Categories
gender equality News Social Justice

King David, Bill Clinton, and Progressives’ Culpability for Sexual Misconduct

This summer, I listened to Professor Orit Avnery at the Shalom Hartman Institute, describing King David’s wrongdoing with Bat-Sheva. Not only adultery or even the King’s skullduggery in consigning his loyal soldier, Bat-Sheva’s husband Uriah, to death in a misbegotten battle. David is also guilty of sexual misconduct: He leverages his power to fulfill his sexual desires with a subject, meaning that the David-Bat-Sheva liaison cannot be described as fully consensual.

While the Bible casts the centuries of disaster that follow as divine punishment, we may view those catastrophes as natural results of David’s misdeeds. We are not surprised that David’s older sons, born to him and his wife, resent his favoritism toward Solomon, born of the adulterous liaison. Moreover, the king’s disloyalty to his troops might logically lead to low morale in the ranks – and, ultimately, military defeat.[i]

Listening to Avnery, and considering King David, I could not help but think of Bill Clinton.

Twenty years ago, we learned that the married President of the United States had an apparently-consensual sexual liaison with a 22-year old woman working as a White House intern. President Clinton’s supporters, myself included, however scandalized by his marital infidelity, spent much more energy resisting his impeachment than examining the corrosive impact his behavior would wreak our society.

We were wrong when we determined that Clinton’s presidential leadership on women’s issues was more important and impactful than his personal conduct toward women. Sexual relations between a 45-year-old President and a 22-year-old intern constitute sexual misconduct resulting from an extreme power disequilibrium. Like David with Bat-Sheva, the power disequilibrium raises a question of whether Clinton’s relations with Lewinsky could truly be consensual. Failing to call out the President’s wrongdoing, we not only facilitated the vilification of a young woman, and worse for Clinton’s other victims, we conspired with President Clinton to silence discussion of powerful men’s sexual misbehavior for nearly two decades. Only after Hillary Clinton was defeated in her own presidential election by a man who shamelessly bragged about sexual misconduct, American progressives finally opened our eyes to the widespread degradation of women and girls – and sometimes, boys and men – by powerful men who victimize those under their control. President Clinton’s sexual misconduct and our averted attention enabled two decades of widespread sexual abuse. The perpetrators, we now know, are just as likely to support progressive priorities for women’s rights in the public sphere as to oppose them. Had we insisted that President Clinton face the consequences of his actions, America might have held Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Mario Batali, Louis C.K., and their likes accountable far earlier, sparing untold numbers of victims. And we might never have allowed for an atmosphere in which a man who bragged of grotesque sexual violence could nevertheless be elected President of the United States.

Russ Douthat is a conservative columnist and devoted Catholic. Not long ago, he wrote, “The Catholic Church needs leaders who can purge corruption even among their own theological allies.”[ii] What Douthat says about theological allies goes for political and ideological partners as well. We who did not hold President Clinton to account are vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy when we seek the ouster on similar grounds of a president whose policies we abhor. And vice versa.

We have reason for hope. When Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers were credibly accused of sexual misconduct, both were forced out of office by colleagues on their own side of the political aisle.

Now, we must acknowledge what we have known since David ruled in Jerusalem some 3000 years ago: A leader’s private sins can bring grave consequences to a nation. Many of us have been silent co-conspirators in the past. Others are today. Let us all shed our ideologies when we evaluate the costs of a leader’s private sins. We must hold all the powerful people in our society accountable – not only in politics and religion, but also in industry, media, entertainment, sports, education, and all places of employment. Then, perhaps, we will be credible partners in bringing an end to sexual misconduct, wherever it occurs.

[i] 2 Samuel 11-12, as taught by Orit Avnery, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, July 4, 2018.
[ii] Russ Douthat, “What Did Pope Francis Know?,” The New York Times, August 28, 2018, accessed on September 2, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/opinion/pope-francis-catholic-church-resign.html?rref=%2Fbyline%Fross-douthat&action=click&contentCollection=undefined&region=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
Healing High Holy Days

A Less Lonely Path to Repentance

The High Holy Day days can be a lonely experience. Though many of us gather in overflowing sanctuaries, together with family and friends who constitute a community, each of us must confess our individual sins, seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, change our ways, offer tzedakah, and pray for our own individual absolution. We seem not to receive, or to give, any assistance in the process of repentance.

Our lonely journey to forgiveness was not always the Jewish way. When our ancestors required expiation, they would bring a sacrifice to the Temple. The blood of the animal, slain in the sacred ritual, would atone for their sins. Yes, the penitent Jew had to recite the appropriate words, and was required to provide the animal for the sacrifice, so the individual did have some role in that process, but the Priest did most of the work and the poor animal paid the ultimate price. The ancient Israelite was the beneficiary of what might be called “vicarious atonement,” forgiveness through the sacrifice from the flocks or the herds.

Christianity adopted this idea of vicarious atonement, with the faith that Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, atones for the sins of others. Perhaps because Jews tend to disassociate ourselves so forcefully from that specific Christian claim, we have shied away from any notion that anyone or anything other than ourselves can help return us to the good graces of our God. Perhaps we protest too much. After all, we confess in the first person plural, “the sins we have committed.” Why not seek forgiveness communally?

Our Rosh Hashanah prayers do declare that we may find forgiveness in the righteousness of others. One portion of our shofar service is called zichronot, or remembrances. We ask God to hear the blasts and remember the righteousness of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. If we do not deserve atonement on these High Holy Days, we beg God to forgive us on account of their merit.

More personally, each of us recalls loved ones, now gone from this world, who had laudable traits that we wish we possessed. We may pray, in words of Reform prayer books past: “May the nobility in their lives and the high ideals they cherished endure in our thoughts and live on in our deeds.” Our beloved dead can truly live, if we will carry the goodness of their lives into our own. Perhaps, too, when we fall short, God will recall our loved ones’ goodness, and forgive us on their account.

Blessedly, our partners in repentance may include the people who continue to share our lives every day. Judaism teaches us the value of the tocheha, the loving rebuke, delivered in the right spirit, in the right time, in the right place. Nothing makes me a better person than a caring critique from a person who cares deeply about me. Even if we recoil from the rebuke upon first hearing it, we can learn, and become better people, in the process. Living in covenant calls upon us to help each other to abandon our unholy paths.

Let us find forgiveness for ourselves and offer atonement to others in the embrace of community on these High Holy Days.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
parenting

“The Sex Talk:” A Uniquely Gratifying Rabbinic Moment … at Camp

At a recent lunch in Jacobs Camps’ dining hall, Jeremy and Jack, co-counselors in a Talmidim (9th grade) bunk, approached me: “When we were in Talmidim, you came at cabin prayers (bed time) and gave us a ‘sex talk.’ Would you be available to come to our bunk and do that tonight?

They remembered! Jack and Jeremy were 14 in 2013, fully five years ago, my first summer on Jacobs’ faculty, after 20+ years as Rabbinic Advisor of Greene Family Camp. Perhaps they more than remembered: They were aware of the impact, perhaps lasting, and wanted the same for their campers.

The “sex talk” isn’t really about sex, and certainly not only about sex. We often say that home and house of worship — and URJ camps are, of course, an extension of our synagogues — are the best places to communicate our values about this most intimate part of life. In my experience, though, these conversations don’t happen often enough.

I begin by asking the boys how why Bar Mitzvah was fixed at age 13. Fairly quickly, they make the connection to puberty. 14 year old boys know about puberty, but they haven’t internalized its essence, which I articulate as the time in their lives when they become physically able to become parents. I ask how many of them feel ready to become parents, and they unanimously agree that they aren’t, which leads to discussion of the centrality of their responsibility not to become parents before they’re ready.

My theory: The rabbis piled adult responsibilities upon thirteen year olds to drive home the message that “adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” in the words of one of the 2018 campers.

The heart of the conversation is about respect for women — and, more broadly, for any potential romantic partner. I explicitly acknowledge that statistics indicate that some of the campers sitting before me are questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity and will come to know themselves as LGBT. Any “sex talk” with adolescents brings on a certain amount of joking and cutting up, which I tolerate without judgment, until they start to make inappropriate gestures in response to my LGBT point which may make some campers in the room feel unsafe.

A fair amount of the discussion is an in-depth conversation about consent, real consent, sober consent, and consent that is required to begin with the most chaste forms of physical comment. Also, we address the ways that adolescent boys talk about girls and women, emphasizing that what some, even our President, have deemed “locker room talk” is inappropriate in any setting.

And, of course, we discussed the consequences of becoming a father when one isn’t prepared, based on “Unplanned Fatherhood,” which I wrote for CCAR Press’s The Sacred Encounter.

I have these talks with boys only, hopeful that my female colleagues have similar opportunities with girls. This year, I did talk with a bunk of 14 year old girls about the Supreme Court’s decision about Crisis Pregnancy Centers and their role in ensuring the perpetuation of a right that their mothers and grandmothers have taken for granted.

And I talked with a group of ten year old boys about cleanliness!

I left that boys’ bunk on Thursday night, hoping that I had an impact, perhaps as I apparently did on Jeremy and Jack all those years ago. Those young men’s parents, their camp, and their congregations may all be proud of the adults they are becoming.

The next evening, as Shabbat began, I noted that many of 14-year-old boys made a point of coming up to me, to make yet another connection. I think they got the message.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
Passover Pesach

The Most Important Day of Passover

More American Jews attend a Passover Seder than observe any other Jewish ritual. How do we know? The Pew Research Center tells us.[i]

But how many observe the Seventh Day of Passover? I don’t believe that Pew Research even asks. Our synagogues may hold services, largely attended by those observing yizkor. One could be forgiven for concluding that the seventh day of Passover is a day of mournful memory. But it’s not.

After ordaining the first day of Passover as a holy day, Torah commands, “…and in the seventh day a holy convocation; no manner of work shall be done…”[ii] Exodus offers no explanation for the holiness of the seventh day. The medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, provides a plausible theory: “The seventh day is the day of Pharaoh’s drowning and being rendered powerless.”[iii] Passover’s final festive day, then, celebrates the anniversary of the fulfillment of our ancestors’ freedom.

In our own lives, we experience “first day” liberations very much in need of “seventh days.” We feel free when we extricate ourselves from harmful addictions, toxic relationships, or soul-numbing employment. And yet, we may be experience the anxiety of Israelites being chased by Pharaoh’s armies until we are firmly established in new, healthier behaviors, loving relationships or meaningful work. Only then do we know the liberation that our ancestors celebrated on the east bank of the sea. In our Jewish people’s 20th Century history, Holocaust survivors were liberated when the Allies were victorious. They were not truly free until the newborn State of Israel had prevailed in its War of Independence – or, more likely, until survivors were comfortably settled in Israel, America, Canada, and other lands of refuge.

We who diminish our cups for the plagues upon Egypt, though, may be ambivalent about celebrating the day that Pharaoh and his chariots were drowned in the sea. Eliahu Kitov argues, “Holidays were not given to Israel to mark the downfall of [our] enemies…The essence of the celebration of this day is the song that Moses [, Miriam,] and Israel were Divinely inspired to sing on this day.”[iv]

The significance of the seventh day of Passover is as profound as it is complicated. Often, our greatest moments of liberation come at others’ expense. Nevertheless, we are permitted, and even commanded, to celebrate.

We rejoice when we’ve landed that dream job, even as we are aware that means that somebody else was passed over. We love coming in first, even knowing that somebody else came in last.

The next Jewish celebration after the seventh day of Passover will be Yom HaAtzma’ut. This year’s a big one, Israel’s 70th. We have long known that Palestinians mark that day as naqba, the catastrophe. They’re right. The very day we celebrate was and is catastrophic for the Palestinian people. Like Seder-goers diminishing our cups for the plagues upon Egypt, we would do well to take Israel’s milestone birthday as an occasion to explore the depths of the disaster that Palestinians experience and to imagine how that damage can be assuaged without unduly diminishing our people’s miracle. Then, let us wave our flags and celebrate, rejoicing as our ancestors did at the shores of the sea and as we do on Passover’s final festive day.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

 

[i] “Attending a Seder is common practice for American Jews,” Factank News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, April 14, 2014, April 14, 2014.
[ii] Exodus 12:16.
[iii] Ibn Ezra’s commentary to Exodus 12:16.
[iv] Eliyahu Kitov, “The Seventh Day of Passover,” Chabad.org, not dated.

Categories
Convention

46 Years of Women Rabbis: A Messy Miracle

The father in the delivery room has a complicated perspective. I know. I have been there twice.

Most of us know little about how our own bodies work – less still, about the physiology of the opposite sex. At childbirth classes, fathers are prepared to help with breathing; and we know that pain is involved. Most men, though, are entirely unprepared to witness all that blood and, for lack of a better term, the messiness of the whole process.

And then, we don’t talk about it, at least not if we’re wise.

Instead, we focus on the miracle. Yes, childbirth is a miracle – not supernatural, but natural; God-given all the same. Two moments in my life have no compare: Seeing each of my sons for the very first time as he emerged from his mother’s body and into the world.

We celebrate the miracle of childbirth but sublimate the messiness. And well we should – at least if we’re talking about childbirth from the father’s viewpoint.

But what if we’re talking about male rabbis’ perspective on the experience of women in the rabbinate? Strikingly similar, at least until recently.

Oh yes, we witnessed the miracles – in some ways, we caused, aided, and enabled it.

Yes, we knew that placement opportunities were not equal, at least in the first several decades.

Yes, we knew about pay disparities, or we should have known.

Many of us, though, did not see the othering, the sexual harassment and even assault. We did not see, perhaps not wanting to see, like the “Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”[i]

But we did brag about the miracle. Like so many 1950s dads, handing out cigars in hospital waiting rooms. We celebrated that “we” were first.

We rose for standing ovations. For Sally, who was first. For Janet, who was first. For Denise, who was first. And for so many others of “our” firsts.

But we did not speak of the messiness. Upon reflection, we rose to applause – not so much for Sally, for Janet, or for Denise – but for ourselves. After all, “we” were the first to welcome women into “our” rabbinic ranks.

Parashat Tzav is full of messy details about our ancestors’ sacrifices. “The blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver” are hard to escape.

Among those sacrifices, introduced last week in Vayikra but given purpose only in Tzav is the shlamim, or “wholeness offering.” Unlike most korbanot (sacrifices), the shlamim is unconnected to sin. Still, it’s messy.

Tamara Cohn Eskenazi teaches in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary that the shlamim was brought on festivals and to express gratitude. Its bounty is shared.[ii] Even with this celebratory korban, though, Torah is frank about “the blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver.” We only read about the communal celebration after slogging through the description of gory ritual.

Our teacher Naamah Kelman reminds us of Vayikra Rabah’s suggestion that the shlamim is the only sacrifice that will be offered in messianic days.[iii] Sin will end. Cause for celebration will not.

We do not live in messianic days. Sin endures. And sometimes, b’ratzon u’vishgagah, willingly or unwittingly, we are its perpetrators.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis gathers this week with many goals, not least of which is to examine the entrails to view blood and the dung that have accompanied the miracle we have seen emerge over forty-six years of women in the rabbinate.

When asked about where men’s voices belong in the “#metoo” moment, our teacher Elana Stein Hain has affirmed that every voice should be heard, while suggesting that maybe we need to “take turns.” Now is women’s turn, at least to go first.[iv]

For starters, without ignoring the important role men in Reform leadership played, we must acknowledge that women are the ones who experience the labor pains. Women have given birth to the miracle that is forty-six years of women rabbis in our Conference.

This week, let us speak frankly of the blood, the fat, and the protuberance of the liver; and let us listen attentively.

Then, may this week’s frank acknowledgements inch us closer to that day when the only korban required of us will be the shlamim, to express our boundless, and finally unfettered, gratitude.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

 

[i] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 11a.
[ii] Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss, editors, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008, p. 609. Cited by Naamah Kelman, “An Offering of Thanksgiving,” ReformJudaism.org.
[iii] Naamah Kelman, “An Offering of Thanksgiving,” ReformJudaism.org.
[iv] “Judaism, #metoo, and Ethical Leadership, Perspectives from the Created Equal Project,” webinar, Shalom Hartman Institute, January 24, 2018.

Categories
Books

A Sacred Calling Program Reminded Me: “A Liberal Body of Men” Still Has Much to Learn

Here at Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, we kicked off a four-part Sacred Calling series this past Shabbat. In many ways, our congregation is isolated from “Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate,” The Sacred Calling’s subtitle. B’nai Israel has never been led by a woman rabbi. (To be fair, the congregation has only had three rabbinic searches since 1972, one of them rather early in the era of women rabbis and another for an interim rabbi.) As I read about the programs that colleagues held when The Sacred Calling first came out, with panels including the anthology’s editors and Sally Priesand, I knew that expense and distance would prohibit such an occasion in Little Rock.

We got creative. Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, a Sacred Calling author, is a dear friend of our congregation, and especially of our President and her wife, who generously offered to bring her here to keynote our program. Another Sacred Calling author, Rabbi Jeff Kurtz-Lendner, lives within driving distance, as does Rabbi Katie Bauman, the woman rabbi who grew up in this synagogue and maintains strong ties here. A program was born.

I did not know to anticipate that our Temple archivist, Jim Pfiefer, would deepen the program with an exhibit in our Temple lobby. The display suggests that our congregation may not be as remote from those “Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate” as I thought. I did know that my predecessor, Rabbi Gene Levy, was ordained with Rabbi Priesand. I did not know that Rabbi Angela Graboys had served in nearby Hot Springs, Arkansas; or that Rabbi Laura Lieber hails from Fayetteville, Arkansas. And I’m touched by the lovely display case about Rabbi Bauman.

Included in the display are the words of Rabbi Louis Witt, z”l, who served this congregation from 1907 to 1919. Two years after leaving Little Rock, Rabbi Witt pled with the CCAR to support the ordination of women. In 1921, which proved to be more than a half-century before the first woman would be ordained in North America, Rabbi Witt was already exasperated: “Five years ago, I had to argue in favor of women’s rights when that question came up in the Arkansas legislature, but I did not feel that there would be need to argue that way in a liberal body of men like this [i.e., the CCAR].”

On Friday night, prior to Rabbi Elwell’s keynote, I reflected on how Rabbi Witt might react to the present realities for women in the rabbinate. My liturgical prompt was Mi Chamocha. The Children of Israel doubtless celebrated their freedom when they escaped Egyptian bondage after the tenth plague. Scarcely a week later, they found their liberation incomplete: They were trapped between Pharaoh’s armies and the foreboding Sea. Then, once secure on the other shore, they sang in celebration. And yet, even then, freedom was not complete. Enemies internal and external would continue to plague them. And us. And still, we sing in gratitude.

We are, and we ought to be, grateful – for the ordination of women over the last 45 years, the realization of the only goal that Rabbi Witt knew to dream. For the successes that many of our female colleagues have achieved since 1972. For award-winning (and deserving) achievements such as The Torah: A Women’s Commentary and The Sacred Calling.

Now, though, we also know, as we should’ve known all along, that liberation is not complete:

  • Women rabbis, like their peers in other professions, continue to face a wage gap, compared to males of similar seniority, congregation or community organization size, and experience.
  • Women rabbis report sexual harassment at the hands of both colleagues and community members.
  • Equitable family leave, including but not limited to maternity leave, is not a reality for many.
  • The voices of women rabbis aren’t always taken as seriously or heard as loudly as those of male colleagues.

My list is incomplete for a variety of reasons, not least because I’m not a woman.

I am grateful that our Conference, professionally led in this arena by Rabbi Hara Person, has established a Task Force to examine the experience of women in the rabbinate; and that our Women’s Rabbinic Network and the Women of Reform Judaism are diligently exploring the wage gap and family leave issues.

At our upcoming convention in Orange County, I look forward to hearing from Task Force Chairs, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus and Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, as well as WRN leaders, about their progress and challenges. Like the colleagues Rabbi Witt addressed, I am among “a liberal body of men” who have much to learn. Unlike Rabbi Witt, I will be learning from and alongside female colleagues.

And that’s a blessing. Like the Children of Israel singing Mi Chamocha before us, we have much to celebrate, even as we acknowledge that liberation is not complete.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
Torah

True, Whether It Happened or Not

Critics hate the scene. It’s manufactured. It never happened. Fake news.

I’m talking about the episode in The Darkest Hour, when Winston Churchill, brilliantly portrayed by Gary Oldman, abandons his chauffeur-driven car in a traffic jam and takes his maiden voyage on London’s Underground to get to a cabinet meeting on time. There, he interacts with ordinary citizens who buttress the Prime Minister’s faith that surrender is not an option. The British people would rather fight to their own deaths than subjugate themselves to the Nazi monster.

No, Churchill didn’t take the Underground. Still, the encounter is true. Prime Minister Churchill was indeed inspired by the resolve of ordinary British subjects. History’s largest civilian sea evacuation of a military force at Dunkirk — compellingly portrayed in two films this year, both Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour — proves the point. The British people were truly willing to risk their lives to save themselves and their island from tyranny.

I have often taught that “truth” and “historical accuracy” are not the same thing. Torah, rather than contemporary film, has typically been my text. Take, for example, two different midrashim, rabbinic interpretations, of God’s revelation and the Children of Israel’s acceptance of Torah. In one, the Holy One offers Torah to one nation after the other. Each nation asks what’s in it, quickly rejecting Torah because of its prohibition of murder, stealing, and the like. Only Israel welcomes Torah without question. Another midrash, on the other hand, imagines that God lifts Mount Sinai off its foundation, holding the entire mountain over the Israelites’ heads, threatening to bury them under it if they will not accept Torah.

Did either version of these events actually happen? Did the rabbis even imagine that they had? No. The rabbis weren’t writing history. They were teaching religious truths. One midrash argues that there are times when we must proceed on faith alone, following a God Who has earned our trust. The other acknowledges that Torah can be a burden which we may be hard-pressed to observe.

I understand why the reviewers abhor The Darkest Hour’s Underground scene. Truth is under assault in America today. National leaders eagerly purvey falsehoods to reinforce the narratives they want our population to embrace. Our prayer book is among the many Jewish sources that extol truth, insisting that it’s “first and last.”

The Darkest Hour doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. It’s not a history book with footnotes. Instead, it’s a work of art, creatively portraying an historical period to teach timeless truths. We might call it midrash.

As we journey the Book of Exodus, and extending through Passover, we may be repeatedly subjected to arguments about whether the Exodus ever happened. Rabbi David Wolpe, who (in)famously gave a sermon suggesting that it had not, faced a Herculean task in the December 24 New York Times, reviewing a new book that claims that at least some version of the Exodus did happen, The Exodus, by Richard Elliot Friedman.

The Exodus, like Churchill’s descent to the Underground, might never have happened. The story, though, is indisputably true. God is our hope and our salvation, assigning to the Jewish people a Moses-like responsibility to partner with the Holy One to bring liberation to all the world. That’s true, whether it happened or not.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
Social Justice

Social Justice in 2018: Not for Ourselves

A cherished friend of mine, a Christian working as a Synagogue Administrator, once asked me, “How are the same people both conservative with the congregation’s money and so liberal politically?” Her observation was mostly accurate; the Board members eager to grow the Temple’s budget were as much in the minority as the political conservatives.

I answered: “Jews are commanded to remember the heart of the stranger. We take that seriously. Yes, we may fit in here in America now, but Jews acutely remember when we were despised, outcast, and impoverished. Therefore, we identify with those who are vulnerable, and we advocate for their interests more even than our own.” Viewed in this light, our social justice priorities are largely shaped by the welfare of others. Temple finances, on the other hand, are strictly about the health of our own institution.

Upon reflection, though, my answer was too simplistic. A political conservative may be just as concerned about the poor as the liberal, with different philosophy about how best to benefit those in need. Moreover, some of our social justice advocacy – on behalf of Israel, for example; or protecting the separation of church and state – is self-interested.

Perhaps the most problematic part of my answer, though, was that we are far from the only Americans with a history of persecution. Unlike other ethnic or religious groups that are mostly white and at least middle income, though, American Jews remain strongly identified with our historic vulnerability and that of many people around us. What makes us different?

Why are so many American Jews deeply worried that Dreamers may soon face deportation? Yes, a Jewish DACA beneficiary or two has been identified; but most American Jews today are neither immigrants nor the children of immigrants. Why have we made a priority of compassionate immigration reform when so many other groups who share our immigrant history have not?

Why is our Reform Movement mobilized to protect access to health care for the tens of millions of Americans who gained health insurance through the Affordable Care Act? Yes, more than a few of us have ACA policies, but still more of us benefit from the tax reform that imperiled ACA’s viability by removing the individual mandate. Other demographically-similar groups tend to take the view opposite our Movement’s.

At the dawn of 2018, a century removed from the end of the last mass wave of Jewish immigration, we may think that we are motivated by our immigrant history, but we are more likely inspired by our religion itself. Torah is the reason. Thirty-six times, Torah reminds us that we must pay attention to the welfare of the stranger, having been oppressed as strangers in Egypt.

As we welcome 2018, in an era when the fastest-growing religious identity in this country is “none,” American Jews, even the self-proclaimed atheists among us, still believe: We are here to make the world a better place. We are duty-bound to seek the welfare of the most vulnerable in our midst. We are grateful that most American Jews are neither needy nor oppressed, and Torah turns that gratitude into action.

 —

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

Categories
Social Justice

A Narrow Bridge

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav[i] taught: “All the world is a very narrow bridge; the key is not to be paralyzed by fear.”

I have been on a narrow bridge. The Capilano Suspension Bridge in Vancouver, Canada is only wide enough for single file, spanning its 230 feet, hanging 460 feet above a river gorge. Not afraid of heights, I wasn’t scared when I crossed, enjoying magnificent scenery. Trusting that engineering had permitted millions to cross before me, I never considered the possibility of not arriving safely on the other side.

Our world, though, is full of less secure, narrower bridges.

When a devastating hurricane drops four feet of rain or threatens deadly winds, a person’s world can suddenly become a frighteningly narrow bridge – from security to survival, from a roof over one’s head to the peril of homelessness.

When armed white supremacists march in the thousands, people of color rightly fear for their lives. Is America a safe home?

When we hear the phrase, “Muslim ban,” America may quickly become precarious foreign land, even for a citizen.

When thousands, perhaps millions, cheer a border wall, we may ask: Why is America narrowing its bridge to the world?

When Charlottesville marchers shout, “Jews will not replace it,” American Jews wonder: “Will we have to get on a narrow bridge again, hoping to arrive safely at our next land of refuge?”

When young immigrants – who know America as their only home; and who have lived honest, productive lives in this land of opportunity – nevertheless face the prospect of deportation, they need look no further than their parents to see the narrow bridge that life in this country can be.

When a Black-majority school board is replaced by one white man, sixty years after the hard-fought but minimal desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, we may be frightened by the answer to the question: What temporal power is keeping this bridge from collapsing?

When LGBTQ Americans in many states can legally lose their jobs solely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, the supports on the bridge of LGBTQ life in this country, which seemed to be strengthening, may become wobblier yet again.

When the white working class sees industry change along with culture, they wonder if the sturdy highway of their lives has become a rickety bridge.

When millions upon millions of Americans, and billions around the globe, do not have access to adequate quantities of nutritious food or to excellent medical care, living paycheck to paycheck, if there’s a paycheck at all, then the slightest unexpected misfortune can destroy the bridge of life beneath one’s feet.

When climate change is denied, even as historically devastating storms rage, Rabbi Nachman’s words seem particularly prescient: The whole world is on a very narrow bridge, between a healthy environment and global self-destruction.

We who are on this bridge – and make no mistake, we are all on it – live in fear, and not because we are afraid of heights. We know about people who have crossed these bridges in the past. Too many did fall to their deaths. We cannot be secure about the engineering of the bridge we must walk to traverse oppression.

Tonight, we have come together to push the bridges’ boundaries, to make each one less narrow, and to shore up the infrastructure.

If an undocumented immigrant links arms with a Muslim, then the Muslim is not alone when her people are maligned, and the immigrant may imagine refuge rather than deportation.

If a cisgender woman of color brings a transgender woman with her into the restroom, then the transgender woman may feel more secure in her place of vulnerability, and the person of color will know she’s not the only target of white supremacists’ slogans.

If a white working class American and a descendant of slaves share their anxieties about our nation’s future, each may build a better future with the other.

If the wealthy nations of the world, beginning with our own, will take responsibility for reducing humanity’s carbon footprint, then we may all take responsibility for defeating the climate injustice whose victims are disproportionately the poorest people on Earth.

If the person of faith and the unbeliever share the diverse sources of their comfort, perhaps we can hearten one another.

We do not know what the months and the years ahead may require of us. Perhaps churches will need to transform parish halls into sanctuaries from deportation. Perhaps a synagogue will need to shelter threatened Muslims. Every single one of us will have to decide: Am I going to collaborate with oppression? Am I going to remain silent, imagining there’s nothing I can do? Or am I going to use my body and soul, my voice and any power I have, to stand in the way of injustice?

We do know this: All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the only way to conquer fear is to emulate the Children of Israel at the Red Sea, “joining hands, marching together,” to a Land of Promise.

We do know this: In order to fight injustice, we must be disturbed by it. If we are not personally suffering, then we are obligated to summon empathy for those who are. We must know the heart of the stranger, for all of us have been strangers in one Egypt or another.

Nearly two millennia ago, the rabbis of the Talmud made a decree about those who live in a community beset by suffering, a world like our own, on a very narrow bridge. Hear now the rabbis’ teaching: “When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul. . . Rather, a person should be distressed together with the community. . . And anyone who is distressed together with the community will merit seeing the consolation of the community.”[ii]

A task lies before us. Let me suggest that each of us seek to sit down for a meal with a person different from ourselves, a person we may not know well, a person who may be afflicted during these difficult days in ways that we are not. May we enjoy one another’s company, but let us also hear each other’s pain. Let the bread we break together also be our bread of shared affliction. Then, may we build a bridge – a strong, broad bridge – and may we be consoled, together.

Amen.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

 

[i] Unverifiable attribution.

[ii] Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 11a. Gratitude to Rabbi Paul Jacobson for pointing out the text.

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Some Movies Deserve to Be “Spoiled”

“Allied” opens in Casablanca, home to the most classic of World War II movies. Its protagonists, Marianne (Marion Cotillard) and Max (Brad Pitt) are spies, she on behalf of the French Resistance and he as a Canadian officer in the Royal Air Force. Marianne teaches Max how to be a good spy, which requires him to pretend to be her loving husband, and to do so convincingly. Their mission to assassinate the Nazi Ambassador in Morocco is successful. Predictably, they fall in love and get married “for real.”

The movie is engrossing and entertaining. The audience roots for Marianne and Max — for their love affair as much as for the British, Canadian, and French Resistance fighters who are the movie’s real heroes.

Ultimately, though, Max is called to a meeting with the Royal Air Force command under the guise of a promotion. Instead, Max is told that Marianne is a double agent. The real Marianne has died fighting before the movie begins. Cotillard’s character has assumed her identity. That Ambassador in Casablanca? A dissident whom Hitler wanted dead.

Max goes on a quest to prove that his wife is no traitor. We continue to pull for them and for their family, now including an infant daughter born during a London air raid.

Alas, “Marianne” has been spying — yes, on Max — all along. And yet, the filmmakers persist.

First, Cotillard’s never-named character, the fake “Marianne,” claims that she had no choice; the Nazis threatened their infant daughter’s life if she wouldn’t cooperate. But that character had been a Nazi before ever meeting Max. Worse, the film treats the claim of “no choice” uncritically. Couldn’t Marianne have told Max, the two going to their Allied supervisors together, perhaps ultimately being secreted away to Canada with their young daughter?

After her suicide is reported as Max’s having carried out his duty to execute his treacherous “wife,” we are treated to a sepia-toned ending. Sobs reverberate in the theater. We hear Cotillard’s voice behind images of that infant daughter growing up back in Canada with her single father, a wedding photograph of “Marianne” and Max prominently on display. Cotillard’s character reads a letter she has written to her daughter the night before her suicide, proclaiming her undying love.

No. Nazis are Nazis. In England. In 1944. No tears should be shed at her death, and no real Max would prominently display his deceptive wife’s photograph as a role model for the daughter he raises in postwar Canada.

Even the film’s apparently redeeming feature betrays the past. Max’s sister lives openly with her female partner, and they are treated much as a lesbian couple would be in 2016, dishonoring the sacrifices required of and the indignities suffered by same-sex couples of the era the movie purports to portray.

“Allied” deserves none of the critical accolades it has received, and its makers do not deserve its suspense to be maintained to draw unsuspecting viewers like me into the cinema. “Allied” is a beautiful love story and captivating film only if being a Nazi is less incriminating than being in love is endearing.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.