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Who’s Afraid of a Big, Bad Flag?

August 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Last month, at the Chicago Dyke March (an annual LGBT Pride parade), several Jewish marchers were expelled from the march because they carried flags with Stars of David, reminiscent of the flag of Israel. The organizers of the march defended the move, declaring that that “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology” and that the flag of Israel is linked inextricably with “violent and discriminatory practices.”

The Jewish community, rightfully and understandably, went up in arms about it. Not only is a Star of David not the same as an Israeli flag, but the Israeli flag is not a symbol of imperialism or racism. It is the flag of the only Jewish state. It is the emblem of a people with legitimate national aspirations. It is the symbol of an extraordinary entity that sits at the centre of Jewish identity worldwide. Has Israel always been perfect? Of course not – even those of us who love the Jewish state have critical things to say about some of her policies and actions. But we can love Israel and carry its flag while holding a nuanced understanding of the country and what it represents.

Now the Jewish community is once again up in arms about a flag. Only this time, the tables are turned. Last week, Camp Solomon Schechter, a Jewish camp in Washington state connected with the Conservative Movement, welcomed a delegation from Kids 4 Peace, an interfaith initiative that brings together Israeli and Palestinian youth from Jerusalem to build connections, friendships, and peace. When the delegation arrived, the camp welcomed them by raising a Palestinian flag alongside the Israeli and American ones for the sake of a “teachable moment.”

The reaction to that move was so virulent and angry – some even accused the camp of abetting terrorism or being anti-Israel – that Camp Solomon Schechter almost immediately removed the flag and issued an apology for the “sadness and anger” that it caused.

I'll be the first to admit: I don't get it. Last month we were angry because our flag wasn’t being viewed with the nuance it deserved, but this month we’re angry because we can only view the Palestinian flag as a symbol of terrorism? Yes, the Palestinian flag is flown by terrorists who have done awful things. Yes, it was raised over the Temple Mount last week in a statement of defiance against Israel. These things are true, and deeply challenging. But what is also true is that a group of young people arrived as peacemakers and bridge-builders, and that they view that flag as a symbol of their legitimate national aspirations.

Here’s what Kids 4 Peace said about it on their blog:

To some, the Palestinian flag evokes the failure of past negotiations, continued hostility toward Israel, and a feeling that there is no partner for peace.  At the same time, the Palestinian youth who came to camp are precisely those peace leaders who are reaching out to work with Israelis, to counter incitement, and build a new future on a foundation of mutual respect and understanding…. It is wrong to view all Palestinians as enemies of Israel or the Jewish people.  That’s why Kids4Peace came to camp in the first place.

Flags are symbols. They only carry the meaning we assign them. As a Jew who loves Israel and who still believes in the 2-state solution, I want to encourage those who wish to build bridges, and to view their flag as a symbol of reconciliation rather than an emblem of war and hatred. Camp Solomon Schechter raised that flag in order to teach its campers about peace, understanding, and the possibility that we human beings can see beyond our differences. The organizers of the Chicago Dyke March could have learned a thing or two from them.

Causeless Hatred and the Jewish State: Have We Learned Our Lesson?

July 31, 2017 7 comments

What, I’m not good enough to be blacklisted??

Those were the words with which I jokingly feigned righteous indignation last month when the Israeli rabbinate released its “blacklist” of rabbis from whom they will refuse letters of Jewishness for new immigrants. Others of my colleagues had similar amused responses: congratulating those who did make the list, creating multi-step plans for getting onto the next one.

But the truth is, that list ought to horrify us. Especially today.

Kotel.jpg

Tonight begins Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. On this day, we mark the traditional anniversary of the  destruction of the ancient Temple by Rome in the year 70. This is a seminal event in Jewish history: the beginning of a 2000-year exile; the loss of sovereignty that left us wandering around the world and vulnerable to antisemitism and persecution for centuries.

Like any event, the fall of Jerusalem resulted from a number of geopolitical factors, among them increasing animosity between the Jewish population and the Roman power structure, and General Vespasian’s need to prove himself in his bid to become Emperor. But interestingly enough, the Rabbis of the Talmud – the leaders of the Jewish community in the centuries immediately following those tragic events – did not put the blame on those factors. Rather, they placed it squarely on us: on the fact that we Jews couldn’t get along with one anther.

A story in the Talmud tells that the Temple was destroyed as a result of a grudge-holding socialite and a vindictive curmudgeon named Bar Kamza, who hated each other so much that one of them informed on the other to the Romans and brought the wrath of the empire on Jerusalem. Did that story actually happen? Probably not. But what did really happen is that the Jews of the 1st century were deeply divided into political and religious factions that despised one another. That they fought amongst themselves. That the Jewish factions burned one another's stores of food in the besieged city, making its residents vulnerable to Rome and hastening the destruction.

In other words, Rome didn't do it. WE did it. We destroyed ourselves by trying to delegitimize one another. The Rabbis call this Sinat Chinam – "Causeless Hatred" – and they credit it with bringing down the ancient Jewish state:

Why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that in its time [Jews] were occupying themselves with Torah, mitzvot, and righteous giving? Because of causeless hatred. This teaches that causeless hatred is considered to be as grave as the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed combined. (Talmud, Yoma 9b)

It is a stinging indictment of ancient Jews for infighting and mutual delegitimization. Too bad we are doing it all over again.

The last month has seen, among other events, the Israeli government’s decision to renege on its agreement to create an equal egalitarian section at the Western Wall, the release of the now famous rabbinical blacklist, and escalating attacks on women praying aloud at the Kotel.

Sadly, these events are no longer surprising. They are part of a pattern of behaviour on the part of both the ultra-Orthodox community (as encouraged by its leadership) and a government (in particular the sitting Prime Minister) that relies on Haredi support to stay in power. But we must not let the fact that such actions have ceased to surprise us mean that they no longer horrify us. Make no mistake: those Jews who shove women at prayer, who campaign against the recognition of liberal rabbis, who actively work to delegitimize Jews who are not like them, are following in the footsteps of the ancient Zealots who burned the stores of wheat. They are loosening the bonds between Jews around the world; sowing the seeds of causeless hatred amongst our people. They are, slowly but surely, bringing down the Jewish state.

It has been argued that since the vast majority of liberal Jews live in the Diaspora, they are (as non-Israelis) not entitled to a say in Israeli internal affairs. And yet there are many thousands of liberal Jews living in the state – both those who affiliate with the Reform and Conservative movements (a small but growing number), and the many more whose values align with those movements. Does any Democratic country have the right to discount the needs and rights of a minority population based on its smaller numbers? And even if this were not the case, the fact is that Israel is the only Jewish state, and has been entrusted with the care and administration of Jewish holy sites on behalf of the Jewish people. That gives it a responsibility to cast the net widely when it comes to defining legitimate Jewish practice and identity.

I love Israel with all my heart. I believe the goodness of having a Jewish state for the last 69 years is unparalleled in the history of our people. And I believe that we are capable of better than Sinat Chinam. Let us learn from the past, and work together to build a Jewish state that is a home for all Jews. One that is a political embodiment of K’lal Yisrael – the entire Jewish people.

The Mindfulness Lizard

July 25, 2017 4 comments

Don’t move, lizard. I want to capture you just like that.

I had just finished a run on a hot morning during my recent visit to New Orleans. Standing there, dripping sweat outside my parents’ Uptown home, I spotted a lizard on a fence post.

As any New Orleanian knows, a lizard on a fence post is nothing to write home about. In fact, on many summer mornings there seems to be a lizard on every fence post. But this one caught my eye because it was sitting so still, as if surveying the neighbourhood. And the scene was iconic New Orleans: the iron fence post, the broken sidewalks, the lush greenery. I had to have a picture. The world needed to see this.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket and switched on the camera. Then I silently snuck up on the lizard and started snapping from all angles, in all directions. From above, with the sidewalks behind. From below, looking up at a partly-cloudy sky. From straight on, his little reptile eyes staring into my soul. What a shot! Maybe this will go viral. Please stay still, lizard – I don’t want to miss this opportunity.

And that was when it hit me: I wasn’t really focused on the lizard at all.

I’m relatively new to mindfulness, the ethic that encourages us to stop and live in the moment. In many ways, I’m a great candidate for it: my mind races a mile a minute, I have a pretty high-stress career, and I’m a lot of people’s spiritual leader. As a rabbi, I’m interested in mindfulness from a spiritual perspective: the ways that it is known to slow us down, to increase gratefulness, to encourage generosity. As a stressed out person, I’m interested in its ability to reduce stress and help us lead happier lives.

One of the most powerful teachings of the mindfulness ethic is that we have the ability to focus on minds on the present – on living in the moment – and that we often go through life doing just the opposite. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction writes:

If you start paying attention to where your mind is from moment to moment throughout the day…chances are you will find that considerable amounts of your time and energy are expended on clinging to memories, being absorbed in reverie, and regretting things that have already happened and are over. And you will probably find that as much or more energy is expended in anticipating, planning, worrying, and fantasizing about the future and what you want to happen or don’t want to happen. (Full Catastrophe Living p. 10)

There is something to be said for planning and analyzing. We grow as human beings when we learn from our past mistakes; and we accomplish our best when we make plans and implement them. But when we spend all our lives in the past and the future, we fail to live in the present, and we lose out on the opportunity to notice, appreciate, and enjoy what is going on in any given moment.

When I was playing lizard photographer, my mind was focused on anything but the moment – on finding the perfect angle, on the response I might get on Facebook, on the fabulously successful photography career that would be launched with this single photo. And my eyes weren’t focused on the lizard either, but rather on a screen in front of it. I was experiencing the world through a pixelated filter.

When I realized this, I did something that was at once challenging and liberating. I turned off my phone, put it in my pocket, and looked at the lizard. Just looked. I watched the way it moved; how its tiny stomach moved in and out as it breathed; the different colours of green that intermingled on its back.

I suppose my reptile photography career will just have to be shelved for later. (Well…there was one decent picture.) In the meantime, I came away feeling better, knowing that for just a few minutes, I had lived in the real world. I had focused on, and appreciated, what was in front of me.

Wherein I Reveal the Meaning of Life

In Douglas Adams’s cult novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, several characters build a giant computer to tell them the meaning of life. After millions of years of experimentation, the computer (with much fanfare) finally spits out an answer: the number 42.  But that makes no sense! How can “42” be the answer to life, the universe, and everything? The computer has some insight into this: “I think the problem is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

Judaism, perhaps like Sci-Fi, is also an attempt to find meaning in life. But the Jewish way isn’t to do it through complex computer equations, but rather through the way we live. When the Rabbis of the Talmud asked this question, they didn’t come up with a number, but a set of instructions:

The world stands on three things: on Torah, on worship, and on acts of kindness. (Pirke Avot 1:2)

This is the Rabbis’ threefold “recipe” for a meaningful life:

Torah – Study is absolutely central to Jewish life. It is the route by which we learn about ourselves and about the world around us. Through study, we reach for meaning intellectually, by trying to understand it.

Worship – We might expand this to “spirituality.” It is the act of building a relationship with what is larger than us (however we conceive it – as a supernatural God or as the natural processes that make for meaning). This might look like prayer, mindfulness, meditation, or reciting blessings. Through worship, we reach for meaning by trying to touch it.

Acts of Kindness – As Jews we are called upon not only to think, not only to strive for meaning, but to do things that actively make our world better. Through Tikkun Olam, we reach for meaning by trying to actualize it.

I think Adams got it right: the meaning of life isn’t an answer – it’s a question. As Jews, it’s not that we’re “looking for” the meaning of life – we get to create meaning in life through the way we live our lives.

 

https://cafewitteveen.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/q4sxj.png?w=595

Why I Walk to Shul: Shabbat As Mindfulness

https://i1.wp.com/churchillpolarbears.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/DSC_0078.jpgIt’s raining outside today, which has me thinking about an old joke:

Q: What does a bear do when it rains?
A: It gets wet.

Let’s contrast that to what I do when it rains:

  • First, I check the weather with Siri to see exactly what time it will be raining and for how long. Sometimes if I need more complete information, I go into Google because it also gives the chance of rain (by percentage) for each hour.
  • Next, I agonize over whether to wear my nice shoes or not. (I really don’t want to ruin them in the rain….)
  • Then, I search for an umbrella. It could be in the front closet, or somewhere in the foyer, or (most likely and least usefully) in the car.
  • Most often I don’t find the umbrella so I make a run for it. And then – just like the bear – I get wet.

We modern people tend to see nature as “other” – as a resource to be mastered, or a nuisance to be dealt with. This has been part of the human experience ever since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago. We plant seeds and reap our crops, and then we make food and clothing and shelter out of them. We live on this planet, but not exactly in harmony with this planet. And we see ourselves as something higher, something other.

That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. Human civilization is the result of this kind of thinking. Morality comes from the idea that we are more than our animal impulses. And if we didn’t understand ourselves as the masters of nature, we could never have accomplished the things that we have – there would be no medicines, no cell phones, no space travel, and no gourmet recipes.

But the other result this kind of thinking is the otherness of nature. Rather than just getting wet like the bears, we spend time figuring out how to cope with, and mitigate, and change the natural world around us. How to remake it in our own image. And we tend to forget to stop and just appreciate it.

One “antidote” to this in the Torah is the Sabbatical year. The book of Leviticus teaches that every 7 years we should leave the land to lie fallow for one year, without planting anything. We do this because it’s good for the land – it allows it to refresh and regenerate. But we also do it because it’s good for us. It helps us to foster the thinking that we don’t always have to be trying to master nature. That we are a part of the world, and not apart from the world.

That’s a lesson we need much more often than every seven years. Which is why, fortunately, we get it every seven days.

Throughout Jewish literature, Shabbat is framed not only as a cessation from work, but as a cessation from creative work. In Genesis, God spends six days creating the world – shaping and forming and building – and then stops to rest. In fact, the traditionally forbidden forms of work – including sowing, reaping, baking, cooking, and cutting – are the processes by which we harness natural resources and use them for our own purposes. It’s not about exertion (God wasn’t “tired” after 6 days) – it’s about the fact that it’s good for us to stop trying to master the world and instead focus on appreciating it.

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in The Sabbath that Shabbat is a day to “turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.” In other words, to stop creating for long enough to appreciate what has already been created.

In modern language we call that mindfulness. It is the practice of being where you are. Not planning for the future; not worrying about what has not yet been accomplished; but being conscious and aware of what IS. This is not easy to do – the human experience is by nature a creative one. But there is also goodness in practicing appreciation.

https://i1.wp.com/static2.businessinsider.com/image/57d6fbcfb0ef97c5098b508f-1190-625/these-are-hands-down-the-most-comfortable-dress-shoes-youll-ever-wear.jpgThat is why I like to walk to shul on Shabbat.

It’s not that I think I have to – as a liberal Jew, I believe that I have the choice. But I am aware that I spend most of my life trying to get quickly from place to place. And when I’m speeding up the road at 60 km/hr, I’m not taking the time to appreciate the world around me. But one day a week I can slow it all down. I can see the sights, and hear the sounds, and walk through parks, and notice things I haven’t noticed before.

Do I always walk to the synagogue on Shabbat? I do not. Sometimes I’m running late; sometimes I’m in a hurry to get the kids out the door. But having it as an aspiration reminds me to think differently, to be more mindful and more appreciative. It helps me see the world around me not only as a nuisance, not only as a resource, but as a gift.

 

Go Ahead and Try: Why Pesach (and Judaism) Aren’t All-or-Nothing

April 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I’m going to risk the wrath of the Star Wars gods and disagree with Yoda.yoda_lulav

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is required to lift his ship out of the Dagobah swamp using only his mind. Skeptical of his own ability to wield the Force, Luke says, “Alright, I’ll give it a try,” to which Yoda famously responds: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

OK, Master Yoda, I get what you’re trying to teach us: Luke needs to believe in himself if he’s going to be successful. He needs to set his bar at “do” and not just at “try” in order to send himself the message that he’s capable. I can buy that in theory. I definitely agree with the notion that if you believe in your own ability, you have a great chance of success. But here’s the problem: What if Luke fails? Does that mean he’s hopeless? If “there is no try,” then Luke might think he should just give up.

I think we do that in our religious lives all the time.

We are two days into Passover, and I’ve already seen at least 3 Facebook posts that said something like “Damn, I forgot and ate a bagel. Guess Pesach is over for me,” or “Got tempted by pizza – better luck next year.” These are really natural and human responses – we try; we fail; we throw in the towel. It was “do or do not” and we did not.

But what if Judaism isn’t “do or do not?”

Why do we keep kosher for Passover? For that matter, why do we perform any Jewish ritual – praying, wearing a tallit, saying a blessing, lighting Shabbat candles? https://i1.wp.com/crossfitkernersville.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/no-bread12.jpgThe traditional paradigm was one of obligation – you fulfill it because God commands it. (That’s what the word “mitzvah” means – commandment.) But for most progressive Jews today, ritual is about more than ticking off a box on God’s big mitzvah list. We do these things because we gain something from them. They connect us with one another and with our ancestors; they help promote gratitude and mindfulness. These benefits don’t disappear when our observance is “less than perfect.”

It might be helpful to think in terms of “practicing” Jewish rituals rather than “fulfilling” them. Jewish living really is meant to be a practice – something that evolves and changes, and that teaches us things. In that sense, it’s very much like sports, academics, and meditation. In our academic and athletic lives, we understand failures as learning opportunities: when you strike out at the plate, it makes you a better batter. If you get a D on a physics text, it shows you what you need to learn more about.

I think it’s the same with our Jewish practice. Failing to live up to our own religious standards, and evaluating the feelings that come along with that, can give us a sense of what matters to us: what is important, what is edifying, and what is sustainable in our lives. And that can help us build a more meaningful ritual life for the long term.

(For what it’s worth, I actually think Yoda knew this – he had 900 years of accumulated wisdom, after all – but he conveniently left out for Luke that you can’t always “do” on the first attempt.)

When we have an all-or-nothing view of Judaism, we will be more likely to be afraid of failing, and maybe more likely to refrain to participating entirely. But you can’t “fail” Judaism. As long as we are thoughtful about our practice, and as long as we continuing to learn and grow and challenge ourselves, then we are doing exactly what Judaism demands of us.

“Stayed On Freedom”

March 23, 2017 Leave a comment

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

Civil RIghtsThis week, as part of the CCAR rabbinical convention in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to explore the Civil Rights movement, through a tour of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, lectures from leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP, and a visit to the Temple, Atlanta’s historic Reform synagogue, which was bombed by White Supremacists in 1958.

Among other exhibits, the Civil Rights Center has a wonderful movie about the Freedom Riders, those black and white young people who spent the summer of 1961 riding integrated buses across the South, challenging segregation laws. Who endured beatings and arrests to make their point about the injustice of segregation. The film ended with a song from the Civil Rights movement: “I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

 

I know that song. I know every word of it! I sang it as a kid at Henry S. Jacobs Camp, the Reform Jewish camp in Utica, Mississippi, along with folk songs and Hebrew songs that expressed our Jewish values. In fact, it probably wasn’t until adulthood that I realized “Woke Up This Morning” wasn’t actually a Jewish song. I suspect that this Civil Rights songs had become one of “our” songs because the earliest counselors and campers of that Deep South camp, which was founded in the early 70s, had been immersed in the struggle for Civil Rights during the previous decade.

I grew up in the South, but since today I live far away in Canada, it’s easy to forget how real the Civil Rights Movement is – how recent, and how nearby. I was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 16 years after Governor George Wallace stood on the auditorium steps in that city to block the integration of the university. The events described in the Civil Rights exhibit take place largely in the states where I was born and where I grew up, and largely within my parents’ lifetime. In fact, this past Tuesday as I heard Joseph Levin, Jr, tell – in his strong Alabama drawl – the story of how he came to co-found the Southern Poverty Law Center, I felt strangely at home. I grew up surrounded by those accents and those ways of thinking – by men and women who attended those universities and were members of those fraternities, who dress conservative but think liberal, who talk in old-fashioned Southern accents but act in courageous new ways in the fight for social justice. That is, in many ways, the Southern Jewish experience. It is something to be proud of.

Yes, I know the Civil Rights Movement isn’t about me, and it isn’t even about the Jews. It’s about the brave African Americans who stood up and demanded rights and equality. But it’s also about the white, black, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim allies who stood with them in the demand for a more just society. And it is about those of every place and time who know that our world is not yet as it should be.

I rarely encountered overt racism or anti-Semitism growing up in the South in the 80s and 90s. My Temple was not bombed. My schools were at least nominally integrated. My Jewish youth group and camp experiences were positive, happy, and healthy. And yet the old issues were not far beneath the surface. There were the occasional worrisome comments. The racial integration of our schools existed only on the surface – I remember distinctly that in one of the high schools I attended in Baton Rouge, the white and black kids essentially kept to themselves. When former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana, I was floored by how many of my 7th grade classmates in New Orleans supported him. It is clear to me in hindsight that these were indications that the South is still struggling with issues of Civil Rights and racial equality. There is still work to be done.

Today I live far from the South. In fact, as a resident of Toronto, I live in a city that prides itself on being diverse, progressive, and welcoming. There is a level of diversity and coexistence evident on the streets, on the subways, and in my kids’ schools, that still astounds me every day. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hate. We have had our JCC bomb threats, our racially motivated killings, and our mosque attacks as well. We may not be Alabama in the 1960s, but neither can we fool ourselves that we are we living in a society free of bigotry. That is why we must continue to build relationships, why we must create bridges of understanding, knowledge, and acceptance between different faith and ethnic communities. And it is why we must speak out loudly – no matter who we are or where we live – against hate and injustice in all its forms.

Last month, when 6 worshippers tragically lost their lives in a hate-motivated attack on a mosque in Quebec City, synagogues throughout Toronto organized “Circles of Peace” around the local mosques, singing and praying in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. The members of my congregation wanted instead to attend Friday prayers at a local mosque with whom we have a relationship. And when we did, and when we were warmly welcomed by our friends at the mosque, we discovered that 2 churches were also in attendance. On that Friday, Muslims, Christians, and Jews sat together, raising their voices in prayer that someday our world will be a place of tolerance and freedom for people of all races, religions, and backgrounds.

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.”

There are moments in history that call for clarity of purpose. May we look to the examples of the past, to the brave men and women who have fought for justice and equality, and may we be inspired to stand together with those who are different from us, and to stand up for what is right.

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