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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.