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Illuminating the World Through Dialogue – Vayyeshev 5780

Two weeks ago, our congregation sent a delegation to Boston, to the convention of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative synagogues. Rabbi Markiz and I presented on all the wonderful, connective programming we are doing through Derekh, and we all learned a whole bunch of useful stuff for continuing to build our congregation and make it more sustainable.

Boston is the Old Country for me; it’s kind of like Vilna (the Yiddish name for the capital of Lithuania). While I did not grow up there, my parents did, and so did three of my grandparents. For them, Boston was the New World. For me, it feels like history. 

On Tuesday morning, I took a taxi to Logan Airport, driven by a friendly man from Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of West Africa. I could feel the lump of history in my throat. My maternal grandfather, Edward Bass, alav hashalom (may peace be upon him), drove a taxi in Boston in the middle of the 20th century, at one point owning his own taxi medallion. He used to hustle for fares, hanging around the airport to get well-heeled visitors into his cab. He was proud that he had driven celebrities – the singer Lena Horne was one that I recall.

And, as we traveled through the Ted Williams Tunnel, I reflected back on my family’s story as one tiny piece in the American Jewish experience, that of immigration and assimilation and trying to fit in, and the next chapter in the ongoing odyssey of the Jewish people.

My grandfather was poor. He was a foster child from age 3, grew up on a farm outside of Boston owned by a Jewish farmer, Mr. Slotnick, and never completed high school. Nonetheless, he provided for his family: my grandmother, an immigrant from what is today Ukraine, and three kids, the youngest of whom was my mother. My mother completed nursing school and married a tall, very smart young man whose father worked as a bottle-washer at the Hood dairy plant in Boston. That young man, my father, went on to get a doctorate in mathematics.

They all grew up in a Boston that was quite segregated, not only along racial lines, but along ethnic lines as well. People from different groups did not mix so much. Jews were accustomed to anti-Semitic attitudes and threats of violence, and thus kept to themselves. And in the mid-1960s, my father’s family ultimately left the neighborhood of Dorchester, where all their neighbors had been Jewish. They were pushed by the documented practice of redlining, through which banks and real estate agents encouraged white people to move out to the suburbs and penalized African-Americans by refusing them loans. They were concerned about how their neighborhood was changing, about the black folks who were moving in as the Jews left.

All the more so in those days, people were suspicious and fearful of those unlike themselves. And today we are all still feeling the reverberations of that unfortunate legacy. The question that we face now is, how might we overcome old mistrust? How might we as a society overcome that deep-seated fear of the other?

***

The attack in Jersey City last week, occurring at a cemetery and a kosher market, left four people dead, many families bereft, and a community in agony, the kind of agony that we know in Pittsburgh all too well. You may know that there has been a significant rise in anti-Semitic activity in the last few years, and we are feeling the pain. Coupled with two other incidents in LA, the last few weeks have been truly nerve-wracking.

Anti-Semitism, of course, is not new; it is truly ancient, and sits alongside the entire spectrum of fear and hatred. People distrust those whom we do not know – who have different rituals, who eat different foods, who speak a foreign language, who dress funny, who do not mix with everybody else.

And all the more so, this inclination to be wary of the other, when coupled with harmful stereotypes, occasionally leads to violence. What drove the Pittsburgh shooter to attack the three congregations at the corner of Shady and Wilkins, murdering 11 holy Jewish souls? He was convinced by white supremacists that Jews are actively working to replace white Americans with dark-skinned immigrants. Why did the attackers in Jersey City seek Jewish targets? It seems that they were motivated by the hatred of Jews espoused by some Black Hebrew Israelites, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “black supremacist” group. 

(I must point out at this point that this group, which is, to my knowledge, in no way “Jewish,” is entirely unrelated to other black Jewish groups and individuals who are not supremacists. I myself have been warmly welcomed by their congregations: I once attended a very interesting Shabbat morning service at the Ethiopian Hebrew congregation in Harlem, and my congregation on Long Island had a relationship with the black synagogue in St. Albans, Queens.)

Ethiopian Jewish kessim at a festival in Jerusalem

Fear, and indeed hatred of the other, is something that humanity will always live with. And there is really only one solution, and it is not necessarily an easy one. And that is dialogue. We have to talk to one another. We have to sit together. We have to break bread together. We have to share stories. We have to establish depth of relationship in order to overcome mutual apprehension. To defuse the time-bomb of hatred, we must proactively seek to understand each other.

Now, before we go any further, I have to confess something: 

This discussion makes me anxious, because I do not think that I am equipped with the tools for having the conversation. But I care, and I want to get it right. And I am trying to listen, and to learn.

Anti-Semitism is the type of hatred with which we are most familiar, and it is the one to which we as Jews are most attuned. And statistics have shown that anti-Semitic activity is double what it was in 2015, just a few years ago.

But let’s face it: Boston is still quite racially segregated. So too are Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, NYC, Washington, Houston, Chicago, and yes, Pittsburgh. And there is not only a physical segregation in our cities, but also a kind of segregation that exists in our hearts. And that segregation in all its manifestations – schools, neighborhoods, income gap, healthcare outcomes – is not just unhealthy; it is in fact dangerous. It continues to reinforce an incarceration rate that is more than five times higher for African-Americans than for caucasians. A recent study in Pittsburgh, which I mentioned on High Holidays, showed that the local black infant mortality rate puts our fair city in the 6th percentile among African-Americans in the whole country. And there are plenty of other horrifying statistics.

We need as a society to have dialogue between people of different groups. And that is not easy, and it’s not always comfortable. And frankly, most of us do not even know where to start. But here is the good news: we at Beth Shalom are trying to move the needle on this, and we have several initiatives already in progress.

And here is another piece of news: we have before us a “teachable moment.”

A few weeks back, at our Comedy Tonight fundraiser, a joke crossed a line that made many of us uncomfortable. In a bit about airports, the comedian mocked agents of the TSA, drawing on stereotypes of African American and Muslim employees. Elsewhere in his routine, he also made fun of old people and, of course, Jews, and particularly old Jews. It is to some extent the job of a comedian as an artist to hold up a mirror to ourselves, to make us consider our own absurdities. Comedy is a study in human failure.

But for us to truly be in dialogue, to be in the deep kind of dialogue that not only brings people together, but rather enables us to address honestly the challenges that we all face as a society, we all have to make sure that nobody is reinforcing harmful stereotypes of the other. 

Now, if you were in attendance that night, and you enjoyed yourself, you might be wondering, “What was harmful about the routine? Maybe there was a tasteless joke we could have done without, but harmful?”  Well as it turns out, yes. One study about humor and racism from 2011 demonstrated that, 

…if you hold negative views against one of these groups, hearing disparaging jokes about them “releases” inhibitions you might have, and you feel it’s ok to discriminate against them.

Ladies and gentlemen, words matter. We chanted earlier this morning, “Barukh she-amar vehayah ha’olam.” Praised is the One who spoke, and the world came into being. We understand our world as having been created through words. And it can be destroyed through words as well.

When I was a student at Cornell, and the Black Students Union brought Louis Farrakhan to campus, I was out there protesting with Hillel. When local groups have presented one-sided, inaccurate portrayals of the situation between Israelis and Palestinians, we the Jews have called them out. And had we as a community heard that a Christian comedian performed a routine in a local church that denigrated Jews using well-worn stereotypes about us, I am sure that we would be up in arms. Even in the context of comedy, words matter.

This teachable moment does not take away from the wonderful spirit of the evening that we shared together as a community. But we must be in dialogue, and dialogue requires that our house is in order first. We must look inward first, before looking outward. So, understanding that while we as a community were not responsible for what came out of the comedian’s mouth that night, we must acknowledge that it happened in our house. To all who may have been insulted by his portrayal of African-Americans or Muslims, we as a community are deeply regretful.

And to all who are ready to reach out your hand in dialogue for the betterment of ourselves as individuals and for the greater good, we welcome your partnership.

And, for everybody among us who is interested in moving the dialogue forward, you should be aware of the following opportunities that Derekh is creating in our community:

  1. We have a book group that is reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How To Be an Antiracist.
  2. As part of our Beth Shalom Speaker Series, on March 25th we will be featuring Marra Gad, the Jewish and multi-racial author of The Color of Love
  3. We have an ongoing partnership with the local Episcopalian community, which continues to bear fruit in dialogue.
  4. We hosted both Richard Carrington and Rev. Tim Smith, who work in the front lines of the local African-American community.
  5. A group of us went on a civil rights tour of the South last spring, and we will be doing it again in April – be on the lookout for more info.
  6. And there are other dialogues and workshops that are flying below the radar right now, which we hope will continue and soon become more visible.

We are working toward making tzedek, that is, justice, an essential part of what we do at Beth Shalom.

My friends, I am going to close with the following thought:

Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins tomorrow evening. Why is it called “Hanukkah”? That word literally means “dedication,” referring to the rededication of the Second Temple following its defilement at the hands of Hellenized Syrians in the second century BCE. 

We cannot allow our Jewish spaces, or our lives, to be diminished by prejudice of any kind, and we should expect that of our neighbors as well. In this season, as we light those candles in the symbolic act of illuminating the dark corners of this world, we should rededicate ourselves to reaching out, to real dialogue, which leads to the holy work of tzedek. This is one way we may continue to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations of this world.

Ve-ahavta lere’akhah kamokha (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18). Love your neighbor as yourself. And in order to love your neighbor, we must expand our sense of neighborhood.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally presented at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/21/2019.)

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Planting Seeds of Dialogue – Yitro 5779

Two decades ago, when I was living in Houston and working at my final job as a chemical engineer, I learned to meditate at a Buddhist temple. Conscious of my Judaism and wary of our tradition’s all-encompassing prohibition of everything to do with idolatry (we read a taste of that in the Ten Commandments today), I made sure that nothing that I was doing could be construed as violating that prohibition.

There was a Burmese monk who was something like the local rabbi, and he would give a little inspirational talk after the meditation hour. One day he told the story of how the Dalai Lama was speaking somewhere in California, and was asked by a member of the audience if he could tell them how to find the quickest path to enlightenment.

The Dalai Lama did not answer the question. He simply started crying.

There is no easy path to enlightenment. It takes work. Years of careful, thoughtful work.

But the wider lesson here is that very few significant things in life are achievable without careful planning and preparation. Consider the moment on Mt. Sinai that we read today, where God begins the revelatory process with Moshe / Moses: this was such a fundamental moment for our ancestors that it required extensive preparation – days of communal and individual purification, and let’s not forget the whole Exodus story which preceded it. Many things needed to be in place before the moment of contact between God and Israel.

I am concerned that our national state of anxiety, coupled with the new tools of social media, have created a climate in which everything happens in an uncontrolled frenzy. Consider the news story that unfolded over the past week about the apparent stand-off between a Native American drummer and a high-school kid by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. An initial video, shared widely and rapidly via social media, seemed to show the teen and his posse mocking the drummer. When other footage surfaced, the picture seemed more complicated, involving an hour or more of prior invective from a couple of Black Hebrew Israelites, who are known to spew hatred at passersby in some cities. (I myself was verbally assaulted on multiple occasions by these guys on the streets of New York.)

standoff

Subsequent analyses of the situation only seemed to muddy the waters, to the point where it is difficult to say who was at fault, who was mocking whom, what the motives of the various parties were at the time. And then as the news cycle turned over and PR firms were hired, the scene became a kind of Rorschach test for the observer.

I concede that I do not know what exactly happened that day. But what concerns me is not only the scene of people from disparate ethnic groups clashing with each other, but also our rush to judgment; our willingness to assume that we knew what was going on from a few seconds of out-of-context video footage. It is almost as if we wanted to see conflict, to point fingers unambiguously. No chance of enlightenment here.

This is just one small example of the many ways in which we are losing patience for the careful, diligent work it takes to understand the other, to effect change, to exert leadership, to get to know somebody, to cooperate across racial or religious or ethnic lines. We have lost interest in intellectual rigor, in authority based in years of experience. And we are all just too darned busy to dig deeper, to create relationships, to foster real discussion.

The second-century CE collection of Jewish wisdom known as Pirqei Avot, verses of the ancestors, tells us the following (4:23):

רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: Do not attempt to assuage the anger of your friend while he is angry; do not try to console her at the time when her deceased lies before her.

In other words, don’t try to tell anybody something that they are not ready to hear. Even words of comfort are alienating when the time is not right, when the other person is not able to listen. True communication happens only when both parties are prepared for it.

Last Sunday morning, we featured Beth Shalom member Zack Block in our Lox and Learning series. Zack is the Executive Director of Repair the World Pittsburgh, whose mission is to “make meaningful service a defining part of American Jewish life.” In short, what Repair the World does is to engage Jews in a range of volunteer activities with partner organizations.

One of Repair the World’s activities is maintaining community gardens, and Zack used the example of gardening as a community-building activity. First, he said, you bring people together to plant seeds in pots indoors. You water the seedlings regularly. Some time later, you bring people together again to take the seedlings to the garden and plant them. There is watering and fertilizing and weeding and pruning and all sorts of ongoing maintenance. And then you bring people together again for harvesting, and bringing those fruits and vegetables to food pantries, or to bag them and make them available for nearby residents to take and use, or to host an exciting event with an up-and-coming local chef who can do something brilliant with string beans and eggplant.

seedling

It occurred to me that this is an excellent metaphor for dialogue across political, religious, ethnic, racial, or even gender-based lines. And, since this past Monday was Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which, according to the Talmud, is the new year for the trees, the plant metaphor works well in this season.

This is how diplomacy works: you plant “seeds”; you tend to them, and when the time is right, you “harvest” the solutions, the compromises, the social justice commitments, and then you pass the garden on to your successors.

Let’s acknowledge for a moment that we have guests in our Sanctuary today. Welcome, members of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, and a special welcome to the Right Reverend Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of the Diocese. We will have a Q&A with Bishop McConnell and myself and Rabbi Markiz after qiddush (i.e. “collation”), and I hope you will join us for that. We are all in agreement that, particularly in the wake of October 27th, both here in Pittsburgh and across these United States, we are all in need of more communication with people outside of our own circles.

I sometimes feel that we are a nation in retreat: retreating to our own news bubbles, retreating to our comfy armchairs and our Netflix subscriptions, retreating to our own kind, or into ourselves. Where do we see examples of true dialogue in our society today?  Where there was once discussion we see diatribe; where there was once debate we see demagoguery. We are all just screaming to be heard, striving to collect the most “likes,” to achieve the most re-tweeted tweet, to post the most outrageous selfie.

I hope that today we will plant some seeds and mark the beginning of a conversation between our communities, a conversation that will ultimately yield fruit in making meaningful connections across a religious divide. And there are more gardens to plant, conversations to be had – many groups reached out to us following the Tree of Life massacre.

But it will take time. We need to talk. To break bread together. To make small-talk. Only after you have come into our space, and we have come into yours, and you have asked us questions, and we have asked you questions, can we really start to dig deeply and honestly into the difficult issues that we all face. One meeting is not enough.

Just as there is no speedy path to enlightenment, there is no quick way into meaningful dialogue. As with the rabbinic wisdom from Pirqei Avot I cited above, there is no shortcut to being able to enter the truly challenging, but essential, conversations; there is only the garden, in all its labor-intensive greenery.

A final note: the main event of Parashat Yitro (our Torah reading for today) occurred in the reading of the Aseret haDibberot, the Decalogue. But the name of the parashah comes from Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro / Jethro, who is a Midianite kohen, that is, a non-Israelite priest. In the words of Rabbi Sharon Cohen-Anisfeld, president of Hebrew College in Boston:

Yitro embodies a quality of capaciousness – and indeed, his name itself comes from the Hebrew root yeter, or yoter. Abundance. More-than-enoughness. What Yitro embodies here is a quality of big-heartedness. There is more than enough room in his heart to truly rejoice in the blessings of another people.

Like Yitro, we should all have more than enough room in our hearts for our neighbors, for diplomacy, for reaching out and creating the depth of relationship required to achieve honest, heartfelt discussion. That is how we may achieve enlightenment.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 1/26/2019.)

 

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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.)