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Friday, 27 November 2020

A Collection of Thanksgiving Prayers

A Thanksgiving Psalm, adapted from the original by Alan Cook

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov; ki l’olam chasdo

O give thanks to the One Who is good Whose love is everlasting May those who call upon the Eternal God give thanks for many blessings bestowed and received. May those who call upon the Earth Mother, the power of nature, find beauty and inspiration in the wonders of the world around us and the resiliency of the human spirit. Give thanks for Tewa, Apache and Navajo who settled and sanctified this land, who nurtured its abundance, whose indelible imprint is still visible on this land, whose stories and prayers and songs still reverberate in the wind.… Give thanks for the elders who connect us to our past. Give thanks for the children who guide us toward our future. Give thanks for Black and Latinx individuals, for those of Asian background and those of mixed racial identities. Give thanks for White folks. Give thanks for the opportunity and the necessity to live together, to work together, to build together. Give thanks for queer and straight, for trans and bi. Give thanks for the fact that love is love and knows no bounds. Give thanks for opportunities for every individual to know and show their true selves. Give thanks for the understandings borne out of scientific research in concert with the understandings derived from our faithful convictions - may they guide us toward unfolding the mysteries and majesty of our world, securing our own health and welfare and the well-being of our planet. Give thanks for the conviction that even if ideologies divide us, our common humanity can unite us. Give thanks for the imperative handed down to us by our religious traditions: To love our neighbors just as we love ourselves. Give thanks for the tools we have been given to build bridges, to share in dialogue, to laugh and weep and argue and struggle and plot and plan and solve life’s challenges together. Baruch Ata Adonai, she-natan lanu hizdamnut l’taken et ha-olam. Blessed is the One who has given us the opportunity, responsibility, and challenge, to work with one another to bring wholeness to our world.



A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen.


Adapted from MODIM ANACHNU LACH – We are Grateful to You, by Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker

We are grateful, Adonai, even in this time that challenges us. We give thanks for the food before us and all the people who brought it forth from the land, from seed to harvest to the grocery store, and the people who prepared it into our meal.

Before we eat, we take a deep breath as we focus on all our blessings.

We are grateful for life. We are aware how fragile it can be. We mourn those who have died in our community and world from the pandemic. We pray for healing for those who are now ill.

We are grateful for the medical professionals and front-line workers who serve our community. We will do our part to change our behaviors, to love our neighbors and ourselves as we are mindful to wash hands, physically distance, and wear masks.

We grieve those who are not with us today. How we wished to celebrate in person! We pray that the end of this struggle is in sight and once again there will be a time for embracing.

During this period of Thanksgiving, we are grateful for the scientists working on vaccines to help bring that day soon and speedily. Until then, may we be patient and resilient with hearts open to gratitude. With that spirit, may we give tzedakah generously to those in need and reach out to those alone. Adonai, help us be fully aware of our gifts to make this world more whole, more just, and more loving.



Adapted from Appreciation Amidst Pandemic: A Thanksgiving Prayer During COVID-19, by Rabbi David Dine Wirtschafter


Modim anchunu lach, Grateful are we to all those whose have helped us to persevere through this crisis.

For doctors and nurses continuing to treat their patients,

Modim anachnu lach.

For mental and behavioral health professionals continuing to offer comfort and encouragement,

Modim anachnu lach..

For teachers and professors continuing to offer instruction,

Modim anachnu lach.

For first responders continuing to rush to our aid,

Modim anachnu lach.

For essential workers continuing to put food on our tables,

Modim anachnu lach.

For nursing home employees and care givers continuing to tend to the elderly and infirm,

Modim anachnu lach.

For the unemployed and underemployed continuing to help their families and communities,

Modim anachnu lach.

For family and friends continuing to inquire about us,

Modim anachnu lach.

For continuing to see and hear one another remotely until we can gather in person,

Modim anachnu lach.

Baruch ata, Adonai, hatov shimcha ul’cha na-eh l’hodot.

Blessed are You, Adonai, Your name inspires goodness and Your caring deserves our thanks.



Friday, 20 November 2020

A Drug of Life or Death - Tol'dot Sermon 2020

The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new under the sun, meaning that even though the specific details may be different, there are recurring themes throughout the history of humanity. One theme, which in our world is hard to appreciate, but is getting much easier to appreciate with every passing day, is that we are entirely dependent on the accessibility of water. The ability to control water to the point that clean, running water, sometimes heated, is available “on tap” is nothing short of miraculous. Our planet is covered in water, although most of it is completely undrinkable, either because it is too salty, or too polluted.

In this week’s sidrah, we read of the ever-human need to dig for water, and the tensions that finding water can create. Just as around the world governments are wising up to the fact that the great number of military conflicts in the future will be simply fought over water, so too in our sidrah there is strife as soon as water is found.

Water, it should be noted, is one of the most prominent metaphors for Torah. Water immediately flows to the lowest place, just as Torah flows toward those who are low of spirit, that is, those who are humble. Water refreshes and nourishes, just as Torah refreshes and nourishes. Life is impossible without water, and life for a Jew is impossible without Torah. But if we read this sidrah metaphorically, then, there is a very challenging message for us all. As we dig for Torah, as we explore the depths of Torah, we’re going to come into conflict. We’re going to struggle over the Torah that others have found. So, can Torah ever be destructive? Can Torah damage us?

Interestingly, there is a text in the Talmud that suggests that it is possible. It takes the quotation that is sung as we lift the Torah scroll before or after reading it (depending on your custom) – vezot hatorah asher sam moshe lifnei b’nei yisrael, which means, “this is the Torah that Moses placed before Israel.” Now the Rabbis enjoyed a good play on words whenever they could to try to explore new meanings of the text. They noticed that the word for “placed”, which is Hebrew is sam, is also the word for drug. As a result…

“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: and this is the torah that moses placed (sam) (Deut. 4:44)? If one is deserving, it becomes a drug (sam) of life to him. If one is not deserving, it becomes a drug of death to him. And this is similar to that which Rava said: Where one uses it skillfully, it is a drug of life, where one uses it unskillfully; it is a drug of death.” (Talmud Bavli: Yoma 72b)

This is really quite a remarkable passage. It’s not that studying too much Torah is bad for you socially, but that if one is undeserving, or if one uses it unskillfully, then it is a drug of death. What does this mean? Is it an immediate poison that kills on the spot? Dramatic as that may be, it’s clearly not that. So in what way could Torah be a drug of death? This question is made even harder when we think about the first point, that if one is deserving, or if one uses Torah skillfully, then it becomes a drug of life. What is a drug of life?

It’s possible that it’s talking about intoxication. Intoxication can be a good thing, or it can be a bad thing. Intoxication is a mitzvah on Purim, for example, because it lifts the heart and helps us enjoy the world. Intoxication can go too far, however, and can lead us to a very dark place, wherein we lose ourselves. But as nice as that interpretation might be, why not just say that? Why instead talk of life and death?

Perhaps it’s talking about addiction, in this case, the addiction of burying oneself in books to the exclusion of all else. In one famous narrative, the Dubner Maggid believes he is totally righteous, until his teacher takes him outside into the marketplace away from the protection of his books. His teacher then challenges him to be just as pious as he was when he was addicted to his books. In that reading, Torah could be a drug of life when it helps us and others live fully but becomes a drug of death when it leads us to arrogance or to isolation.

Perhaps this commentary is a warning to Jewish leaders – when Moses put Torah in front of the Israelites, how he put it was more important than what he put in front of them. Perhaps it’s all about presentation. Jewish leaders can put Torah over to their communities in a way that forms an enjoyable habit for them, or they can put it over in such a way that it dulls their senses and their only addiction is to stay away from it, therefore dying spiritually. Maybe this, like much of Talmud, is a text from rabbis to other rabbis. Maybe it’s saying, “Present the Torah well and you’ll get people hooked, and their spiritual life will grow. BUT, if you put Torah in front of the community and don’t do it well, then you will turn people away, and they will die spiritually.”

There is another text which supports this theory. Pirke Avot tells teachers to watch their words lest their students swallow them up and die. The similarity in these two texts between a “pill” and “swallowing” can’t be avoided. These two texts seem to be telling Jewish leaders that the spiritual life or spiritual death of their community might heavily depend on their interpretation and particularly their mode of presentation of Torah. For a Rabbi, that is rather terrifying. Will the next words I utter cause the spiritual death of the community? As if I needed more pressure in my work!

It was our sidrah that gave me some comfort, and helped me connect this thought to my opening theme. We dig for water because everyone is thirsty. Some people like sparkling water, some still. Similarly, we all need Torah, but we need it presented to us in a way that is palatable. There is no one way to present Torah that will be palatable to everyone. One person’s drug of life is potentially another’s drug of death. What’s important is to create a community where everyone digs for water. It’s not the words themselves, but the way we sustain people. Rabbis need to keep serving up water in differing forms, some of which people will like, some of which they won’t. But what is important is to create a community where everyone digs for water together. Today’s Rabbi isn’t a firehose that sprays people with as much Torah as possible – they’re a map to water reserves.

The healthiest Jewish community is one which continually explores God’s Word and sips it and struggles with it in a mutually affectionate way. We can disagree, but those disagreements don’t need to damage us because those disagreements are just the same as preferring still or sparkling water. Actually, such disagreements help us grow as a community as we learn to see the world from differing perspectives. May our learning come to be a drug of life, may it sustain us and bring us sustenance and joy, and let us say, Amen.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Hearing and Listening (Chayye Sarah)

When a word or phrase occurs twice in a sidrah, it gives us an opportunity to comment on it. When it occurs six times within the space of ten verses in a sedrah, it demands attention. This word, meaning “Hear us” or “hear me” is in Hebrew “She’ma’einu,” Shema’eini” and “Shema’uni.” Our Torah portion for this week focusses on truly hearing the other.

The first time we hear this phrase is when the children of Heth invite Abraham to pick any burial place for Sarah. In response, Abraham mentions the phrase as he asks for the cave of Ephron the Hittite. As he hears this, Ephron mentions the word in inviting Abraham to take the cave. Abraham offers to pay, using this word. Finally, in his response Ephron asks Abraham once again to hear him.

At no other time in the Torah is there a negotiation anything like this. Looking carefully at the text, it seems as though Ephron is being extremely generous when he offers the cave to Abraham, but not everything is as it seems. All the Hittites are gathered together and the leader announces that Abraham can take any cave he wants. Abraham picks the cave of Ephron. We can now read the text in two ways at this point. One has Ephron the Hittite extremely frustrated at his land being chosen, the other that he wants to give it away but when suddenly faced with losing it, realizes how valuable it is to him.

In the first reading, Ephron is frustrated but he has to act magnanimously in front of everyone else. His people had already declared that Abraham could take any land he wanted, and Ephron probably agreed with that on the assumption that it would be someone else’s land. When his land is selected, he doesn’t want to give it up. Abraham senses that Ephron is unhappy and offers to pay him money, but Ephron could not possibly accept money in front of his people who offered his cave for nothing! So he could have said to Abraham “What’s a piece of land to me? Feh! It’s nothing, have it.”  But instead he says, “What is a piece of land worth 400 shekels (wink, wink) to me?” Abraham hears the words behind the spoken words, and pays the man the 400 shekels.

In the second reading, Ephron is initially willing in theory to give up his ancestral land but at the point when he has to let go of it, suddenly his attachment to the land – perhaps all his family memories - come flooding back. Suddenly, he sees himself impoverished, he realizes what has value in his life and instead of giving it away, he hesitates, and needs to be convinced financially.

What’s happening in the first reading? People are saying things without actually saying them. In English we might differentiate between people hearing and people listening, in Biblical Hebrew the differentiation is made by the inclusion or exclusion of this verb. To hear something is passive, but to listen to something requires effort. We have a story in which people are not only hearing the words, but also listening to the messages behind the words. When the Hittites offer Abraham a field for nothing, he knows that taking the land for free means that they can claim it back at any point, so he hears the words behind the words, and offers money instead to ensure it is his land forever. Now that Abraham is offering money, though, Ephron cannot openly say that he wants the money being offered, but he can spell out the price that the land should be bought for and leave it up to Abraham to give him the money or not.

For me, one very powerful message of this sidrah is that we all have a responsibility to listen to the words behind what people are saying – to try to find our way to the root of what is being said. But conversely, it also puts responsibility on us every time we speak – that we need to make sure that the words that we say really reflect the feelings we mean. And that is why at the end of the Amidah we pray to God to make the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to God – in other words, may the words of our mouths and the thoughts in our hearts always be one, and always be Godly.

At the same time, though, when it comes to having other people hear us, even if our words are totally consistent with what we’re thinking, there is still potential for confusion. The same word or phrase can mean very different things to differing people. One example which amuses me is the phrase “quite nice.” In America, when a person says that it’s a compliment, but in Britain when a person says that it’s a negative qualifier – the American “quite nice” is much more positive than the British “quite nice!” In Pirkei Avot (1:11), Avtalyon warns scholars to be careful of their words lest their students misunderstand and be led astray. When teaching halakha, that’s much easier than when having a conversation with someone. In negotiations such as the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, everyone needs to be sure that they understand each other, hence the repetition of “Hear me” and “hear us” throughout the negotiation. But just saying that isn’t really enough because of how differently people hear words. Real conversation involves more listening than it does speaking. It involves listening to our own words to make sure they mean what we want them to, it means listening to what other people are saying, it involves listening to how our own words are received and it means listening to the words behind the words that other people say. This is why, according to Jewish tradition, we have two ears and one mouth – because we should be listening far more than we should be speaking.

This Shabbat, then, let’s commit ourselves to really listening. Listening to the words of our heart and ensuring that they synchronize with the words of our mouth. Listening to the words expressed by others, and the words within the heart of others. And let us say, Amen.


Friday, 6 November 2020

Authoritarian America and How to Avoid It - a post-2020 election sermon

A number of years ago, a cartoon in the New York Times by Paul Noth has a flock of sheep staring at a billboard for a political candidate. The picture of the candidate, who is a wolf, lies next to text saying, “I am going to eat you.” One of the sheep looking at it turns to another sheep and says, “He tells it like it is.”

Many members of this community have publicly expressed shock and dismay that the election result wasn’t a landslide for Joe Biden. They look at the last four years and despair that over sixty million people could vote for four more years of the same. They thought that the 2016 election was an aberration, that Donald Trump was elected because Hillary Clinton arrogantly didn’t visit key states, because she called half the electorate a basket of deplorables, because the FBI dropped a bombshell only days before the election or because Russia hacked the election. These things all certainly contributed, but this most recent election has seemingly confirmed that which many people believe – that there has for a long time been an authoritarian, anti-democratic movement in this country that continues to grow in strength. Despite believing that it had defeated authoritarianism once and for all in the 1940s with the military defeat of Nazism, this recent election is a rude awakening to many liberal Americans that authoritarianism is on the rise in America, and despite the fact that its rise to prominence has seemingly been temporarily halted, unless we address its root causes, it has the potential to overwhelm this country in the future.

The start of the 2006 book American Fascists – the Christian Right and the War on America, by Chris Hedges, contains an essay by Umberto Eco called “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt.” Of the fourteen ways that Eco explains, at least seven could be applied to the Trump administration. To be clear, I am not saying that the 45th President of the United States was a fascist – all experts on fascism agree that that’s not true, despite a growing number of similarities. I’m not saying that the tens of millions of people who voted for him are fascists – of course they aren’t. I am saying, though, that what we have seen over the last five years by Donald Trump’s campaign and subsequent administration, culminating in this week’s denial of the democratic process by a sitting President, has been clearly authoritarian and has bordered dangerously close to fascism, and that we need to understand where this comes from in order to avoid it in the future.

In Umberto Eco’s essay, the reliance of tradition and the fact that there can be no advancement of learning is the first way that leads to fascism, and we have seen that in recent years by the open and consistent refutation of science not only regarding climate change but also regarding the current pandemic. The second way that leads to fascism is the rejection of modernism and the embracing of irrationalism, as made evident by the explosive growth in QAnon followers, one of whom has now just been elected to serve in Congress. The third way is similar – the belief that thinking is a form of emasculation and that the intellectual world cannot be trusted. We saw that in the President talking about climate scientists following political agendas. The fourth way is the belief that disagreement is treason. We have certainly seen in the last four years the rejection of valid peaceful protests and the vilification of protestors such as Colin Kaepernick as un-American or even anti-American. Eco says that for the fascist disagreement is a sign of diversity but “the first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders.” Again, we have openly seen the Trump administration try everything they could to block what they saw as intruders from Muslim countries. It is points 6 and 7 in that essay that I believe are essential to understanding this election. Eco says “Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.” When members of our community don’t understand why tens of millions of people could vote for Trump, it’s very possibly because they don’t understand the depth of despair and feelings of futility felt by vast swathes of people in this country whose jobs were either automated or outsourced to other countries by corporations who were supported by the political class on both sides of the aisle. When Trump promised to drain the swamp, that promise wasn’t against all forms of corruption – clearly - but specifically against the corruption that brought poverty to predominantly white manufacturing workers. And when those jobs were outsourced who did they go to? To people of color worldwide. This is the direct consequence of free trade agreements that say that they’re opening up markets but are actually locking individuals worldwide into a form of contemporary serfdom by only providing employment to those who pay the least and who provide the least protection for the workers and their environment (see Hedges, p.136). This capitalistic global race to the bottom has devastated vast areas of America and left countless millions of Americans feeling betrayed by the political class, the intellectuals who failed to make life better for the electorate and who didn’t suffer from the global recession as they did. Despair turned to rage, and when white American jobs went to people of color abroad, that rage turned into overt racism. Despite the pandemic having killed nearly a quarter of a million Americans in less than a year, despite the clear evidence of systemic racism, despite the continued subversion of the democratic process, despite pending environmental catastrophe, still, despite all those things, the leading issue for voters in this election was overwhelmingly the economy. When you cannot feed your family, when you cannot afford the payments on your home, when you cannot afford your healthcare, then the issues of race that affect black people in cities miles away and the issues of environment that affect polar bears in the arctic become irrelevant to an enormous number of voters. That is the inevitable manifestation of the radical individualism of American society that defines the American dream as personal, and not communal, success, as well as the inevitable product of decades of the erosion of the economic safety nets that are essential to so many Americans.

Umberto Eco adds that “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.” Think of the so-called War on Christmas, the claims of Christian persecution in America, the conspiracy theories, the unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud even four years ago when trump won the election (!), the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanting “the Jews will not replace us,” the claims of paid crisis actors and paid protestors, the need to constantly talk of the fake news media plotting to undo the Presidency. To those invested in the narrative of a subversive plot, the impeachment of Donald Trump only became more proof that there was a plot against him and his supporters. Regardless of clear evidence of impropriety, the act of impeachment reinforced the narrative of persecution and thus profoundly strengthened the base for this election. Why do so many people buy into that plot, into that feeling of persecution? Because modernity has undermined the social structures upon which such people hang their psychological existence. In that world view, there are men and women and there’s nothing in between. The dismantling of basic concepts of gender has a huge effect on patriarchal America because it leaves the men in particular feeling totally lost and unable to identify themselves. They claim to be worried about physical violence in bathroom stalls by transgender individuals despite no evidence of that happening but it’s not physical violence that they actually fear, it’s violence to their patriarchal norms. It’s violence to everything their society is based on. They fear psychological violence from modernity, and vote against it.

Those patriarchal norms are constantly reinforced in this country by the evangelical right-wing church whose most prominent leaders have since the beginning of this election campaign spewed the most shocking bile as they concoct sinister plot after sinister plot by the liberals. The fundamentalist church has for decades been working to infiltrate the American political scene, and has unquestionably succeeded in its mission because it knew that if modernity continued, it would be rendered irrelevant. The lavish lifestyles of its clergy would have to come to an end. It has, therefore, seized upon the dismantling of patriarchal norms by the secular state – the encouragement for women to work and to have their own voice, the permission for same-sex marriage, the permission for transgender surgery, and more – and reframed them as a war against God Himself – the source of ultimate morality. It has provided comfort to countless millions whose traditional views were being dismantled, by framing those who would dismantle them as working for the Devil. And nowhere has that strategy been more successful than in the abortion debate, where it has succeeded in framing the discussion to be about when life begins as opposed to when personhood begins. It has thus been able to convince millions of people that abortion is murder and that the woman who carries the fetus loses all right to her body as soon as she becomes pregnant because she is now a vessel for another person and not a person in her own right. The deliberate confusion of life with personhood is why we have repeatedly heard the accusation of Democrats being “baby killers” or “murderers,” especially in recent months. It is because where the secular state views morality as an ongoing democratic process that is determined at the ballot box, the religious fundamentalist refers to Scripture for morality and claims that it is unchanging. In that claim, they totally reject the post-modern concept that every text exists in relationship to its reader and that everything is therefore interpretation. No amount of relativity, or evolution of thought, may come into this mindset – there is simply truth and lie. This conflict of religious fundamentalism against the secular state in this country claimed an important public win for the fundamentalists in the Scopes Trial of 1925 in which a high school teacher, John Scopes, was found guilty of teaching evolution despite Tennessee’s Butler Act which specifically prohibited it. Although the verdict was overturned on a technicality, the win was empowering for religious fundamentalists in America. They have for a hundred years since then deliberately reached out with their monolithic truth claims to the economically disenfranchised and socially displaced, they have comforted those people by framing their malaise as persecution by globalist elites – read Jews – who do not care for them, and they have helped form a mass social identity of opposition to democracy which has failed the blue-collar masses. Just as that religious fundamentalism is deeply patriarchal and anti-democratic within its own community, so too it manifests itself in anti-democratic norms. Thus, denying Merrick Garland a place on the Supreme Court or denying the validity of an election becomes in their eyes not only a moral position, but a Divinely supported position.

There is another narrative that must be included in any analysis of this election, which is the narrative of race. To millions of white Americans, totally removed from the reality of life for African Americans and Native Americans in particular, there is no racism in America. To them, racism was segregation and that was decades ago. In their minds, all that holds African-Americans back is their failure to manifest their own success – as we saw recently by Jared Kushner’s extraordinary statement that his father-in-law can’t want African-Americans to be successful more than they do. In that way of thinking, their lack of success is nothing to do with systemically racist structures but is their own fault. To such people who have no experience of systemic racism, it doesn’t exist. In fact, many of those white Americans genuinely blame President Obama for bringing racism back where, as far as they believed, it had been resolved! The dismantling of the American dream narrative, which was always a white narrative, coupled with the dismantling of other social narratives upon which so many white Americans had hung their own identities, had to be rejected for their own mental wellbeing. Segregation is not something from the distant past, though – at least one member of our community was arrested for sitting at a lunch counter with a black man. We can see how prevalent racism is in the so-called justice system in this country. We see it in employment figures. We see it in how devastating the pandemic has been in African American and Native American communities compared with the white population. But for those who have no contact with such things, the Black Lives Matter movement becomes just another attempt to undermine the profoundly American narrative of white normalcy.

It is important to clarify that I am in no way saying that everyone who voted for Trump in this election is an economically marginalized, distrusting, racist, white blue-collar Christian fundamentalist. I am absolutely not saying that. There are a multitude of reasons why people in this country vote for candidates from differing perspectives on gun control to voting rights to taxation to regulation and more. But what I am saying is that a now sizeable percentage of the American electorate is, indeed, made up of economically marginalized, authority-distrusting, white blue-collar citizens who unite with a massive voting bloc of misogynistic, democracy-denying, modernity-refuting Christian fundamentalists. Indeed, Christian evangelicals make up nearly 20% of the American electorate, and 75% of them voted for Trump this time. These are people who unite behind charismatic white, straight male figures. Together, they intimidate through fear of spiritual or physical violence, which is the hallmark of fascism. Indeed, this united group fan the flames of physical violence with chants of locking up opponents, with failing to condemn racial violence, and then turn to an authoritarian figure to resolve it through draconian law-and-order measures, like whisking away civilians in unmarked vans, or praising armed nationalists who walk the streets after civil unrest. They do everything they can to “own the libs” because the ultimate goal is the suppression of the new social narrative. They therefore even support what they know to be open lies as an act of defiance against the new social narrative and as a way to bring about a transformed American society that returns them to the time when they alone felt valued, which almost always meant privileged. Make American Great Again is the clarion call of this movement. From a logical perspective, Make America Great Again Again - a call which was made at least twice in this election campaign - is clearly nonsensical. But it actually reveals the deep insecurity of so many Americans who have lost their economic and social privilege and who will do anything they can to get it back. As Tom Nichols, author of The Death of Expertise, wrote two days ago, “It’s clear now that far too many of Trump’s voters don’t care about policy, decency, or saving our democracy. They care about power.” As Hadley Freeman recently wrote of Trump, “His white working-class supporters saw in him their own aggrievement at not being accepted by elites who rigged the game; [and] the elites saw a fellow plutocrat who would protect their fortunes.” She quotes John W Dean and Bob Altemeyer’s book “Authoritarian Nightmare: Trump and his Followers” in saying that there is no defeating Trumpism as so many people thought might happen in this election. There is no defeating Trumpism because it doesn’t exist – it’s not a consistent thought pattern. It is, she says, nothing more than a mere reflection of his followers and their own psychological predispositions. “They look at him,” she says, “and see what they want to see: themselves.” The impulse to authoritarianism, to control, to power, will never be fully slain because it is an all-too human impulse.

Donald Trump is just one head of the hydra. Defeating Donald Trump at the ballot box won’t end the authoritarian impulses of a growing number of despairing people in the American electorate, just as defeating Hitler militarily didn’t end Nazism as an ideology. Without constant care, democracy can easily slip toward hero-worship and authoritariansm, something the American electorate is now only just realizing. Authoritarianism isn’t timebound, and it is only suppressed, never fully defeated. When a crass twice-time divorced man who openly brags about sexually assaulting women and who cannot even quote from the Bible during interviews is held aloft by white evangelicals as the second Divine incarnation, the underlying issue for that vast section of the American electorate is not religious – it is about power… white male-dominated hierarchical power with Divine mandate. It is about the external threat to that power perpetuated in a narrative of persecution that can only be redeemed by a savior figure. The dismantling of that narrative is therefore crucial to the continued existence of American democracy.

Chris Hedges writes (ibid. p.47) that, “not all who fall into despair turn to the Christian Right” but “despair … is the fuel of the movement.” If we are to avoid such close elections in the future, we need to honestly address despair within all sections of American society. We will need to help people across the country not try to seize power to compensate for their own feelings of abandonment. This will not be a conversation of the brain solved by logic, but of the heart, solved by love of the other.

We will also need to address the sources of despair, particularly economic sources of despair. We need to help people feel validated, seen, respected, valued for their contribution to society. Finally, we need to show the benefits of modernity to those who feel threatened by it and to those who think that they have the most to lose by it. The new President-elect can and will talk of the equality of all people, of being the President for all Americans. Karl Popper once wrote, “To tell men that they are equal has a certain sentimental appeal. But this appeal is small compared with that made by a propaganda that tells them they are superior to others, and that others are inferior to them.” (The Open Society and Its Enemies, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971, 1:96) It is a firm Jewish principle that we are all descended from the same first being so we are all equal. The reality, though, is that not all people in this country are equal. Millions who were in positions of economic and social privilege have lost that privilege and now feel threatened. They do not care for the real systemic inequality in this country that affects others beyond their view and they will do anything to return to their position of privilege, even if it means subverting democratic norms. They will attach themselves to savior figures to do it, and will ignore everything that those figures say or do in order to regain their own feelings of power. They will be like the sheep looking at the billboard, thankful for the honesty of their savior without considering the harm of that savior’s message.

Healing America, then, avoiding authoritarianism, necessitates profoundly changing the American narrative. It means providing economic stability for all in the face of multinational corporations who do not care for American citizens and in the face of the irreversible automation of manual labor. It means speaking to the heart and not just the brain of those who feel threatened by modernity. It means unravelling the personal narrative of the American dream and replacing it with a communal narrative of the American dream. It means abandoning radical individualism. It means that if we are to dismantle systemic patriarchy and racism, we must do so in a way that helps those who benefited from it to learn what we all gain by that dismantling, so that they do not rise up in violent reaction to what must necessarily happen for humanity to progress.

The urge to authoritarianism is real. It is fed by despair and by anti-intellectualism, particularly by white men who wish to protect their own power and hierarchical sense of identity. It is fed by those who cannot see their own persecution of others and who instead see themselves instead as victims demanding a savior. It is not one man, it is a latent seed in the heart of man.

On this Shabbat, we rest. We celebrate the fact that millions more people sought a democratic society than those who tolerated an authoritarian one. We rest. We breathe. We gather our strength. We unify. We thank God for giving us the ability to express our voice at the ballot box. And then after Shabbat, we start the work of protecting democracy, of helping the vulnerable, of dismantling the narratives of privilege and hierarchy in ways that show the benefit of that work to all. We see the pain of the other, and help to remove it, for the benefit of all. We do so because our understanding of religion, of God’s call, is inclusive, loving and empowering. We do so because all of us are made b’zelem Elohim – in the image of God. We do so because the work of helping the other is the work of tikkun olam – of global and spiritual reunification, the core of the Jew. And let us say, Amen.

Friday, 30 October 2020

What to Pray for an Election?

Talmud talks of how important it is that we do not waste our prayers. For example, one who sees a fire in their town from afar cannot pray that it not be their house on fire, since it either is already on fire or it isn’t, and prayer cannot change that reality. When it comes to praying before an election, what prayer, then, might be appropriate?

In the Mishnah (Avot 3:2), Rabbi Chanina, the Deputy High Priest, says that we should pray for the welfare of the government for if people did not fear it, they would swallow each other alive. In the past, I always read this as a positive sentiment, reminding us that we need overarching structures to protect ourselves. We need to social security net because our capitalist structures do, essentially, swallow up the poor and the economically fragile. Now, though, I cannot help but read this as a “law and order” message, a cynical attempt to maintain the status quo by insisting that without the current structures, society would rapidly devolve into chaos. That message doesn’t say anything positive, it just renders any form of change terrifying. The story of Rabbi Chanina is fascinating and, I believe, extremely relevant to us today. At first, he distances himself from the patriots who start to object to Roman rule, as made evident in the Mishnah I quoted. Later, though, as it became more apparent to him how barbarous the Romans were, and how much they focused their attacks on the Temple service, he changed his approach to the ruling power and sided against them. Perhaps I have become too cynical now, but it seems to me that his earlier maxim about praying for the government was only when it worked for him. From his position of privilege, he was able to hope for everything to stay as it was. As soon as negativity came into his life, he rallied against it. If Chanina were a voter in an election, it’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that he would be the kind of voter who chooses their candidate on how they personally are affected, and not the rest of the population. Chanina is so privileged and cut off from the rest of reality that he cannot see the brutality of the Romans until way too late. His mishnah protects the oppressor – it asks the community to ignore the faults of those in power for fear of what may replace it and uses extraordinary hyperbole – the idea that people would eat each other alive – to scare people into keeping what is already problematic.

In his commentary on this mishnah, Rabbi Marc Angel says that “if the government is immoral, one certainly should not pray for its welfare.” There are two difficulties to this – firstly, who determines what is immoral and, secondly, what happens to communal prayer? With regards to who determines what is immoral, what we usually see around elections is that there are widely differing understandings of morality – people who protest injustice and people who say those protests are unjust, people who say that life begins at conception and those who say that it begins at birth, people who say the government should protect the vulnerable and those who say that taxation is theft. Indeed, in this country the question of morality is often a deeply religious one – between those who believe that their reading of the Bible is what should determine morality, and those who do not since we do not live in a theocracy. One reason for the lack of decent political discourse in this country is the deliberate infusion over the last forty or so years of religious statements of morality into political discourse. Another is the fact that both people on the left and the right tend to talk in terms of absolute morality – of right and wrong – which is particularly ironic when one considers the underlying message of liberal belief. What is considered moral to one person is often immoral to another, and even if there are alienable rights determined in a country’s constitution, it has become absolutely clear that those absolutes are also subject to reinterpretation and thus modification over time.

The second issue I have with Rabbi Angel’s position is that it cannot work in a public setting, for example in a community where people are always going to have differing political views. In such cases, does the Rabbi become the arbiter of the community’s morality? That’s not really what the Rabbinate is any more – that was only the case back when Torah was seen as the only morality that mattered. There is a prayer in our siddur, on page 258, for our country. The first part – in slightly smaller font - is a clear quotation from Isaiah 58 that acts as a kavvanah, an opening intention, for the prayer that follows. That prayer asks that our leaders be granted “wisdom and forbearance” and that they govern “with justice and compassion,” but otherwise talks more in terms of the general country, almost as if to say that the government only makes up part of a country.

On this Shabbat before a crucial election which still hangs very much in the balance, I find the prayer by FDR from 1940 (From The Faith of America, Ed. Mordecai Kaplan, et al., edited and adapted by Dennis C. Sasso) to most deeply resonate, and so I share it on this Shabbat:

In every community in our nation, friends and neighbors will gather together around the polling place. They will discuss the state of the nation, the weather, and the prospect for their favorite sports team. And I suppose there will be a few arguments.

But when you and I step into the voting booth, we can proudly say: “I am an American, and this vote I am casting is the exercise of my highest privilege and my most solemn duty to my country.”

We vote as free people, impelled only by the urgings of our own wisdom and our own conscience.

Dictators have forgotten – or perhaps they never knew – that the opinion of all the people, freely formed and freely expressed, without fear or coercion, is wiser than the opinion of any one person or any small group of people.

Every one of us has a continuing responsibility for the Government which we choose. Democracy is not just a word, to be shouted at political rallies…. Democracy [is] much more than mere lip-service. Freedom of speech is of no use to the one who has nothing to say…. A free election is of no use to the one who is too indifferent to vote.

After the ballots are counted, [we pray that] the United States of America will stand united. [The] people of America know…that we have a reservoir of [faith and] strength which can withstand attacks from abroad and corruption from within.

On the eve of this election, we all have in our hearts and minds a prayer for the dignity, the integrity and the peace of our beloved country:

O God, who has entrusted to us this good land for our heritage, may we always prove ourselves a people mindful of Your favor and glad to do Your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Protect our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endow with the spirit of wisdom those to whom … we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home and …among the nations of the earth. In times of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in days of trouble, suffer not our trust and faith to fail. Amen.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Saving the Planet, But Really - Noach 23rd October 2020

Much discussion has been had in recent years, including in recent political discussion, about combating climate change. It is regularly described as an existential threat. Businesses are trying to show how green they are, particularly by reducing their carbon emissions. Saving the planet and reducing carbon emissions are now, for the majority of the public, synonymous terms. Political candidates, newspapers, environmental groups all talk about the months we have left to save the world, how we have to rejoin the Paris Accord in order to stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis. That’s true, but it ignores the reality that is dawning on more and more people that we are already past the point of no return and that climate change will already happen that will be catastrophic to billions of people on this planet. We can probably stave off the very worst effects of it for humanity, which would be total extinction, but we are already locked into a series of positive feedback cycles which will irrevocably change our planet.

In fact, reducing carbon emissions and saving the planet are not the same thing. Most people assume a causative chain – that if we reduce carbon emissions then we save the planet. In fact, it’s the other way round – if we save the planet, we will also reduce carbon emissions. We tend not to talk about the causation working in that way because it’s far more inconvenient to do so. The truth is that we could end fossil fuel usage tomorrow and still not save the planet, because saving the planet is a far larger task and we don’t like to talk about that far larger task because it would necessitate a total change in our lifestyles, and not just a change in carbon emissions. What needs to change is the relationship between ourselves and nature. Reducing carbon emissions should never be the ultimate goal – that goal should be our reconnection with the world around us. Through that reconnection, carbon emissions will necessarily diminish but much more will happen, too. This is an existential crisis but it is not a crisis that can be solved by only by the business world, it’s a crisis solved by a change in attitude to which businesses then adapt.

Some people object to the language of “saving the planet” because they say that the planet will be here long after homo sapiens has been wiped off it. Such people say that what we’re really trying to do is save ourselves – save humanity from extinction. That attitude is actually a symptom of the far larger issue of androcentrism – of putting humanity in the middle of everything – instead of biocentrism. There’s no question that the Bible helped those with an androcentric worldview to claim divine support for their position – indeed, last week’s Torah portion of Genesis clearly has the world set up for humanity to then use in stewardship. However, there is another voice in scripture, a profoundly biocentric voice in which humanity is one voice in a larger choir of creation, a theme which is echoed in many of our prayers. Genesis, however, is clearly androcentric. In this week’s Torah portion, when Noah loads the animals onto the ark, he loads seven of every clean animal and two of every unclean animal because the clean animals would need to be sacrificed – in other words, they were being saved so that they could be useful to humanity. In some sense, he is saving the animals in order to save humanity. But those who say that we’re only really saving ourselves are ignoring the fact that Noah did save two of every other animal as well because, and this is so essential, they have value in and of themselves, regardless of their usefulness to human society. That is a secondary and crucial message in the story of Noah. This isn’t about us, it’s about all of creation. Yes, of course, reducing carbon emissions helps reduce devastation in other species, but that’s not the only way. All the windmills in the world won’t save the planet if we don’t make other profound changes to our society.

For example, if we cut our emissions but also continue to cut down rainforests for palm oil plantations, then we can be absolutely certain that not only will the earth become more hostile to us but we also we condemn to extinction many species, including the beloved orangutan. More efficient cars and homes and businesses are essential, but if in those places we still buy products that contribute to deforestation, then the impact of that efficiency is dramatically undercut. If we still give our money to banks who invest in companies that mine for resources in rainforests, if we buy phones from companies who slaughter gorillas just to get to precious metals, if we only consider the larger carbon footprint while avoiding the devastation caused by the way we spend our money, then we have to ask how green we really are? If we continue to consume plastic and other chemicals that pollute the oceans and strangle the wildlife therein, then we have to be honest enough to remove any pretense of being environmentally friendly. And if we continue to oppress the global poor, if we continue to support the economic systems that lock billions of people into debt and force them to despoil and then sell their own local environmental resources on a global market, are we really going to save the planet just because we reduced our carbon emissions? Indeed, how green are we if we continue to buy products from multinational companies who, half way round the world, force billions of people to buy patented monoculture crops that help the corporations rake in enormous sums of money which are removed from the local economy while the local environment is degraded beyond repair due to the lack of biodiversity in the crops, and then the same corporations make more money selling pesticides to the farmers which poison them further and which would have been totally unnecessary had their local knowledge of how to plant crops locally been listened to?

Noah sits in the ark with all the animals. He tends them and takes care of them but ultimately, he believes that he is above them, not one of them – he thinks he is a guardian of nature, not a part of nature. Western society has for the last four hundred years shifted from a perspective of working within nature to one of conquering nature. We’ve now conquered nature by devastating it. We won the war in which there were no winners. Yes, it is important to reduce carbon emissions but that will be a hollow victory if we do not simultaneously repair the relationship between ourselves and the rest of nature. We need to be of nature, not for nature. That is a change in spirituality, not in business models. It is a change in the way we view our world. It means changing our liturgy, rephrasing our spirituality and then, as a result, in modifying the way we live on the earth. This Shabbat Noach, we acknowledge that time is short. The waters are literally rising. We need to change not just how we shop but also how we think because we can no longer simply shut the door and drown out the cries of the rest of the natural world as it faces annihilation. This Shabbat Noach, we need to commit to saving the planet not just through an alternate consumerism but, more importantly, through re-evaluation of our place in this world. We do this not for our sake, but for the sake of the whole of this wondrous, irreplaceable creation. And let us say, Amen.


Friday, 16 October 2020

 After the Obelisk

Earlier this week, the obelisk that has stood in the Santa Fe plaza since 1866 was torn down at the end of a protest on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, formerly known as Columbus Day. It was torn down by people who objected to the phrase that was etched into one of its sides, describing Native Americans as “savage.” On another side of the obelisk, though, was an inscription praising Union soldiers who died in the Civil War, thereby ensuring that slavery did not continue in this land. Years ago, someone scratched out the word “savage” but the fact that a monument still stood that contained a plaque celebrating defeating the indigenous population in battle was still obviously problematic for many locals.

I totally support changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and changing the focus of what we learn on that day. Some of Columbus’ actions were so monstrous that he was returned home in chains and had his commission stripped from him. One person who accompanied him on his voyages wrote “Such inhumanities and barbarisms were committed in my sight as no age can parallel… My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature that now I tremble as I write.” (Bartolome de las Casa). In 1495, he started the Transatlantic Slave Trade, shipping 500 Arawaks back to Spain, although 200 of them died on the journey. Due to barbaric treatment which he started in earnest, the approximately 300,000 Arawaks who had existed before Columbus’ arrival were all gone by the year 1650. So, of course we should not be celebrating him. The shift from Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first discussed in 1990 and implemented in 1992 in Berkeley, California. More and more cities around the US are replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day every year. It has taken thirty years of honest dialogue to bring about that change in an increasing number of cities. That change was not brought about by violence or by smashing monuments to Columbus, it was brought about through a deliberate process of educating people about who Columbus really was, and educating people of the pain of the Native American community. The introduction of another narrative that challenges conventional thinking takes decades to take hold in most of society.

The same could be said of ending of the Entrada in 2018, which was a huge victory for the process of peaceful demonstration and subsequent negotiation that started with the first formal objection to the ritual back in 1977. That opposition started to swell in 2015 until it became obvious that not only was the narrative of the Entrada false but also offensive to many people. With Columbus Day and the Entrada, deliberate and careful changing of the social narrative was what brought about profound change.

I acknowledge, though, that my position that social change needs to be made through deliberate dialogue comes from a position of privilege. The poverty of the local Native American communities today has led to a staggering prevalence of COVID-19 cases and there’s no question that their historic military defeat that was formerly celebrated on the obelisk started that impoverishment. I would therefore understand if Native American people tore down the obelisk, although I must stress that at this time we don’t know who did it – whether it was members of the Native American community or, in fact, members of the Anglo community believing that they were acting in the interests of the Native American community, or a cross-section of both communities.

Photograph by Katherine Lewin

I appreciate that support for this act could come from other acts of historic civil disobedience which shattered a deeply ingrained social narrative and introduced them to another narrative that they had not yet considered. For example, Susan B. Anthony illegally voted in 1872, Rosa Parks refused to move from her bus seat when a white man wanted it, and thousands of Americans burned their draft cards to Vietnam. But I believe that there is a difference between these acts and what happened at the obelisk on Monday. These acts challenged the narrative but they did not destroy property that others held to be dear. Of course, Jews have historically never really been very attached to property because we were always moving from one land to another as a result of persecution, except for one piece of property which has always been held dear to our hearts – the Temple. We pray towards the Temple not because we believe that God is in one physical place but because that act unifies us, it focuses us, it forms a navigating point for us as a people no matter where we are. In a similar but obviously far lesser way, the obelisk was the same for many Santa Feans. It was an assembly of stones that helped orient all Santa Feans. It was literally at the center of the Santa Fe community. Its blandness artistically helped it represent everyone, even if one of the plaques below did not. Perhaps better than comparing it to the Temple would be comparing it to Jacob setting up a pillar of stones and calling it Bet-El – the house of God (Gen. 28:19). It wasn’t the stones that made the place the house of God, they just marked it the intention he gave to the site. Of course, Jacob acted alone and did not ascribe his monument to any victory over other people, so I acknowledge that my analogy is therefore far from perfect.

What we do know is that since it was destroyed, there have been far more public expressions of racism against the Native American community, and that cannot be a good thing. I understand that such expressions are a symptom of pain, but there are ways to release pain that can be healthy and ways to cause pain that can be extremely unhealthy and that lead to more pain. Consideration of removing the obelisk is not new – in the past its removal was blocked simply because it was a federal survey point! Maybe too many privileged people waited too long to change the dominant social narrative. It is our job to “seek peace and pursue it” (Ps. 34:14) but maybe we tolerated the status quo instead of seeking peace, which is why the ultimate act of civil disobedience needed to happen.

Now we have to look forward. I have already submitted the suggestion to the city that in the future the three uninscribed sides of the plinth carry an identical message of reconciliation in English, Tewa and Spanish. Faith leaders from the Interfaith Leadership Alliance of Santa Fe, as well as other faith leaders in future weeks, will be gathering on a weekly basis at the plaza to offer prayers and readings of reconciliation. A city-wide panel is being put together to address matters of reconciliation that probably should have started earlier but is certainly happening now. The plaque celebrating defeating Indians should never return and should perhaps be placed in a museum… if any museum even wants it.

But what about Santa Fe? How do we go about the process of reconciliation? The first and most important stage is, I believe, to hear each other’s pain and to recognize that even those who share the same experience will necessarily frame that experience through the lenses of differing narratives. So, we need to share our narratives, truly hear them, and not try to prove or disprove them in the face of other narratives. Then, we need to work out a way to take elements from all our differing narratives and form a shared narrative. If nothing else, the destruction of the obelisk in the plaza reminds us how essential that work of dialogue in forming a new narrative truly is. Sometimes change is gradual and sometimes it is abrupt. Sometimes we need a dramatic event like the destruction at the Sea of Reeds and sometimes we need to grow and learn through trial and error like the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. We cannot yearn to return to Egypt for that way is rightly closed to us forever. We must press on. May we do so with strength and with compassion.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Israel at 70 – Facing Reality and Finding Hope

I rarely give sermons about Israel. The last time I did was immediately after the last elections when Netanyahu had said some appalling things and I couldn’t contain my rage. After that sermon, a member was so disgusted with my perspective that he left the community and subsequently left Santa Fe. So, part of the reason I have avoided talking about Israel is cowardice, because I’d rather not upset members of the community. And a community with such divided opinions means that pretty much anything that I say about Israel is going to upset at least someone. Of course, sermons aren’t always meant to be comforting, they are often meant to be challenging, but Israel brings out something else in people – especially Jews – and that, perhaps, is what I want to talk about most this evening. I do so because once again lives have been lost and because I have come to believe that many liberal Jews are not aware of some of the nuance of what is happening in the Middle East. Indeed, in some of the correspondence and conversations I’ve had this week, some members have openly owned their lack of knowledge of the situation.

Allow me to state some starting positions. I have visited Israel twice, both times were over twenty years ago. When I was there, I met my first victim of terror – a young boy who had a plastic forehead because his original one had been blown off in a nail bomb. Between 2000 and 2003, there were 73 suicide bombings aimed at Israeli civilians, but after the security barrier was built the number dropped to 12 in a similar time period. There is no question in my mind that the location of the security barrier is deeply problematic, and while I believe that Israel had every right to erect it, I was one of many Jews worldwide who were troubled by where it was placed. I remember the feeling of fear amongst every day Israelis at that time of imminent attack, a fear which was grounded in decades of previous attacks by Arab nations - including the most cynical one on Yom Kippur - and by Palestinian suicide bombers. The security barrier is important, though. Acting in self-defence after repeated attacks, Israel protected itself and in so doing limited the rights of neighboring Palestinians, much to the condemnation of much of the rest of the world. Jews in Israel were not seen as victims because they had money, they had US support, they had nuclear weapons – they were painted as the bully Goliath and western liberals lapped it up because any blood spilled of impoverished Palestinians seemed to pollute the ground more than the blood of well-off Israelis, when both should have equally offended the conscience. In truth, both sides were, and indeed continue to be, victims. Victims often lash out in inappropriate retaliation, and I believe that addressing victimhood in the Middle East is, in fact, the primary path to peace. But I get ahead of myself.

This week, following Israel’s killing of 62 Palestinians near the border fence, I have received many emails and seen many social media posts from congregants and liberal clergy of other faiths excoriating Israel for breaking international law, for being the bullying Goliath against the helpless Palestinians. I have read a multitude of books, news articles and internet commentaries, and this sermon is the culmination of that research. I will say from the beginning that if my research is flawed, I ask you to later provide me with sources that you think are relevant that I haven’t seen. Don’t get angry with me because I haven’t read something that you have - please later help widen my knowledge on this subject, and perhaps with a new perspective I’ll present another sermon on the topic in the future.

Another starting position is that Israel exists and has a right to exist. How the State of Israel was formed is clearly open to debate. The Israeli narrative tends to focus on repeatedly requesting Arab people to remain peacefully in their homes, while the Palestinian narrative focuses on expulsion and atrocities by Israeli troops. A British police report from 1948, for example, states clearly “every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives, to get their shops and businesses open and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.” (British police report, 26/4/48, “Myths and Facts 1976,” Near East Report, Washington, 1976). There are a number of such reports. However, in the introduction to his expansive text “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited,” Benny Morris explains that new documents reveal “that there were both far more expulsions and atrocities by Israeli troops than tabulated [previously]… and, at the same time, far more orders and advice to various communities by Arab officials and officers to quit their villages or at least send away their women, old folk and children, substantially fuelling the exodus.” (p.5) In other words, both narratives probably contain elements of truth, although with 70 years of oral embellishment on both sides, it is particularly difficult now to determine what happened at the formation of the State of Israel seventy years ago. What I say with a fair degree of certainty, though, is that the Palestinians were treated terribly by their Arab brethren at the time, and instead of being absorbed into their countries, were used as a political tool, which, I believe, is a policy that has now started to bear real fruit. In 1949, for example, Musa Al-Alami wrote in his article “The Lesson of Palestine” in the Middle East Journal that “It is shameful that the Arab governments should prevent the Arab refugees from working in their countries and shut the doors in their faces and imprison them in camps.” Abu Mazen wrote back in 1976 that “The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians… but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, imposed upon them a political and ideological blockade and threw them into prison similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live in Europe (Al-Thaura, March 1976).” In other words, however the State of Israel was founded, it was founded through international law, and the Palestinian people who fled, either by will or by force, were abandoned by their Arab brethren, and I believe continue to be abandoned by them today, other than the expression of meaningless platitudes whenever Israelis kill Palestinians. Whether we like it or not, the future of the State of Israel is intimately linked with the future of the Palestinian people, and the two cannot be separated. In some sense, Israel and the Palestinians are one – their fate of conflict and of potential peace – is one.

What we saw this week was a tragedy, but a tragedy far more nuanced than most people – and unquestionably most news outlets – allow. When we talk about demonstrations, in this country we think of rallies and protests. The demonstration last week was not that. Ahmed Abu Artema was the man who thought up the March of Return. Writing in the New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/opinion/gaza-protests-organizer-great-return-march.html), he explains his disdain for national borders, saying that last December he watched a bird fly over the border and found himself thinking “how much smarter birds and animals are than people” in that “they harmonize with nature instead of erecting walls.” This liberal-sounding message, though, is not liberal at all. When your neighbor has to erect a reinforced wall in order to stop you and your brethren from killing him, what is more unnatural is the initial desire to kill your neighbor merely because they are on a piece of land that you once owned. Of course, Abu Artema is not openly calling for violence - he’s just calling for the end of the Israeli state by removing its borders. And to be clear, while I dislike the trait of nationalism in individuals, particularly as a source of pride, the idea of ending nation states is nonsensical. The idea of ending only one nation state is simply offensive. So, The Great March of Return was not a demonstration against Israeli occupation and it was not a protest against the American Embassy being moved to Jerusalem. It was an attempt to establish what Palestinians call The Right of Return, which means every Palestinian returning to their homes in Israel. It is a nonsensical dream that will never happen, and the continued insistence on the Right of Return immediately ends any potential peace because if all the Palestinians and all their descendants returned to Israel, the Jews would be profoundly outnumbered and the Jewish state would cease to exist. The Right of Return is not a right, it is a political position meaning the end of Israel as a nation state. While the Palestinian people demand the Right of Return, there will never be peace in the Middle East. This belief in the Right of Return is bolstered by the United Nations. “Unlike every other refugee population on this planet, the UN extends refugee status not only to those Palestinians who lived in what is today’s Israel and fled or were forced from their homes 70 years ago. It also, with ongoing counterproductive consequence, extends refugee status to their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and onward into eternity.” (https://www.timesofisrael.com/world-must-tell-gazas-hamas-abused-masses-the-truth-there-will-be-no-return/) So, the March of Return was never about peace, it was never about protesting against the intolerable conditions in Gaza. It was about ending the State of Israel. It was also nothing like demonstrations that we know. Of the 62 people killed, 50 were members of Hamas and 3 were members of Islamic Jihad. A press release from Hamas says, “Our people set out today to react to the new American Zionist aggression and to tell the world with its blood and limbs that it is the one that will draw the map of return and the map of victories…The blood that has been spilled in resisting this crime will arouse a revolution until the occupation is removed.” (http://jcpa.org/article/why-hamas-interested-palestinian-deaths/) Hamas used to think that success lay in Israeli deaths, but now it has changed focus. Now it wants Palestinian deaths. Now it wants martyrs, because armchair observers in the West are far more easily swayed to turn against Israel by the image of dead Palestinians. Death encourages sympathy. So, they took over the March of Return and lied to the Palestinian people. As the New York Times reported, “After midday prayers, clerics and leaders of militant factions in Gaza, led by Hamas, urged thousands of worshipers to join the protests. The fence had already been breached, they said falsely, claiming Palestinians were flooding into Israel.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/world/middleeast/gaza-israel-deadly-protest-scene.html) The Washington Post similarly reported that “At a gathering point east of Gaza City, organizers urged protesters over loudspeakers to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as they were reinforcing them.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/gaza-protests-take-off-ahead-of-new-us-embassy-inauguration-in-jerusalem/2018/05/14/eb6396ae-56e4-11e8-9889-07bcc1327f4b_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.29ab1ccbbcbd) This was not a peaceful protest. Hamas openly admit it. ““When we talk about ‘peaceful resistance,’” Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar said in an interview, “we are deceiving the public. This is peaceful resistance bolstered by a military force and by security agencies.” (https://www.memri.org/tv/senior-hamas-official-mahmoud-zahhar-on-gaza-protests-this-is-not-peaceful-resistance) Widely circulated Arabic instructions on Facebook directed protesters to “bring a knife, dagger, or gun if available and to breach the Israeli border and kidnap civilians.

(http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/262329/gaza-media-explainer)  An NPR interviewer asked a Gazan with a kite with a swastika on it what it means to him. "The Jews go crazy when you mention Hitler,” he said, adding that he knew exactly what it represented with the chilling words, “We want them to burn.” (ibid.) Before discussing the Israeli response, then, let’s be absolutely clear what this was. This was an attempt at an armed incursion on a national border. It was an act of war, using civilians as a figurative and literal smokescreen. Individuals armed with guns and machetes – and there is clear photographic and video evidence of this -  attempted to breach the fence in order to kill and kidnap Israelis. Hamas knew exactly what it was doing when it urged Gazans forward because it wanted them to be shot. Hamas does not care about the Palestinian people. It is a brutal regime that maims or kills anyone who protests against it and that cannot be voted out because it has banned elections. The inhumanity of Hamas is something most Western liberals cannot comprehend. The Palestinians in Gaza, territory which Israel gave back in an attempt at peace, are ruled by one of the most repressive, violent, theocratic regimes in the world and there is no conceivable way of them being removed from Hamas’ vice. Hamas knows that Western media will be apoplectic at the apparent slaughter of supposedly peaceful protestors. They played the Western media like a fiddle and now liberals all across the world are singing Hamas’ tune without realizing.

Should Israel have responded the way it did? A number of colleagues and congregants wrote to me this week calling for restraint, saying Israel should not have used lethal force. One asked me to openly condemn Israel’s response. In a similar vein, this week, Daniel Sugarman wrote in the Jewish Chronicle thatThere are ways to disperse crowds which do not include live fire. But the IDF has made an active choice to fire live rounds and kill scores of people. You cannot tell me that Israel, a land of technological miracles which have to be seen to be truly believed, is incapable of coming up with a way of incapacitating protestors that does not include gunning dozens of them down.” (https://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/the-hamas-attacks-on-the-gaza-border-have-met-with-an-overwhelming-and-deadly-response-by-israeli-forces-this-must-be-condemned-1.464174) A few days later, though, he realized that he had made an error. In a second article, he wrote, “I’d said that surely there must be a way the protestors could be stopped without shooting live ammunition at them – that Israel, with its incredible technological capabilities, must be capable of developing a way. That was a cry of anguish, but it was not an argument. If no such technology currently exists, then it was absurd of me to blame the IDF for not magically willing it into existence. The traditional crowd stopping technology would not have worked effectively. Rubber bullets are only short range. The same with water cannons. And with tens of thousands of people rushing the border, this would have been extremely unlikely to work effectively. The border would have been broken through. And then, without much of a doubt, a lot of people in Israel would have died.  That was, after all, Hamas’s stated aim…. I failed to acknowledge that, either way, Israel would be giving Hamas what it wanted. Shoot at those charging at you and Hamas would have its martyrs. Fail to shoot and Hamas would break through the barrier and bring suffering and death – its stated aim - to Israelis living only a few hundred metres away from that barrier. The march may have originally been, as it was declared to be, about Palestinians returning to the homes they had to leave 70 years before. But Hamas’s aim was far more straightforward – to quote, “We will take down the border and we will tear out their hearts from their bodies…. The choice was, quite literally, shoot at people running at you with the stated aim of killing you and your families, or fail to shoot and let them do it.” (https://www.thejc.com/comment/comment/i-said-israel-should-be-ashamed-of-its-actions-on-the-gaza-border-now-i-am-the-one-who-is-ashamed-1.464233)

What about international law? There is far more nuance here than people seem to appreciate. There is no question that last month we saw deplorable footage of Israeli snipers shooting individuals near the border who were clearly posing no risk to human life, laughing as they did so. Such immorality, such inhumanity, was clearly in breach of international law against protestors and the individuals involved need to be punished to the full extent of the law. However, this week the situation was different. The law says that “the intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” Last month’s footage was clearly in breach of that. But that was then and this is now. Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says that “an attempt to approach or crossing or damaging the fence do not amount to a threat to life or serious injury and are not sufficient grounds for the use of live ammunition.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-44124556) He added that even if stones or Molotov cocktails are thrown, even then lethal force is not permissible. But was that what happened this week? Was this just an attempt at a crossing? Was this just people chucking stones? Or, was it to once again use the words of those who took over control of the rally, an attempt to take down the border and tear out the hearts from Israelis’ bodies by an organization that openly calls for the destruction of Israel and that has fired over 10,000 rockets into Israel in the last ten years? When people approach the border to breach it while armed with weapons, we have to ask was this an attempt at approaching the fence or was this the physical manifestation of an ongoing declaration of war? If it was, then of course lethal force is allowed. The impossible difficulty is that international law is framed in such a way that it doesn’t currently properly address this kind of situation. To say that this was a breach of international law is way too simplistic and reveals an immediate bias, conscious or not.

One of my colleagues – a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis - was there, at the border. He wrote the following: “I want to testify that what I saw and heard was a tremendous, supreme effort from our side, to prevent in every possible way Palestinian deaths and injuries. Of course, the primary mission was to prevent hundreds of thousands of Gazans from infiltrating into our territory. That kind of invasion would be perilous, mortally dangerous to the nearby communities, would permit terrorists disguised as civilians to enter our kibbutzim and moshavim, and would leave us with no choice but to target every single infiltrator.

That’s why our soldiers were directed to prevent infiltration – in a variety of ways, only using live ammunition as a last resort. The IDF employs many creative means of reducing friction with Gazans and uses numerous methods, most of which are not made public, to prevent them from reaching the fence.

In addition, over the last few weeks there have been serious efforts to save the lives of children and civilians who have been pushed to the front lines by Hamas – who are trying to hide behind them in order to infiltrate and attack Israel.

When there is no alternative and live ammunition must be used to stop those who storm the fence – the soldiers make heroic and sometimes dangerous efforts not to kill and only to injure those on the other side.

The IDF is stationing senior commanders at every confrontation point to ensure that every shot is approved and backed up by a responsible figure with proper authority. Every staging area has an especially large number of troops in order to make sure that soldiers are not put into life-threatening situations where they will have no choice but to fire indiscriminately.

A situation where thousands of people rush you is frightening, even terrifying. It is extremely difficult to show restraint, and it requires calm, mature professionalism.

55 dead is an enormous number. But I can testify from my first-hand experience, that every bullet and every hit is carefully reported, documented and investigated, in Excel spreadsheets. Literally. I was there and I saw it with my own eyes.” (http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/i-was-at-the-gaza-border-we-did-all-we-could-to-avoid-killing/)

When Israel gave back Gaza in 2007, it did so in the hope that it would bring peace.  Instead, it brought the rise of Hamas, a continual rain of rockets and repeated attempts to infiltrate Israel through tunnels. The Israeli response was a blockade of Gaza, although few realize that Egypt also continues the blockade on their border as well. Israel, Egypt and Hamas are responsible for the impoverishment in Gaza. The blockade makes it impossible for Gazans to grow sufficient food, or to fish in deep enough waters, or to have access to healthcare, education and jobs. It breeds enormous resentment. At the same time, Hamas destroy crossing posts that would enable their people to have access to humanitarian aid, and they spend millions on weapons of war and on terrorist tunnels instead of raising the living standard of the people in Gaza. Their leaders all have electricity and food, while their people do not.  Protesting against Israel, especially while receiving a stipend from Hamas, is the only way such a desperate people can express their now multi-generational frustration and indeed sometimes make money to survive. The situation in Gaza is intolerable. “97% of Gaza households depend on water delivered by tanker trucks. Sewage is another problem. Although 78% of households are connected to public sewage networks, treatment plants are overloaded. Around 90 million litres of partially treated and raw sewage is pumped in to the Mediterranean and open ponds daily - meaning 95% of groundwater in the Strip is polluted.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-20415675) And, in a very different way, the situation in cities like S’derot, the Israeli city closest to Gaza, is also intolerable, with children and adults regularly diving for cover or bomb shelters because of continual rocket attacks. Medical studies in Sderot have documented a post-traumatic stress disorder incidence among young children of almost 50%, as well as high rates of depression and miscarriage. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_rocket_attacks_on_Israel). On both sides there are clear victims, but the world usually only sees one side of victimhood.

So, having faced what I understand as the reality of this week, where could we find hope? In my opinion, the world needs to make it very clear to all Palestinians that the Right of Return is totally unrealistic and that continuing to demand for it will continue to impoverish the Palestinian people and will continue tension in the area. With that in mind, I believe that the refugee status accorded to even to grandchildren of those who once lived in the land should be changed. As Ignacio Cassis, the Swiss Foreign Minister said, this “provides ammunition to continue the conflict. For as long as Palestinians live in refugee camps, they will want to return to their homeland.” He adds, “By supporting UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) we are keeping the conflict alive.” (http://honestreporting.com/idns-05-16-2018-iran-meddling/) The mood and current lack of nuance at the UN, though, does not make me hopeful that such a thing will happen soon.

There are other things that need to happen before there is peace. The illegal settlements, built to house the ultra-orthodox Jews who hear a false call from God louder than the genuine call from their human neighbor, must be dismantled. The situation in Gaza must be improved and that can only happen when – somehow – Hamas are removed from power, or at the very least are brought to the negotiating table with Fatah. The current political climate in the region, though, and Hamas’ vice grip on Gaza, does not make me hopeful that this will happen soon either.

Rabbi Micky Boyden said this week, “As long as Hamas’ ultimate goal remains the destruction of the Jewish state, Israel can hardly be blamed for taking whatever action she considers necessary to protect the lives of her citizens.” (https://weareforisrael.org/2018/05/15/the-bloodbath-in-gaza/) I disagree – I think that is not nuanced enough. Sometimes, Israel sees attack as the best method of defence, but often does not make the compelling case as to why such attacks are important, and then it is easily painted worldwide as the aggressor. To be clear, this week’s response was not that, in my opinion - this week was purely about defence. Nonetheless, I believe that not only does Israel always need to take action in accordance with international law, but it needs to make a greater case to the world when it does. I believe that Israel needs to continually remind the world that Hamas has an open declaration of war against it and that anyone involved in action that threatens the State of Israel must be treated as an enemy combatant, not as a protestor. It needs to make that legal case clearer, and in so doing needs to send the message to the Palestinian people that any action against a border will be treated as an act of war, and met with appropriate corresponding force. It cannot make that legal case alone, certainly not internally. It has to be a full, public presentation to the world. Israel needs to engage in an honest global discussion about the nuance of international law in situations like the one we saw this week.

I do find hope in the fact that you, the members of this community, have sat through a lengthy sermon trying to open up nuance in an often polarizing issue. It is only through nuanced discussion that we could possibly come to develop peace. Simplistic signs like the one on Old Pecos Trail, or cartoons like the one in this week’s Santa Fe Reporter, that blame Israel for slaughtering civilians, do literally nothing for peace. In fact, I am certain that they exacerbate conflict. Blaming only one side for this conflict is nonsensical. Both sides have done things that they shouldn’t. Both sides have missed opportunities for peace. So, along with the need for nuance is the need for greater recognition of mutual pain and mutual blame. If Israelis and Palestinians can see that their own leaders have sometimes failed them all, that they have caused the other pain, then perhaps there is hope.

There is one step I can see happening that might bring hope. The Jewish community around the world needs to see the suffering of the Palestinian people as real, we need to acknowledge it alongside the suffering of the Israeli people. The Palestinians’ victimhood cannot be denied merely because of Israel’s victimhood as well. Whoever the cause of their suffering has been over the last seventy years should be secondary to the actual real acknowledgement of current suffering. Jewish tradition does not ask us to explore the roots of a person’s or a people’s current suffering - it just demands that we do everything in our power to try to remove them from suffering. How we do that of course depends on where we think that suffering comes from, and for that we will need nuance. We cannot just say that the Palestinian people suffer because of Hamas because that would be ignoring half of the story. If the Palestinian people thrived, if they were wealthy, if they traded with Israel, then financial incentives to violence from Hamas would be totally ineffective. Mass punishment as a response to individual acts of terror has not worked. We therefore need to therefore help lift the standard of living in Gaza and to do that we have to first and foremost acknowledge the suffering that is there.

I will say one place where I definitely find hope, and that is in Creativity for Peace, and all the similar organizations in the Middle East and around the world that bring Israelis and Palestinians together to break down barriers and to show a shared humanity, to give space to shared pain. True lasting peace is never obtained by blame, but by reconciliation. All the liberals around the world who point fingers do far less to bring about peace than the liberals who actually create relationships. Pointing fingers is easy, it is cheap, it is a way of easing our conscience by blaming others. Psalm 34(:14) adjures us to “seek peace and pursue it.”  Marching with placards isn’t pursuing peace. Writing angry Facebook posts isn’t pursuing peace. Debating the Middle East isn’t pursuing peace. “Making peace among people” (Mishkan T’fillah siddur, p.88), actively bringing people together, breaking down resentment and mistrust, that is pursuing peace. If people really want me to condemn anyone, I will condemn not only those who engage in acts of violence but also those who blame and do nothing else. If we can all stop pointing fingers and actually get involved in the real work of bringing people together, then perhaps God will, in the words of Leviticus, “bring peace upon the land” (Lev. 26:6). If our Temple is to pursue peace, it needs to actively support projects that bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Only then could we authentically call ourselves beit shalom, a house of peace.

So may we come together to alleviate the suffering of all, to recognize the shared pain of all and to actively work together to make peace. May our community be a beacon for peace, striving to listen to those in pain and to help break down barriers of resentment. May we be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace (Mishnah Avot 1:12) and may we truly work for a time when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they learn war anymore (Is. 2:4, Mic. 4:3). And let us say, Amen.