Washington’s Letter to American Jewry

Image: Signature of George Washington.

Acceptance of religious differences and specifically of the Jewish People is deep in the DNA of the United States. To anyone who doubts that, here is a letter written by George Washington to the members of the Jewish congregation in Newport, RI, after receiving their congratulations on his inauguration.

The words of the first President of the United States:

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.

Gentlemen,

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which 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.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

The emphasis in bold is mine, and of course, the words about bigotry reek of irony, given that Washington was himself a slaveholder. Still, the intent, the aspiration is there, to be fulfilled by future generations.

Let it always be known that anti-Jewish hatred is antithetical to the America envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

Letter to Touro Synagogue
The actual letter to Touro Synagogue in Washington’s own handwriting.
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In A Time of Fear

Image: A mail bomb on display at the National Postal Museum (Wikimedia) Some rights reserved, see link.

Mail bombs were sent yesterday to prominent African-American political figures, to prominent women in the Democratic Party, to a prominent Jew, to leaders in the Democratic Party, and to the offices of a major cable news outlet.

Let that sink in – this how low the situation in the United States has gone. With an election only days away, and in some states already underway, some Americans have chosen to vote with bombs. They have chosen domestic terrorism – the spread of fear – as their strategy of persuasion.

The rhetoric of the President and his party over the past weeks has been full of dire warnings about a “caravan” of Latin hooligans and Middle Eastern terrorists headed to the U.S. Journalists, doing their job, investigated the “caravan” and discovered a group of desperate people, mostly from Guatemala and Honduras, mothers with children, a few men, and no Middle Eastern terrorists. By all accounts, the evidence is that they are people seeking asylum from the extreme gang violence in Central America.

It is perfectly legal to approach the border and ask for asylum. All of the evidence suggests that this is a peaceful group of people who are begging for safety.

The President, when asked for evidence of his claims, said, “There’s no proof of anything. But there could very well be.” In other words, “Don’t think. Just be afraid.”

Jewish tradition offers an alternative to mindless fear. We see the beginnings of it on the beach at the Red Sea:

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. – Exodus 14:10-15

The Israelites are terrified of the Egyptians. Moses tells them not to be afraid, that God will take care of them. God says to Moses, “Quit crying and praying – get going!” The miracle comes only after the Israelites move to save themselves.

The refrain “Al tira-oo!” [Do not be afraid] appears regularly in the Bible. According to Maimonides, this is actually one of the 613 commandments. We are commanded not to fear.

In fact, there is only one fear permitted to us: fear of God. Yirat Adonai – fear of the Holy One – is considered a virtue. Any other fear borders on idolatry, because we are commanded not to fear anything but God.

The world is full of things that scare us. Jews have always had to deal with plenty of scary people. Our ancestor Abraham was so scared of two different kings that he swore his wife Sarah was his sister! Isaac did the same thing. Every time it got them into trouble. Every time it did them no good at all.

In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Fearing Pharaoh did not get us out from under his thumb. Fearing God got us out of Egypt. Fearing God propelled us across the wilderness, to the edge of the Land, where Moses sent in the spies, who brought us back more scary news:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Numbers 13: 32-33

… and back we went to the wilderness to learn to fear God, not anyone else. Many centuries later, brave men and women settled the land of Israel again, and again there were scary things: war, and terrorism, and evil dictators flinging SCUD missiles. And again, the smart thing to do is to not be afraid: al tira-oo!

Al tira-oo: Do not be afraid.

Al tira-oo: Do not let your fears dictate to you.

Al tira-oo: Feel the fear, and go right on walking in the right path.

This is another testing moment. This is a moment not for violence, but for voting, for the peaceful practice of democracy. My vote-by-mail ballot sits on my desk, waiting to be filled out. For each American reading this, a ballot or a voting booth is waiting.

Don’t bomb. Don’t be afraid. VOTE.

 

 

A Blessing for Voting

Image: Photo of an “I Voted” sticker with an American flag. (Photo by Ruth Adar)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All that Is, who knows the hearts of human beings.

Let me bring my best self to the marking of this ballot. Let me think clearly and fairly to elect people of judgment and good character. If this ballot also contains other matters, let me bring deliberation and good judgment to my choices.

Let no pettiness or selfishness inform me, but rather my best hopes for the greater good. May I not be influenced by fearmongerers or the words of fools.  Keep greed, fear, and smallness of spirit far from me.

May I vote like the tzaddik, the righteous person who  pursues justice and prizes peace.

May my vote join with other votes, counted fairly and in full, to bring about a just and peaceful society in which each may dwell “under the vine and under the fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4;4)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All that Is, who has given the citizens of this land the awesome power of self-government.

Storm-Tossed? 10 Spiritual Stabilizers

Image: A ship on a stormy sea. (comfreak/pixabay)

I have spoken to many people who are suffering from extreme emotions right now. Some ideas for keeping your own ship on course:

  1. If you have a spiritual practice, stick with it. Go to services, or meditate, or take a walk in a peaceful place. Connect to the Holy One in whatever way works for you. Don’t say, “I’ll do it when I feel calmer.” Do it in order to feel calmer.
  2. If you have children or vulnerable people in your care, compartmentalize. As helpless as you may feel about the world, remember that the people who depend on you will find it doubly frightening if you radiate panic. Comforting others can be a tonic for a troubled heart: concentrate on making those around you feel calm and safe and you will feel calmer yourself.
  3. Do mitzvot. That is, do the good things that our tradition teaches us to do. Greet people cheerfully, honor parents, teach children, count your blessings and express gratitude for them. For more ideas about this see Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  4. Get Enough Sleep. If falling asleep is a problem, try out a time-tested Jewish tradition, the bedtime Shema. To learn about it, check out What is the Bedtime Shema?
  5. Be Moderate with Food, Drink, and Chemicals. Chocolate, ice cream, liquor, or drugs may seem very tempting as a quick feel-better fix. Be careful about them, and if any of them have been trouble in the past, don’t invite trouble now – you already have plenty, right? Of course, if there are meds you take for health, then be sure to take them as directed and on schedule.
  6. Help someone else. Helping others can be a great way to get out of our own heads and get a little perspective on life. However, take care to fuel it with love or duty rather than anger. Focus on the person you are helping.
  7. Take time to recognize the humanity of every person you encounter. Do you know the name of the person who runs the cash register at that store you visit once a week? Take time to introduce yourself and ask their name. Then use their name. Focus on them as a person, not as an opinion. This spiritual discipline (and yes, it is a spiritual discipline) can transform your day.
  8. Bless. Take a moment to be grateful for anything that is good. You don’t need to know the Hebrew, just say, “Blessed are You, God, this weather is beautiful!” “Blessed are the hands that picked this produce and brought it to market.” “Blessed are You, God, who created friendly little dogs.” See how many things you can find to bless and for which you can express gratitude. For examples, see Blessings for Vegetables and Fruit.
  9. Pray. This may be a time to try prayer, if it is not something you’ve done before. Prayers take all sorts of forms: those blessings of thanksgiving are prayers, for instance. Another kind of prayer is petitionary prayer, and you don’t have to believe in God to do it: “Please let our country be just and safe for all.” Lift that wish up; express your hope or your fear or your anger. Let the heart of the universe, whatever you want to call it, hear what is in your heart.
  10. Breathe. In Genesis, when God creates human beings, God breathes life into them. The Hebrew word for soul is the same as the word for breath: neshamah. When I cannot be grateful for anything else, I can be grateful that the air is still moving in and out of my lungs. When I am upset, I can calm myself by breathing slowly and deeply. When I don’t know how I feel, I can often find out by noticing my breath: fast? slow? sighing? or holding? Breath is a tangible aspect of the soul.

May the Source of all Tranquility bless us with peace and wholeness, and bring peace to all the world. Amen.

The Cradle of American Judaism

Image: Touro Synagogue, taken from the visitor center. (Photo: R. Ruth Adar)

I spent today visiting a holy place, Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. It is the cradle of American Jewish history.

The Newport community of Jews was not the first congregation in what would come to be the United States. That honor goes to Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, established in 1654 by Sephardic Jews fleeing the arrival of the Inquisition in Recife, Brazil. In the mid 1600’s, another group of Jews, this time from Barbados, arrived in Newport, drawn by business opportunity and perhaps by the Rhode Island Royal Charter, which promised that no resident could be “molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion.”

At first they gathered in each others’ homes for worship. They called their congregation Nephuse Israel meaning Scattered of Israel.

The Jews thrived in Newport. They were successful in business and respected by their neighbors. Their first purchase as a community was land for a cemetery, high on a hill above the town. The original Jews of Newport still rest there.

In 1758 they felt secure enough in Newport that they changed the name of the community to Jeshuat Israel, meaning Salvation of Israel, and they broke ground for a synagogue building in a prominent spot above the long wharf where their ships landed. Everything about the new building was unapologetic and elegant, Jewish and American.

Why do I call this synagogue the cradle of American Judaism? I call it that because these Jews had a unique role in making the United States different from any other place that we had lived up to that point. These Rhode Island Jews were party to the state’s insistence on holding out on the U.S. Constitution until freedom of religion was insured via the Bill of Rights. Their leader, Moses Seixas, took the occasion of a visit from President Washington to present a letter congratulating him, and reminding him subtly of the importance of religious freedom; Washington answered with his Letter to Touro Synagogue in which he expressed his agreement. Soon after, in the Bill of Rights, the separation of church and state would be established forever as the law of the land.

At a time when the Jews of Europe still lacked the most basic status of citizenship, and the Jews of Arab lands were officially second-class citizens, the Jews of the United States had a home and citizenship. They were wanderers no more.

In this imperfect but promising land, new kinds of Judaism would take root and grow.

This is why Touro Synagogue is for me a holy place.

(I will write more about the building in a future post.)

 

 

Prayer for Baseball Trades

Image: PacBell Park, San Francisco, summertime. (350543/Pixabay)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-That-Is! In Your wisdom You commanded the orderly progression of night into day, and set the planets in motion with a word. Grant seychel to the baseball team managers as they set our players in motion from team to team, from franchise to franchise. May they achieve the perfect harmony they seek. Amen.

Give comfort to the players in motion and their families. May their new home be a good home, and may they be greeted with enthusiasm wherever they go. Amen.

Console the fans, O God of Compassion, as they mourn the departure of favorite players. Give them open hearts to receive the new faces, the bats and gloves of new players. Give them patience for a period of adjustment. Amen.

May the bats be mighty and the pitchers wily. May the green diamonds overflow with the joy of the game, and may all players and fans alike end each game with gratitude for what went well, and energetic discussion of what lacked.

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

* A rabbinical note: The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although certain skeptical Wissenschaft types insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

I Cringe When I Read Leviticus 25

Image: An old wooden fence post, criss-crossed with barbed wire. (LeoNeoBoy/Pixabay.)

Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. – Leviticus 25:44

We are reading Parashat Behar-Bechukotai this week, in which these words appear.

There are verses in the Torah that are downright painful to read, and Chapter 25 of Leviticus, with its rules for Jews keeping slaves, is one of them for me. These verses have been used to justify the practice of slavery in many different times and places in history. These verses justified the keeping of slaves by Jews, and they were cited to justify the keeping of slaves in my birth state of Tennessee.

Over time we have learned better. Jews no longer keep slaves. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives a summary of the history of those changes in The Slow End of Slavery, a d’var Torah on Parashat Mishpatim.  So what can we get out of reading these verses again and again, year after year?

First, while the practice of slavery is in our past, it is part of our history. As recently as the American Civil War, there were Jews as well as Christians who used the Torah to justify their ownership of other human beings. The memory of that should keep us humble. We should never forget that there may well be things we do lightly today that future generations will judge harshly.

These verses remind us that there are times and places in which we still, today, profit from immoral advantages over other human beings. For instance, “redlining”  was banned 50 years ago, but the evil it did still impacts black families today.

Look at our synagogue communities: we make it difficult for Jews with brown or black skins to feel at home in our synagogues. We are quick to assume that they must be hired help or dangerous strangers. We leave them standing alone at the oneg. Even if we don’t say or do something overtly cruel, we fail to greet them with the same enthusiasm we might extend to a member who “looks Jewish” to us. If you don’t believe me, do a little reading. One good beginning is Kippahed While Black: The Troubling Resurgence of “Schvartze” and “Kushi” a short opinion piece in the Forward by Michael Twitty.

We American Jews have a favorite photo that we like to trot out whenever the subject of civil rights or race comes up:

KingHeschel-photo

In the photo, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) marches at Selma with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr in March 1965.* But we speak too often of this photo as if the work is done: “See! There’s a rabbi there! One of ours!” We speak of it as somehow each of us should get credit for Rabbi Heschel’s walk.

The trouble with this is that each Jew is responsible for their own self. ALL of us are commanded – individually! – to free the prisoner, to feed the hungry, to love the stranger, and to pursue justice. We can’t slide by on the righteousness of a single rabbi who took courageous action 53 years ago. We cannot stand by while our neighbors bleed, while African Americans are executed for holding cell phones on their own family’s property.

Each of us – me included! – needs to ask “What am I doing about racial injustice today?” We need to ask it not in the past tense, and certainly not by proxy. We need to be open to improving our behavior. We need to drop the defensiveness that keeps us from learning when we’ve messed up. We need to not be so fragile when someone points out that what we’ve said or done was, yes, racist.

We can do this. I have great faith in our ability to learn and to make change. We can do it in the voting booth. We can do it by speaking up at racist “jokes.” We can do it by biting our tongues at phrases like “Not all white people…” We can do it by inviting speakers and leaders of color to our congregation to speak. We can do it by including in our tzedakah budgets organizations that serve people of color. We can do it by doing the good work and then not insisting on credit.

Every year when Leviticus 25 comes around, I cringe. I don’t like being reminded of past wrongs – no one likes it. But if I use that discomfort to open my heart, to open my ears, then it will all be worth it.  Shabbat shalom!

*For more about that iconic photo, read Susannah Heschel on the Legacy of Her Father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Civil Rights Movement, an article published in Moment Magazine in April, 2015.