Categories
Immigration Social Justice

Is Seeing Believing or Believing Seeing?

Recently, I read a report from the Rand Corporation entitled, “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing role of Facts and analysis in American Public Life” written by Jennifer Kavanaugh and Michael D. Rich in which the researchers rediscovered that, “…national political and civil discourse in the United States has been characterized by “Truth Decay,” defined as a set of four interrelated trends: an increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and lowered trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. The most damaging consequences of Truth Decay include the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty over national policy.”  While this should surprise no one, it lead to wonder how much decay was really going on with me as it relates to the most pressing issues of our day.  How much do I “know” and how much do I “believe” or want to believe about what is happening all around me.

This concern has surfaced most acutely as it relates to the immigration and asylum seeker policies unfolding in our country and prominently felt in my current home state of Texas. I saw the reports of families separated; I watched in pain and horror of overcrowded detention centers, children sleeping on floors, frantic parents, crying children.  I listened to analyses trying to explain away what I saw, and trying to emphasize what I saw, sometimes in the same news program.  I absorbed the politician’s spin ono both sides of the aisle.  I talked to immigration attorneys and asylum seeker support service providers.  I spoke with a close friend who works for the Department of Homeland Security who works on the border who told me flat out, “don’t believe what you see or hear because it’s all wrong.”  Apart from the irony of insisting I believe him over everything else, part of me knew what he was really saying was, “you gotta see this yourself.”

So when the invitation came from Repairers of the Breach, the Rev. Dr. William Barber’s organization, to join with Rabbi Rick Jacobs,  my friend and colleague Imam Omar Suleiman and others to bear witness to this issue in El Paso last Sunday and Monday, I knew I had no choice but to go and see for myself and this was the time to be a part of the testimony of this great stain on the soul of our country; that there is, in the words of Kohelet, “…a time for tearing and a time for sewing; a time for silence and a time for speaking…” and that time is now.

Upon arriving in El Paso and connecting with URJ and RAC staff, clergy, and congregants from our movement from as far away as New York and Boston, it became clear that this was not just a press conference and an opportunity to march in the Texas heat, but to add a moral voice to a policy problem that will become a defining moment in American history.  We gathered to learn about non-violent direct action – a euphemism for civil disobedience that might result in arrest.  This dominated the conversation for the next couple of hours; will you get arrested?  What does your arrest mean in light of this issue?  Does it matter?  Is being arrested more about you or about the moment and movement?  After the training were honored to hear from a number of powerful and important people.  Dr. Barber Spoke.  Imam Suleiman spoke.  Rabbi Jacobs spoke, as did a few other of our leaders.  But the most powerful witnessing that first night came from people directly affected by the immigration and asylum problems.  There were asylum seekers from Guatemala sharing their ridiculously dangerous and lengthy journey; asylum seekers sent back to Mexico to wait; people who were separated from their parents and children.  It was heartbreaking to hear their firsthand accounts.  It was liberating to hear their words without commentary, derision or spin.  It was maddening to know this is happening in our country, in my state, right in front of me.

The next day was the day we would make our way through the heat to the detention center.  We learned that non-violent direct action and getting arrested would make the work of the local support systems for immigrants and seekers more difficult.  Instead the hundreds assembled would march to the entrance of the detention center and as clergy gathered toward the front, make numerous demands; to pastor to those detained, the end of inhumane conditions at the detention centers, end of family separations, end to the wait in Mexico asylum process.  Of course we were not let in, but as Dr. Barber said, “We condemn and call evil and unjust the caging of people, the making people drink from toilets, the refusal to even give them a toothbrush. You’re holding angels in this place. But you will not hold them forever. We join them now, and not only do we bring condemnation, but we bring hope. It doesn’t have to be this way. America, turn around. America, repent. America, stop. America, change your ways.”

Seeing is believing and indeed I do believe I saw.


Rabbi Andrew Marc Paley serves Temple Shalom in Dallas, Texas.

Categories
Immigration Social Justice

Silence is Not an Option

“Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore…”

Songs of protest such as this permeated the two days in El Paso this week when faith leaders and people of conscience, including several rabbinic colleagues and cantors, came together in support of Moral Mondays at the Borderlands. Hundreds from across the country answered the call from Reverend William Barber II, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, Imam Omar Suleiman and other leading clergy to come witness and peacefully protest the inhumane, immoral, and unjust detention and caging of individuals seeking asylum and refuge in our country, adults and children, countless of whom are still separated from parents (the practice tragically persists according to news outlets on 7/31).

A spirited assembly Sunday evening illustrated the incredible diversity of the group who made the journey; participants reflected every religious tradition, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, and gender orientation. The powerful evening was marked by song, impassioned charges from leading clergy and organizers, the testimonies of former refugees now working with the Border Network for Human Rights to support individuals presently detained, among other memorable moments.

When we came together again Monday morning, Reverend Barber delivered a stirring message in which he tenderly described the love and care with which he attends to the needs of his German Shepherd puppies – providing them special food and treats, bathing them, giving them constant affection and attention. Then with a dramatic shift in tone, Barber thundered the painful and tragic reality that in our country at present, we treat our dogs better than we do fellow human beings, individuals seeking refuge in the hopes of a new home and life.  Minutes after departing the church, we reassembled in a large lot in view of the El Paso DHS detention center.  Protest signs in hand, we marched alongside the street en route to the center, the repeated honking of passersby indicating their support, until we reached the closed gates of the detention center.  There, Rick Jacobs and others prayerfully requested that clergy be allowed to enter the grounds to offer spiritual and pastoral support to the detainees. Unsurprisingly, the pleas went unheard by the Border Patrol agents, but with numerous media outlets covering and recording our presence, we still departed the grounds feeling confident about the impact of our collective voices and presence.  We departed the formal protest appreciating fully that for justice to be realized, our ongoing efforts to bring national attention to the crisis of inhumanity at our border must continue.

Since returning home to Atlanta, a few questions and observations about the time in El Paso have persisted. Among them is one glaring recognition – likely evident in video footage and photos of the gathering – that some of our justice efforts will result in a dais shared with individuals and/or organizations whose virulent views about Israel, for example, are antithetical to everything we believe and hold dear. Though not a new challenge or realization, the situation at the border reminds us yet again that there are times when our abiding need to confront serious and unconscionable injustice necessitates the capacity to set aside deep-seated conflicts regarding one matter in order to marshal energy and efforts for the sake of another cause.

For several participants, the trip to El Paso also raised questions about how to measure the efficacy of such actions. Acknowledging the not-insignificant investment of time and financial resources needed to participate, it begs the question as to whether there might be better or more impactful uses of both. For example, would directing the same dollars to the campaign of a candidate who could potentially help to legislate change be a better use of limited resources? No doubt this question invites debate, but I think it is honestly a bit of a conundrum, with an answers that will likely vary, even for the same individual.  Each of us must determine whether investing financial resources in potential, systemic change or utilizing those same dollars to enable one’s physical and emotional presence in a place of brokenness and pain holds sway. Obviously both can make a profound and lasting difference in people’s lives, bringing into sharp focus yet again why the efforts of the RAC and other agencies that facilitate both expressions of support simultaneously are so critical.

The desperate plight of fellow human beings, adults and children currently held in deplorable detention centers in the name of our country, is urgently calling us to action. The ICE raids evoking terror in cities throughout the south, adding to the trauma of separating parents from children, calls us to action. The current policy mandating that all who are seeking asylum remain in Mexico, in violent communities where their lives are endangered, calls us to action. And the fact that we are part of a faith tradition and sacred spiritual heritage which commands us – more often than any other mitzvah — to care for the stranger…the migrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker, and the immigrant in our midst, calls us to action.  The need for action and justice is undeniable, because “Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t – we simply can’t – be silent anymore!”


Rabbi Ron Segal serves Temple Sinai in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
LGBT Social Justice

We Just Told the Supreme Court: The CCAR Opposes Employment Discrimination against LGBTQ Individuals

Among its various activities, the CCAR signs on to various briefs filed amicus curiae.  The term means “friend of the court.”  Amicus briefs are designed to inform a court about relevant facts and law that the parties to the case might not have had reason to focus on.  The CCAR signs on to several of these briefs a year, both in the U.S. Supreme Court and in state and lower federal courts.  I serve as the amicus coordinator for the Conference.

In the Supreme Court term that just ended, we signed onto a brief in Commerce Dept. v. New York that opposed the effort of the Administration to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.  The Court agreed that this effort was illegal.  Of course, not all our briefs convince the courts, but they all get our opinions before them.

The start of the coming Supreme Court term, around Rosh Hashanah, will hear oral arguments on three consolidated cases that deal with employment discrimination against LGBTQ people.  The issue that all of them present is whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects these employees because such treatment constitutes prohibited sex discrimination. 

In Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, a skydiving instructor was fired because of his sexual orientation.  In R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a funeral director was fired after she informed her employer that she was transgender.  The employer had insisted that she present to the public according to her gender at birth.  In Bostock v. Clayton County, a county child welfare services coordinator was terminated when his employer learned that he was gay.  Two of the federal appellate courts hearing these cases determined that these firings were prohbited by Title VII; the other held that Title VII didn’t bar the termination.  The Supreme Court will resolve this dispute.

I shared the story of each case in order to remind us that court decisions are not just abstract intellectual matters.  How the Supreme Court rules will have a major impact in the lives of real people.

We signed onto a brief arguing that LGBTQ discrimination is indeed illegal under Title VII.  The URJ, WRJ, and MRJ joined us in this.  But this was a very special sort of brief, the kind that an amicus brief should be.  It was written specifically for religious organizations and clergy.  Denise Eger let members of the Conference who are on the Facebook page know about this brief and gave them an opportunity to sign on as individuals.

The brief explains why several religions, including ours, views equal treatment of LGBTQ individuals as a religious imperative.  It refers to actions and positions taken by these religious organizations, including the CCAR and the URJ.  It counters arguments made by other faith groups that their religious beliefs in effect require them to discriminate against LGBTQ people.  It responds that allowing such discrimination in effect favors those religions at the expense of ours and of others who share our views.

We cannot know how the Court will rule.  We can know that we have told it that allowing some to discriminate against LGBTQ people on religious grounds will also constitute discrimination against our way of practicing our religion.


Rabbi Thomas Alpert serves Temple Etz Chaim in Franklin, MA.

Read more about the brief on the CCAR’s website.

Categories
Immigration Passover Pesach Social Justice

Let My People Go

Over 1,000 men in detention. Fifty men sharing a dormitory room, sleeping on bunk beds seemingly made out of plywood and nails, topped with thin plastic “mattresses.” Men under constant surveillance, wearing prison uniforms, fed unappetizing-looking meals, and  working as barbers, cooks, or custodians for $1 a day. Days spent mostly lying on their beds, with occasional outings to a cement yard topped with barbed wire. For most of them, they have committed no crime, only exercised their human right to seek asylum. 

These are the conditions inside the New Mexico Otero Detention Center for migrants awaiting a hearing. It is run by the for-profit company Management and Training Corporation(MTC) which collects $100,000 of our tax dollars daily to house these men. There is one part-time physician and one chaplain for all of them. The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s office made a surprise visit to Otero in 2017 and “found evidence of the unjustified use of solitary confinement, unsanitary conditions and non-working telephones.”

The Torah tells us 36 times that we are to care for the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our freedom from slavery is celebrated every year at Passover, which begins the night of April 19. So when I see hundreds and thousands of people from Central America fleeing from violence and desperate poverty, coming to our borders seeking asylum, only to be locked up in detention centers or detained in the elements under a bridge, my heart aches and I am called to action.

This is why I joined HIAS and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights on a recent trip to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to learn what is going on at our border. I was not unfamiliar with the plight of migrants from Central America. Near where I live in Riverside, CA is the town of Adelanto, a desolate location in the high desert and home to another private detention center, this one run by the private company GEO Group. With the help of organizations such as the New Sanctuary Movement and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, I had visited detainees there but was never allowed beyond the visiting room. The conditions at Otero were more upsetting than I had expected.

Under international and federal law, people have the right to request asylum. Asylum seekers are not criminals; many are people with legitimate fears of being killed in their countries of origin. Why are we treating them like this? Judaism certainly insists that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. How do we as a country justify making a profit off those seeking safety by locking them up in private prisons?

As a rabbi, I take seriously our mandate to free the captive — those who are unjustly imprisoned. The people in these detention centers made dangerous journeys to arrive on our soil. As they await their trial, their detention can last months in these conditions. In El Paso, the rate of deportation following this ordeal is close to 97 percent.

On this trip, we also visited shelters in El Paso and on the other side of the border, in Ciudad Juárez. We met true tzaddikim, righteous people doing everything they can to provide a respite for those on these arduous journeys. At the nonprofit Annunciation House, for example, Ruben Garcia tirelessly places migrants released by ICE in a variety of shelters throughout the area. In fact, ICE would have to release over 600 people a day if Garcia did not provide them with these locations.

At this point, the shelters are being overwhelmed beyond capacity. The day we left El Paso, Customs and Border Protection had begun to detain migrants under the bridge connecting the U.S. to Mexico. We were horrified to witness crowds of women and children behind barbed wire, forced to sleep on the rocky ground outside.

What can you and I do to address this problem? You can support any of the wonderful organizations mentioned above. You can volunteer your time at one of the shelters, whether you live in El Paso or not. And you can bring these stories to your seder table, drawing the parallels between the journeys made by our own ancestors and those of today’s refugees. Let us adhere to Rabbi Hillel’s dictum: If I am not for myself, who will be?  But if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Stuck on the Shores of the Parted Sea: Mass Incarceration Through a Jewish Lens

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we invited Hilly Haber to share an excerpt of the chapter that she wrote.

During my third year of rabbinical school, I had the privilege of co-teaching two college classes at New York City’s main jail complex, Rikers Island. The students I worked with in the class were either serving out a sentence or detained and awaiting trial or sentencing. Every Friday, I rode the city bus from Queens across the bridge onto Rikers Island, surrounded by men, women, and children visiting their parents, children, loved ones, and friends who were detained on the island.

During our time together, we learned about and discussed the historical origins of the prison system, debated various philosophies of punishment, and armed ourselves with knowledge about today’s criminal justice system. These men were members of what Professor Andrew Skotnicki calls “the Rikers Island Campus of Manhattan College.”

In the spring of second semester, I missed a class to celebrate Passover with my family. Later, as I explained the story of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt to the students, I was overcome with the realization that these men, some of whom were being detained for crimes for which they had not yet been found guilty, were living, and would go on living, in a perpetual Egypt—a perpetual state of non-freedom.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, nearly one in every thirty-one Americans lives either under correctional control in prison or jail or on probation or parole for nonviolent offenses. This shocking statistic does not even take into account the thousands of men and women who live with the permanent scar of a felony incarceration on their record or the family members of those who have been incarcerated. Across the country, a felony incarceration can lead to legalized forms of discrimination, including but not limited to denying men and women employment, housing, public benefits, the right to vote, the ability to serve on a jury, and public accommodations, all of which affect not only the person being discriminated against, but his or her family members as well. As Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration in the United States has led to the creation of a caste system in which men and women who live or have lived under the control of the criminal justice system are permanently subjected to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.

The Exodus narrative is an inspiring story in which the Israelites move from slavery to freedom; the statistics on mass incarceration, on the other hand, tell the dispiriting story of a people who have moved from one form of enslavement to another. While incarceration rates differ from state to state, on average, one in eleven African American adults compared with one in forty-five white adults live under correctional control.

The cycle of incarceration and recidivism fueled by racism and poverty within the United States is the Egypt in our midst.

In contrast to today’s criminal justice system, biblical and rabbinic legal structures did not utilize incarceration as a means of punishment or a way of forcing someone to remain in a permanent state of nonfreedom or exile from the community. Indeed, rather than isolate and oppress members of the community who were found guilty of committing a crime, systems of punishment outlined by the Bible and refined by the Rabbis actually sought the opposite outcome. The absence of incarceration as a form of punishment in biblical and Rabbinic texts speaks volumes. Punishment in Jewish tradition, with the exception of capital cases, functioned as a way of bringing about t’shuvah and full return to the community.

The Gemara also displays a certain empathy for those who have been imprisoned and is aware of our social responsibility toward the incarcerated, teaching that “prisoners cannot free themselves from their shackles” (BT B’rachot 5b). Today’s shackles are not limited to the walls of a prison. Once released from prison, most people are still bound by both the force of law and by stigma, forces that keep the walls of the sea from parting for millions of men, women, and children.

In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides writes that t’shuvah atones for all sins. Maimonides’s conception of t’shuvah involves repentance, atonement, and return. Once a person has repented for his or her sins, forgiveness and reintegration into society must follow. Today’s criminal justice system, one that emphasizes punishment and surveillance over rehabilitation and reintegration, offers few opportunities for true t’shuvah—true return for those permanently sentenced to states of non-freedom.

If our Reform Jewish community takes seriously our commitment to both social justice and Jewish tradition, we must work to open new pathways for people who remain shackled in narrow places.

Hilly Haber is a fifth year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in New York City. Originally from New York, Hilly holds a BA from Mount Holyoke College in religion and German Studies, and a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Hilly serves as the student Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, and as a teaching assistant on a Rikers Island with Manhattan College. Hilly is a Wexner Graduate Fellow and a Tisch Fellow.  She is also a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, now available for pre-order.  

Categories
Books Social Justice

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Learning How to Make a Difference

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we invited Rabbi Karen R. Perolman, to share an excerpt of the chapter that she wrote.

What prevents us from directly and regularly engaging in social justice work? So many of us want to make a difference and help to repair what is broken in our world, and yet, it can often feel overwhelming. Instead of doing anything, we feel paralyzed; we sit at home reading articles or watching other people’s actions posted on social media. What can push us past thought toward action? In my experience and opinion, the tipping point for action is training. Social justice classes, seminars, groups—all the different intentional experiences that fall under the category of “trainings”—are essential to move us from the mere desire to act to actual action. Through these trainings, participants gain community, confidence, and concrete knowledge in order to act with purpose and presence.

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice — Now available for pre-order.

I recommend to every reader that they go and seek out a training opportunity in order to gain the concrete knowledge, help see themselves as part of a community, and gain the inner confidence needed to stand up to systemic oppression.

Community

Trainings are the perfect environment to create organic community. Instead of forcing a group of people to come together, trainings attract like-minded individuals who are both open to and interested in learning. Since trainings are often held in university, religious, or communal spaces, they will appeal to those who are already active in their community. A social justice training also often appeals to those with a curious and interested mind-set. These may be individuals who not only want to participate in civil and communal life, but also are seeking relationships with others like them. These may be those who are already active in their individual faith or area community or who are likely to go beyond their safe and comfortable circles. One of the tremendous benefits of attending training is the interwoven circles of community to which each participant becomes immediately connected.

Through the single act of attending one training, one can become linked in what I think of as a shalshelet hatikkun, a chain of repair that has the power to right the wrongs of our world through thoughtful and direct action.

Confidence

Confidence is often tied to our own sense of self, and often our lack of confidence is connected to our having experienced powerlessness. Trainings create the opportunity for dedicated, passionate individuals to work through their own experiences of oppression, inequality, or trauma so that they might find their own inner strength. In order to speak truth to power, it is essential for those in positions of leadership in community organizations to have insight and reflection regarding their own feelings of power and powerlessness. Through multi-day trainings, one can first work through one’s own personal experiences and then build the self-confidence that will be critical in the work of organizing and justice.

Concrete knowledge

More than ever, information on every subject is available almost immediately in the palms of our hands. Despite the relative ease by which we can access information on every facet of social justice, the dissemination of misinformation can be just as prevalent. In the age of googling experts, there is nothing that feels as authentic as going to an IRL training session with live professionals whose goal is not to pass on information about issues or policy, but to impart knowledge about how a group of dedicated individuals can effect constructive change.

In short, here are three reasons to attend a community organizing or social justice training:

  1. To learn firsthand from experts and seasoned organizers.
  2. To take the opportunity to rehearse, build confidence, and work through any personal baggage.
  3. To meet like-minded individuals and build community.

In the years since I attended that first IAF training, I have found myself in many similar rooms focused on training as passing on the knowledge born of experience.  Every time I walk out of those rooms—often at the end of a long day or days—I always have the same feelings: humility for all that I do not know, hunger to make a difference, and a sense of hurry to get to work. After all, the world isn’t going to fix itself.

Rabbi Karen R. Perolman serves Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, New Jersey, and is a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, now available for pre-order. 

 

Categories
Immigration Social Justice

Witness to Cruelty: Bringing Compassion to McAllen

The mother from Nicaragua stood before our multi-faith group of forty religious leaders this morning in the simple and dignified space of the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, cradling her sleeping infant in her arms. “We are here because my country is no longer safe for my child.” By this writing, she is already on a bus to San Francisco, her ticket purchased by relatives there, her safe passage arranged by Sister Norma and the remarkable staff and volunteers of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

She, like the other families we met in the Respite Center, is among the lucky ones – who can still cradle their babies, who can still play with their children on the colorful mats in the corner, who were able to take their first shower in weeks, to wash off the mud and cold of passage.

It was some combination of chance, powerful love, and spiritual commitment that landed mother and child on that westbound bus. The love and commitment of volunteers and faith communities who share time, supplies, food and medical services; and the luck of a given moment on a given day. I asked one of the staff at the Respite Center how that mother and that child could still be together in the face of the Administration’s cruel and draconian requirement that children be taken from their parents at the border, and she shrugged: maybe a compassionate border guard, maybe because the child was just a baby, maybe our prayers worked.

We have witnessed traumatic cruelty in our nation in these recent weeks, and if witnessing it has been traumatic, we can only begin to imagine the pain of those who suffered it directly: the parents and children whose wails tear at our hearts. The name of this policy, “Zero Tolerance,” is Orwellian at best. The practice of ripping children from their parents at the border is not Zero Tolerance. It is Zero Compassion. It is Zero Wisdom, because it deprives security professionals of discretion. It is Zero Coherence because it expends security resources indiscriminately, instead of focusing them on the populations who might put us at risk. It has been a violation of core Jewish values, and an affront to the American values of which Dreamers dream.

The President’s recent Executive Order, while a seeming reversal in the face of public outcry, will not address core injustices. It makes no provision for reuniting the 2300 already separated children with their families. It offers no change in the fundamental flaws, and smokescreen, of so-called Zero Tolerance. A narrow Executive Order cannot restore heart to what is heartless.

Our visit today was supposed to conclude with a visit to the Border Detention Center – I had hoped to report to you first-hand about the cages of separation and the conditions there. For reasons not totally clear – some combination of serious flash floods and government bureaucratic confusion – we were not permitted to visit.

So the work of calling for transparency must continue – not only by the forty leaders on our bus, but by everyone of us who cares about the conscience, heart and destiny of America.

In this week’s parshah, the ruler of Edom earns a reputation for callousness and injustice by uttering two simple words to Moses and the Israelites seeking to pass through his territory: lo ta’avor. Those words have become an emblem in our tradition for blind and simplistic enmity. When our nation speaks an unconditional lo ta’avor to refugees seeking safety from violence and pursuing a life of dignity and freedom, when our president uses the word “infest” to describe their presence in a land of freedom, the echoes are more than troubling.

But today in McAllen, we outshouted those echoes with the laughter of children, with songs of hope from Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, whites and people of color, locking arms and joining forces to bring a sense of solidarity to a border town, a sense of compassion, and justice to our nation. We leave McAllen pledging vigilance for the safety of all children and families, and for the protection of the values precious to us all.

Rabbi David Stern serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas and is President of The Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 6:11: On Character

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

After six chapters of Jewish ethics, epistemology, anecdotes, homilies, and philosophical inquiry, the mishnah concludes with the reminder that although focus has been placed on interpersonal relations and growth of the inner self, Judaism is ultimately centered around God.

All that the Holy One of Blessing created in this world was created solely for God’s own glory, as it is said: “All that is called by My name, indeed, it is for My glory that I have created it, formed it, and made it” (Isaiah 43:7). And it says: “The Eternal will reign for ever and ever” (Exodus 15:18).

At the end of the mishnah, we reflect on what we have witnessed over the course of Pirkei Avot. Here, collected for the ages, are the words that guided countless people on their spiritual journeys. These words of ethics, philosophy, and love give us strength, hope, and a sense of obligation to our fellow. Because God is completely benevolent, we should emulate God’s divine ways. All that we have read, ruminated on, and reacted to has been about achieving the highest good. With this conclusion, we are reminded to grow and be humble, because we are under God’s loving authority.

Learning the art of compromise is arduous. So much must happen on global, national, and interpersonal fronts. But first we must consider our own egos, not letting our tribal tendencies take hold of our better nature. We must be willing to retreat from absolutes for the sake of peace on earth.

One’s character is measured not solely by one’s ideals, but also by willingness to compromise for the sake of human dignity. There are, of course, values that should not be compromised. But for the sake of peace, we often compromise, even when certain of the truth. Rashi taught that doing “‘the right and the good’ [Deuteronomy 6:18] refers to a compromise, within the letter of the law.” The Talmud teaches that God prays to control the limits of divine power that could destroy the universe with but a single thought:

May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice. (BT B’rachot 7a)

If God is to pray for God’s own kindness to prevail over justice, then certainly we should do the same. In all we do, we must focus on building a world imbued with compassion, healing, and peace rather, than on unswerving truth, strict judgment, and punishment. Being right is not always the same thing as doing right. Pirkei Avot compels us to ask ourselves: How can we take the high road today? How can we take the challenge of pursuing justice beyond the personal and into our civic and business interactions? It is our duty to work toward compromise, no matter the circumstance, so that the world will become more just, equitable, and peaceful. These questions may be difficult, but responding to them is our sacred imperative.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 5:15: On Wisdom

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

What is the purpose of learning? Is the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next a deep philosophical exercise? Is it a bureaucratic activity meant to reinforce a top-down understanding of history? Learning is many things at once: personal improvement, developing discipline, and learning to discern reality from fiction. There are many opinions about what constitutes the model student, but learning requires analytical skill and training the memory. Learning requires that students and teachers see life anew, with openness, but that we also return to restudy what’s familiar to strengthen our values.

There are four types of learners: (a) One who grasps quickly and forgets quickly, their gain is offset by their loss; (b) one who grasps slowly and forgets slowly, their loss is offset by their gain; (c) one who grasps quickly and forgets slowly, is wise; (d) one who grasps slowly and forgets quickly, this is a bad portion.

Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in The Social Contract, “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” He says that l’homme sauvage—natural humanity, the species in its freest and least inhibited state—was replaced by l’homme civilise—enlightened and civilized humanity, which is concerned with ethics and morality. Over time, as humanity became more self-aware and controlled, we also became alienated from our natural selves and became stuck in a web of complex social conventions and conformist behavioral patterns. This has harmed human-human and human-Divine relationships. In addition, societal demands and distractions have become so great that it has become more difficult to do the work that we are here in the world to do—to actualize our unique gifts to bring light into the world wherever possible. We need to question the best allocation of our time. Should we spend an hour on social media or volunteer at a food bank? Do we take in a movie with friends or advocate for the rights of the vulnerable? While our obligations don’t have to be zero sum in nature, we should always be aware that we aren’t meant to be idle, especially in times of societal tumult. We have to act and be active. That is our obligation during troubled times.

But if our society is guided by comfortable, conflict-averse decision- making, how can we engage in the hard work to improve society? How can we even discover our own personal cause? We can view this process on both the physical and spiritual planes. Physically, we have unique talents and passions. Spiritually, we have unique callings toward our actualization.

Modernity led to the caging of the soul and some part of human potential. We cannot go back in time, but we must still find avenues to deepen insight, discovery, and freedom. To assist us properly on our path, we must seek the greatest wisdom in the world, which means that we should find teachers who understand and guide us. By finding the right balance of righteousness and wisdom, we grow intellectually into ourselves and develop love of learning and humanity, equally.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.

Categories
Books Social Justice

Pirkei Avot 4:27: On the Soul

Each Friday leading up to Shavuot, RavBlog will be posting a series of excerpts from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary by Rabbi Dr. Schmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is available for pre-order now from CCAR Press.  

Youth without guidance from older generations is a waste of potential. Here, Rabbi Meir is in dialogue with his teacher, Rabbi Elisha ben Avuyah. Rabbi Meir, now a wise spiritual leader, was disappointed that his teacher Elisha (Acher) did not return to studying Torah and Jewish philosophy.

Rabbi Meir says: Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it; there is a new vessel filled with old wine, and an old vessel that does not even contain new wine.

Rabbi Meir experienced inner agony as he tried to convince Acher, with whom he had been so intimate, to return to the ways of a Jewish life. This mishnah is a powerful Jewish literary and spiritual example: Rabbi Meir lamented that Acher would never take another look at his inner world and return to the task for which his soul was sent to earth. In some ways, Acher, or “Other,” is called this precisely because he turned away from his mission.

What do the vessels in this mishnah really symbolize? Why would Rabbi Meir be cryptic, rather than straightforward, with his thoughts? This metaphor is about giving our souls over to our higher purpose. “Submission” is not a celebrated word among spiritual or social progressives, and for good reason. Submission to an external authority is not the way we think to shake up societal order. But, internally, we might consider acts of submission in which we give ourselves over to our Creator, who made us for a unique purpose. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook explains:

Submission to God, which is something natural to every creature, to every being in which individuality reveals itself . . . does not entail sorrow and oppression, but rather, pleasure and uprightness, sovereignty, and inner courage crowned with total beauty. . . . [This is achieved] through contraction of the soul before its Creator.

This mishnah also deals with the legacy of the human soul (what is in the vessel). A good portion of Jewish thought on the soul is found in the Kabbalah, but we see some interesting analogues to Jewish thought in gentile culture. Plato said that humans have three souls: the appetitive, spirited, and intellectual. In Judaism, these are nefesh, ruach, and n’shamah. In Platonic thought, as in Judaism, all three matter. How we show up within ourselves determines how we show up outside of ourselves. If we are not fulfilled inside, we won’t be fulfilled on the outside.

Likewise, there is a midrash about the soul’s continuous need to grow and evolve:

“And the soul is not sated” (Ecclesiastes 6:7). This is analogous to a provincial who married a princess. Even though he brings her everything in the world, he does not satisfy her. Why? Because she is a princess. Similarly, even if a person brings his soul all the delicacies of the world, they are nothing to her [i.e. she is not satisfied]. Why? Because she comes from Above.

So then, what is the ethical lesson in this mishnah? When we neglect our purpose, we neglect the reason we have been temporarily placed in this world. It is our obligation to overcome disappointment and pride and to achieve what we can in the limited time we’re allowed. Just as Rabbi Meir taught not to be unfairly judgmental of ourselves (or, at least, our superficial outer selves), so too is he teaching here not to miss opportunities to engage with others’ true selves. If we see others only in a transactional way (what can they give to me?), we miss potential for connection and meaningful relationship. Further, from a social change perspective, someone may be our opposition in one campaign but an ally in another. We should not simply label others as inside or outside our camp, but allow ourselves to see them more deeply.

This is an excerpt from Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary, by Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz.  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, a pluralistic Jewish learning and leadership center; the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice movement; the founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, a Jewish vegan, animal welfare movement; and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top fifty rabbis in America, and the Forward named him one of the fifty most influential Jews. He studied at the University of Texas as an undergraduate and at Harvard University for a master’s in leadership and psychology, completed a second master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University, and completed his doctorate at Columbia University in moral development and epistemology. He was ordained as a rabbi by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (the YCT Rabbinical School) in New York, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and he received two additional private rabbinic ordinations. As a global social justice educator, he has volunteered, taught, and staffed missions in about a dozen countries around the world. A film crew followed him for over a year to produce a PBS documentary (The Calling) about the training of religious leadership, which was released in the winter of 2010. He was born in Canada, was raised in New Jersey and Chicago, and now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, with his wife, Shoshana, and three children.