Al Vorspan z”l: Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue

Image: Al Vorspan, image from ReformJudaism.org.

I don’t often use the word “tzaddik.” A tzaddik (tsah-DEEK) is a person who seems almost to embody Torah, his righteousness is so great. A true tzaddik is also a person with the humility to laugh at himself and to laugh with others. There just aren’t many of those people, so it’s always sad when we lose them.

Al Vorspan was one of those rare individuals, and I was sad to hear of his death on February 16, 2019. I only had the pleasure of meeting him once, when I worked for the Union of Reform Judaism (at that time it was called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) but I remember his broad smile and his warmth. He leaves a multifaceted legacy, the most tangible part of which is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism which he helped to found.

I did not know him well enough to do him justice, but I can recommend two articles that include some great stories about the man, by people who knew him well:

Al Vorspan was a Jewish Giant of Justice by Rabbi Jeff Salkin

Remembering Al Vorspan z”l: The Prophet who Loved to Laugh by Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Zikkrono livracha: May his memory always be for a blessing.

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Teshuvah: Doing the Work

Image: Woman pointing angrily at man; man in defensive posture. (eurobanks/Shutterstock)

We’re in a time of change, when norms are shifting and emotions are high. Things that did not get much reaction from the public at large five years ago have become serious debates: racism, sexism, homophobia. This is actually progress, but it sure isn’t comfortable.

Every time someone is revealed to have done something racist or sexist or homophobic we seem to have to go through the same little dance:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow (JB) has been accused of a racist act or words.
  2. Talking heads talk. Much wagging of tongues and fingers.
  3. JB insists, “My heart is in a good place! I’m a good guy!”
  4. Other talking heads: “… young and stupid. Give him a break.” or
  5. Other talking heads: “OK he did it but he’s not a RACIST.”
  6. JB hires PR firm specializing in crisis management.
  7. JB says, “If I offended anyone, I apologize…”
  8. Item is crowded out of news cycle by the next outrage fest.
  9. Rinse and repeat.

In the end, nobody seems to learn much of anything, and everyone is even angrier than before.

Jewish tradition offers us another way. It’s called teshuvah. That word is sometimes translated “repentance” but it’s more than “I’m sorry” and it is a lot more productive than the meaningless apology-lite in step #7 above.

Good teshuvah can sometimes take a big mess and turn it into a net win for everyone, because it involves sincerity and actual change. Here’s how it looks:

  1. “News Flash! Joe Blow has been accused of [insert racist item here.]
  2. Talking heads do their thing.
  3. JB meets with advisors, discovers why everyone is mad at him.
  4. JB issues a statement. “Yes, it was offensive. There is no excuse.”
  5. JB says, “I am very sorry that my words/actions hurt people.”
  6. JB says, “I am going to learn about this and do better.”
  7. JB says, “Here is my action plan for making sure that I never do this again, and maybe fewer other people will do it in future, too.”
  8. JB executes action plan.
  9. JB says, “I accept the consequences of my actions.”

Notice that the person doing most of the talking is Joe Blow, not the talking heads and not a crisis-management PR specialist.

Here is an important fact about human nature: we all mess up. We hurt people’s feelings. We do stupid things. We may do or say something racist or sexist or otherwise offensive. We are fallible. The important thing, Jewish tradition teaches, is that we own our behavior and we make sure that whatever it was doesn’t happen again. Most of all, WE do the work, not the people who suffered from our mess-up.

You don’t have to be a public figure to mess up. And good news: teshuvah can work for us low-profile types too. It isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but I can tell you from personal experience that it works.

Teshuvah: Yes, it’s a Jewish thing, but anyone who wants can give it a try.

NO. MORE. HOSTAGES.

Image: Two American hostages in Iran. Nov 4, 1979.

The “partial government shutdown” has now been going on for over a month. Federal workers are working without pay or not working at all – and will never be paid. People are losing their homes, dodging bill collectors, and having to worry about food for their kids.

All this, because the present administration takes hostages.

The Trump Administration decided to discourage asylum-seekers from applying to the U.S. at our southern border. To accomplish this, they have separated parents from children, in many cases not bothering to track where those children went after the separation. Their apologists say, “Well, don’t break the law” – but those children will be scarred forever and will probably hate the U.S.

All this, because the present administration takes hostages.

Not quite 40 years ago, our country was enraged and horrified when 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken hostage and held for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981. There was a lot of talk then about how dishonorable this was as a tactic for international relations. There was a lot of talk then about the savagery of a government that would do such a thing. There was a lot of talk, and we’ve had a hostile relationship with the government of Iran ever since.

But now we have an administration that takes hostages: little children, people running from unimaginable trouble, and its own workers.

It’s time we stood up to this government that has no shame and no morals. I’m contemplating what an all-day-5-days-a-week picket of the federal building in Oakland would do to my body, and I want to cry at the thought, but I feel a moral imperative to take action.

Ideas, my readers? What shall we do? Watching TV and railing on Twitter isn’t enough. Arguing about Women’s Marches isn’t enough. Sending letters doesn’t seem to be doing the job.

I’ve had enough.

In Every Generation, We Must Leave Egypt

Image: “The Pharaoh Tutankhamun destroying his enemies. A pharaoh in a chariot, smashing many small military figures. Painting on wood. Egyptian Museum of Cairo. Public Domain.

In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8)

Pesachim 116b

This very famous passage of Talmud is quoted in the Passover Haggadah. On the face of it, it commands us to do the impossible: to travel to Egypt, sometime about the 13th century BCE, so that we can personally experience the Exodus. I’ve been thinking about it ever since we began to read the Exodus story in Parashat Shemot a few weeks ago.

In every generation there is an Egypt – actually, a series of Egypts. The Jewish project, the path of Torah, is a constant effort to leave the confines of Mitzrayim (the Biblical name for Egypt, which also means “a narrow place.” Whether it is a geographical location, a moment in history, or a state of mind, each generation has the task of leaving the narrow place for something more expansive, more risky, more free.

What narrow places bind us today? I suggest that one of them here in the United States is the narrow place of institutional racism. I used to think that if I was “not a racist” then I’d done my job. If I did not use the n-word, if I did not make people with brown skins use the back door or a special bathroom, if I did not talk disparagingly about how “they” had certain behaviors, etc. I was “not a racist” and I was doing OK.

I have come to understand that while that kind of racist person is a big problem, there is a much worse problem. That is the pervasive institutional racism that sees to it that people with brown skins do not enjoy the securities and opportunities that white people enjoy. I can walk into a store, or a hotel, or a synagogue and assume that I will be welcome as long as I behave myself. This is not true for a person who has darker skin. They will be questioned. They will be scrutinized. They will not be given the benefit of the doubt. The people who do this will always have justifications ready for their behavior, but the consistency with which that behavior persists suggests that the justifications are a smoke screen.

Institutional racism is in the layout of our cities and it is embedded in our economy. From the 1940’s until the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 African Americans were shut out of in the greatest wealth-building period in history, because they did not have the same access to mortgages and real estate as whites. You may say that was long ago, but the differences in income and personal wealth persist to this day. African Americans were hit harder by the 2008 Great Recession because they were more vulnerable than whites.

I could go on and on, talking about the institutional racism in our justice system, in education, in employment, in health care. I used to be a skeptic about these things. I used to think that the real problem was poverty. But I have become convinced from my reading that racism undergirds most of the serious issues facing the United States, poverty included, with the possible exception of climate change.

You might protest, “But rabbi, I’m white and I’m poor!” I do not deny that there are poor whites, and suffering whites. But I am more and more convinced that if we dealt with the institutional racism against Americans with brown skins, many things for whites would also improve. President John F. Kennedy was fond of saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Truly equitable courts, truly equitable banks, truly equitable education institutions would not have leeway to mistreat anyone.

If we are to leave this Egypt, we must leave not only the racists behind, we must find a way to leave institutional racism. We must listen to black voices with the same respect we give white ones. We must take people at their word. We must give the benefit of the doubt. We must do things that do not come easily when we have grown up in this narrow place, this Egypt, in which inequalities seem “normal.”

This year, as I read the Torah portions of the Exodus story, Shemot, Va’era, Bo, and B’shalach, I pledge to challenge myself to leave this Egypt. I pledge to listen to voices of people with color with respect. I pledge not to interrupt either with my voice or my thoughts. I pledge to do my part to educate other whites about this issue. I pledge to speak up when I see something wrong, and to pay attention and respond when others speak up.

It’s a long road out of Egypt. It begins with my first step.

Meet Betzalel, the Builder

Image: The hands of a carpenter, measuring and marking a piece of wood. (wohnblogat/pixabay)

Jewish tradition has a long history of respect for scholarship. We value education as avidly as any people on earth. We honor not only Torah scholarship, but other disciplines for people who work with their minds rather than their bodies: law, medicine, academia, etc.

The larger society also has its priorities. Judging by how we compensate them, it’s fair to say that secular society most values sports stars, entertainers, and the occupants of  corporate suites.

Between these two realities, sometimes we tend to see those who work with their hands as lesser. We honor them less.  We value their work less. Torah teaches us that this is a serious error.

I recently was studying Parashat Ki Tavo, and reacquainted myself with Betzalel, the builder of the Tabernacle and the Ark.

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “See, I have called by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the Tribe of Judah. I have filled him with ruach Adonai, a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in every craft, to devise works of skill to work in gold, in silver, and in brass, and in cutting stones for setting, and in carving of wood, and work in all manner of crafts. Moreover, I have assigned to him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent. – Exodus 31: 1-7

Betzalel and Moses offer two contrasting ways of understanding Torah.

Moses is educated by God on Mount Sinai; he carries his diploma (the tablets) down the mountain. Betzalel does not have Moses’ education; rather, he intuits the design of the Mishkan and its furnishings, even though he was not on Mount Sinai.  The Talmud points out that God told Moses to build in a particular order: the Tent, the Ark, then its furnishings. (Exodus 31:7-11) Moses passes the command to Betzalel, but mixes it up, “Ark, furnishings, Tent.” (Exodus 25-26) Betzalel gently corrects him, saying, “Was it Tent, Ark, then furnishings?” (Exodus 36) And Moses exclaims, “Yes! You must have been in God’s shadow [hence the name Betzalel – b’tzal-El] to know that!” (Berakhot 55a)

Moses is like a man with a formal education and many degrees. Betzalel is a craftsman who works with his hands. Yet had they not worked together, with mutual respect, the Mishkan could not have been properly built!

Similarly, Betzalel was from the tribe of Judah, a powerful tribe descended from the matriarch Leah. God appointed Oholiab, from the tribe of Dan, to work alongside him. Dan was a much smaller tribe, descended from Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. In Exodus Rabbah 40.4, Rabbi Chanina says, “[Thus we see that] the great and the small are equal.”

Betzalel reminds us to respect all people: not only scholars, but those who work with their hands, no matter their pedigree.

In A Time of Fear

Image: A mail bomb on display at the National Postal Museum (Wikimedia) Some rights reserved, see link.

Mail bombs were sent yesterday to prominent African-American political figures, to prominent women in the Democratic Party, to a prominent Jew, to leaders in the Democratic Party, and to the offices of a major cable news outlet.

Let that sink in – this how low the situation in the United States has gone. With an election only days away, and in some states already underway, some Americans have chosen to vote with bombs. They have chosen domestic terrorism – the spread of fear – as their strategy of persuasion.

The rhetoric of the President and his party over the past weeks has been full of dire warnings about a “caravan” of Latin hooligans and Middle Eastern terrorists headed to the U.S. Journalists, doing their job, investigated the “caravan” and discovered a group of desperate people, mostly from Guatemala and Honduras, mothers with children, a few men, and no Middle Eastern terrorists. By all accounts, the evidence is that they are people seeking asylum from the extreme gang violence in Central America.

It is perfectly legal to approach the border and ask for asylum. All of the evidence suggests that this is a peaceful group of people who are begging for safety.

The President, when asked for evidence of his claims, said, “There’s no proof of anything. But there could very well be.” In other words, “Don’t think. Just be afraid.”

Jewish tradition offers an alternative to mindless fear. We see the beginnings of it on the beach at the Red Sea:

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. – Exodus 14:10-15

The Israelites are terrified of the Egyptians. Moses tells them not to be afraid, that God will take care of them. God says to Moses, “Quit crying and praying – get going!” The miracle comes only after the Israelites move to save themselves.

The refrain “Al tira-oo!” [Do not be afraid] appears regularly in the Bible. According to Maimonides, this is actually one of the 613 commandments. We are commanded not to fear.

In fact, there is only one fear permitted to us: fear of God. Yirat Adonai – fear of the Holy One – is considered a virtue. Any other fear borders on idolatry, because we are commanded not to fear anything but God.

The world is full of things that scare us. Jews have always had to deal with plenty of scary people. Our ancestor Abraham was so scared of two different kings that he swore his wife Sarah was his sister! Isaac did the same thing. Every time it got them into trouble. Every time it did them no good at all.

In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Fearing Pharaoh did not get us out from under his thumb. Fearing God got us out of Egypt. Fearing God propelled us across the wilderness, to the edge of the Land, where Moses sent in the spies, who brought us back more scary news:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Numbers 13: 32-33

… and back we went to the wilderness to learn to fear God, not anyone else. Many centuries later, brave men and women settled the land of Israel again, and again there were scary things: war, and terrorism, and evil dictators flinging SCUD missiles. And again, the smart thing to do is to not be afraid: al tira-oo!

Al tira-oo: Do not be afraid.

Al tira-oo: Do not let your fears dictate to you.

Al tira-oo: Feel the fear, and go right on walking in the right path.

This is another testing moment. This is a moment not for violence, but for voting, for the peaceful practice of democracy. My vote-by-mail ballot sits on my desk, waiting to be filled out. For each American reading this, a ballot or a voting booth is waiting.

Don’t bomb. Don’t be afraid. VOTE.

 

 

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.