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.


#MeToo in a Tarbut Ra’ah: Perverse Culture and the Exposure of Predatory Men 

I don’t typically post sermons on this blog, but after seeing this article in The Jewish Week, I feel compelled to share these words in the context of the urban and social justice that animates my rabbinate.

December 2, 2017 ~ 14 Kislev 5778

Parashat Vayishlach

Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Roger Ailes. Bill O’Reilly, John Conyers, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Russell Simmons, Leon Wieseltier Garrison Keillor, Matt Lauer.

These are some of the names of men who have been credibly accused of harassment, assault and, in some cases, rape.  All, it appears, have abused positions of power and influence, with multiple people, most of them women.  The journalists and entertainers have been disgraced and dismissed by media and entertainment agencies who recognize the compromised position further association with harassers and predators would mean.  Or, if we’re being generous, they’ve decided to do the right thing.  The politicians, so far, seem to be hanging on.

Then there are other names: James, Ji-ho, Andrew, Peter, Ahmed, Christopher: countless names of those who have not been publicly accused, who retain their jobs, their influence and their capacity to abuse.  They are doctors who molest patients, who grope nurses or colleagues.  They’re factory foremen, police officers, teachers, students, therapists, lawyers, CEO’s and middle managers.  They are postmen and presidents. They are pastors, priests, imams and rabbis.  They are husbands and fathers. These are the men whose secrets have remained safe because their victims’ risk of sharing their stories is greater than their risk of keeping them secret.

The Talmud has a term for a community or society where abuse is pervasive and moral leadership absent: a tarbut ra’ah, a perverse culture.

I used to watch the Today show from time to time.  I liked Katie Couric. I really liked Ann Curry.  I thought she was smart, at once incisive and emotive.  And then Matt, it seems, Lauer didn’t want to work with her.  And I stopped watching Today.  And, irony of ironies, turned to CBS because there I could see a real journalist and interviewer in Charlie Rose.  When you change the channel from one network with an abuser as its anchor to another network with an abuser as its anchor, that’s a tarbut ra’ah, a wicked culture.

This Shabbat after lunch we’ll hear from Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, and his take on 1st Amendment protections and freedom of the press.  But this morning I want to talk about a different kind of reporting, the reporting of harassment, assault and rape of mostly women by mostly men.  And I want to suggest that a big problem right now in our society isn’t just that these abuses are happening, it’s that when we’re paying attention at all, we focus too much on the plight of women, and not enough on the culture of machismo that leads so many men to think they can treat women like this in the first place.

And the thing is, we don’t have to go far to find a story that illuminates this dynamic.  In fact we just read it.  Our triennial reading of Parashat Vayishlach today began as follows (Gen. 34:1-4):

וַתֵּצֵ֤א דִינָה֙ בַּת־לֵאָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָלְדָ֖ה לְיַעֲקֹ֑ב לִרְא֖וֹת בִּבְנ֥וֹת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land.

וַיַּ֨רְא אֹתָ֜הּ שְׁכֶ֧ם בֶּן־חֲמ֛וֹר הַֽחִוִּ֖י נְשִׂ֣יא הָאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ וַיִּשְׁכַּ֥ב אֹתָ֖הּ וַיְעַנֶּֽהָ׃

Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force.

וַתִּדְבַּ֣ק נַפְשׁ֔וֹ בְּדִינָ֖ה בַּֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב וַיֶּֽאֱהַב֙ אֶת־הַֽנַּעֲרָ֔ וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לֵ֥ב הַֽנַּעֲרָֽ׃

Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly.

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שְׁכֶ֔ם אֶל־חֲמ֥וֹר אָבִ֖יו לֵאמֹ֑ר קַֽח־לִ֛י אֶת־הַיַּלְדָּ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לְאִשָּֽׁה׃

So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife.” We’ll get to the brother’s reaction a bit later, but for now I’m interested in Jacob’s response.  The text tells us Jacob, Dinah’s father, is the first to find out.  And what does Jacob do?  Nothing.  The pasuk reads, “At the time Jacob heard his daughter Dinah had been defiled, his sons were in the field with his livestock, v’hecherish Ya’akov ad boam, so he kept quiet until they came back(34:5).  Why doesn’t Jacob say anything?  Possibly he is afraid tensions could escalate.  Sforno, the 16th century Italian commentator, says “he refrained from starting a quarrel until his sons would have been informed of what happened so that they could be on their guard against adversaries.”

Maybe Jacob is afraid for Dinah’s safety, or for his own safety.  Or maybe Jacob isn’t yet clear exactly what’s happened. The Torah is precise when it describes the news that’s been relayed: “v’Ya’akov shama ki timei et dina bito…, And Jacob heard that his daughter Dina had been defiled.”  We’re not told whether he knew she was raped, per se.  If the sex had been consensual, we could speculate, perhaps, Jacob would have felt differently.  Maybe he is angry with her as much as with Shechem or Hamor, Shechem’s father.  In fact, there are commentators that imagine Dinah was not raped, including a modern midrash in the form of a novel called The Red Tent.  Perhaps some of you have read it.

The problem though, is the torah seems pretty clear about what happened: “vayishkav otah vay’aneha. If he had simply “lay” with her, we wouldn’t need the final verb after “he lay with her.”  Vay’aneha means “he forced her.” So, what then?  What’s the next thing we often hear when a sexual assault has occurred?  On whom do we focus?  Not the rapist; the victim.  Maybe she dressed the wrong way?  Maybe she sent mixed messages?  Maybe she said “no” but her body language said “yes?”  Maybe she was in the wrong place at the wrong time? – something single women ought to be careful of.

Rashi, the great 11th century Talmudist and Torah commentator, the one sometimes made out to be a feminist because he taught his daughters to lay tefilin, isn’t all that sensitive to the spurious allegation leveled against rape victims from time immemorial.  Why does the verse before the encounter say “Vateitze Dinah bat Leah, indicating both that Dinah is the daughter of Leah and using the specific verb “to go out?”  Rashi responds: “she is called Leah’s daughter, since she, too, was fond “of going out,” as it is said (30:16) “and Leah went out to meet him.”  Rashi bases his comment on a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 80:1) which notices the verb vateitze, “and she went out” is used to describe the scene in Chapter 30 (v.16) when Leah appears to seduce Jacob (after buying Rachel off with some mandrakes).  The next few verses there describe how Leah gives birth to sons 4, 5 and 6… and then to a daughter: Dinah.  Do we get the midrashic move?  Leah “went out” to seduce Jacob – which produced Dina.  Dina “went out” in a similar manner and got raped by Shechem.  If Rashi isn’t entirely transparent about what he means, the midrash is crystal clear: “Leah יָצָאת מְקֻשֶּׁטֶת כְּזוֹנָה [she] went out dressed like a whore.”  Which is why we’re also told Dinah “went out.”  “Like mother like daughter.”

So, what about Jacob’s silence?  Maybe it’s reflective of something bigger, more systemic, a tarbut ra’ah, a perverse culture of around sexual violence.  You see, the truth is, it didn’t really matter whether Dinah was raped.  Her consent isn’t the ancient world’s central concern.  Dr. Tamara Ashkenazi offers the following if her A Women’s Torah Commentary (p. 191): “The assumption made by most interpreters is that Dinah did not consent to the sexual act.  However, the questions of consent, so central to the modern notion of rape and of women’s rights in general, is entirely ignored in this text. Dinah’s consent is not the issue.”  She continues, “In our society, forcing a woman to have sex against her will is seen as terrible both for its emotional and psychological consequences, and for the humiliation and debasement suffered by the woman as an individual.  The Bible, even in its rape laws, was primarily concerned with the juridical and social-status consequences of the tort involved in sleeping with a virgin without either marrying her or compensating her father.”

Dina, like all women in biblical times, is at least in part a commodity.  She, more or less, belongs to her father.  When she is deflowered, as it were, she belongs to her husband.  But if the person doing the deflowering isn’t her husband, that’s a problem.  However Jacob felt about the rape itself (and we can’t really know), at the end of the story, Jacob seems to have been ok with the solution: Shechem is to marry her. Which is why he gets so upset with Shimon and Levi when they trick the Hivites into circumcising themselves.  What do they do?  When the men recovering from their circumcisions are most vulnerable, they slaughter them, Shechem and Hamor and every other male in the city – and rescue their sister.  Is this collective punishment fair?  Maimonides says yes because “they saw and knew [about Shechem’s abduction of Dinah], yet they did not bring him to justice” (Hilchot Melachim, 9:14).  Silence is consent. By that token, Jacob, too, may be complicit in his daughter’s trauma, and maybe Shimon and Levi are the heroes of the story?  They at least know, unlike many (ancient and modern), that the victim is not to blame for the crime.  They retort to Jacob, “Should he then have been allowed to treat our sister like a whore?”

But before we go too far in defending Shimon and Levi for their vigilante justice, remember, their collective punishment of Shechem’s and Hamor’s fellow citizens includes not just theft of property, riches and livestock but also their women and children.  They certainly don’t have a sophisticated appreciation for the importance of treating women and girls with respect. No, as is often the case, we have to look closer at the text to discover how the ancient words of Torah, written for another culture, in another time, might guide us in our time.

Which brings me back to the issue of sexual assault and consent. One of the things we’re hearing a lot in the wake of all these scandals is that women and men are beginning to think differently about sexual violence. How telling that in the 90’s, many prominent feminists sided with President Bill Clinton because, while his behavior was repugnant, it was still consensual.  Betty Friedan said in those days, “[Clinton’s] enemies are attempting to bring him down through allegations about some dalliance with an intern…. Whether it’s a fantasy, a set-up or true, I simply don’t care.”  And the National Organization for Women equivocated about whether the president was a “sexual predator” or merely a “womanizer.”

What was not said enough at the time (including by me), what still isn’t said enough today, is that consent is only part of the story. The full story is about power and the abuse of power.  Lewinsky worked for Clinton.  The women Matt Lauer allegedly abused were subordinates – by rank or by circumstance.  And that’s the story we see playing out again and again – in the media, in entertainment, in politics – and NOT in the many spheres where calling out harassers, abusers and even rapists is riskier for the victims than it is for the perpetrators, because they can lose their jobs, their reputations, sometimes even their lives.

The story of Dinah is instructive because we never hear Dinah’s voice.  She is utterly silent.  She is acted upon.  The disempowerment of women by men is an ancient and modern story indeed.  Rabbi Laura Geller, a Reform colleague from Los Angeles writes about Dinah: “Her silence is loud enough to reverberate through the generations.  We hear it in the reports of other fathers who perceive their daughter’s rape as their dishonor, their punishment.  Fortunately for Dinah, in Genesis the blame and punishment fall entirely on the perpetrator and his people, not on her.  Other women are not as lucky.” Rav Geller considers, “What happens to Dinah in the aftermath of her ordeal?  We do not know.  We never hear from her, just as we may never hear from the women and girls in our generation who are victims of violence and whose voices are not heard.  But the legacy of Jacob as Israel, the one who wrestles, demands that we confront the shadowy parts of ourselves and our world…. The feminist educator Nelle Morton urged women to hear each other ‘into speech.’ Dinah’s story challenges us to go even further and be also the voices for all of our sisters.”

Well said.  And I would add to the men in the room, after listening to women’s voices, we also must speak, but less about victims and more about perpetrators, harassers, abusers and rapists.  In other words, we must speak more about ourselves.  What is it in us, in our masculine culture that has convinced so many men and boys they can objectify or harm women?  The Tarbut Ra’ah that continues to shape our society is corrosive for all of us, of every gender.

What, ultimately, do we learn from our parasha?  That consent matters and it doesn’t.  It matters because every person, having been created in the image of God, has sovereign responsibility for our bodies.  We get to choose with whom we share our physical selves.  All of us. All the time. And… sometimes the choice, is complicated because we make it complicated. We create situations, power-dynamics that rob women of their full agency.  Women and men, together, must begin to unmake the structural and institutional sexism that allows men to earn more money, more upward mobility and more respect.Vateitzeh Dinah, Dinah “went out” but not to a level playing field.  We must do more to level the field. And we must do it soon.Because our children are watching us.

Stop and Smell the Rosemary

The Practice of Blessing Makes Life a Little Sweeter

Rabbi Meir taught, one should attempt to say 100 blessings a day, each day (Talmud Menachot 43b). These blessings range from affirmations of ritual behavior (lighting Shabbat candles or putting on tefilin) to those embedded within traditional thrice-daily prayer services to expressing gratitude for learning or the food we eat.  This last type, birchot hanehenin, blessings of enjoyment, extends to those things that bring pleasure or awe to other senses too: the sight of a beautiful sunset, the sound of crackling thunder or the fragrant scent of wild herbs.

Each summer for four summers, I get to spend meaningful time learning in Jerusalem as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative.  This July, I had a flat in West Jerusalem’s German Colony.  Most mornings, before hours upon hours spent pouring over rabbinic and biblical sources or listening to (terrific but lengthy) lectures, I would go jogging on a rail-trail.  The Rakevet, originally tracks for the Ottoman-era steam locomotive train, winds its way through the Jerusalem hills from the original train station, past the basketball and soccer stadiums, to the Malcha Mall.  For years this now verdant pathway was simply a run-down anachronism, oxidized rail beds guarded by a chain link fence that divided the German Colony from Baka to the East.

Rosemary on Burg's back deck

As a habit during my run along the now-manicured lawns surrounding the repurposed trail, I would pause for just a moment each morning along-side one of the ubiquitous rosemary bushes that adorn the path (and much of Jerusalem).  Reaching down to rub the herb between my thumb and forefingers, transferring the intoxicating scent to my own body, I would raise from hand to my nose, recite the requisite blessing and inhale deeply – Blessed are you YHVH, Master of the Universe, who creates fragrant spices (atzei b’samim).  This notion of reciting 100 blessings a day.  Why?  It’s about cultivating an attitude of gratitude; making regular practice of thanksgiving elevates our sense of wonder at the miracle of life (and also has the inverse effect of mitigating cynicism).

Back in Baltimore, weather permitting, I continue to bike or run outdoors from my Reservoir Hill home many mornings. I run through Druid Hill Park and its surrounding neighborhoods.  I encounter fellow Baltimoreans jogging, grabbing the paper, walking their dogs, greeting the day and one another.  I run past tenderly cultivated flowering pots and herb-laden gardens.  Sometimes I stop and smell the rosemary – and when I do I say a blessing.  With over 300 murders a year in Baltimore city, with (understandable) anxiety about politics, endemic poverty, racism and more, intentionally peppering our days with blessing liberates us from cynicism and self-pity.

When my family and I first moved to Baltimore, we rented a house on Druid Park Lake Drive, next to a series of vacant and crumbling row homes.  One day, my son Shamir (age 3 or 4 at the time) and I were standing on our minuscule back deck overlooking a shambolic alley scene.  A smile spreading on his lips, he gestured exuberantly toward the house next door and said, “Look Abba, flowers!”  I strained to see what he saw and finally I noticed: amid a pile of bricks and broken glass, a few yellow dandelions strained toward the sunlight.  I saw rubble.  Shamir saw flowers.

The city is flowering in myriad ways whether we notice it or not.  Those who notice, blossom too.  Those who take it for granted or, worse, don’t bother to absorb the sights sounds and smells of that flourishing, “they soon wither like grass” (Psalms 37:2).  These days, we have a nicer back deck.  And of course we planted some rosemary.

A version of this piece will appear in the December issue of JMORE.

The Season of Rejoicing

When we began to think about the concept of a New Jewish Neighborhood, one defined by a different set of principles and aspirations than most neighborhoods of Jews, we needed to consider the extent to which our intentional (not incidental) presence in Reservoir Hill would mean focusing on particular Jewish practices.  Initially, there was some anxiety about asserting our Jewishness in majority black spaces.  Would engaging our West Baltimore neighbors signal triumphalism at worst and, at best, a sort of noblesse oblige where well-intentioned people of privilege dominate minority spaces, subtly, if unknowingly, remaking them in their image?  Isn’t it our job, said some, to listen, learn and support — to champion allyship?

Tactically, these questions are important.  Too many of us in positions of power or influence assume our resources come with answers to questions we have not been asked.  Effective encounters begin with humility.  The problem with exclusively centering the other, though, is it doesn’t allow both parties to bring their full selves to the moment of encounter.  Educational Philosopher Parker Palmer writes, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

Finding joy in authentic connection and service is what drives our relational work in Reservoir Hill, and last month’s Whitelock Farm Harvest Festival was a great example.  For several years now, Beth Am/IFO and the Reservoir Hill Improvement Council have cosponsored an annual Greens and Kugel cook-off.  It’s a food and culture sharing extravaganza bringing together Jewish and African American foods, but more importantly, Jews and non-Jewish African Americans.

Many years the harvest festival occurs on Sukkot when Jews also celebrate our fall harvest.  So this year, a congregant lent us a small sukkah to erect on Whitelock Street.  IFO (In, For, Of) and Beth Am board members volunteered to share plans and garner feedback about Beth Am’s renovation and expansion plans, and a few of us offered ecumenical lulav demonstrations.

Kugel maven Bonnie Guralnick with Beth Am ED Ted Merwin and his daughter Leah
Beth Am past president Jim Goodman does lulav demonstrations with Reservoir Hill neighbors
Jim Goodman and Senator Barbara Robinson

The scene had a historical elegance as Whitelock was once the pulmonary artery at the heart of Jewish Central-West Baltimore.  Now it forms Reservoir Hill’s verdant core with our urban farm, German Park Playground, a community garden and the new South Lots outdoor kitchen and community gathering space.  Sukkot is called “the season of our rejoicing,” a time to express gratitude for a bountiful harvest.  The annual greens and kugel cook-off won’t solve systemic inequities, it won’t erase racism or antisemitism and it won’t unmake decades of neglect that marked Whitelock’s long hiatus between Jewish or black owned shops and the community farm.  

And there is more work to be done: as the contest has gained in popularity it’s drawing fewer lower income entrants.  But it’s hard to deny the joy that manifests each fall in Reservoir Hill.  It’s not the prizes awarded that matter, but the realization of shared vocation.  “True vocation joins self and service,” writes Parker Palmer, which is to say it’s not about “…scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess.”

A version of this piece will occur in the November, 2017 issue of Jmore.

What to Do with the Pedestals?

The removal of Confederate statues is an opportunity to think about what stories need to be told next.

Recently, much of the country has been focused on the question of Confederate monuments, iconic tributes to a bygone and — most would say — nary-missed era.  As white nationalists and neo-Nazis exploit these statues to bolster support for their warped visions of American greatness, a number of cities around the nation have quickly mobilized to remove them.

Here in Baltimore, four monuments came down in August, under cover of night, leaving behind pedestals supporting only air, photonegative memories of horses and figures that once stood proudly on those plinths. Much of the conversation in the aftermath of the statues’ removal has been what to do with them?

Put them in a museum? A cemetery? Melt them down and turn them into black heroes like Thurgood Marshall or Harriet Tubman?

This is an interesting and worthy discussion, but I have a different question: What should be done with the pedestals?

Statuary has always been somewhat at odds with Jewish tradition. Idolatry is the closest thing we have to a cardinal sin because, as I shared last month, it strives to constrain a limitless God.

But this aversion to sculptures seems to have ebbed and flowed over time.  The Talmud records (Avodah Zara 44b) that none other than Rabban Gamliel, the patriarch of the Jewish community, would utilize a bathhouse decorated with a statue of Aphrodite!

Even Solomon’s Temple contained a possible violation of the Second Commandment that prohibits creating “… any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Ex. 20:4).

The Ark of the Covenant was adorned with cherubim while housing the very tablets on which the above words were inscribed.  In close proximity was a copper serpent, commissioned by God and fashioned by none other than Moses (Num. 21:8-9) until King Hezekiah destroyed it in the 8th century BCE (II Kings 18:4).

By the time of the Babylonian exile, the Ark itself had disappeared, and when the Second Temple was built, no replacement was made. The dimensions of the inner sanctum were the same, there was space for what was biblically understood to be God’s footstool, but for the next several hundred years, the Holy of Holies would house no earthly vessel, save for the High Priest once a year on Yom Kippur.

This historical progression could provide a template for considering the fate of Confederate pedestals. Surely, the Holy Ark and Stonewall Jackson are not analogous! But the notion of elevating ideas and values over things, of avoiding the temptation to worship the work of human hands, is central to monotheism.

Statues venerating chattel slavery serve only to reinforce the point.  What if, in the coming months and years, these sites undermine the very white supremacy that put them there in the first place?  Pedestals, with proper oversight, could become stages and canvases.  Theater troupes could perform on and around them, content that challenges viewers to confront our city’s legacy of racism.  Artists could create temporary installations atop the platforms, tributes to Baltimoreans, ideas and values pointing us toward a more just society.  Managing these exhibitions would be a good course correction for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts after its missteps surrounding this year’s book festival.

This is my suggestion, but I offer it with reservation and even trepidation. Whatever is ultimately done with both the statues and the pedestals on which they once stood, it must be the African American community that decides.  They are the majority of Baltimore’s population, forced to walk, jog or drive past these Confederate idols for more than a century.  They are the ones whose ancestors were the property of whites.

We Jews have never needed anyone to tell us how to memorialize the numerous sins visited upon our people over time. Black Baltimoreans, too, know their story well.

Face to Face

Justice begins next-door with seeing and being seen.

Years ago a bat mitzvah student challenged my then Chicago congregation to consider a twenty-first century question: Does God have a Facebook page?  Her contention was that God, as symbolic exemplar, craves real relationships and that Facebook and other social media which have the potential to foster relationships have also become a dangerous proxy for them.  The fullest example of a divine-human relationship is God’s with Moses, which the Torah tells us occurred, not through emojis or cat video affinity groups, but “face to face” (Deu. 34:10).  God doesn’t have a Facebook page because the Holy One wants to go deeper with us, and consequently encourages us to go deeper with one another, the kind of depth not likely achieved through a screen.

Arthur Aron (who happens to be my cousin) has done research to this effect, suggesting two people, even total strangers, are more likely to fall in love if they spend meaningful time looking into each other’s eyes.  In a widely read New York Times piece, writing teacher Mandy Lee Catron describes her attempt to employ Dr. Aron’s technique:  “I’ve skied steep slopes and hung from a rock face by a short length of rope, but staring into someone’s eyes for four silent minutes was one of the more thrilling and terrifying experiences of my life. I spent the first couple of minutes just trying to breathe properly. There was a lot of nervous smiling until, eventually, we settled in. I know the eyes are the windows to the soul or whatever, but the real crux of the moment was not just that I was really seeing someone, but that I was seeing someone really seeing me. Once I embraced the terror of this realization and gave it time to subside, I arrived somewhere unexpected.

Human beings need to be seen.  This is the impulse for social media, of course: if I can acquire enough likes and loves of my kids’ adorable pics on Instagram, then my contribution of them to the world matters.  Through the miracle of modern technology anyone, presumably everyone, all over the world can see me.  But there’s something risky about this too.  Jewish tradition proscribes many sins, but idolatry is considered one of most insidious because it reduces the irreducible, quantifies the infinite and gives substance to the intangible.  A video cannot fully capture a human interaction; a photograph isn’t a face, but a two dimensional impression of one.

If images can be misunderstood, words can be too.  Twitter is perhaps the ultimate example (thus far) of how brevity is not only the soul of wit but too often of wickedness as well.  We have come to see, not least from our cyber-bully-in-chief, the invidious potential unleashed from a mere 140 characters. In an insightful op-ed this past June, Bret Stephens said about Twitter: “Twitter doesn’t merely amplify ugliness. It erases nuance, coarsens thought, turns into a game of “Telephone” in which original meaning becomes hopelessly garbled with every successive re-tweet. It also facilitates a form of self-righteous digital bullying and mob-like behavior that can wreck people’s lives.

This is why Beth Am’s community work is so relational as is synagogue work in general; we wish for more people to encounter one another, in person and face to face.  Our goal isn’t necessarily to get people to fall in love but to see and be seen, to look up from screens into each other’s eyes.  Dickens wrote: “Charity begins at home, and justice begins next door.”  It’s a powerful thing for a stranger halfway around the world to like my picture, video or story.  But talking to my next-door neighbor, “seeing someone really seeing me,” means I’ve “arrived somewhere unexpected.”  Home.

A version of this post appears in the September issue of JMore

Get Lost!

When is the last time you truly got out of your geographical comfort zone?

I write these words from Jerusalem where I am spending a month of study. This monthly JMore/Urban Rabbi column has been devoted to Baltimore justice, but what can I learn about justice in Baltimore from thousands of miles away? Jerusalem and Baltimore are very different cities. One is ancient, the other just old. One is the capital of Israel, the other home to well over 90,000 Jews on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Both, remarkably, have a pretty solid craft beer industry. And both cities, one just east of the Mediterranean Sea, the other just west of the Chesapeake Bay, feel to me at once familiar and foreign, comfortable and exotic.

My first Shabbat morning in Jerusalem, I chose the exotic. I awoke to the sun streaming in through the window of my apartment. As a pulpit rabbi, I don’t sleep in on Saturdays all that often. Not only am I in shul every week, but I need to be on time! Today, however, I slept late, and it was glorious. When I awoke a bit late to go to shul (Israeli shuls start and end early), I decided to take a walk.

I filled my Camel Back with water, pointed myself away from the usual paths, and set off deliberately toward the unknown. I wandered, sans map, sans iPhone, sans wallet, to the west and southwest. I navigated winding streets and circuitous footpaths. I ascended and descended Jerusalem’s undulating hills, asking myself what I might see around the next corner. I got lost! In doing so, I found myself noticing things I might normally ignore or overlook when heading from some point A to some point B: a memorial to soldiers who died in the 1948 War of Independence, a monastery, a beautiful playground with children frolicking in their Shabbat clothes. On my Shabbat morning walk I rediscovered wonder.

Getting lost used to be more common. In the days before smart phones and GPS, people would get lost all the time, especially when on vacation. And they’d get unlost, simply by asking some passerby for directions: “Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to Ben Yehuda Street or the cheese place on Emek Re’faim?” But today, virtually everyone has a smart phone, with GPS. Technology protects us from the unfamiliar. And that’s sad because getting lost is one of the most important things we can do!

This is where Baltimore Justice comes in. One of the things we know from social science is that implicit bias governs much of human behavior. All humans have biases and prejudices. These can range from quite benign (liking vanilla more than strawberry ice cream) to problematic (thinking boys are better at science than girls). Implicit biases are the ones we’re unaware of, which is what makes them more difficult to address. Many Americans believe black people are more violent or that white people are less likely to sell or use drugs – even though both claims are demonstrably false.

It’s human nature to feel most comfortable with familiar places and people. We also tend to lump people together because of something called “out-group homogeneity.” When someone belongs to a group other than our own (a man if you’re a woman, a gay person if you’re straight, a Muslim if you’re Jewish or Christian), we tend to assume most or all members of that group share the characteristics of the few we’ve encountered.

How to fight this bias, to mitigate these tendencies? Spend time with more people from these out-groups.  We may not change our actual biases, but we become less likely to act on them.  Neighborhoods, like so much of American society today, are echo chambers – particularly in still-segregated Baltimore. But if we explore the unknown, get lost in someplace a little unfamiliar, we can slowly begin to unmake the hidden and incorrect messages our brains tell us. And, who knows, maybe we’ll even discover beauty and meaning as I did wandering the unfamiliar streets of Jerusalem!

A version of this piece will appear in August at JMore