created to keep the other guy’s hand immobile, lest he was holding a sharp stick that he might poke in your eye. Dancing, he explained, was “the complete immobilization” of your potential enemy. (“Both hands, and you keep the feet busy so he can’t kick you!”)

Maybe he’s on to something. After all, fear has become such a complete aspect of our post-9/11 national culture, you might say we are fast approaching something resembling “complete immobilization.” If there was ever any doubt, it can now be officially stated: we Americans are a profoundly fearful people.

With the November 2006 elections almost upon us, some pundits are claiming that the politics of fear has finally outlived its usefulness. Whether or not this is true, it must also be admitted that fear per se is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, our fear reflex has served us well during the course of our evolution as a species. It’s just that in this complex 21st century world, it’s so hard to know which of our fears are irrational and which are truly justified.

Here’s a paradigm from Jewish tradition that might be instructive:

In Hebrew there are two oft-used words for fear: “pachad” and “yirah.” I like to define pachad (often translated as “dread”) as our fear of the Boogie Man – those dark irrational fears that awaken us suddenly at four in the morning. Pachad might also be understood as our fear of The Other – the fear of that which we do not understand and that which we do not wish to understand.

Yirah, on the other hand, is often translated as “awe.” To be in awe, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught, is to experience “radical amazement.” To stand in wonder before a a reality that far transcends our knowledge or understanding. Awe may sometimes be a fearful experience, but yirah cannot be defined exclusively by fear. It is defined equally by our humility, our respect, our acceptance of the ultimate limits of our power in the world. When we learn to stand in awe, we use our fear as a springboard to embracing a truth much greater than ourselves.

When the great Hasidic master, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav said “the main thing is not to fear,” he was recognizing both the reality and the paralyzing nature of pachad. Yes, it is natural and even necessary to have fears – but we must beware lest we allow our fears to consume us.

To put it simply, pachad is the fear that reflects our darkest selves, and yirah is the fear that reveals our deepest humanity. And in so many ways, it seems to me, recognizing the difference between the two will be key to crossing the “narrow bridge” of our post-9/11 world.

Darfur FAQs

darfur.jpgQuestion #1: How can we reasonably compare the crisis in Darfur to the sheer scale of evil that was the Holocaust?

Of course there are aspects to the Holocaust that set it apart from other genocides. This claim, however, is largely academic. At the end of the day, there is nothing to be accomplished by insisting upon what makes our suffering different from all suffering. What is more critical is what all genocides have in common. As the great Israeli Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer has written:

Each genocide is different, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the similarities. Foremost among them is the suffering of the victims. There is no better or worse genocide, just as there is no better or worse murder, no better or worse torture. There is no scale to measure suffering. Jews, Armenians or Poles who were martyred and murdered all suffered the same. (Jewish Forward, May 13, 2005)

Underlying this question is one of the more unwelcome phenomena in Jewish life: our tendency to tend to cling tenaciously to the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust. We assert and reassert that the Nazi war against the Jews was different from other genocides. We insist that it was more extreme, more complete, more insidious in its conception and execution. As empathetic as we Jews may generally be, many of us recoil when we hear of another atrocity even compared to the Holocaust. It has become our untouchable event – the evil against which nothing can ever be compared.

When we stubbornly insist upon the uniqueness of the Holocaust, it can easily numb us to the crimes that are committed against others. After all, the logical conclusion of this thinking is to believe that nothing done to anyone else could ever be as horrible or as wrong as what was perpetrated against us. And as a result, we end up closing our hearts to the evil perpetrated in our own day. Or worse: we use our own pain as a weapon against the outside world.

It is encouraging that organizations such as American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have provided important leadership for the Save Darfur Coalition. Indeed, the growing participation of Jewish voices in the protest against the Darfur genocide provides hopeful evidence that the Jewish community may have turned a critical corner on this issue. If so, this would be a welcome development. When it comes to protesting genocide, Jews, of all people, should be leading the charge.

Question #2: Among the myriad of human rights crises currently being perpetrated in the world today, why are we spending so much time and attention focusing on Darfur?

It is true that no small number of global abuses currently cry out for our attention. But it is important to bear in mind that human rights abuses do not occur in a vacuum. For instance, if one logs on to the websites of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International to learn more about the Darfur crisis, one invariably learns about war crimes in the Northern Uganda, Burnudi and the Congo. At the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience website, one finds that in addition to Darfur, Southern Sudan and Chechnya are on their”standing agenda” for genocide watch.

Activists may often compartmentalize issues for good tactical reasons, but in truth these issues are fundamentally related to one another. The more we educate ourselves and raise our consciousness about one specific issue, the more we invariably learn about how these issues are fundamentally interconnected. Whereas it might seem that working on one specific cause might naturally exclude work on other worthy causes, the opposite is actually true: activism tend to expand exponentially.

One example from my own congregation may serve to illuminate this point more fully. Our Global AIDS Task Force recently sponsored a World AIDS Day program in which we heard from a local doctor, Dr. Marge Cohen, about a new Rwandan Women’s AIDS clinic. Although it is well known that this pandemic has been decimating communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, there has been a marked increase in HIV/AIDS among Rwandan women. Why? It is due in large part to the widespread and systematic rape of Tutsi women during the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s.

In other words, through the course of our work on the HIV/AIDS pandemic, our consciousness was raised on the issue of genocide. And it has not ended there. As our AIDS Task Force will attest, our activism on this issue has connected to us to a deeper understanding and concern about a variety of issues, including global poverty, grassroots sustainable development, and women’s rights. Though AIDS may have been the initial entry point for our activism, it has inevitably led to other points along a larger global continuum.

It is thus a fallacy to consider activism to be a “zero-sum game.” As those who work for social justice and human rights will attest, action begets action.

Question #3: The genocide in Darfur is the product of age-old tribal conflicts that have little to do with us. Who are we to insert ourselves into this situation?

This is not an uncommon reaction to the news of genocide or human rights abuse around the world. While Serbia was ethnically cleansing Bosnian Muslims, for instance, Secretary of State Warren Christopher referred to it as “a humanitarian crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent.“ Whether it is Serbs massacring Bosnians, or Hutus killing Tutsis in Rwanda, our gut reaction is invariably the same – it is all too easy for us to dismiss these events as the result of ancient and tribal hatreds occurring in another part of the world – battles that are not our concern and that we are powerless to do anything about.

However, Jews of all people should understand the profoundly fatal consequences of such attitudes. After all, in 1938, British foreign minister Neville Chamberlain referred to the war in Europe as “a quarrel in a foreign country between people of whom we know nothing.” How often have we Jews asked, “Where was the world in our hour of need?” How often have we ourselves taken the rest of the world to task for standing by while the Nazis implemented their Final Solution?

There can be only one logical conclusion: if we hold the world accountable to us, then we must be accountable to world as well. Or as Elie Wiesel has eloquently put it: “How can we reproach the indifference of non-Jews to Jewish suffering if we remain indifferent to another people’s plight?” (from remarks delivered at the Darfur Emergency Summit, July 14, 2004.)

The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948 refers to “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Indeed, the inherent worth of all human life, so central to contemporary definitions of human rights, have been influenced in no small way by the Torah’s teaching that all humanity is created in God’s image.

Who are we to insert ourselves into this current situation? Who are we not to?

Question #4: The genocide in Darfur is occurring in the context of a complicated and convoluted political situation. Is there anything private citizens can realistically do to end it?

Private citizens are not as powerless to stop genocides as we often profess. As human rights scholars and activists have long pointed out, genocidal regimes are often encouraged by the world’s silence. In her book, “A Problem From Hell,” Samantha Power writes:

Hitler was emboldened by the fact that absolutely nobody “remembered the Armenians.” Saddam Hussein, noting the international community’s relaxed response to his chemical weapons attacks against Iran and his bulldozing of Kurdish villages, rightly assumed that he would not be punished for using poison gases against his own people. (Slobodan) Milosevic saw that he got away with the brutal suppression of an independence movement in Croatia, and reasoned he would pay no price for committing genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo. (pp. 506-507.)

If we do agree that genocide is enabled by silence, then we must also agree that it is the responsibility of our politicians, Washington lobbyists, the media, organizations and, yes, private citizens to shine the brightest light possible on these atrocities. If the politics of the situation are complex, then we must educate ourselves and others about the issues at hand and strongly advocate realistic and effective courses of action.

In the case of Darfur, this might mean any number of measures, be they military (i.e., providing UN peacekeepers, mobilizing NATO to establish a No – Fly Zone), diplomatic (i.e., encouraging President Bush to apply pressure on Sudan trading partners such as China and Russia) or economic (i.e., lobbying State legislatures to follow the example of the states that have already divested their considerable investments in Sudan).

The Khartoum government, like so many genocidal regimes before it, assumes the world will consider this crisis to be an internal Sudanese issue – and so it will be as long as the world refuses to speak out and bring its atrocities into the light of day. Activists thus have a crucial and sacred role to play: to ensure that the cry of Darfur remain front and center on the world’s conscience.

Even the most cynical among us should be reminded that this issue is not nearly as complicated as we tend to think. Years from now, the history of the Darfur genocide will have been written. When your children and grandchildren ask you about your role in this history, you will answer either that you spoke out or that you remained silent.

What will your answer be?

(Visit Save Darfur for up to date information and learn how you can make a difference.)

Mirembe Kawomera

coffee-beans.jpgYou should buy Fair Trade Coffee.

If you drink coffee, that is. If you aren’t, I’m not recommending that you create a new addiction, but if you happen to be like me and millions of other hopelessly addicted caffeine junkies, you should at least be aware of the larger economic implications of your habit.

Some basic facts: coffee is the second most actively traded commodity in the world, after oil. Since 1990, retail sales of coffee have increased to $80 billion from $30 billion. Globally, about 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed a day – and 400 million of those are in the United States. Four multinational corporations (Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, Nestle, and Sara Lee) control 70% of the world coffee market, with the international price determined in New York and London.

At the other end of the equation, more than 25 million farmers and coffee laborers depend upon coffee cultivation for their livelihood. Most of them live in dire poverty because the price of coffee has fallen drastically in recent years. By drinking Fair Trade Coffee, you are supporting efforts to guarantee coffee farmers and workers a fixed price for their product, which in turn will help support the sustainable development of their communities. (Fair Trade has more than just economic implications, however. Click this link to learn more.)

Why is a rabbi going on about Fair Trade Coffee? Because I believe it’s a mitzvah to drink it. After all, Judaism teaches us over and over again to be socially responsible consumers, to act justly toward workers and to alleviate poverty in our world. So what could be more Jewish than drinking Fair Trade Coffee?

My personal favorite is Mirembe Kawomera (“Delicious Peace”), a Fair Trade Coffee produced by a Ugandan Jewish/Muslim/Christian cooperative. It is distributed in the US through Thanksgiving Coffee and can be easily bought via the Internet.

So you should drink Fair Trade Coffee. And if you want to support economic justice AND interfaith cooperation in a world that desperately needs both, you should drink Mirembe Kawomera.

A Blog is Born…

brant-pr-photo.JPGThis well-dressed, clean cut looking guy is me, Brant Rosen, the Rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL, and the author of this blog. I fervently hope that by starting this new project, I’m not just adding more blah, blah, blah, blogging to cyberspace. I guess time will tell.

Believe it or not, I originally wanted to call my blog “Di Shande Fun Der Voch,” which roughly translates from Yiddish to mean, “The Outrage of the Week.” In the end, I decided on something slightly less strident: “Shalom Rav.” A bit of a pun: it is the name of a well-known Hebrew prayer, meaning “Abundant Peace,” but it also can also mean “Hello, Rabbi.” (It’s much more polite, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to be outraged about…)

Anyhow, welcome to my new blog. I hope it has something to contribute.