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.