The End of the Zero-Sum Game

“Zero-sum game” – a game in which the sum of the winnings and losses of the various players is always zero, the losses being counted negatively. (

Lately I hear arguments about a zero-sum game:

IF we pay attention to institutional racism,

     we might miss an opportunity to deal with gun violence.

IF we focus on gun violence,

we might drop the ball on disability rights.

IF we focus on the rights of disabled people,

we might forget the violence against women and transwomen of color.

IF we focus on justice for transgender people

what about women’s rights?

IF we focus on women’s rights

what about economic justice for all?

And if we are so focused on economic justice for all

what about… surely by now you get my point:

Justice is not a zero-sum game in which I am the natural enemy of another.

Justice is when we notice that we are natural allies: the queers, the browns, the blacks, the ones on wheels, the blinds, the poors, the last in line, the fats, the funny-looking, the girls, the trans, the bis, the dispossessed of all nations, the Palestinians AND the Jews, all the people who usually get shown the back door…

Until we notice that we are all at the same door

Until we notice that we are all


And on that day, we will be One

And God’s Name will be One. – Jewish Prayer Book

I don’t know exactly  how we get there, but I am determined to work for it. I am determined to see the miraculous spark of the Holy One in every single face before my own. I won’t lie down in the road to be run over, but I will do my best to lift up every other person that I can. I will deal with my fears.

Because I am really, really tired of zero-sum games.

Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof.

Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.

In a Time of Anger and Hurt

Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar used to say: Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger, nor comfort him while his dead lies before him. – Pirkei Avot 4:23

On the face of it, this saying makes no sense. Why shouldn’t we appease someone who is angry? Why not comfort a person when he is bereaved?

The clue to Rabbi Shimon’s meaning is hidden in the second clause. In Jewish tradition we do not attempt to comfort a mourner until after the burial of the dead. The stage of bereavement before burial is called aninut. During that time, mourners are relieved of all Jewish responsibility except the responsibility of providing for a proper funeral and burial. We do not speak to them unless absolutely necessary and we do not bother them with comfort. This is not a cruel practice, but a kind one: we understand them to be in terrible pain and to be carrying a great burden (the funeral.) Anything we might say would only be a distraction.

So the teaching here is: don’t try to comfort people until they are in a position to take it in, until it is time.

Then we can look at the first part and make more sense of it:

Do not appease your fellow in the time of his anger.

Rabbi Shimon is advising us that when people are very angry, they can’t listen to reason, any more than a person who has just lost a loved one can be comforted. Appeasing an angry person won’t work, and arguing with them definitely won’t help matters. In both the case of the mourner and the angry person, the only thing that will help is time.

As time passes, the mourner will bury the dead, and will gradually become ready for comfort and human connection. The angry person, too, may have a chance to cool off and have a genuine discussion (unless, of course, they choose to work themselves into greater and greater anger.)

Over the last months, as the discussion on racism and America has heated up on social media, many good people have been very upset. African Americans have very literally had to mourn their dead, and they are legitimately angry about the way too many of them have been treated. Some white Americans have felt attacked by things that African Americans and other whites have said. Some whites have been taught to fear African Americans, too, and that feeds the evil of racism. Attempts at communication have gone awry. Angry words have flown.

So when I happened to read Rabbi Shimon’s words today, I was glad to be reminded of Jewish teachings about grief and anger. Shimon is saying that we do not get anywhere when we tell people how they “should” feel. When emotions are high, it’s a time to listen, not to argue. If listening is impossible, then it’s a time to step back.

Now some readers may be thinking, but rabbi, didn’t you just write that whites need to challenge one another on racist talk? I did write that, and I’m not backing down from it. Rebuke can be a mitzvah when it is properly done. There are better and worse ways to go about it, all informed by Jewish tradition:

It is important to treat every person with dignity. The rabbis tell us that embarrassing a person is no different than shedding their blood. Take a person aside to say privately, “Are you aware of how your words sounded? The words “x,y,z” sounded racist – surely you didn’t mean it that way!” Calling a person racist is just going to enflame the conversation, but pointing out words or behaviors gives them something they can change. Maybe they need help hearing themselves. And maybe, if the words were angry, they need time to cool off before they can hear anything at all.

Name calling never helps. We get farther if we talk about racist behavior and language, rather than racist people. Calling people names never won their heart. Pointing out behavior is different than calling names. People can do something about their behavior.

Leave politics out of it. So many insults have been hurled between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, that we’re all walking wounded. When someone says to me in a spiteful tone, “That’s just like you liberals,” I feel that nothing I have to say will get a hearing from them. I am sure, from what conservative friends tell me, that the converse is also true. For our own sakes, we need to lay off one another, no matter what the folks at Fox News and MS-NBC do. Let’s drop the insults and name-calling: have you ever known it to add to a fruitful discussion?

Give each person the benefit of the doubt. Actually, that’s another quotation from Pirkei Avot. When it is time to rebuke someone in private, assume that they meant well. Maybe they did or maybe they didn’t, but how can anyone know for sure?

Finally, when we are beside ourselves with strong feelings, it’s time to take a step back. It is only natural sometimes to feel angry or hurt, especially if we feel that we’re doing our best and we are not understood or appreciated. There is no shame in saying, “I am too angry/upset/tired to have a conversation right now.”

None of us are perfect. Torah calls us to love the stranger and who is stranger than the person with whom we disagree?  Let us embrace this difficult task together, and work towards a day when

…everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid. – Micah 4:4

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?

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

Rx for the Human Spirit

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria/Metzora deals with genital discharges and skin diseases, very unpleasant things. Worse yet, people have taken this portion to some very unpleasant conclusions, framing human illness as a punishment from God.


What if, despite the lovely descriptions of skin eruptions, this portion isn’t about a physical illness at all? Let’s take a short passage:

18 When an inflammation appears on the skin of one’s body and it heals, 19 and a white swelling or a white discoloration streaked with red develops where the inflammation was, he shall present himself to the priest. – Leviticus 13: 18-19

What if we reread this, but instead of someone having something on their skin, it’s a moral failing: racism, sexism, enviousness, unkindness? Perhaps some family member has pointed out our unkind behaviors, or a friend has mentioned that a dearly-held opinion is actually quite racist. Our first impulse on realizing these things is to deny it or hide it, because we’ve been told it is shameful. (We have also been taught to feel shame about skin diseases and genital discharges, come to think of it.)

What if, instead of hiding or denying, we went to a counselor, our rabbi or a therapist, and said, “My wife says I am unkind,”  “I am envious when I see friends get honors,” or “I would hate it if my son dated a black woman.” The good counselor would take a close look at the evidence and the context. They’d explore it with us. And perhaps things are not what they seem (“he is clean”) or perhaps there are changes that need to happen. Then they could help us toward the changes until we are “clean.”

This is not an easy fix. It requires honesty, humility, and bravery. It is not fun saying to a counselor, “I have unkind/envious/racist thoughts.”  We hear over and over that nice people don’t have those thoughts. We may have them and then squish them down quickly, because we are ashamed. On some level, we know it isn’t OK.

But as with the mysterious disease in the Torah portion, these things affect others in our community. Some of them are communicable (children learn racism and sexism from someone) and some are just plain contagious (I am unkind to Joe, and Joe kicks the dog.) Some can’t heal on their own; we may need help to change.

Here in the 21st century, there are many diseases we can cure, and many more that we can manage; even AIDS and some cancers are now somewhat manageable. However, besides physical illnesses there are other plagues with which we have made much less progress. Perhaps the prescription in Tazria/Metzora is really for them, the plagues of the human spirit.

A Vidui for Martin Luther King Day

"<a href="">ShofarSound</a>" by <a href="//" title="User:Jonathunder">Jonathunder</a> - <span class="int-own-work">Own work</span>. Licensed under <a href="" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a> via <a href="//">Wikimedia Commons</a>.
The sound of the Shofar traditionally calls Jews to repentance.

A vidui is a Jewish confession of sin. We tend to associate this form of prayer with Yom Kippur and with the prayers of the dying, although a short vidui is part of the traditional weekday liturgy.

A communal vidui includes sins which I may not personally have committed, but which some in my community may have committed. By claiming them as my own sins, I underline that I am responsible not only for myself, but also for elements in our communal life which may have fostered the sin in our members.

I offer this vidui for my sins and those of my communities.

For all our sins, may the Holy One who makes forgiveness possible forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For the sin of Arrogance, that makes it difficult to see our own failings

For the sin of Brutality, that makes it possible for us to stand by and think, “He must have deserved it”

For the sin of Credulity, in which we have believed “news” from unreliable sources

For the sin of Disregarding facts that were uncomfortable for us

For the sin of Executing those whose offenses did not merit their death, and for standing by as our civil servants carried out those acts

For the sin of allowing unreasoning Fear to dictate our behavior towards others

For the sin of Greed, underpaying for work or over-charging for services

For the sin of baseless Hatred, that demonizes entire groups of other human beings

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.


For the sin of willful Ignorance, not wanting to know things that are embarrassing to us

For the sin of Jailing massive numbers of people for nonviolent crimes, separated from opportunities to better themselves and their families,

For the sin of Killing the hope of young men who believe that their only futures lie in prison or the grave

For the sin of Laziness in speaking up, when we hear racist language

For the sin of Minimizing the discomfort of others

For the sin of Non-Apologies that didn’t express true sorrow

For the sin of Omission, when we failed to act upon our expressed convictions

For the sin of Presuming that someone has a particular role because of their skin color

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.


For the sin of Quiescence in the face of the racist behavior of others

For the sin of Racism, in all its myriad forms

For the sin of Self-congratulation for acts of common decency

For the sin of Taking umbrage when someone calls us on a racist word or act

For the Unconscious acts which have injured others without our awareness

For the sin of Violence against other human beings

For the sin of using Words in ways that perpetuate racism in any way

For the sin of Xenophobia, fearing and hating those who seem foreign to us

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.


For the sin of Yakking when we should have been listening

For the sin of Zoning out when we assumed this list wasn’t about us

For all of the sins of commission and omission, all the sins we committed consciously and unconsciously, for those that were simply accidents and those for which we failed to make an apology

May the Eternal forgive us, pardon us, and make atonement possible.

For it is through true acts of genuine repentance and a sincere desire to change that we will open the future before our nation: a future of fairness, justice and peace. May all troubled hearts be comforted, may all wounded souls be healed, and may we live to see the day when the scourge of racism is truly behind us.



[Image is licensed under Creative Commons copyright]








Out of My Comfort Zone

Not Funny.
Not Funny.

I am a conflict-avoider. Hateful speech scares me for reasons I can’t fully explain, even if I’m not the target of the speech. I have decided I have to get over that pronto, because of a conversation last week.

I was in a room where someone began talking about the terrible synagogue murders in Israel, and they used the words “Muslim” and “animals” in the same sentence. Another person in the group spoke up, someone married into a family with Muslim members. I had been making my usual polite distressed noises, which made no impression at all on the speaker. I was ashamed of myself: why did I not say something? Because I was nervous? Since that encounter, I have decided “never again.” I am going to be direct when I’m in a conversation and someone uses hateful language, no exceptions, unless I am quite sure it’s dangerous to say something.

Since my resolution to be more direct and vocal about hateful talk, the stuff seems to be everywhere. Yesterday, someone on Twitter made a very big deal of my objection to an offensive word in her bio: “Georgia native and former liberal with eyes wide open. Blocked by several notable libtards including…”  [Emphasis mine.] I sent a message privately that I was getting set to “follow” her when I read the bio. “That word is offensive,” I wrote, “And while it’s there, I am not going to follow you.” She didn’t reply directly to me, but from the public messages she broadcast after, it was clear that I’d just given her something new to brag about.

I’m not accomplishing much, especially in the toxic soup of political social media, but at least it’s practice. I need practice, because I need to get better at this. (And yes, I needed to be more specific that what I was objecting to was the “-tard” part of “libtard.” I’m still too quivery-Southern-lady polite to be useful. Working on that.)

It’s important that we speak up, especially for groups to whom we don’t belong. “Do not stand by the blood of your neighbor,” we are told in Leviticus 19:16. In the Talmud, the text says that it would be better for a person to allow himself to be tossed into a furnace than to willingly embarrass another person [Bava Metzia 58b.] We are also commanded to engage with someone who does something wrong, a mitzvah I wrote about at more length in the post, “The Mitzvah of Rebuke.”

I share my difficulties in living up to my resolution because I know I’m not the only conflict-averse person around. Many of us are conditioned not to upset others, and we have to override that conditioning to confront someone about hateful words. We may be tempted by rationalizations: “What difference will it really make?” or “It’s just going to be something else for him to brag about.” However, I know what it is like to have to say, “Look, I’m Jewish, and I didn’t care for that joke.” It is horrible to feel like both the target of the speech and the only one who will say something.

The problem applies to people on both sides of the political divide. I know good people who are conservatives who’d never use a word like “retard” or use it in a portmanteau like “libtard.” I also have heard liberals say some ghastly things, often involving some use of “nazi,” which is always offensive unless you are talking about actual members of a Nazi organization. I’m determined never to let such things pass again, no matter who says them. Words that dehumanize and words that demonize have no place in our public discourse. The fact that they have become common is only evidence that it is time for people of conscience to speak up.

So yes, it is awkward. And yes, it is worth doing. Nothing will get better with silence.