Monthly Archives: November 2017

Reach Out – Toledot 5778

Parashat Toledot opens with a curious image, one that provokes the imagination in a way that few biblical passages do: it is of the pregnant Rivkah, with twins in her womb, and they are wrestling with each other. It is immediately apparent that this is going to end badly.

And it does go badly, for a time. But although Ya’aqov and Esav are estranged from each other for many years, they are eventually reunited (although not until Parashat Vayishlah, which we will read two weeks from now).

I was thinking about this when I heard an interview with Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church, founded by the fundamentalist preacher (and Megan’s grandfather) Fred Phelps. This “church” is little more than a band of several dozen Phelps relatives, who travel around the country and protest legally by displaying offensive signs and reciting horrible slogans that are anti-homosexual, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, and, well, anti-just about everybody. Typical signs are “God Hates Fags,” “God Hates Jews,” “Thank God for 9/11,” etc.

The WBC actually came to Great Neck, my previous home on Long Island, and stood outside one of the three synagogues on Middle Neck Road, holding their offensive signs, which have been supported in court cases as protected free speech. Our community leaders told us not to engage, because the WBC makes money off of people who get upset and attack them, enabling them to take the attackers to court and sue for damages.

Megan Phelps-Roper was brought to these protests by her parents beginning at age 5, and continued to participate for 20 years, until she left the church. Why did she leave? Was it that she woke up one morning to discover that she had been misled by her family her entire life? Not exactly. Rather, what ultimately led her to renounce her apparent hatred was dialogue with people who disagreed with her.

Strangely enough, the forum that initially enabled that dialogue was Twitter. By engaging in respectful back-and-forth with strangers on Twitter, people whose world-view was 180 degrees from what she believed and had been taught by the church, she came to a different understanding, one that led to her to conclude that saying such judgmental things in public was wrong.

In her TED talk, Megan says, ““The end of my anti-gay picketing career, and life as I knew it, [was] triggered in part by strangers on Twitter, who showed me the power of engaging the other.”

She eventually met one of her Twitter challengers, a Jewish blogger named David, and ended up spending some time with him meeting actual Jews, people of faith, and began to understand that the harsh judgment that her church had taught her was not the Divine way.

“The truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the Internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that the people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe,” she said.

Megan Phelps-Roper and David Abitbol in Tel Aviv, April 4, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Megan Phelps-Roper and blogger David Abitbol in Tel Aviv

What we might learn from Ms. Phelps-Roper is that even people who are so far apart on the ideological spectrum can come to a mutual understanding that is healthy and productive, but only when they talk to each other.

We have reached a point in this country where it has become very difficult for people to talk to each other, and this is quite troubling. People on either side of the political landscape are becoming isolated in their own echo chambers, and finding it more difficult than ever to find common ground. While we are each inclined to blame the other side, I think it is very important for us to acknowledge that we are all guilty here. Yes, the tools of social media have made it easier for us to remain in our own news and opinion bubbles, but this is a phenomenon that has been going on for decades prior to the invention of Facebook.

It is worth it to remember that what you read online has been selected for you by algorithms that know, based on your browsing history, what links you will click on, and putting more of them in front of you so that you will click even more links. So our range of exposure is narrowing without our even being aware of it.

Why is this important? Because, as Ben Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately.” The future of our society depends on it; we have to learn to talk to each other. We have to think beyond the narrow range of ideas in which we are all living.

Here’s an example:

At one time, Jews and African Americans were allies in the fight for civil rights. Two of the three activists who were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964 were Jewish. Many Jews were involved in the NAACP. Our peoples shared a common bond in persecution, and bonded over the historical images of our people coming forth from slavery, albeit in different ages and places.

When I first heard of the Black Lives Matter movement, I thought, “Great! Here is something I can get behind. I too am concerned about police brutality; I too want to make sure that everybody in our society is treated equally by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.”

https://i1.wp.com/static1.972mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/jewish-black-lives.jpg

And then, of course, as the movement crystallized in the wake of killings in Ferguson, Missouri, Staten Island, Baltimore, and elsewhere, many of us discovered that the organizers were not going to limit themselves to those issues.

Black lives matter. They do. And I know that most of us truly believe that, and understand that it is hard not to see the inherent discrimination that exists across American society against African-American citizens and others. Nonetheless, the unfortunate reality is that the Black Lives Matter movement platform contains an explicitly anti-Israel passage:

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. The US requires Israel to use 75 percent of all the military aid it receives to buy US-made arms. Consequently, every year billions of dollars are funneled from US taxpayers to hundreds of arms corporations, who then wage lobbying campaigns pushing for even more foreign military aid. The results of this policy are twofold: it not only diverts much needed funding from domestic education and social programs, but it makes US citizens complicit in the abuses committed by the Israeli government. Israel is an apartheid state with over 50 laws on the books that sanction discrimination against the Palestinian people…

(Whenever I hear the words “apartheid” and “genocide” in relation to Israel, I must say that it makes my skin crawl.)

All of this has nothing to do with relations between law enforcement and black Americans. And the likelihood is great that not too many of the people who display BLM signs know about these passages in the platform. Nonetheless, it’s there.

So what is a pro-black lives, but also pro-Israel person to do?

Megan Phelps-Roper defines the challenge that we face as a society thus:

I can’t help but see in our public discourse so many of the same destructive impulses that ruled my former church. We celebrate tolerance and diversity more than at any other time in memory, and still we grow more and more divided. We want good things — justice, equality, freedom, dignity, prosperity — but the path we’ve chosen looks so much like the one I walked away from four years ago. We’ve broken the world into us and them, only emerging from our bunkers long enough to lob rhetorical grenades at the other camp. We write off half the country as out-of-touch liberal elites or racist misogynist bullies. No nuance, no complexity, no humanity.

We do not have to be in either this camp or that camp. The way forward is to engage in dialogue with those with whom we disagree.

What ultimately happens with Esav and Ya’aqov is reconciliation! There is a good end to the story, but only because Ya’aqov reached out to his brother. Gifts in tribute, a hug, and so forth. And it is notable because the Torah went out of its way to tell that story! Was there any need for Esav to reappear in the narrative? Ya’aqov would have been just fine without him. But the Torah wanted us to take note of that reconciliation, to feel the catharsis.

We do not solve problems by creating division. We solve problems by working with each other.

So, nu, Rabbi, what’s the take-away?

Reach out. Find somebody with whom you disagree, and discuss. Try to listen to and understand their position. Don’t dismiss them merely because you disagree. Don’t revile somebody merely because of their beliefs. The response to being ideologically under siege is not to entrench ourselves deeper, but to open a channel of communication.

The future of our society, the well-being of our communities, our schools, our infrastructure, our public health, our ability to tackle the huge challenges posed by addiction, the easy availability of firearms to potentially dangerous people, the ongoing challenge of how we deliver healthcare to the American population, all of these things depend on our inclination to talk to each other. If we merely burrow deeper into our respective political holes, that may be good for a few media conglomerates, but it’s certainly not good for us.

Reach out. Our future depends on it.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/18/2017.)

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Gandhi on Prayer

A friend recently forwarded this quote, attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, about prayer. Gandhi came from a prayer tradition quite different from the Jewish one, and yet his words speak powerfully about our own experience with tefillah (prayer). I have appended comments, Rashi-style:

Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.

ghandi

“A longing of the soul

We need to express that longing, to acknowledge the need to heal our spirits, to seek wholeness in a fragmented world.

The soul does not speak English or Hebrew or Aramaic. It speaks yearning. It speaks prayer wordlessly.

“Admission of one’s weakness”

We go through life trying to demonstrate to everybody else and to ourselves how strong we are, how resilient we are, how talented we are.

We do not willingly admit weakness.

It is only through prayerful moments that we allow ourselves to admit even privately that we are vulnerable, that we are broken, that we need more from God or from others or from the universe.

“Better to have a heart without words than words without a heart”

Tefillah / prayer is not intended to be an empty recitation of words in a language we do not understand.

Rather, the ancient yearnings of our ancestors, found on the pages of the siddur, transport our own longing; those words provide a conduit for the heart, a tap into the soul.

As we learn in Pirkei Avot (2:18), Al ta’as tefilatekha qeva, Do not make your prayer a prescribed routine, but a plea for mercy and grace before God. Your words of tefillah should not be fixed, but filled with kavvanah: intention, spontaneity, honesty to yourself.

So as we sing / chant / mumble / meditate on the words of our own tradition, as we let the longing of our souls flow, remember that the kavvanah, the heart behind the words, matters more than the words themselves.

Shabbat shalom.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

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Welcoming Ourselves, or, the Stranger Within – Vayyera 5778

This is a parashah that is chock full of good material, but I must concede that the episode to which I always return is the story in the beginning of Vayyera where Avraham welcomes a trio of traveling strangers into his tent. He runs to greet them. He brings them water to drink and to wash the dust off their feet. He brings them food. He literally waits on them.

Avraham Avinu the father of our tradition and our people, the progenitor of the entire monotheistic world, the one whom we invoke at the beginning of every Amidah – teaches us to welcome the stranger. Yes, we know that they are angels, but Avraham does not. He sees unfamiliar people walking by, and he reaches out and grabs ’em.

Now how do you think that makes the visitors feel? The Torah does not record their reactions, but I can tell you this: when I have been a stranger in a strange land, I am always grateful for the help and care of locals. The postal clerk in Jodhpur, India, who not only sold Judy and me stamps, but also took us into a back room of the post office to give us a table on which to write our postcards, supplied us with glue (which apparently Indian stamps lack), and even gave us his address so that we could stay with him if we ever returned to Jodhpur. The nice gentleman who stopped to help me fix a flat by the side of a highway late at night in a rural part of upstate New York, and even offered me a sandwich. The Israeli Bedouin who invited a friend and me, while we were hiking near the desert town of Arad, to actually sit with him in his tent and drink water and tea and to schmooze with him in Hebrew.

Bedouin Tent Wiki images

(As an aside, tomorrow is our annual New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony, when we invite in those who have joined our community within the last year, bring them up onto this bimah, discuss what brought them all here, and give everybody a sefer Torah to hold while we recite Tefillat HaDerekh, the prayer for those who are starting a new journey.)

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks back when I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about anxiety. Apparently, we are living in a time in which there are more and more people, and particularly teens, who are living with severe anxiety. The article cites statistics about the growing rates of anxiety; about a third of adolescents and adults live suffer from an anxiety disorder. Almost two-thirds of university undergraduates report feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the prior year.

Man at bridge holding head with hands and screaming

Perhaps you know somebody like this – I do. Anxiety is a very serious disorder. While we all have moments of anxiety, for most of us they pass. But for people with disorders like this, life is a daily challenge of trying to manage one’s constant fears.

Nobody knows, of course, what causes anxiety, or why the rates are increasing. But we all know the contemporary exacerbating factors: things like the pressure that high-achieving teens feel in school, our addiction to social media, threats of terrorism, and so forth. You might think that privileged teens would have lower rates; actually, rates are higher among the affluent

Left untreated, anxiety does not go away. But there is a disagreement about how to treat it: some say that the way to reduce anxiety is to remove the stressors; some say that greater exposure to the things that arouse their fears helps the anxious person learn to cope.

But I am going to suggest a different approach.

Now, I am not a psychologist, and in no way is it my intent to trivialize this challenge by glibly offering ancient words to soothe the contemporary soul.

But as one who can speak from personal experience, that third way is the framework of Jewish tradition.

What does Judaism offer? What is that framework?

Family togetherness, a holy purpose to life, communal support in times of joy and grief and everything in-between, slowing down for Shabbat and relating to others, the critical thinking that comes from talmud torah, learning our ancient wisdom – these are all things that give us a healthy framework, one that might help us feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious.

And here is the final thing that our tradition offers, and this comes back to Avraham’s welcoming the wayfarers into his tent. Judaism reminds us that we must not only welcome the stranger, but that we also must welcome ourselves in.

What on Earth do you mean by that, Rabbi?

Most of us have a fairly lukewarm relationship with our tradition. That is, we are tentative about entering too deeply into the actions, about throwing ourselves bodily into our customs and rituals. I mentioned this briefly a few weeks back, on Shemini Atzeret. Most of us like to maintain our reserve, our cool, academic distance from the curious customs that we have inherited from our ancient ancestors.

In the middle of the 20th century, changes in our society led to a revolt against the old order. Some of the ways in which our society changed were good: the struggles for civil rights and the equality of women and men, the breaking down of many traditional barriers.

But the baby went out with the bathwater. For most of us, the framework that religion provided disappeared. Many of us grew up thinking that people who were committed to religious tradition were unthinking sheep. Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, documents the distancing from Judaism by the Baby Boom generation in particular in his book with Steven M. Cohen, The Jew Within. They discuss the elevation of the “sovereign self” in place of traditional religious involvement.

As a result, there are many of us today who are not quite sure of what to do in the synagogue – how to behave, when to stand up or sit down; many of us wonder how on earth the person leading services could possibly have gotten to the bottom of the page so fast. And all the more so with Jewish traditions that we practice outside the synagogue.

But engaging with our tradition, “practicing” Judaism, is not merely about being an expert davener, or fulfilling every iota of Jewish law and custom. It is about all the meaningful aspects of holy living: the primary mitzvah of engaging with our holy texts, through which we learn to acknowledge the holiness in all our relationships, maintaining our sense of wonder and gratitude about the world.

And, rather than think you may not be “good” at “doing Jewish” because you can’t mumble the second paragraph of Aleinu fast enough, think instead about this: Have you, over the past week, say, done something to bring honor to somebody around you? Did you teach your child the value of doing charitable work? Did you help resolve a conflict between friends or neighbors? Did you spend an unhurried, pleasurable meal with your family? Have you thought twice before uttering an unkind word?

If so, welcome. Welcome yourself to our tradition, to that framework. We’re glad to have you aboard. And we need you to welcome yourself, because those who have not welcomed themselves in, who have not actually opened the metaphorical door of Jewish life and walked through it, cannot really welcome others.

Structure of Welcome Emails

Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, goes out of his way to welcome strangers into his tent. And when these same strangers, who we know to be divine messengers, give the news to his wife Sarah that she will give birth to a son at age 90, she laughs. Was it anxious laughter? Perhaps.

Maybe she was not quite ready for the news. Or maybe she was not ready to welcome the strangers in, because she had not yet welcomed herself.

A final note: on Thursday, I attended an interfaith program for clergy and community leaders at the JCC, entitled “Faithful Responses to Strangers, Immigrants, and Refugees.” One of the speakers, a Muslim woman who immigrated to Pittsburgh from Sudan, spoke about her experience in getting to know her neighbors. They were not forthcoming in introducing themselves, so she hatched the plan of inviting herself over to their houses to get to know them. Her friends said, “No, you can’t do that. Americans don’t do that.” But she ignored them, and more or less went door-to-door, welcoming herself into her neighbors’ homes – really the opposite of what Abraham did. And it worked! She is now very close with her neighbors, none of whom are like her, and prouder than ever to be an American.

Don’t be a stranger! Open the door, and welcome yourself into our tradition. Be a part of our framework. It’s a gift that you can give yourself and your family. You’ll be glad you did.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, November 4, 2017.)

 

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