Posted tagged ‘current-events’

Politics and Justice: The Foggy Line

May 15, 2013

I tend to be outspoken, both in my synagogue and out in the community, on issues of Tikkun Olam – Social Justice – even when they are controversial; perhaps especially when they are controversial.  Over the years, I have advocated for the hungry, for the homeless, for the newcomers to our shores.  When African American churches were being set on fire in the South, Rabbi Stanley Herman and I organized the Burned Churches Fund.  When local bigots burned crosses in West Davenport, Dan Ebener, who was then the Social Action Director of the Diocese of Davenport, and I organized a Say No to Hate Rally at Sacred Heart Cathedral; a rally which filled the cathedral to overflowing.  When it became apparent that while our community had many wonderful agencies to address the needs of the homeless, they needed help in raising funds of their efforts, I, along with a group of caring citizens, several of them from my congregation, put together a fund raising organization called In From the Cold, which focused its efforts of supporting agencies serving the homeless.  When it became increasingly clear that in my community the primary religious voice that was making itself heard in the publid forum was the voice of conservative Christianity, I joined with Rev. Dan Schmiechen of the United Church of Christ and Rev. Charlotte Saleska of the Unitarian Church in organizing a group called Progressive Clergy, which would serve as the voice of socially liberal religious traditions in our community.  When I became aware of how many of our local school children were without adequate winter wear to fend off the Iowa cold, I got together with the superintendent of the Davenport School District and organized a program called Coats for Kids whose function it was to collect, clean, and distribute gently used winter coats to needy children.  When there were those who were burning the Koran in protest to the proposed opening of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, I was one of the primary supporters of an interfaith solidarity gathering at the Moline mosque.  I have testified before the city councils of both Davenport and Bettendorf in support of both women’s reproductive choice and extending the categories of groups protected by our civil rights ordinances to include the diversity of sexual orientation.  When John Deere sought to cut the health care benefits of its retirees, I led the clergy in protesting that action.  This list can go on and on.

As a Jew, my passion for Tikkun Olam comes naturally to me.  The Torah continually instructs us to be proactive in matters of social justice.  So many are the times when the Torah calls upon us to pursue this course, reminding us, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”; reminding us that as Jews, we have known what it means to be the victims of injustice and from those experiences, we must take away the lesson of how imperative it is for us to pursue justice for all people – “tzedek, tzedek tirdof! – Justice, justice shall you pursue!”  Where the Torah leaves off, the prophets picked up, for their voices were clarion in the call for the pursuit of justice.  Indeed, when Reform Judaism had turned away from the rigors of ritual mitzvot such as kashrut as the primary expression of our Jewish identity, we turned to focusing on the ethical mitzvot, especially the social justice mitzvot.  And what did we call ourselves?  We called ourselves prophetic Judaism.  Indeed, to this day, across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, when we talk about pursuing social justice, we refer to it as a prophetic mission and the prophetic tradition.

There was a time, really not that long ago, when this was almost expected of faith communities and their religious leaders; when the pursuit of social justice was considered an essential part of the mission of communities of faith.  So we saw wonderful images, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking side-by-side with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the cause of civil rights for all people regardless of race.  We saw clergy and congregations across faith lines speaking out and marching in protest to the Viet Nam War.  In my own community, sometimes I would be approached by congregants who would say, “You know, Rabbi, people out in the community tell me how much they respect you for most of the stands that you take, but they are really troubled by your stand on Planned Parenthood…”  In saying that, they were informing me that while there were those who disagree with me, no one was challenging the appropriateness, or legality, of taking a stand on a social issue.

Now you need to understand that for tax exempt not-for-profit organizations like synagogues and churches  there is a very important line that separates social issues advocacy from political advocacy.  While it is perfectly appropriate for organizations like synagogues and churches to take stands on social issues, it is strictly prohibited and jeopardizes their tax exempt status if they advocate for particular political candidates or parties.

For most of my rabbinate, and before, the lines separating those two types of advocacy were pretty clear and such conflicts were easily avoided.  But in the course of time something has changed, and these lines have gotten blurred.  They seem to have gotten so blurred that today there are those who feel that they can claim that advocating for particular social issues is, in effect, advocating for one particular political party over another; one political candidate over another.  Therefore, for a synagogue – and perhaps even its rabbi speaking and acting outside of the synagogue – to advocate for a particular social issue would seem to violate the prohibition against engaging in partisan politics.

In the world of politics, it seems that times have changed.  There was a time when a political figure’s stand on any given social issue was not a function of party politics but rather of personal conscious.  There was a time when our political leaders felt freer to follow their consciences rather than the agenda of their parties.  Anyone who has seen the recent movie “Lincoln” knows from whence I speak.  The 16th amendment passed, granting freedom to African Americans, because there were those in Congress who were willing to vote their conscience rather than their party.  As a youth I recall reading with wrapped attention John F. Kennedy’s book, PROFILES IN COURAGE, in which he raised up 8 U.S. senators who courageously crossed party lines in order to vote their conscience.

But somewhere along the line, the landscape of American politics changed.  I remember first clearly noting that change while watching President Bill Clinton delivering one of his State of the Union addresses.  As I watched, I noticed that when it came to the applause, the members of Clinton’s party applauded every time.  However, the Republicans only applauded when signaled to do so by their Congressional leadership.  The members of both sides never really chose for themselves but rather they stood by their parties.  Once aware of this, of course I needed to test my theory.  So I would continue to watch State of the Union addresses with this in mind, and sure enough, this held true during the presidency of George Bush with the Democrats reserving their applause only to those times when they received the signal.

What I was witnessing is something that we all already know; that our country has become divided along political party lines.  As a manifestation of that political divide, each of the parties has staked its claim on one side or the other of social issues.  Therefore, if you take one side or the other, you can be accused of lining yourself up with one party or the other.  As things have shaken out, the Democrats tend to be more on the left, and the Republicans more on the right.  So no matter which position we as a faith community take – the more liberal or the more conservative – there will be those who accuse us of engaging in partisan politics.

This situation tends to paralyze American congregations and clergy of all faiths.  They so fear becoming identified with one political party or the other, and therefore risking the loss of their tax exempt status, that they choose to refrain from all Tikkun Olam activities or restrict themselves to only the least controversial, or the non-controversial, such as supporting meal sites and hunger programs.  While these are indeed good works, and should be pursued, that is not nearly enough for faith communities, for if faith communities relinquish their role as the guardians of conscience in our society, then who will pick it up?  Regardless of what faith we profess, our faith calls upon us to be courageous in our efforts to care for and protect all of God’s children.  We must be courageous as the prophets were courageous; we must be outspoken as the prophets were outspoken.  Because there are those who accuse us of being partisan in our politics, that does not grant us license to abandon the demands of our conscience.

We must come to recognize that the problem does not reside in our having become partisan in our politics, for we are not.  As long as we focus our words and actions on the issues and not on the political parties or the individual politicians, we are not engaging in partisan politics.  We are engaging in Tikkun Olam.  Where the problem does reside is to be found in what has happened to our political system, where the party line has drowned out the call of conscience.  And that is partly our fault.  It is our fault in that we no longer demand of our political leaders that they be people of conscience; people who are willing to cross party lines to support what they truly believe in; people who are more interested in advancing the interests of the American people than then interests of their particular political party; people who would qualify for inclusion in John F. Kennedy’s book PROFILES IN COURAGE.  We have the power to make that happen, for we have the power of the vote.  We have the power to tell those who aspire to political leadership that our top priority is that they do the right thing – following the dictates of their conscience – even when it is not the party thing.  Then once again, we will find ourselves living in an American where there can be times when Republicans and Democrats stand together to do the right thing.  When standing on one side or another of an issue will no longer be confused with engaging in partisan politics.

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Gun Violence: A Personal Reflection

January 17, 2013

As I write this, our nation is embroiled in a heated debate over whether or not to limit the Second Amendment rights regarding gun ownership.  This is a debate far too long delayed in our land.  Every year has brought new tragedies born out of the barrels of guns while our legislators have waffled and buckled under the tremendous pressure placed upon them by the gun lobby.  This failure to act sadly has been reinforced by the toxicity of the temporary attention span of the American public as the outrage over each and every mass murder has too quickly faded from memory and has morphed into renewed apathy while we have redirected the focus of our attentions to the latest drama reported and exploited by the news media. In fact, just the other day, I mentioned to someone the movie “Bowling for Columbine,” only to receive the response, “Columbine?  What is Columbine?”  However, now that the American people have suffered such a trauma and are feeling so outraged by the slaughter of so many little children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, it would appear that finally those in favor of some form of gun control may have gained some traction.  Maybe, but I am a pessimist.  I have to wonder how concerned about this issue people will be a month from now; in six months from now.

It is no secret where I stand on this question.  Of course, I could take this opportunity to regale you with all the argumentation offered by those who share my views on gun violence but I suspect that in so doing, I would be offering very little information that you have not heard before.  Therefore, I want to take this opportunity to share with you something a bit different.  I want to share with you why for me this is such a personal issue and not just another topic for debate.  I wish to share with you a painful story from my past.

From 1977 to 1982 I served as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Lincoln, Nebraska.  I was a young rabbi, filled with enthusiasm and idealism.  I threw myself completely into everything I did and the congregation just ate it up.  One of my projects was running a one-man Jewish Studies Academy (that is what I called our adult education program).  One night a week, every week, I taught two different mini courses of 4 to 5 sessions duration, maybe offering 10 courses in a year.  It was fairly popular, attracting non-Jews as well as members of the congregation.

One such non-Jewish student was a young divorcee who, while never broaching the subject of conversion, attended every class and most services.  She quickly became an “unofficial” member of our congregational family, surrounded by a growing group of Jewish friends, my wife and I included.

This woman had two sons, both teenagers; one was around 13 years old and the other 15.  They were nice boys but understandably troubled by the breakup of their family.  Then one day tragedy struck.  After school the two boys brought two girls to the home of their father while their father was at work.  Both boys were trying hard to impress the girls.  So the older brother ordered the younger one to do some menial household chore.  Not to be shamed in front of the girls, the younger brother refused.  The older brother insisted. The younger one continued to refuse.  Then the older one went to a closet and pulled out a rifle.  He pointed it at his brother’s head and said something to the effect of “Do what I say or I’ll blow your head off!”  Not to be intimidated, the younger brother continued to refuse.  So the older brother pulled the trigger and did just what he said he would do, shooting his brother in the head at close range and killing him.  A 20th century reenactment of the story of Cain and Abel.

Here I was, a young, inexperienced rabbi, feeling as though I was expected to offer sage counsel and support to a women who had one son lying dead and the other in jail, guilty of the murder of his brother.  All because their foolish father kept a loaded rifle unlocked in his house.  But what could I say, what could I do in the face of such profound tragedy?  There are no words that could even begin to take away that mother’s pain.  There is no wisdom that could even begin to make sense of that horror.  All that I could do was to be a presence.  Obviously, those events continue to haunt me to this day.  God seemed absent from the world at that moment.  Today I understand that God was not so much absent but rather exiled from the world at that moment; exiled not just by the act of violence itself but also by the various human choices which ultimately contributed to that act of violence, including the legislative choice to allow that young man access to the gun with which he slew his brother.

Limiting access to guns won’t eliminate the problem, for the problem is a complex web of contributing factors, but, God willing, it will reduce the number of victims.

A personal confession.  Prior to these events, I was one of those Americans who shared our apparently national love affair with guns.  Being raised in the ’50’s & ’60’s, how could it be otherwise?  The heroes of my childhood were the cowboys and the frontiersmen who constantly flashed across both the silver and the TV screens of that day; Davey Crockett, the Lone Ranger, Wyatt Earp, Marshall Matt Dillon, Paladin, and of course John Wayne, just to mention a few.  As a child, I was the owner of a veritable arsenal of toy guns.  While never a hunter, even into my college years, I loved to target shoot in my back yard with a variety of BB pistols and rifles.  But having witnessed up close this parent’s nightmare, from that day to this, I have never again fired one of my weapons.

REFLECTIONS ON THE SLAUGHTER IN CONNETICUT

December 14, 2012

Hanukkah is drawing to a close and Christmas celebrations are soon to commence. In this season of joy for so many, our hearts are shattered by the senseless violence that fills our land, and most especially by its latest manifestation in Connecticut. When will this bloodshed cease? It was but only yesterday we were mourning the victims of the shootings in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater and at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee. When will we recognize that momentary expressions of shock, outrage, and sympathy simply are not enough! Actions are needed to stop the violence. How can we let a few determined individuals hold our nation as hostage as the promote the lie that the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the rights of all Americans to slaughter their neighbors indiscriminately?

The Sin of Standing Idly By

September 28, 2012

It was back on Rosh Hashanah evening of 1999 that I presented to my congregation a very unsettling sermon entitled “Summer of Hate; Winter of Challenge.”  It was all about how the Summer of 1999 was marked by hate crime after hate crime; act of violence after act of violence, many, but not all of which, were targeted at fellow Jews.  The most famous of those acts of violence was the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.  But beside from the Columbine shooting, during that summer there were also synagogue burnings in Sacramento, California, a noted member of a hate group going on a shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana, targeting Jews, African Americans and Asians, and another hate group member entering a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, a suburb of  Los Angeles, in order to shoot Jewish children in a day care program.  It was an extremely violent summer and it was time for us as Americans to put an end to hate and particularly gun violence in our nation.

This coming Spring, my congregation will celebrate with two wonderful young ladies as each will become a Bat Mitzvah.  When I gave that sermon back in 1999, those two young ladies were not yet born.  Yet here they are, each one preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah, and we Americans are still faced with some of the same dreadful problems as confronted us then, gun violence being one such problem; a major problem.

Indeed, the serious concern over this issue in our country even predates the birth of these young ladies.  In my congregation, three years before I gave that sermon, a young man by the name of Daniel Werner made gun violence, in the form of drive-by shootings, the topic of his Bar Mitz­vah speech.

Now it is 2012 and we have just endured another summer of violence; violence pouring out of the barrels of guns.  There was the shooting in the moving theater in Aurora, Colorado.  There was the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee.  There was the shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.  There was the shooting in front of the Empire State Building.  This summer’s gun violence was a shocking testimony to how broad based is this problem.  Today, resorting to using firearms as a means of expression is not just to be found in the realm of the political or social radicals.  There are many different kinds of people who pick up guns and pull the trigger as an expression of their own inner turmoil.  The shooter in Colorado used a gun to give expression to his own mental illness.  In Milwaukee, the shooter used it to express his prejudice against minorities.  In Washington, the shooter used it to express his anger at those who promote a conservative social agenda.  In New York, the shooter used it to express his frustration with events in his personal life.  And these only represent the incidents of gun violence that have merited the attention of the national news media.  They are but only the tip of the bloody iceberg of gun violence in America today.

Let me share with you some statistics, and I hope that these statistics disturb you as greatly as they disturb me.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes issues an annual Global Study on Homicide.  In its latest report, issued in 2011, the United States ranked 15th in the world in gun related homicides.  This report is rated by the number of gun related homicides for each 100,000 people in a nation’s population.  For the United States, the number is 4.6 for every 100,000 Americans.  The nations who rank higher than us are to be found primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, with some in Eastern Europe.  However, when it comes to affluent nations, the United States ranks number 1, with no one else coming close.  In fact, the affluent European nations typically have a rate of 1 per 100,000, if not lower.  For example the rate for France is 1.4; for the United Kingdom, 1.1; for Italy, 1.0; for both Spain and Germany, 0.9; and for Switzerland, 0.7.  We Americans love to brag about our being #1, but this is a first place prize which should shake us to our very core.

While the United Nations report focuses on crime, and in this case homicides, there also has been a study done by the United States Center for Disease Control.  Theirs is a study of shootings in America, criminal and otherwise, fatal or not.  According to their findings, approximately 105,000 Americans are shot every year (104,852 in 2010) with approximately 31,500 of them being killed (31,347 in 2010).  This averages out to 287 Americans shot every day, 86 of them fatally.

When it comes to the number of Americans killed by guns every year, it may surprise you to learn that the number one cause of fatal gun deaths is not homicide.  It is suicide.  In 2010, while 11,493 of our fellow citizens were murdered with guns, 18,735 Americans use guns to kill themselves.  Several years ago, my brother-in-law was one of them.  He was a manic depressive who went off his medication.  He owned a pistol to protect his business.  But in a depressive state, alone in his house, he sat down on the couch in his family room, put the barrel of the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The remainder of the annual gun deaths are categorized as either unintentional, undetermined or the result of a legal intervention, which I imagine is their way of saying that these people where shot and killed by law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties.

This study also points out that beside from those Americans who die at the barrel of a gun, every year there also are approximately 73,500 people who are shot but not killed (73,505 in 2010).  When we add up those numbers, we arrive at the devastating annual figure of approximately 105,000 Americans who are either killed or injured with a firearm.  This is nothing less than a profound national tragedy.

When we who live in the Quad Cities watch and read the news reports about all these shootings, we have a tendency to think of them as always happening someplace else, like in Colorado or New York.  Yet we in Iowa and Illinois are not immune to this disease of gun violence.  It touches our states and our communities as well.  According to the FBI’s latest Uniform Crime Report, there were 21 firearms related murders in Iowa in 2010 and 364 in Illinois.  During that year, there were other crimes such as robberies and aggravated assaults in which firearms were used as well.  But we do not need to turn to the statistics com­piled by the FBI to know that guns are killing people – often children – in our community.  All we need do is open the newspaper and watch the TV news.  In fact, just the other day one of my congregants – Linda Golden, who is a high school teacher in Rock Island, Illinois – was telling me about having attended a funeral for a student in her school who had been shot to death.  I would like to say that such shootings are rare in our community, but the fact is that they are happening far more often than we dare to admit.  But since they are not happening to our children, but to other peoples’ children, we tend to pay them scant heed.

Why am I talking to you about gun violence on Yom Kippur?  This is supposed to be a deeply spiritual day during which we plumb the depths of our own souls – when we take inventory of our lives – when we confront our own personal sins and shortcomings, and hopefully resolve to repair and correct them.  Where does gun violence fit into any of that?

The violence born of guns which plagues our nation – which draws our attention and breaks our hearts from time to time over the years, when there is a Columbine or a Granada Hills or a Virginia Tech, or an Aurora, Colorado, or a Sikh Temple shooting – is a corporate, national sin for which there must be both repentance and atonement.  Whether we realize it or not – whether we accept it or not – corporate national sins, especially in this nation which prides itself on being the great democracy, are also personal sins.  They belong to each and every one of us, just as much as all the sins we list in the “Al Chet Shechatanu” prayer; just as much as all those other sins which we may not have found listed in the High Holy Day prayer book but which each of us might have privately listed as we pondered our personal weak­nesses and failings and as we aspired to improve upon those behaviors in the year ahead.  As members of a democracy we do not possess the luxury to be able to say, “That’s the nation’s sin.  It is not mine.”  For they are ours.  For in a democracy, the sins of the nation become the sins of each of its citizens.  Why?  Because we create the nation.  We create it and we recreate it every single election day.  The people who make the decisions and take the actions, or fail to take the actions, which determine the very nature of our nation are the ones who come election day need our votes – our approval and our support – which in turn bestows upon them the power to mold our nation’s present and fashion its future.  So if our elected officials have allowed this nation to wallow in the sin of gun violence, we have no one to blame but ourselves, for we have permitted our elected officials to allow this tragedy to be reenacted time and time again without their making any effort to alter or stop it.  Yes, often they go to the sites of what the media luridly describes as “masacres” and they attend the funerals and they may even wax eloquent in their eulogies, but they do nothing to stop it.  Their tears are crocodile tears, and it is our fault – we, the voters – for we let them get away with it.

The sad reality is that we do not need to dress our young people up in uniforms and send them to foreign soil in order to suffer massive American casualties.   We only need to send them to high schools and colleges and houses of worship and movie theaters, for in our current gun environment they could just as easily fall victim in those places.  My daughter, Helene, and her friends love to go to these midnight movie premieres, like the premiere of the Batman film in Aurora at which that horrible shooting took place.  But as the Aurora shooting shows us, when one goes to such a premiere, one takes one’s life in their hands.  Are any of us so foolish as to believe that while it can happen in Aurora, Colorado it cannot happen in our own community?  Of course it can!  For it is as easy for an unstable person to acquire the firepower in most American communities as it was for James Eagan Holmes to acquire it Aurora, Colorado.  And if that were to happen in our own community, God forbid, then the sin would be upon our heads because we allowed those in power to remain in power while do nothing to protect our children from lunatics with guns.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah the text commonly called The Holiness Code.  In it there is a verse – Leviticus chapter 19, verse 16 – which states “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.”  This is the sin for which we must repent and atone; the sin of standing idly by while all our neighbors who have become victims in all of these shootings, time and time and time again have bled and died while we have remained silent.

This past summer, soon after the shootings in Aurora, the members of our new Quad Cities Interfaith Fellowship struggled with the question of how can our community of faiths put our various faiths to work so that as a united faith community we can say, “Enough already!  Too many have died and died need­lessly.”  So we have started to address this issue.  Our first step was to write a letter to our various elected officials, both local and national, expressing our concern.  An edited version of that letter appeared in Sunday’s Quad City Times  But that is not where our efforts will end.  Indeed, in the wake of the Milwaukee shooting we gave our full support to the local Sikh community.  Next month we will be meeting to look at future action steps.  One thing seem certain.  We wish to place a special emphasis on gun deaths in our own community.  As we develop our action plans, I pray that many others will join us in our efforts.

For far too long, we all have known about this blight upon our society.  We have condemned it.  We have mourned it.  But we have not taken sufficient action to alter it.  When you think about it, it is a disgrace that the two young ladies who will celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah this Spring were born into an America in which we, the people, were aware of and distraught about the loss of life in our society because of the proliferation and accessibility of firearms, yet here it is 13 years later, and nothing has changed.  The killing remains ongoing and indiscriminate.  It is not enough for us to pray that the day will come when a child becomes a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah and does so in an America which knows no gun violence.  We have to work for that goal as well.  We have to make our elected officials understand that we, the citizens of America – that we, the potential victims of future gun violence in our country – will no longer tolerate their empty promises and gross inaction.  Together, may we create an America where we no longer fear that we or our children may be shot and killed simply because we were walking down the street or attending a worship service or going to a movie.