As Usual, Silence = Death

Image: One person helps another to the top of a hill, in silhouette. (Pixabay)

This past week a friend pointed me to “Pick a Hill Worth Dying On, America.” I found it moving and motivating and I thought I’d pass it on, with a few additional thoughts. John Plavlovitz is one of my favorite Christian bloggers and he writes with an energy and urgency that I admire.

He begins, “If your eyes are clear and open right now you can see it: this is a pivot point for us, America.” 

In November 2016 I was very upset about the election, but my mantra was, “Our democracy survived Watergate and it will survive this, too.” I have vivid memories of those days in the 1970’s and while it was a worrisome time, the system functioned the way it was supposed to.

In the months since the election – and really, before that – things have happened in which it’s clear the system is no longer working. The first big sign of it was Senator Mitch McConnell’s refusal to allow a confirmation vote on President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. At the time, that was simply unbelievable: I kept thinking, “but they can’t do that!” The GOP could, and they did.

Since then, the hits have just kept coming. The first thing President Trump did was sign an executive order for the Muslim ban.  After the recent Supreme Court decision, a modified form of the ban is in place. For those of us who feel strongly about not targeting people on the basis of religion, it’s a failure of the system.

About 5,000 American citizens died from the hurricane in Puerto Rico, but our government only admits to 64. Babies were torn from their mothers’ arms at our borders. Our government apparently didn’t even bother to keep records of who was where – some of those children may never locate their parents again. My tax dollars at work. And then there’s corruption, and the evil tax bill, and on and on…

Worst of all, facts are now a free-for-all. Fox News says one thing, the other news sources say something opposite, the White House sniffs, “Fake News” and we stumble along in the dark. I feel like I’m living in Orwell’s London of 1984.

NONE OF THIS IS NORMAL. The United States has always had a problem with racism, but for most of my lifetime, we had the good grace to be ashamed of it. The United States has a nasty history of mistreating immigrants and exterminating Indians, but in the last 50 years, we were not in the habit of celebrating those behaviors.

Now we have Nazis running for office, and hatred on display everywhere. Indictments have been brought against 12 Russian spies who interfered in our last election, but the coming midterms are still vulnerable to such attacks.

I agree with the Rev. Plavlovitz: It’s time to pick the spot where we will dig in. There are plenty of topics, and we don’t have to totally agree on anything, just stick together long enough that this country does not become a place of shame for centuries to come.

  • I can work on voter registration.
  • I can hound friends and neighbors to vote.
  • I can write op eds.
  • I can write letters to the editor.
  • I can correct fallacies on social media with links to solid sources.
  • I can call and call and call my elected officials.
  • I can encourage the elected officials who already get it.
  • I can give money to campaigns.
  • I can be a good ally, supporting those with whom I have some issues in common.
  • I can refrain from demanding ideological purity from my allies.
  • I can be civil to all comers, but firm with people who have no intent to be civil.

And whenever I feel tired, whenever I want to just lie down and hope for the best, I will remember these verses from the Scroll of Esther:

Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace.

On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” – Esther 4:13-14

During the AIDS crisis, one of the slogans of the movement to deal with the epidemic was “Silence = Death.” Then it meant that if we don’t communicate, we’ll die. If we don’t speak up for others, they’ll die. I’m beginning to feel like that slogan needs a revival, because we truly cannot afford to sit in silence.

Silence = Death. Let’s not go there.

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Adul Sam-on, Stateless Hero

Image: Adul Sam-on in the cave, photo adapted from the Hindi First Post.

 

I woke this morning to the news that the 12 boys and their coach who were trapped in a cave in Thailand have been rescued alive, and are now in the hospital. That was wonderful news, and people all over the world are relieved.

Several outlets reported that a key element in the rescue was the contribution of Adul Sam-on, a member of the team. Adul was described by the New York Times as “the stateless descendant of a Wa ethnic tribal branch.” He was the only English speaker in the group, and he handled the communication with the British divers who originally found the boys on July 2:

Proficient in English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa, Adul politely communicated to the British divers his squad’s greatest needs: food and clarity on just how long they had stayed alive. -NYT, 7/10/18

Adul Sam-on’s impressive language skills were hard earned. He had been born in Myanmar, but he did not have Burmese citizenship. His ethnic group, the Wa, have a troubled history relative to the Myanmar government. They live in the “Golden Triangle” area of Southeast Asia, and are associated with drug production and trafficking. His parents were able to smuggle him to a church in Thailand where he has lived since he was small, attending the Ban Wiangphan School in Chiang Rai province. They clearly wanted something other than drugs and gangs for their son.

Now let’s look at Adul Sam-on through a different lens, the lens he would face at the US border. He has the following pro’s and con’s:

Pro: Young, healthy, intelligent, multi-lingual, good at sports. Now has shown his translation skills in a highly stressful setting, performing with aplomb. He is the pride of his school, beloved of his teachers.

Con: Stateless person. No passport. Refugee. His tribe is known to be involved in the drug trade. Sounds like there was trouble in his old neighborhood, too.

I think it’s safe to say that were he to turn up at the US border, he’d wind up in the custody of ICE, labeled a “lawbreaker,” with extra worries about possible drug connections. Even though he has a lot to offer any nation who takes him, we wouldn’t want him. We’ve made it very clear that we don’t want refugees.

What’s wrong with this picture? And what’s wrong with us, that we are fearful of the Adul Sam-on’s of the world? Immigrants are responsible for less crime than native-born US citizens. Immigrants can add a lot to a society, bringing things like language skills and their drive to succeed.

How many of the young adults in ICE custody or under threat of deportation are potential leaders, potential teachers, potential communicators? How many of them could shine under pressure like that young man? We’ll never know.

The Torah commands not once, not twice, but 36 TIMES that we are to “love the stranger.” It reminds us that the Jewish people were once strangers in Egypt. And for the last 2000 years we have more often been strangers than we have been truly at home, because we were stateless and unwanted.

The current immigration policy of the US Government is racist, bigoted, cowardly, and selfish. We don’t deserve a Adul Sam-on; I’m glad he has a bright future somewhere else.

 

A Bitter Psalm for Our Times

Image: B&W Photo of a crying child. (PublicDomain/Pixabay)

We live in a time when terrible things are happening to our nation and the world. Sometimes I cannot believe what I see on the news, then I talk with people who’ve been there and seen that with their own eyes, and I am forced to believe that there are babies in cages, children shuttled all over who knows where, and a nation built by immigrants led by someone who uses words like “infestation” to describe human beings.

People that I trust have personally witnessed the detention of children. They are not in “summer camp” or “boarding school.” They are held in prison-like conditions, without their parents knowing their whereabouts, and without knowing when or how they will see their parents again. Some appear to have been transported around the country to foster care, which sounds good until we realize that the foster parents have no information about the parents, or how long the separation may last. There seems to be a lack of concern at both the Department of Homeland Security and at the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as in the Oval Office itself.

Discussions about the alleged guilt of the parents is completely beside the point. The persons receiving this punishment are children, innocent children who have done nothing to anyone. To those who blame the parents, I say, “Do you know for a fact that each individual parent is a fraud?”

What we DO know for certain that such a separation from family is permanently damaging to children. We know it from Holocaust survivors who were “hidden children” or “kindertransport children” , even those who were able to reconnect with relatives, and even those who were adopted by very nice people. Without exception, the people I know who survived in that way are grateful for their survival, and feel a profound sense of loss even in old age.

It is only human to weep in the face of such trauma and such evil – but what are we to do besides weep? Many good people have been demonstrating, reporting what they know about the locations of children, calling their elected officials, and doing other good works – gemilut hasadim – acts of lovingkindness – to right these great wrongs.

Meanwhile, our Congress has been busy remaking the safety net that stands between the working poor and utter disaster. They have made use of our distraction (by the great crime on our borders) to pass a budget that gives tax cuts to billionaires while cutting  Medicare and Medicaid.

These wrongs are nothing new in history. Here is what the psalmist had to say about cruel and unjust rulers in his own time:

Psalm 58

For the leader; “Do not Destroy.” Of David. A michtam.

O mighty ones, do you really decree what is just? Do you judge mankind with equity?

In your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands you deal out violence in the land.
The wicked are defiant from birth; the liars go astray from the womb.
Their venom is like that of a snake, a deaf viper that stops its ears
so as not to hear the voice of charmers or the expert mutterer of spells.
O God, smash their teeth in their mouth; shatter the fangs of lions, Eternal One!
let them melt, let them vanish like water; may their arrows be blunted when they aim their bows;
like a slug that melts away as it moves; like a stillborn child that never sees the sun!
Before the thorns grow into a bramble, may God whirl them away alive in fury.
The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Men will say, “There is, then, a reward for the righteous; there is, indeed, divine justice on earth.”

This is an ugly psalm, with shocking sentiments. It gives voice to the anger that a good person feels when such cruelty is done by the powerful. It is also a reminder that while such evil may prevail for a while, in the end there is only the judgement of history and, for believers, the judgement of God.

If you are angry at what is being done to innocent children, know that you are in good company. But know, also, that all of us who are U.S. citizens are complicit in these evils: our tax dollars are paying for these crimes. We must raise our voices in any way we can, keeping in mind that we want to do less harm to the families, not more. In my next post I will address some specific actions we can take.

Woe to those who have done such things, and woe to those who do not care.

Tennessee Memory Lane: Remembering Governor Ray Blanton

Image: Front page of the Nashville Tennessean after Gov. Ray Blanton was convicted of selling alcohol licenses. Headline is “Blanton Guilty.” (from the Nashville Post)

I should mention up front, there’s no real Jewish content to this post, I’m just taking a trip down memory lane. However, I think you may find it interesting in light of recent events.

The President’s pardon of Dinesh D’Souza, convicted of campaign finance fraud, and his talk about pardoning Rod Blagojevich have sent me down memory lane.

In 1975, when I was still a Tennessean, we elected a scalawag named Leonard Ray Blanton to be Governor of Tennessee. He had already served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1967-1973, so it isn’t like we didn’t know what we were getting. He was famous for his poor attendance record in the Congress and his pursuit of pork barrel projects for his part of the state. (I must admit, the 7th congressional district had the nicest road surfaces of any rural counties in Tennessee.) He was also known for having come up as a politician through the Crump Machine out of Memphis.

In other words, anyone who thought Leonard “Ray” Blanton was an innocent was not paying attention.

Well, he got elected governor because in those days, we’d only elected one Republican governor in the previous 50 years. That was a nice dentist named Winfield Dunn, and everyone was so shocked at having a Republican governor that between four years of Dr. Dunn and the Watergate scandal, it just seemed safer to go back to what we were used to. (I say “we” although I voted for his opponent, Lamar Alexander, today a Senator from Tennessee. My politics have changed since I was in my 20’s, but I think Senator Alexander is a sight better a human being than Gov. Blanton ever was, despite his mistaken opinion on many matters.) Anyway…

Governor Blanton ran as a populist, putting together a coalition of assorted folks who believed that Republicans were practically the devil because they’d brought in Reconstruction 100 years before. (I wish I could say I was making that part up.) He talked a lot about morals and about honesty and Christianity, so of course he was going to be a good governor, right?

Once he was elected, however, he became known for heavy drinking and womanizing publicly, for vulgar language and high-handed ways. He gave himself a five-figure raise. The papers reported on his expensive junkets around the world to attract business to Tennessee and on the entourage of his friends who went with him. There were rumors about much worse, stuff like selling pretty much anything that wasn’t nailed down in his Capitol offices. The state of Tennessee even paid his bar bills and those of his cronies, until the newspapers shamed him into paying us back. Meanwhile the legislature changed the law, so that he could be the first governor in Tennessee history eligible to serve a second term.

By 1977 it was beginning to smell pretty bad. He fired a single mother named Marie Fajardo Ragghianti, who his administration had hired to be Chair of the Pardons and Paroles board, an improbable hire given her youth and inexperience. She refused to release a shady bunch of characters he pardoned because she suspected they had paid bribes to someone for their pardons. It was a very bad business, but there was no proof Gov. Blanton was involved. For a while, Ms. Ragghianti was out of a job, her name was mud, and after she went to the FBI, she was threatened by thugs who felt she was not sufficiently respectful of the governor. If you want the details of that story, you can watch the movie Marie

By the next election, in 1979, everyone smelled the horse manure, so we elected Lamar Alexander governor over Blanton. However, Gov. Blanton wasn’t done with us. The Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court got a phone call from the Lieutenant Governor and the State House Speaker that Gov. Blanton was staying up late signing pardons willy-nilly. His plan was to turn loose every white murderer or rapist in the state prison system as a big “so there” to the people of Tennessee for not re-electing him.

They got Mr. Alexander up and swore him in real quick, three days early and in the middle of the night, so that Gov. Blanton couldn’t sign any more pardons. Lieutenant Governor John Wilder called it “impeachment, Tennessee style.”

Ray Hill of the Knoxville Focus would later write:

Despite his populist rhetoric and talk of honesty and political morals, Ray Blanton would preside over perhaps the most corrupt regime in Tennessee history. (Knoxville Focus, 1/22/17.)

The cooperation of politicians from both sides of the aisle put an end to Gov. Blanton’s shenanigans. They put love of the State of Tennessee ahead of their own agendas. I’m proud of them to this very day. After Lamar Alexander’s dramatic midnight swearing-in, law enforcement in the state and at the FBI went to work and eventually Blanton was indicted and convicted on charges he was convicted of charges of extortion and conspiracy for selling a liquor license, and he spent 22 months in prison. Two of his cronies were convicted of selling the pardons, but he was never officially charged with it. Governor Ray Blanton died in 1996, still insisting that he’d “never taken a dishonest dollar” in his life, and I’m sure somebody still believed him.

When good people are willing to stand up and be good people, when we are willing to put the common good ahead of our own pride and self-interest, good things can happen. If on the other hand, previously decent people can’t see past their ideologies and their greed, then evil will prevail.

That’s all I’ve got to say.

 

 

 

 

 

“You’re a Bad Jew!”

Image: Eleven angry, screaming faces. (Photo from Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Reading the comments sections of Jewish online publications, I cringe. There are people who seem to entertain themselves by logging on and writing comments about what a “bad Jew” the writer is for having such-and-such an opinion, or what “bad Jews” other people are. They write as the arbiters of everything Jewish, in a tone that implies vast Jewish learning, with content that reveals only vast ignorance.

I imagine someone who wants to learn about Judaism reading this stuff, and I shudder. What are they to learn? The misinformation this supposed expert just spouted? That Jews speak hatefully to and about one another? That somewhere there is a “Jew-Hell” that “bad Jews” go to?

(Aside: No, there is no Jewish hell, except for the ones we make here in this life.)

Sometimes these bumptious blowhards seem to say that only the most traditional practice is valid. Sometimes they seem to be saying that their Judaism is the only real Judaism. Other disagreeable dogmatists seem to think that any traditional belief or practice is terrible, or they take delight in detecting any scrap of what might be an inconsistency in someone else’s practice. And all of them are cruel, using belittling language to make their point: “Not only are you a bad Jew, going to Jew-Hell, but you are unintelligent and ugly, too!”

Do you honestly think anyone was ever persuaded by hateful words?

Words have power. We learn that in Genesis 1:3:

.וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר

And God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.

Words create worlds. It is up to us to decide what kind of world we want, and to create it with our words. Cruel words produce a cruel world. Is that really what we want?

My Policy Regarding Messianism

Image: Shabbatai Tzvi, a 17th century self-proclaimed messiah. Public Domain.

Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai used to say: “If you have a sapling in your hand and they tell you ‘The Messiah is coming!’ first plant the sapling and then go to greet him.” – Avot de Rabbi Natan, 31b

Lately I’ve noticed an uptick in comments reflecting a “Messianic Jewish” point of view. It’s time for a policy statement about that, so here goes.

Rabbinic Judaism came into being in the first and second centuries when the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem closed the period of Biblical Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism subscribes to the notion that we have both a Written Torah (the five books of Moses) and an Oral Torah (the interpretation of those books passed down by a group of people known to us as the rabbis.)

There is a huge range of belief among Rabbinic Jews. We are more focused on actions than on belief, on keeping mitzvot (commandments) than on a particular orthodoxy (with a small-o.) We do not have creeds.

We do not have a messiah. Those of us who expect one (and not all of us do) are waiting for a political or military leader. We are not waiting for or interested in a savior to save us from our sins. This has been a matter of some distress to Christians, who historically want us to accept the person they believe to be a messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, but early on separated itself from us partly over doctrinal issues and partly over the fact that in the Roman world after the year 135 it was not healthy to be mistaken for a Jew. We Jews were rebels, we were trouble, and the Roman establishment did everything it could to put us out of business. Small wonder that the Christians of the time, who were interested in converting Romans to their faith, took care to differentiate themselves from Rabbis (aka Pharisees) in the Gospels, which were all written after at least one revolt against Rome.

Jews have suffered for centuries for our unwillingness to accept the Christian messiah. Those centuries of suffering  – of murders, of robbery, of stolen children, of persecution, of genocide – inform a certain testiness when someone comes along cheerfully talking about “being both,” or of conversion to Christianity under cover of a Hebracized name for Jesus.

By the way, Jesus isn’t the only candidate for messiah in Jewish history. By some counts as many as 24 individuals have been proposed as messiahs for the Jews. Some disappear into history, taking a few followers with them; others have been major disasters. The fellow pictured at the top of this post, Shabbetai Tzvi, was one of those who did terrible damage to the Jewish People.

So-called Messianic Judaism is a 20th and 21st century phenomenon. I do not teach Messianic Judaism. To my mind, it smacks of cultural appropriation – the adoption of the elements of a minority culture (Judaism) by members of the dominant culture (Christianity.) From where I sit, if someone thinks Jesus is their messiah, fine – but then they’re Christian, not Jewish. A person who worships Jesus as God may have Jewish ancestry, but their acceptance of that doctrine makes them no longer Jewish, no matter which of their ancestors were Jews.

And no, I’m not interested in a debate about this.

From now on, I’m simply going to delete “messianic” comments in this blog. Those who want that material have many websites upon which to find it. I can’t stop them from using materials on my site but I can prevent them from proselytizing at people who come here to learn about Judaism.  That same policy also goes for Christians who proselytize.

So that’s the policy. Don’t bother posting that stuff, because I’m going to delete it.

 

The Rabbi’s Hobby

Image: A Zenith console radio, much like the one my parents had when I was small. (photo via Collectors Weekly)

Radio is magic. Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved playing with the radio. I was born a night owl; when the family was all asleep, I’d creep into the den at home, where the big console radio stood, and I’d turn it on and watch the glow of the vacuum tubes. (Yes, I’m that old.) I’d turn the volume down and start at the bottom of the AM dial. I’d watch a little dial that showed signal strength, and when it twitched upwards, I’d turn the volume up ever so slowly until I could hear. Then I’d listen for the station identification, and if it was one I hadn’t heard before, I’d write it in a little notebook. I sat on a hilltop in rural Tennessee, but I could hear Cincinnati, Memphis, New York, Atlanta, and occasionally even Havana.

It was years before I learned the science behind “skip” – the property of radio waves and the atmosphere that made faraway stations come through late at night – but for a little girl who longed for the big wide world, it was glorious. New York stations brought me Nichols and May. WLOK in Memphis was my first exposure to African American music and culture. “Radio Rebelde, Cuba” was unmistakable, as was the voice of Castro giving speeches – I couldn’t understand the language, but I had seen enough clips of Castro on “Huntley-Brinkley” (NBC evening news) to recognize his voice. I felt very wicked, listening to Communist radio in the 1960’s!

pipe-3031175_640
Vacuum tube radios glowed.

All these voices floated in from the dark, and I listened to them in the ghostly glow of the radio tubes. I mourned when my parents got rid of that old radio, replacing it with a modern pink plastic clock-radio in the kitchen. It was useless for magical travel, and worse yet, it didn’t glow.

ic-R75
The IC-R75 radio on which the kids and I listened to history in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

When my own children were in grammar school, I bought a shortwave radio so that we could listen to stations all over the world. We strung an antenna along the roofline facing towards the Pacific, and the magic began to flow out of the radio again. The boys and I listened to the end of the Cold War, to cricket games announced in Pidgin from the Solomon Islands, to the drama in Tiananmen Square, and all sorts of other stuff. For a while, I wrote reception reports for Radio Deutsche Welle. the German shortwave network.

When I began to prepare for rabbinical school, and got very serious about Hebrew, I had to give up most other hobbies to make the time. I sold the big radio and most of the rest of my equipment in 2001. I figured I’d never have the time again, and that was true until life settled down a bit after school.

I finally got an Amateur Radio license in 2010. I had internalized a lot of “little girls don’t” lessons as a child, and always assumed that “ham radio” was for boys, not for me. I decided to ditch that thinking and get my license, which was easier to do than I had feared. It was gratifying to knock down my internal barrier, but for a long time, I didn’t do much with the ticket.

Recently my son Aaron got his license, and we’ve begun playing with the radio as a family again. I find that thinking about the physics of radio is another gateway to Rabbi Heschel’s radical amazement. Aaron and I are training to join the team of amateur radio volunteers who swing into action in a big emergency, assisting with communications when the phones are down. It combines wonder and service in equal parts: what a wonderful way to live Torah!

Ruth Adar, K6RAV