Things We Can Do For Democracy

Image: Wooden Ballot Box, c. 1870. By National Museum of American History [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Vote. Nothing you do matters nearly as much as this one thing. Vote in ALL elections, from the very big to the very small. The smaller the election the more your vote counts. The larger the election the larger the stakes. Either way, it’s important.
  2. Register others to vote. The more of us vote, the more fair our democracy can be. Volunteer to sign up others to vote. Check with the League of Women Voters for opportunities to carry out this democratic deed.
  3. Learn before you vote. Where do the candidates for dog-catcher stand on the issues where their opinions count? To whom are they beholden? What experience or training do they bring to the job? Watch for smokescreens, like the potential dog-catcher who wants to tell you what they’ll do about school vouchers, (They can’t do anything about school vouchers.)  Notice who endorses them, and who doesn’t.
  4. Don’t spread rumors. The difference between “news” and “rumor” is the sourcing. “Jones Kicks Kittens!” is a headline. “According to whom” are the sources. If a story isn’t adequately sourced, it’s a rumor, nothing more. Don’t be one of those people who passes around rumors online. Link to stories from reputable journalists who care about and list their sources.
  5. Support reputable journalism. Subscribe to publications that adhere to journalistic ethics: they get multiple sources for stories, they admit it and retract when they are wrong, and their stories come not straight from a journalist, but have to pass by an editor. I have digital subscriptions to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and the East Bay Times (my local paper, formerly the Oakland Tribune.) Yes, that’s a lot. No, I don’t read it all every day. My subscriptions support an important part of our democracy even when I don’t have time to read the papers.
  6. Treat biased news coverage as what it is: junk food. Everyone knows that Fox tilts right and MSNBC tilts left. It’s pleasant to listen to people who share our biases and instincts. However, news reported along with snarky comments or opinionated discussion is not really news – it’s opinion. Make sure that you spend at least as much time with news sources that report facts and keep opinions in the opinion section.
  7. Communicate with your elected officials. They work for us. How will they know what we think if we don’t tell them? Phone calls are good. Emails are good. Postcards are good. Letters in envelopes get delayed by security screenings. If something is really heavy on your heart, go see them or their aides at their local offices. Politicians pay attention to people who are willing to show up.
  8. Attend the functioning of local government. Have you ever been to a city council meeting or a school board meeting? It is a highly educational activity (and sometimes good theater, too.) See how your government actually works – then go home and communicate with those elected officials! Let them know that you are watching and paying attention. Let them see you watching at least occasionally.


Can you think of other ways to support democracy in your home country or state?  Please share them in the comments!

Jacob and Esau: A Cautionary Tale

Image:The Meeting of Esau and Jacob, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board, 7 1/16 x 10 3/4 in. (18.1 x 27.4 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Public Domain)

In the book of Genesis, Jacob and Esau were twin brothers who had great differences. Jacob wronged Esau more than once, manipulating their parents so that Esau lost his birthright and their father’s blessing. When they met again:

And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept. – Genesis 33:4

This sounds good, doesn’t it? But one midrash tells us that actually, the word וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ, “and kissed him” was actually a euphemism. What really happened (again, according to midrash) was that Esau bit Jacob! The next verses say that Esau refused Jacob’s gifts, so it is in keeping with the negative understanding of the verse, and later on his descendants were some of the bitterest enemies of the descendants of Jacob: the Amalekites.

Jacob and Esau are a cautionary tale about the serious consequences when we allow bitterness to fester.

I had an immediate, strong gut response to a post circulating on Facebook recently. Perhaps you have seen it. It begins:

There are those who have said that we should “work together” with the president and the Republican majority because they won the election and Trump is “everyone’s president.” This is my response:

•I will not forget how badly he and so many others treated former President Barack Obama for 8 years…
•I will not “work together” to privatize Medicare, cut Social Security and Medicaid.
•I will not “work together” to build a wall.
•I will not “work together” to persecute Muslims.
•I will not “work together” to shut out refugees from other countries.
•I will not “work together” to lower taxes on the 1% and increase taxes on the middle class and poor… [continues with more of the same]

I agreed with it so strongly that I copied it, signed it, and pasted it onto my own wall. There are things I’m simply not willing to do or to passively allow. The current administration has engaged in many of those things and declared its intention to engage in others, and I will not stand by and let them happen.

But then, someone I love and respect very much left a message on my wall in reply:

I did not vote for Obama but I prayed for his success every day. Now I pray for the current president and for those who are unable to deal with their anger. I felt Clinton had been a danger to our country and lied about it, so I could not vote for her. We deplorables did what we thought was best.

My reply to her:

As far as I’m concerned, you are no “deplorable.” I know you’d never support an act of cruelty, that there isn’t a nihilist bone in your body. While we disagree on the right way to get there, I like to think we want the same things for America: peace, safety, fairness for all.

I pray for the country. I pray for Mr Trump, who looks to me like he’s in a lot of pain.


I decided that if I was going to say what I would not “work together” on, I should also be clear what goals I could pursue with Republican friends.  Here’s what I was able to come up with after a little thought:

Things I would be glad to “work together” on with the current administration or any other:

• Investment in the infrastructure of this country, with the construction and other jobs that would bring.
• Training for American citizens for 21st century jobs. Heck, even if everything is going to run on robots, someone has to maintain the robots!
• A health care system that would include the maximum number of Americans, not just the fortunate.
• Figure out how we as a people are going to pay the debt we owe to our Veterans of all races, including those with physical and mental disabilities.
• Figure out a new way to meet the challenge of rampant drug and alcohol addiction. The “War on Drugs” is an utter waste. It’s been going on most of my life and the situation is now worse than when Nixon declared it. It’s time for a reset.
• Search out ways to lower the number of deaths by gunshot without engaging the merry-go-round of 2nd Amendment disagreements. What CAN we agree upon? Why not start there?
• A national movement to end name-calling and insults in public discourse. They do not add anything to our public life. Call our elected officials by their titles, not by disrespectful nicknames. Call out policies, not personalities.

Those are the things I can think of off the top of my head. Some part of each of them has been mentioned by at least one Republican elected official or voter in my acquaintance.

There are things that I will #resist with all my heart and soul: racism, baseless hatred, mistreatment of people of every age, race, religion, orientation, gender, and nationality. But I refuse to believe that I can’t work with half the country on at least some of the things I’ve listed above.

I absolutely agree that Torah, even basic morality, demand that we resist certain things (e.g. racism, including institutional racism) no matter what. At the same time, I don’t want to get so caught up in opposition to anything and everything that movement of any kind is impossible. I do not want my anger to cut me off from possibilities for good.

I don’t want to be Esau.



“Positive Parsha” – Beshalach

Image: An early narcissus.

Positive Parsha is another blog I follow for divrei Torah. It takes a more psychological approach to the search for onsights into the portion.

While it is often timely, the writers keep their focus fairly diffuse, making the “shelf life” of these pieces fairly long. This week’s drashot is a good example. It is hard to imagine a more timely topic than “Healthy Optimism,” but is a good topic in all times:

Beshalach: How to Optimalize Your Optimism 

Why I Don’t Do “Race.”

Michael Twitty is an observant Jew, a teacher of Torah, and an eminent food historian.

I am reposting an article from Michael Twitty’s blog Afroculinaria because it is a beautiful teaching about racism, a subject that surrounds us but which most of us don’t understand.

I encourage you to read it and pass links to it among your circle of friends. I also encourage you to click the “Donate” link on the right side of Mr. Twitty’s blog. Supporting a teacher of Torah is an important mitzvah, because it preserves Torah for the next generation.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar



The minute I say that I’m African American people cast that word “race,” on me faster than the net that they used to catch Kunta Kinte in Roots.

Race is a dangerous concept and it’s source, the evolution of the Western response to human differences and diversity, from treating non-Europeans as titillating alien curiosities to enslaved chattel, colonial subjects and global pawns in a game of winner take all; is the end result of 2000 years of wrangling over what human means, what the divine means, what our destiny means when it doesn’t look like us.

African American is not a race. African American is a cultural designation. It’s as socio-political as Black, Negro, Colored, before it. Its an old term, first appearing in print in America in the late 18th century. Jesse Jackson didn’t invent it and please don’t bore me with “you’re not African,” because it’s…

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Judaism and Social Justice

Image: Elie Wiesel (Photo: AP/Bebeto Matthews) Mr. Wiesel was a tireless advocate for the underdog, based on his own experience as an enslaved person in Auschwitz.

What need have I of all your sacrifices? says the Eternal.
I am sated with burnt offerings of rams,
And suet of fatlings, And blood of bulls;
And I have no delight In lambs and he-goats. 
That you come to appear before Me— Who asked that of you?
Trample My courts no more!
Bringing oblations is futile, Incense is offensive to Me.
New moon and sabbath, Proclaiming of solemnities,
Assemblies with iniquity, I cannot abide. 
Your new moons and fixed seasons Fill Me with loathing;
They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them. 
And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you;
Though you pray at length, I will not listen.
Your hands are stained with crime— Wash yourselves clean;
Put your evil doings away from My sight.
Cease to do evil; Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice; Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.

– Isaiah 1:11-17

The prophet Isaiah made it abundantly clear in Chapter 1 of his great book that the Jewish mission is not merely to perform rituals but to aid the wronged in the world. He he closes this salvo with specific directions about two of the most woeful elements of Jewish society in his age: orphans and widows. He did not specify Jewish orphans and widows, and later commentators made it clear that if only for the long-term good of the Jewish people, we were never to limit our efforts to fellow Jews. We were to devote ourselves to justice for all the oppressed.

For most of Jewish history since that time (these lines were written just before the Babylonian Captivity) the Jews themselves have been a persecuted and often homeless people. Still, relief for the poor and the weak and the disenfranchised has been part of our portfolio, indeed it has BEEN our portfolio.

However, our investment in social justice did not begin with the Prophets. Look at this passage from Genesis:

Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.”

The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the LORD.

Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?

Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

And the LORD answered, “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes: What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.”

But he spoke to Him again, and said, “What if forty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it, for the sake of the forty.”

 And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I go on: What if thirty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
And he said, “I venture again to speak to my Lord: What if twenty should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the twenty.”
And he said, “Let not my Lord be angry if I speak but this last time: What if ten should be found there?” And He answered, “I will not destroy, for the sake of the ten.”
When the LORD had finished speaking to Abraham, He departed; and Abraham returned to his place.  – Genesis 18:20-33
Abraham argued with God – with the Holy One! – bargaining for the souls of the innocent in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, even though he had no idea whether there were so many blameless souls. What a bleeding heart he was! God was set to blast all of them for the sins of which only some were guilty.
God is aware, of course, that there are not ten righteous men in the doomed cities, but watches as Abraham bargains furiously for them. This is the Abraham whom God chose out of all the people in the world at that time, because of his fervour for justice and his kind heart. The sages teach us that it was exactly this quality that attracted God to Abraham. God had considered Noah, but Noah never advocated for the innocents who would die in the Flood.
Centuries of suffering schooled the hearts of the Jews, and for much  of U.S. History Jewish Americans served among other Americans in leadership of great social movements: the labor union movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement. We have not always been in the right; a Jew served as one of the leaders of the Confederacy, to give only one example.  Jews have done evil as well as good. We are as prone to error as anyone.
But this great tradition of social justice is the reason that in a time of threat to various minorities in this country I and others feel the need to speak up and make our voices heard. When we say “Never again!” we mean “Never again for ANYONE.
This is not “politics.” This is speaking up for the five-year-old separated from his mother, speaking up for the refugee who has lost her home, speaking up for the young person terrified that he will be deported to a place where he is under threat of death. It is based on the texts in Leviticus 19 which forbid standing by as another person bleeds to death, and in which we are admonished to love the stranger.
And of course, we are Jews, so we will argue about specific applications, but if we say, “We need not be concerned about this “we must think back to those dark years in the 1930’s when all doors slammed in our faces. That was not just “politics.” That was murder.

Two Post-Protest Thoughts

Image: A Protest Sign. Lady Liberty captioned “I’m with her.” Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

I am exhausted. I spent the morning at the synagogue and the rest of the day (when I thought i was going to take a nice nap) at a protest at San Francisco airport. Now it’s late and I want to post something but the body is saying, “Lie down, already!”

Our president chose to celebrate Holocaust Remembrance Day with an executive order. It barred citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for the next 90 days and suspends the admission of all refugees for 120 days. (CNN) Our immediate protest was on behalf of the people detained at SFO who had the bad luck to have planes that took off while their visas were still good, and landed after their visas had been Trumped. I have spent some time as an innocent airport security detainee (a story I’ll share another time) and it is terrifying and miserable. I felt for those folks.

I had planned to blog tonight about the social justice tradition in Judaism. I know I’m blogging a lot about what some readers may think of as “politics” and I wanted to explain why I feel that I’m still blogging about Basic Judaism. However, that was before I spent 2.5 hours in a crowd screeching “Let In the Lawyers” and “No Bans, No Walls” at the top of my lungs.

Another time.

A couple of random thoughts:


  1. Please don’t take dogs to protests. They don’t know what’s going on and shouting scares them. Today I watched fearfully as a couple walked around with a tiny dachshund on a leash. The dog was visibly terrified (panting and yawning) and it was in serious danger of getting trampled. I couldn’t get close enough to them to lecture them on the mitzvah of kindness to animals.

    Big dogs are in a different kind of danger in a crowd. They can scare people, and scared people do dumb and/or mean things. When there are police around, it is advisable not to scare them, either. So leave the giant pit bull at home, too.

    Yes, I have a dog and I love my dog. This is not about hating dogs.doggie

  2. Think twice before taking photos and posting them to social media. People wander around at these things taking photos, and now that I have been home, I see their photos on social media. My face is already all over the Internet, but not everyone wants to be on Facebook.

    This also goes for selfies: think about the people in the background. I have sinned once in this respect, but I won’t do it again. Moreover, it took my son so long to take this picture that I’m pretty sure people who didn’t want to be in it had a chance to cover their faces. What’s done is done (nothing ever disappears from the Internet) but I am determined never to do it again.

    Alternatively, you can take photos of people facing the other direction. I have some “scooter’s eye view” photos that will not be of any interest whatsoever to Big Brother. (See doggie photo above.)

I’m rambling, because I am exhausted. Those were my two points. Go to bed, rabbi!

Action on the ACA You Can Take TODAY

I received this from the co-chair of the Social Action Committee at my synagogue. I’m passing it along to each of you, my regular readers, and I hope you will join me. – Rabbi Adar

Diana Chapman Walsh was president of Wellesley College 8 years ago. She recently emailed her former colleagues the following idea:

Received this today. Creative idea … easy and worth a try.

Listen Up! The Republicans need to get the message from the majority of Americans that we value and need the benefits of Obamacare. Here’s how we do that.
On January 23rd, everyone who feels that way (our numbers are legion) sends a note to Donald Trump with a simple message:

“Don’t make America sick again. Improve Obamacare. Don’t repeal it.”

One envelope for every ACA supporter in your household…even if they are under 18 years old. Just that simple message. Put it in an envelope, and put a stamp on it.

Mail it to:
Pres. Donald Trump
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW,
Washington, DC 20500
Can you imagine the picture of 53 MILLION letters arriving at the White House by January 26th? It will be a mountain.
Do it today! Drop it into a mailbox near you on Monday, January 23rd.
Please send this email to 20 (or more) of your friends, neighbors ann fellow Americans. Ask them to do the same.
This also helps out the US Postal Service, with about $20 Million of stamp sales.
Don’t send emails to Trump…they don’t photograph well.
This is about images, since words and ideas are falling on deaf ears.

And if you can’t mail it until the 24th, don’t let that stop you! Mail it on the 25th!

Are you IN?