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Monday, July 26, 2021

40 Days of Teshuvah


 Our community presented and discussed the short film 40 Days of Teshuvah on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av. The film chronicles 40 days of protests that Black Jewish activist Yehudah Webster led  on Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, concluding on Tisha b'Av.

During and after our screening and discussion, several questions came up:

Are there Black Jews in any significant number? Yes. The subtext may have been “Are they really Jewish?” Yes to that as well. While there are some “Black Hebrews” whose Jewishness is questioned, Black Jews like Yehudah Webster and many of his generation are the children or grandchildren of Black Americans who undertook legitimate conversion to Judaism, often under Orthodox auspices. It’s estimated than 1 in 5 American Jews is a person of color.

Is there really any connection between Tisha b’Av and Black Lives Matter? There are two themes of Tisha b’Av. The first is grief: our grief over the destruction of the Temples, the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of our people, and the sufferings of Jews throughout the ages. From the liberal end of the Jewish spectrum, I don’t mourn for the Temple, because I believe that we are better off with a Judaism that doesn’t revolve around animal sacrifice. I identify more with the people’s suffering that we read about in Eicha (Lamentations).

The second theme is the cause of the destruction. Although Jewish tradition naturally holds that Jerusalem was destroyed because of our sins, the sages didn’t emphasize the so-called ritual infractions to which our minds naturally leap. They identified the cause as sinat hinam, baseless hatred. In our time, in our country, the non-judicial execution of Black Americans for offenses that are not even capital crimes is the paramount example of baseless
hatred—and our taxes pay for it.

Is “crying out to God” as we saw in the demonstrations on Grand Army Plaza enough?” No. But is it worthwhile? The Torah tells us that when we were enslaved in Egypt, “God heard the cries of the people” and then God acted to liberate them, so I have to believe that public outcry is legitimate.

But crying out to God is not sufficient. Unlike our ancestors in Egypt, we have means to effect change. I’ve been thinking about some additions to Al Het for Yom Kippur:

  • For the sin of treasuring our quiet, safe neighborhoods so highly that we pay others to oppress everyone we perceive as dangerous.
  • For the sin of talking a good line but doing nothing more.
  • For the sin of posting on social media but taking no action.
  • For the sin of hearing racist speech and remaining silent.
  • For the sin of believing that we deserve the privileges that society accords us.
  • For the sin of valuing law and order more than the lives of other human beings.

One aspect of the film that was probably  hard to accept was the emphasis that Yehudah Webster and his family, and Rabbi David Jaffe, placed on prayer, especially public prayer. We are less certain about prayer and, in general, about relationship with God, but that’s a major strand in Jewish thought. In Rabbi Oren Steinitz’s Talmud class, we’ve been studying tractate Ta’anit, which is about fast days—specifically, fasting during drought. Taking the Torah to the public square, praying and blowing the shofar there, were among the steps they took. Are Black lives less important than rain?

 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Yavneh, again


When you don't know what to do and every possible course of action seems wrong, study Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Although tradition holds that King Solomon wrote it, modern scholars attribute it to one or more of his civil servants. It gives, in general, the same advice that Harold Nicolson gave to a young acquaintance who felt trapped and buffeted in a civil-service position: do your job and be meticulous in everything that you can control. The edition of Kohelet that I recommend is The Tao of Solomon by Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

I was thinking of this because of a presentation that the Rev. Michael Dowd gave recently in our community. He spoke forcefully about the inevitability of drastic climate change: that, regardless of anything we do, the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere makes a much hotter world inevitable. Worse, some of the effects of a hotter climate, such as forest fires and melting of polar ice, themselves release even more carbon into the atmosphere.

He also argues that technology won't save us and that faith in progress is actually harmful: the damage has already been done. Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that we should take no action. Things we do now (carbon fee, renewable energy, conservation) won't stop climate change, but that is not reason to continue making it worse.

Yet Michael doesn't consider himself a prophet of doom. He calls himself a post-doom, pro-future evangelist.  

As my friend and colleague Malachi Doane points out, we Jews have some experience with rebuilding life after disaster. The classic example is the refashioning of Judaism after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE, led by Rabbi Johanan ben-Zakkai and others at Yavneh, outside Jerusalem. They changed Judaism from a religion centered on animal sacrifices in the Temple to one with a God who did not need sacrifices but demanded righteous living. We could also cite the rebuilding of Jewish life after the Holocaust, including the so-called 614th commandment: not to give Hitler a posthumous victory (through despair).

The question, therefore, is what we should do, what I (as a spiritual educator) should do.

My first thought is: help us equip ourselves against nihilism and despair. This especially applies if you teach or lead young people. While adults head straight to denial, it's common for teens and pre-teens to pitch headlong into despair, which can lead to a personally disastrous life course. In young people it could well be drugs or suicide; in adults it might be wanton abandon, heedless consumption.

Activism, even though it will not solve the problem, is the best alternative to despair. 

My next thought is to teach religious limits more in accord with the "carrying capacity" of the planet (inherent limits). As Michael says, future religion should emphasize limits on consumption and degradation of the biosphere. I've suggested, in a conference presentation and article, that Judaism--very much a religion of limits--should redefine kashrut to limit the consumption of meat to Shabbat and Yom Tov, a practice that economic circumstances and agricultural reality imposed on most of our ancestors. A practice also suggested by existing eco-kashrut is to limit our meat consumption to grass-fed animals.

A third thought is to introduce both young and adult learners to Jewish spirituality that is God-centered in a radical sense: one that is congruent with, and embraces, reality. In the same way that we believe that is is valuable to pray for, or recite Tehillim (Psalms) for a person who is gravely ill even if we don't believe that prayers or psalms will effect a cure, we should understand everything and anything we do to protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions as holy acts.

Fourth (and finally), Judaism is already a religion that passes wisdom forward, but we need to incorporate contemporary, scientific wisdom into the culture that we give the future. We do not know what human life a century or two from now will look like. We don't know for sure that there will be Jews then.  It's incumbent on us now, however, to figure out what wisdom we want Jews (and all people) of the future to value and to figure out ways to preserve and transmit it. This is a Yavneh moment. What would Rabbi ben-Zakkai do?



Friday, May 22, 2020

Who wants to die to save J.P. Morgan Chase?

Maybe I should avoid reading financial columns and websites.

Recently many have been concerned about the economic harm secondary to attempts, such as stay-at-home orders, to mitigate COVID-19. That economic harm is real and we shouldn’t ignore it.


On the other hand, some of the writers seem to be concerned mostly about harm to big corporations, not so much about people who are either kept from working or  continuing to work in conditions that endanger their own lives. The latter category includes not only first responders and medical workers, but also supermarket and drugstore employees and many others.


Concern for the profits of big businesses cannot, in Jewish thought, take precedence over the needs of human beings. Corporations may be people (too) in American law, but they’re not people in a Jewish frame of reference. 


I don’t know anyone who would volunteer to die in order to save J.P. Morgan Chase.


Still more un-Jewish is the suggestion that the virus should be allowed to rampage through the population in order to “cull” the ranks of those who aren’t economically productive: those who are old, disabled, poor, or unemployed.  The most extreme advocates of this like the idea because it would reduce future spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.


There is a name for that ideology, and it’s not one that I willingly write. You won’t have trouble thinking of it.


Judaism, in contrast, requires us to relieve suffering, respect the old (I admit that I’m officially old), and care for the poor.


Jewish law does have provisions for the protection of businesses, but they predate “big business.” For example, if a community has one kosher bakery (a sole proprietorship) and not enough Jews to support another, a rabbi could prohibit the opening of a second one.


Above all, Judaism requires us to preserve human life. Even those who observe Shabbat most strictly know that saving a life overrides the rules. If someone may be seriously ill, calling an ambulance is a requirement even if your Shabbat observance otherwise bars using the telephone.


This is why many synagogues and other Jewish organization will not resume in-person programming right away even when  state government allows it. New York is now allowing religious gatherings of up to 10 people--an exact minyan, which is no coincidence--but the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America advised congregations to wait 14 days to see what happens, and then consider limited reopening only if there has not been an upsurge of COVID-19 in their areas. The unaffiliated shul that I'm affiliated with is not planning to resume in-person services until there is an effective treatment or a vaccine.