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.

Read more at http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/opinion/kotel-deal-isnt-good-enough#yyWg76pdR44OH9My.99