An Election Season of Anger and Idolatry

Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5777 

Here’s what I remember from that spring day.  I can tell you because I witnessed it happen.  The young people had gathered for ostensibly peaceful reasons, but things quickly got out of hand.  Pretty soon a group of them, a few “bad apples,” were lighting fire to a parked car and, when the fire engine arrived to extinguish the blaze, they began to throw bottles at the truck and the firefighters – simply for trying to do their job.  Rage quickly became vandalism and violence.  For the first time in decades, police in riot gear were called in, and the young rioters were dispersed or arrested.  A small consolation is that no one was killed, but the property damage was extensive.

This is my firsthand account of the Mifflin Street Block Party in Madison, WI, my sophomore year of college.  The block party began in 1969 as a protest against the Vietnam War.  By the 80’s it had become a community gathering for various political or social causes and by the 90’s it was an excuse, while police looked the other way, for thousands of college students, to party largely uninhibited outdoors. (I was just walking by, of course). Anyway, after the rioting, the city shut down the event.  It didn’t happen again for several years, and it’s now a shadow of its former self.  People remember the Watts riots and the LA Riots, the Crown Heights Riots, the Baltimore Riots of ’68 and 2015.  Few people recall Madison’s Mifflin Street riots from ‘96 perhaps because its perpetrators were almost exclusively white, or perhaps because there was no cause, not societal issue for which they were fighting.  It wasn’t a civil rights battle.  It wasn’t a reaction to police brutality.  It was a bunch of drunk and high kids, doing stupid stuff right?  Just like the two young white guys, Raider’s fans who came from New York to last Sunday’s Raven’s game and pummeled a 55-year old ex-marine, putting him in the hospital – they were just inebriated and lost their cool, right?  Will they be held accountable for their crime?  Maybe.  But is anyone looking beyond that stadium brawl, beyond the Mifflin street block party, beyond the ubiquitous rise in spiteful and hateful online comments? Beyond licentiousness and demagoguery. Could it be that all of these are part of something larger, something more insidious going on in our society?  Have we noticed there seems to be an epidemic of fear and anger in our country, not exclusively but certainly among white men?  The Talmud (Shabbat 105b) says, kol hakoeis k’ilu oved avodah zarah, anger is the equivalent of idol worship.”

On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the shofar as an analogue for sacred space.  Today is Yom Kippur, and I want to talk with you about t’shuvah and trust – and about anger.  But to do so, I want to share one more shofar story: One Rosh Hashanah the Chozeh of Lublin was unable to leave his study for t’ekiat hashofar.  He was embarrassed and heartbroken, he felt utterly unqualified believing himself not to have even one zechut, one meritorious act, to his credit that year.  Who was he to fulfill such a mitzvah of blowing the shofar!  He thought and thought.  Is there anything for which I deserve to stand before the community and sound the horn? 

Finally, it occurred to him; during the course of the year, the Chozeh had not spoken one word in anger.  He had been tempted. On one occasion an attendant had forgotten to prepare a vessel of water next to his bed so he was unable to wash his hands for netilat yadayim in the morning.  He was about the scold the man when he recalled the warning of the Sages: “kol hakoeis k’ilu oved avodah zarah, anger is the equivalent of idol worship.”  The Chozeh said to himself: “For the sake of washing my hands in the morning, I’m going to make myself (God-Forbid) an idol worshipper? So he held his tongue.  And recalling that incident and other times throughout the year when he felt angry but didn’t lash out, the Chozeh felt sufficiently qualified to stand before the community and sound the shofar.

Some of you, no doubt, have been wondering what if anything I will say about the election this year.  Articles have been circulating about how difficult the decision for rabbis has been.  This election cycle, I’m sure you’d agree, is like no other, perhaps in American history.  And, yet, we as a congregation are bound, I am bound, to certain restrictions and respecting them is essential.  So let me just put it out there.  The decision of what not to say has been easy for me.  I will endorse no candidate from this bima.  The law exists for good reason, and I am a fierce believer in the wall of separation between church and state, and that value is much bigger than any election, even this one.  But I also believe in the values of our congregation, and it’s always been my contention – as it was our founders’ – that Beth Am is a big-tent community.  Shul doesn’t always need to be easy.  Here, we can “afflict the comfortable even as we comfort the afflicted.”  We can talk about 800 pound gorillas, and I’ve been honored for over six years now to have been able to raise hard questions and share my perspective with you, Shabbos and Yuntif, on relevant topics like marriage equality, structural racism, Anti-Semitism and the demonization of Israel, Interfaith family synagogue membership, the Iran deal and much much more.  But, no matter what policies or legislation we might discuss in this room, we must strive, I must strive, to maintain its sanctity and a sense of safety – for Democrats, Republicans, Independents.  Whatever your political convictions, you are a part of this eclectic and wonderful Beth Am family, and we are grateful for each of you in your totality.

And having said that, I believe if we get through the holiday cycle and don’t address, in any way, the thing that is on all of our minds, that would be a disservice to you and an abrogation of my rabbinate, my role as your teacher.  As Parker Palmer, one of my favorite educational philosophers puts it, “The highest form of love [is the] love that allows for intimacy without the annihilation of difference…. good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher” (The Courage to Teach, p. 57, 13).  The minute I can no longer be me; the moment I no longer create space for you to be you is the moment we have a relationship in name only.  That’s not what I want and I hope it’s not what you want either.

So, today I will not talk about the election, but I would like to offer some thoughts about the American electorate, our society.  Because this cycle has revealed a profound ugliness in our country.  The depth and breadth of hatred, the cavalier dismissal of difference, the erosion of mores and brazen mockery of civility are reaching epidemic levels.  There is so much anger and so much despair.  So, we must talk about anger, and to honor Palmer’s challenge I want to make it personal, start with my own identity.  Because I really don’t know how it feels to be black or brown.  I don’t know what it feels like to be gay or trans.  I’ve never been a woman.  But I do know what it is to be a Jew and how it feels to be a white man, and I am concerned with what far too many white men think about black, brown, Jewish or queer people, and how so many of us think about and treat women.  Anger is a normal human emotion, It’s ok to feel angry.  Even God gets angry in the Torah.  But our rage, white rage, male rage, by virtue of its being anchored in power and privilege, is wreaking havoc on our country, and I as someone who happens to have been born white and male have been struggling to figure out why.

The problem isn’t being unaware; we know bias gets wielded as a cudgel against the weak or vulnerable, but we so often shrug it off, chalk it up to ignorance.  We lost Gene Wilder this year.  Blazing Saddles is one of my favorite movies.  You remember what Wilder’s Jim says to Cleavon Little’s character?  Sheriff Bart has been appointed head law-man of this small town in the Old West which is not surprisingly pretty racist.  Bart is, also not surprisingly, slow to be accepted by the townspeople, all of whom seemed to be named Johnson.  And trying to console him, Jim says, “What did you expect? ‘Welcome, sonny’? ‘Make yourself at home’? ‘Marry my daughter’? You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”

But (brilliant) comedy aside, when we do this in real life, when we’re dismissive of statements and attitudes, even moronic ones, when we don’t sufficiently grapple with their prevalence and pervasiveness, we miss opportunities for societal growth.  And then we slip back into the same vicious cycles of action and reaction, thesis and antitheses without arriving at any useful synthesis.  One of the better opinion pieces last year was Andrew Sullivan’s in New York Magazine (“Democracies End When they are too Democratic”).  There have been real achievements of late for those who want a more equitable society – legal same-sex marriage in fifty states, the first African-American president, three women (two Jews and a Latina) on the Supreme Court.  And some people, a lot of people it seems, are mad as hell.  Good old fashioned bigotry is no one’s fault but the bigots – But the anger? Sullivan thinks some of that is due to lack of graciousness and empathy by the victors for the vanquished. “For the white working class,” he says, “having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome.”

Is it fair?  Is it people of color who should placate racists when blacks are given their due – especially because really they haven’t been, and the gap between actual and perceived progress is gargantuan.  Is it women’s role to pacify angry white men?  What about someone who lost his job to a woman he deems inferior when women in America are still making 78 cents on the dollar and black women 68 cents?  No.  It’s not fair at all.  But justice can’t be achieved in the heat of passion; it requires reconciliation which requires patience.  Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar taught: al ter’atzeh et chaveirach bish’at ka’aso, Do not placate your friend when he’s angry… v’al tishtadel lir’oto bish’at kalkalato, and don’t intrude upon him at the time of his disgrace” (Pirkei Avot 4:23).  The morons are having their moment, and they would really appreciate it if we stop thinking of them as morons or worse and notice, in their acting out, that most of them aren’t evil; they’re flawed and foolish and scared to death, just like everyone else.  Sullivan writes, “Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well.”

It says in Mishlei (24:17-18), “binfol oyiv’kha lo tismach, do not rejoice at your enemy’s downfall.  Why? “Lest God see it and be displeased and lash out at you [next].”  When achievement only comes at the expense of another, when every win necessitates a loss we end up with a society of losers.  That’s what I learned from my good friend Ron Shapiro: good negotiators anticipate and consider the other party’s needs along with their own.  Because, as we all know, the agony of defeat is infinitely more powerful and longer lasting than the thrill of victory.  Wounds are slow to heal, and they always leave a scar.  As author Brene Brown points out: “We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated,” she points out, “with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying” (Daring Greatly).  And this is exactly what’s happening with white, male America today – more drug use, more depression, higher suicide rates.  We’re a mess!

And what happens when shame is synecdoche, when enough individual Americans feel collectively abused or misunderstood?  Democracies trend toward tyranny over time; that’s the point Sullivan is making and what Plato taught 2400 years ago (The Republic): that hyper-democratization weakens the intelligentsia and leads to what Tocqueville would later call the “tyranny of the majority.”  The masses become the mob.  Which is perhaps why so many white guys, feeling both threatened by women and minorities and collectively ashamed of their own failures, are so very angry.

This is the point Carol Anderson makes in her new book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of our Racial Divide (2016).  While many opined about black rage after Freddie Gray was killed or Trayvon Martin or, more recently Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher, Anderson argues that white rage is a much bigger problem for American society.  White people are perfectly capable of rioting, of course – I learned that on Mifflin Street in ‘96 – but, more often white anger is more insidious, simmering beneath the surface, latching on to policies and embedding itself within the legal system.  In Anderson’s telling, black advancement has been the single greatest reason for collective white rage over hundreds of years of American history.  From rolling back reconstruction after the Civil War and instituting Jim Crow, to preventing African American migration from the South, to emasculating Brown v. Board and continuing school segregation, to upending civil rights achievements by eviscerating the Voting Rights act, among other things, to propagating a libelous claim of non-citizenship (and therefore illegitimacy) against the first black president, powerful white men, men who look like me, have lashed out against scapegoats.  African Americans, other people of color, LGBT people, sometimes Jews and plenty of other group have, like the Yom Kippur scapegoat of old, been exiled to some wilderness in order to appease those of us who, by dint of our appearance alone, enjoy some measure of privilege and power.

Anderson speaks mostly about race, not gender, but I feel obliged today to touch not just on white anger and its progeny– racism, xenophobia, nativism, but also male anger and the way it undergirds structural, institutional and pervasive sexism.  If I hear one more pundit, athlete, politician-dad talk about how he’s concerned for his daughters… gentlemen, we need to be concerned for our sons.  Misogyny is a men’s problem.  Violence against women is a men’s problem.  We are responsible for judging women differently by what they wear, or how they walk or talk or their body type.  We subject them to double-standards and objectify and degrade them.  The degree of misogyny apparent in our society today, forty-five years after Gloria Steinem started Ms. Magazine, ninety-six years after suffrage, is to my mind unconscionable.  And… no doubt, we as a society will no sooner overcome the stain of sexism by shaming men, than we will the scourge of racism by shaming whites.

There was a group deeply appreciative of men’s capacity for shame and retribution, and while making some great strides toward female advancement, as Judith Hauptman has shown, still used this awareness to keep women in their place for centuries. They were our Sages.  The Talmud is clear: there is no halakhic reason, for example, why women should be banned from reading Torah.  Why, then, have they traditionally been forbidden to do so? Meshum kevod hatzibur. “For the dignity of the community” (Megillah 23a).  That is to say, if a woman gets up and reads from the Torah, how will that feel for men in the room who can’t?  Were the Rabbis wrong?  Yes, I believe they were wrong.  Were the Rabbis pragmatic; did they understand the tyranny of the majority, even as they were to party to it?  Also, yes.

What, then, should we do?  Do we say white supremacists were right to take back 40 acres and a mule during Reconstruction because it helped America heal?  Do we say Chazal were right to keep women off the bima?  Or much worse, do we say Kristallnacht was inevitable because Germany was smarting from post-war depression?  Of course not.  Real healing is not done at the expense of the vulnerable, on the backs of broken.  But if possible it should be done with some consideration for those who must begin to relinquish their power.  This is Yom Kippur, a time for t’shuvah, and t’shuvah is about “turning.”  We turn toward God.  We turn toward those we have hurt.  But there can be no healing unless, somehow, we find the courage and strength to pivot toward those who have hurt us as well, and to recognize that they too are broken and ailing and so consumed with their own pain as to be devoured by anger approaching idolatry.  Avinu Malkeinu, sh’lakh refuah shelaymah l’cholei amekha, God, grant a full healing to your ailing people.”

But that’s really hard: to turn our face toward someone when his face represents persecution, marginalization or even violence, when our completely justifiable fantasy would be, at a minimum, to turn a cold shoulder. And in this moment, we should remember that our tradition does not necessarily demand forgiveness, at least not for those who have truly wronged us with sins of commission not omission.  For the latter, perhaps we should find a way to move through our own biases.  But for those who curse and maim, who belittle and berate, for those who commit violence, forgiveness without t’shuvah feels hollow and may even exacerbate our problems.

But, my friends, while we may not have to forgive, it is upon us to try to understand.  Remember the church shooting in Charleston, NC?  How could we forget?  When a young white man murdered nine African Americans, men and women, young and old, at Bible study, simply for the crime of being black.  “I have to do it,” he said. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”  He reloaded five times. I don’t know about you, but when I heard the families of several victims forgive the shooter, I was at once in awe and deeply unsettled – because I couldn’t do that.  And without judgment of those who could forgive, I would suggest that’s not our job.  But if we stop there, if we pretend Dylann Roof is an animal and not a real person or just chalk his behavior up to mental illness without examining the culture that put hate in his head and a Glock in his hand.  If we don’t try to understand his rage, we as a country will struggle for generations more to heal and to grow.  Anyone who’s ever experienced trauma knows there’s no getting over it, no moving past it, there’s only moving through it.

Cain killed his brother Abel and so we learn hashomer achi anochi, we are our brother’s protectors.  We are our sister’s keepers.  But more, we are the keepers of their narratives, their stories.  We must turn toward one another this year, especially after the election is over.  We must listen to each other’s concerns and grant them the dignity of being heard – not abided, surely not every moronic opinion accepted or laughed off, but heard and responded to with, whenever possible, patience and kindness and grace.  And I can say this: I’ll be trying right along with you, because it doesn’t come naturally to me either.

So let me pivot for a moment, and ask this final question because, for all of our problems, there is so much good in this world and, despite it all, I do love this country.  So here’s my question: how many of you have taken an Uber or stayed in an Airbnb?  One of the things I love about 5777 and recent years is the advent of the sharing economy.  Who would have thought, just a few years ago, that complete strangers would be stepping into each other’s cars or sleeping in each other’s homes?  Nevertheless, as Airbnb’s founder likes to point out, tonight almost 800,000 people in nearly 200 countries will be sleeping in a stranger’s home or welcoming a stranger into theirs.  That’s extraordinary.  We look around the country this election season and it seems like people are more divided than ever before, and in some ways that’s true.  But, simultaneously, we have an emerging culture that reclaims the best of an ancient and nearly forgotten world – a world before stranger-danger and Halloween candy scares, a world where hospitality somehow trumped fear of the unknown.  That was Abraham’s world, Sarah’s world.  The Midrash says Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all four sides so that they could see guests coming from a distance.  Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming.  That’s what we do at Beth Am.  That’s what we strive for when new-comers enter our walls.  That’s the world we’re trying to create here in Reservoir Hill, where people of different backgrounds and perspectives find common ground and develop trust through shared interest and increased understanding.  That world isn’t a fantasy.  In fact it’s more real than the boogeymen that are scaring so many American’s into a posture of self-preservation and sometimes rage.  But we don’t have to be so angry.  And when we feel angry, we can choose to act otherwise.

How did Airbnb do it?  How did they get random strangers to cohabitate?  Two key things: they designed an effective system for reviews and, in doing so, they were honest about social biases that exist.  They understood that it’s completely normal to trust someone who is more like you – same race, same gender, similar age or faith tradition.  But they also understood that my not trusting you doesn’t make you less trustworthy.  I just need help working through my prejudice and giving you space to work through yours.  So, if you go on Uber or Lyft or Airbnb you’ll see reviews.  And a Stanford study showed that if someone has at least ten good reviews, people are significantly more likely to stay at his or her home despite their differences.  Abraham and Sarah had a reputation, not just a well-designed tent, but their well-designed tent allowed them to live out their reputation.  This afternoon, after Martyrology and the Open Forum and before Mincha, we will be hosting here in the sanctuary our neighbors B. Cole and Aisha Pew of the Dovecote Café.  Anyone been there?  (Hopefully, not today…I asked them to send me a list)… Dovecote just celebrated their first anniversary, and I’m happy to say just won City Paper’s award for best café in all of Baltimore, and I do feel a little guilty for doing this on Yom Kippur when they can’t bring treats.  But if you read the review, the food and coffee are praised but secondary.  The first line reads as follows: “There is absolutely no way you can walk into Dovecote Café, located in Reservoir Hill, and not feel welcomed.”  Aisha and Cole are black and New Yorkers by way of Northern California and they’re women and Queer, and I’m none of those things – and they’re my friends.  And I don’t say that because I want you to think I’m cool.  (I do want you to think I’m cool, but that’s not why).  I say they’re my friends simply because it’s true, and we need fewer people to say “some my best friends are fill in the blank” and more people to say this is my friend Shirley or Kiara or Mahmed, or Deyvon or Dave.  Because there is great capacity in this country for shared vision and purpose, for understanding another’s stories and perspectives and for inviting others to understand ours, for hospitality, compassion and love.

And when this election is over, and the dust settles, we, all of us, will have to begin to pick up the pieces and move forward.  Every conversation we have and don’t have, every tweet or social media post we make or don’t, every email we send or think better of and then delete, every true but needling thing we say or refrain from saying will either add a thread to the fabric of this country or help in some small way to unravel it further.  We, each of us, is the Chozeh of Lublin and must demonstrate our worthiness.  We, each of us, will have a thousand thousand opportunities in the coming months to act with pettiness or magnanimity. And between the moment when the shofar sounds this evening and the moment it sounds again on Rosh Hashanah 5778, we as a nation will decide to be more worthy or less.  May we, each of us and all of us, be more.

Finding Common Ground

As the nation gears up for an ugly debate during an ugly and hate-filled election cycle, I feel blessed to have had time on the air today with my friend and neighbor Tom Hall of Midday on WYPR and my new friend and colleague, Rev. Grey Maggiano of Memorial Episcopal Church.  Despite/because of our differences, may we all feel and express more love and find more common ground!

Listen to Midday with Tom Hall and my conversation with Tom and Rev. Grey here, and thanks to the Institute for Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies for their support of the Living Questions series and The Shalom Hartman Institute for providing such a powerful opportunity for learning and exploration in Israel to these two urban Baltimore faith leaders!

(Thanks, also, to the Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore and Beth Am for their generous support of my time at Hartman!)

Steps in the Right Direction

At our recent celebration for our Eutaw Place home’s 120th birthday, we displayed a scrapbook which includes candid shots from the filming of Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights.  Early on in the movie, Joe Mantegna’s character sneaks out of shul on Rosh Hashanah to check out the newest model of Cadillac.  You can watch the scene here (time signature 4:20). The grand steps Mantegna descends are the actual front steps of Beth Am, and my understanding is the cameras were set up right in front of our home to catch the scene of classic cars lining the grand boulevard in front of the synagogue.

Those steps have a warm place in my heart.  On sunny spring or breezy autumn days, I like to sit on those steps and take in the scenery.  davening on the steps of Beth Am post civil unrestOn Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur those steps are a primary gathering spot for congregants to assemble and schmooze, catch up and wish one another a happy and healthy New Year.  And it was on those steps this past May 2 when, just days after the Baltimore civil unrest, our congregation proudly stepped outside to gather and pray in full view of our community with whom we share an unshakable bond.  A neighbor captured the moment in this photo.

This past weekend our Reservoir Hill neighborhood hunkered down to ride out Winter Storm Jonas.  Baltimore received 29.2″ of record snowfall, enough to impress even this native Chicagoan. Karen Miriam and Daniel during the blizzard of 2016 Little could I predict it would be so deep the Beth Am steps would play host to dozens of kids sledding and frolicking in the snow!  Here’s a shot of Miriam, our neighbor Karen and me Sunday with the kids playing and sledding in the background.

In the Bible, there are fifteen Psalms (120-134) that begin with the specific header Shir Hama’alot, a Song for Ascents.  One tradition has it that these Psalms correspond to the fifteen double steps beneath in the Hulda Gates at the Jerusalem Temple of old.

Southern Wall Steps
The Southern Wall Excavations in Jerusalem


As I think about what it might have been like for my ancestors to stand on those steps, squinting into the Jerusalem sun, ascending slowly, deliberately toward the holy summit and our most sacred spot, I find myself contemplating the steps of Beth Am.  Many things, sacred and banal, have occurred on those steps in the 94 years since they were built.  But among the most sacred, I think, were several hours in the winter of 2016, when kids from Reservoir Hill came together to make the Beth Am steps into the coolest toboggan run this side of Druid Hill Park!

One of the fifteen ascension Psalms includes the line, “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy” (v. 5). Jews sing these words every Shabbat and Festival meal before chanting our Grace, Birkat Hamazon.  2015 was a year brimming with Baltimore tears.  But these videos reflect one small but significant example of how we are beginning to reap with songs of joy.  Take a look!


MLK Weekend Highs and Lows

This past Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend, I was reminded what a privilege it is to serve Beth Am Synagogue  in Reservoir Hill.  Our geography coupled with our mission of learning, Justice, purposeful Jewish community and robust neighborhood engagement means I get to live my Jewish values each day in deeply fulfilling ways.

Three events from this past weekend stand out. First, I was asked to give the invocation for Coppin State University’s MLK breakfast on Friday. Rabbis get invited to do invocations fairly often, but being asked to do so at this HBCU (Historically Black College or University) just a couple miles from my home on this particular weekend was a great honor and an experience I’ll cherish.  I listened to Councilman Brandon Scott describe his childhood in Baltimore and the ways he feels so blessed to have ascended to his current post.  I listened to a young man whose oratory as President of the SGA was on par with some of the better speakers I’ve encountered.  I watched a montage of black civic leaders which culminated in a series of photographs of Barack Obama with the subtitle “Mr. President” and a waving flag.  In seeing this, I was reminded both that despite having a black president, we still have much daunting work before us to unmake generations of fear, subjugation and hate – but also just how much pride the African-American community takes in America’s Commander-in-Chief.

Sunday brought 450 people to Beth Am! – congregants, Res. Hill neighbors, Baltimoreans from around the area, Yale alumni and more – for a truly remarkable musical event.  Shades of Yale, a terrific young a cappella group performed “music of the African diaspora and the African-American tradition.”  I could try to describe the afternoon to you, but this blog post from a guest captures it much better than I can.  Here are a few pics:

Monday brought a fitting, if unsettling, bookend to this weekend’s celebration of Dr. King’s life and legacy.  I joined friends from Jews United for Justice to stand in the frigid Annapolis night air and raise up the need for much improved police accountability. Click here to read about the campaign to reform the L.E.O.B.R. and demand justice for Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and so many others who have fallen prey to our broken criminal justice system.


Here is what I said at the rally:

Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg, Closing Prayer for Rally of Maryland Coalition for Justice & Police Accountability (MCJPA).  On behalf of Jews United for Justice.  Monday, January 18, 2016.

My name is Rabbi Daniel Burg. I am the spiritual leader of Beth Am Synagogue in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Central-West Baltimore.  My wife and I live across from the our congregation, within walking distance of Mondawmin Mall and Sandtown-Winchester, and feel privileged to raise our two children in a diverse, dynamic and vital community.  I am honored today to represent Jews United for Justice, a grass-roots organization which has been a champion for police accountability and a strong supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

In the book of Deuteronomy, we learn that it is not just the responsibility of ordinary citizens to uphold the law.  The king himself, sitting on his throne, must keep a copy of scripture at his side. Why? We read, “Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God…. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows….” (Deu 17:18-20).  My friends, we have a situation in Maryland policing where too many of those who hold power over others act haughtily toward their fellow.  Each of us must be protected from ourselves, our baser instincts.  Not because we’re bad people, but because we are human.  Most police officers I encounter want to do right; they strive to be just.  But, a society of righteous laws protects all of us, from Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and Laquan McDonald, to those whose job it is to keep us safe.  If even kings must follow the law, surely law enforcement officers must always do so as well.  And if the law, as it’s currently constructed doesn’t protect all of us, if it doesn’t provide sufficient oversight, then we must change it, we must improve it.

Today we celebrate a “king” who held the Bible close to his heart.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King 50 years ago at Selma, once wrote: “The energy that rejects many obsolete laws is an entirely positive impulse for renewal of life and law.” (“No Religion is an Island”, p. 264.)  In other words, the hallmark of strong democratic societies is that they are fiercely introspective and ferociously just.  And when the law falls short of our values, the law must change.

So, permit me to offer this prayer: Ribbono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe.  Makor HaHayim, Source of Life, on this day when we celebrate a “king” who knew humility, help us to be humble.  Guide us so that we might see one another’s faces and understand their stories and their differing perspectives, concerns and fears.  God, remind us we owe it to our children to repair brokenness in our criminal justice system so that we might create a society built first and foremost on true justice and equity.  Invigorate this coalition that we may see our holy work though to its righteous conclusion.  Inspire our legislators to meet their appointed task with courage, fairness and ultimately love – for each of us, from the streets of West Baltimore to the stately halls of this house was created in Your image.  And we will not rest until we have a system of laws that protects each of us and all of us. 

This we pray in the name of the One God who is called by so many names but who strengthens our resolve and unites us today in our purpose  


Race, the Jewish Conundrum and the Fierce Urgency of Now

Yom Kippur Day Sermon for 5776…

Race, the Jewish Conundrum and the Fierce Urgency of Now

Hillel famously said, “Im lo achshav, eimatai?  If not now when?” (Pirkei Avot).  I always thought of this expression as the Jewish carpe diem – seize the day! No time like the present!  But then Freddie Gray died and West Baltimore’s simmer came to a boil.  Our neighborhood that night was safe, calm, but still tzuris-adjacent, within the blast range, awash in shock waves of despair and desperation, rage and retribution, pulsing with humanity.  Our nation, indeed the world, sat in judgment, or asked sometimes innocent, sometimes ignorant questions with little capacity or context to absorb the answers.  I watched, as you did, the skewed, skewering newscasts, marched and spoke at protests, talked with neighbors, cleaned debris with Miriam and our kids, joyfully davened with you on the front steps of Beth Am that Shabbos.  Through these difficult months, I have been proud to discover how many of you feel called to be in, for and of Reservoir Hill – the dozens of you who came out recently to explore the neighborhood and to discuss our ongoing, strategic involvement in the community. And there were a hundred, from Beth Am, Jews United for Justice and beyond who crammed into the chapel to observe Selichot and reflect on race and responsibility in Baltimore. I’ve come to realize this spring and summer I have misunderstood that phrase Im lo achshav eimatai?  Not “if not now when?” but what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now!”

We Americans love to quote Dr. King, especially his “I have a dream speech,” and who can blame us?  He was a compelling speaker, a painter of words.  And dreams are universal.  Dreams are aspirational.  Everyone dreams.  King said “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…,” but if we heard “one day” as some intangible distant tomorrow, if we heard the dream but forgot the nightmare, we weren’t really paying attention.  The dream was the nechemta, a homiletical device to comfort, inspire and motivate his audience.

Before he spoke of dreams that day, he made demands and spoke hard truths: “…We’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition…” he proclaimed. “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…. It is obvious today,” he said that day, “that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

Before Dr. King mentioned dreams, he taught history: “Five score years ago,” he preached, “a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation…. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination…. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now,” he said. “…Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal, he predicted, for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” In other words: Im lo achshav eimatai!

That was half a century ago.  Much was accomplished in those days following the March on Washington. The civil rights movement in which many of you found your voice and lived your Jewish values is the rich soil from which we must now rip out the overgrowth, the bramble and weeds, and into which we must now plant new seeds. Because in the years since the end of Jim Crow, too many stood idly by and allowed hate to flourish.  To many let the fields lie fallow too long and tricked themselves into believing things are better than they really are.  Al chet shechatanu lifanecha b’imutz halev, for the sin we have committed against You by hardening our hearts.

When we relax our hearts though, so much more is possible.  It is when we combine that commitment to the now with a willingness to experience the fullness of another human being that we as a society have the potential to move forward.  Consider Martin Buber when he says, “…So it is with the human being to whom I say “You” [Thou]… I can abstract from him the color of his hair or the color of his speech or the color of his graciousness….”  He could just have well have said the color of his skin.  Buber understands when we abstract we diminish and invariably objectify.  This is okay if it’s part of a dynamic process of connecting and reconnecting with our fellow human beings.  But when we allow ourselves to dwell there, in what he calls the I-It relationship, and refuse or fail to return to the I-Thou, we transgress the Kantian categorical imperative – that no human being should be reduced to a means.  Al chet shechatanu lifanecha b’sinat chinam, for the sin we have committed against you through baseless hatred.

What is the hope of I-Thou?  Philosopher Walter Kaufmann says in his introduction to his 1970 translation of Buber: “Ich und Du speaks to men and women who have become wary of promises and hopes; it takes its stand resolutely in the here and now.  It is a sermon on the words of Hillel: ‘If I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?’”  That is to say, it is a call to the fierce urgency of now.  My friends, we are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the urgency of the moment. Dreams can die.  Herzl said “im tirzu ein zo aggadah,” if you will it is no dream.  But the converse is also true: fail to act on the dream and the nightmare will endure.

Ta-Nehisi Coates shares his nightmare with his fifteen year old son in his haunting and magisterial new book Between the World and Me: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease…. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker” (pp. 17-18).

Coates is bleak.  His exquisite writing is an indictment of a society he views with a sort of detached fatalism.  His voice is at once full of rage and lurking at the edge of despair.  He is Black Baltimore’s, Black America’s Kohelet.  Futility courses through the pages of his book.  But the fact that Kohelet is just one book in the Biblical canon doesn’t make Kohelet’s pain less real, doesn’t make him less important.  Perhaps it even makes him more so.

I have spoken about race from this bima before, and each time I do so, I approach the topic with trepidation, even a degree of terror.  Who am I?  But someone once said “religion exists not only to comfort the afflicted but also to afflict the comfortable.”  And Kohelet says there is a time to stay silent and a time to speak up.  And today is Yom Kippur, a day on which afflict ourselves so as to better ourselves, so as to better our society.  Today, as we afflict our bodies, let’s see if we can also open our hearts to the pain of our black neighbors, and absorb the visceral wisdom of Coates when he says, “…race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible— this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

To understand Coates, we must first examine what it means to be Jewish and white. Some of us are not white, Jews of Color are thankfully among us as well, but for those of us who are, or “believe we are,” as Coates channeling Baldwin would put it, what do we do with that other central aspect of our identity? That is to say, how do we reconcile our whiteness with our Jewishness?  This I would argue is absolutely essential if we are to approach the Buberian ideal.  Or put differently, “To thine own self be true,” says Polonius to Laertes, “and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

With your permission I would like to put the challenge plainly before us today: Ours is a people whose bodies have also been broken and burned, who have endured generations of subjugation, slavery, and mass murder, who have suffered inconceivable horrors at the hands of terrorists, the boots of Cossacks and the structural, maddeningly systemic policies of tyrants.  How can we hold this history honestly and responsibly… and recognize that it is also in tension with another equally disquieting truth: that we, in this country, in this century, as much as any group and more than many, have benefitted from policies imbued with racial bias and infested with racist attitudes?

Let’s do an exercise for a moment.  Raise your hand if within your extended family there are either victims or survivors of the Shoah. Keep your hand up or raise it if you personally have ever been barred or dissuaded from swimming, sleeping, eating or living somewhere because you were Jewish.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever personally been subjected to anti-Semitic remarks.  Now raise your hand if you’ve ever turned your car or changed lanes without signaling.  Keep your hand up if you’ve been pulled over by the police for this crime.  Sandra Bland was.  Three days later, she was dead in a Texas jail.  Would that this were a rare or isolated incident!

For those of us who are both Jewish and white, we’re faced with a unique conundrum: How do we synthesize our pain and our privilege?  We do have a model for this. There is a holiday on which we do exactly this.  Can you think of it?  It’s not Yom Kippur.  Pesach.  On Pesach we relive our slavery, we eat lechem oni, the bread of affliction and bitter herbs; we recall our suffering.  But we also celebrate our freedom.  That same matzah is lechem herut, the bread of freedom and at the Seder we drink and recline as do the privileged and the free.  Add to this our unique opportunity, here at Beth Am, of being located in this historically Jewish and now majority black neighborhood.  Reservoir Hill is a powerful nexus of history and geography, a call to the very synthesis we seek.

My fellow Beth Amers, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the problems, the disparities and the way those disparities have been systematized and institutionalized.  But perhaps even worse, these policies often hide in plain sight.  They capitalize on our laudable desire to be good, open, tolerant and fair. Products of our enormous human capacity for self-deception, and America’s culture of color-blindness, they are ultimately responsible for sustaining what author Michelle Alexander calls a “massive racial undercast,” one as insidious as Jim Crow and, in some ways, as damaging as slavery.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Katrina, the fiftieth anniversary of Selma and the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil War.  Slavery has been banned for a century and a half and yet black and brown Americans experience many of the same privations, segregation, marginalization and scapegoating.  We Jews know something about scapegoating.  The term comes, of course, from the Yom Kippur Torah portion we just read where the goat quite literally carries the people’s sins.  For reasons delineated in David Nirenberg’s important work Anti-Judaism, the craft of scapegoating Jews has created a dastardly world-standard by which to measure other hatreds.  Whether blood libel, Passion Plays or the Protocols, our people know well what it feels like to carry the weight of the world’s sins, to be seen as something less than human.

But, unlike ancient Egypt, it is not our people on whose backs this country was built, whose dehumanization was quantified and enshrined in our constitution, whose bodies were commoditized and sold on the same land where now stands Baltimore’s Holocaust Memorial, Port Discovery and Power Plant Live.  Let’s go back to April 19, 1861, when an angry mob of secessionists took to rioting on Pratt Street, the first blood of the Civil War was drawn, and Baltimore was dubbed “Mob Town.” The day was a Friday and that evening, a few blocks from that Slave Market, and less than three miles from where you are sitting right now, at Har Sinai on High Street, Rabbi David Einhorn preached a sermon excoriating prominent New York Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall for his support of slavery.  Einhorn was, by this time, a well-known abolitionist.  Within a few days, the offices of his periodical Sinai having burned to the ground, and fearing for his family’s safety, Einhorn fled Baltimore for Philadelphia.

Much has changed since April 19, 1861.  I feel blessed my children will have grown up in a world where being African-American and President are not mutually exclusive.  But, we must also lament and consider how much has not changed.  Because 154 years later to the day, on April 19, 2015, a 25 year old man who grew up in the projects one mile from where you are sitting, died of injuries he should never have suffered after treatment he should never have endured.  Al chet sh’chatanu lifanecha b’yodim u’v’lo yodim, for the sin we have committed against you knowingly or unknowingly.

Sandtown-Winchester is one mile from here.  Roland Park is less than three.  Do you know the difference in life-expectancy between the two neighborhoods?  Fifteen years.  Fifteen years longer in Roland Park. The median income in Sandtown is $25,000.  The unemployment rate in 2013 was over 22%.  And Freddie Gray’s neighbors are over 96% black as opposed to around 8% in Roland Park.  How does race factor in these other disparities?  The issues are complex, but the research is compelling. Alexander spells out the ways America moved from indentured servitude to slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow to the War on Drugs to Mass Incarceration, what she calls the “New Jim Crow.”  Rather than summarize her arguments here, I’ll encourage you to read the book, if you haven’t.  She makes a case for what is often referred to as structural racism, which the Aspen Institute defines as “the long-term result of laws, policies, attitudes and approaches based on skin color that have systematically benefitted many whites, but routinely disadvantaged and alienated many nonwhites.”

The laws include radically disproportionate penalties and mandatory minimums for relatively minor drug offenses.  Or Supreme Court decisions inuring law enforcement from charges of racial bias.  The policies are shaped by police militarization, profiling and far too often brutal tactics.  Or they include red lining, a housing policy of the not-too-distant past meant to ensure maximally segregated neighborhoods.  And the attitudes?  These include what many of us heard from neighbors, friends, or those around the country this past spring, including in my opinion, far too many in the Jewish community. “Black on black violence is such a tragedy,” they opined.  “How could those people destroy their own neighborhoods?  What kind of people are they?”  But violence is not the reason for the vast majority of arrests of people of color.  Consider this: “A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: “Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups. But these results, explains Alexander, “contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America.” Blacks made up 15 percent of drug users in 1995, and they constitute roughly the same percentage today. Whites constituted the vast majority of drug users, [and drug dealers], then (and now), but almost no one pictured a white person when asked to imagine what a drug user looks like” (The New Jim Crow, p. 106).

Coates writes, “’Black-on-black crime’ is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel (Between the World and Me, pp. 110-111).”  All of this and much, much more has led to an astonishingly high percentage of African-Americans, particularly black men, millions of whom are in some fashion under the control of the criminal justice system – whether in jail, on probation or bearing the life-long shame and stigma of a criminal record which can, and often does, result in fewer job opportunities, being shut out of public housing, cut off from food stamps or losing for some period, or forever, the right to vote.  And the vast majority of these black men around the country endure of all this for non-violent offenses. HaShofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat? Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?  Shall we?

How should we feel about all of this?  Not guilty. Guilt doesn’t usually help, but awareness does.  Imagine for a moment you are a hypothetical Mrs. Cohen.  You and your husband own a lovely home on Linden Avenue in the first half of the last century.  You’re walking distance to a dozen synagogues, including this one, a beautiful city park and a couple of street car lines.  But you desire a bit more space, perhaps a garage for your car and some grass for your kids to run around on.  Not in Roland Park or Guilford – they don’t allow Jews there, but there are some newer developments to the Northwest.  You hear a knock at the door.  It’s a realtor who, after you invite him in for a cup of coffee, tells you danger is on the horizon. Several of your neighbors are selling, he tells you, and, you know, “the shvartzes” are moving in.  You and your husband are pretty forward thinking.  You don’t have anything against colored folks, but the agent tells you to think about property values.  As the neighborhood changes, you’ll lose equity, perhaps thirty or forty percent of your home value at least.  Your three kids are getting older.  You intend to send them to college.  You figure let some nice colored family buy the home.  Not long ago, they weren’t allowed in this neighborhood anyway, so that’s progress.  You’ll get your yard and garage.  They’ll get a nice home in a nice neighborhood.  It’s a win-win.  So you sell.  You, Mrs. Cohen, had no intention of creating an urban ghetto. You made a decision bish’gaga, without knowledge of the shady practice called block-busting to which you’ve just been subjected.  And of course you have no way of knowing forces, some tragic but benign, many deliberate and invidious, would leave your once treasured home in shambles, your neighborhood in ruin.

Looking back though, the Cohen family’s innocuous decision was just one of thousands of other seemingly innocuous decisions that collectively did violence to the city of Baltimore.  And we, this Yom Kippur must decide what to see and what to choose not to see, both in our past and in the potential choices we make going forward.  Al chet shechatanu lifanecha, for the sin we have committed against you by pretending that tolerance and empathy are the same, for turning I-Thou relationships into I-It transactional ones.

So where does this leave us?  What do we do now, if we are called to the achshav in all its fierce urgency, but also feel overwhelmed?  I do.  I feel overwhelmed.  Racism in this country isn’t going to be unmade by a few well-intentioned acts.  This is going to take a movement and a long, long time.  It will need to be addressed in a multifaceted way: policy and law, education and training, advocacy, relationship building.  But our tradition compels us to act.  We were slaves, we tell ourselves over and over again.  We do this not to feel sorry for ourselves.  We do it to motivate ourselves, to never succumb to numbness and despair.  Lo alecha hamelacha ligmor, we don’t have to finish the work, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hibatel mimena, but not being able to finish, is no excuse for abstaining from it.

Here are three action steps: tangible things you can do in the short term:

  • Read and learn:
    • Books like The New Jim Crow or Between the World and Me are a good place to start. There’s also Pietilla’s Not in my Neighborhood and Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks.
    • Go to org where The Aspen Institute has a Baltimore working group with great resources on their website. These help explain concepts and terminology like institutional or structural racism, white privilege or even white supremacy. These terms are part of a growing lexicon and we should try to understand them, even if they make us uncomfortable.
  • The second is advocacy for effective policy change, and a great partner here has been Jews United for Justice.
    • JUFJ is working on a number of issues related to poverty and race. Learn about the broken system of rent courts or ongoing water shut-offs. And this coming legislative session JUFJ will be joining with others to advocate for much needed police reform.
  • Finally, defang some of the challenges of race by building relationships with our neighbors and working with local partner organizations. Help to make Beth Am as effective an anchor institution as possible in Reservoir Hill.

Al chet shechatanu lifanecha… for the sin of indifference.  This is not a moment to stand idly by.  It is a fiercely urgent moment demanding our attention and our participation.  In this New Year, we are grateful for the many blessings in our lives.  But those blessings are diminished when we come to understand that there are others, largely because of their race, who cannot access that abundance.  And they are diminished when we admit the hard truth: that we’ve been playing with a stacked deck.  There’s nothing wrong with success, but the American dream of which Dr. King spoke over fifty years ago ought not to be realized on the backs of the darker and disenfranchised.  If the deck is stacked for some, it is by definition stacked against others.  It’s time to put our cards on the table, to confront inequity and begin to right egregious wrongs.  Some of you may disagree. I hope you will keep an open mind.  But no one, I’m confident, will chase me out of town, or threaten to tar and feather me for saying this.  And perhaps this is exactly the problem.

Because when it’s overt racism we confront – slavery or explicit public policies like Jim Crow –there can be fierce and public disagreements.  But, when the problems are hidden and subtle they are more insidious and easier to reject, rationalize or simply ignore.  So this is the challenge: learn, listen, lead when called upon, follow when you can. But whatever we do, let’s not look back in yet another half-century and mourn how little has changed.  Baltimore can’t afford it.  America can’t afford it.  And on this Day of Atonement, our souls can’t afford it either.