Posted tagged ‘human-rights’

What Do We Do About Syria?: One Jewish Perspective

September 8, 2013

Over a week ago, I received a phone call from a dear friend and colleague.  He was seeking my advise as he was preparing some remarks about the situation in Syria which he was planning to deliver to his congregation on Rosh Hashanah, should the United States take action against her by then.  At that point, I told him that I was not going to prepare such a text because the situation was so fluid.  If the need did arise, I most likely would speak extemporaneously.  However, that was before President Obama decided to turn this decision over to the Congress.  With the matter now up for debate in the Congress, with all the variables which that implies, I changed my mind about prepared remarks.  Below are the remarks that I did prepare and present to my congregation at the beginning of our Rosh Hashanah evening service.  They constitute, as my title states, ONE Jewish perspective; obviously one with which I agree.  It is not the only Jewish perspective, but it is mine.  Since these remarks were in addition to the sermon I had prepared for the evening, they were as limited in scope as I was limited in the time I could set aside to present them.  I wish that I could have fleshed them out even further, especially in terms of my vision of what actions the U.S. should and should not take.  In particular, I would have liked to address the multitude of humanitarian actions that the U.S. has yet to take, and should be taking, regarding aid to the thousands of refugees who have fled across the Syrian borders into the lands of several of her neighbors, seeking to escape the ravages of war.  I do want to acknowledge my indebtedness to the authors so many excellent articles, many written by colleagues.  I particular want to mention an article written by Donniel Hartman, entitled “Syria, Moral Responsibilities and Ambiguous Circumstances,” for I found his reflections most stimulating and inspiring.  I now share with you the remarks I shared with my congregation:

As we gather on this Rosh Hashanah eve there is a cloud hanging over our nation and the world.  It is the cloud of war.  President Obama has, in the strongest of terms, expressed his view that it is absolutely necessary that our nation take punitive military actions against Syria in response to that government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.  In just a few days our Congress will begin to debate whether or not to affirm our President’s call to action.  To read the newspapers and listen to the electronic media, it is clear that public opinion is torn over whether or not to act, and if to act, how to act.

There have been those who have asked me, “What is the Jewish perspective on this issue?”  That is a difficult question, yet a very important one, for how can we gather on the High Holy Days and not ponder the rights and wrongs of this dire situation?  Therefore, I have taken advantage of the early High Holy Days and have chosen to postpone to Yom Kippur my annual Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal, which I usually share with you at this time in order that I can take this opportunity to at least open the discussion of how Jewish texts, teachings, values, and experiences can aid each of us in our own decision making as to whether or not to support the President’s call to action.

I would like to be able to say that Jewish sources are clearly on one side of this issue or the other, but they are not.  Just as there are those in our country today who say we must respond and those who say we must not put ourselves at risk by getting involved in another people’s war, so we will find Jewish texts of equally divided opinion.

In the Torah we read “You must not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is being shed”[1] – in fact we will read that very text on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Yet the rabbis saw a limitation to that requirement.  They tell us that even though we are required to rescue others, we are not required to do so at the cost us our own lives.  In the Talmud, in Tractate Baba Metzia, there is a case presented in which two people are in the desert but only one of them has a bottle of water.  If they share the water, they both will die while if only one drinks, that person will survive.  What should be done?  The rabbis decided that the owner of the water should keep it for himself, and survive, for one’s own life takes precedence over the life of another.[2]

In these two texts we see the core of both sides of the argument as being waged today.  On one side, in the spirit of Leviticus, there are those who claim we have a moral obligation to rescue those who are being callously slaughtered in Syria.  On the other side, in the spirit of Tractate Baba Metzia, there are those who argue against intervention lest it cost more American lives.  It is this very ambiguity between the perspectives of Leviticus and Baba Metzia which has kept us out of the Syrian conflict up until now.

But now the game has changed as the Asad regime has introduced the use of chemical weapons even though they are illegal and constitute weapons of mass destruction.  What is a weapon of mass destruction?  It is a weapon which when deployed kills on a mammoth scale, making no distinction among its victims between combatants and non-combatants.  In utilizing such weaponry, the Syrian government forces have crossed the line from waging conventional warfare to perpetrating atrocities.  This is the red line of which President Obama has often spoken.

Why is this red line so important?  Because failing to take action when chemical weapons are used because, at this particular time, somebody else and not our people, are the targets, is to give tacit approval to the use of chemical weapons in general; it is to send a message to any despot, any terrorist group, any evil doer that they, too, are free to employ such weapons against any target they so choose.  Today, the target is the Syrian rebels.  Tomorrow it very likely could be Israel.  But it could also be London or Wash­ington or New York.  If our experience with terrorism has taught us anything, it has taught us that if left unchallenged, there is no containing terrorist activities and everyone is a potential target.

That brings us to the argument of self defense; that taking action against Syria now is actually an act of self defense lest at some future time someone chooses to use such weapons against us.  Here, too, Jewish texts have something to say.  In the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Laws, we are told that we are obligated to take the life of the “pursuer” – someone who is attempting to kill us – in order to save our own life.[3]  So if we view Syria’s use of chemical weapons as potentially opening the door to the proliferation of such use, which in turn would endanger the American people, then  taking action against Syria is necessary.

Stepping away from classical Jewish texts, we also need to look at historical Jewish experience.  One most certainly can draw a parallel between Syria having crossed the line in its use of chemical weapons against its people with the Nazi’s crossing the line in their use of chemical weapons – the gas chambers – against the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.  After the Holocaust, we said “Never Again!”  When we said it, we did not just mean, “Never again will we permit them to do this to Jews.”  Rather what we meant is that “Never again will we permit one group of people to do this to any other group of people.”  We have already failed in that commitment when we turned a blind eye to the slaughter in Rwanda.  And though we spoke a good game about our opposition to the genocide in Darfur, our response was painfully slow and inadequate.  The question becomes, will we once again fail to live up that pledge?  If we do fail, then we have to face up to the fact that there is a great deal of hypocrisy ever time we hold a Yom HaShoah service.

If we choose to act, what should be the outcome we seek?  It should not be regime change or supporting one side over the other in the Syrian civil war.  A civil war is just that; a civil war; an internal national struggle between citizens, which must be resolved internally.  Rather the outcome we should seek is to send a clear and decisive message that if you need to fight to resolve your internal differences, the go ahead and do so, but you must do it with conventional weapons and not with weapons of mass destruction.  We will not tolerate the use of such weapons and we will not stand idly by if they are used.

Lastly, what about Israel?  People on both sides of this issue have claimed that they have Israel’s best interests at heart.  First of all, we need to understand that no matter how the Syrian civil war ultimately resolves, Israel is the loser.  If the rebels win, then Israel will find the rebels’ allies – Al Qaeda – camped along its borders, ready to strike.  If Asad’s forces win, then the hands of Hezbollah will have been strengthened and Iran emboldened.  Yet as great as those threats are to Israel, far more does she fear that American inaction at this time will give her enemies the green light to employ chemical weapons against her.  Nothing could make that clearer than the fact that Israeli leaders from such opposite ends of the spectrum as are Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres agree on this matter.

It is no easy task to keep the world safe from those who revel in death and destruction.  May we find in this quagmire an all too hidden path to peace.

AMEN


[1]LEVITICUS 19:16.

[2]BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Baba Metzia 62a.

[3]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 72a and Shulchan Aruch 425.

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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.

A Jewish Perspective on the Ethics of End of Life Decision Making

April 29, 2013

My congregation – Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Iowa – has started hosting a series of panel discussions on contemporary ethical issues.  For these panels we bring in local experts on varying aspects of the issue.  After introducing the topics and the “players,” each program starts off with me offering a 10 minute presentation on the topic from a Jewish perspective.  This year we experiments with two such programs; one on the Ethical Challenges Facing the Media and the other on the Ethical Challenges Facing End of Life Decision Making.  While my presentation of the Jewish perspective on the topic of media ethics was made from an outline (and therefore far exceeded my 10 minute limit), for time and efficiency sake, I decided to prepare my presentation for end of life decision making in a full text format.  It is that text which I share with you now.  However, before I do so, let me offer a few disclaimers:  1) This presentation is far from exhaustive on the topic, nor could it be considering the presentation’s time limit of 10 minute.  2) For research sources, I relied heavily on responsa literature coming out of the Reform movement.  While a more evenhanded approach would have been to pull from responsa across the Jewish spectrum, being a Reform rabbi primarily speaking to a Reform congregation, I felt, and feel, completely justified in restricting my sources to those coming out of Reform Judaism.  3) As an adjunct professor at a local university, I try to be sensitive to issues of plagerism, however I am not always certain of some of the fine lines which define it.  I have tried to give appropriate credit to my sources in my footnotes.  If I have an any point crossed that line into the universe of plagerism, I apologize in advance for it was never my intention to “steal” intellectual property from another.

Several years ago one of our congregants suddenly collapsed and was rushed to the emergency room.  She had several arterial blockages which the doctors tried their best to clear.  However the damage was so extensive that there was considerable loss of oxygen to the brain.  So she was placed in intensive care and put on a respirator.  She never regained consciousness and it was not long before it was clear to the doctors that she never would.  At best, her brain activity was minimal.  So her loving family was faced with the very difficult and painful decision as whether or not to artificially keep her alive by means of the respirator although there was infinitesimal, if any, hope of her ever recovering, or remove her from the respirator and place her life into the hands of God.

So the family sought my advise, as their rabbi.  I told them that they needed to choose what they thought would be best for their loved one and for themselves, and that whatever that decision would be, Judaism would support it.  So they decided to take her off the respirator.

After they had made that decision, but before they had actually taken the action, they were visited by the local Chabad rabbi.  When they told him their intentions, he was emphatic in expressing his opposition, claiming that in the eyes of the Jewish religion, what they were proposing to do would be nothing short of murder.

Two rabbis and two dramatically different opinions on a very personal and difficult subject.  Which one of us was right?  Actually, both of us could make that claim.  For when you look at the traditional literature on such difficult end of life questions, you can find argumentation in both directions.  You see, we think of these questions as being relatively contemporary but in Judaism rabbis have been debating these issues for centuries, indeed for almost two millennia; as far back as the MISHNAH, which was put in its final form approximately 1,800 years ago.

Before we can look at where we disagree, we need to spend some time looking at our areas of agreement.

Firstly, there is unanimous agreement among the rabbis that life is more than just a biological function.  Rather it is a gift from God.  As such, it must be viewed as sacred and therefore must be treated with great care.[1]  Needless to say, Judaism fundamentally rejects murder – the taking of a life.  This is as old as the Torah itself.  It is one of the Ten Commandments.

The rabbis later extended the Torah’s definition of murder to include suicide.  The Talmud makes this point very clear when it tells the story of Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradion, a second century rabbi who was part of the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome.  The Romans captured him and condemned him to be burned at the stake.  His loving students urged him to breathe in the flames so that he could die more quickly.  He refused, giving the reply, “It is best that He Who hath given the soul should also take it away; let no man hasten his own death.”[2]

Yet another point of mutual agreement is the prohibition against the practice of euthanasia or assisted suicide – taking positive steps to advance death regardless of whether or not the individual is terminally ill.[3]  There is uniformity among the rabbis that this is but another form of murder, even if the “victim” is a willing participant, choosing to terminate their own existence.

There is also agreement that while taking positive actions to advance death is prohibited, that there is a clear distinction between such positive actions and indirect actions, primarily using negative means, in order to remove barriers which might hinder a natural death.[4]  So, for example, the rabbis agree that it is acceptable to stop praying for the recovery of someone who is terminally ill.  While we today may think of that as a minor matter, for the rabbis it was not, for they fully believed that prayers make a real difference.  In fact the Talmud relates a powerful story to this effect.  Rabbi Judah HaNasi – the redactor of the Mishnah – was dying with great suffering.  Yet the other rabbis insisted upon standing at his window, offering continual prayers for his life.  Finally, in empathy for her master, Rabbi Judah’s servant woman climbed onto the roof and dropped a clay jug right over where the rabbis were gathered.  The crashing of the jug on the ground startled the rabbis, interrupting their prayers.  No sooner did they stop praying then Rabbi Judah was released from his suffering and died.[5]

It is on this point of making a distinction between positive actions that advance death and those actions which serve to remove the barriers to natural death that the rabbis part company.  They do so over the very difficult question of boundaries.  When does one’s actions cross over from actively terminating a life to removing that which artificially prolongs life and interferes with a natural death?  This can plainly be seen in a debate across time between two famous commentators, Moses Isserles (1520-1572) and the Taz, David HaLevi Segal (1586-1667).  Isserles held that it was permissible to remove salt from the tongue of a terminally ill patient on the grounds that it was a stimulant which was preventing him from relaxing into death.  The Taz challenged Isserles’ position, claiming that the removal of the salt was an overt act which hastened death.[6]

It was on this question of boundaries – when do we cross over from actively terminating a life to removing an impediment to death – that the Chabad rabbi and I disagreed in the situation that I described in the beginning of these remarks.  To reference the debate between Moses Isserles and the Taz, I stood on the side of Isserles while he stood on the side of the Taz.  So as you can see, their debate continues today as we find ourselves struggling in our search for ethical answers for these end of life decision.

Not only will it continue, but it will grow in intensity and complexity as medical technology continues to advance our ability to prolong the length of life but not to the same degree, the quality of life.  As a rabbi, I visit the sick and the shut in of our community on a regular basis.  Among those I visit are those who are suffering from horrible diseases such as Alzheimers, which methodically strips them of their intelligence, their personality, their ability to communicate, until they reach a point when their body is here but all that made them who they were as human beings is no longer with us.  I leave those visits deeply depressed for I miss the people who inhabited those bodies and I deeply dread the very real possibility that such would be my ultimate fate as well.  And I cannot help but ask myself the fundamental question: When does life end?  When the body no longer functions or when the individual who populates that body no longer exists and for whom there is no hope of return?  Tough and frightening questions present themselves to us today and will continue, and multiply, in the coming years.  We will need to struggle with the ethics of our responses.


[1]Euthanasia, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1950.

[2] Ibid.  Tractate Avoda Zara 18a, Babylonia Talmud.

[3] Euthanasia, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1980.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ketubot 104a, Babylonian Talmud; Allowing a Terminal Patient to Die, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1969.

[6] Allowing a Terminally Ill Patient to Die, American Reform Responsa, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1969.

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?