Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Deadliest Poison: When Anti-Semitism Infects Liberalism

This past summer, the national Black Lives Matter movement released an official platform outlining several of its policy proposals in its efforts to end the war on black people in this country.  Among its proposals, it used the platform as an opportunity to attack Israel, calling it an “apartheid state.” The platform also stated “The US justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliance with Israel and is complicit in the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people.”  Last January, at the annual National Gay and Lesbian Creating Change Conference in Chicago, a pro-Israel reception was initially shut down by the conference organizers, bowing to pressure from anti-Israel groups.  When the reception eventually got the green light, their event was stormed by an angry mob trying to shut down the Jewish and Israeli event following their Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat services.  Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the rabbi of the LGBT congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NY, and an outspoken left-wing activist on Israel’s issues, had to acknowledge “To my deep sadness, while I am not one to lightly use the anti-Semitism charge, I have to say that I personally felt attacked as a Jew.”
Time and again, at college campuses, and now across the country at so many radical progressive events and gatherings, it is Israel and Jews who are being vilified, silenced, erased and attacked.  In our cultural climate these days of polarized thinking and extremism, it is not just on the alt-right that blatant, vicious white-supremacist anti-Semitism is becoming more acceptable.  It is equally, if not even more frighteningly on the rise on the political left in this country, and around the world.  
Today, I will talk about the rise of anti-Semitism on the left for several reasons.  First, I am compelled to speak of it out because it’s personal.  As many of you know, I am very much on the left on many political and international issues. I have, and will continue, to speak out against many of the practices of the current Israeli government with regard to the on-going building of settlements, and against the human rights abuses of Palestinians. I believe the current Israeli government is guilty of some moral failures, and as Jews, we have a responsibility to stand up for justice and call out our Jewish leaders when they can and ought to be doing better.  As someone who has long taught that progressive values are quintessentially Jewish values, however, the rejection of the Jews (often by radicalized Jews themselves) is particularly frightening, and it is a dangerous distortion that must be addressed.  Second, the vilification of Israel and the Jews is only getting worse on the left as time goes by.  For too long, too many of us have believed that radical-left anti-Semitism was only a thing of college campuses.   But now as these ideas are going out online and influencing  ever widening groups in this world, we must pay attention.  The third and most important reason I am speaking on this topic today is for the sake of future generations.  We want to raise our children with a deep commitment to Tikkun Olam, to creating a world of justice for all human beings.  We must, as a Jewish community, acquire for ourselves and then give our kids the proper tools to fully understand the unique nature of the anti-Semitism that has crept into and infected so many of the great movements of social justice that our kids so desperately want to fight for.
My ultimate goal in speaking today is to assert that, for the sake of our children, we must reframe how we think about anti-Semitism, how we talk about anti-Semitism among ourselves, and how we teach our kids to fight anti-Semitism in their lives.  This reframing of anti-Semitism might make some of us uncomfortable because it involves speaking of anti-Semitism in the language of Millennials, and not in the ways it has been discussed in the past.  But we must face our discomfort and act, for the sake of our future.
In the Torah reading on Yom Kippur, we read the famous account of the scapegoat.  On  Yom Kippur, the High Priest would lay his hands on the scapegoat and place all the sins of Israel onto the goat, and then that goat would be sent off into the desert--”El Eretz G’zeirah,” to an inaccessible region.  The Midrash, the rabbinic legends, teach that the purpose of the scapegoat was to serve as a bribe against Satan.  Satan, in Jewish lore is not the devil.  Satan is an angel of God who is always tripping up the Jewish people and calling out their shortcomings before God.  According to the Tzena Ur’ena, a traditional collection of midrashic teachings, one of the names of Satan is Sama’el. The name Sama’el refers to the Sam HaMavet, the deadly poison that lives in humankind.  When the scapegoat was sent out, the sight of this goat bearing all the sins of a repentant nation would temporarily blind this poisonous angel of God, and the Jewish people could live another year.
It's a fascinating and powerful midrash, particularly when we think about the real Sama’el, the real deadly poison against the Jewish people in the world known as anti-Semitism.  LIke all good midrash, the teachings about the scapegoat are here not just to educate us,  They are here to challenge us.  And the challenge isn’t easy:  if we really want to grapple with the evil poison in humankind that is anti-Semitism, then we must start by understanding exactly how this poison against is in society was imposed on us for centuries.  
Right from the very beginning, we Jews were made into the hapless, unwitting contributors to the vicious-cycle of global anti-Semitism.  It started way back in Roman times, when the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem led to our exile around the world.  By Medieval times, Christendom arose, along with its deep-rooted blame of the Jews for the death of Jesus.  In Medieval Europe, most Ashkenazi Jews lived as perpetual outsiders.  We were landless, powerless, and desperate to survive, and the ruling European authorities saw in the Jews a perfect scheme for oppressing the lower classes:  by famously making the Jews the money-lenders, the businessmen, the “middle-management” of European society as it were, making a living for the ruling classes, they were set up as a perfect target of resentment and attack by the poor classes of Europe who already had their Christian “blood-libels” against the Jews. When the lower classes wanted to express their rage, the Jews were literally the perfect scapegoat as the outsiders who made their money at the expense of the oppressed.  In this way, the ruling classes were able literally to hold the Jewish communities hostage, paying ransom  for their lives.
The more the vicious hordes would attack us in violent outbursts and pogroms, the more we Jews became anxious and desperate for our survival, clinging however we could to  make a living in peace, playing right into the hands of the ruling authorities for our very livelihoods.  And the more we relied on the authorities for our stability, the more the lower classes would hate us, which is just what the ruling classes wanted.  And that cycle continued for centuries, right up through the 20th century and the Holocaust, and now, into our time.  No matter how emancipated and enlightened and progressive our societies became, the anti-Semitism of Medieval times, born of fear and ignorance, was now an anti-Semitic “implicit bias,” seared into the unconscious of Western Civilization, leading to perpetual and recurring attempts at annihilating the Jewish people.
The modern State of Israel has now become the proxy, the scapegoat, playing exactly the role in the global imagination that Jews have played in Europe for centuries. This is the case in part because of some of Israel’s policies.  We must not deny this fact.   But for this discussion, we focus on the deeper causes:  it is mainly from anti-Semitic implicit biases and hatreds way more ancient and greater than any one government or policy.
In every story of perpetrator and victim in all of human experience--whether it be in individual cases of abuse, rape or incest, or vast social evils like anti-Semitism, sometimes the complex interrelationship between perpetrator and victim becomes so close and intertwined, the roles and identities of the two parties can become blurred.  This is exactly what has happened in Israel in our time.  Israel was founded by the Jews, the people who had been victims of anti-Semitism for generations. Now, however, the perception has flipped, and the Jews bear the burden of the perpetrators.  That flip happened, in part, because in our desperate need to assert our right to survive against Arab aggression in the early years of the Jewish state, we chose to erase the Arab narratives that claimed that the land belonged to them.  When you are struggling to survive, there is no room for multiple narratives.  
Here in America, we Jews eagerly adopted the struggle for our Jewish State.  When I was in Hebrew school in the years after 1967 and 1973, I remember wonderful celebrations of the miracle that was Israel.  I remember celebrating Israel Independence Day, but I had no idea that that same day was also called Nakba, or the Catastrophe, by the Palestinians.  No one ever talked about the Palestinian narrative about the wholesale displacement of Arab villages and towns, of families taken from their homes and farms, or of later years, with checkpoints and the injustices against people in the occupied territories.  In those days, of course, there was no culture of educating children about multiple narratives, both Jewish AND Palestinian.
And while we Jews were claiming our very legitimate narrative to the land of Israel, through the years, much of the world rejected our narrative.  It began with the rise of  Arab nationalism, and became worse after 1967,  when Arab leaders  encouraged their populace to vent their fury at years of imperialist oppression by railing against the Zionists--when truly their rage was against the entire structure of Western imperialism for centuries.  The reality of the Middle East today is much more complex.  With Syria, the rise of ISIS and the threat Iran, Israel is not the bogeyman it used to be among most Arab states.  But it is still hated with a deep anti-Semitic bias now ingrained in the minds of most Arab societies. And now, many modern-day Europeans and other radical left progressives continue this anti-Zionist narrative, displacing their guilt over their own imperialism in creating much of the dire conditions of the Middle East Today.
Meanwhile, here in America, Ashkenazi Jews, as I taught last year, have become accepted into the highest levels of privilege and power in our society.  And despite the fact that so many white-skinned Jews have been fighting long and hard for a meritocracy where all peoples of all races and backgrounds can achieve, their skin color has given them leverage in our racist society that black people do not have.  All of this is a perfect setup for the conflagration of anti-Semitism that is arising on the left here in America, and around the world.
I believe that the Black Lives Matter movement genuinely wants to raise awareness to the plight of all oppressed peoples in forwarding their platform.  However, when Black Lives Matter and other marginalized and oppressed groups begin to assign buzz-words like ‘genocide’ to Israelis, any kernel of genuine critique of Israel falls down the rabbit hole of anti-Semitic incitement:  now it is the Zionists, working in close cahoots with the white privileged imperialist machine that is the American world superpower, that perfectly captures the evils of oppression that must be overthrown.  Let me put it another way: in the new anti-Semitism of the left, the Zionists in Israel are just like the worst kind of white people here in America, in creating a society built on the backs of an oppressed  sub-group of people.  Again, it is important to recognize that there are, indeed, many policies that undermine Palestinian hopes, and numerous instances of human rights abuses, but on a broader scale, we are also looking at the same patterns of  Medieval anti-Semitism in a new form:  now, in the narrative of the radical left, the poor and oppressed are the Palestinian people and the black people and all other marginalized people; the powers that be are the white ruling classes of America and elsewhere, and the Jewish Zionists are their henchmen.  
Meanwhile, our millennial American Jewish kids today have, by and large, grown up as privileged Americans.  Now some of our kids are rebelling against that white privileged identity and are instead identifying with the anti-Zionist/anti-Semitic radical left movements.  And, conversely, some of our kids, particularly in the more religious and Orthodox communities, are clinging tightly to the Jewish-only narrative about Israel that rejects any and all Palestinian legitimacy.
And, while it’s true that most of our kids are somewhere in the middle:  they’re Zionists who appreciate the wonder of Israel, they’re proud of Israel, and they are deeply concerned about the genuine plight of Palestinians--and our kids truly want to find a workable solution.  But most are still uncomfortable acknowledging a deeper reality.  And that is, while it is true that there are oppressed people in Israel and around the world,   we Jews have our own unique form of oppression as well.   It is so much harder for anyone, particularly Jews today, to acknowledge that we are, in any way, still an oppressed people in the world.  Our oppression is hard to acknowledge here in America simply because so many Jews today understand that we, as a group, so successful, so powerful, so wealthy.  And we are correct when we think that whatever anti-Semitism exists in this country, it simply doesn't hold a candle to the scope and evils of racism in our society. Nevertheless, the very fact of anti-Semitism anywhere in the world means that the Jews, no matter what outer trappings of power or success we may have, are in fact still oppressed!  And if our kids have trouble recognizing that, it’s even harder for their non-Jewish counterparts to recognize that!
Remember, a basic feature of anti-Semitism, for centuries and centuries, was to allow the Jews to have varying degrees of material success, to have money and even some power and influence over the poorest classes in order to play the role of the societal scapegoat.  Paranoia about that power has even lead to depictions like that of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Those dynamics are still at play here in America and in Israel with the Palestinians. Ironically, our success and power is a part of our oppression!  
The unique kind of oppression that is anti-Semitism is that the world sees us as literally profiting off of the oppressed.  We need to articulate clearly to ourselves, the world, and to our children that this perception is a lie. It’s a setup, created through many generations by historical and societal forces way greater than any of us alive in this world at this time.  But we can and we must undo this evil perception, this Sam HaMavetl, this deadly poison, and expose it  for what it is: it is an implicit bias that the world must wake up to.
When we think about our Jewish kids and the anti-Semitic environments that they encounter on college campuses and beyond, we can’t make the mistake that we have been making.  We can’t think that just by arming them with the facts about Israel’s struggle against Arab injustice and media bias is the answer.  It’s not.  Our kids are too smart for that.  The truth is, our kids will immediately shut down if their parents’ generation reduces the struggles in Israel to a binary of one side is right and the other is wrong.  The millennial generations live in gray areas, in cognitive dissonance, in multiple narratives of truth.
If we want our kids to live in a world of progressive values free from anti-Semitism; if we want to heal the growing rifts between our American Jews and their counterparts who live in the Jewish State, then we must begin by reframing our own conversations about anti-Semitism among ourselves and out in the world.  Those of us on the left have to begin a new movement against anti-Semitism, and we must do it in the name of  socially progressive values.  We must begin by pointing out that, in all the discourse on the political left about fighting racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, we must ask our liberal counterparts why we rarely hear about the fight against anti-Semitism?  
If we want our kids to have the tools to stand proud as Jews in anti-Semitic environments on campus and in progressive movements, then we must start by helping them see that anti-Semitism inherent in BDS and similar movements in this country is the shadow-side of privilege in this society and the world:  the very social dynamics that keep blacks and others oppressed has  also generated the conditions for anti-Semitism for generations in this world!  It’s all part of the same system of oppression!  In other words, the same system that keeps the underprivileged in constant degradation also promotes the Jews as intentionally driving that evil machine.  Our kids must begin to call out their radical left counterparts as the anti-Semites that they are.  
Most of these counterparts would be shocked and horrified at the very suggestion that they are anti-Semitic (In their ignorance, they may feel that it is okay to be anti-Zionist, but most would never identify as anti-Semitic). And in that moment of their  horror, that is just the moment when our Jewish kids can educate them! They can teach them when anti-Zionism crosses the line into anti-Semitism:  when Israel is demonized, and compared to Nazism, invoking Holocaust terminology like ‘genocide’ then anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitic; when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied when no other country’s right is questioned, then it becomes anti-Semitic; when criticism of Israel is singled out and applied selectively, then it becomes anti-Semitic.  
The language of Millenials focuses on issues of power and privilege, their yearning for justice causes them to envision a radically levelled social playing field.  Just as good and kind white privileged people are horrified when they first discover that their implicit bias has unwittingly made them a part of an evil racist system that oppresses blacks and others; so too any decent person on the left should be horrified that their implicit anti-Semitism  is unwittingly playing into the anti-Semitic shadow-side of privilege and oppression.  On Rosh HaShanah, I taught how inheriting implicit bias leads to great evil unless we open our eyes and see where each of us are guilty of it.  The same wake-up call is needed for those on the radical left!  We need to point out that social forces beyond their awareness has given them an implicit bias against the Jews and the Zionists!  
This new way of framing anti-Semitism that I speak of today--a framing that speaks of anti-Semitism in a context of the progressive, universalist search for dignity for all peoples--casts it in a different light than they way it has been discussed in previous generations.  It’s in a new vein that, I believe, those on the left may be able to hear.  It is less a narrative told from Jewish trauma and binary thinking, and more a narrative in a wider context of human power, privilege, abuse and oppression.  It is a narrative that sees anti-Semitism as existing on an inseparable continuum with all other hatreds and oppressions.  It is a narrative that can free our kids from the dilemma of wanting to be progressive but having anti-Semitism thrown in their faces.  It teaches the world that if all people wish to live free, then the freeing of the Jewish people from anti-Semitism is crucial to that process of Justice for all human beings.
I offer this notion of fighting anti-Semitism as a social justice cause today not as a cure-all to heal the poison of all the complexities of global anti-Semitism.  Out-croppings of anti-Semitism in places like France have a virulence that is  deep-seated and not specifically connected to issues of privilege.  This approach won’t magically change haters who are more committed to their hatred than to justice.  What it can do, however, is it can transform our kids by encouraging them to stand up for who they are--for justice!--as a matter of identity.  Remember what I taught on Rosh HaShanah:  the core progressive value of our day is that every group, no matter how different or uncomfortable they make those in the majority, every group deserves a right to have their expression, their freedom, their collective experiences and their humanity cherished.
Yes, there will always be haters who hate us.  But it is not too late.  There is hope.  All the seeds of lifting up the fight against anti-Semitism are present in all our kids’ environments. We Jews have long been leaders in progressive movements.  Every movement for social change exists against great odds, but there is always the drive to overcome those odds. It’s time we lead the progressive world into fighting anti-Semitism as one of its basic struggles, never giving up hope that true justice is possible.
That Midrash about the scapegoat that bribes Satan actually ends in an extraordinary way.  The goat is an effective “bribe” because it actually ceases--at least in the eyes of Satan--to be a hapless victim, bearing only the sins of others.  According to the Tzena Ur’ena, Satan beholds that goat, and not just the goat, but all Israel worshiping on Yom Kippur.  In that moment, Satan sees the Jewish people really for who we are:  he sees not just flaws and sins, but a people aspiring to be like angels, doing God’s bidding to make this world a more sacred and just place.  And in that moment of seeing the fullness of our hearts turning toward God on the holiest day of the year, he can only speak words of praise of God and words of praise for the Jewish people.    
On this Yom Kippur, as we face a world of greater anti-Semitism, we can and we must transform our role in the world as the perennial scapegoat.  Just as that scapegoat in the Midrash ceases to be a victim, but rather an instrument for enlightening Satan to who we truly are in the world; so too we must inspire a new generation of our people to transform our ancient role of scapegoat and become a people who enlighten the world to one of Justice, compassion and peace for all human beings.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Seeing but Not Seeing: Our Implicit Ignorance

    This past summer, I got a call from Judy Heumann.  If you don't know Judy, you should.   Judy is an Adas member, and an internationally renowned disabilities rights activist who has changed the face of disabilities rights in this country and beyond through her work with the World Bank, the State Department, and other organizations.  Judy heard some of my teachings on Judaism’s call to lift up the cause of the disabled.  She heard me teach about the central Jewish value of empathy and compassion as essential ingredients of justice for all those who have been marginalized in our community.   When she called, I expected it to be a call with her thanking me for raising awareness of these issues.  But her call wasn’t what I expected.  She was appreciative of my efforts, of course.  But she had a request of me: she wanted me to sit in a room full of people with disabilities, and just listen to them and their stories. Sure, I said.  But I didn’t really grasp why this meeting was important.  After all, I understood, from my own life experience, what it means to feel on the outside in a community--invisible and ignored, condescended to and shunned by ignorant people.  But sure.  I’m happy to meet with people and hear their stories.  I figured it would be an interesting opportunity to get to know some people whose lives I can really empathize with, and connect with them on a deeper level.
    A few weeks later, I sat around a big table with about 12 people with various disabilities.  I thought I would open the meeting with a text fitting for the occasion, and then hear their thoughts about the text.  Here’s the text.  It’s from the Talmud:

" R. Yosi said: All the days of my life I was troubled by this verse: “And you will grope at midday as the blind gropes in the darkness.” (Deuteronomy 28:29) What difference does it make to a blind man whether it is dark or light? Until the following incident happened to me: I was once walking on a pitch black night, and I saw a blind person walking on the road, and he had a torch in his hand. And I said to him, My son, why are you carrying this torch? He said to me, As long as this torch is in my hand, people see me and save me from the holes and the thorns and briars."(Megillah 24b)
    I love this text!  What a beautiful message about that blind man, whose nobility of spirit is undaunted by his disability.  Rather than “grope in the darkness” he takes responsibility for his destiny.  He holds a torch high in the air, proudly calling attention to the wider world to be there for him, with him, supporting him.  It’s Judaism at its best, responding to a biblical text that belittles the blind, with a story about how the blind can teach us all about the real meaning of human dignity!  I gave the group this text to discuss in Havruta for a few minutes.  When we came together again, I listened to their comments…
  They hated it!  Across the board, they excoriated and eviscerated every aspect of this text!  The text absolutely infuriated and alienated them.  I was flabbergasted!  How could they hate it?!  They told me that the text was an all-too-typical condescending text toward a person with a disability.  I heard comments that just floored me:  “Why did the blind man need that torch? He should have just allowed himself to trip and fall so that he would learn for himself how best to navigate that road!”  Wow!
One remarkable participant at this meeting was a woman named Ruti Regan, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Ruti is autistic, and writes and teaches extensively on issues of Judaism and disabilities.  She said something I will never forget.  She compared and contrasted disabilities inclusion in synagogues to LGBT inclusion in synagogues.  She said that with respect to LGBT inclusion, many synagogues nowadays are falling in line and embracing the LGBT community.  They are quick to “make T’shuvah”--to admit their wrongs and to make amends--for the ways in which they have marginalized that community.  But when it comes to disabilities inclusion, there is no such spirit of T’shuvah.  She said the operative approach in most shuls to people with disabilities these days is simply “be nice to them,” “be considerate of them,” “don’t forget to include them.”  She said that, when considering the marginalization of the disabled, where is the communal acknowledgement of “Chatanu!”--we have sinned!
“Wow,”  I said to the group when it was over. “I really hardly know what to say.  I am overwhelmed with what I didn’t understand.  I am overwhelmed by my belief that I thought I understood.  I have been blind to….” and suddenly my words were interrupted by jeers from around the table.  I just used the word “blind” to characterize my own moral deficiency.  And as soon as they pointed it out, I smiled and changed my wording.  But you know what?  Inside, my reaction was “Aw, common! It’s just a figure of speech!  Give me a break!”  But then, in the next moment, inwardly, I fully realized how much my privilege as a person who is not disabled had closed me off.  I had thought that my compassion was enough to link me with this community.  But in truth, I knew nothing.  Worse, I knew nothing--and I thought I had nothing to learn.  I was so wrong….
Today, I want to talk about not just disabilities, but  how the privilege that so many of us enjoy represents one of the greatest dangers of our time. I will talk about the insidious nature of our privilege: it seems so very normal to most of us here in this room.  So normal that it prevents us from seeing how our society is oppressing so many people who are deemed “other” in some way.  As we talk about privilege this morning, I want to acknowledge that most of us are very familiar with the debates at college campuses and across the country about “political correctness” and its relationship to privilege.   Some of us may have experienced others literally shutting down honest debates and discourse, invoking the word ‘privilege’ as a way of silencing dissent. And I appreciate the frustration that some of us feel on this.  But in this time of a fraught presidential election, in our social climate of racial tensions--we must revisit these concepts of privilege and inclusion with new eyes.  As Jews, we have an ethical call to see what we have not seen, because our future depends on it.
I want to share with you a riddle.  It’s an old riddle, and most of us have heard it before.  But maybe some of us haven’t!  So when I present the riddle, if you know it, please resist the urge to shout out the answer! Here goes:  A father and son are in a terrible car accident.  The father is killed, and the son is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery.  When the surgeon enters the room and sees the boy, the surgeon says “I cannot operate--that boy is my son!”  How could this be? (Don’t call out the answer!)  Take a second.  Okay.  What’s the answer?  The surgeon is the boy’s mother!  Now, if you didn’t get that answer, don’t feel bad:  you’re in the majority of people!  A recent study at Boston University found that the majority of people, including many who identify as feminists, get this wrong.  And included in that majority were women whose own mothers were doctors!   It’s all part of a field that studies what is known as “implicit bias” (and our own Adas member, Hanna Rosin, is co-host of a terrific NPR show called Invisibilia, which explored this very issue).  The idea of implicit bias is that we are all shaped unconsciously by social forces that determine how we categorize, label, and judge others. I must admit at this juncture something that occurred to me:  why wasn’t it okay to think that the surgeon was the boy’s other father?!  I find it infinitely fascinating that a riddle meant to expose implicit bias is, itself, implicitly biased in a heterosexist way!  Nevertheless, the point of the study is still the same:  we are biased automatically, without realizing a thing until it is pointed out to us.
The Rosh HaShanah Torah reading tells the story of  Hagar and her little boy, Yishmael, who were cast out of the house of Abraham with not enough provisions to survive their wandering in the desert.  Her little boy is about to die of thirst, and Hagar can’t bear to watch him die.  She puts the crying child down and goes off to weep in utter despair. And then God does something remarkable:  “Vayifkach et Eyneiha,” God “opened her eyes” and she looked, and right there was a life-saving well of water.  And she simply didn’t see that a well was there because she had given into her belief that there was no more hope for the boy.  It’s an incredibly powerful story about not seeing what we don’t expect to see.  It’s a story about the power of faith to help us never to give up hope.
The ancient rabbis of the midrash, as they so often do, take this powerful story one step further.  According to the Torah, God heeded the cry of the boy “ba’asher hu sham” where he was--there, lying in the desert, about to die.  At that moment, the midrash adds a conversation between the ministering angels and God.  ‘Just let the boy die!’ the angels argued, let him die because of  the crimes his descendants will one day commit.  God answers them back:  “Right now, is the boy righteous or wicked?” The angels answered:  “Righteous.” Hasn’t done anything wrong.   God said to them “ I judge a person only ‘ba’asher hu sham’ where he is there, at that moment…” then, God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well.  Rabbi Binyamin said, “All are presumed ignorant until the Holy One, Praised be He, opens their eyes.” (Breshit Rabbah 53:14)
It’s a beautiful midrash about the power of God’s compassion.  But scratch beneath the surface of this midrash, and its message is one of the most important messages for our time.  First, there is the beautiful message of ba’asher hu sham, of judging people only for who they are in front of you.  If we project all our biases, expectations and fears onto a stranger, then we are committing the sin of not responding to the innocent human being before us who needs nothing more than to live, to thrive, to be healthy and free.  Second, it wasn’t just Hagar, but the ministering angels who wouldn’t see what was right before them in that moment.  Just as God opened Hagar's eyes to see a life-giving well to save the boy; God also opened the ministering Angels eyes--and thereby all of our eyes--to see past fear and ignorance.  Those Angels are all of us:  they were so full of their certainty about what that boy represents, that they couldn’t see the innocence, and all the potential for goodness /that was present in simply cherishing and preserving a human life.
Those Angels are perfect teachers to us about the dangers that can result from all forms of ignorance--including the ignorance borne of privilege.  In our society today, the more closely you resemble a white, straight, cisgendered, able-bodied male, the more benefits you enjoy.  The less you are forced to face the injustices faced by those who look less like white males.  But here’s the thing: those white males who established the social norms in our society centuries ago--they were motivated by ignorance and fear!  Today, those of us with more privilege, even if we are wonderful, kind, compassionate people,even if we are hurt at the very suggestion that we are part of the problem--like it or not, we inherently forward a system that was founded by fear and ignorance.  The terrifying truth is that all the benefits that we advantaged people have come to count on--our sense of opportunity, our expectation of abundance, our faith in the justice system--the whole system has clay feet, fashioned entirely on fear and ignorance.
We are never going to break the scourge of  and bigotry until we can acknowledge that, even if we think we can empathize with a different group from our own experience--in truth, we just don’t know anything about what it’s like for those who don’t enjoy the blessings that we ourselves may have.  So long as we think we are “getting it” because we are good people, then we still aren’t getting it.  If you think you understand what others are going through because you are smart and thoughtful and kind--then you need to have your eyes opened, because you don’t understand. We are never going to get anywhere as a human race until those of us with privilege can stop ourselves in our tracks and say ‘Chatanu’!  We have sinned the sin of shutting our eyes in fear and in ignorance.  We have sinned the sin of inheriting the fearful and ignorant ways of our ancestors without questioning them.  We have sinned the sin of looking at our human brothers and sisters through the narrative of our own ignorance rather than seeing them ba’asher hem sham--as they are, no matter what they look like or live like.
Today is Rosh HaShanah.  We have between now and Yom Kippur to make amends bein Adam leChavero-- with our fellow human beings before we can attain forgiveness from God.  We must all be like Hagar and open our eyes, because the well of healing waters is also right here, right within ourselves!  We find the wellspring first by noticing who we are, how we react and speak in the presence of someone who is “other” to us:  if they correct us, or if they assert their views or wishes, if they stand up for their rights and want their voices heard--what emotional reaction happens deep inside us when we witness this?  Pay careful attention!  Is there a knee-jerk reaction of dismissing them?  Do you react by saying to yourself  ‘Aw, come on!’ or  ‘Oh please!’?  Do you have an uncomfortable feeling of annoyance, or inconvenience?  Do they perhaps make you feel icky or unclean? Or unsafe?  Or awkward?  If ever you feel any of those feelings around someone different, those other people are not the problem.  The problem is within YOU! It’s in your own unquestioned biases and preconceptions.  The very moment you meet those negative judgments and biases and reactions in yourself--you have just met the place where you are privileged:  you have just met the place where your character has been shaped by the implicit bias born of  societal ignorance and fear.
I genuinely believed I understood what it is like to be otherfied in the disabilities community.  I thought I understood because there are ways in which I am not privileged. And then Judy Heumann brilliantly put me in a room with a whole bunch of people who taught me that I know nothing!  Only when I was truly in the presence of people whom I was unconsciously making into ‘others’, only until I listened to their experiences, their stories, their struggles to be understood, to be given the rights that anyone else enjoys in this society--only then can I truly be there to support their efforts in whatever way I can.
Those of us who live in American privilege watch on television as black men are routinely murdered or incarcerated because of racist biases against them.  We may be perturbed and upset and ‘compassionate’ to their pain.  But this society will move nowhere until we acknowledge to ourselves what Ruti said that we must do:  Chatanu!  We have all sinned. We have seen, but have not seen.  Those of us who live as whites have no idea what it means to be black in this country.  No idea!  And we won’t have an idea until we are actually sitting down and talking to black people, and listening to them, and doing what we can based on what they say they need from us.
Those of us who are men must also say ‘chatanu’, we have sinned in the face of all the women who have been disempowered by us for centuries.  We must say ‘chatanu’ because how many of us have inherited and not questioned all the biases of our forefathers and our society?  And all of us together-- we must say Chatanu!, we have all sinned and be willing to listen, just listen to the stories of women, of black and brown people, of gay, bi and trans people, of people with disabilities, of Muslim Americans and immigrants--no matter how angry or uncomfortable their stories make us, until we realize that we are part of the problem, and that we must be part of the solution.
This election cycle is unprecedented because it is not just about politics.  This election cycle is a moral struggle for the very soul and character of this nation.  In this election year, the underbelly of white male privilege is exposed for the ignorance and fear that it really is, that it always was.  We must do everything in our power to ensure that our children will inherit a country that is not about fear, hatred, bigotry, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia and racism.  Rather, we must do everything in our power to open our eyes, and the eyes of this nation to see one another ba’asher anachnu sham--as we are: as vulnerable, afraid, but infinitely loving beings with the potential to create a sacred society of justice and love.
I am so proud of our congregation, as we are working to live this practice.  In our social justice work, we are partnering with the Washington Interfaith Network, joining with other faiths and peoples of many colors, working together to fight homelessness.  We will reach out to other faith communities in interfaith dialogue, including the Muslim community.  We are beginning a major new initiative to adopt a Syrian refugee family as a synagogue.  We will deepen our commitment to becoming an inclusive congregation to those in the disabilities community.  And this time, we will do it  with a genuine commitment to make amends for the failures of previous generations to be inclusive.  We will continue our loving integration of the LGBT community, the interfaith community, the community of Jews of color.  And, may we all do our part this year in ensuring that everyone in our society--especially those who have been disenfranchised--can participate in our democracy so that everyone has a voice.
I want to conclude by coming back to that story in the Talmud about the blind man carrying the torch so that others would save him.  After listening to that brilliant collection of people with their critiques, and their showing me how wrong my interpretation was, I have come to understand that text differently.  That blind man who carries the torch, I have come to learn, is just fine, thank you very much.  He doesn’t need that torch.  And he has already learned how to pick himself up if he falls in a pothole.  No, he carries that torch not to save himself, but to save the rest of us.  That torch represents the light of Torah, of justice, of love.  He carries that torch so that the rest of us can walk with him, be with him, and just listen to him.  And by truly being with him and listening to him, that’s the only way we can build a society that is truly just for all of us.  May we, the Jewish people, learn to walk together with all human beings.  And together may we all hold that torch high, and shine the light of that torch of justice on all the ignorance and fear in our own souls and in our society.  And together, may we all walk as a nation, as all humanity,  to the promised land.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Kotel Deal Isn't Good Enough

When the Israeli cabinet voted 15-5 last month to approve a new egalitarian section of the Western Wall, it was hailed as a landmark decision, a triumph for the cause of religious pluralism in Israel.   After years of struggle by Women of the Wall and other progressive Jewish groups against ultra-Orthodoxy at the Kotel, it was indeed a noteworthy milestone. My celebration of this important decision, however, was more muted than many of my Conservative and Reform colleagues.
The religious symbolism of the Kotel is undeniable. For thousands of years, it was a symbol of destruction and exile, a “Wailing Wall.” After 1967, that symbolism shifted to one of the triumph of the Jewish people in returning to our ancient land. The prayers shifted from lamentation to celebration of bnai mitzvah and other life-cycle events and daily minyanim. With its bustling religious life, the Kotel eventually became a kind of national Orthodox synagogue: not only a symbol of our ancient past, but now a symbol of the Orthodox character of Israeli state-sanctioned Judaism.
For many progressive Jews not identified with the non-egalitarian values of Orthodoxy, the Kotel began to symbolize the ossified and impenetrable nature of the ultra-Orthodox hegemony in Israel.  Like so many aspects of the Jewish state, the Kotel became a politicized, religiously charged fetish, an idol of stone upon which we project our hopes and dreams, as well as our anxieties and betrayals. 
With the recent victory for pluralism, it’s not that the Kotel as we know it will change. It will remain an Orthodox synagogue. Now, however, progressive Jews will also worship in their own separate space a few yards away. Ultimately, this is not progress.
In the Mishnah (Avot 5:7) we learn about the ten miracles that were performed for the Israelites at the Temple. One miracle describes how when the throngs of Israelites were pressed together on the mount (on the very site that the Kotel served as a retaining wall), they miraculously had ample room for each individual as they fell prostrate in prayer. This miracle implies that the retaining walls — the Kotel itself — ceased in that moment to be impenetrable, immovable, and unyielding. Instead, the walls became flexible and alive, dynamic and accommodating. And in that flexibility, each individual Jew had the space to express his or her worship in a way that was appropriate. If the Kotel, along with the rest of the retaining walls, symbolized anything in ancient rabbinic literature, it was the opposite of an idol. It was an instrument that served human beings to help each individual feel welcomed and spiritually at home.
The Women of the Wall, the Reform and Masorti movements and others all deserve to be applauded for their courage, dedication and sacrifice in bringing about a meaningful change at Judaism’s holiest site. There is no doubt that this new section of the Kotel symbolizes an important step toward greater pluralism. That being said, a true victory for religious pluralism at the Kotel would look like a dismantling of all separate sections that correspond to conflicting movement ideologies. It would cease to be any kind of synagogue at all. It would return to what it truly is: a national treasure, a non-sectarian site where people from all over the world could come to reflect, to touch the Jewish past, and even to pray in any way that they see fit. The Israeli cabinet’s decision was indeed a landmark toward pluralism at the Kotel. But we must not forget that we still have a long way to go. Let’s not lose the dream of an Israel where the Kotel is not an end to itself, but rather a symbol of how being Jewish miraculously transcends the limits time and place; a symbol of how every human being is welcome in his or her own way to feel the presence of the Divine.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation, the oldest and largest Conservative Synagogue in Washington, D.C.


Friday, September 25, 2015

The Greatest Threat to the Jews

​As we enter this New Year, this is a time of great fear for the Jewish people.  There is great fear around the safety of Israel in light of the Iran nuclear deal.  There are many great fears about the safety and security of the Jewish people in a world of ever-increasing anti Semitism.  Issues surrounding Israel and its policies, issues about the Jewish relationship to the Obama administration, about a two-state solution are so fraught that they have become like a poison in Jewish communal discourse.  All the things we most fear are tearing the Jewish people apart.
​Over the past weeks, we have all witnessed rabbis and Jewish leaders of all kinds not only taking sides on the Iran deal, but rushing to the ramparts to defend their stance, and also bitterly attacking anyone who disagrees with them.  On the left, I have seen vitriol against right-wing Jews like I have never seen before, lodging words like "evil" and "fascist" against them.  On the right, I have seen a wholesale writing off of liberal Jews.   Some have declared that any Jew who does not agree with the Israeli government's position about the Iran deal to be a traitor against the Jewish people. I have personally borne witness to top Israeli leaders making cynical statements like "all liberal American Jews will be gone in two generations anyway, so we needn't concern ourselves with their opinions of Israeli policies."
​This is madness!  It must stop!  Today, I will not attack or defend the Iran policy.  I will not get in the fray of Israeli politics.  I won't personally attack fellow Jewish leaders.  Instead, I will speak out words of what in Hebrew is called tochachah--which means "words of loving rebuke"--against all the Jewish people.  I don't like having this responsibility to rebuke, but I am literally commanded to do so.  In Leviticus, it says "Lo tisna et achicha bilvavecha," "You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart," "Hoche'ach tochiach et amitecha," "You shall surely rebuke your fellow," "v'lo tisa alav chet," "so that you do not bring his sin upon you."  Those are strong words in the Torah.  Searing words that we must all sit with as we enter the year 5776.  They teach us that even feeling feelings of hatred in our hearts against our fellow Jews constitutes a deep transgression.  They teach that we must rebuke one another any time feelings or thoughts of hatred for one another arise.  Not to rebuke one another for hating our fellow Jews means that we ourselves bear whatever sins we see our fellow Jews commit.  As our rabbis teach, "Kol Yisrael aravim zeh lazeh," "All Israel is responsible one to the other." This is why we collectively beat our chests on Yom Kippur and take responsibility for the sins that we have committed--when one Jew sins, we all are sinners.  
​There is one sin far greater than the perceived sins of our opponents on the right or the left.  And that one sin is called Sinat Chinam -- pure hatred of one Jew for another.  Our ancient rabbis teach us that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE because we engaged in the cardinal sins of murder, idol worship, and sexual abuse.  They go on to teach that the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE because of Sinat Chinam--because Jew turned against fellow Jew in hatred, and therefore, hatred between Jews is equal to all the other three worst sins put together.  And so at this New Year, we must listen to the voice of the ancient rabbis which tells us that the greatest threat not only to the state of Israel today, but to all the Jewish people is not Iran; it's not Palestinians; it's not terrorism; it's not even global anti Semitism.  The greatest threat to the Jewish people today is our own rising tide of hatred for one another.
​Look around at the Jewish world today.  Not only does the political left demonize the right and vice versa.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews increasingly withdraw from the rest of the Jewish people because they reject our modern progressive ways.  Young American Jews increasingly withdraw from Israel because of the Israeli occupation.  Instead of finding common ground and solutions together, we are becoming more entrenched in our alienation from one another.  And the greatest tragedy of all is that our alienations and hatreds come from the same source:  from fear.  We are all becoming more and more defined by our fears than by our strengths or our deeper values.  
​Right before the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70, the Jews believed that the world was about to end.  We were in a great rebellion against the Roman empire.  Messiahs of various stripes were rising up, claiming to be the one who will save the Jewish people.  Different sects of Jews arose all claiming their own path as the only truth, and that the end of the world was inevitable unless we followed their path.   In the year 2015, there are, once again, many who also believe that the world is about to end.  Whether it be fears of global climate change, fears of an Iranian nuclear holocaust, fears of resurgent anti Semitism, fears of not having Jewish grandchildren--our fears are ironically becoming the only unifying factor in our Jewish identity.
​What makes it all so difficult is that all of our fears are not baseless.  They all represent real threats, threats that we must deal with.  But if 3,000 years of Jewish history teaches us anything, it teaches us first, that all fear only leads to sinat chinam, hatred and destruction.  And second, that we must rise above our fears if we are ever going to create the world we want to live in.
​In the Talmud, in Hagigah, there is a very famous rabbinic legend known as "The Four Who Entered the Pardes," or the Orchard.  It's a strange and esoteric legend, so listen carefully: four great historic rabbis--Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shim'on Ben Zoma, Rabbi Shim'on Ben Azzai, and Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah--all entered into the mystical Pardes/Orchard--a place where they could come as close to the direct Presence of God as anyone can possibly come.  Right before they entered, Rabbi Akiva issued a warning to his colleagues:  'When you get to the place of pure marble stones, don't say water, water!' as it is said in the Psalms 'He who speaks untruths will not stand before my eyes.' (101:7) [Bear with me, I will explain this].  They entered the Pardes.  Ben Azzai gazed [and presumably said "water, water" and died right there on the spot.  Ben Zoma gazed [said "water, water"] and it says that he went mad.  Ben Abuyah gazed and forever more lost his faith.  Only Rabbi Akiva entered the Pardes in peace, and left in peace.
​It is a completely trippy story, and it always reminds me of Timothy Leary and his colleagues at Harvard who experimented with LSD in the early '60s.  There are many long and brilliant expositions on this legend across the centuries of Jewish tradition.  But I will cut to the chase and explain its relevance to our discussion today.  Whatever that mysterious place of pure marble stones was in the Pardes, it was obviously terrifying.  Only one of the four greatest rabbis of that generation left it unscathed.  Akiva warned his colleagues not to say 'water, water,' and the Zohar explains that this is a reference to the waters of Creation in the book of Genesis--that there are "upper waters" above the heavens and "lower waters" below the earth.  And the great mistake was to identify the upper waters as separate from the lower waters.  In other words, the most dangerous thing in the world is to see creation--all of reality--as composed of separate extremes, as separate polarities.  The only way to enter this world in peace and to leave this world in peace, like Rabbi Akiva, is to understand that all things in this world are one--no matter how separate and extremely polarized they may appear to us, in fact, we must never lose sight of how we are connected to everything.  Even to the things that seem the most alien to us are profoundly connected to us.
​Here's what I want us to take from this legend today. I believe that we are all in that terrifying Pardes all the time.  But it's too a scary thing for us to stay conscious of all the time.  And that place of pure marble stones?  That represents the thing that you are most afraid of.  What is your place of pure marble stones?  Fear of being alone?  Fear of dying?  Fear of suffering?  Fear of betrayal?  Fear that it's all meaningless after all?  Fear of the holocaust happening again? We all have our place of pure marble stones.  Some of us, like Ben Azai, die spiritually because our fears overwhelm us.  We see no options in the world, no choice, no hope, no path forward. Some of us are Ben Zoma:  we lose our minds, we become twisted and paranoid, seeing others as either for us or against us, and we lose our very humanity because of the thing that we're afraid of.  Some of us are like Ben Abuyah, who forever after the Pardes was known simply by the name Acher--the Other One--a name which stands for pure alienation from life, from God, from our people; it represents becoming cynical and bitter because of our fears--refusing to take action, and undermining those who might have hope.
​So what are we supposed to learn from Rabbi Akiva, the only one who survived?  I think Akiva's warning teaches us that we must go through life meeting our fear with wisdom.  If we allow our fears to get the better of us, our fears have a way of smashing our hearts and souls into extremes of separation and into polarities of thinking.  At this moment in our history, we--collectively as the Jewish people--stand in the Pardes.  Together, we stand at the place of pure marble stones and gaze into the unfathomable terrifying starkness of the reality that faces us.  What does this American deal with Iran say about the fate of the Jewish people in Israel, in America, around the world?  What does the increasing isolation of Israel in world opinion mean about our future, about our children and descendants, about our very survival?
​As we gaze at these, and so many other terrifying images about our world that frighten us so, don't make the mistake that the first three rabbis made:  don't let our fears cut us off from our seamless connection between heaven and earth; between one another, between us and God.  It is fear that distorts us, that kills our spirit, that alienates us, that drives us to hatred and to destruction.  
​You see, there is something about the figure of Rabbi Akiva in Jewish consciousness. He is a great rabbi not only in his brilliance and his wisdom, but in his fearlessness and indomitable spirit.  It was Akiva who, at the age of 40 as an uneducated peasant, noticed that drops of water bored through a stone at a well, and realized that Torah could similarly pierce his heart drop by drop, step by step, and so he began learning to read at 40, and in a few years became the greatest scholar of his generation.  It was Akiva who saw the ruins of the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem and laughed when all his colleagues rent their clothes and cried--because only he could see that now with this destruction, there were infinite new possibilities to rebuild spiritually as the Jewish people.  Where everyone else saw despair, he could see hope.  Where others saw destruction, he saw potential.  Where others saw death, Akiva saw life.  Where others saw fear and went to pieces, Akiva found peace and the seamless presence of God.
​If ever there was a time for all of us, the Jewish people, to walk in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva, it is now.  As Akiva showed us, there is no reason to deny that we are in the Pardes.  There is nothing keeping us from gazing at the place of pure marble stones.  We must face what we fear most.  We must deal with the realities of the Iran deal.  We must face the existential threats to the Jewish people and to Israel's security head on.  We must be strong and courageous.  We must stand up for ourselves and the safety of all our people in every way that is reasonable.  But most importantly, we must heed Akiva's warning:  don't let our fears destroy us.  Here's a rule of thumb--in whatever action you take in response to the Iran deal, or on behalf of Israel, or the Jewish people, go inside and ask yourself:  are my actions coming from a place of fear?  Go inside and look at your own place of pure marble stones, go to your deepest fear.  Is that fear distorting my perceptions?  If your actions are in any way connected to reacting TO fear rather than acknowledging and transcending the fear, then you're getting it wrong.  Fear only leads to more fear.  Demonizing the other only leads to others demonizing us.
​Akiva was eventually murdered by the Roman authorities.  As they literally flayed his flesh in the presence of his students, he started saying the Shema.  His students stood in wonder and said, "Rebbe, even now [you can say the Shema]?" Akiva answered, all my life I wondered how I would fulfill the command to love the Lord our God b'chol nafshecha, with all your soul, and now as I die, I can finally fulfill this!  He died as he prolonged the word, "Echad" the last word of the Shema -- that God is One.  The man who taught his colleagues never to forget the Oneness of all Creation at the place of pure marble stones, at the place of greatest separation and fear:  he lived this wisdom of seeing the oneness--the possibility of God's presence, of spiritual transcendence--even to his own dying breath.
​If Akiva's life and spiritual triumph stands for anything, it is in realizing that even the moments of greatest despair and apparent hopelessness, there is always the same One Divine Presence that is always there.  In every moment of darkness, there is always something that can be done, however small that moves toward the light.  In every separation, even in every loss and in death itself, there is always the possibility of transcendence.  And Akiva's nefesh, his soul won.  The Romans and all they stood for are now long gone.  And the Jewish people and all we stand for are still here, two thousand years later.
​One final point about Akiva.  He wasn't afraid to do tochechah, to rebuke his students and colleagues.  Once (Nedarim 40a), one of his students was critically ill, and the rest of his students didn't go visit him because the student was obviously dying and their was no hope left and therefore no hope for him to survive.  Instantly, Akiva rebuked them for not going to visit their fellow student and praying with him anyway.  True to character, he rebuked his students the moment they gave up the possibility of hope.
​Like Akiva, we must rebuke those on the right who write off liberal Jews as traitors because they don't agree with Israel's official government stance.  We must rebuke those on the left who write off Israel as a hopeless apartheid state.  We must rebuke the ultra-religious for writing off their Jewish brothers and sisters as lost.  And, we must rebuke those of us who are giving up hope in Israel, in the potential of the Jewish people to come together as one and find reasons for hope step by step, drop by drop.  Like all other great leaders -- Moses, Martin Luther King, Gandhi--Rabbi Akiva showed us that there is nothing ever to despair, no moment to let fear win, so long as we never forget the power of our unity, and the Oneness that keeps us together.  May we overcome all that separates us in the coming year, and find new pathways to security, justice and peace--together--for all our people, and for all the world.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Are Jews White?

This summer, I had a conversation with a young woman about her Jewish identity.  She told me how she grew up in a family that was very involved in her synagogue.  She went to Jewish day school.  She had been to Israel multiple times. Despite all this, she felt very far away from her Jewishness.  Now out on her own, she didn't observe Shabbat.  She simply couldn't find the relevance of Judaism as she was making her way out on her own in the world.  I asked her to tell me what she did feel passionate about.  She told me how she has been reading and thinking a lot about racial justice in our society.  What moved her was the Blacklivesmatter movement--how, in light of Ferguson, Charleston, and seemingly endless incidents of injustice against black people in our society, she felt a pressing need to grapple with the racism that is so pervasive in this country and how it affects her identity.  I asked her to explain to me more about her passion for this issue.  She explained: "As a white woman, as the product of so much white privilege, it makes me all the more angry to see how other white people so blindly and carelessly feed into the racial climate of our society."  "So the fact that you are white makes this issue all the more painful, all the more personal for you," I asked.  "Yes," she said.
In that moment, I certainly identified with her angst over this issue.  Indeed, I find the reality of American racism, the legacy of slavery, the institutional discrimination that is so pervasive, the scourge of mass incarceration of black Americans--with its collateral damage on families; the on-going blight of housing segregation in America, and the role of law-enforcement in furthering racist systems and hierarchies--this and so much more, I, too, find unbearable.  And so, I took a deep breath and asked, "Are you so sure you're white?"  "Of course I'm white," she said. "I'm clearly not black, and I have had full access to all the privileges and benefits of white society."
I pointed out that she doesn't look stereotypically white: she has dark eyes and hair, and an olive complexion.  She agreed that people will sometimes speak Spanish to her, assuming she was a Latina, while others have asked if she was from a Middle Eastern background, even though her family is Ashkenazi Jewish, from Eastern Europe.  "But in this society," she hastened to add, "I still qualify as white."  "Of course," I agreed.  "But if you are regularly mistaken for a more "brown" person," I continued, "perhaps there are some, more stereotypically white, people who don't consider you as white as you may feel that you are."  She paused to consider this idea.  "I suppose that's possible," she said.  "Well," I continued, " in not being quite as white as you may have thought, you have found the beginning of your genuine Jewish identity."
Today, I would like to explain more of what I meant with this young woman.  You see nowadays, this woman is not alone.  In our very flawed and racist society, our Jewish people are prospering, reaching the top echelons of privilege and power.  With racism and injustice so pervasive and entrenched year after year, generation after generation, we Jewish people must now ask ourselves:  what role do we play in that injustice now that most of us live as white people in America?  This young woman is so right in questioning why her "whiteness" leads her to participate in the oppression of others.  And the fact that it never occurred to her how Jewish her thirst for racial justice is--this means that we must, all of us, consider the role of race in our 21st century Jewish identities.  Today, I will show why we all must cease to consider ourselves to be part of the social construct of being white--despite all the white privilege that America affords us--and how we must teach our children that we are, in fact, not white.
In the book of Genesis, there is a very famous story about a great tower that the early generations of human beings built after the time of Noah and the flood.  The story goes that all human beings spoke one language, and in an act of extraordinary unity, they built this tower so they could reach heaven.  God saw their endeavor, and realized that with only one language and one purpose, they would think that nothing, not even God and heaven, is beyond their reach.  So God thwarted their plan.  God confounded their speech so that one person couldn't understand the other.  With their unity obliterated, they scattered to all ends of the earth, creating many peoples and many languages.  And, because their speech sounded like babelling one to the other, the tower came to be known as the Tower of Babel.
It's a strange story, particularly to our American ears.  After all, our American motto is E Pluribus Unum--out of many we are one!  The great blessing and promise of America to our ancestors when we came here was that it was a land of opportunity, where we are all recognized as equal, where nothing, not even the heavens, is beyond our reach!  We all know that the story of the Jewish people in America is a stunning success story. Our success here is built on the efforts of the first generations of American Jews who struggled mightily to assimilate into mainstream America--to slough off the ways of the old country, to out-American the Americans.  In many ways, in 2015, it's difficult for us to appreciate how remarkable this success is.
A century and a half ago, racism in America was in some ways more complex than it is today.  There weren't just white people, brown people, yellow people, and black people.  In those days, the white people were considered to be mostly descendants of the British and northern Europeans.  Irish people were not considered to be white. Neither were Italians. And of course, neither were the Jews.  Well into the 20th century, we Jews were barred from the whitest country clubs.  We couldn't buy houses in the whitest neighborhoods.  Some of us here today have been called anti semitic names, have had pennies thrown at us, or have been beaten up because we are Jewish.  What some of us may not realize is that the particularly American brand of anti semitism has deep roots and connections to American racism.
That young woman, and all her young adult Jewish peers today can hardly fathom being singled out, being treated as "other", because of their Jewishness.  And the main reason why anti Semitism is no longer mainstream in our society is because sometime in the last half century, we have finally convinced America that we, too, are white.
All those years of singular focus on making it in America have paid off!  Our achievements in business, in medicine, in the arts, in government, in all circles of American life have resulted in something rarely known to our wandering ancestors--we are one with the power elites of our society.  Look at this very synagogue--Adas Israel Congregation.  I once read some papers written by the early founders of our synagogue over a century ago.  They dreamed of one day building what they referred to as a "great Cathedral synagogue" standing tall and proud in our nation's capital, as powerful as the great American monuments of this city.  In 1950 that great dream came true with the construction of this grand and impressive edifice.  We came here to practice a Judaism that projected our American dream--complete with decorous services and royal purple-clad clergy who emulated the pomp and circumstance of the Episcopal church.
 By the end of the 20th century, Jewish names were all over the New York Times wedding section along with the rest of lilly-white society weddings.  The country clubs, the exclusive neighborhoods are now as Jewish as they are waspy.  Indeed, we Jewish people have been building a great, shining American tower, and we have just about reached the highest heavens.
The ancient Midrash is a collection of rabbinic legends and stories.  The Midrash often fills out and expands upon stories in the Torah, giving us greater insight into their meaning.  One Midrash, in Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezar (24:7) expands upon and clarifies the story of the Tower of Babel.  Why indeed did God thwart the seemingly noble plan of the people to unite with one purpose and build a tower heavenward?  The rabbis explain that the tower eventually reached such a breathtaking height that it too a whole year to climb to its top.  Each brick was baked on the ground and had to be transported up.  The higher the tower went, the more precious each brick was.  Finally, the Midrash says the following: "If a person fell and died they paid no attention, but if a brick fell they sat and wept, saying, 'Woe upon us! Where will we get another to replace it?'"  
It's an incredible Midrash.  In a few short sentences, it conveys one of the greatest dangers of our human condition:  for all our well-intended yearnings to unite, to work together to achieve collective dreams--we risk creating societies that forget our essential humanity.  We risk creating societies that place ideals above human life.  We risk creating totalitarian societies, fascist societies, racist societies, societies that are intolerant of difference, societies that create the conditions for discrimination, for oppression, for racial or ethnic cleansing, for genocide itself.
In our century, we are waking up to the fact that our great tower, our astounding success in America, is a pyrrhic victory.  Our own children and grandchildren, raised as white American children of privilege, have completely forgotten who built the tower before them, or why their well-meaning ancestors so passionately endeavored to build it. Many no longer value their essential Jewishness in their worldviews or life plans.  For most, the tower of success built by American Jews is indistinguishable from the general American tower of white privileged success.  That young woman was right in noticing that most white Americans, Jewish or WASP or otherwise, can't abstract from their experience to fully notice how people of color, and all others who don't fit the white privileged mold, are falling off that tower.  They can't even identify how the social construct that is racism enfuses all aspects of their lives, their choices, and their expectations of themselves and others, despite their good intentions.
At this point, you might think that I'm not being entirely fair.  Yes, most of us and our children are a part of white America now.  But we know plenty of young Jewish Americans who are very proudly Jewish.  Many are devoted to Israel, devoted to good causes, and fight racism and other injustices.  But if we are going to take our Americanness seriously, we must take a better look at, and better own all the ways that we have, and continue, to benefit from the worst elements of American racist culture.  Whether we are comfortable with it or not, we American Jews are powerful! We ARE the power elite of this country.  Some of the most powerful people in the world are seated here today!
I speak about racism and Jewish identity today NOT because we are not good people.  I speak of this today because in owning race as central in American Jewish identity, we not only more effectively work with our success in this country, but we can return truly to the essence of what being Jewish in the world really means.
Our people have been known by many names over the centuries.  Once, we were called Hebrews.  In Hebrew, the word is "Ivri," which translates "the other" or "from somewhere else." We were also called Bnai Yisrael, the Children of Israel.  Israel, Yisra'el, literally means "struggling with God."  In other words, we are to be the ones who struggle with ultimate issues of life, of values, of justice.  Through the centuries, our moments of power in the world have been all too fleeting.  Mostly, our greatest hope has been to be tolerated by the elites and powers that be.  From our place of not living at the center of power, but at the periphery, we have responded always with the ability to critique injustice, to adopt the cause of the oppressed, and to envision a better and more just world.  Even in times of acceptance by the non-Jewish authorities, at times when we participated fully in their societies, we always knew that we stand with one foot in the mainstream, and one foot outside that mainstream.
America is unique in Jewish history because the social construct of power and oppression in this society came to be based more on skin color than on religion or ethnic identity.  Because of that, along with the best of American values and our own hard work, we now find ourselves among the authorities, among the power elite.  Despite our only good intentions, we are--all of us--full participants and beneficiaries of the American evil known as racism.
For all these reasons, I call upon us all this year to reject our own  self-labelling as white.  I call upon all of us, the Jewish people--those of us who have skin that passes for white--to begin teaching our children that we are, nevertheless not white people.  We are, and have always been--simply--Jewish people.  Being Jewish is not about identifying as a race, or with any system that oppresses.  The brilliance of being Jewish in all of human history is that we stubbornly refuse to fit into any social construct of power or oppression.  We are simply Ivri'im, people from "somewhere else," people who struggle with God and justice, and who demand that the rest of the world does too, and see every human life as sacred because we are all in the image of God.  And the truth is, we have never belonged to one race alone.  The Torah tells us that we left Egypt with the Erev Rav, with a mixed multitude of peoples.  Around the world there are Jews of color, Asian Jews, Jews of all kinds.  The idea that Jews are white is not only ridiculous, it’s offensive to who we really are! Yes, societies like America come along sometimes and give us privileges and even give the majority of us power labels like "white." In the American racist social construct, Jews are very much white people, but we must never again think of ourselves that way! It's time for us to opt out of the racist paradigm because we are Jews.
Imagine with me what we and our children could be like if we associate our Jewishness with an essential statement against all racism and discrimination in our society.  Even as our children benefit from the best schools and jobs and housing that whiteness affords, we can be the ones to challenge the American racist system from within.  We can be the ones who can change the business practices, the housing codes, the policing practices, the correctional facilities, the policies,the schools--motivated entirely by our values and our Jewish historical experience.  Indeed, so many progressive leaders in this country have been Jews, including Jewish founders of the NAACP, motivated exactly by this vision.  But so many more of us need to own our real power, which is not our whiteness, but our Jewishness.  Our real power is our Torah and our tradition that motivates us to remember the stranger for we were strangers in Egypt; that calls on us to lift up the cause of the stranger, the orphan, the widow, of all those who are oppressed.  The greatest advancement of 21st century American society may be how the Jewish people consciously and unconsciously complete the sentence, "I am..." If we learn always to replace the word "white" with Jewish, a great future awaits us and all peoples in this country and around the world.
I reassured that young woman not to feel bad that her years of Jewish education left her feeling uninspired. I told her that, in fact, she had a profoundly Jewish soul in her ability to question the white society that shaped her.  I reminded her of Hillel's famous teaching:  What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  All the rest is commentary.  If she lives her life creating a world where Hillel's wisdom guides the way, then all the rest of Judaism will open to her on her path, and she, and all her peers can go live proudly as  Jews, as a light to the nations.  May we all be that light in this world that so badly needs us.  Amen.