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The Voice of a Woman – Again!

What a week for us to be celebrating Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song! The name of the Shabbat derives from our reading of The Song of the Sea, in Chapter 15 of Exodus. Moses begins the song by leading the Children of Israel in praise as they cross the Sea of Reeds on dry land. But the song ends with Miriam, who specifically leads the women in song, as she takes up her timbrel and sings. Particularly because of this, the song is also known as The Song of Miriam. Miriam the prophetess of Israel raises her voice in praise and in leadership. The voice of a woman is thus elevated and revered.

Unfortunately, there are many who have attempted to silence the voices of women through the ages. I’ve written on previous occasions about the way in which this has played itself out at the Western Wall for almost three decades now. On January 11, the Israeli Supreme Court challenged the ultra-Orthodox authority of the Wall, bringing women one step closer to establishing full rights to hold prayer services, wear talitot, and read the Torah at the Women’s Section of Western Wall.

This week, however, we witnessed the voice of a woman being silenced in a different, yet all too similar, context. On Monday evening, Senator Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans publicly silenced the voice of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, as she rose to bring the voice of another woman to the floor, as the Senate confirmation hearing of Senator Jeffrey Sessions for the office of US Attorney General ensued. That woman was the late Coretta Scott King, who wrote a letter some 30 years ago, testifying as to manifestations of racial bigotry implicit in the actions and statements of Mr. Sessions. This was during the confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship, for which he was ultimately voted down. This time, Senator McConnell invoked a little-known rule that is virtually never used, to silence the voice of Senator Warren, who was unceremoniously told to sit down and be quiet by Montana Senator Steven Daines, who was presiding over the Senate at that moment.

For the moment, I will leave aside the content of Coretta Scott King’s letter. While it is still relevant, the fact is that the issue is now moot, in light of the Senate’s confirmation of Mr. Sessions as Attorney General of the United States. What I will react to, however, is the appalling behavior of Senators McConnell and Daines, who, for all intents and purposes, told a woman senator on the Senate floor to sit down and shut up. There was little doubt in my mind that the ultimate effect of the ruling was driven by an undercurrent of misogyny. Oh yes, partisan politics came into play as well. But the optics of a woman on the floor of the Senate challenging the majority, and ultimately, challenging the President, being silenced in the middle of her statement and told to sit down, I believe, spoke louder than any statement could. Subsequent to this outrage, no fewer than four of Senator Warren’s male colleagues stood up and read Coretta Scott King’s letter.

The voice of a woman, as it channeled the voice of another woman. . . two women, strong and resolute, standing up to power. . . I believe that both Senators McConnell and Daines understood the power of these women’s voices, and that is precisely why they resorted to this cowardly tactic to silence them. But these women will not be silenced. Neither will women all across America, who understand and embrace the values of fairness and equality; of justice; and respect for human dignity.

Senator McConnell offered this by way of explaining his actions: “(Senator Warren) was warned, she was given an explanation, nevertheless, she persisted.” Yes, Mr. McConnell, she persisted. This morning Sec’y Hillary Clinton tweeted: “She persisted. So must we all.”

Thank you, Senator McConnell, for our new battle cry. No, we will not sit down and shut up. We will stand up, and continue to raise our voices!

In the Footsteps of Heroic Women

Last week we began our reading of the Book of Exodus, and the beginning of our enslavement in Egypt. Moses is undoubtedly the most preeminent figure in the story as it unfolds, and indeed, henceforth through to the end of the Torah. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the most heroic figures of last week’s portion are women: Yocheved, the mother of Moses; Miriam, Moses’ sister; and the two midwives, Shifra and Puah. The cruel and despotic Pharaoh orders all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile to drown, lest someday they rise up in combat against him. Shifra and Puah carry out their own personal resistance to this brutality by deliberately saving the Hebrew baby boys. When Yocheved gives birth to a baby boy, she hides him for a short while, but then takes desperate measures to save him. She places him in a wicker basket, wraps him in swaddling cloth, and enlists her daughter Miriam to follow him and watch over him as he floats down the river. He is found by the daughter of Pharaoh who pulls him out of the Nile and adopts him. Miriam volunteers to “find” her a wet nurse, and “finds” Yocheved, making it possible for Moses to live with his own family for a time. And thus in addition to the four women I have mentioned, we must mention the daughter of Pharaoh, known in the Midrashic tradition as “Bityah.” While she knew the baby was a Hebrew, she participated in saving him, and went on to raise him as her own beloved son.

The salvation of the Children of Israel begins with women – women who are not afraid to stand up to the power and brutality of Pharaoh.
This past Saturday was a remarkable day indeed. On the very Shabbat when we were reading the stories of Yocheved, Miriam, Shifra, Puah, and Bityah, a great “Women’s March” took place all over our country, and all over the world – millions of women, and men as well, marching shoulder to shoulder – to rise up against the intimidation and wrong-headed policies of the newly-installed Trump presidency.

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Women’s March in Washington D.C. 2017. Courtesy Wikimedia

(There were even 30 people marching in Antarctica!) A group of us left together from Union Temple after services and took the subway to East 14th Street in Manhattan, where we met up with several hundred Jews from the Downtown Kehilah, a consortium of liberal congregations in Lower Manhattan. We marched together up 2nd Avenue to 42nd Street, where we joined some 400,000 of our fellow New Yorkers in an unbelievable throng that stretched all across 42nd Street and then up 5th Avenue to Trump Tower. While we may have lost an election, we have not lost our values. The message was clear: we intend to uphold our values and our rights, and fight tooth and nail against those who would seek to undermine them.

Lest we forget, the day after the march, Sunday, January 22, was the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. The decision put an end to underground networks and back-alley butchers, unwanted pregnancies, and risks to the physical and/or mental well-being of women and girls all over our country. Decisions over women’s reproductive lives were no longer the domain of elected officials, but rather the domain of women themselves – in consultation with their doctors and medical professionals, and, when appropriate, with their families and members of clergy. But the government is once again taking aim at the gamut of women’s health issues, particularly when it comes to reproductive choice. And while now the federal government is key, the state houses are critical as well, regarding the statutes in the health codes and criminal codes of individual states.

Here’s one way we New Yorkers can stand up to this now more imminent threat to women’s rights and integrity. As I have announced previously, on Monday, January 30, I am going to be in Albany at a Day of Action coordinated by Family Planning Advocates (FPA) in cooperation with Planned Parenthood of New York. I am a member of FPA’s Concerned Clergy for Choice. There is still a small window of opportunity for you to attend this important day of education and lobbying the members of the Assembly and State Senate. The information follows. I hope you will decide to attend, as we walk in the footsteps of the heroines of our people.

Tzedek U’mishpat – Righteousness and Justice

kingandprinz

At the 1963 March on Washington, left to right: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, Walter Reuther and Rabbi Joachim Prinz.

The Prophets of Israel raised their voices in the name of righteousness and justice. In fact these two concepts appear as a word pair numerous times throughout the Prophetic books of the Bible. In Hebrew, the word pair is צדק ומשפט – tzedek u’mishpat.

This week began with our celebration of the birthday of the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., surely one of the greatest prophets of our time, or any other. His soaring oratory and his clarion call for צדק ומשפט – righteousness and justice – inspired the hearts of all who heard it, and it is a message that continues to resonate around the world. The Jewish alliance with Dr. King was born out of that message that resides in our shared Biblical tradition and historic experiences.

This week will end with the inauguration of a new president, one who made it his obsession to delegitimize President Barack Obama – an obsession motivated by racism and xenophobia. Now he has publicly and brazenly insulted and denigrated one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, Congressman John Lewis, a man who has devoted his life to the cause of צדק ומשפט – righteousness and justice.

It is perhaps fortuitous, perhaps ironic, or perhaps a little of both, that on this coming Shabbat we will begin our reading of the Book of Exodus and the story of our people’s enslavement in Egypt by a cruel and despotic leader. In our Passover Haggadah we read the litany of our troubled history, as we repeat the refrain, “many tyrants have risen against us.” It will be incumbent upon us, out of the foundational narrative of our history as a People, and our more recent history as champions of tzedek u’mishpat, to stand up and speak out to uphold these values in the face of pressure that we can only now anticipate with great alarm.

In this spirit, I offer an extraordinary speech that was given at the March on Washington as a “warm-up,” if you will, to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I have sent it to you in years past, but it is worthwhile for us to listen again. The speech was delivered by Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz, z”l, the then Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Livingston, NJ. He was on the podium alongside Dr. King at the march in his capacity as President of the American Jewish Congress. Read the text and listen to Dr. Prinz. He refers to the experience of Egypt as our spiritual and historic motivation.

The Chutzpah of Abraham

Descent Toward Sodom by Marc Chagall

Descent Toward Sodom by Marc Chagall

הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹ֥א יַֽעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט: – Shall the Judge of all the Earth not deal justly?

Within our Torah portion this week is one of the most primal utterances of our entire tradition; one that has haunted us since it was first uttered. The implications are manifold.

Abraham finds himself in a confrontation with the Creator of the Universe. In its essence, it is a relatively simple exchange. God is enraged by the despicable behavior of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah, and thus is determined to wipe them out in an act of horrifying destruction. But Abraham pleads with God to reconsider.

Will You indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty innocent in the city. . . Far be it from You to do such a thing, killing innocent and wicked alike, so that the innocent and the wicked suffer the same fate. Far be it from You! Shall the Judge of all the Earth not deal justly? (Genesis 18.23-25)

The verse gives voice to moments both of pain and of righteous indignation at the injustice in that exists in the world at large, and in our own personal lives – injustice that flies in the face of the notion of a God who rules the world with justice and compassion. Particularly remarkable is the chutzpah, if you will, of Abraham, to challenge the Almighty in this way. But he does it to uphold the very values that we have come to understand to be the bedrock of Jewish teaching. We simply cannot annihilate whole populations of people. It is unjust and immoral.

Perhaps within the context of the events that are unfolding in our country, we would do well to remember the chutzpah of Abraham. The expression “speaking truth to power” sometimes feels overused. But in the face of an agenda that threatens to turn the clock back upon decades of progress that we have made in this country, all of us might benefit from Abraham’s chutzpah. In the coming months and years, we will have to stand up to those who would threaten and curtail our civil and human rights. We will have to do this in our pursuit of justice, as our tradition teaches it to us. Far be it for me to compare our new president to the Judge of all the Earth. L’havdil! (Just the opposite.) It is Abraham in this case whose example is worthy of emulation.

Dreamers in America

Dreamers. Photo by Steve Rhodes CC Flickr.

Dreamers. Photo by Steve Rhodes CC Flickr.

Jacob is on the move. He has had to leave his home, and journey to Haran to live under the protection of his uncle Laban. He is alone. It is night time, and he lies down and falls asleep. Suddenly in a dream, a ladder appears with angels going up and down. In the morning he awakens and realizes, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.”

In the aftermath of the election that has left many of us stunned and filled with trepidation, we wonder what we can do now to prevent the protections we have enjoyed as Americans from unraveling. Here is one place to begin.

In a 2012 executive order, President Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, grew up in the United States, and want to give back to society and raise their own families in the only nation they know as home. Now participants in and applicants to DACA are in a vulnerable state. Their names and contact information are now known to the federal government, and if the succeeding administration seeks to deport all undocumented immigrants as it stated repeatedly during the campaign, and has restated in the past few weeks, the DACA program provides a robust list. Urge President Obama to take action to protect DREAMers and ensure our nation lives up to its proud history as a nation of immigrants by submitting your letter of support at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), where you will also find more information and contact number. Urge everyone you know to do the same.

Jacob’s dream was for God’s protection. The dream of all these people is to live in America in peace and security, and create productive lives for themselves and their families.

That’s How the Light Gets In

Leonard Cohen singing "Anthem."

Leonard Cohen singing “Anthem.”

Whenever I contemplate the uncertainties of human existence, I am amazed by the good fortune I have enjoyed in my sojourn on this earth. Out of all the places I could have been born, by some quirk of fate, I was born in the United States of America – in the middle of New York City, arguably the greatest city in the world. Thanksgiving is a holiday for Americans. It is a celebration of the rich tapestry that Americans make up. It is a celebration of immigrants – people who came from authoritarian governments to breathe the air of freedom. We remember the Pilgrims who came here seeking religious liberty, and the free exercise of their conscience. The diversity of our society represents an extraordinary flowering of everything this nation was meant to be. If our celebration of their arrival on these shores and their survival through that first grueling winter is to mean anything at all, it must be to make that celebration available to all who seek it out, whoever they are, and wherever they are coming from. From the landing of the Pilgrims, we have been a nation of immigrants. That is what has made us great.

The past two weeks have been tough, no question about it. I feel as though I’ve been tossed from pillar to post; and quite honestly, I’m looking forward to dropping down on my cousin’s couch on Thursday, and decompressing with our family for the day and evening. These particular cousins all happen to share our political and social leanings, so we won’t have to be on our guard at all. But then again, there are a few members of my family constellation who do not share our opinions, and with whom, I admit, I have avoided communication over the past several months. But, in the end, they are my family, and in the end, I will put an end to my avoidance. If I am the one who is going to advocate for the diversity of American society, by definition, that means that I have to honor that diversity, even when it means that people I love and respect hold opinions with which I disagree; at times, vehemently. At times it may mean that we just leave politics out of the family equation. We’re not going to convince each other of anything. A cop out, some might say? Maybe. But family connections are still there, despite the rupture in American politics. This particular campaign was perhaps the most divisive, and perhaps the most bizarre as well, in our history as a nation. But it’s over, and we have a new reality to deal with.

This week our Torah records the deaths of Sarah Imeinu and Avraham Avinu, the Matriarch and Patriarch of the Jewish People. As we remember, there was tension and pain between Abraham’s two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Nevertheless, even after years of bitter separation, the two come to the Cave of Machpelah to bury their father together. We don’t know what words were exchanged between them. But we do know that, even for those few moments, they were finally together again.

Almost two weeks ago, we lost Leonard Cohen – the Canadian poet, composer, and maverick social commentator. One of the songs he wrote was called “Anthem,” the refrain of which might be of some comfort as we set about the business of healing in the months ahead, and undertaking the responsibilities that will be upon our shoulders, particularly in protecting and promoting the values of justice and humanitarianism that we learn from our tradition.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

And with this I will wish all of you, and your families and friends, a Happy Thanksgiving. Let’s remember to take at least a moment out of the day to contemplate its meaning, and devote ourselves to helping to bring it about in the months and years ahead.

Tower of Arrogance

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The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.1563

A number of Biblical stories are intended to provide an etiology of how certain things came to be. Within Parashat Noach is such an etiology in the story of the Tower of Babel. We may wonder why it is that there is a profusion of languages within the human family. The story of the Tower of Babel provides a response which, even if fantasy-driven, is nonetheless compelling.

Genesis, Chapter 11

1] All the earth had the same language and the same words. 2] As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3] Then people said to one another: “Come, let us make bricks and fire them hard.” So they had bricks to build with, and tar served them as mortar. 4] Then they said, “Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth!” 5] Then the Eternal came down to look at the city and tower and people had built, 6] and the Eternal One said, “Look – these are all one people with one language, and this is just the beginning of their doings; now no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach! 7] Let us go down there and confuse their speech, so that no one understands what the other is saying.” 8] So it came about that the Eternal scattered them over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9] That is why it was called Babel, because there the Eternal confused the speech of all the earth; and from there the Eternal scattered them over the face of the earth.

The fundamental implication of the story is that, left to our own devices, we humans all too easily fall prey to our own worst instincts – arrogance, and self-aggrandizement. Perhaps, the narrative suggests, if we humans were prevented from understanding one another, our arrogance and self-aggrandizement would be thwarted.

Thus the story of the Tower of Babel provides an etiology for the profusion of languages. But if we were to stretch that notion a bit, we might also find in it an explanation of ethnic and cultural diversity in general, offering the commentary that this diversity is a good thing. When we are all the same, whether it is through language or anything else, we humans are prone to arrogance. Recognizing the benefits of diversity, however, will help us to acquire humility, as we recognize that other languages, ethnic backgrounds, and cultural surroundings, though different from our own, are equally as interesting, and need to be understood and celebrated.

To state the obvious, this is a time of profound concern and anxiety for us, as we face a national election of monumental consequence. One of the issues that has been discussed often during this campaign is diversity. One side has made significant efforts at celebrating our diversity as Americans, and as members of the human family. The other has portrayed our diversity as a threat to America. But the reality of our country is that it is not the same country as it used to be. The picture of a white Christian majority in America is no longer an accurate reflection of America. But, one might surmise, many of those who latch onto the slogan of making America “great” again are actually very much afraid that they will be left out of the new, more diverse America that already is our reality. This, of course, completely ignores the reality of all those people and groups who were left out before! But the fault in this thinking is the belief that the realization of the American dream has to be a zero-sum game. If we widen our tent to include other people, why does that have to mean that we lose our own place in the tent?

We can delude ourselves by building towers of self-aggrandizement. Or, we can plant our feet firmly on the ground, and work to create a fairer, more compassionate, more inclusive society in our own midst. But, as we all know, whatever our perspective on the direction our country ought to take, we won’t have any part in the decision making if we don’t get out on Tuesday and vote – and encourage everyone we know to vote as well. As Americans, we dare not squander this sacred right.

The Wandering Maggid

Elie-Wiesel

Elie Wiesel

In the communities of Eastern Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and even beyond, there were certain people who would make their way from community to community, weaving stories and teaching lessons. They were itinerant preachers, who, in some cases, rose in stature to become folk heroes. Such a person was called a Maggid. This past Shabbat, not only the Jewish world, but all of humanity, lost a great man with the death of Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom, who liked to describe himself as a “wandering Maggid.” Writing on Saturday night in The Forward shortly after Professor Wiesel’s death, Rabbi Professor Michael Beranbaum wrote of this giant:

More than any other human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission not only to remember the past but to transform the future. . . . A wandering Maggid going from community to community, from venue to venue, from synagogues and universities, gatherings, demonstrations, national capitals and political forums, speaking to an ever-changing global audience. His message was: “Remember the Holocaust. Remembrance must shape our character and has the capacity to transform the future.”

There have been many tributes and eulogies since Elie Wiesel’s death on Saturday, both in conventional publications and on social media. I think we would all do well to read as many as we can. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Professor Wiesel personally, though a number of my colleagues did. Yet, I feel as though he spoke to me, and indeed, to each of us, in an extremely personal and searing way. Those of us from Union Temple who went down to Washington together in May of 2006 heard him speak at the rally that he cosponsored with numerous Jewish organizations, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, prominently among them. The rally was in support of the victims of genocide and brutality in Darfur. Professor Wiesel spoke to us calmly, and with dead seriousness. His mission, of course, was “Never Forget,” specifically with regard to the Holocaust. But he then reminded us soberly that “Never Forget” is meaningless unless we made it our business to stand up in the face of the genocide that was happening at that moment, and of all genocides wherever they happened. More than an author, a teacher, indeed, a “wandering Maggid,” he became one of the most tireless and outspoken human rights advocates of the modern era, and he touched the souls of all who ever heard him speak, or read his writing. “I’ve gone everywhere,” he said, “trying to stop so many atrocities: Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The least I can do is show the victims that they are not alone. When I went to Cambodia, journalists asked me, “What are you doing here? This is not a Jewish tragedy.” I answered, “When I needed people to come, they didn’t. That’s why I am here.” When asked what was the most important commandment in the Bible, he responded, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”

Some years ago I became acquainted with a rabbi from The Netherlands who was a visiting professor for a year at Adelphi University. Both the rabbi and his wife survived the Holocaust as hidden children. They had chillingly similar stories to tell, each having been hidden in a suitcase, and transported to different families. One afternoon I had the pleasure of driving the rabbi home after a conference. When he told me he knew Elie Wiesel quite well, I asked him what Wiesel was really like. I said that Wiesel seemed to me to have a rather depressive affect, and I asked the rabbi if he thought that Wiesel actually had the capacity to live a happy life. He told me that he understood my reaction to Wiesel’s affect, but that Wiesel did, indeed, enjoy great fulfillment from his wife and family, his writing, his teaching, and his work in the world.

In this light, I was particularly struck by a portion of an interview that Oprah Winfrey did with Elie Wiesel a few years ago, after Wiesel took her to Auschwitz. . . .

“You can’t hear Elie’s story without wondering: ‘Can he live through that kind of hate and not become a hater? Can he still be capable of love? Can he find any reason to be grateful?’ When I talk with Elie about these things, he tells me that he has few answers and many, many questions – yet even in his questions I hear hope that the human spirit can survive anything. Anything.”

Of all that Elie Wiesel taught us in his words and in his deeds, perhaps it was his bearing witness to the human capacity to love, and to hope, that was the most important of all. Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.