For Whites Only: After #Charleston

This post is for my readers who are white citizens of the United States. If you are not a US citizen, or if you are a person of color, this isn’t meant for you. Nothing to see, move along, move along; please refrain from commenting, also.

If you are Jewish and wondering if you are white or not, has anyone at synagogue mistaken you for a janitor or a babysitter? If not, for purposes of this conversation, you’re white. Welcome.

I will post again soon for everyone, I promise.


Ever since the Charleston murders this past Thursday night, I have heard a phrase repeated by several people: “This is not who we are.” I wish I could give you citations, but most of it was on the radio, and anyway, I think you will recognize it. We’ve heard it all so many times.

We want desperately to separate ourselves from a mass murderer. That’s relatively easy to do when he doesn’t look like us, but when he could be my son, my brother, my nephew it is harder. That blonde kid with the bad haircut entering the church in his gray sweatshirt is terrifying to us because he looks like us.

So we say, “This is not who we are.”

“This is not who we are.” We say this because of the horror of his deeds, because of his picture on Facebook with the racist flags on his coat, because of the hateful rhetoric he apparently espouses. We point out every detail that separates us from his ideology: our ancestors, who arrived after the war, our own birth dates, long after 1865, our membership in a group the white supremacists also hate. We assure ourselves that we do not say the N-word. We assure ourselves of our African American acquaintances and friends, maybe even of our votes for an African American president. We are not that man with the gun!

I feel it too: I feel the urge, when there’s a discussion about racist behavior, to point out that not all whites are bad, and that I was just a kid during the civil rights movement. I feel the need to point out that Jews were in the civil rights movement too, that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched at Selma, that white supremacists hate Jews, that … you know the routine. And it’s all true.

But there is a line in the Torah that bursts through all this defensiveness, all this, “Who me? That was not me!”  The line is from Leviticus 19, verse 16:

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

This phrase, pronounced, “Lo ta-a-MOD al dahm ray-EH-cha” means “Do not stand on the blood of your neighbor.” The “your” in it is singular: this commandment is the responsibility of each individual who hears it. We can’t delegate it. We are commanded to act.

This week, nine African American human beings were murdered in cold blood by a white man with a gun as they sat in a meeting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. Those facts are not in dispute. What does seem to be in dispute is each of our responsibility in the face of this crime.

If I am not to stand upon the blood of those nine individuals, then my question must be: What have I done this week to end racism in America? 

  • Do I vote? (Why not?) If I vote, do I know the record of my candidates on issues of race?
  • Have I ever contributed to the campaign of a candidate of color?
  • When did I last donate to an organization that works actively against white supremacy hate groups? (ADL, SPLC, ?)
  • When did I last notice the hiring practices at my workplace? Do I have any co-workers of color? Where are they in the hierarchy at work?
  • When did I last let a friend or co-worker know that racially tinged humor was unacceptable to me? Did I tell them so in so many words?
  • When did I last challenge someone spouting racist language?
  • When did I last question my own behavior and views?
  • If I assure myself that I have friends of color, when did they last eat in my home?
  • When did I last use a phrase like, “I don’t see color”? Do I understand how not seeing it is also a problem?
  • If my child dated a person of color how would I react? Does the particular color matter? Have they dated anyone of color? Would they know how I’d react?

If I am not actively doing something about racism, then I am standing upon the blood of my neighbors. America has a 400 year old love affair with racism. It did not end with the Civil War or with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. It did not end when we elected an African American Miss America or a President with brown skin. There are some people who act as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing, because their behavior is so much worse that we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “That’s not us.” But as long as we do nothing, we are standing upon the blood of our neighbors.

What have I personally done this week to fight racism? What will I do in the coming week?

The Doorposts of Your House

Polski: Mezuza

— A mezuzah (meh – ZOOZ – zah) is a box or case which we attach to the doorframe of a Jewish home.

— The little box or case contains a piece of parchment called a klaf. (See photo below.)

— The parchment has Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 written on it by a specially trained scribe, in Hebrew:

Hear, O Israel: The Eternal our God, the Eternal is one.  Love the Eternal your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul— then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them.  Then theLord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you.  Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 20 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates,  so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.

— By putting the mezuzah up, the Jews who live in this home fulfill the commandment to “write [these words] on the doorposts.”

— The box and the parchment serve as a reminder that a Jewish home is a holy place.

— Some Jewish homes have mezuzot (plural) on all the doorways except the bathroom doors. Others put a mezuzah only on the main entrance.

English: The Shema parchment of a Mezuzah.
A typical Klaf

For more about the mitzvah [commandment] of the mezuzah, read more in this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.

Too Busy to Be Bad

“I do not want followers who are righteous, rather I want followers who are too busy doing good that they won’t have time to do bad.” – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk

Rabbi Morgensztern, more often referred to as the Kotzker Rebbe, was a Hasidic leader who lived from 1787 – 1859. He was born to a non-Hasidic family in Lublin, Poland but was attracted to Hasidism early in his life. Unlike the Baal Shem Tov, who was known for his pursuit of joy in Torah, the Kotzker Rebbe was a bit more stern. He was very much aware of the human inclination to evil [yetzer harah] but also determined to fight against it.

He never published any works, and was quoted as saying:

Not all that is thought need be said, not all that is said need be written, not all that is written need be published, and not all that is published need be read.

(Something tells me that he would not have approved of blogging.)

However, I love his quotation at the top of the screen. Whenever I read it, I think I should find myself another mitzvah to do. If we are not quite busy enough, then we might have time to sit around and congratulate ourselves, and then we would not be truly righteous! However, with 613 mitzvot to keep us busy, what excuse is there for getting into trouble?

If you find the Kotzker Rebbe intriguing, there’s a wonderful piece about him in the Jewish Virtual Library, and more of his sayings on yquotes.

Do you have a favorite saying by the Kotzker, or by any other Hasidic rebbe?

It is In Our Power: Creating a Better World

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. – Genesis 1:1-3

Chapter 1 of Genesis teaches us that words create worlds.

That’s all. You can get hung up on “days” or evolution if you wish, but the message there is plain as day: words create worlds.

Jewish tradition teaches us that this kind of creation did not stop with the first Shabbat: each of us has this beautiful, terrible power to create realities with our words. Jewish tradition teaches us that saying embarrassing words can cause wounds so real that they are the equivalent of murder.

Recently I saw a clip of a 1962 speech by Malcolm X, and in it he elucidates the ways in which our media create a reality that frames the way we interpret violence. His point was very Jewish: words create reality. If most of what we see of African Americans in the news is about criminal activity, then we are less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to any African American who is arrested or injured by police. If any good news about an African American is framed as a “remarkable accomplishment,” then we are inclined to think that most are not capable or not willing.

Words create worlds. When I hear that someone has been stopped for questioning, do I assume that they are guilty of something? What if I hear that a person I know has been stopped? What if I hear that a person like me has been stopped? And what if I hear that a person from a stigmatized category has been stopped? What do I think then?

We have to fight for the world in which we wish to live. We have to create a good world every day, with our speech and with the words to which we choose to listen. We have to speak that world, live that world, will that world into being. We have to root out the remnants of any other world from the dusty corners of our psyches and say: Begone! For only then will we be free enough to fulfill the command:

 Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof: Justice, Justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20

“The Highest Form of Jewish Giving” might be a surprise.

If you bring up the subject of tzedakah, money given for charity, many Jews will tell you two things:

1. Tzedakah is from the same Hebrew root as “justice.”  and

2. Maimonides taught a ladder of tzedakah, with making a loan as the highest form of tzedakah.

The first is true, the second is missing some bits.

1. Tzedakah is indeed from the Hebrew root associated with justice: tzadee, dalet, kuf.   The Hebrew for justice is tzedek.

2. Maimonides teaches us a hierarchy of virtue in giving tzedakah, from least to greatest:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Adapted from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14

“Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant” is a far cry from “the highest form of charity is a loan.” Maimonides specifies, first of all, that he refers to an interest-free loan or a money gift to enable a person to start a business. Providing an interest-free loan or a gift for education or training might also qualify. The Talmud (Shabbat 63) suggests that an interest-free loan is preferable because it is more sensitive to the dignity of the recipient. However, the highest form of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is to form a business partnership with the intended recipient, which means taking on risks and serving as an ongoing partner in the venture. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and should not be undertaken lightly. We are forbidden to give tzedakah beyond our means.

There’s a third point about tzedakah that gets less press. Maimonides teaches that when we select a recipient for a share from our limited resources, we should look first nearby and for the most in distress. “Nearness” might mean physical nearness (give to the food bank in your own county before you give to the one far away) or it might mean familial nearness, so help for the cousin who can’t make rent takes precedence over a non-relative, or an organization that will survive without our gift. (I can imagine development directors groaning at this one, but that’s what the Rambam says, folks.)

Maimonides warns, like a good investment advisor, against putting all of one’s tzedakah funds in one place: figure out how much is possible, then divide the funds between two or more recipients. So even if hapless Cousin Susie could absorb all one’s tzedakah, at least a bit should go elsewhere. Also (returning to that principle of helping people be self-sufficient) it may be best to help Cousin Susie get out of her current situation by assisting her in making terms with creditors, or moving into more affordable housing, or whatever will contribute to a long term fix.

For a more complete explanation of Maimonides on giving, I recommend this article online or the book from which it is excerpted, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, by Dr. Meir Tamari. Dr. Tamari is both a rabbi and an economist, serving for many years as the Chief Economist of the Bank of Israel.

In an era of growing income inequality it can be overwhelming to make decisions about tzedakah. I appreciate that our forebears thought a lot about this question and left us a framework for decision making.

The Corners of My Field

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 23:22 (Parashat Emor)

It looks so simple, on the surface: when you gather the harvest, leave some for the poor. Why, then, do we need an entire tractate of the Talmud to talk about it, and why does Maimonides devote an entire volume of the Mishneh Torah to it?

The commandment may be simple, but human nature is not. The minute people heard “leave the corners, leave the gleanings” the questions began: how much of the corners? On every field of any size? And what exactly are gleanings? What if a worker drops an entire basket of produce? What if you don’t have a field, but a silver smithy? What if the harvest is really bad that year? What about… on and on.

There are also questions about the recipients: who gets the gleanings? Who are the poor? Who is the stranger? Why do they deserve free stuff?

Actually, that last question is a ringer. The rabbis addressed the question of fraud but they don’t question that a poor person deserves food to eat. Indeed, Maimonides says that while we can question a beggar’s request for money, if a person asks for food, if they say they are hungry, the observant Jew has to give, or at the very least, speak kindly when they say a regretful “no.”

I live in a part of the country where I am asked for money on the street on a regular basis. I have a son who trained as a social worker who feels very strongly that one should not give street people money. I have a colleague who has made a very cogent argument for giving money to people who ask for it on the street. And I hear Maimonides’ words scolding me when I pass someone and say, “No, I’m sorry, not today.”

I resolve my dilemma by giving as much cash as I can to my local food bank. Canned goods are nice, but the truth is they can do a lot more with cash. They can buy what people actually need as opposed to our fantasies of what they need. They can buy at steep discounts, too. My “harvest” doesn’t involve corners of fields or gleanings, it is in my checkbook, and so I give what I can.

There are a growing number of poor families and individuals in the United States. The recovery from the Great Recession has left many behind.  We live in a cruel economy at the moment, and funds for food stamps have been cut again and again. It is up to us to dig deep and give to organizations that feed hungry people. Our tradition demands no less.

Bal Tashkeit: Do Not Destroy

Looks fancy to me.

Today my cell phone company taught me how to do a mitzvah. Who knew that they could help with mitzvot?

My old phone had many bad habits that were getting worse. I asked the customer service rep if I could repair it. I could, Mike said, but that would take two weeks. Can you give up your phone for 14 days? I can’t.

I fussed at Mike that I hate buying a new cell phone every two years. It’s wasteful of my money, it’s wasteful of rare minerals, it’s wasteful of the labor to make the phone, and so on. I’m sure poor Mike has heard it all before. Then the miracle happened: Mike informed me that there is another way.

Step 1: Buy a used reconditioned phone. Someone sold it back to the company, probably to buy something newer and fancier, and the company fixed it up and slapped a nice warranty on it.

Step 2: After I transfer all my contacts and dog photos to the new phone, I can sell the old phone back to the company, presumably to be fixed up and sold again or to be parts for other fixed-up phones.

Now I have a smartphone that meets my needs and cost much less. Better yet, it did not use additional scarce materials from worrisome sources. Best of all, I can continue this cycle. If the phone were simply old, not crotchety, I could donate it to a nonprofit and they could use it. Either way, it’s a mitzvah.

The name of the mitzvah is Bal Tashcheit: do not destroy. We derive this mitzvah from a curious source, the rules for war in Deuteronomy:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? –Deuteronomy 20:19

Our sages determined that the sin in cutting down those trees is waste. They expanded their understanding of those verses to include household waste and today it is a source for talking about the sin of environmental waste. We are stewards of the earth, not owners of it. We must not destroy resources just because it suits us to do so or is convenient.

And as for Mike, I thanked him. I don’t know where he is, but I hope he sleeps well tonight, having helped a rabbi do a little mitzvah.