“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).

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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.

 

#HerToo: The Role of (Jewish) Men in Counting Women Among Us

Purim arrives in just a month! Purim is a joyous holiday, filled with costumed children, merrymaking and all-around silliness. Since this blog is usually about justice though (and this piece is to be cross-published for my March “Baltimore Justice” JMore column), you might be wondering what Purim has to do with issues of bettering our society. The truth is The Scroll of Esther, the core text of the holiday, is all about justice. It’s a tale of marginalization, attempted genocide, redemption and salvation.  Good triumphs over evil, the queen, her cousin and their people survive, and the villain gets his just desserts (and not hamantaschen).

And yet, the way Jews observe Purim itself betrays a deep anxiety about the elusiveness of justice in the world. We wear masks and (deliberately) confuse our fellow as to our identity. We laugh in the face of evil and spin our noisemakers at the sound of Haman’s name, a temporary salve for the wounds of oppression. And we drink – by tradition, so heavily we can no longer distinguish between the words “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman.”

On Purim, what’s right is wrong and what’s wrong is right. We challenge assumptions about good and evil not because we’re moral relativists but because any fool can look at the world and figure out in short order how frequently evil effectively masquerades as good. Because the Megillah invites questions as to what is seen or unseen, even right or wrong, I find myself reflecting on what wisdom the Purim story might offer those of us moved to action this year by the #MeToo movement. Does this book, named for a woman, have something to add to our conversation about the place of women (and men) in society?

Recently, as I was traveling to Israel for my twice-yearly fellowship learning at the Shalom Hartman Institute, I had an experience fairly common to someone who regularly wears a yarmulke. I was sitting in the Toronto airport terminal when a man stood over me and beckoned, “Nu?  You’ll come daven Mincha?” [Translation: “You, who is clearly a Jew and because you’re a man (and therefore counts in a religious quorum for prayer), should come join us in the corner so we can collectively offer the afternoon prayers.”]

Most Jewish men, I think, experience this occasional intrusion as a heartening one.  Indeed, in my own past I felt blessed to be counted and, therefore, to enable others to fulfill their worship obligations – particularly when someone is saying Kaddish. But that day, I refused. I did so in part because I was confident he would form a minyan without me (there were plenty of guys with yarmulkes) but also because I am becoming increasingly sensitive to what my counting means for those who happen to have been born with different anatomy then my own. So, instead of mechanically saying “yes,” I looked up and said, “no thanks.” And when he persisted I asked, “Are you counting women in the minyan?”

My point here is not to denigrate Orthodoxy. I believe there is great value in having multiple perspectives on Jewish practice. But increasingly, I’m feeling less sanguine about the positive contributions of non-egalitarian Judaism to the dynamics of women and men in our Jewish community. I could go into the halachic (legal) arguments in favor of counting women in a quorum, but that’s not really the point. Knowledgeable and committed Jews can disagree on the particulars of halacha. What’s more important is that we begin to confront, honestly, the ramifications of our choices as men, the privileged gender – including in our religious life. What does it mean to define default Judaism as we have? What are the implications when half of the world’s adult Jewish population, in the eyes of many, quite literally do not count?

Consider Purim. The book is named for Esther. She risks her life approaching the king, outing herself as a Jew and calling Haman out for his wicked scheme.  And yet, by tradition, of the four verses that are repeated by the congregation during the Megillah reading, one is about Jewish survival generally and three are only about Esther’s cousin Mordechai!

One innovation we’ll be trying this year at Beth Am comes from my colleague Rabbi Julia Andelman who suggests three additional verses for the community to repeat – verses that celebrate Esther as hero of the story.  In giving voice to Esther’s name, we remember how she leaned into history. She showed up for those who were voiceless and powerless and, in doing so, she made her life count.

What does it mean for her legacy and the place of women in Jewish community when we undervalue her contribution? What would it mean for us if Esther showed up in shul on Purim and we didn’t count her in the minyan?

Intersectionality (Take 2)

In my last post (Jan issue of JMore), I wrote about an historic intersection near my house and titled the piece “Intersectionality.” In this post, I want to tackle the same term and its typical usage. It’s a word at once embraced and maligned, depending on your political perspective and, to some extent, your age. And it’s a concept to which pro-Israel activists take great exception because they feel (justifiably, I think) it has been used to unite disparate populations and activists around the world against the State of Israel.

When it comes to social justice, there are two primary modalities: achieving and understanding. Most activists are achievers – they wish to solve systemic and societal problems. They eschew quick fix, helicopter-in volunteerism whose results, they contend, are often more about satisfying the volunteers than they are about solving problems. They resist platitudes and pooh-pooh photo-ops from politicians who speak the language of institutional transformation but are rarely effective in implementing sweeping reforms. And the achievers very much want institutional change, to upend biased systems of control and to rebalance power dynamics so laws and policies work more in favor of the vulnerable.

This impulse is, in fact, a Jewish one. The Torah says “proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof” (Lev. 25:10). The edict signifies the beginning of the 50th “Jubilee” year when debts are forgiven and slaves set free. Hitting the societal “reset” button is attractive, especially for those who feel the powerful elite have been able to press their advantage over the proletariat with impunity. But the Rabbis preferred incremental over disruptive or radical change. They understood revolutions rarely succeed in creating sustainable solutions (let alone equitable) ones. So they taught one should give tzedakah but not so much she impoverishes herself. And some rabbinic sources suggest a wealthy person who becomes poor should be supported by the community in a manner with which he is accustomed, even if it means receiving more than his share (Talmud Ketubbot 67b).

Focusing on instant vs. incremental rates of achieving, though, draws attention from the essential disconnect between achieving and understanding, and herein lies the tension contained within the word intersectionality. When the platform of the Movement for Black Lives (endorsed by some, rejected by others within the loose coalition of those who organize under the banner “Black Lives Matter”) maligned Zionism and the State of Israel, it did so for ostensibly intersectional reasons. Their claim: the suffering of oppressed peoples in one part of the world (e.g. African Americans or Native Americans) is fundamentally linked to the suffering of oppressed peoples in other parts of the world (e.g. Palestinians). This is an alliance born out of the desire to achieve, to magically and radically reshape the world order, to rebalance society a la Leviticus.

But intersectionality, in its more pristine (and I would argue more useful) form, isn’t about achieving alliances so much as it’s about understanding the intersection of different aspects of identity – within rather than between people. The term was first coined by Prof. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 to critique feminist thought, underscoring the extent to which oppression of black women exacerbates their experience of both racism and sexism. Crenshaw points out because “…the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”

The problem with utilizing the framework of intersectionality for discussing Israeli/Palestinian politics is two-fold. First, it appropriates a useful term from its useful context and draws attention away from, say, the particular experience of African American women or transgender Palestinians or Jews of color. Second, it creates sharp alliances along blurry lines in order to leverage the powerless against the powerful. This goal is not wrong, in and of itself – the powerless do need allies, and it’s better for various marginalized groups to find common cause with one another than to work at cross purposes (which only serves to reinforce systems of oppression). But that strategy only works in the long run if each community takes pains to understand and recognize, first and foremost, the uniqueness of one another’s causes. To do otherwise is to flatten all oppression into an amalgam of grievances and rob whole societies of any lasting solutions.

 

Intersectionality (Take 1)

Druid park entrance 4

Among the — I suspect many — things I do that drives my wife crazy is talk incessantly about an intersection near our house. The intersection of Madison Avenue and Druid Park Lake Drive has been under construction since 2016 — and was finally completed in November!

Frequently, over almost two years, I would say something like, “I was walking the dog, and the crew was out working on the stoplights today.”  Or, “they finished the brick path!”  Or, “they finally redid the tin blue roofing under the arch.” And Miriam would roll her eyes, smile and pray they’d finish soon just so I’d stop talking about it!

In 1860, the City of Baltimore and Mayor Thomas Swann dedicated Druid Hill Park, one of the oldest public parks in America. For about a century, the grand entrance to the park could be found at Madison Avenue, where the northbound streetcar turned toward McCullough at the majestic sandstone archway bearing Swann’s name.  From the archway, families with children could walk from what’s now called Reservoir Hill straight into the park and stroll up the tree-lined and elegant stone-paved mall behind the conservatory toward the boat lake. The relationship between the neighborhood and the park was seamless.

Druid Park entrance

But in 1961, Baltimore dedicated the Jones Falls Expressway, access to which from Greater Mondawmin included a triple-level interchange. Great care was taken to move cars with rapidity past the park toward the highway – hence Druid Park Lake Drive was born. The park, once fully integrated into its surrounding neighborhoods, was now amputated from them, leaving future generations in Auchenteroly Terrace, Liberty Square, Park Circle, Woodberry, Hampden and Reservoir Hill scratching this green phantom limb.

When Miriam and I lived on “Lake Drive,” we used to chuckle that getting the grass mowed in the median between our home and the street meant calling the Department of Rec and Parks, because the park service retained responsibility for green space on either side of the major traffic artery, which had been routed straight through the southern portion of the park.

To this day, Maryland’s Department of Transportation focuses primarily on moving automobiles, not human beings, from place to place. Walking, jogging, biking, pushing a stroller or walking your dog – these are a secondary concerns.  That’s why I’ve been so excited about the intersection at Madison Avenue.  The park is our front yard, but for years, we’ve had only two pedestrian crossings to the park from the south, each more dangerous than the next.  Our first act of advocacy upon moving to Baltimore was, with the help of the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council, to guilt the city into repairing the broken walk signal at Linden Avenue. The message sent went something like this: “The new Beth Am rabbi is running across four lanes of fast-moving traffic with his little kids.” The signal was fixed within a week.

Druid Park entrance 3

For as long as there has been human civilization, there have been roads and intersections. In rabbinic literature, these are rightly seen as liminal spaces, places of transition where values and priorities are clarified.  The Talmud (Ketubbot 17a) stipulates that if a wedding procession meets a funeral procession at a crossroads, the wedding takes precedence. Each are important, but joy and promise demand more immediacy than sadness and loss.  I wonder how many couples, Jewish and not, walked together, holding hands and smiling at the undulating grassy landscape before them as they passed beneath Mayor Swann’s arch during the century before the JFX was built.

The new intersection is pretty nice, as intersections go. They installed classy, historic-looking lights and walk signals and removed the yellow stoplights which had been haphazardly strung across the road. Most important, they added an accessible crossing with lines repainted so traffic has to stop further back.  Now distracted or aggressive drivers are much less likely to hit my dog or my kids when we cross. It’s a step in the right direction but much more is needed to truly rethread the park with its surrounding neighborhoods.

A version of this post can also be found here.