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A National Day of Mourning / Shabbat Hazon 5780

You may find this hard to believe, but I once saw the hip-hop group Public Enemy live in concert. It was 1991, and I happened to be visiting a friend at Yale when they played in New Haven. I knew very little about what we called “rap” in the 1980s, and although I had the sense that Public Enemy was somewhat controversial, I figured it might be a way to expand my musical horizons.

Public Enemy

I enjoyed the show, and I was blissfully unaware that some of the controversy surrounding the group was about somebody who was by then a former member, Professor Griff, whose real name is Richard Griffin. Griffin had been kicked out of the group in 1989 for making anti-Semitic statements in an interview with the Washington Times. Among the things he said were, ”The Jews are wicked. And we can prove this,” and that the Jews are responsible for ”the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.” 

So when an interview of Richard Griffin surfaced two weeks ago, by celebrity Nick Cannon  (who, I must admit, I had never heard of – perhaps you get a sense that pop culture is not really my bag?), in which Cannon indulged in some classic anti-Semitic accusations (e.g. that “Zionists” and “Rothschilds” hold lots of power), I was surprised to learn that apparently Griffin had not made amends for past transgressions. Cannon, who as a result of the interview lost his position as host of comedy improv show Wild ‘N Out, offered a pareve non-apology for his remarks.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver DeSean Jackson recently posted an inflammatory statement on Instagram, incorrectly attributed to Adolf Hitler, about how the Jews “blackmail” and “extort” America, and their intent for “world domination.” Mr Jackson later apologized, and has been in dialogue with a 94-year-old Holocaust survivor in an attempt to learn. (I must say that I am indeed puzzled that a Black person could deliberately quote Hitler, whether the quote was real or not.)

But the upshot of these incidents is that my favorite Pittsburgh Steeler, offensive tackle Zach Banner (OK, so I had also not heard of Mr. Banner before last week) posted a moving video in response to Mr. Jackson, in which he drew on his experience as a Pittsburgh resident in the context of the Tree of Life shooting. In it, he stated:

…We need to understand Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now, but I want to preach to the black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them. Just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves, we can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves, and that’s very, very important to me, and it should be important to everyone. . . .

We can’t preach equality but in result flip the script and change the hierarchy, if that makes sense. Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let’s all uplift each other.

Steelers Offensive Tackle Zach Banner

Mr. Banner’s words speak for themselves; we must all be united in the struggle against hate.

In a similar vein, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, wrote a column asking, “Where is the outrage over anti-Semitism in sports and in Hollywood?” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, noting the disturbing recent rise in anti-Jewish hate crimes in recent years, called out rapper Ice Cube, basketball player  Stephen Jackson, and Chelsea Handler (who is, in fact, Jewish) for promoting anti-Semitic material, and drew a direct link from the spreading of such material via social media to the Tree of Life massacre.

With all of the concern right now in the world for how Black people have been treated by white America, something which I have spoken about repeatedly over the last several weeks, we cannot lose sight of the fact that anti-Semitism has a much longer history than European exploitation of African peoples. We cannot forget that anti-Semitism is pernicious and ever-present; it is, you might say, the “Ur-racism.” We cannot forget that anti-Jewish conspiracy theories still infuse much of the world. We cannot forget that these theories motivate actual killers, and we will not forget that one of those killers was driven by this nonsense to murder people that many of us actually knew personally, a half a mile away from where I stand.

So thank God for Black allies like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Zach Banner. Thank God that there are people who understand the power of language, the danger of ideas. Thank God that there are some who get that hatred of any group is all cut from the same cloth, that, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it in 1963 in his essay, “Religion and Race,” “What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.”

Five days from now is Tish’ah BeAv, the saddest day of the Jewish year, the only full 25-hour fast aside from Yom Kippur. It is a day on which we recall all of the greatest tragedies of Jewish history: the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the Expulsion from Spain, the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and so forth. It is a day for literally sitting on the floor and weeping, for not bathing or doing anything that brings enjoyment. It is the day of the Jewish calendar on which we recall our oppression and dispersion and persecution throughout our lengthy history.

Detail from the Arch of Titus, showing Romans carrying away holy objects from the Second Temple

But Tish’ah BeAv is not merely a day on which to be hungry, thirsty, and miserable. It is also a day on which doing so should make us reflect on our behavior, on our words, and our relationships, stirring our souls in the direction of action. We read Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, to remind us of the destruction of Jerusalem; indeed, the very first verse, which portrays Jerusalem as a bereft widow, always fills me with woe:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַּבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃

Alas! Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow; The princess among states has become a slave.

The Talmud teaches us (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 9b) that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE due to the most serious transgressions according to Jewish law: murder, idolatry, and inappropriate sexual liaisons. But the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE due to sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred among the Jews.

And, ladies and gentlemen, the world is still filled with causeless hatred. And one of the messages of Tish’ah BeAv is that we are responsible for eliminating it. We remember what and who we have lost; we acknowledge our suffering; and we rebuild as we head toward the coronation days of Rosh HaShanah.

And so I call on all of us to consider this Tish’ah BeAv not just a national day of mourning for the Jews, but a national day of mourning for all of us: for the 150,000 Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19, yes, but also for all of the forms of destruction wrought by sin’at hinnam, causeless hatred – from the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa to the internment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II to the Shoah to the Tree of Life murders to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. This Thursday is a day on which all of us should reach deep down inside ourselves to find and acknowledge the sin’at hinnam within each of us as individuals and as a society, and to pledge to stamp it out.

Antique illustration of people (veiled women, men and kids) praying at the Place of Weeping (part of the Western Wall, Wailing Wall or Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel)

And that of course applies to the Jews as well as to everybody else; just as Messrs. Abdul-Jabbar and Banner have called out anti-Semitism promoted by Black people, so too must we the Jews call out racism and other forms of hatred in our own community when we see it.

At this particular moment in history, we have a lot for which to mourn, on this most mournful day of the Jewish calendar. But let us turn this mourning into a call to action, to improve ourselves and work harder to fix this broken world, to reach out to others in partnership and in the spirit of teaching and learning from one another, so that detestable ideas of any sort about other groups of people may be expunged from the collective human heart.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 7/25/2020.)

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Black Lives Matter – Qorah 5780

In the classic Israeli pop tune from 1974, Natati La Hayyai, the first Israeli supergroup, Kavveret, opined about giving one’s life to one’s country, only to be insulted in return.

נתתי לה חיי, ירדתי על ברכי
יאמינו לי כולם, למדתי מה זה סתם ונעלבתי

Natati la hayyai, yaradti al birkai
Ya’aminu li kulam, lamadti mah zeh stam vene’elavti

I gave her my life, I got down on my knees
Believe me, everybody, I learned what’s meaningless, and I was insulted

It was Israel’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest of 1974, their second year of participation in the annual competition. They didn’t win; it was not until 1978 and 1979 that they had two monumental hits that won Eurovision two years in a row (Abanibi and Halleluyah). 

But the song was also a critique of Israel’s government, a plea for a two-state solution long before that idea was taken seriously by anybody in the mainstream:

אחד אומר שנגמרים לו השמיים
כשיש מספיק אוויר למדינה או שתיים

Ehad omer shenigmarim lo hashamayim,
ksheyesh maspik avir lemedinah o shtayim.

One says that the sky is ending for him,
When there is enough air for one or two countries.

It’s a statement of disaffection — the feeling that after what the song’s composer, Danny Sanderson, had given to Israel – his army service, his taxes, his ideological commitment to building the State of Israel, which was only about a quarter-century old when he wrote the song – that the State had left him behind, had smacked him down.

It’s been floating around in my head for a couple days, not for Zionist reasons, but for patriotic American reasons. Because I have been thinking, as many of us have, about the range of challenges facing Black Americans.

Yes, the police brutality, the chokeholds, the default suspicion, the profiling. Yes, the unequal distribution of resources. The ineffective schools. The double standards of justice. The higher rates of infant mortality. Yes, the redlining. The income statistics: As NY Times columnist David Brooks (no liberal snowflake, that one) points out, Black families earn 57 cents for every dollar white families earn. Black college graduates earn only about 80 cents for every dollar earned by white college graduates. “Between 1992 and 2013,” Brooks writes, “college-educated whites saw the value of their assets soar by 86 percent, while their black counterparts saw theirs fall by 55 percent.”

That is truly staggering. The feeling that I have been left with after surveying the depths of these challenges, is that Black Americans were not only mistreated from the moment that they arrived in chains on this continent, but that the very foundations of the American economy depended on the free or very cheap labor that Black Americans provided. And it seems that even after Emancipation, every attempt was made, whether deliberate or through the invisible hand that moves markets, to keep them from moving beyond the lowest rung on the economic ladder. Perhaps you heard last week about the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa in 1921?

It is easy to understand why many Black Americans feel that they have given their lives to America, for the building of this nation. And yet many also feel that not only have they NOT received credit, but feel as if this country continues to try to smack them down. And when a police officer kneels on a Black man’s neck patiently until he dies, we do not have to wonder why people are angry and disaffected. Natati lah hayyai. I gave her my life.

I have been trying to find the right way into this issue for a while. Three weeks ago, I quoted an assortment of texts from the Jewish bookshelf on the various ways of respecting one’s neighbor. Two weeks ago I suggested that the way that we can help is by being engaged with society, with all the people around us. But there is something else that we need to acknowledge, hevreh, and that is this:

Black lives matter.

Yes, yes, I know. Jewish lives matter too. And some of you are surely thinking, “Rabbi, shouldn’t you be talking about the Jews?”

Well, I am talking about the Jews. I’m talking about the Jews of Boston – my great-grandparents, who owned a house in Dorchester, which at some point in the early 1960s they sold because they were scared – the neighborhood was changing. I’m talking about the Jews of the Hill District here in Pittsburgh, and of cities all over America, who were busy fleeing to the suburbs, and who did not look back over their shoulders, like Lot and his daughters, to see the faces of those who moved into their old neighborhoods.

And I am also talking about the Jews who signed up for the civil rights movement; who stood with Dr. Martin Luther King, who worked alongside Black activists in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, who died along with them.

And I am also talking about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote in his essay, “Religion and Race” in 1963:

There are people in our country whose moral sensitivity suffers a blackout when confronted with the black man’s predicament. How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person?… What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.

Bias and fear of the other are, of course, a part of being human, and these things are very hard to overcome. And while I am certain that the vast majority of us do not sympathize with white supremacy, which would of course be ludicrous for Jews, there is no person without biases.

But we are all part of this system, whether we like it or not. And that is why it is essential right now to affirm something that we might all have missed as we were busy becoming fully accepted in American society: that black lives matter too.

Now, I know that some of you have heard that that slogan is anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel. It is true that the Movement for Black Lives, which is one group within the sphere of those who have participated in the wider Black Lives Matter movement, has featured language on their website since 2016 that is anti-Israel, using odious terms like “apartheid” and “genocide” in ways that are completely inappropriate. The attempt to link the Palestinian cause to the struggles of Black Americans indicates a woeful misunderstanding of the history of the Middle East and muddles the message of the latter. 

However, the Movement for Black Lives does not speak for all who carry the banner of Black Lives Matter. This is not the message that most people hear when they repeat that slogan. What they hear is, We care about our neighbors; we care about equity in our society; we care about the disenfranchised, and we want to make sure that all are given a fair opportunity to make it in this world.

And those are clearly things which are drawn from Jewish tradition, some of which I have previously identified.

So yes, we must be wary of those who seek to delegitimize Israel, but we can also work for the benefit of our African-American neighbors at the same time. Those things are not in conflict. (And many have written about this already, including my rabbinical school classmate Rabbi Avi Olitzky: Why I, A Minneapolis Rabbi, Changed My Mind About Black Lives Matter, and Amanda Berman, the founder of Zioness, a progressive, Zionist group: We Can – We Must Show Up As Zionists For Black Lives Matter). 

Turning back to the Torah for a moment, the first two words of Parashat Qorah, which we read this morning, are, “Vayiqqah Qorah.” Literally, Qorah took. But there is a problem with this verse, in that the verb “laqahat” (to take) is transitive – in Hebrew as in English, it requires a direct object. You cannot merely take; you must take something. Rashi tells us something useful: that 

לקח את עצמו לצד אחר להיות נחלק מתוך העדה

He took himself to one side, splitting off from the community.

That is, Qorah’s attempt to effect change was to selfishly and violently lead others astray, to divide the Israelites so as to upset the balance of power. Moshe, by the way, does not fare much better; he is angered by Qorah’s accusations, by dividing people and leading malcontents astray, and fires back with similarly accusatory language at Qorah and his posse.

And folks, this is not leadership. True leadership requires working together for the common good. It does not encourage division, or accusation, or aggressive, one-sided actions.

Good leadership requires talking to everybody, listening to all the voices around you and forging a path forward together. It does not mean that everybody agrees on everything, but that disagreement is respectful and does not impact the common welfare.

How can we in the Jewish community show true leadership at this time? By being part of the discourse, by listening to our Black friends and neighbors, by understanding that the message of “Black lives matter” is one that we can and should sign onto. We need to be at that table. We need to make sure that Jewish voices are heard in that context. We need to give of our lives as well, to make sure that, as Rabbi Heschel put it, the inequality of some does not inevitably become the inequality of all.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/27/2020.)

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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://i0.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.)