Monday, June 22, 2015

What Is This World Coming To?

As many of you know, on Friday nights, I most often speak from notes, rather than writing out a full sermon.  However, I’ve tried to use the notes from last Friday night (June 19, 2015) to create a text that will allow me to archive my thoughts following the tragic shooting in Charleston, SC.

Like many of you, I’ve been walking around the past few days with a sickness in my stomach and a sadness in my heart, trying to make sense of the violence that unfolded last week in Charleston, SC.  I’ve scoured the various news stories that have appeared in my social media sources, absorbing the opinions of friends and journalists as I’ve struggled to be able to articulate my own thoughts about this mess.  I stumbled upon a headline from the Chicago Tribune—it actually wasn’t about Charleston, but rather about another homicide in Chicago, one of nearly 200 in that city so far this year.  The headline asked, “What Is This World Coming To?” and I had to scoff in spite of myself.

I’m sorry to inform the journalist who chose that particular phrase as the lead-in to that story, but the world is not “coming to” anything or any place.  We. Are. Already. There.  We thought after Columbine perhaps things would change, when violence invaded our schools.  That was 16 years ago.  We thought maybe things would change after the massacre in the movie theater in Aurora, CO.  That was nearly three years ago.  Or maybe things would be different after twenty children, aged six and seven, were killed in Newtown, CT.  That was also in 2012, and there have been more than 90 shooting incidents at schools and college campuses since then.  The cycle of violence continues unabated and every time that an incident makes the news, the politicians and pundits adopt a sober stance and proclaim, “The time has come for a serious conversation…”  And the conversation never fully materializes.

We have a problem.  We have a problem with a fetishization of guns and violence, yes.  (No, I don’t want to eliminate all guns.  But I want us to be able to have a sensible, dispassionate conversation about guns that will promote safety and keep firearms out of the hands of the wrong people.)  We have a problem also with racism, with mental health, and with our prison system (to name just a few other core issues).  But to dismiss the evil that took place in Charleston as an isolated incident is to ignore the broken systems in our country that allow such evil to fester and grow, and it does a tremendous disservice to the memories of  Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, and Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor.

We have been taught to fear those who are “other” than us.  So long as our vocabulary remains “us” and “them,” so long as we think of “those people” in a neighborhood removed from the one in which we live, we cannot hope to heal our broken world.

There is a sad, almost sickening irony to the fact that we spent Friday night June 19 mourning the victims of the Charleston shooting who were singled out because of their race.  Friday marked 150 years to the day of the emancipation of slaves in Texas, a date celebrated among African-Americans as “Juneteenth.”  It was also 51 years ago that President Johnson signed the sweeping 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Both historic events are heralded in history books as turning points for race relations in our country.  But how far have we truly come?

When the parishoners of Emanuel AME showed up to church on Wednesday, June 17, they expected to worship.  They expected to study the bible together.  They expected to find, as they had every other time that they walked into that historic building, a sense of sanctuary- not only in the sense of the word that means “a house of worship,” but also in the sense of “a place of refuge or safety.”  They offered that very thing to the troubled young stranger who joined them that evening; news reports state that he worshiped and studied with the group for more than an hour before the gathering turned deadly.  The idea that violence could unfold in this holy place was beyond anyone’s thinking, so much so that Reverend Pinckney reportedly invited this young man to sit by his side, so that the reverend might guide him through the biblical passages.

Journalist Charlie Pierce noted that in the face of such tragedies, we often call them “unthinkable” or “unspeakable,” when they should really be neither.  Not to speak or think about such events (and the issues that contribute to them), Pierce says, allows us to fool ourselves by putting artificial distance between the violence and ourselves.  We must speak about it; we must act upon it.

In 1963, after the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four little girls, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. eulogized the victims by saying in part that the victims, “say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”

Rabbi Shai Held notes that in the book of Genesis, as God creates each item, God does so "למינהם" l'mineihem- "each according to their kind."  So the various firmaments in the heavens, the fish, the plants, the animals, all are created with degrees of diversity.  Rabbi Held notes that this is true for every element of creation except for humans.  In contrast, the text takes great pains to remind us that all humans derive from a single pair of ancestors.  Rabbinic tradition further elaborates, teaching that God was trying to avoid the possibility that future generations would say, "My ancestor was more prominent than yours."  Reverend Johnny Youngblood puts it differently when he says that "Racism implies that God failed creation."  In other words, why would God purposely create one segment of humanity to be inferior to another?

The Torah portion prescribed by the Jewish lectionary cycle for the weekend of June 19 was Korach, telling the story of a rebellion fomented by the eponymous character.  In presenting his concerns to Moses and Aaron, Korach declares, "רב לכם" rav lachem- "you've gone too far."  "It's too much."  Moses, standing up for himself, for God, and for the Israelite status quo, turns the tables and says to Korach and his followers, "No...rav is you who have gone too far."

We've gone too far.  We need not ask "What is the world coming to?" because we are already there.  We are already in a moment of racial tension, mistrust, violence, sadness, and fear.  But we can, we pray, come back from the brink.

As a rabbi who cares about the future of the young people in our congregation, and as a father who cares about the future for my children, I am committing myself to being part of the solution.  I am proud to be participating in the Interfaith Alliance of Champaign-Urbana, a local group of clergy and laypeople representing both faith communities and social service agencies.  We are working to envision ways to build bridges within our community that will promote understanding and create a brighter future for all.  Together, I am optimistic that we can reclaim the American dream as a possibility for all.

Friday, March 6, 2015

At Least a Few Shades of Grey: A Commentary on Ki Tissa

In one of my favorite quotable movies, the Chevy Chase comedy “Fletch,” the title character, a reporter, is in conversation with an editor, trying to avoid naming his source for a story.  “It’s kind of a grey area,” Fletch says.

“How grey?” the editor asks.

“Charcoal.” Fletch declares.

In the movie, it’s a throwaway “laugh line,” Chevy Chase mugging for the camera.  

While some might define charcoal as meaning "black," I've always interpreted the line to mean that the issue is the most deeply grey, subject to numerous different interpretations.  In life, of course, we have quite a few instances of “charcoal” issues.  While it would be neater—more comfortable and more convenient—to relegate all issues to a simple duality of black and white, many issues that we confront don’t cleave quite so cleanly.   Though many in the media, and perhaps many of our own friends, would like to insist that we must pick sides on political, social, or other issues, oftentimes our feelings and opinions are more nuanced.  We live life in a decidedly “charcoal” place.

Take, for instance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent address to Congress.  Many people- perhaps even some of you in this room- believe that opinions on this matter should crystal clear: you’re either for him, or against him.  In this framework, the only way to show support for Israel is to accept unflinchingly all that Netanyahu had to offer: not only the actual contents of the speech, but the manner in which it was delivered and all of the attendant issues surrounding it.  Reject any one of these elements, and you are understood to be empathizing with Iran, and probably anti-Zionist.

If you really feel that way, then perhaps we can agree to disagree.  Because, personally, I think this issue is more complicated than that.  We’re not picking teams in a childhood kickball game.  We’re exploring the complexities of global politics.

I consider myself an ציון אוהב Ohev Tziyon, a lover of Zion.  I believe very strongly that Israel serves as a homeland for our people, an historical link to our heritage, and an important bastion of democracy in the Middle East.  I love traveling in Israel, and I feel emotionally and spiritually moved each time I am there.  AND…I feel that some of the decisions made by Israel’s leaders in recent years—both socially and politically—have been wrong.  I feel I can criticize these decisions—I’ll use the failure to curtail settlement construction in the West Bank as an example—without harming my Zionist credentials.  I can believe in the right of Palestinians to live alongside Israelis as part of a two-state solution and not be any less of a Zionist because of this assertion.

AND…I believe that this carries through to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech.  I do not question that Iran represents an existential threat to Israel.  Iran’s ruthless radical regime probably represents an existential threat to U.S. interests as well.  I believe that this was already well known; I did not hear any facts in Netanyahu’s address that I did not already know.  AND…I believe that President Obama knows them, understands them, and is concerned about them as he works to negotiate an agreement with Iran.  A hallmark of American democracy is that we are free to disagree with our elected officials, and so it is the right of each of you to formulate your own opinions about our president.  Personally, I don’t think that one becomes President of the United States or Prime Minister of Israel without being an incredibly intelligent individual.  These men not only have the benefit of their own knowledge and intellect; they also are advised by some of the most expert security and foreign policy individuals alive today.  Each believes that he is advising the best possible course for the ensuring the future security of our world.  AND…We don’t always get to choose who is on the other side of the negotiating table.  We might not like Iran, or trust that the Iranians won't walk away from the conversation with a signed deal that they have no intent of upholding.  Still, Moshe Dayan, one of Israel’s most respected leaders, once noted, “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends.  You talk to your enemies.”

That’s quite a few “ANDS,” I realize, and I’ve only scratched the surface on a very complex debate.  I think it’s important, however, to be open to the multiple facets of an issue, to allow for the possibility of grey areas in our understanding of the world.

This Shabbat, we read the Torah portion known as Ki Tissa.  While best known for the infamous incident in which the Israelites construct the Golden Calf, it also provides us with a great deal of insight into the intimate relationship between Moses and God.  Exodus 33:11 states, “God would speak to Moses face-to-face, and then Moses would return to the camp.  But Joshua, who was but a lad, did not leave the tent.” 

What are we to make of the distinction between Moses’ actions and those of Joshua?  Moses had a unique, transcendent experience when he interacted with God.  But still, he was able to return to the people, and to translate that experience in a way that would bring meaning and understanding to the people.  Joshua, on the other hand, could not move beyond the tent.  Locked in his singular interpretation of the events unfolding around him, he could not be open to other means of viewing, and interacting with, the world.

Eventually, of course, Joshua is able to broaden his horizons and become a leader in his own right, developing a more nuanced view of the world than the one he had clung to in his youth.  How will each of us choose to act?  Will we be like young Joshua, remaining in the tent we have always known, viewing the world in stark black and white?  Or will we venture forth as Moses did, and open ourselves to the complexities of the world, and all of its variant shades of grey?