Image: Rabbi Isaac Meyer Wise, a slide shown at the 2019 Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Cincinnati, OH, March 2019.
In 1889, Rabbi Isaac M. Wise decided that America’s rabbis needed to organize. He founded the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinical association of which I am a member. The year the rabbis of the CCAR are celebrating the 150th years of existence.
Sometimes people wonder why Cincinnati became the headquarters for HUC and the CCAR. Why not New York, or at least Los Angeles or Chicago? All are bigger cities. The answer is actually pretty simple: this is where Rabbi Wise was living, as rabbi for the Lodge Street Synagogue, and then later for the Plum Street Synagogue. He was truly the Great Organizer: he founded not only the first rabbinical school on the continent, but also a rabbinical association and the organization of synagogues that would support his school, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
The entire body of American rabbis did not stay under one umbrella for long. Some rabbis had already set up the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, feeling that Rabbi Wise was teaching far too liberal a stance at the Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati. By 1901, the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) began as an alumni association of JTS, and in 1923 the modern orthodox rabbis on the continent formed the Rabbinical Council of America.
Rabbi Wise originally envisioned American Judaism as a unified expression of rabbinic Judaism. His vision was both too bold and, as it turned out, too limited: American Judaism is far too diverse to be contained under one roof, and I for one think that is a healthy thing.
Image: Voting for Independence (Photo courtesy of nps.org)
In 1776, a group of mostly young men got together and signed a document one of them had written, declaring their independence from a colonial power, largely because they were frustrated with taxes. They knew that the document might well be their death warrant, because it was going to bring the wrath of a mighty empire down upon their heads. They were imperfect men, God knows, and some of the ideals they articulated were not ideals they actually lived, but the ideals themselves have continued to inspire people ever since.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
“All men” in that document meant “white property-owning men.” Over 233 years of debate, disagreement, and once, outright war, we have managed to broaden “white property-owning men” to include (ideally, and incompletely) all races of men and women. We still have far to go if our true goal is to reach a state in which all human beings are treated equally under our laws.
The mid-twentieth century saw great strides in that direction, and in the years since, white property-owning men and their supporters have done their best to roll back that progress. Today we have a Supreme Court with a majority of judges who seem devoted to the idea that the 1776 ideals were sufficiently embodied in 1776. The Congress is deadlocked between a Senate dedicated to the notion that the 1776 state of affairs was the ideal, and a House that hungers for the rights of all human beings, women, races, and orientations. Our Executive Branch is headed by a man who embodies the worst of the 1776 situation: he is an aging white man who inherited his wealth, who has no respect for women, minorities, or the poor, and whose great concern is maintaining his and his family’s advantage over others.
I am not celebrating until this country recovers its soul. That soul drove us through debate, disagreement, and war to broaden “white property-owning men” towards an ideal in which all human beings were treated equally under the law. That soul led us to include, not exclude; to give an ear to the voices of the oppressed; to open our gates, if not our hearts, to the refugee.
I persist in believing that we are capable of this better, expanded vision. I persist in doing what I can to make a better day come. I pray that with God’s help, we will find our way out of this darkness.
In 1776, a group of mostly young men got together and signed a document one of them had written, declaring their independence from a colonial power. They signed a document that they did not realize dripped with irony, and thereby set in motion a process and a nation that would lift that document from its small purposes into a greater destiny.
In 1790, one of those men, much older, much wiser, wrote words that still inspire me, the vision I hold for my nation. George Washington was writing to the congregation of a synagogue, a house of Jews, when he wrote:
For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Again, he, the owner of enslaved people, failed to see the irony in his words, but he was well aware that in no other nation of the world at that time did Jews enjoy the rights that the Jews of the fledgling United States already enjoyed. I like to think that he felt the expansion – he felt the need to open his arms, our arms, to a more complete vision of humanity.
May we all feel that expansion in the days to come, and conquer the contraction upon our hearts!
Whatever your feelings about the politics of the situation, our own government – the DHS Office of the Inspector General – has published a report calling the current housing for these people “dangerous” and “unsafe.” There are concerns about disease in “inhumane conditions.”
Here we are again, dealing with feelings from an attack on a synagogue. This time the synagogue was in Poway, a sunny place outside of San Diego, CA.
Some of us may be thinking, “I have always known about anti-Semitism. But this is hitting me very hard.”
Some of us may feel afraid to go in a synagogue.
Some of us have Gentile relatives who mean well but who do not understand why this shooting is so personal for each of us.
This shooting came exactly six months after the shooting in Pittsburgh, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American Jewish history. We were still digesting that event; now it has happened again. Stress accumulates.
Some born-Jews may be experiencing anxiety from intergenerational trauma. A number of studies suggest that some extreme trauma actually affects the DNA, passing effects to future generations.
Education about anti-Semitism often centers on the Holocaust. It is not surprising that an attack on a synagogue sets off fears of a new Holocaust. The idolization of Nazis and Hitler by many of the alt-right adds to that fear, and some anti-Semites deliberately push those buttons with symbols like swastikas.
The fact that some of our non-Jewish neighbors do not understand our feeling of personal connection to these events may heighten the feelings of fear and perhaps even abandonment.
What can we Jews do about our anxiety levels? And how can our non-Jewish friends and neighbors help us?
Here are the things that help me cope:
The ADL studies reveal some very good news: the vast majority of our neighbors do not hate us. A 2017 poll revealed that the majority of Americans are concerned about violence against Jews and Muslims:
The surveys reveal that while anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States have increased slightly to 14 percent, the vast majority of Americans hold respectful opinions of their Jewish neighbors. However, for the first time ADL found a majority of Americans (52 percent) saying that they are concerned about violence in the U.S. directed at Jews, and an even a higher percentage (76 percent) concerned about violence directed at Muslims. More than eight in 10 Americans (84 percent) believe it is important for the government to play a role in combating anti-Semitism, up from 70 percent in 2014. –ADL report, 4/6/17
While there have been in the past periods of anti-Semitic incidents and feelings in United States history, all of those times were followed by an improvement in relations. The General Order #11 incident in 1862 was followed by an increased understanding between General Ulysses Grant and the American Jewish community, who ultimately backed him for the presidency. The lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 led to the founding of the ADL, which from the beginning had as its mission “to put an end to the defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Jewish participation in fighting WWII, and especially the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains gradually changed attitudes, leading to many years of cordiality between the Jewish and Christian communities in the U.S.
Every congregational rabbi and every synagogue board in the United States is concentrating hard on security at Jewish institutions. We already had a level of security that would surprise our Christian neighbors, but every synagogue and Jewish institution is now reviewing their security and looking for the best way to make their people safe. It is not possible to make any place in a free society perfectly safe, but I can assure you that this is a top concern for our leadership today. If you want to help with this, it’s a good time for a donation to your local synagogue – cameras and personnel do not come cheap.
Intergenerational trauma is real. PTSD from other traumas in our lives is real. If you are suffering from anxiety or other symptoms, I encourage you to seek a sympathetic therapist. There are new treatments for these sorts of anxieties all the time and not all of them are drug therapies. However, as the saying goes, “Doesn’t ask, doesn’t get.” or as Hillel put it, “A person prone to being ashamed cannot learn.” (Avot 2:5) To get help with anxiety, you have to seek it out.
One of the most effective ways to deal with the feelings after an anti-Semitic attack is to come together with other Jews. Many Jewish institutions will be offering opportunities to come together – take advantage of those. Your presence at those events helps comfort others, too! You do not have to believe in God. You don’t have to belong to the synagogue. You can just show up for services, although as a colleague of mine pointed out, these days it might be good to call ahead and get instructions. Many synagogues will have extra security procedures in place.
Look for ways to increase your Jewish engagement. This may seem counterintuitive, but most of us find that doing things that affirm our Judaism gives us more solace than hiding could ever give. Join that synagogue, or join a Jewish book club. Find a Torah study group, or begin having Shabbat dinners with friends. Take a class and learn more about the Jewish people. These are classic Jewish approaches to healing and strengthening ourselves. Especially if your Jewish education focussed on the Holocaust and not much else, this is the time to learn more about Judaism – to learn about our rich civilization and our strengths.
Our tradition is strong and it has survived troubled times before. Judaism is thousands of years old: we have outlived the Babylonians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Third Reich. We will survive this, too.
We Reform Rabbis look up to the Great Organizer, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. He founded Hebrew Union College, organised the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and pushed for the establishment of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Union for Reform Judaism.) All that, and he was a pulpit rabbi and a prolific writer! This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Image: (l to r) Paul Manafort, Bernie Madoff, Michael Cohen (Images are in the Public Domain)
On March 7, 2019, U. S. District Judge T. S. Ellis sentenced political operative Paul Manafort to just shy of four years in prison for five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud and one count of failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. The judge spoke at length about the unfairness of the federal sentencing guidelines, given Manafort’s “otherwise blameless life.” So instead of 19 1/2 to 24 years, Manafort received not quite 4 years.
Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to various financial crimes including tax violations, lying to a bank and buying the silence of women who claimed that they once had affairs with future president Trump. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Only one high ranking investment banker went to prison for his part in the financial crisis of 2008, Kareem Sarageldin of Credit Suisse. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to falsify the books and records of Credit Suisse, which caused the bank to take a $2.65 billion write-down of its 2007 year-end financial results, contributing to the destabilizing of U.S. financial markets. For his crimes, Judge Hellerstein sentenced him to 30 months in prison, to two years of supervised release, forfeiture in the amount of $1 million, a $150,000 fine, and a $100 special assessment.
Thomas Zenle, one of Manafort’s lawyers, said “Tax evasion is by no means jaywalking. But it’s not narcotics trafficking.” That appears to be the logic behind much of our legal system when it comes to white collar crime.
Business crimes are hard to describe, hard to understand, and their effects are often diffused across many, many victims. Narcotics trafficking is easy to understand: bad man sells drugs.
In the case of Bernie Madoff, who was sentenced for white collar crimes ten years ago this month, it was simpler: he defrauded people via a Ponzi scheme. The people and institutions he stole from were high-profile and easy to identify. For pleading guilty to this easy-to-understand bit of criminality, he was sentenced to 150 years in prison.
Still, I am struck by the slap-on-the-wrist received by most white collar criminals, and especially by the dismissive language employed by Judge Ellis and Thomas Zenle. There is a sense in which even our judges and the officers of the court seem to think that white collar crimes are less serious than, say, robbing a 7-11 or dealing drugs.
Jewish tradition does not agree with this assessment of business crime. Torah is specific on this point:
You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, an honest weight, an honest ephah [dry measure], and an honest hin [liquid measure] .
When you sell anything to your neighbor or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not deceive one another .
The rabbis built and built on these topics, filling entire volumes of Talmud with discussions about standards for business dealings. Rules were very specific: a deal involving price gouging was rendered null and void, for example.
If you will heed the Lord diligently, doing what is right in His eyes’ (Exodus 15:26) – this refers to business dealings. This teaches us that whoever trades in good faith. it is accounted to him as though he had observed the entire Torah”.
Mekhilta, ( Vayassa, ed. Lauterbach, vol. 2, p. 96 )
Jewish tradition is not American law. Still I wish we could take white collar crime more seriously in this country. The cavalier attitudes put forth in the words of Judge Ellis and Thomas Zenle belie the real damage that financial crimes inflict. Savings are destroyed, lives are ruined, people’s health is affected. These are not victimless crimes, and while it is certainly true that a drug dealer ruins lives, he does not have Wall Street as the distribution system for the misery he inflicts.
Moreover, if more well-dressed white men who had led “otherwise blameless lives” were to see prison as somewhere they might end up, perhaps white America would care more about others who have been incarcerated, however justly.
Image: Presentation of the film “BlacKkKlansman” at Cannes : Damaris Lewis, Jasper Pääkkönen, John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Spike Lee, Adam Driver, Corey Hawkins. Photo: Georges Biard, with permission.
I have a new favorite movie: BlacKkKlansman. I am not writing a review here, so I’ll spare you the long list of reasons I like it. I want to focus on one moment in the film, one stark question.
Warning: Spoilers follow.
It is the moment when Ron Stallworth, the black cop played by John David Washington, tells Flip Zimmerman, a Jewish cop played by Adam Driver, that the two of them are going undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Here is the scene:
The moment that I want to focus on comes at the 32 second mark:
Ron asks, “Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”
Flip: “Lookit, that’s my f—–g business.”
Ron: “It’s our business. Now I’m going to get you your membership card.”
One of the subplots in the film is Flip’s gradual discovery that he does indeed have skin in the game. In an early scene he is asked by a co-worker if he’s Jewish, and he says, “I dunno – am I?” He is an assimilated secular Jew, and he is invested in that assimilation without being particularly conscious about it.
Because one of the Klansmen is suspicious that he might be a Jew, Flip spews a lot of anti-Semitic invective as cover, throwing around not only words like “kike” but a horrific speech on the “beauty” of the Holocaust and the need for “those leeches” to be exterminated. It is a heart-stopping moment, perfectly acted: we see the performance for the Klansman, and deep behind it, in Driver’s eyes, the terror of his own words. We see him recognize his skin in the game at the moment in which he is most desperate to save his skin from the Klan.
Spike Lee has a complicated history with American Jewish audiences, but he and the writers of the film (two of them Jewish, by the way) have articulated the question for American Jews at this moment. There has been a considerable squabble lately about Jews and whiteness, and considerable anxiety about the rise of white supremacy in our world. This movie slices through all the nonsense to the essential question:
“Why you acting like you ain’t got skin in the game, bro?”
The point is, my fellow liberal Jews of all complexions, we do have skin in this game. The question is, are we going to recognize it and drop the fantasy that if we act white enough – if we are cultured and educated and assimilated and meet standards of white beauty – that the white supremacist will somehow pass by our houses? Because that has been our strategy for the last century. It has been a successful strategy, up to a point: Jews are now seen by whites as such desirable mates that there’s talk of an “intermarriage problem,” to give but one example.
But here’s the thing: if we are so focused on those assimilated values of whiteness and homogeneity, we will never notice how that very assimilation causes us to behave to those in our midst with different complexions, the Jews of Color who cannot (and should not have to) pass. We will never notice because we are invested in whiteness.
I can imagine a reader saying now, “But rabbi, what you are saying is that Jews aren’t white!” That compels me to ask why do we keep acting so darn white? Why are we so fragile, waving frantically at photos of long-dead Jews marching with Martin Luther King, insisting that “not all” of us participate in racism? If we don’t want to be the bad guys (which is what I hear when I hear a light skinned person insisting that they aren’t really white) then why do we keep acting like the bad guys?
Why are people of color made unwelcome in our communities, treated like outsiders? Why do we quiz them, or assume they are the janitor or a convert? Why, upon seeing them, do we feel we have to comment on their difference?
We will be white as long as we continue to deal in white privilege.
We will be white until a Jew of Color can walk into our service and simply be accepted without comment.
On that day we will become One: one People of the one God.
Thus it has been said: Adonai will become Sovereign of all the earth. On that day, Adonai will become One and God’s Name will be One.