Obama in Dallas

Image: President Barack Obama (pixabay.com)

President Obama gave a remarkable speech in Dallas yesterday. If you did not have a chance to listen to it, you can find the text of the speech here.

Usually when U.S. presidents give speeches at memorial services, the content is fairly innocuous. They seek to comfort, and avoid controversy at all costs. That was what I expected today when I flipped on the radio to listen.

Instead, I heard my President speak to many different constituencies, seeking to draw them together despite a week in which events have driven us apart. He spoke respectfully and very personally of each of the fallen police officers in Dallas. He acknowledged that they were killed as they watched over a peace march, a march that called the nation to witness the deaths of two men at the hands of police. He spoke to their families and fellow officers, but not only to them. He spoke as well to all those who marched peacefully under the #BlackLivesMatter banner, acknowledging that all is not well and that we all need to do more.

I am sure that there were some who heard that speech for whom it was “too much” or “not enough.” I can only imagine the care that went into crafting those words, walking the tightrope of agonies, but it was clear to me that he was trying to bridge that gap and bring us all together again.

So if you didn’t hear the speech, read it. Don’t settle for soundbites on the evening news; the whole thing ran to 40 minutes. It’s all worth hearing.

“We do not persevere alone. Our character is not found in isolation. Hope does not arise by putting our fellow man down, it is found by lifting others up. – Barack Obama, 7/12/16

What Food Do You Choose?

What’s your food practice, and why?

Traditionally, Jews are The People Who Don’t Eat Pork. The Philistines, who were of Greek origin, commented upon it. Antiochus, a Greek king, thought it bizarre. The Romans thought it just one more bit of evidence that we were crazy. And after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, a refusal to eat pork became the hallmark of “Judaizing” and became grounds for torture and execution.

Not Eating Pork became the hallmark Jewish food practice, even for Jews who did not embrace the full practice of kashrut. Kashrut is a complex topic but the short version is that only certain animals may be eaten, those animals must be slaughtered and cooked in an approved fashion, and meat and milk must be kept strictly separated. Observing kashrut is often referred to as “keeping kosher.”

Many 21st century Jews keep kosher. Some observe those commandments more stringently, some less. Some choose not to observe the traditional laws at all. Some choose to eat pork. Some do not. Some Jews only practice traditional dietary laws to some extent during Passover or holidays.

For many 21st century Jews, another pressing issue is food ethics:

  • Will I consume animal products?
  • If so, what are the minimum standards for how those animals are treated?
  • How do my food choices affect the human beings who produce food?
  • How do my food choices affect the ecosystems in which they grow and are processed?
  • What about food scarcity for others in my area?
  • What about food waste?
  • How do my choices about consumption affect my health and that of my family?

Any time we address a question of food ethics, we must recognize that much of our decision making is about trade-offs. For instance, food that is ethically sourced and ethically produced (and fresh, nutritious, etc.) is more expensive. So then we add to the questions:

  • What can I afford?
  • What am I willing to do for those who cannot afford this food?

A person might decide to forego the free-range eggs in order to donate those funds to the food bank. That’s their choice, and their way of addressing the trade-off. Someone with a lot of discretionary income may choose to do both. And someone who is trying to feed their family on very low income may get eggs from caged hens and that’s how it is. No one with more income has any right to pass judgment on the person for whom worry about ethical food choices is an unaffordable luxury.

There are a number of Jewish organizations exploring these issues and looking at ways to move towards a more ethical practice of Jewish eating. My Jewish Learning has provided a great article on the subject by Shmuly Yanklowitz.

Finally, what else am I willing to do to address ethical issues and food? Learn about the issues? Lobby elected officials for better regulations? Volunteer at the food bank? Join a Jewish group (maybe a congregation’s social action committee) to study up on these issues?

So, what are your food practices, and how to they stem from your reading of Torah? Do you keep some level of kashrut? Do you fast on Yom Kippur? What do you choose to eat, or not eat, out of ethical or ecological concerns? And most importantly: why???

 

Guest Blogger: Action on Racism

Bailey Nichols is a businessperson in Oakland, CA, and my friend. She posted this very practical suggestion on her Facebook page, and I asked if I could repost it here. It’s important that we let our public servants know when we taxpayers and voters are not satisfied with the behavior of the police or any other public servant who represents us. Fussing on social media (or in a blog!) is well and good but it is not action. I’m planning to take Bailey’s suggestion and I hope that my U.S. readers will do so as well.

Oakland’s Citizens’ Police Review Board meets twice a month.

The Mayor of Baton Rouge (the city where Alton Sterling was murdered) is Kip Holden.
(222) 389-5100 mayor@brgov.com

Baton Rouge city council contact info https://brgov.com/dept/council/

The Mayor of Falcon Heights (the city where Philandro Castile was murdered) is Peter Lindstrom (651) 917-2977 mayorlindstrom@gmail.com

Falcon Heights city government contact info can be found here
http://www.falconheights.org/index.asp…

These are just 2 names out of countless others. Behind every person of color murdered by the police there is a network of city, county, and national officials who are sitting idly by, allowing Americans to be killed (by the force employed by the community to protect them) because of the color of their skin. They allow this to happen because of their own racism or complete apathy to the plight of their non-white constituents.

Pick a name, pick a city, let them know that racism is real and unacceptable, apathy is culpability, black lives matter and the whole world is watching.

Shabbat Shalom! Korach

We need Shabbat so much this week – as we have so often of late – and this week’s Torah portion is a challenge. It contains the story of Korach, the Levite who felt slighted by God and by Moses. The portion is difficult to read on many levels – it is a complex text with many problems for understanding and the end of it is emotionally charged for many of us. It is one of the most famous stories in Torah, and it has resonance for today, for sure.

Have I intrigued you?  Parashat Korach is Numbers 16:1- 18:32. For some ideas about interpretation, here are some divrei Torah:

How Not To Have A Conversation by Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot

Praise the Contrary and Its Defenders by Sue Schwartz

Korach and the Un-Holiness of Racism by Dr. Shaiya Rothburg

Korach at the Wedding by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Korach, Privilege, and Striving for More by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Korach: the Brexit Challenge of its Day by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Claims and Flames by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Philando Castile. Alton Sterling.

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world.  – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

Two entire worlds disappeared in the last 24 hours when Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died at the hands of police. Witnesses recorded both shootings, and the police do not look good in the video.

Late last night, my son posted on his Facebook page: “I am up late tonight, unable to sleep, sad angry and scared. I didn’t know these men, but I could have. Next time this could be someone I know and love.”

Do not tell me that “All Lives Matter.” I know that. The question is, do we American taxpayers know it? Because right now it looks as if we do not know it. It looks like those in power in America believe that black lives don’t matter. It looks like we and our police believe that all African American males are so dangerous that one must shoot first and ask questions later.

 

That is why it is necessary to say #BlackLivesMatter. We say it because we must learn it. “All Lives Matter” is a platitude that attempts to cover our inadequacies with the obvious. #BlackLivesMatter points to the problem – the fact that this morning, two more families are without beloved fathers who were primary breadwinners.

Two entire worlds were destroyed. It matters.

 

 

The Agony of Ramadan, 2016

Image: Aftermath of the July 2016 Baghdad bombings, picture via Tasnim News.

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. – Elie Weisel

More than 250 Muslims have been slaughtered in the past week, if you combine the death counts from Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, and Medina.

The cruelty of those attacks is magnified by several factors. First, they fell just at the end of Ramadan, before the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, a festival on a par with Christian Easter or Jewish Rosh HaShanah. A time of joy has forever been turned to a time of mourning for hundreds of families. Secondly, many of those affected by the explosions and fire in Baghdad were already suffering from more than a decade of war. Third, the attack in Medina was an attack at one of Islam’s holiest sites: imagine a terrorist attack on the Vatican, or the Kotel.

And yet: where are the “Je Suis Istanbul” signs? Where are the facebook memes? Where is the sympathy and solidarity that Paris, and San Bernadino, and Orlando received when there was mass murder? Could it be that we are indifferent because most of the victims are not white? Could it be that we are indifferent because most of them were Muslims?

Someone is going to point out to me that there was celebration in Palestinian Gaza after the bombings in Paris. That has more to do with Hamas (the terrorist organization that currently runs Gaza) than it does with the fact that they are Muslim. I attended an iftar meal in Daly City, CA with Muslims shortly after Orlando, and I can tell you that they were horrified by the shooting. There was not one bit of celebration, no word of justification, not even a little dig about the fact that most of the victims were gay men.

In a New York Times article, journalist Anne Barnard explores some of the political and global reasons for the apathy (and if you are doubting that it exists, she also documents and quantifies it.) My concern here is specific to Jews: I want to suggest that Jewish tradition and the Jewish experience demands that we care.

The Hebrew word for mercy, rachamim, is closely related to the word for womb, rechem. Just as we speak of mothers carrying their infants “under their hearts,” we must carry the suffering of the world under our own hearts. The High Holy Day liturgy warns that those who were without mercy for their fellow human being will face a merciless Judge on Judgment Day. And yes, we may have suffered at the hands of those without mercy but that never justifies any action on our part that is merciless: we must care.

Yes, we are exhausted from mourning the deaths of our own. A little Jewish girl was stabbed to death in her bed by a terrorist. An Israeli family was attacked in their car, the father killed, the mother seriously injured. But did you know that it was also two Arab Palestinians who responded with first aid and comfort for the children after that attack?

Elie Weisel told us repeatedly that we must care about the suffering of others. We must care even when we are exhausted, when we have compassion fatigue, when we are tempted to confusion. We must care, and we must give voice to our concern. 250 human beings died in the past week, died by means so horrible we cannot linger on the thought. We must care.

No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them. – Elie Weisel

The Stealth Rabbi Strikes Again

Image: Nine Jews demonstrating against Trump’s racism. Three people in this photo are rabbis – can you tell which ones? Photo courtesy of Bend the Arc, a great social justice organization.

If you say “rabbi” to most people, the image that comes up is a bearded man. I don’t look like that rabbi.

Actually, I look like my grandmother: Irish-American, round, soft, motherly, maybe grandmotherly. My haircut (a buzz cut) disrupts the effect a bit, but it doesn’t make me look more like that mental image of a rabbi. I usually wear a hat, which might be a kippah (looks like a rabbi) or an A’s baseball cap (not so much.)

As a result, I often surprise people; I’m a stealth rabbi. “What do you do?” someone will say to me, as Americans do, and I will reply, “I’m a rabbi.” If they identify as Jewish, this may produce a panicked response:

“Oh! I’m Jewish. Well, I’m a bagels and cream cheese Jew, you know, not religious. Seinfeld. …” And then they will tell me why they haven’t been to synagogue, or what’s wrong with synagogue, or who drove them from synagogue… I listen. Usually it’s a long speech.

 

 

They think I’m going to pass judgment upon them, and I’m not. Depending on the story, I’m sad that Jewish community didn’t work out for them, or appalled at what drove them away. Mostly, I’m sad that they have no idea what Judaism is for; their Jewish identity is a ball and chain they drag along through life.

What I’d like to say to them, if we had longer for a real conversation, is this:

I’m not here to judge you. As a rabbi, it’s true, I sometimes function as a judge, but only in very limited situations. Mostly I’m a teacher, because learning is at the heart of Jewish life. So relax: I’m harmless!

Would you like to take that ball and chain, and turn it into something a little easier to carry around? Maybe into a walking stick, something to support you when you are tired and afraid? Or maybe into a beautiful box of treasures, an inheritance of marvels?

All you need to do is open your mind and heart to learn. You pick the topic: what’s bugging you about life? There’s are several Jewish approaches to it, I promise you. Or, if you are really adventurous, what about Judaism bothers you? Let’s look critically at the tradition, and find new bits of it. Let’s debate! Let’s play with it, have a good time!

There’s the wide world of social justice work that Jews have been doing forever. There are great organizations just waiting for you. Whatever is your passion, you can pursue it as a Jew, with other Jews, amplified far beyond your social media or letter to the editor. You can tap into the riches of the tradition to support you in that work, too.

If food really is at the heart of Jewish identity for you, let’s look at that. There’s more than bagels out there for you to enjoy. There’s the myriad of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines, and Middle Eastern food. There are chef/scholars like Michael Twitty, who explores the places where African and Southern and Jewish foods intersect. There’s Tami Weiser, who will give you beautiful recipes and invite you to think about them.

My role as a rabbi is to be a resource. I have spent years cramming my head and heart full of Torah, and learning the sources so that I can make them available to you. Some rabbis, congregational rabbis, create and maintain environments where Jews can be Jews – where you can be Jewish. Not all those environments are like the synagogue you remember. Some rabbis are chaplains, committed to hanging in there with people who are suffering. I’m a teaching rabbi: I am here to help you learn.

And yes, we’ll have bagels.