Dear God: Help Us

Image: A hurricane, from space. (Image by WikiImages / Pixabay)

A monster hurricane ground the Bahamas almost to dust

while

Men with guns killed people in several different places

and

One of them shot a toddler in the face

while

Alaska and Siberia and the Amazon rainforest burned

and

unspeakable crimes punctuated the news cycle.

This is the new normal, apparently: things that once would have been the big news of the entire month or season are now piled up in a single day, disaster upon disaster. These are human-made disasters: they aren’t earthquakes or tsunamis. Every few days, some guy grabs a gun and kills a bunch of people because he feels like it. Despite the political pressure to think otherwise, climate change is real and the evidence is all around us. For the past two years, the changed climate in California and the rest of the American West has engendered monster fires, fires so big that they are visible from space, and now the Arctic and the Amazon are burning, as well.

So how should we pray about these messes that we human beings have made?

Jewish tradition does not encourage us to pray for miracles. It does not encourage us to look towards the heavens and say, “God, please fix it.”

Jewish tradition encourages us to work to make the miracles we need. When we stood trembling at the bank of the Red Sea, God scolded Moses for stopping to pray and said, “Get moving!” (Exodus 14:15) In that story, God may have stretched out “a mighty arm” as the Haggadah says, but we were expected to seize the hand offered and ultimately, deliver ourselves. We did not fly out of Egypt; we walked.

For too long, we have whined and scuffed our feet at the edge of these Red Seas we face today. We have wasted precious time arguing instead of acting.

Can’t get the solution to gun violence that we want? Push our elected officials to get whatever compromise might help a little. Enforce existing laws, tighten what controls can be tightened. Fund more mental health care. Fund research. Explore every possible option. Do not simply blame it on “bad people” or “stupid people” or “liberals” or “conservatives.”

Let’s do the same with climate change. Let each of us push our elected officials to take it seriously, and do what we can individually. If our grandparents and great-grandparents could sacrifice to fight the Nazis, why can’t we make sacrifices to make the changes we must make to survive? WE – not “other people.” Let’s tell the corporations that they get to make sacrifices, too. We are all in this together; there is only one Earth.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who gave us brains and intended that we use them. Please give us the strength to save ourselves from ourselves.

The Trueist Name of God

Image: Cartoon of many people speaking, different colored speech balloons. (RudieStrummer / Shutterstock)

Recently I was answering a question about the names of God. In Judaism, there is only one deity but that one deity has LOTS of names: Biblical names like

  • El – name of an ancient Canaanite deity
  • Yud-Heh-Vav-Hey – The name we never say. (Ex. 3:14)
  • Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh – (“I am who I will be”)
  • El Shaddai – (Genesis 17:1)
  • Elohim – (looks like a plural, but refers to one God) (Genesis 1:26)
  • Adonai – (also looks plural, and isn’t) Psalm 136:3

and newer names like

  • Shechinah – the Presence of God)
  • HaMaqom – “The Place” – God is everywhere, and right here.)
  • HaShem – “The Name” – a substitution for the name we don’t say, and for Adonai in some communities.
  • Ein Sof – The highest Kabbalistic name of God.
  • HaRachaman – “The Merciful One.”
  • Ribbono Shel Olam – “Master of the Universe”
  • Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Father, Our King”

… to name just a few!

As I was explaining, I flashed back on a wonderful memory. At Temple Sinai we used to use the Gates of Prayer siddur , which had gendered language in reference to God. (He/him, etc.) The congregation felt that this was not appropriate, and the clergy came up with a fix. Whenever we came to any name for God or pronoun for God in the service, everyone was encouraged to say whatever name of God they liked – any of the above or dozens others.

So our prayers would periodically erupt in a glorious cacophany of names, for example:

Blessed are You, {cacophany of names}, {cacophany of names} our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot and commands us to light the candles of Shabbat.

Soon I came to feel that the real name of God was that eruption of voices and names, all the names together. The name of God was the sound of many Jews saying all the names of God, together.

By the time I came back from rabbinical school, the new prayer books had arrived, and there was no need to worry about gendered language: it had all been written out of the new siddur. It’s nice and tidy and tame, but sometimes the wild Jew in me would love to hear once again the cacophony of all the names of God, all together, spoken in love and awe.

Is Anybody Listening?

Image: Two birds interact on the edge of a birdbath. (Andrew Martin / Pixabay)

It’s a war out there. I’m talking about social media, but also our culture at large. I say it is a “war” because all I hear about is the need to fight.

The lefties are talking about the need to fight xenophobia, racism, white supremacy, white nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrationism, Trumpism, ICE, and Republicans, especially #Mitch. Some lefties are talking about the need to fight Zionism.

Folks on the right are talking about the need to fight Constitution-haters, liberals, socialists, communists, snowflakes, elites, Bernie Sanders, the Squad, reverse-racism, housewife haters, and Democrats, especially NancyPelosi. Some on the right are talking about the need to fight race traitors, the #Clintons, George Soros, and Jews.

And yes, I imagine I may have gotten your dander up just a little, with those lists. You’re thinking, “Not ALL…” or “Damn straight, someone has to fight for their principles!” and wondering what is wrong with me, that I don’t see the imperative to fight for what is right.

We’ve all got our talking points. I have mine, too – just read through a few posts on this blog, if you doubt me. We stand on our soapboxes and we holler our talking points at each other and when our words don’t make an impression, we start cussing, and when cussing doesn’t do it, we think of the meanest thing we can say and we throw that at those fools who Refuse. To. Get. It.

And what have we accomplished, after years of this?

We are screaming mad at one another, with no common ground upon which to build a peace. Some of our anger is rooted in tragic losses and real events. Some of our anger has been nurtured – cultivated! – fertilized, even! – by people with something to gain from us all being too angry to do anything but fight.

What would happen if we were to find something to do other than fight? What if I were to ask the next person who calls me an ugly name that I’ll listen to them – really listen! – if we could just identify some common ground?

What if we told each other our deepest fears?

A View from Spaceship Earth

Image: Current occupants of the ISS, Astronaut Christina Koch, Cosmonaut Alexey Nikolaevich Ovchinen, and Astronaut Nick Hague prior to their trip to the International Space Station. (Photo from phys.org)

On July 15, 2019 I watched the International Space Station (ISS) fly across the sky above my home. It was a small bright light, moving too fast to be a star or planet. I recognized it because an app on my smartphone alerted me to it: ISS HD Live: Live Earth View. (Link is to Google Play. Apple users are on their own, but I’m certain there is an Apple version.)

I am fascinated by the ISS. The first crew took off on Oct 31, 2000 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 10:53 a.m. local time time. Since then, it has become the longest uninterrupted human presence in an orbiting lab. The station began as a shared project and it continues as an enormous cooperation among a large group of entities:

As of January 2018, 230 individuals from 18 countries have visited the International Space Station. Top participating countries include the United States (145 people) and Russia (46 people). Astronaut time and research time on the space station is allocated to space agencies according to how much money or resources (such as modules or robotics) that they contribute. The ISS includes contributions from 15 nations. NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia) and the European Space Agency are the major partners of the space station who contribute most of the funding; the other partners are the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

– Howell, Elizabeth, “International Space Station: Facts, History and Tracking,” Accessed 7/17/2019

While I stood in my garden staring at the tiny light in the sky, I was moved by the fact that despite whatever tensions are underway here on Earth, the people who occupy the ISS manage to live peacefully for their time there. They do so because lives depend on it: it is a fragile little assembly, aging fast, and if they do not cooperate with one another, they’ll all die.

We here on “Spaceship Earth” have not yet internalized the same sense of urgency. The same nations that cooperate on the ISS fail to cooperate on too many matters of survival: climate change, international trade, respect for one another, etc.

In the words of a rookie astronaut who is on the station at this writing, Christina Koch:

The trio and their three-man backup crew spoke of cooperation rather than competition following the mission seen by some as the dawn of an era of commercial space travel.

Koch, a 40-year-old rookie, said the SpaceX success was a “great example of what we’ve been doing for a very long time.”

“And that is cooperating among partners and making things that are very difficult look easy.”

“Astronauts who survived Soyuz scare ready for new launch despite glitches” on Phys.org, accessed 7/17/2019.

As the little light disappeared over my roofline, I whispered a prayer for the residents of the ISS, and for all the residents of our other, larger spaceship:

May we recognize and respect the fragility of both our homes, and keep them safe. Amen.

Image: The view from the ISS. (Photo by skeeze from Pixabay.)

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.

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.