Posted tagged ‘Following One’s Conscience’

When Purim Invades the Headlines

February 23, 2017

The Jewish world will soon be observing the holiday of Purim.  I said “observing” when truth be known, we Jews don’t just “observe” Purim; we CELEBRATE it!  We dress in costume.  We hold the most raucous, noisiest worship service of the year.  We sing and we shout and we stomp our feet.  We eat and we drink (and I am not just talking about iced tea or punch but the hard stuff, for on Purim the Talmud commands us to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between “cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.”[1]).  And then, of course there is the Purim Seudah (feast – in our case, a pizza dinner) and the ever popular Carnival.  We eat hamantaschen, send shlach manot (food gifts to our loved ones) and matanot le’evyonim (gifts to the poor).  It is Mardi Gras, New Year’s Eve, that December season of giving whose name we never mention, all rolled up into one.  It is one heck of a party and we fondly carry our childhood memories of it with us throughout our lives.

Yet somehow or other, in the midst of all our partying, we can often forget why we party so; what is the cause of the celebration?

The answer is wrapped in a sinister cloud.  It is dark and it is painful.  For Purim commemorates our victory over antisemitism.  It celebrates the defeat of Haman – the Hitler of his day – whose goal it was to accomplish nothing short of a genocide of the Jewish people.  So we party hardy as an affirmation of life in what was supposed to be the face of a certain and horrible death.  Purim is the personification of the old saying, “The definition of every Jewish holiday is:  They tried to kill us.  We won.  Let’s eat!”

Today, most of us intentionally avoid these more somber thoughts when it comes to Purim.  We choose to focus on the joy rather than on the fear.

Unfortunately, this year, at least some of that fear seems to be unavoidable for we have been forced to confront the fact that antisemitism is real and alive in our nation as well as in the rest of the world.  Over the last 72 hours the news media has “discovered” that antisemitism really exists in the United States. The dramatic vandalism of the Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, with the desecration of over 100 gravestones, along with the addition of 11 more bomb threats to Jewish community centers (bringing the number up to 59 if my math and facts are correct), coupled with the President’s bizarre reticence to address the very issue of antisemitism or to even mention Jews in his statement about Holocaust memorial, and his finally condemning (though weakly) the acts of antisemitism, have forced not only the President but the mainstream media to acknowledge this elephant in the room, if only for the moment. But as we all should know, this issue is an even greater one that many are willing to admit.  And these are only the stories that the mainstream media has picked up on.  For those of you who follow me on Facebook, you know that since 2014 I have been reporting, almost on an daily basis, various acts of antisemitism that have taken place in our country and around the world.  I know that there are those that have found my “Antisemitism in Action” reports to be somewhat irritating and alarmist for our lives have been good lives and we generally don’t live in fear.  But still, these attacks upon our people are real and they have been real for some time now.  Unfortunately, they will continue to be real after this current news cycle ends and the stories of antisemitism once again fade from the headlines.

Obviously, there is nothing new about antisemitism. It has been with us for at least 2,000 years. Over that time it has taken on nuanced changes but at its core, it has essentially remained the same and, of course, its impact upon the Jewish people has most certainly remained the same. It matters but little what excuse the antisemites give for despising us, for degrading us, and for persecuting us, in the end it all results in the same suffering, ranging from humiliation to extermination.

That being said, today what we are experiencing in America is not the same singular hatred that has marked most of the history of antisemitism. Rather, today’s American antisemitism is but one component of a complex dynamic of American hatred that has found its voice and has felt profoundly empowered over the past year, especially in the wake of the recent presidential campaign. For today’s American antisemitism is intimately and inextricably connected to a web of hatred which includes racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexism (and probably a few other bigotries I forgot to mention). For quite some time now I have been fond of saying, “Those who hate tend to be equal opportunity haters.” Today in America those “equal opportunity haters” are sensing a new liberation as they are stepping out of the shadows and coming out from under their rocks to assert their prejudices upon our society, and Jew hatred is but one of those prejudices.

But all this should not get us down.  After all, soon it will be Purim and we will be celebrating; celebrating vigorously.  Why will we be celebrating while bomb threats may be continuing to roll in and perhaps other Jewish cemeteries will be desecrated?  We will be celebrating because, just as our history has shown us, no matter what they try to do to us, in the end we will win.  We will win because it is our right to win.  We will win because there are too many good people in this world to allow evil to prosper.

There is an old Midrash about two men on a lake in a rowboat. One of them takes out a drill and starts boring under his seat. The other, in distress, calls out to him: “What do you think you are doing?” The fellow replies: “What do you care? It’s none of your business. I’m drilling under my own seat!” The moral is that we are all in this boat together – sink or swim. We cannot afford to focus solely on the prejudices that attack us personally. We must ban together – all victims of prejudice, along with all people of good conscience – and confront the current hatred in all of its forms, standing up for each other and standing with each other in common purpose.

If we ban together with others of good conscience in opposition to ALL forms of bigotry, including antisemitism, then we will win because we will not let the purveyors of hatred win.  We will stand up to them and we will defeat them, in much the same manner that Mordecai & Esther defeated Haman.  Each of us will just have to choose to be the Mordecai and the Esther of today.  HAPPY PURIM!!!!!!!

 

[1]   Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah 7b.

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.