A Response to Jewish Racist Violence – Then and Now.
July 11 2014
Friday morning 7/11. The Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, led by my brother Rabbi Benny Lau, hosted a special morning session of learning, music and prayers for peace. I got there as the early morning prayers are about to end and the program start, finding a seat in front of the women’s section, a thin curtain separating us. Through the curtain I glimpsed a woman wrapped in tefilin and prayer shawl and chuckled to myself – how modern orthodoxy is slowly changing and becoming more egalitarian. Then the mourners’ kaddish was recited and behind me I heard it loud and clear and with intense intention – by a woman’s voice – still not a common thing in Orthodox synagogues. When I turned around a moment later I realized that the woman reciting the mourners prayers is Rachel Frankel, mother of one of the three dead boys so engraved in our hearts. The Kaddish she recited for her son at his funeral went viral – the first time a woman did so in Israel’s public arena, not as protest, but as true prayer. She just rose from Kaddish three days ago, and how she’s here, praying with all of us for peace.
The rest of the morning was led by leading teachers, men and women of the moderate Modern Orthodox camp in Israel, in which my brother, esteemed and loved mostly finds his peers. They talked about the need for honest self reflection about recent events. More about that in a bit. In between speakers a band of musicians – brothers and a sister, played a mix of hasidic and Israeli songs. The audience, men and women alike, sitting separately but now with no partitions, sang the prayers and the hymns along. I turned to my brother and chuckled – this morning – this is basically a conservative shul..It’s almost Lab/Shul.. he winked at me – not quite..yet..
Our cousin, the Chief Rabbi of Israel, walked in at 10:30am to deliver the final teaching – demanding zero tolerance for fanatical hate, and we ended with a prayer for peace, and for the safe return of the soldiers.
I stood there, with both my brothers next to me – both of them with sons in the IDF right now, on reserve duty, all three of us former soldiers. And as we prayed for the safety of the soldiers and the victory and end of fighting I was once again moved to tears.
That was not the time and place to bring up my political views. Nor is this the proper platform. I’ve shared these before and will continue to do so again.
I’ll only say this much: I am a hesitant nationalist and no fan of the current government for whom I did not vote. I have issues with its policies and the growing move towards the right in terms of politics and religion and economies and disregard of the ‘other’. I am against the occupation. This new cycle in the war of attrition between Israel and the Hamas could have been solved a long time ago with diplomacy and sincere efforts on both sides. Greed and power and a horrific mix of dogma and politics stir the pots on both sides despite the will and wishes of most of us for doable deals with courageous concessions. This march of folly will not, we hope, persist forever. It simply can’t.
But right now, none of this matters. Over 100 Palestinians have died since the air raids started four days ago, many of them children. My own children, only having to run to a bomb shelter once so far, are in the line of fire even if it seems quite surreal and safe. And yet – we are at war – the tension is high, the anxiety is real, the future unknown. Anything can happen. My nephews are away from their wives and children this Shabbat, in army tents outside of Gaza. So many are hunkered down in shelters all over Israel and Gaza – in this heat, during the Ramadan fast.
So yes, it’s time to pray for whoever is up there or in our hearts to help us all transcend the current status quo, our basest being, and become better people, truly devoted to care, compassion, and looking each other in the eye with kindness and respect. The rest is details. And it’s time to pray for the soldiers to come home alive, and for all to throw down arms and wake up to better options.
And so I literally stood today with my brothers and sisters in solidarity and support. And I am extending my solidarity beyond the borders to all who are suffering right now and all who yearn for a quiet night, a simple day, with no worries about sirens, rockets, terror, sudden death, a severed limb, a bombed out home.
One more thought about solidarity before I share a the main thrust of this post with a time sensitive call to action related to fanatic racism and our responsibility to do something about it – this coming Shabbat. Sorry this is long…
In the past few tense days I received some emails and messages from friends who took the time to send a hug and just a word or two- are you ok? thinking of you. sending love.
I do the same to my sister who lives closer to the rocket range and is constantly under sirens, and to other friends way down south. If I had a friend in Gaza I would do the same
I can tell you that these gestures of simple solidarity matter. A lot.
They matter to the simple needs of people knowing that they are not alone in difficult situations, cared for and loved. And they matter to who we are as a people. All that rhetoric of ‘one people’ is a lot of fancy talk since we are so different, loosely related and connected, coming together at times of need – like the big colorful family we are, meeting at random reunions if at all.
But if you, reading this, know of one person in Israel right now, or in Gaza or the West Bank – possibly afraid or nervous, confused about the situation, or confident about their views – please take a moment now to reach out in solidarity, with love, ignore the politics and focus on the personal – just send a sabbath hug, a virtual flower, a reminder that none of us are ever alone. Today it’s me tomorrow you – a circle of care is what makes us family, no matter what, for so many generations already, through so many difficult and delightful times.
That said, I want to say a word about our dirty laundry.
My brother quoted the Chafetz Chayim today, an important Jewish leader from the early 20th century famous for his anti-slander and gossip campaign. “One must refrain from speaking badly of the people Israel’ the Chafetz Chayim warned, conscious of how internal criticism can become useful weapons in the hands of foes.
But there are times when truth must be said and self reflection done honestly and publicly, my brother continued. The gathering at his shul this morning included those elements as well. Another of the speakers, a prominent leader of the Feminist Orthodox movement and a teacher of Jewish law, discussed the regulation for communal atonement rituals at the time of droughts. She talked of Talmudic times when those rituals includes days devoted to public reckoning of ethical, social, fiscal and spiritual wrong doings of the community. Only such a process was deemed appropriate prior to the prayer for rain.
So today, careful not to slander but worry enough to speak up I want to offer an invitation for a public process of honest reckoning – directly related to the sacred story that will be recited this coming Shabbat in a synagogue near you.
Stories are our reservoirs of values, sacred stories contain the DNA of a nation. Like all sacred stories, the Torah contains our deepest dreams, but it also contains our worst nightmares.
This week’s Torah story begins with the aftermath of a nightmare. But it can be a wake up call to our brightest dreams.
Numbers 25: Pinchas, a young aristocratic prince takes the law into his own hands, enraged by a public sexual political and racial spectacle that defies all that is sacred to the norms he knows and defines all that’s ‘other’ to him and to the culture he grew up in. He stabs to death a fellow Jew mid coitus with a Gentile woman.
In this context of a culture-civil war 24,000 die. The Lord rewards Pinchas with a Covenant of Peace for all time, a prize for having stopped the wrathful Lord from further jealous carnage.
This week’s sacred story will be read from Torah scrolls far and wide. It will include the last lines of this saga.
Commentaries will be made via B’nai Mitzvah speeches and rabbinic sermons and blogs, like this, galore.
Pinchas, to the modern liberal eye, is a problem child, and to be honest, he has been so for many generations of sages who looked for ways to read the bloody narrative as metaphor or myth. Wild weed or role model? Rabbis squirm to come up with answers. The problem looms larger when our God of Mercy honors Pinchas with the gift of peace. There are mystical ways of making sense of this but still, this anti other narrative is hard to handle in its literal raw sense. Most prefer to look the other way.
But this year we may not.
The Jewish boys who burnt alive Muhammad Abu Khadir last week come from the Ultra Orthodox community of Jerusalem. They may be fringe or troubled children, but like Pinchas – they are one of us. And they may have learned horrific racist dogma from their soccer clubs – but what did they hear in their synagogues and schools? Did they hear their rabbis publicly condemn Pinchas-like actions? Were they taught to pray to a God who wants revenge?
In the markets and the synagogues – racism and hatred of the other can be found.
As I write this, more sirens blast, my sister txts, too tired to go down to shelter.
When the cannons roar, the muse is mute, goes the saying, quite popular around here. But there are things we may not be mute about right now, and there’s a time for taking a time-out for reflection – and response. This time is now.
I feel that this is true even as the sirens silence reason, so that we not forget what happened last week, and make sure we do all we can so that it will not erupt again. I am writing this quickly with few edits and I’m sure I’ll piss some people off but I hope that all will know that I am writing this with love.
There’s a time for peaceful protests and a time for self defense, a time to wail and a time to hail, but there should never be a time for looking the other way when injustice is celebrated and when violence is sanctified in the name of God and all that’s sacred.
This coming Shabbat, the story of Pinchas will be chanted in synagogues of every denomination. Only the first six sentence of this weekly portion recall the slaughter and describe Pinchas’ reward. They also list the names of his victims.
Don’t ignore these verses. Do not look away.
This story is part of the Jewish story, it is in our DNA. As of last week it may be said with shame and horror – Jewish hoodlums burn others to death because of racism, religious hatred, maybe sexual phobias. They are part of our legacy and reality and we need to own them – not disown them, and take account of what we teach and how we live up to our highest standards and what to do when we fail.
I unfriended a few people this past week on Facebook for blatant racist statements.
Do we unfriend Pinchas? Or do we keep him there as caution sign and brave the dialogue? I don’t know. But I want to invite us to not shy away from the difficulty of dialogue at a least among ourselves about his presence.
Later in the Pinchas portion there are detailed descriptions of how to celebrate Jewish holidays. Sacrifices are specified, as was the order of the day, but also one common ritual – Mikra Kodesh – The Sacred Reading. This is a description of our oldest storytelling rituals – later to become the Torah Service – during which our stories, values, laws and legends became public knowledge, marching orders, rules for life.
Reading Pinchas out loud in a shul near you or as someone is blogging it on your screen continues this tradition today.
So how are we to read the text of Pinchas publicly without utterly condemning it just as rabbis left and right have done this past week in the aftermath of the terrible murder?
We must find ways to take this text to task in honest and meaningful ways. Like the Chofetz Chayim said – we must be careful of excessive public slander of our ancestors and selves. But as we know from every season of the Days of Awe – the process of return and renewal requires beating our heart in public for the wrongs that we have done.
We are not the first to look for ways to deal with difficult passages in our sacred texts. The Mishna in Tractate Megillah describes the Torah passages that are supposed to be read aloud in hebrew but not translated into vernacular, lest people really understand. These passages include some sexual shondas and one of the Golden Calf accounts. The sages preferred to censor these from public knowledge.
In the same vein, but with completely the opposite recipe I call on rabbis, cantors, teachers, religious and lay leaders to read the first six verses of Pinchas with extra focus. Translate them. Talk about them. Ask hard questions of the heros that our ancestors considered and the type of God we do or do not want to worship anymore.
Translate these verses in creative ways. Imagine translating them in first person, as spoken by Pinchas himself, or perhaps by Moses. Imagine translating them as the mother of the slain prince of the tribe of Simon, or the father of the murdered Midynatie Princess. 12 years ago I wrote the blueprint for a play about The Problem-with-Pinchas – maybe it can give you ideas.
Don’t look away from Pinchas and don’t look for fancy midrash to explain away some ugly truths, no matter how ancient. This is not the Game of Thrones – this is our story and it lives on.
We too have racist violence in our writings and our blood, con demented but erupting but its time to say no more.
Our stories matter. As are the ways we tell and retell them. Change the stories we tell, or the meanings of the stories, and how we tell them – and change our values and our future for all generations to come. This is our work to do. May our brothers and sisters across the border do the same.
I am a proud Jew and I love the sacred texts that inform my people’s destiny, providing a vocabulary, mythic symbols, a map for the soul’s journey and a deeper meaning for our presence on this earth. But I am not proud of every word and not attached to every story, law or ancient way of looking at the world.
Like many before me, wiser and more patient, I honor the Torah as a holy text inspired by the Divine and written by people who live in the world and are motivated by their respective socio-political realities. Different voices contributed to the final editing of the Biblical canon. Some of them, just like today’s jewish voices, represent values, ethics and opinions that not only make me cringe – they fill me with rage and indignation. They and good reasons for suspicion and for fear and hate. Some of those reasons still resonate. But other values trump them – justice, justice we pursue.
The voices that hate others do not speak for me, for the entirety of the Jewish heritage I know and love and am so privileged to an heir to.
Pinchas must be remembered but not celebrated. The God that blessed him is but one depiction of the greater mystery of the Divine.
And perhaps our very vision of God can and must transform.
This week many sat Shiva in mourning for Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi , the visionary leader who taught us all about Paradigm Shift – about radical new ways of celebrating our most ancient sacred and finding connection to the God of All Colors, the God of Love.
Wherever his soul is on this Shabbat I pray that he prays with us, holding under this rainbow prayer shawl all the souls that have joined him this week, victims of violence now finding peace.
The sun is setting in Jerusalem. Phones will stay on for alerts and for news. But I hope that peace descends in bits this Sabbath upon all of us, wherever and whoever we are.
Shabbat Shalom, Ramdan Karim
May Peace Prevail