Doubling Down on Justice

This past August 5, the Movement for Black Lives published a 47,000 word platform that has hit a nerve in the American Jewish community. Most of the furor has focussed on a single hot-button word in the document: genocide. The rest of the attention has gone to a call for support of BDS, divestment from all things Israeli.

I have been quiet while I read and studied the document itself and read reactions from Jews whose opinions I respect. 

Today Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles published an article in the Jewish Journal that says what I’d like to say, only much better than I could ever say it. So instead of blathering here I will post a link to it for you.

The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.


What Food Do You Choose?

What’s your food practice, and why?

Traditionally, Jews are The People Who Don’t Eat Pork. The Philistines, who were of Greek origin, commented upon it. Antiochus, a Greek king, thought it bizarre. The Romans thought it just one more bit of evidence that we were crazy. And after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, a refusal to eat pork became the hallmark of “Judaizing” and became grounds for torture and execution.

Not Eating Pork became the hallmark Jewish food practice, even for Jews who did not embrace the full practice of kashrut. Kashrut is a complex topic but the short version is that only certain animals may be eaten, those animals must be slaughtered and cooked in an approved fashion, and meat and milk must be kept strictly separated. Observing kashrut is often referred to as “keeping kosher.”

Many 21st century Jews keep kosher. Some observe those commandments more stringently, some less. Some choose not to observe the traditional laws at all. Some choose to eat pork. Some do not. Some Jews only practice traditional dietary laws to some extent during Passover or holidays.

For many 21st century Jews, another pressing issue is food ethics:

  • Will I consume animal products?
  • If so, what are the minimum standards for how those animals are treated?
  • How do my food choices affect the human beings who produce food?
  • How do my food choices affect the ecosystems in which they grow and are processed?
  • What about food scarcity for others in my area?
  • What about food waste?
  • How do my choices about consumption affect my health and that of my family?

Any time we address a question of food ethics, we must recognize that much of our decision making is about trade-offs. For instance, food that is ethically sourced and ethically produced (and fresh, nutritious, etc.) is more expensive. So then we add to the questions:

  • What can I afford?
  • What am I willing to do for those who cannot afford this food?

A person might decide to forego the free-range eggs in order to donate those funds to the food bank. That’s their choice, and their way of addressing the trade-off. Someone with a lot of discretionary income may choose to do both. And someone who is trying to feed their family on very low income may get eggs from caged hens and that’s how it is. No one with more income has any right to pass judgment on the person for whom worry about ethical food choices is an unaffordable luxury.

There are a number of Jewish organizations exploring these issues and looking at ways to move towards a more ethical practice of Jewish eating. My Jewish Learning has provided a great article on the subject by Shmuly Yanklowitz.

Finally, what else am I willing to do to address ethical issues and food? Learn about the issues? Lobby elected officials for better regulations? Volunteer at the food bank? Join a Jewish group (maybe a congregation’s social action committee) to study up on these issues?

So, what are your food practices, and how to they stem from your reading of Torah? Do you keep some level of kashrut? Do you fast on Yom Kippur? What do you choose to eat, or not eat, out of ethical or ecological concerns? And most importantly: why???


Philando Castile. Alton Sterling.

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.  – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

Two entire worlds disappeared in the last 24 hours when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died at the hands of police. Witnesses recorded both shootings, and the police do not look good in the video.

Late last night, my son posted on his Facebook page: “I am up late tonight, unable to sleep, sad angry and scared. I didn’t know these men, but I could have. Next time this could be someone I know and love.”

Do not tell me that “All Lives Matter.” I know that. The question is, do we American taxpayers know it? Because right now it looks as if we do not know it. It looks like those in power in America believe that black lives don’t matter. It looks like we and our police believe that all African American males are so dangerous that one must shoot first and ask questions later.


That is why it is necessary to say #BlackLivesMatter. We say it because we must learn it. “All Lives Matter” is a platitude that attempts to cover our inadequacies with the obvious. #BlackLivesMatter points to the problem – the fact that this morning, two more families are without beloved fathers who were primary breadwinners.

Two entire worlds were destroyed. It matters.



The Agony of Ramadan, 2016

Image: Aftermath of the July 2016 Baghdad bombings, picture via Tasnim News.

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. – Elie Weisel

More than 250 Muslims have been slaughtered in the past week, if you combine the death counts from Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, and Medina.

The cruelty of those attacks is magnified by several factors. First, they fell just at the end of Ramadan, before the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, a festival on a par with Christian Easter or Jewish Rosh HaShanah. A time of joy has forever been turned to a time of mourning for hundreds of families. Secondly, many of those affected by the explosions and fire in Baghdad were already suffering from more than a decade of war. Third, the attack in Medina was an attack at one of Islam’s holiest sites: imagine a terrorist attack on the Vatican, or the Kotel.

And yet: where are the “Je Suis Istanbul” signs? Where are the facebook memes? Where is the sympathy and solidarity that Paris, and San Bernadino, and Orlando received when there was mass murder? Could it be that we are indifferent because most of the victims are not white? Could it be that we are indifferent because most of them were Muslims?

Someone is going to point out to me that there was celebration in Palestinian Gaza after the bombings in Paris. That has more to do with Hamas (the terrorist organization that currently runs Gaza) than it does with the fact that they are Muslim. I attended an iftar meal in Daly City, CA with Muslims shortly after Orlando, and I can tell you that they were horrified by the shooting. There was not one bit of celebration, no word of justification, not even a little dig about the fact that most of the victims were gay men.

In a New York Times article, journalist Anne Barnard explores some of the political and global reasons for the apathy (and if you are doubting that it exists, she also documents and quantifies it.) My concern here is specific to Jews: I want to suggest that Jewish tradition and the Jewish experience demands that we care.

The Hebrew word for mercy, rachamim, is closely related to the word for womb, rechem. Just as we speak of mothers carrying their infants “under their hearts,” we must carry the suffering of the world under our own hearts. The High Holy Day liturgy warns that those who were without mercy for their fellow human being will face a merciless Judge on Judgment Day. And yes, we may have suffered at the hands of those without mercy but that never justifies any action on our part that is merciless: we must care.

Yes, we are exhausted from mourning the deaths of our own. A little Jewish girl was stabbed to death in her bed by a terrorist. An Israeli family was attacked in their car, the father killed, the mother seriously injured. But did you know that it was also two Arab Palestinians who responded with first aid and comfort for the children after that attack?

Elie Weisel told us repeatedly that we must care about the suffering of others. We must care even when we are exhausted, when we have compassion fatigue, when we are tempted to confusion. We must care, and we must give voice to our concern. 250 human beings died in the past week, died by means so horrible we cannot linger on the thought. We must care.

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. – Elie Weisel

Jews Rejecting Trump

Image: Rabbi Rothbaum speaks as Hazzan Wallach and Susan Lubeck hold “Jews Reject Trump” signs. Photo by Bend the Arc.

Last night I participated in a prayer service outside Republican headquarters in my home town of San Leandro, CA.  It was part of a prayer service and demonstration organized nationally by Bend the Arc – Jewish Action.

This year, the Republican candidate for President of the U.S. has made such outrageous statements about Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, and people of color that he has boosted the legitimacy of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. He tried to avoid repudiating those organizations. His followers have targeted journalists with Jewish names on social media.

As I wrote earlier this month in Stop the Hateful Cycle:

“I believe in free speech and I also believe in the absolute necessity of challenging hateful speech, whether it is justified with a quote from the Bible, from the Quran, or from someone’s sainted grandma. It doesn’t matter how it is justified: it’s still hate. 

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not go slandering among your people. Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This verse has two parts. (1) Don’t slander. (2) Don’t stand on the blood of your neighbor.

These two commandments are side by side because they are related. Hateful speech leads to violence, and when we listen to hateful speech and do not challenge it, we stand in the blood of another human being. We do not remain clean.”

So when I got the call from Bend The Arc, a Jewish social justice organization, inviting me to participate in a rally against Trump (not for any other candidate, merely against Trump and his message) I was glad to participate. There was going to be a meeting at the Republican HQ, and we would be there to witness against racism.

We gathered outside the Republican office on MacArthur Blvd in San Leandro. Bay Area Regional Director Susan Lubeck briefed us quickly on the program and how to behave (support one another, be polite, de-escalate). The program was an observance of the yahrzeit of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman of blessed memory. They were murdered on June 21, 1964 for their voter registration and freedom school activities in segregated Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Susan had notified the San Leandro Police that we would be there, and the beat officer for the neighborhood came up before the program began, just as people were beginning to arrive for the meeting at the Republican HQ. We were careful not to block the door or create problems. The treasurer came out in hopes of shooing us away; he said they didn’t have anything to do with the national candidates. We made note of the “TRUMP” poster in the window and stayed.

Hazzan Risa Wallach led us in a nigun, a wordless hymn. We heard speeches from Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, from Susan Lubeck, and from a woman currently working to raise the minimum wage (I am sorry that I was unable to catch her name.) We also heard from Rabbi Harry Manhoff of Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro. Hazzan Wallach chanted El Maleh Rachamim [God, Full of Mercy] and then we said Kaddish for the three martyrs.

Periodically people would come out of the meeting and photograph us on their cell phones and make videos. We ignored them. When we began to say Kaddish, they shut the door to the office and we did not interact with them again. Periodically people driving past saw our signs (“Jews Reject Trump”) and honked in support.

It was a quiet, peaceful event (thank goodness!) and over in less than an hour.

I am grateful to Bend the Arc – Jewish Action for their organizing prowess and to Rabbis Rothbaum and Manhoff for their eloquent words. May the day come, and speedily, when no such events are needed ever again.


Stop the Hateful Cycle

Image: Sign with “Violence” and “Hate Speech” with “No” symbols over them. Photo by John S. Quartermansome rights reserved. Cropped for use here. 

I’ve been listening to the news organizations do their endless “special report” drill on the massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida. I finally turned off the television.

The so-called news had devolved into a cycle of speculation: hate crime? terrorism? domestic? ISIS? wash-rinse-repeat…

Let’s get something straight (pun intended): Hate leads to Terror. The magnitude of this particular act of violence is unprecedented, but there is ample precedent for the hate that inspired it. Someone failed to teach the murderer that violence against anyone is unacceptable. Maybe his parents tried to teach him, but over the years acquaintances listened to his verbal violence against LGBTQ folks and said nothing. Someone heard homophobic words and said nothing. Others encouraged him, all those voices that said “someone ought to do something” or that said that “killing LGBTQ people is God’s will” bear responsibility. That includes ISIS, along with voices closer to home.

I believe in free speech and I also believe in the absolute necessity of challenging hateful speech, whether it is justified with a quote from the Bible, from the Quran, or from someone’s sainted grandma. It doesn’t matter how it is justified: it’s still hate. 

 לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ

Do not go slandering among your people. Do not stand upon the blood of your neighbor. – Leviticus 19:16

This verse has two parts. (1) Don’t slander. (2) Don’t stand on the blood of your neighbor.

These two commandments are side by side because they are related. Hateful speech leads to violence, and when we listen to hateful speech and do not challenge it, we stand in the blood of another human being. We do not remain clean.

(By the way, if anyone is thinking about arguing that “slander isn’t slander if it’s true,” please stop right there. Rechilut, the Hebrew word in question, may also be translated “gossip.” It may be either true or false.)

When we listen passively to anyone (elderly uncles included) talk about what “ought to happen” to a group of people, we stand in the blood of those human beings. This is equally true whether the targeted group is a group we like or a group we don’t like at all.

Let’s resolve to speak up every time we hear hate speech against:

  • LGBTQ people
  • People of color
  • Jews
  • Muslims
  • Christians
  • Palestinians
  • Atheists
  • Mormons
  • Persons with disabilities
  • Fat people
  • Thin people
  • Mentally ill people

… and anyone else.

To do less is to stand in the blood of another.

Addendum: I write this as much for myself as for any reader. I, too, have let hate speech pass when I have written off the speaker as beyond learning. I was wrong to do that. I teach not only with my words but with my silence. Whenever I let hateful speech pass unchallenged, I teach the speaker that I think it is OK. I was wrong to do that.