Justice, Justice

November 25, 2014

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף

Justice, justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

My children grew up in Oakland, CA. They are two white men, and because they’ve grown up in Oakland, they have many friends who are African Americans or Latinos. Since they were in middle school my sons have seen how their friends are treated by the police and as a result, they are distrustful of law enforcement. Conversely, I tend to trust the cops, because I’m white and grew up in the Southeast. We’ve had many interesting discussions on our differences of perception; over time I’ve come to realize that I’ve lived a very sheltered life in this respect.

We have a crisis of confidence in the USA today, one that undermines our system of laws. People of color believe that they are harassed unfairly by police, that they are arrested more often than white peers, that they are convicted more often and spend more time in prison than white peers. In states that permit the death penalty, they are executed far more often than white peers. In short, many African Americans believe that the entire system of justice is geared to treat them unfairly and that they cannot expect justice from it.

One could write this off as paranoia, except that the statistics bear it out. In “Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System” Bill Quigley has assembled a horrifying list of examples of studies which conclude that the US criminal justice system treats people of color unfairly. While African Americans are only 13% of the US population, they comprise 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, even though studies have shown that they engage in drug offenses at rates comparable to the white majority. That’s just the first item on his list – click the link and read the rest of it.

So when an unarmed African American youth is shot dead in the street by a white police officer in broad daylight, it should not surprise us at all that his family and many others believe that there might be something amiss. Given that his is the latest in a string of highly publicized deaths of unarmed young men of color, it should not surprise us that many people are angry and demand justice. And now that a grand jury has returned from its deliberations behind closed doors with no indictment, it should not surprise us that parts of this nation are overwhelmed with anger and grief.

Judaism teaches us that justice is an essential value. Justice is not only punishment meted out to the wrongdoer; it is also the assurance that the innocent will not be punished. Justice is even-handed towards all classes of people: “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not favor the poor, nor favor the mighty; but in righteousness shalt you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15) Maimonides insists that judges must have stainless reputations; they must conduct themselves in such a way that not only is justice done, but so that it is seen to have been done. Appearances count: a judge or judicial process which smells fishy is a problem.

President Obama said tonight that “we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” In other words, he said we have to accept the verdict of our legal system. In practical terms, yes, the grand jury is over and Officer Wilson will never stand trial in a criminal court. But today’s events say loud and clear to me that we must deal with the injustices in our system, precisely because so many people distrust not only this verdict, but the entire system that produced it.

If you are unhappy with the demonstrations, if you are unhappy with today’s verdict, no matter what “side” you are on, surely we can all agree that we should have a system of justice that is truly just, to which every law-abiding person can appeal with confidence. People are out in the street because they believe they cannot trust the legal system or law enforcement. They are not crazy. Again, if you haven’t looked at the list of studies Mr. Quigley offers in his article, I beg that you do so.

The only way to improve our situation is to improve the statistics. For example:

  • We need an end to traffic stops that target black drivers. When black drivers are stopped, they should get exactly the same treatment as a white driver in the same circumstances.
  • If whites and blacks engage in drug offenses in roughly equal proportions, then arrests should also match those proportions.
  • We need to improve the public defender system and insure that every person gets a fair trial, because any individual might be innocent.
  • There should be no difference in the length of prison sentences for black and white offenders.

I am sure there are other things that need to be done, and experts who have ideas how to get there. My point is that what we have right now is not a good system of justice, because too many people believe it to be unjust. We must work towards a perception of fairness and justice by all citizens, not just certain privileged groups of citizens.

There is no quick or easy fix. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” cannot be reduced to “chase the bad guys.” Guns won’t fix it, Humvees won’t fix it, slogans won’t fix it, and riots definitely won’t fix it. What we need is a national renewal of dedication to the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that in our nation, justice is indeed for all.

 


Remembering Kennedy

November 22, 2014

Serious Steps

This is a re-post of my remembrance of President Kennedy from last year, slightly updated. I reread it earlier this week and decided that these words were still the right words, given the state of the news and the nation right now.

It’s 51 years today since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy shocked us all. Like everyone else alive that day, I remember it and the following days in Technicolor.

I started to write a different post today, but in researching a detail, I learned about a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Chairman Nikita Kruschchev, written during her last night in the White House, after the assassination:

So now, in one of the last nights I will spend in the White House, in one of the last letters I will write on this paper at the White House, I would like to write you my message.

I send it only because I know how much my husband cared about peace, and how the relation between you and him was central to this care in his mind. He used to quote your words in some of his speeches-”In the next war the survivors will envy the dead.”

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. You respected each other and could deal with each other. I know that President Johnson will make every effort to establish the same relationship with you…

The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones.

While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint—little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.

In those days, the big worry was nuclear war: that “WWIII” would start, and we’d nuke ourselves to death. That never happened, but the underlying problem – the problem of people using violence when words would better serve – is with us still. What strikes me in Mrs. Kennedy’s letter is the notion of “big men” knowing the need for self-control, and “little men” being driven by fear and pride. The “big men” she wrote about were on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain but they managed to keep us out of a hot war. The “little men,” then as now (and believe me, they come in both genders, then and now) like to talk about what the other side “deserves” and don’t stop to think what the world will look like the day after their wishes come true.

Jewish tradition calls upon us all to be “big,” to see beyond our passions and our fear. In this age of the Internet, each of us has power beyond imagining to influence the opinions and actions of others. The power of words, always huge, has gone nuclear. So let us watch our metaphors, let us mind our casual rhetoric that runs to hyperbole: so-and-so’s a Nazi, so-and-so “doesn’t deserve to live.” In a country where every disturbed person has access to a gun, let’s stop spreading rumors that we are pretty sure are as good as true.

My parents disagreed mightily with almost everything President Kennedy did or stood for, but they never once suggested that his death was a good thing.  When I read what some people publish today in public places about anyone they see as a threat to themselves, I tremble. Violent rhetoric may be legal, but it is still violence, and it is too easily translated into violent action by someone too simple or mentally unstable to understand that it was “only rhetoric.”

Instead of running off at the keyboard, let’s all work, soberly, consciously, for a day when every person, large and small

… shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)


Insight from Depression Comix

November 21, 2014

rabbiadar:

As a fellow blogger wrote, “If only it were so simple…”

Depending on the kind of mental illness and its severity, it might be like the cartoon below: feel the storm coming and hunker down. But there are other possibilities:

— Feeling the storm coming, and work frantically to batten down the hatches with the meds at hand before chaos…

— No warning, just the storm arrives, and there is nothing in the larder, no time to cancel, just SPLAT and then aftermath for a while…

— Or the storm arrives and passes…. and you wake up with your life in disarray, the house in need of Crime Scene Cleaners, your bank account empty and half your friends furious for mysterious reasons.

I know folks for whom each of those scenarios has happened. So if you have a friend with mental illness, be kind. If you are one of us, know that you aren’t alone, even if it feels like it. (And thanks, comic artist, for a great cartoon!)

Originally posted on depression comix (WP.com):

depcom.212.col.400px

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Read at depression comix at http://wp.me/s3zYhM-212

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Romantic Comedy – in Genesis?

November 21, 2014

CamelsOne of my favorite stories in the Bible is the meeting of Rebekah and Isaac.

And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. – Gen 24: 63

The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that Isaac was out saying his evening prayers. He finishes them, and looks up. Note what he sees: he sees camels.

And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she alighted from the camel. – Gen 24: 64

There is a parallel structure and a little comedy here: Isaac lifts up his eyes and sees camels. Rebekah lifts up her eyes and sees Isaac. Then, despite the translator’s attempt at decorum, the comedy broadens to slapstick. Rebecca sees Isaac, and she falls off her camel. This translator says “alighted” but the simplest translation of the verb  וַתִּפֹּל, מֵעַל הַגָּמָל is “and she fell from [her seat] upon the camel.” Rebecca sees Isaac, and she loses it: she quite literally falls for him.

And she said unto the servant: ‘What man is this that walks in the field to meet us?’ And the servant said: ‘It is my master.’ And she took her veil, and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. –Gen 24: 65-66

Rebecca, now sitting in a heap on the ground, asks the servant, “Who’s that?” And the servant gives her the answer she hopes for, and she realizes she’s a disheveled heap on the ground. She takes her veil and covers herself. She’s embarrassed: this handsome fellow has seen her and she’s come across as a klutz who can’t even stay on a camel!

The servant, though, is oblivious: his business is with Isaac. Interesting, isn’t it, that he now reports to Isaac, not Abraham?

Our story (or at least this chapter) has a happy ending, with a twist:

And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother. –Gen 24:67

He brought her into his mother’s tent, which isn’t as weird as it sounds to a modern ear. Earlier in the chapter, Abraham insists that Isaac not go to find a wife, but that the servant must bring her back with him. Modern commentators suggest that this is because the tribes at the time were matrilocal: men went to live with their wives’ relatives, not the other way around. Abraham was concerned that Isaac stay in Canaan, where he believed the future of his descendants lay. So by taking Rebecca to Sarah’s tent, Isaac is telling Rebekah that she is the new matriarch of this tribe.

There’s no elaborate wedding; the betrothal [kiddushin] happened back at Rebekah’s childhood home, with the gifts of gold, and sex [nisuin] seals the deal. Somewhere along the line, Isaac also falls for Rebekah: the text says that he loves her.

Then we get the line about comfort, and post-Freud, it all seems a bit much. Keep in mind that the Biblical author never heard of the Oedipus complex. Rebekah is the new matriarch, and she fills the shoes of Sarah.

Do you have a favorite love story in the Bible?


True Leaders Speak Vision

November 19, 2014
Rabbi Blank

Rabbi Stacey Blank blesses a bar mitzvah boy.

Rabbi Stacey Blank, the rabbi serving Kehillat Tzur Hadassah, a Reform synagogue near Jerusalem, posted words yesterday that were the wisest I’d seen about the current matsav [situation] in Israel:

Today a great tragedy occurred — a terrorist attack. An attack that killed four innocent people in the middle of their prayers. Terror because now everyone is locking their doors and glancing suspiciously at everyone else who they are passing on the street, and perhaps even those they work with side by side. We all lose in this game – the victims and also those who encourage terror. True leaders act to end the cycle of killing. True leaders speak vision and not intimidating slogans.

I am going to remember her words as I navigate the aftermath of this crime: the grief, the anger, the politics, and the rhetoric. There are people on both sides who will use this tragedy to manufacture more misery. I can use Rabbi Blank’s wisdom to discern the difference between a “leader” who is using the tension for profit, and a true leader, who points the way out of this terrible wilderness.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Be very careful about buying anyone’s rhetoric. And should someone offer a clear path to justice and peace, may we recognize him or her and put our support behind them.

I am proud to have been a classmate of Rabbi Blank’s at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and in Los Angeles. I am overjoyed to see a colleague shine so bright as a teacher of Torah and a leader of our people.


Statistics and the News

November 19, 2014

Ask the RabbiWhen I began this blog, I hoped to make some of the “insider” things about Judaism more accessible. I think I’ve had some success. Certain posts are “hit” regularly from the search engines, posts like “Jewish Greetings 101” and “Bar and Bat Mitzvah Etiquette for Beginners.” I get a lot of satisfaction from knowing that somewhere out there, someone is a bit less stressed and a bit more prepared to enjoy a happy occasion.

One thing I did not expect was that the list of “search engine terms” would give me a consistent readout on the news. One item in particular always spikes when there is sad news: “Baruch Dayan Emet‘ – Why Do We Bless God when Someone Dies?”  It means “Blessed is the True Judge,” the first response of a devout Jew to hearing about a death. Last summer, during the Gaza war, that post got so many hits that it was the most frequently used post on the blog. This week it has been a busy post again.

If you ever have questions about practices or terms, dear Reader, I hope you’ll ask me via the Ask the Rabbi page. While I try to keep my mind tuned to things that may puzzle newcomers, you are the real experts on what beginners want to know.

May we all go from strength to strength, as learners and teachers!

 


Full of Grief and Dread

November 18, 2014
Har Nof

The Har Nof neighborhood, seen from nearby Yad Vashem, by JuanDev

I worked late last night, and I was typing away at my table when the news came: during morning prayers at a synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem, two young Palestinian men (allegedly, men who worked in the neighborhood) entered and wounded several people, murdering four. The police arrived and had a gun battle with the attackers in the synagogue. The attackers died, and at least one policeman was severely wounded.

Photos from the synagogue show pools of blood on the floor, slowly soaking into prayer books, tallitot (prayer shawls) and tefillin.

As the news went out, celebrations began in Palestinian neighborhoods. Hamas put a cartoon on its website, celebrating the murders. Prime Minister Abbas condemned the killings but wrapped his condemnation in generalities that suggested Israelis were to blame for incitements at the Temple Mount and elsewhere.

Things readers who have not lived in Israel may want to know, to understand the news reports:

  • Har Nof is a neighborhood in West Jerusalem. It is well to the west of the so-called Green Line, the 1947 boundary established by the United Nations. In other words, in no way, shape or form is it a “settlement,” or in an area occupied by Israel since 1967. It is one of the last places I would have expected such a terror attack.
  • The synagogue on Agasi St. is like many other such places around the city. About thirty people gathered there at 7am for the morning prayers. Most were men who are devoted enough that they make it there every morning to pray, who shared the kinship of that particular minyan. Perhaps someone slightly less religious was there to fulfill the mitzvah of saying kaddish for a close relative.
  • Prayer was underway. The participants were deep into the service, eyes lowered over the prayer books, swaying gently, murmuring the words, concentrating on saying the prayers. Their left arms were wrapped in tefillin, their shawls were wrapped around their shoulders or over their heads. Those deepest in prayer were likely completely unaware of their surroundings, wrapped tightly in their prayer garb, all senses occupied with the service.
  • Two men entered the synagogue with meat cleavers and a gun. They hacked at the group of people who were deep in prayer. The attack was so savage that five people are dead now, not counting the attackers themselves, and many others are in the hospital. The synagogue floor runs with blood.
  • PM Netanyahu and his cabinet are looking into ways to defend against more such attacks. This attack will not accomplish anything other than to make matters worse.  Life in Israel is about to get more difficult for everyone.
I am full of grief and dread. The grief is for the deaths of Torah scholars, and for one more step away from anything that might be peace. The dread is that it doesn’t matter what Israel is willing to offer, nothing but the annihilation of Israel will satisfy those on the other side. I want to shriek at the people celebrating, “Don’t you realize this is just as bad for you as it is for us?”
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

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