No Blood for Boston Bomber? Word #29

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Execute
מות יומת

I remember seeing this photo of the Rosenbergs on the cover of Time Magazine when I was 5. I was shocked to find out who they were and what happened to them.

I hope they don’t execute the Boston Bomber. 

Tsarnaev is likely to be charged under federal law, because Massachusetts does not have a state death penalty statute.  

But is there ever cause for the death sentence? This guy, for whatever misguided reasons, is responsible for great loss and terror. 


What would his death achieve?


An eye for an eye? the deterring factor?  I understand the reasoning. But I don’t buy it. 


The death penalty is one of the central controversial issues that divides the US. This is also true for the Jewish community. People hold on to deep convictions that are rooted in  religious and moral views and are very emotional. 
This is also one of the biggest issues in the case for the evolution and progress of religious-civic thinking. The Bible – and at least in theory – Jewish Law – calls for the death penalty.  Never mind that no Jewish law, for thousands of years, if ever, carried out such justice. (And I take Eichman out of the equation here for a moment, as one of only two people executed by Israel for either war crimes or treason. It was not a “Jewish legal” procedure per se.) 
How have we evolved, and are still evolving, as a people, to view our ancient laws, including the death sentence, as just that  – ancient – and re-interpret them, not just ignore them, and claim new truths that mirror our modern values?
Yes, the Bible says so. But what do we say, today? How does new knowedlge about the world, our minds, what makes life better and kinder inform what we believe, do, and support?
And this week, the Bible, perfect timing, describes exactly such a case, and it isn’t pretty. 
In Emor, the weekly Torah text, An anonymous male, son of a Jewish woman and Egyptian man, hence, half breed and semi member of the tribe, gets into a fight, uses fowl language and some sort of strong words against God,  is found guilty (by God), and sentenced to public stoning. 
And there it is again, before the sentence is carried out – the reminder  of an eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth, the one who kills a person will be killed. One law for all.  The good news is that from the depths of the Bronze Age comes a real judicial system. The bad news is that we’re not there anymore. Or are we?
“And the people lay their hands on his head and stone him to death.” Lev. 24:23
“And the people lay their hands on his head and stone him to death.” Lev. 24:23
These type of public scenes still take place all over the world – sanctioned by governmdents, regimes, war lords and criminals. 
To what end? 
Last week I wrote about abomination and how, like many worthier and wiser I choose to read it differently and not abide by its classical, hurtful ruling.  In a world still goverened by Biblical law along I and many others would be right there in the public square executed for our crimes of passion. Indeed, there are plenty of people and not just in Westboro who would like nothing else. 
This law, like many others, should be only seen as history. 
Same goes for the death sentence, as endorsed by sacred scripture. It served its purpose in a civilization as violent as any chapter in the “Game of Thrones” but we can aim for better Justice, more humanity and possibly better cause and effect. 
In the very least, this topic deserves more careful thinking, and definitely not urgent calls for the blood of the bomber, or any other convicted criminal with real blood on their hands. 
Here’s a great brief summary: Jewish perspectives on the death sentence , courtesy of Bend the Arc. 
For now, perhaps it’s best to support the mourners, focus on the healing and  help  all those wounded and hurt. Then work on reducing the hatred and ignorance (invading the Czech Republic?) and not fanning the flames of fury. 

It’s too late from that boy from Leviticus, for all the innocent victims – including in Boston, and I don’t know what trial awaits the Boston Bomber but I hope that somehow, wisely, justice mixed with human care, will win the day, and we, the people, will know less hate and love way more. 

shabbat shalom

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

What the Prez is Passing Over: Obama’s Public Rituals. Word 24

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

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RITUAL

תורת
Loudspeaker carrying police cars woke me up on Wed. morning with instructions about our roads closing for the 48 hours. Who  thought it’s a good idea for Obama to visit Jerusalem 4 days before Seder? The city has already been semi blocked off for two days, and with all the holiday prep in high gear-  – complex driving arrangements are not adding to the passover pressure. How the hell am I supposed to go get the fish meat  etc.  from machne yehuda market downtown on Friday morning with a motorcade crossing through town twice in each direction?? Not to mention that the West Bank is virtually cut off.
Ok. relax. we’re used to this. This is no Pharaoh. It’s the President. And besides. Holiday stress is as part of the ritual as the holiday feast, with no Jewish holiday more OCD than this one. Chametz/spring cleaning, Seder cooking, who’s coming or not to Seder situations and dramas, precursors to the big night, are, to quote a friend, “like birth pangs”, necessary pressures towards the release ritual which is that night about the privileges of freedom. Some bigger bangs, grander goals, are worth the efforts, and so is, let’s hope  this Presidential state visit. Means can sometimes justify the ends.
Mainly to figure out where not to drive this week, and when and how to pick up my mother’s extensive Seder shopping lists, I carefully scanned the presidential itinerary . It’s on every Israel news homepage, (tweets from the White House on ha’aretz masthead along with a official vid featuring Ben Rhodes explaining the trip’s goals.). Helpful. And a fascinating study in the art and price of public ritual.
Much has already been noted about the fact that the only (so-called) religious site that Obama will visit is the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. No Western Wall or Golden Dome. Handshakes, photo-ops, wreaths, speeches: The rituals of this visit are carefully orchestrated to be mainly political, cultural, and civic. perhaps deemed safer to leave hard core religious ritual out of it. At least the Arab-Jewish ones, I guess. His only prayer will be private, all his own. sort of.
There’s enough religious zeal in the air as is. cinder box, anyone? Very American separation of church and state.
Because rituals really do matter. All of them.
Presidential gestures or religious rites – they really do mean something when we actually focus on what they represent even when we’re cynical or jaded. What flower will be placed, and where; Who will recite the four questions, and how. Rituals magnify the meaning of our most sacred, simple values , and we screech, sometimes not even knowing it, when they go off the rails of our expectations and familiar frames. its always very specific.
The risk of rituals is that at best they’re very real. and real can be dangerously honest and raw.
Which is why we sometimes opt for not so real – auto pilot, refined, safer rites. Which is why, perhaps, Obama won’t visit the religious sites or speak his mind, and why so many of us will not really talk about freedom at our Seders, and won’t  say the real things we want to really say to each around the table at the political or pascal feast, and avoid the real and fake the rituals by route- but know it, and play along, and yearn, if we remember to, for when it’s real and juicy and felt and alive with tissues and all no matter how messy. You know – we know when ritual really works to move us closer to the truth.
At best it does and I hope it will these days ahead. Even just a little bit. and hopefully more.  When they really work- rituals change reality.
I trust there will be moments of magnificent meaning, wows,  within these upcoming different but somehow similar rituals, because of and despite of, the  carefully planned and choregprahed, top security, kosher for passover detail oriented ritualism up ahead. Not always when we expect them.
That’s where  Torah comes in.  Torah not as law – but as ritual. This  week’s text, Tzav, like so much of Leviticus, is about the many minute details of the Hebraic ritual machine. The laws of uniform, construction, sacrifice and constant burning on the altar (ego) is a perpetual sacred system – every detail matters to the very success of the human enterprise – the constant connection to the mystery. Without this connection the world goes unplugged. All this Torah OCD ritual minutia makes sense when we get this ancient mindset. The word that is used to describe this overall legal system is ‘Torah’. Usually Torah means ‘Law’ or ‘The Law’ – but in the context of the temple service the NJPS translation always chooses to translate it as ‘Ritual’, such as: “Command Aaron and his sons: This is the ritual (Torah) of the burnt offering…”  Lev 6:2

Rituals matter because they connect us to the bigger picture, symbols of the mystery we sometimes need to be reminded of, reconnected to. The pope in Rome, the president in Jerusalem and Ramallah, each of us around a Seder table, making gestures that, like simple sacred sacrifices, break or make the world.  Hopefully all the details are worth it, adding up to a much needed recharged reality, new and improved.
Anyway. welcome Mr president. We’re glad you’re here.
Next Year in Jerusalem? Maybe.
Shabbat Shalom – and a meaningful, delicious Passover. Let Freedom ring.

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

Public Payback for (so called) Perverts? Word #23

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

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Transgression
חטאת
D. was molested by an older cousin, a teacher at his yeshiva, for over a decade, before running away from home at age 18, breaking away from the hasidic world,  and coming out. He started college, is struggling with faith, diagnosed with  PTSD,  an activist in a growing movement that refuses to keep silent about sexual abuse. This  month he’s in Israel to confront the cousin, who now lives in Jerusalem, and to press charges. Why? He’s still angry and wants the man to be held responsible. “It’s not revenge,” he tells me over a beer in the center of the city, “it’s that he’s a respected teacher and religious role model, and he’s still doing it. The truth must be be revealed. He needs to pay, he needs help, and he needs to stop.” D.’s family, once supportive of his attempts to rehab his life, are now threatening to disown him again, threatened by his demand to go public and shame them. For D., they are taking his cousin, the famous teacher’s side, over that of their own son. It’s like his abuse all over again. He orders another beer.
Should the transgressions of leaders, and religious leaders, be accounted for differently, more harshly, than those of (so called) ordinary people?
D. is not the only one who thinks so. With public responsibility should come greater accountability. A public person, leader, cleric, celeb carries our collective investment in the possible, and in the good. When one of those elected or arisen mortals tarnish, blemish, fall – that fall is bigger, the price maybe higher – because it carries so much of us, of the collective soul.
And thus our rage, and rightful, righteous indignation.
When these fallen greater ones refuse to take responsibility for their shortcomings – a greater hole is dug in our hearts. Bigger role – greater hole.
We know enough psychology today not to label all such people  as perverts – to understand that often the perpetrators were victims themselves –  and we are called upon to exercise pity along with stern judgment. And while there is compassion for all involved, there is, like D’s case, a fair demand for payback, for atonement rituals, for public purging of the sins, for forgiveness, for healing.
But there is not enough of that.. And often lacking from religious leaders.
I don’t think it will be coming from the Vatican this week. The new Pontif is known for his humble, simple manners, but he has not taken a public position on the sex scandals of the church, and several of the cardinals who assembled for the Conclave played considerable roles in silencing the church’s voice against child molesting clergy. Never mind the rumors, rising, about the real reason for the pope’s resignation. The damage to the church, to plain pious people who’ve lost their faith in the leadership, in God, is huge. Maybe Francis I will surprise.
On more familiar turf: There are several rabbis and noted communal leaders in the Jewish world who have not stood up to take responsibility for weighty accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse. Despite allegations and actual court cases – so few rise to ask for forgiveness, raise  hands up to heaven in real remorse.
There are many victims,  survivors,  family and friends who are in real need for these words and gestures of atonement, for the shame and the repression to give way to honesty and recognition, maybe a reconciliation – and the ability to move on.
A personal stake in this: Back in my Yeshiva High School days there was a certain rabbi who would often invite me into his office for conversations. Those sometimes became ‘playful wrestling’. There was a lot of shoulder hugging and affection and the body search for the wearing of ritual fringes, and I confess that at the time it didn’t seem out of place, if somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe I’m repressing more? Only recently, when allegations came out in the media against this prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi  did all these memories resurface, along with vague recollections of all the early puberty confusion and shame that was my lot in those years. I’m not seeking revenge or payback. But I do think justice is called for. Unlike D. I don’t feel that I’ve been hurt or damaged. But I get the rage of others who have been hurt and bravely stepped up, in this case and others. And I’m angered by the denial on the part of this rabbi and his colleagues, attempts to hide the whole thing. I regret the lack of proper public ways to make amends, to come clean, to start again. Everybody deserves a second chance. And public rites can help.
There used to be such public rituals. Precisely for this need.
Earlier this week I read through the first few chapters of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah which begins its re-run cycle this coming shabbat. I scanned  the recipes of sacrifices, trying to make sense of the system,  to find metaphor and deeper meaning in this bygone technology.
In Leviticus 4 I find the procedures for transgression – for the ‘soul that shall sin through ignorance’ – which includes rites for anointed leaders – the priests themselves, upon their falling from grace:
Should a priest transgress he will:
Bring a bull to the threshold of the sacred tent
Place his hands on the bull
Slaughter it
Dip finger in the blood and
Sprinkle seven times on the curtain the covers the sacred chamber
Mark the four corners of the altar with the blood,
Pour the remaining blood at the foot of the altar
Remove fat, kidneys, liver
Burn the rest, including skin and bones and dung
Watch the ashes being taken outside the camp.
And come clean.
So what’s that ritual today? How do we creatively replace the smell of blood, the bull of public remorse with some sort of meaningful ceremony of accountability and remorse? Trial? Press Conference? Maybe just public confession as a start?
Just this week the Chief Rabbinate of Israel announced a precedent – it will revoke the title of ‘rabbi’ from this guy who was found guilty, and publicly confessed and apologized, for stealing Torah scrolls. It’s a painful and important precedent. Can we expect the same for rabbis who’ve damaged not just holy objects and trust but the lives of members of their flock?
I find most of Leviticus useless archeology, relics only useful as reminders of the need for rituals that bring us closer to the reality of life and death. Can we activate the magic of atonement that worked for our ancients so long ago with some compelling results?  For my friend D., and for the many others, for the tens of thousands victims looking to Rome this week, and for all whose voice has been silenced – I hope we do, and soon.
And in the meanwhile, it’s our duty to voice our outrage, not keep silent, name the shame, and cut the bull that covers up the secret sacrifice of our intimate and sacred lives. For good.
Shabbat Shalom

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org

How many storytellers to fix a light bulb? Word #22

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.

 

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GATHER
ויקהל
How many storytellers does it take to fix a light bulb? (as in, tell, together, a single story?)
And how many is too much?
It’s been a while since I’ve attended an academic conference,  the ones with chaired sessions and scholars reading papers on panels and lots of coffee. Here I was, at  a prestigious onference on The Future of Jewish Storytelling held on the lush campus of Standford University for two full days of stories about stories. And a lot of coffee. But something was missing.
I was honored to attend and be invited to present. I heard  insightful talks, met  fascinating people, reconnected with old friends, made some new, delved into important conversations that now linger on.
But at the of the day it reminded me of Plato’s story of  people trying to describe an elephant by feeling it, part by part, in a dark cave. They describe a trunk, big legs, but not the thing itself. What’s the big picture. what is IT about? I get this doubt about the formats of ‘conference’, and similar forms of gathering that bring us together, sort of, almost, to delve deeper into what life’s all about.
Many stories were told at the conference, and theories shared, important seeds planted for future conversations, but the one big story, the big ‘why does this really matter’ remained, I think, the elephant in the room.  When talking about future – our future – what’s at stake – how is the Jewish literacy related to global concerns? how can our myths be in the service of a greater good?
It came up at one of the most interesting sessions – the most current now and next – digital tools for storytelling – including video games, vids and apps. The awesome Sarah Lefton showcased g-dcast’s new game  LEVITICUS!
But why spend time and money on recycling sacrificial systems? Why focus on these ancient stories at all? Is it about advancing Jewish learning – or should the future of our storytelling be about what they are deeply about – increasing our capacity to think, to feel, to love, to grow? Can we aim for both? for all?
The challenge is not just about content but also, very much so, about context: How to use the purpose and power of storytelling – real connection – in a screen base mode that at least in some ways perpetuates the tech-isolation that comes from ireality? We are all in the same room – but each glued, increasingly more often, to our private screen.
The ancient art of storytelling, the HOW and WHERE of telling stories, not just what stories we choose to tell, can be the very thing that brings us back together, unplugged and connected.
And that’s exactly what this weekly installments of our old story is about – the final touches of construction on the Hebraic container for sacred conversations,  story, ritual, connection. The weekly Torah text, Vaykhel-Pikuedi sums up the creation of the mobile, pop up place for the human-divine interaction. The Mishkan. It starts with the verb Vaykhel – Moses gathered, or assembled, the people, instructing them of sacred time and sacred space and how to come, and stay, together. Ex. 35:1
That sanctuary evolved with time to become our synagogues. What happens at many of these modern sanctuaries is not unlike what happens at academic conference – all the part are there but the big wow is somehow missing.
I’m excited to be thinking, working, visioning, with many others on this next phase of our collective gatherings, re-imagining why we gather where, and when, and how.
The origin of storytelling is around campfires and in forest clearings, people huddled to tap into meaning through the myths and memories of elders and magic makers of the spoken word. Rituals evolved around these stories, sacrifices, songs and pageants, sacred spaces, holy days.
If Jewish (and all other) storytelling has a future it’s about a reconnection to this primal past, the spirit of the campfire, even in its digital formation. The art of storytelling, changed, evolved but not forgotten is still what brings us closer – and what will help us truly reconnect.
We need new ways to tell our oldest stories. We need new ways to come together and connect to our truth, to the BIG story, to what has to be done so that we each wake up up to live out loud and make this fast-heating planet livable and just for all.
I don’t know how many storytellers it takes or not to fix a light bulb but I do know that the only way to get our future fixed is for as many of us as possible to gather, and tell a single story of nothing less than our soul’s salvation. Starting now.
Shabbat Shalom.

 

Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org