Blogging While Black: Yeah, It’s a Thing.

August 19, 2014

 :לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Lev. 19:16

Yesterday, I posted a link to a blog post by Michael W. Twitty from Afroculinaria.com. He titled it #Ferguson: My Thoughts on an American Flashpoint, and it is a moving piece. It began with an image someone sent via Twitter to him: a racist manipulation of the image of Michael Brown’s dead body lying on the pavement.

I’ve received a share of hate messages via social media. They were nasty bits of Jew-hatred, woman-hatred, or fat-hatred, and occasionally a rancid mix of the three. But none were as violent, as personal, as those sent to my friend. I deleted them and blocked the source, if I could. Then I tried to push the image, or the words out of my head: easier said than done.

But Michael Twitty took this ugly, hateful, personal image and used it as a starting point to talk about the dignity of human beings. He made use of his own experience as an illustration, but it wasn’t “all about him.” He took a very personal attack and turned it into a lesson on social justice. It was a raw, truthful piece of writing, his hurt and anger quite visible in it, and it moved me to some serious thinking about what I was going to do about the dignity of human beings.

Tonight I learned that in the first 24 hours after posting the piece, Michael Twitty has received death threats in response. One message suggested that he should be lynched.

What has happened to us?

The names keep piling up: Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Ezell Ford, John Crawford III, on and on and on. What they have in common is that they were unarmed and unresisting when they were executed. They had no due process, no trial, no appeals. They were assumed dangerous because they were African American males.

Fifteen years ago, in Oakland, California, I attended a meeting about a couple of break-ins on my street. My neighbors, mostly elderly and white, talked nervously about “those kids from the high school.”  The police had given us no idea whom to blame for the burglaries; the assumption was that “those kids” were to blame. No one needed to say “black kids” – that was a given. We discussed the pros and cons of hiring a security service, since the Oakland cops were never seen on our street.

I was on the fence – private security? really? – when an elderly gent leaned over to me and whispered, “Don’t you worry, honey, I see any of those black boys on our street and I’ll shoot them before they get to your house.” My stomach twisted. My sons had friends that came and went from our house, some of them African American.

“Don’t you dare,” I hissed. “They’re my sons’ friends. I swear I will testify against you if any such thing happens.”

That decided my vote. Naively, I thought it was better to have a private security service than to have Mr. Green running around playing vigilante. In retrospect, I see that instead I was voting to PAY someone to play vigilante. They were still going to be a danger to any young dark-skinned man who came our way. The sickness in our society runs very deep.

[Added note: At the time, I thought I was being a nice liberal person, pretending not to notice that everyone in the room was talking about black men, until someone said "black." I knew darn well what they were talking about, and I didn't say anything until it was unavoidable. By making that choice I was complicit in their racist talk and behavior. Mea culpa. That was wrong. I will not do that again.]

News flash, America: you cannot tell if a man is dangerous by the color of his skin. And even if he IS “dangerous” in your opinion, he has the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that every other person has. Until he breaks the law, under the law he’s exactly like you and me. And if he does something to break the law, then he’s still innocent until proven guilty.

We in the US seem to be able to hold onto those ideas when a person has fair skin. We seem totally incapable of it when a person has dark skin. Heck, we don’t even want a dark skinned man to express an OPINION. Hence the horrible mail that Mr. Twitty has been getting since he wrote that post.

The Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 tells me that I may not stand upon the blood of my neighbor. Look where we are standing, America: our shoes are covered in blood.


The Mitzvah of Rebuke

August 2, 2014

"Hatred" by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

“Hatred” by Ben Slow, photographed by MsSaraKelly

If someone is misbehaving, it is a mitzvah (a commandment) to rebuke them. We get this from the Holiness Code in Leviticus:

.לֹא-תִשְׂנָא אֶת-אָחִיךָ, בִּלְבָבֶךָ; הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת-עֲמִיתֶךָ, וְלֹא-תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, and you will surely rebuke him, and you will not bear a sin because of him.  (Leviticus 19:17)

There are three parts to the commandment: (1) don’t hate other people (2) definitely tell them if they are doing wrong and (3) don’t bring sin upon yourself in the process.

We Jews excel at part (2) of that commandment. We love to tell other people when we think they are in error. However, lately we in the Diaspora been doing a lousy job of (1) and (3).

For the past three weeks on various social media, Diaspora Jews have melted down into a frenzy of rebuke. Pro-Israel, anti-Israel, anti-Israel but anti-Hamas, pro-Palestinian but anti-Hamas, seeking one state, seeking two states, words flying like shrapnel. The name-calling is out of hand, with Jews hurling words like “Nazi” and “traitor” at one another. In some cases, these are educated Jews, too: people who should know how to conduct an argument for the sake of heaven. Our tone has too often grown hateful. If we do not yet actually hate other Jews, we are paving the way there with these words that dehumanize the other. 

And then there is the matter of “don’t bear a sin because of him.” Rebuking another person in public, causing them shame (or hoping to shame them) is a sin. In Bava Metzia 58b, the rabbis liken public shaming to murder. Immediately after that passage, they tell the story of Akhnai’s Oven, in which the rabbis cause Rabbi Eliezer shame, with tragic results.

Talking about others is lashon haraevil speech, another sin. It is not simply gossip (rechilut) or spreading lies, but also speech that damages another’s reputation. Saying about another person, “She is a traitor to the Jewish people” or “He is a bloodthirsty murderer” when your talk about it does not have an important purpose (to save a life, for instance) is lashon hara. One may say, “well, that’s my opinion” but the point is, we are forbidden to spread around opinions like that. If you have a problem with a person, talk to him directly and privately.

With the backdrop of the dreadful situation in Israel and Gaza, emotions run high. However, we can and must control our tongues and our keyboards. Hateful speech does not help Israel, and it does not help the innocent victims of violence. Statement of the facts, pointing to sources, giving tzedakah: those things can help. Organizing peaceful demonstrations can help. Letters, emails and phone calls to powerful people can help. And yes, some situations may call for proper rebuke: rebuke that happens quietly, without name-calling, that asks for specific changes in behavior.

This week, when we observe Tisha B’Av and remember the great disasters in our history, our teachers will remind us that the Temple was lost because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred.  

My brothers and sisters, we in the Diaspora cannot afford to scream at one another on Twitter and facebook. We cannot afford to hurl hateful speech at one another. We have seen in the past what comes of this behavior. 

Our Israeli cousins are running for shelters, IDF soldiers are dying and wounded, and civilians are dying in Gaza (never mind for a moment whose fault, people are dying.) Around the world, we are seeing a resurgence of anti-Semitism that smells sickeningly like the 1930’s in Europe. Mobs are marching in Europe, chanting “Death to the Jews.” Jews were beaten in the street in Canada. Canada! 

Now is a time for purposeful action and purposeful speech. There is indeed much that must be done. It can be done without name-calling and without public screaming matches. No matter what your opinion, those are wastes of valuable time and energy, and they carry the seeds of tragedy.

Ribbono shel olam, You who know our inmost hearts, help us to act and to speak with holy purpose. 


We Can’t Have It Both Ways

July 7, 2014
Four Boys

Four Boys

My regular readers have probably noticed that I’ve been unusually quiet for the last week. Events in Israel this past week have left me speechless. I wish I could say something useful about what’s been going on there, but between the storm of my own feelings and the swift winds of events, I’ve been silent.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rabbi Yitz Greenberg‘s comment about Jewish theology after the Holocaust: “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” In other words, words are not sufficient to express the disaster of the Shoah, much less to “make sense” of it. It was senseless, mindless evil.

So, too. was the murder of Mohammed Abu Khieder, another burning child. The Israeli police have arrested several Jews for this crime, and the full weight of the law will be brought to bear. But what has given me as much pain are the comments I have been reading and hearing in the wake of the crime.

  • “The murderers do not represent us.”
  • “They are not real Jews.”
  • “They (the Palestinians) are still worse than we are.”

This, from people who scoff when someone says that pizza parlor bombings are not true expressions of Islam. This from people who would be incensed at the suggestion that the Holocaust was not the action of “real Germans.” This, from people who read the news stories about Jews marching in the streets of Jerusalem, of the Holy City, chanting “Death to the Arabs.”

We, who were so noisy about how Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal were “our children,” are now hastily disowning six other young men who chose to act out what other Jews were saying in the street.

It is easier to be connected with blameless victims; we can grieve, and people will feel sorry for us. We can be angry at the Other. But when the criminals are our own, it is much more difficult. It is hard to say, yes, that child is mine.

We can’t have it both ways. If we are going to hold all Palestinians responsible for the murders of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali, then we must not be surprised if they hold us all responsible for the terrible death of young Mohammed. On both sides, we have innocents, on both, we have the guilty.

Until we are willing to claim both for both sides, and admit both for both sides, there can be no peace.

 


What is Shmita?

May 7, 2014

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, introduces the concept of the sabbatical year. As it happens, 5775 will be a sabbatical year. So you may be wondering, what is shmita (shmee-TAH, the Sabbatical year)?

Shmita literally translates in English as “release.”

Leviticus 25: 1-7 states:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:  Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I give you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your untrimmed vines; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land during its sabbath will produce — you, your male and female slaves, the hired and bound laborers who live with you, and your cattle and the beasts in your land may eat all its yield.

The Torah here draws an analogy between the people and the land. Just as the Jewish people are commanded to rest every seventh day, and to allow our animals and servants to rest every seventh day, we are commanded to rest the land every seventh year.

Deuteronomy 15 adds additional regulations for the sabbatical year:

At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 

That chapter goes on to specify that Jewish slaves belonging to Jews will also be released in that year.

Now in fact, we don’t know exactly how these rules were applied in ancient times. The Biblical text suggests that the sabbatical year wasn’t observed:

This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I made a covenant with your ancestors when I brought them out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I said, ‘Every seventh year each of you must free any fellow Hebrews who have sold themselves to you. After they have served you six years, you must let them go free.’[a] Your ancestors, however, did not listen to me or pay attention to me. (Jeremiah 34: 13-14)

In Nehemiah 10, the re-establishment of the sabbatical year is proclaimed, but again, we don’t hear how that actually played out.

The problem was and is that taking this law literally is extremely difficult. Imagine for a moment what it implies: all agriculture ceases for a year. All debts are cancelled. Slaves are let go. The richer you are, the more losses you take, but there are risks and losses for everyone.

The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud devised ways to make it work. (If you are interested in the details, check out prozbul, and otzar beit din.  To get an idea of what is involved in a traditional rabbinical observance of these rules, you can read “Shmittah Revisited” by Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff.)

But what if we take a more expansive approach to the interpretation of these verses? What if the real point is not in the details, but in the values that the shmita year teaches?

What are some of the values that shmita endorses?

  • Food security
  • Economic justice
  • Sustainable use of land
  • Human, animal, and land health
  • Freedom

Genesis 1:26 is often interpreted to mean that human beings may do with the earth what they like:

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

The principles of the shmita year (as well as the prohibitions on unnecessary cruelty to animals) remind us that we are not the rulers of creation, free to do whatever we like regardless of consequences.

Economic expert Rabbi Meir Tamari has observed in his book The Challenge of Wealth that proponents of various political and economic ideologies have often tried to use Torah to argue that their particular system is God’s system. He points out that one can make such arguments for many conflicting systems: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Torah is not an endorsement of any one economic or political system; rather it offers us a vision of a world of justice and peace. It is up to us and our human creativity to find ways to bring that world to fruition.

Perhaps the commandment for shmitah (remember, it is literally translated “release”) teaches us that we should regularly release our preconceived notions of economics in order to take a hard look at what is going on around us so that we may bring our world back into line with the values expressed in Torah:

  • Are there slaves? Release them!
  • Are there hungry people? Feed them!
  • Are resources being exhausted? Find better, sustainable ways to meet the need!

We are living in a time when many people are concerned with these problems. While we do not all agree on solutions, we can support one another in seeking many different solutions to slavery, workplace abuses, hunger, concerns about climate, and concerns about justice. We can release our insistences that our plans be the only plans.

Our times call for creativity, and now the shmita year is coming to call us to even higher creativity, and an even higher standard of justice.

Psalm 126 says that “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” Much is wrong in our world today. Let us make use of the shmita year, and shmita creativity, to work towards a new harvest, a harvest of joy.

 

 


A Suffering Dog – What Does Torah Require?

May 3, 2014
Look for the dog in this photo.

Look for the dog in this photo.

Kindness to animals is not merely a “good deed.” Unnecessary cruelty to animals (Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim) is repeatedly forbidden in the Torah.

It’s getting warm outside. You see an animal locked into a hot vehicle. You think, “Is this my business?” and I assure you, the Torah commands that we act when a fellow creature is suffering.  In Exodus 23:5:

If you see a donkey belonging to someone who hates you fallen down under its burden, you may not pass by him, and you must surely release him.

Even if the animal is owned by an enemy, even if it is a work animal fallen down working, we may not pass by and we must surely help. An unusual grammatical construction in the Hebrew (“must surely help”) underlines the urgency of this commandment.

Why does the Torah add “belonging to someone who hates you?” The reaction of the owner – their feelings about us – are not part of the equation. If they are angry that we “meddled,” so be it.

So what are my options when I see an animal locked in a car on a hot day? This happened to me this past week: I saw the dog in the photo above locked in a truck in 90 degree heat (outside – goodness knows what it was inside the truck.) I had been parked next to the truck for 15 minutes waiting for a friend (I was drinking water, with the windows down to catch the breeze) before I noticed the dog. He was panting heavily and had no water.

I took a photo of the dog (above) and of the license plate of the truck, and went inside the business to find help. The business has a security guard, who walked back with me to check the situation. As we walked, a couple sprinted by us and released the dog from the car, taking him out on a leash. The man walked rapidly away with the dog, and the woman walked back to the business, telling us that she “appreciated our concern” but that they had been “checking on the dog every ten minutes.” The security person chose to drop the matter there.

Did the couple understand that they had been cruel to the dog? Probably not. My impression was that they wanted to avoid trouble. It is my hope that they will avoid trouble in future by not torturing the dog.

I share this story because I want to let you know that Torah requires we act when we see a suffering animal. Judaism is very clear about this: while it is permitted to kill and eat some animals for food, we are required to do so with a minimum of pain to the animal. That’s what we are paying for when we pay extra for kosher meat: we are paying for rabbinic supervision certifying that the animal was slaughtered in a kosher fashion. There are a lot of controversies about whether kosher methods are still the kindest available, and a growing number of Jews and others have elected a vegan lifestyle to completely avoid cruelty to animals. However, the principle itself stands: we are not permitted even to witness unnecessary cruelty to animals. It is up to each of us to determine exactly where we will draw the line of necessity.

Nothing about that dog’s situation looked “necessary” to me.

So, if you see an animal suffering in a car in the heat, what can you do?  If it is outside a place of business, notify the business (the dog or ar owner is likely there.) If that doesn’t produce immediate results, call the police with a description of the car, the dog, the license plate, and location. There are laws against animal cruelty in many locales. Keep trying until help arrives.

I would be very reluctant to break a window on the car. Breaking the window gets us into a whole new set of questions. Also, if we’re talking about dogs, unless the dog has collapsed from the heat, there’s always the possibility that the dog will run off and get hurt in traffic or that it will try to protect the car and bite.

May we each have courage and resourcefulness when faced with a situation requiring action!


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