The Immigrant Experience as Jewish Paradigm

Jewish kids statue liberty
Jewish refugee children from Austria wave at the Statue of Liberty as the President Harding steams into New York harbor (June 3, 1939).

One of defining features of the American Jewish experience is a shared, collective realization that all of us come from somewhere else. Many came here fleeing a revolution or pogrom or oppressive regime. Even if not, with rare exception, all Jews came to this country knowing the challenges of coming here as a stranger, if not refugee.

It is not in the last 150 years alone that we Jews have known the heart of the stranger. Our foundational identity as being wanderers (refuges, if you will) is at the heart of the opening verses of our parasha.  The Torah speaks to a people still in the wilderness, but anticipates a time when they will be settled in the land, prosperous, comfortable and secure.  At such a time, the Torah commands, the people of Israel were to take the first of their harvest and bring a basket of the fruit of the land to Jerusalem.  Then, they were told to speak ritual words of remembrance that their ancestor was  “a fugitive (or, perhaps, wandering) Aramean.” (Deuteronomy 26:6)

To be the outsider, then, is not just part of our recent historical reality as Jews. We are paradigmatic immigrants.  This identity with the stranger, of being a refugee is a defining characteristic of Jewish thought and values.  We speak of the Exodus from Egypt every Shabbat during Kiddush – a reminder of when we were strangers and had to flee.  The radical result of this is the Biblical insistence that even we are settled in our land – or maybe especially when we are settled and comfortable – that we remember what it is like to be a refugee.  No less than 36 times in the Torah we read that we are to help those who are strangers (the immigrant) because we know what it means to be one.  This is not just an act of compassion, but of shared experience.  As the Torah says, “you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

“My father was a fugitive, my mother a refugee” is a call not for just empathy, but a statement of solidarity. Those who leave their home – for economic betterment or  fleeing oppression – are not merely “strangers”.  They are, the Torah makes a claim, those who live our own story.

Today there are more refugees in the world than at any time since the end of the Second World War.  Yet the United States is increasingly making it difficult for those seeking freedom and refuge to come here.  Two years ago the US said it would take in 100,000 refugees (though only 80,000 came).  This year the number allowed in is only 45,000 (though to date in 2018 fewer than 20,000 have entered the US). At a time when refugee admittance is at its lowest in 40 years, it is fair to assume that only those at greatest personal risk (because of political or religious persecution) and deemed having the greatest chance of success are being considered eligible, and so the need to help those who are coming is even greater.

We say, “I am a wanderer” to remind ourselves that as Jews, informed by Jewish values and our history, is to know the heart of the refugee, the one who must flee for his or her life.  Our grandparents and great-grandparents were those who came to this country not knowing English, often unemployed or taking low paying jobs, hoping for freedom.  Those who come today are living our story. They deserve not only our support, but our understanding and respect.  “You know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”



Life and Death are in the Tongue

One day after the reports of what Mr. Trump said speaking about other countries I am still aghast. As I struggle to teach young people how to speak with kindness, respect and dignity, what am I to make of our nations’ leader whose words reflect the most crass and base of human hates and bigotry?  And, in addition, whose use of language crosses lines of propriety long acceptable in society? 
Tongue on fireThis incident is a reminder of the importance, for all of us, of how we speak.
The primary way we have to convey our thoughts and feelings with others is with our words.  It is for this reason that Jewish traditions place tremendous emphasis on the ability of language to create or destroy, bring a blessing or a curse. As the book of Proverbs teaches: “Life and death is in the power of the tongue.” (Proverbs 18:21).
The word for “tongue” in Hebrew – lashon לשוןbegins with the letter lamed ,ל׳ which points up and closes with a final nun ן׳ that points down.  This reminds us that the power of the tongue can direct us towards Heaven, building dignity and conveying kindness, or to lead us down into the gutter, cheapening life, denigrating others and hardening our heart.  
It is for this reason that we ought to be careful about what we say.  Does God hear our words? I think so. But even if you have doubts, our children certainly do. They hear what we (and those who are the role models) in our society say. And they take note.  Truly, our reputation and character (whether we are remembered for good or ill) are in the power of the tongue.

Like those who dream

” … like those who dream.” (Psalms 126:1)

We have all moments of shattered dreams.  My mom was a veteran of WWII and Korea … and “tough as nails”. The first time I saw her cry, however, was when her dream of America was shattered, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. Those who are old enough cannot help but feel the loss of safety and security that swept over this land when we saw the towers fall 16 years ago next week. After witnessing what happened in Charlottesville a few weeks ago, where hundreds gathered with torches shouting, “Jews will not replace us”, the response from so many Jews was a collective shiver. What, many are beginning to wonder, is happening to the dream that America represents?

Last week’s Torah portion was about a lofty dream – pursuing justice. It ends with the words “and you shall do that which is right in the eyes of the Eternal.” (Deuteronomy 21:9).  This week’s portion, in contrast, opens by talking about war.  It then discusses personal “wars” – how a lovers can have such a split that they must divorce. And immediately after, we read about the stubborn and rebellious child. It warns us to have fair weights, assuming people will seek to cheat one another, and reminds us that what we own is not fully “ours”, but ought to be shared with those in need. How explain the move from the ideals of justice to the hard realities of life?

Perhaps the Torah is reminding us to recognize that there is a difference between dream and reality.  A dream is the hope of a glorious, almost perfect future.  Reality, by definition, includes disappointments. The willingness to accept that things don’t always go well, that humans can be selfish, cruel and unfair, however, should not lead us to abandon the dream of what could be … what ought to be. Because once you forget the dream, it’s all over.

That is why we need both last week’s Torah portion and this week’s. We can bear life’s uncertainties and its pain when we recall that things can be better. We need to remember this when we become disappointed in our nation or with the State of Israel. America as a country represents noble ideals, the blessing of liberty and equality. Israel is our land of promise. Yet both places disappoint. There is bickering and strife, corruption and inequality. Is it any different in our personal lives? We know that no family is without tension and even the best of friends sometimes go through rough patches. If we use this coming month before Rosh Hashanah, as our traditions say we should, to make a truly honest appraisal of our own lives, it is hard not to be disappointed in our own failures.

We go forward, however, with hope for ourselves, our relationships with our family and friends, through times of prosperity and recession, as lovers of Israel and believers in America at its best, because we know that the tough moments are not all there are.  Our failures don’t define us.  ThHouston helper.jpgis week’s devastation in Texas and the Gulf Coast serves as a reminder that life is messy. It’s unfair, tough and too often hard. But it can be good.  The kindness we’ve seen of so many people for one another, strangers helping strangers carrying others to safety, donating money, items and time to help those who are suffering, are reminders of the nobility of the human soul.

Our days can be just, tomorrow can be better, we can forgive ourselves and our country for not being perfect … so long as we dream.

Advice to college students on responding to anti-Semitism

As many college students begin their year, images of what took place at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago have created nervousness and anxiety. For students (and their parents) here are ten thoughts about what is happening on campuses and suggestions for how to respond:calm

  1. Several people have expressed a particular anxiety about what this means for college students attending universities in the South. There are, however, incidents of anti-Jewish agitation on college campuses throughout our country. Don’t fool yourself. Hatred and bigotry can happen anywhere.
  2. Anti-Semitism is not merely an expression of the far political Right – neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Anti-Jewish sentiment is also seen in the extreme political Left – expressed by those who are anti-Israel and often in the BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction) movement. Those who engage in violence – or calls for violence – are the most dangerous, but expressions of hatred are not limited to one political “side”.
  3. Keep in close contact with your college’s Hillel. It is best to work closely with those “on the ground” in each community, and who are likely best informed how to respond. If you are at a university near to a synagogue, contact that congregation and their clergy to see how you can work collaboratively to deal with anti-Jewish sentiment where you live.
  4. If the campus is in a larger city there may be a local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which also does a lot of work supporting tolerance and challenging hate. If you want resources to help you support Israel and battle those who denigrate the Jewish State, look at what is offered by StandWithUS.
  5. Find like-minded individuals on campus standing up against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, bigotry and racism. There are many more people who believe in a tolerant, open and diverse America than who do not.  Also reach out to others who are the targets of hate – African-Americans, members of the LGBT community, Muslims, Hispanics and others. We are stronger together. More than that, when one group is attacked, all are vulnerable.
  6. Advocate for the values we affirm as Jews – justice, truth and peace. These are certainly in line with the best of American virtues, as well.
  7. Do not be silent. If it is not you who is attacked today … in time it will be. If you see or hear something you think is wrong, speak out – if not to those engaged in the behavior, to those in authority who can support you.
  8. Feel free to be in touch with any of your clergy directly. We (or any other clergy) can support and help you find others who can find allies in your efforts to speak out, yet also feel safe.
  9. Be proudly and openly Jewish. Do not be afraid, for fear feeds hate. As Lenny Solomon and Shlock Rock once quipped, but I take seriously, “Be Good. Be Cool. Be Jewish.” It is those who hate who should cower, overwhelmed by those who are courageous in expressing who they are.
  10. Remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can.” Be a model of tolerance, moderation and love. As Shammai taught two millennia ago, “Greet every person with a pleasant countenance.” This may be the hardest suggestion of all, but I think it is the most important. When others spew hate, you will bring honor to yourself, to your community and to the Jewish people by being an emissary of love, respect and moderation. In the face of evil in every generation, our people and faith have affirmed hope and optimism of a better world. You are part of that sacred task.

A blessing for the passing of the eclipse

end of eclipseThe soul in the darkness sins, but the real sinner is he who caused the darkness.  Victor Hugo, “Les Misérables”

It seems, at times, that Jewish traditions suggest blessing for anything. If one witnesses some natural beauty (for example, seeing a comet, lightning, an aurora borealis, or when seeing a mountain or ocean for the first time or after a long period) there is a blessing.   There are blessings for beautiful trees and animals, for seeing a rainbow and hearing thunder.

There is no blessing, however, for an eclipse (for more on that see here). Given how the rabbis in the Talmud understood an eclipse as a “bad omen” that should be no surprise.  Some rabbis are reluctant, even with modern understandings of an eclipse as a natural phenomenon, to suggest a new blessing since those before us felt differently. The current Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Israel suggests, instead, reciting Psalm 19 and 104 when seeing an eclipse.

I would like to offer an alternative  – to say blessing for the moment when the total solar eclipse ends. At that moment, when light first appears, we can balance the traditional understanding of the eclipse as a metaphor of moral darkness, but our power to bring a light of understanding, acceptance and love to create greater goodness in the world.

As soon as the eclipse passes, you may wish to say the traditional morning prayer for creation: “Praised are You, Eternal our God, Creator of light and darkness … Cause a new light to shine upon Zion.”  Or, you can also add this:

Witness to the darkness, allow me to be a maker of light. As the light of the sun reappears, may we be inspired to be among those who bring the light of wisdom, an openness of heart and soul.


The Eclipse

What does it mean to live in a world where we teach that all human beings are made in the image of God (בצלם אלהים b’tzelem Elohim)? How can we take responsibility for our actions? What are the consequences of turning aside from injustice? If all are equal, what does this mean when power is accrued by the few? How is it that expressions of evil become manifest in every age – and what are the means to create a better world? In short, how do we build a moral society and be inspired us to be pursuers of justice, truth and peace?

In this blog I will offer musings on the intersection between Jewish tradition and the pressing issues of our time. I hope you find it interesting and that it pushes you to ask important questions of your self, community, faith and country.

Its title comes from the first thing God does in the book of Genesis – a paradigm, I will argue, for our task in this world.

Illustration of Ancient Peruvians Worshipping the EclipseOur Rabbis taught, “When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world.”      Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 29a

A solar eclipse is a wondrous and rare phenomenon in the universe. Few planets have moons just the right size and so perfectly aligned equidistant from their sun to afford the wonder we see here on earth. A solar eclipse only appears rarely in any one place, but over the whole globe it comes regularly enough to afford millions the opportunity to witness this marvelous sight.

Today we are excited and amazed by a solar eclipse – and I’m disappointed that I won’t be where I can see the eclipse this coming Monday. In earlier times, however, an eclipse – unannounced, seemingly random and terrifying in its ability to turn day into night – was a sign of terror. In fact, the Hebrew word for eclipse is ליקוי likui, which literally translates as “defect”. No wonder the rabbis of the Talmud saw an eclipse as an ill tiding.

The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the entire continental United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, was on June 8, 1918. It was in the final days of the First World War, the “Great War” that brought such wrack and ruin, destroyed the naïve fallacy that modern nations had created international structures to prevent large scale conflict and sowed the seeds that led to an even more devastating war twenty years later.

Of course, it is hubris to think the universe is swayed by our moral behavior, but maybe – in this time of strife in our land – it is worth paying attention to any reminder to be more decent. It feels like more than a coincidence we are living through a time when tolerance and peace are being eclipsed by a rising tide of racism, hatred, antisemitism and bigotry. As the solar eclipse speeds across the United States, I hope it does raise within all who see it a moral quandary: Is the darkness I see in this country what I want? How can I not allow my fears to overwhelm my capacity to act with decency?  What will I do to help this darkness pass?

Although the Talmudic sages saw a solar eclipse as a “bad omen”, they also understood that there is something greater than what we see in the planets and stars – our own moral choices. Thus, in the same passage quoted above they also added, “When Israel fulfills God’s will, they need have no fear of all these [omens] as it is said: Thus says God, ‘Do not … be dismayed at the signs of heaven.” (Jeremiah 10:2)

As terrifying as a solar eclipse – or societal moral deficit – may seem, it will pass if each of us does what is right and learns that the greatest light comes from within.