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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://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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Halakhah and The Big Picture – Re’eh 5775

I am particularly fortunate to have started this week in Pittsburgh for Parashat Re’eh. It’s one of my favorites. OK, so it’s true that I have a lot of favorite parashiyyot, but this is an especially good one. I do enjoy the passages of the Torah that include numerous mitzvot / commandments, not only because they give us insight into how our ancestors lived and the values they held, but also because they continue to shape our lives today.

But let’s face it: there is quite a bit of obscure and/or curious stuff in the Torah – commandments that don’t apply to anybody today, like those related to sacrifices, or obligations for agricultural behaviors or activities that are irrelevant to contemporary non-farmers, or things that are just downright strange.

For example, in today’s parashah we encounter the obligation not only to not worship like the Canaanites do, but indeed to destroy their altars. (Has anybody met any Canaanites lately?) Also, there are commandments to tithe from our produce, to eat only certain kinds of animals, and to be particular about not eating their blood with the meat. There is the commandment to take care of the needy people around you, and the strange law about piercing the ear of the slave who opts to stay with his master rather than go free. And then there is a whole range of holiday practices.

For us today, we immediately understand the relevance of kashrut and holiday observances – most of us have been doing some of these things for our entire lives. But to an outsider looking in, this parashah might look like a jumble of eccentric behaviors that make no particular sense.

And I might argue that, if we were to look at these things objectively, devoid of context, we might also think that it is odd, for example, to avoid eating leavened things for a week, or to build and live in a temporary hut outside your home for a different week.

But I think that sometimes it is a good idea to pull back the camera to try to see the greater picture.

I recently heard a TED talk about ants, featuring the ecologist Deborah Gordon, who studies ant colonies for a living. What is striking about ants, she says, is that ants function as a collective unit without speaking, without memory, and without a visible leader. And for sure they don’t have the Internet or smartphones. And yet, they have a highly complex society that functions quite well even though not a single one of them can actually see the larger picture. No ant understands how it fits into the colony, and nobody is telling it what to do, but somehow it all works together like some magnificent symphony.

Aluminum cast of a fire ant colony.

Aluminum cast of an ant colony

One principle that makes an ant colony function is that it has rules. Some ants forage, other ants are soldiers, the queen lays eggs, and so forth. Those rules are governed by what is encoded in the ants’ DNA.

From the human perspective, we don’t see how the ants function as individuals. We only see the final product: that the ants build extensive homes underground, and forage for food, sometimes in your pantry, and somehow manage to survive the winter to build a new colony next year. And all of this depends on the series of rules for how the ants work.

But humans are not like ants. We think; we communicate; we argue; we create; we destroy; we doubt; we cooperate; we sabotage; and so forth. Each of us as individuals has the potential to help or wound, to be selfish or to participate with others.

And that is why we need a framework. That is why human societies have always had guidelines. Laws. Courts.

And the Torah is our framework, including its obscure laws and its odd commandments. The mitzvot are our rules, and as a people, we have spent the better part of the last two millennia trying to figure out exactly how to carry out these rules. We call that system of rules, “halakhah,” which the Hebrew scholars among you will know is from the verb lalekhet, to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life.

And, just like the ants, it is difficult, and some might even say impossible, for us to see the true bigger picture. Yes, our intellect allows for us to understand more than the ants. But the larger spiritual picture is blurred; all we know is that we have a fundamental drive to reach higher, to seek holiness, to seek purity, to seek the Divine.

Our greatest sages have spent two millennia analyzing and interpreting the meaning, the reasons for, and how to carry out the mitzvot, and we continue to do so ledor vador, in each generation in its context.

You see, when it comes down to it, we don’t really know why the Torah asks us not to mark our bodies permanently, or burn animals on an altar. Even the obvious things, those mitzvot which we are naturally inclined to keep: we don’t even really know why the Torah instructs us not to murder others, or honor your parents, or abstain from sexual indiscretion. We will never really be clear on the big picture. But that is what makes Judaism interesting, and has allowed for an ongoing discourse across the ages over the meaning of what we read in the Torah. An absolute, definite answer would be boring; our tradition allows for continual renewal.

All we can really say for certain is that this template for holy living is what makes our world function. It affects the greater good. It works down here and on high. It is tried and true for 5775 years.

Now I can hear the skeptics among us who might be thinking, “OK, Rabbi, that sounds just peachy. But come on – does it really matter if I pray, or put on tefillin, or avoid shellfish?”

And the answer is yes. 100%. Why? Because you know as well as I that the America of today is one of limitless choice. We are so bombarded with “freedom” that simply choosing a toothpaste or a salad dressing from the hundreds on offer takes up far too much of our time, taking bandwidth away from things that are far more important. And the message that we continually reinforce to our children is, “What do you want?”

We need boundaries. We need framework. Some choices are acceptable, and some are not. All of us who are parents know that, but it applies to adults and children equally. What does infinite choice yield? Indecision. Paralysis. Disunity. Dissatisfaction. The feeling that even though you chose this product, or this school, or this spouse, there might be a better one behind door number 2.

Jewish life gives us a frame through which our lives are endowed with stability and purpose. And we need that more than ever.

Now, that does not mean that the boundaries do not change. Of course they have, and they will continue to change. It is a good thing for the Jews, and Maimonides says so outright in the Mishneh Torah, that prayer replaced sacrifice. It is a good thing that the slavery described in the Torah is no longer permitted. It is wonderful that we at Beth Shalom treat men and women as absolute equals under Jewish law. It is a good thing that we view halakhah through the lens of modernity; Jewish law changes with us, slowly but always for the better.

So, while the Torah includes a number of imperatives that are no longer applicable, we continue to read it and respond to it with change. The history behind the evolution of halakhah is an essential piece of this holy framework.

It’s up to us to find ways to interpret the Torah for today. That is the principle upon which I have built my rabbinate. We have to read the Torah in today’s context; not in the context from which it emerged; not in the context of 12th-century Egypt (Maimonides) or 16th-century Tzefat (Rabbi Yosef Karo, who authored the Shulhan Arukh). We welcome all of those guys to the table, but we have to seek our own meaning. We have to set the boundaries as a community, and the way we do that is the same way that our ancestors have done so for two thousand years: we open the book, and we dig into the text. (The berakhah for Torah study is “La’asoq bedivrei Torah” – to get busy with the words of Torah.)

As I move forward from this starting point here in Pittsburgh, I hope to continue doing exactly that. You will hear me say this over and over: the highest mitzvah in Jewish life is not keeping Shabbat or kashrut or daily tefillah / prayer or even honoring your parents. The highest mitzvah (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1) is talmud Torah, interactive study of our ancient texts.

And that is how the whole system functions. We may not see the big picture, but within that microcosm, the arba amot shel halakhah, the four cubit radius of our own personal spheres of Jewish existence, we have a holy framework for living that is guided by our personal and communal understanding of Torah. And by following that framework, we each contribute individually to the overall picture.

Shabbat shalom!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/15/2015.)

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