Less than you Can. All that you Should.

We’ve just concluded the High Holy Day season.  On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke to my congregation on the topic of Justice.  Here are some excerpts from my sermon.  Click here to hear the full sermon.

Less than you can. All that you should.

…A better year, a better world, means more of us taking less than we can but all that we should. Today I want to talk about justice. Not abstractly. Not a vague concept we call tikkun olambut a concrete mission statement that can inform how each of us, in countless contexts big and small, might increase equity, fairness, godliness and love. I’m talking about justice in our homes and relationships, justice in our schools and urban institutions, justice in our country and in our world.  Less than you can. All that you should. 

…There’s a concept in Jewish law (halacha) that has always baffled me: Lifnim m’shurat hadin, which is usually translated “beyond the letter of the law.” But…what does it say about halachato claim it’s not enough, …that you need better than the law, to mete out true justice in society?

…Each community or society has a set of norms that define its existence, that contain and constrain it. That line is what we are due, what we are fully entitled to under those set of norms, rules or laws. When I drive my car, by law I may go 65 miles an hour on the highway. I don’t have to, but I may. If I go 55, though, I know (because I’m from Illinois, not Maryland) that I should drive in the right lane so that those who exercise their right to drive faster, can pass me.  We all exist within that circle called a speed limit, and each of us chooses how much of that space we claim, how close to that line we come…. “Beyond the letter (or line) of the law” would be speeding.

…And this is my point: the parameters of justice are not the totality of justice, just like an orange is more than its peel. And that’s good because, guess what? Lifnim m’shurat hadindoesn’t actually mean “beyond the letter of the law.” Each of us (our families, our city, nation) exists within an imaginary circle (shurat hadin), our circle of justice…. Lifnim m’shurat hadin, means within the line of justice, within the circle of what we’re due, what we’re entitled to. Less than you can. (see C. Hayes, “Legal Truth, Right Answers and Best Answers: Dworkin and the Rabbis,” pg. 113-114).

Which brings me to the second part of my 5779 bumper sticker mantra: all that you should. People with power and access are good at taking all that they can. Which is, not always, but too often, more than they should. But taking less than you can is only half the equation, because societies aren’t made whole through paternalism. It requires a partnership, a contracting by some and an expanding by others.

…It wasn’t men who made woman suffrage possible in 1920, as Beth Am’s own Elaine Weiss explains in her wonderful new book The Woman’s Hour. It was women and the male allies who worked with them. And it’s African American protesters…who brought about the beginning of police reform in Baltimore through the Consent Decree, immigrants who talk about being separated from their children, women who say enough of being overlooked, underpaid and objectified, and teenagers who say they’ve simply had enough of gun violence in their schools. And, it wasn’t the British or even the United Nations who made the State of Israel. It was the Jewish people who did that.

…This is Rosh Hashanah, but another name for it is Yom HaDin, day of justice. This year…let’s consider the nature of justice. What sort of communities do we want to work toward this year?  What kind of nation do we want to support this year?  What sort of world…do we want to pass along to the next generation?

(A version of this post will appear in the October issue of Jmore).

Advertisements

Relational Justice

One of the Talmud’s most famous stories involves Hillel who, long before he was a campus student organization, was a man and rabbi — indeed the consummate rabbi’s rabbi.

Hillel was known for his patience, and once a non-Jew seeking to convert approached him with the following demand: “Teach me the entire Torah while I’m standing on one foot.” Anyone who has attempted a Yogic Tree Pose knows standing on one foot is not so easy, and Hillel grasped the man’s meaning quickly: “Distil an entire, ancient, robust, complex, multi-vocal tradition into one pithy phrase!”

It’s what’s affectionately referred to as a klutz kashe, a question unworthy of thoughtful response. But if Hillel views it this way (or the questioner as a klutz) he doesn’t respond in kind. He converts his interlocutor on the spot and summarizes Jewish tradition in this way: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it!”

This expression is a precursor to the Golden Rule, which frames the call to human empathy in the positive. But Hillel’s approach may point to a deeper truth of human nature: Our tendency is to postulate what we think best for others by assuming our desires and needs are also theirs.

Dara Horn puts it this way in her recent novel, “Eternal Life: “It’s arrogant to think that others want exactly what you want.” Placing a demand for empathy in the negative is, ironically, more believable; there are plenty of things most people “hate.”

But this begs another question: Why doesn’t Hillel say, “What is hateful to your fellow, don’t do to him”? Is it really that difficult to know what our neighbors, family members and co-workers don’t like? Can’t we just ask them? The answer is as simple as it is inscrutable: sure, we can ask those with whom we’re already in a relationship. But it’s much harder to do so with people we’ve never met!

In our increasingly polarized society, where even family members can barely talk to each other across political or ideological divides, Hillel’s concise summary of Jewish wisdom is in fact a passionate call for thinking justly, for making the audacious cognitive leap to accept that there must be a set of experiences so anathema to human thriving, they apply to all of us.

Who doesn’t hate feeling invisible, unheard and undervalued? Who among us is not offended by the prospect of a life of destitute poverty or abuse? Says Hillel, if you do not want these things for yourself, how can you abide them in others?

Hillel is trying to teach us less about interpersonal relations and more about societal justice. What are the basic parameters, the boundaries of an acceptable life? How can communities and municipalities be organized to permit fewer journeys beyond the pale? How can a city avoid becoming the next Sodom – a place fundamentally lacking in empathy and therefore irredeemable?

There was a time I thought relationships were a gateway to justice. Increasingly, I believe they are the very nature of justice itself! There’s a teaching in the Mishnah, a 2nd century legal text from the land of Israel: The temperament of the one who says: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours … there are some who say that’s the way of Sodom [midat Sdom]” (Avot 5:10). Relational Justice is the capacity to say, as did John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself. … And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

We are all interconnected. We know what we do not wish for ourselves and, therefore, we cannot wish it for others. None of us wants to be misunderstood, so we are called to understand. None of us wants to be left behind, so we are directed to look over our shoulder. None of us wants to be hated, so we are commanded – despite difference and disagreement – to love.

(A version of this post appears in Jmore).

Compassion Fatigue

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “compassion fatigue,” but anyone in America who cares about justice must be feeling it these days.

There are so many things to worry about, so many systemic oppressions about which we’ve become more conscious, so many threats to our basic civil society that too many of us (rightly) cannot seem to focus on any one thing for long.

With immigration, gun violence, #MeToo, institutional racism, transphobia, environmental justice, generational poverty or so many other pressing concerns, too many of us feel like we’re bolted to our seats, transfixed as we snap our heads jarringly back and forth like spectators at some kind of grotesque tennis match.

It used to be that, for many of us, it felt hard to figure out what was just. Now, for too many of us, it feels like we know exactly what justice looks like but have no conviction it can be achieved (and not much confidence we can even move the needle).

When societal problems appear so intractable, what can we do to avoid the paralysis of compassion fatigue? The prophet Micah has wisdom to offer here. Micah prophesied during the 8th century BCE.  During his lifetime, he rails against political corruption and oppression in both the northern and southern kingdoms, witnessing first the invasion and subjugation of the former and then the anxious relief of the latter when it is spared the brutality of Assyrian conquest.

How do we function when confronted with complex and overwhelming societal problems? Micah’s answer: simplify! “[God] has told you, O man, what is good and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Rashi, the 11th century sage, asks, what’s the difference between walking with God and walking with our fellow human beings? When it comes to people, he says, “If one man embarrasses his fellow and comes to appease him, the fellow says to him, ‘I will not accept your apology until this person or that person, before whom you disgraced me, comes [to make amends].’ But the Holy One of Blessing desires only that the man’s return be between the two of them.”

Paradoxically, God is big enough to avoid making failure bigger than it needs to be. Whereas human beings tend to blow things out of proportion. The solution? Try to be a bit more like God.

When humanity’s baser instincts get you down, says Rashi, focus on the positive. Yes, we have a tendency to allow small problems to become bigger ones until each flawed human interaction escalates into communal failing and then societal degradation. Micah’s philosophy of modest walking doesn’t ignore this reality, but it also recognizes that moving forward begins, to paraphrase the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, with a single step.

And what step should we first take? A step toward one another. We start with our family members, our friends or our co-workers. We start with a stranger we encounter in line at Starbucks or an acquaintance from shul. But to be most effective, we start with those whom we’ve hurt or those who have hurt us, perhaps even someone with whom we disagree politically.

The sage Shammai says, “Greet each person with a gracious expression on your face” (Avot 1:15), which implies we are to do so even (perhaps especially) with someone we dislike or who has caused us harm.

This isn’t easy, but if we can repair one broken relationship, have empathy for one person with whom we disagree (or allow that person to come to better understand us), we can begin to move forward.  Sometimes it’s as simple as giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

It’s no accident that Micah’s metaphor is about walking. Justice must be done. Goodness ought to be valued.  But journeys are best undertaken with traveling companions.

(A version of this post can be found at Jmore Living).

Locanthropy

Each December, the Oxford English Dictionary chooses one “Word of the Year” (or sometimes two, one for the US and one for the UK) as the year’s philological cultural barometer. Last year’s WOTY was youthquake, meaning: “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.” 2013’s word was selfieand 2007’s US Word of the Year was locavore which is “a person whose diet consists only or principally of locally grown or produced food.” Looking back a decade, the term seems quaint, and even at the time smacked of self-indulgence in the name of self-restraint.  Still, there was and is some merit in the desire to push back against the mechanized, hydrogenated, perilously affordable and artificial.

A few years after locavore came on the scene, I coined a new word along similar lines which I thought might instigate deeper engagement for the locally inclined do-gooder. (I will confess the word did not catch on, even mildly). My word was locanthropy,and here’s the true story I shared to illustrate my point:

In 2011, Miriam and I finally decided it was time to take the plunge and get a minivan. I would give up my old car and inherit my wife’s Subaru. We contacted an organization that accepts donated cars, repairs them when possible, and distributes them across three states. Two weeks later, a flatbed truck met me on Eutaw Place, across from Beth Am, and drove my rust-colored ’98 Saturn SL toward the highway.

A couple weeks later, I got an email from our emeritus rabbi who lived across the alley from us: “I think I saw your car in the neighborhood today.” “No, you must be mistaken,” I replied, “I donated my car.”  But sure enough, parked around the corner from my house was my old car with reupholstered interior but the same familiar stickers on the windshield and the telltale bit of key I once broke off in trunk.

Maimonides teaches it’s a higher level of tzedakah to give anonymously – and I certainly tried.  In fact, I think I spent the next several months subconsciously trying to avoid conversations with that neighbor so as not to embarrass her. But the story also reminds me how powerful it can be to support one’s own neighborhood, one’s own community.  The Talmud says, “the poor of your own city (or community) come first,” and we are reminded that we should construct our dwelling places so as to provide access for the poor.  Rashi adds that a gatehouse, if one is constructed, must be situated in a way that ensures the owner of the home(s) beyond will hear the cry of the beggar looking for food (Talmud Bava Kamma 7b).

Sometimes we can make a local impact without even knowing it. Seven years later, I mostly regret buying the minivan, but I’m still convinced of the need for locanthropy– a commitment to deliberately and deliberatively local giving.   In my very first Jmore column back in 2016, I cited a provocative essay entitled “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.” The author’s claim is that while too many fantasize about solving problems for those people “over there,” we ignore brokenness and trauma in our own backyard.

This is where locanthopy comes in. In a world where problems seem insoluble and basic civility has broken down at the cellular level, we ought to return to basics. Who are our neighbors? How do we treat them? It’s been said, “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Some are fighting anxiety or depression, drug addiction or other self-destructive behavior. Some guard secrets of abuse or failed parenting or are simply grieving a loss. Some people wonder where their next meal will come from and others if anyone will miss them when they’re gone. Jewish tradition teaches that proximity demand accountability.

Our neighbors have all kinds of needs. How are we meeting them?

“All Are Welcome” Sounds Good, But What Does it Actually Mean?

Pulpit rabbis often play community roles. In my own beyond-the-walls-of-my-shul rabbinate, I frequently get invited to various interfaith or political gatherings at which a number of clergy are represented. Often, I’m the only rabbi. Sometimes, I’m the only Jew. Recently I was at one of these convenings, and one of my Christian colleagues lead the invocation. It was a beautiful prayer with soaring, inclusive rhetoric, powerful imagery drawing us in, incisive and provocative language challenging us to work together toward our collective aim of showing up for West Baltimore. I held my breath. I knew what was almost certainly coming. And then it did. The pastor ended her remarks, “in Christ’s name we pray.” And everyone around the table (except the rabbi, the Imam and the head of another Jewish organization) said, “Amen!”

Jewishness in America is cartographic; it’s about finding our place. Most of us enjoy the privileges of whiteness that undergird many of our country’s institutions, and yet we are not part of the Christian majority that dominates so many facets of American life. Being a Jewish faith leader, I’m reminded of this all the time. The other day, I went for a run and stumbled upon a small church with a big white cross over the keystone archway.  Over the door were three words in all caps: ALL ARE WELCOME.

A culture of welcoming is a beautiful thing. I recently attended mass at the Church of the Nativity in Lutherville, where they have nearly perfected the art of welcoming. I intend to incorporate some of what I learned there into our approach at Beth Am, a place (I’m proud to say) already boasts a solid record of hospitality.

I very much want to celebrate the church’s catchphrase: ALL ARE WELCOME, and part of me does. But deep down I understand what those words, positioned under the cross, really mean: All are welcome to believe what we believe. This is sort of how I felt at the interfaith gathering recently, a tone-deafness, not to the possibility of different beliefs in the room, but to the onus of the prayer-leader to applaud those differences. Difference has become a derivative of collaboration, not the cause of it.

I guess it’s always been that way, but maybe it doesn’t have to be.  Perhaps we can champion inclusiveness over triumphalism. Perhaps Baltimore, a city where non-Christians are regularly subjected to and, ostensibly, included in Christological prayers in the name of ecumenicalism, can lean into a better version of interfaith work.

Here’s a phrase that might help. Instead of ALL ARE WELCOME, what if we said three other words: I APPRECIATE YOU. These are words I hear frequently in my majority black neighborhood. I’ve always been taught when someone does something generous or praiseworthy, you say “I appreciate that.’ But in my neighborhood, people say, “I appreciate you.” The difference is subtle but profound.  I appreciate THAT means I value what you’ve done.  I appreciate YOU means I value who you are.  Justice begins with our posture toward difference. If more of us cherished difference, we would be more inclined to create inclusive spaces and experiences, where all truly feel welcome.

(A verison of this post will appear at jmoreliving.com).

Equality and Equity

When the Torah lays out a prescription for a just society, its starting point is an affirmation of human equality — each of us is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27) and is considered, therefore, equally holy and entitled to equal treatment under the law.  “You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor nor show deference to the rich; judge your fellow fairly” (Lev. 19:15).

But there’s more to the story. Equality is more than a human right, it’s a fact of our humanity. To be human — male, female, older, younger, black, white, gay, straight, deaf, hearing — definitionally, is to be equal in heaven’s eyes. Equality is not something to be achieved; it’s to be acknowledged.

But the Torah also recognizes how societies, ancient and modern, don’t function as heaven does. Human beings, with all our failings, fears and frailties, tend to discriminate, marginalize and scapegoat. What’s needed in response is not a commitment to equality but to equity.

Rashi, the 11th century sage, understands the demand for equity as built into the same verse from Leviticus: “Judge your fellow fairly,” he explains, also means “judge each person as meritorious,” (i.e. with compassion and according to his or her particular circumstances). In other words, a just court, like a fair-minded person, understands systemic inequity and works to unmake it.

April 11 of this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, a landmark civil rights bill passed in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. April 19 was the third anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, and May 14 marks 70 years since the birth of the modern State of Israel. What do these three occasions have in common? Only that each is indicative of ways that historic attempts to achieve equity by and for oppressed populations so often falter.

While progress has been made since the 1968 Fair Housing Act, communities of color still experience, profoundly, the legacy of redlining. Three years after the Baltimore Uprising, days when many (in exasperation) marched in civil disobedience and others (also in exasperation) turned to looting and violence, little has changed for black Baltimoreans. The murder rate, beginning to decline, is still perilously high. The opioid crisis, widespread, multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-class, disproportionately affects communities of color.

As for Israel, Theodore Herzl’s grand vision of Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), meant to eliminate anti-Semitism by normalizing Jewishness in the realization of long-held Jewish national aspirations, has scarcely ended Jew-hatred. On the contrary, Israel is regularly subjected to a double standard in international arenas, with individuals, groups and nation-states trotting out well-worn stereotypes and bias mapped onto the State of Israel itself.

A few years ago, Craig Froehle, a business professor at the University of Cincinnati, created a meme that went viral. It was an image of three kids, of different heights, trying to watch a ballgame over a fence. The rendering made a distinction between conservative and liberal worldviews, but it was quickly adapted to distinguish between equality and equity. In the “equality” version, each boy stood on a crate, enabling the tallest to see clearly, the medium child to peek over the fence and the shortest not to be able to see at all. The “equity version” reapportioned the crates so that the shortest boy could see as well as the tallest.

The image was shared and reshared millions of times, in thousands of different forms. Those repurposing the meme pointed out, among other things, it didn’t depict people of color, girls/women, those with disabilities, etc.

Moreover, it didn’t sufficiently address the real problem with systemic inequity which is that many systems of oppression like racism or anti-Semitism don’t begin with problems inherent to the people themselves (like height) but with prejudice against those who look different or believe different things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is well-articulated by Paul Kuttner of the University of Utah who says, for example with regard to educational inequities, people assume “… marginalized communities need more resources in their schools because they are inherently less academically capable.”  But research (and the Torah) tell us this is patently false. The problem isn’t the kids; it’s the fence; or it’s the deficit from which so many people are forced to even begin.

A version of this blog post can be found at https://www.jmoreliving.com/2018/04/20/equality-equity/. 

Is Black Panther Jewish?

As Michael Chabon details in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the comic book art form (and subsequent television shows and films) owes a debt of gratitude to Jews and the Jewish experience. From Shuster and Siegel to Joe Simon, Bob Kane and Will Eisner (to name a few) noteworthy superheroes sprung from the minds and pallets of Jewish creators, mapping their American Jewish experience onto colorful messiahs and golems galore. That’s why I was intrigued to learn a new reboot intends to “return Superman to his Jewish roots.” In recent years we’ve seen Superman transformed into a Christ-like figure, but his origins were both profoundly Jewish and distinctly American, trading his ethnic Hebrew name (Kal-El) for a wholesome Midwestern one (Clark Kent), traveling from a distant place to make his home like so many immigrants, even surviving the arduous journey as an infant in a Moses basket-like space craft.

Comic book movies have been riding high for some years now with Jews featuring prominently on occasion (2017’s Wonder Woman with Israeli actress Gal Gadot) but often less-conspicuously (e.g. 2018’s Black Panther). At the time of writing, Black Panther has just surpassed $1 Billion in gross sales. We took our kids to see the film in a packed theater the week it debuted. They’re big into superhero movies right now, and living as we do in our majority African American neighborhood, they were also excited to see a film featuring a hero who looks like their neighbors and friends.

We found ourselves sitting next to a black couple and their son. The little boy must have been no more than 7 years old and his mother kept covering his eyes during the more violent scenes. And yet, the way she would whisper to him during the film, pointing out the stately King T’Challa, the beautiful African landscape with its advanced civilization, the portrayal of strong women, it was clear it was she and her husband, not the boy, who were responsible for the film choice. They were showing Black Panther to their child the way Jewish parents show Exodus or Fiddler on the Roof to ours. It was a rite of passage, a glimpse at a slice of black culture the sentiments of which – black power, agency and ingenuity – were as real for them as they are fantasy for too many whites.

Black Panther, like so many other comic book heroes was the brainchild, in 1966, of two Jews, Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) and Stan Lee (Stanley Lieber). “Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who invented the character and… Wakanda, they were two Jewish-American artists…” says director Ryan Coogler, “and pulling from the things that they were seeing around them to make these stories.” In other words, they saw in this first mainstream black superhero, something analogous to the Jewish experience. Like Superman, Black Panther came from a mystical and powerful realm and was gifted the strength, wisdom and compassion to fight oppression and injustice. Over 5o years later, Coogler, a black man who grew up in Oakland, CA, says making the film “brought me closer to my roots.”

What does it mean for Jews to tell African American stories? It doesn’t mean we simply take credit for them, and we must be careful how we appropriate them. (A black Jew I know takes umbrage with Ashkenazi Jews singing Go Down Moses at their Seder table). And yet there’s something elegant in what Kirby and Lee were able to do in the 60’s, in the midst of the civil rights era. They paid attention to what they were hearing and seeing. They crafted a figure who could be shaped by future generations of artists, so that future generations of actors and film-makers could fashion something magical and fervently relevant, and future generations of African American movie-goers could introduce their children to a hero we can all be proud of.