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?”

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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.

 

 

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.

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.