Judaism, Racism, and Converts

Image: Person immersing in water. (free-photos / pixabay)

Currently on Twitter there is an argument raging as to whether Jews are a “race.” Leaving aside the fact that race is a social construct to begin with, I am increasingly angry at arguments that insist that DNA determines Jewishness and that Judaism is a race.

Converts to Judaism are legitimate Jews, no matter their skin color or ancestry. Stop erasing us by insisting that Jews are a race. Jews are a people, and that is not the same thing.

Read the paragraph above a few times, please. Let it sink in. The gerei hatzedek, the people for whom we ask a reward in the Tzadikim section of the weekday Amidah, are real Jews, not “Jews Lite” or “Jews Sorta:”

May your compassion, O God our God, be aroused over the righteous and over the godly; over the leaders of your people, the house of Israel and over the remnant of their sages; over the true proselytes and over us. Grant a good reward to all who truly trust in your name, and place our lot among them; may we never come to shame, for in you we trust. Blessed are you, O God, you who are the stay and trust of the righteous.

– from the Amidah in Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, pp 88-90 with adjustments for modern English. Emphasis mine.

Conversion to Judaism is a long process. We have learned, by the time we get to the mikveh, that some Jews will refuse to accept us as genuine. We embrace Torah anyway.

We have been told about anti-Semitism, and in many cases, we encounter it from old friends or even from relatives – we know what we are signing up for. We embrace Torah anyway.

We know that if we are blessed with children, we have signed those children up for the hatred of anti-Semites and the skepticism of racist Jews, and we embrace Torah anyway.

As no less an authority as Maimonides asserted in a letter to the ger Obadiah in the 12th century:

since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and usDo not consider your origin as inferior. 

Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte, from A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky.  Behrman House, 1972

We are here. We are genuine. Stop erasing us with foolish racist arguments.

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Today All Jews are Chabad

Image: Police tape at a crime scene. (geralt/pixabay)

Today a man walked into Chabad of Poway, CA and started shooting. At this writing, the alleged shooter is in custody, one woman is reported dead and three others are physically injured. The emotional injuries, of course, expand in waves from the event: everyone in the building was certainly traumatized, all the Jews of San Diego have been threatened, and all the Jews who belong to synagogues everywhere have felt it like a wound.

My son sent me a text message from Santa Barbara: “Mom, do we know anyone at that synagogue?” I messaged him back, “It was at Chabad. As far as I know, I don’t know anyone personally, but today all Jews are Chabad.”

Today all Jews are Chabad. Six months ago we were all members of Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Last night I was at my synagogue home, at a very similar celebration: Shabbat and the end of Passover. We were haimish and happy, innocently enjoying the end of one holiday and the count to another. Now I think with a shudder: what if?

And you see, that is what the shooter wanted. He wanted me (and you, and you, and you) to think “what if?” – that is the goal of the terrorist. He wants me afraid to go to synagogue. Other terrorists want Muslims to be afraid to go to the mosque, and want African Americans afraid to go to church. The bombers of Sri Lanka wanted Christians and tourists to be afraid to be in Sri Lanka. Those who shoot or bomb in public places want to flaunt their power: “I can kill you. I can make you afraid.”

I can offer only one solution to this poisoning of the world. We must identify with the victims, and be very specific about the perpetrators. We must be one with Muslims of Christchurch, NZ. We must be one with the Christians of Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. We must be one with the black church members of the American South. We must be one with the children who huddle in corners while the guns go on and on and on. We must be one with all in the world who dive for bomb shelters, all who cringe at every explosion, all the hurt, all the damaged, all who carry injuries.

We must have no tolerance for hate speech, and make no excuses for anyone who speaks hatefully. Their words manipulate the people who will act upon those words while the speakers wash their hands. Their words validate the hatred and the violence, be it done with guns or with bombs or with knives. Their words pull the triggers and wire the bombs; it was that way in Mississippi in the 1960’s, and it’s that way with the wave of hate crimes against people now.

When we speak hatefully of any group of people, we are doing the work of the haters. When we listen silently to hate speech, we are validating the speaker and whoever may listen. When we rebuke the speakers of hate, we are speaking up for the injured of every faith and every identification.

.לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am YHVH.

Leviticus 19:16

I pray for all the mourners and the injured of Chabad of Poway. May they, along with the mourners and the hurt from every act of terror be gathered under Your shelter of peace. May we all be healed from our wounds; may we relearn innocence in speech and deed. Amen.

Postscript: I’ve begun hearing from the Jews I know in Poway, and they’re having a tough time. Please keep them in your thoughts.

Stop the Whitewash!

Image: A white stucco wall with the words Stop the Whitewash! spray painted across it. (Image by R. Ruth Adar)

The man I refuse to name is accused of setting three black churches on fire in Louisiana. There is strong evidence to suggest that he was the arsonist. He is young, he is white, and his father is a local law enforcement official.

Promptly after his name became public, Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning confirmed that M had a “relationship” with the black metal community, which had an “association” with church burnings. CNN reported that “authorities said that M’s interest in black metal music may have influenced his behavior.”

Let’s get something straight: the bombing or burning of churches and other civilian targets are acts of terror. 9/11 was terrorism. The Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing of 2001 was terrorism. The Paris Terror attacks of 2015 were terrorism. The bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 was terrorism. The 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, AL was terrorism. The 1974 pub bombings in Birmingham, UK were terrorism. The ramming of a crowd with a car in Charlottesville in 2017 was terrorism.

In the United States, when a dark skinned person with a foreign-sounding name sets buildings on fire or sets off bombs, it’s “terrorism.” Strangely, when a white male does the same thing in 2019, targeting African American churches or church groups, he is characterized as being under the influence of something: mental illness, the internet or now, music. (Back in 1963, we made no such excuses. What’s happened to us?)

I propose a name for this squeamishness, this excuse-making that seems to apply only for white males in the United States. I call it “whitewashing.” Instead of calling murder, murder, or terror, terror, we make excuses: he spent too much time on the internet, he is misunderstood, he is frustrated, he is listening to the wrong music. Enough!

The burning of black churches in Louisiana in 2019 is an act of terrorism. The evidence points to a white man – he is a white supremacist terrorist.

It’s not some mystical musical thing.

It’s not mental illness.

It’s plain old hate.

Quit whitewashing it.

What is a Jew?

Image: A person holding a question mark in front of their face. (anemone123/pixabay)

What is a Jew? Today I assisted with the rituals associated with conversion to Judaism (beit din and mikveh). It set me to thinking about the process and these are some admittedly disjointed thoughts that I’ve been juggling. I thought writing might help, which is has, somewhat.

The usual question is “Who is a Jew?” which has come to be the standard opener for a discussion about qualifications for Jewishness. People often say, “Oh that’s simple!” and say “Jewish mother, or converted” but it isn’t that simple. There are differences among various denominations of Jews, plus arguments about what constitutes a valid conversion, and then you add in all the 21st century options for childbearing and we’re off to the races.

And anyway, that’s not what I’m talking about right now. What is a Jew?

We could look at the process of conversion as magic: someone is not-a-Jew then splish-splash in the mikveh and whoo! She’s a Jew! Presto-change-o! Except that it doesn’t work that way at all.

It isn’t magic. It’s a slow process that ideally takes time, because an adult identity has to make some significant shifts to move from “not-a-Jew” to “Jew.” The halakhic ritual markers are part of that, but by themselves they do not transform someone from one state to another.

So I repeat: What is a Jew?

A Jew stands in relationship with all the other Jews on earth. We stand together in something I will call the Jewish circle, meaning that everyone inside of it is a Jew and everyone outside isn’t a Jew. That circle also includes three to four thousand years of ancestors, depending upon whom you ask. Sometimes it feels crowded.

A Jew has some awareness of being a Jew. The person who suddenly discovers Jewish ancestry is not necessarily a Jew: first of all, that ancestry may not qualify them under the “Who’s a Jew” discussion, but secondly they may already feel connected elsewhere. A person who understands themself to be in relationship with Jesus Christ is not a Jew.

A Jew feels connected to other Jews. That may be a warm fuzzy feeling but it may also be a feeling of intense irritation, or of a terrifying threat. Jews notice other Jews in the news. Some Jews scour everything Jew-ish out of their lives, because being associated with Jews is anything from a nuisance to a source of terror.

A Jew is not described by belief. Some Jews have very definite ideas about God, which differ from other Jews with equally definite ideas about God. Other Jews are not so sure, and prefer to “do Jewish” than to spend time speculating on theology. Still other Jews are atheists or agnostics. All are Jews.

As a rabbi, I have learned definite criteria for “Who is a Jew?” I have also encountered people who are quite sure they are Jews, and who do not meet the criteria I learned. After watching them and listening to them for a while, I am inclined to agree with them, but I confess I would be more comfortable if they availed themselves of the ritual process of gerut (conversion.) Rabbis are trained to be uncomfortable with fuzzy boundaries. That is partly because many Jews don’t like fuzzy boundaries, either, especially when it comes to questions like, “Is this person a Jew or not?”

A Jew is a person apart. We are not alone, because we are with other Jews in the Jewish circle. But the perception of both the world and the Jews is that Jews are different, apart. Words such as “chosen” or “special” are sometimes used to denote that quality, but most of us learn to be wary of those words, because they are loaded.

When I first became a Jew, a quarter-century ago, a wise friend said to me, “Mazal tov! The good news is, you will never be alone again. The bad news is, you will never be alone again. Welcome to the family.” That may be the best answer I will ever find to my question, “What’s a Jew?”

Lives At Risk: Time to Stand Up for Transgender Americans

Image: A figure wearing a shirt and a name tag: “Transgender.” (Shutterstock)

The Trump administration is considering narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth, the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law. – NYT, 10/21/2018

I read this last night and my blood ran cold. I am writing to beg you, dear readers, to act today to let our lawmakers know that this re-definition of gender is evil, is not in the best interests of the United States, and that it must not happen.

If such a rule goes forward, it would be permission for physical attacks on people whose gender doesn’t fit into a tidy male-female paradigm. It will be encouragement for bullies to beat them up, and it will prevent many of them access to appropriate health care. It will create vast, horrible legal messes for those who have already corrected their legal papers to reflect who they actually are.

That includes a lot of people in my life, beloved to me.

THESE PEOPLE ARE NOT HURTING ANYONE. They are good citizens. They pay taxes, they vote, they do the best they can to pay their own way in the world (quite a trick, when one faces so much discrimination.) They are American troops, they are veterans of foreign wars, they are contributing members of our society.

Even if they weren’t all those things, they are human beings, made in the image of God, children of God, and they deserve to be treated with dignity.

No one will be better off if our government decides to put them all in the straightjacket of a strict binary gender system. It will not improve your life, and it sure as heck won’t improve mine. It will just torment people who haven’t done anything wrong. It will please some ignorant bigots, and it will give joy to some who think cruelty is fun.

What to do?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. Contact your elected representatives and let them know you think that anti-trans legislation or executive orders are NOT the American way.
  2. Give money to trans rights organizations.
    1. Transgender Law Center
    2. Freedom for All Americans 
    3. National Center for Transgender Equality
    4. Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund
    5. Trans Life Line (a hotline on which trans people help trans people)
    6. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project
    7. The TransWomen of Color Collective
    8. Gender Spectrum
    9. Trans-Tech Social Enterprise
    10. The Trans Justice Funding Project
    11. National Center for Lesbian Rights (working for trans civil rights since 2001)
    12. Trans Youth (TRUTH) Program
    13. TGI Justice Project
    14. Trans Student Educational Resources
    15. Immigration Equality and Action Fund
  3. Learn about the organizations above, and encourage your friends to support them.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local paper.
  5. Write an op-ed for a publication you read.
  6. Contact state officials to push for state-level protections for vulnerable trans people
  7. Read books by trans authors. (Here’s where you can find some. Also another list.)
  8. If there is a trans person in your life, reach out, listen to them, ask how you can support them.

By the way, if you are thinking that fifteen organizations means that transgender people don’t need your support, you are mistaken. Most of those outfits run on shoestrings and provide legal and other support without which people will die.

If you are thinking, “But bathrooms! Rabbi, danger!” please read my post on that subject.

Please, please, choose at least a few of the action items above and do what you can.

Thank you, for whatever you do.

 

 

 

 

Questions, After Kavanaugh

Image: A person holds their face in their hands, tears dripping from their chin. (Counselling/Pixabay)

I’ve been thinking of how to talk about the news and the Kavanaugh nomination. I finally gave up on writing anything useful.

My opinions are colored by my own history as a survivor of sexual violence. I simply can’t think of this without being reminded of all the women I have known who were targets of sexual violence by men who knew that they’d never face any consequences for what they did. I’m not going to pretend I can be “objective” about this situation.

Nor do I think that anything I say is going to affect the vote by the Senate, or even anyone else’s mind. Let’s be honest – Americans have pretty much made up our minds about this, one way or the other, haven’t we?

Instead, I would like to raise some questions about the future.

  1. If it is unfair for men to face accusations of sexual misconduct years after the fact, what are we going to do about making it more possible for victims to report sooner and with fewer negative consequences for reporting? I’m talking not only about the barriers in law enforcement and the court system, but the fact that many persons making such a report face blame and judgment from family and friends.
  2. What is it going to take for us to believe people who say they have been attacked? A study using FBI data over the period from 2006 to 2010 concluded that of the rape reports in that time period, only 5% were false or baseless. In other words, someone reporting this humiliating crime is highly likely to be telling the truth. Meanwhile, the majority of sexual assaults go unreported – meaning, no one is accused of them. They go unreported because victims are not stupid – they are aware of the facts I list above. Moreover, they are likely to encounter doubt and counter-accusations from friends as well as law enforcement. Even among the minority of perpetrators who are actually accused, they are highly unlikely to be prosecuted or convicted.
  3. When are we going to recognize that the phrase “ruined life” applies to the victim of a violent crime, even though we’re more likely to hear it in reference to the accused? There may somewhere be survivors of such crimes who just walk away unharmed, but I’ve never met one. Instead, sexual assault survivors often deal with a lifetime of PTSD, anxiety and phobias, huge therapy bills if they want to recover some semblance of peaceful existence, and many like myself have to deal with physical sequelae as well. Many of us choose brave language (like “survivor” instead of “victim”) as part of our recovery but our lives were changed forever by what was done to us.
  4. Why do we have to talk about “wives and sisters” when we plead for attention to be paid to these injustices? Why can’t a woman’s life matter on its own? Why do the male victims of sexual attacks have to be invisible?
  5. What concrete actions can we take to make things better in the future? How can we handle reports of rape or sexual violence so as not to demonize the person who reports? How can we change the system, or ourselves, so that we identify at least as much with the victim as we identify with the accused?

Especially if you feel that Judge Kavanaugh has been treated unfairly, I’d be very interested in your take on these questions.

 

 

Insight from Bob Woodward’s “Fear”

I have been reading Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward. I’m about half way through it, but I’ve already noticed something that will change the way I choose my words about politics from now on.

As President Trump brings on his cabinet and advisors, he seeks out many military figures who disagreed vehemently with the previous president. Mr. Woodward reports some of their presentations to the president, including their descriptions of what they felt were the mistakes of the previous administration.

To my surprise, their arguments sounded a lot more reasonable to me than they had in the past. I was able to see the logic in their arguments, even when I didn’t agree. This confused me – had I been so poor a listener? I went back a couple of chapters and began reading again.

It finally dawned on me what was different. Mr. Woodward reported the advisors’ points of view in very dispassionate language. There were almost no adjectives or adverbs, and no editorial comments whatsoever. It was just the unadorned chain of logic.

When I heard the same arguments in the past, they had always come in highly charged language.  For example, I’d ask someone for their opinion on Mr. Obama’s Middle East policies, and the answer would begin with “Obama! He hates Israel!” or something similar – something that would immediately set me on the defensive. I didn’t – and don’t – think President Obama “hates Israel.” But when someone arguing against the Iran deal led with a bunch of statements like that, my heart would shut down. It would be very difficult to listen to anything else they said, however logical.

This has caused me to reflect on my own language. If such statements made it impossible for me to hear what someone else was saying, then what about the times I lead with my opinions of President Trump? In fact, until this post, I have had a tendency to avoid the title “President Trump” because I have such revulsion for him. Now, I will use the title – he is the President of the United States – and I will try to editorialize less about his person as I talk about his policies.

It is reasonable to expect a Trump voter to go onto the defensive when I open an argument with my emotional opinions about the man’s character. It’s not that my opinions about policy have changed – not at all! – I loathe most of his policies – but when I adorn my arguments with insulting nicknames and wild speculation about his motives, I close the ears of anyone I might want to persuade.

I am fond of saying that “words create worlds,” pointing to the first chapter of Genesis. Words can also build or burn bridges. Words are how we connect to other human beings. Perhaps one thing we need to do, if we are going to heal this divided country, is to speak less in passionate editorial prose and more in language that actually communicates facts.

I know that there are other problems in our speech in America right now: the whole issue of what is real, what is true, what can be known seems to be up for grabs. That’s a very serious matter, and I doubt there is much I alone can do to shift it. But on this little thing, to quit the namecalling, to quit ascribing motive, that’s something I can do, and I believe it could make a difference in my communication with others.