Friday, October 20, 2017


Contrary to the Gospel?

        In a recent opinion piece in the Boston Globe (Wednesday October 18, 2017), Jeff Jacoby asks the question: “If the death penalty is in the Bible, how can it be ‘contrary to the Gospel?’”  Jacoby took issue with Pope Francis’ statement that capital punishment is “contrary to the Gospel...” arguing that “To nonbelievers and non-Catholics, the whole subject may seem little more than Vatican shop talk. Legislators, not popes, write our criminal codes. If Francis wants to change church doctrine, why should outsiders care?  This is why: Because the death penalty is a tool of justice that no decent society should unequivocally renounce, and because more innocents die when the worst murderers face only prison. The Catholic church at its best has been a mighty upholder of human dignity. But when remorseless killers have a greater right to life than their victims, human dignity is trampled into the mud.”

Our Torah study group took up the discussion at our mid-week meeting, examining  Genesis 9:6 where, indeed, there seems to be a divine directive about capital punishment: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.  One only has to read a few commentaries to discover that there is so much more to this verse than meets the eye - - far more than can be offered in a brief blog.  Both Jewish and Christian  traditions  have  produced volumes  over the last 3000 years arguing both the sanctity of human life and the issue of when it is permissible to take a human life as punishment for a crime.    

There are two parts of the same verse that are in  tension with one each other.  The first part suggests retributive justice - an eye for an eye, tit for tat justice.  Capital punishment is the uttermost expression of this kind of justice - a justice that requires retribution - a life in payment for a life : Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”  The tension mounts when the second part of the verse impinges on the first, echoing earlier verses in Genesis that affirm that humans, male and female, are created in the image and likeness of God: For in the image of God, God made man.” The juxtaposition of the two statements brings a heart wrenching moral and spiritual, religious and political dilemma into focus.    When a human life is taken - whether by criminal intent or through state sanctioned execution, we are challenged to grapple with the idea that the image of The Divine is defaced.

Historically,  in Jewish tradition, there were so many “stringencies” in place regarding a death penalty that it was said that a Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one.  Prominent 1st century rabbinic scholars seemed to agree: Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azariah said 'Or even once in 70 years.' Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba said, 'If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed.'

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that there is One God, experienced in different ways and named by different names in the traditions of the People of The Book: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.  In The Trace of God/Noach, Covenant and Conversation 5778 on Life Changing Ideas in the Parsha he writes: “If there were only one human being, he or she might live at peace in the world.  But we know that this could not be the case because it is not good for man to be alone. We are social animals. And when one human being thinks he or she has god-like power vis-a-vis  another human being , the result is violence.  Therefore, thinking yourself god-like, if you are human, all too human, is very dangerous indeed.  That is why, with one simple move, God transformed the terms of the equation.  After the flood, God taught Noah (and through him all humanity), that we should think not of ourselves but of the human other as in the image of God.  That is the only way to save ourselves from violence and self destruction.  This is a really life changing idea.  It means that the greatest religious challenge is: Can I see God’s image in one who is not in my image - whose colour, class, culture or creed is different from mine?”

I would push the challenge even further.  Can I see God’s image in the perpetrator of a heinous crime?  Can I see enough of the Divine Image in the mass murderer or the rapist or the abuser of a child that I can  say “No” to state sanctioned murder in my name as the retribution required by the law? 

Is capital punishment contrary to the Gospel?  I am not a Roman Catholic.  I confess there are some days when even calling myself a believer would put me on shaky ground.   But I stand with Pope Francis on this one.  It defies imagination to ever think of a person like Jesus, upon whose life the Gospel is based, standing in judgment over another human being and condemning that person to death.
That would, indeed, be contrary to the Gospel.

 Vicky Hanjian




















Friday, October 13, 2017


Closing our Eyes to See More Clearly


        What do we see when we really look deeply, perhaps when we squint and try to see beyond the present place and time in which we stand? Reflecting on the way we close our eyes as a natural human response to pain, Rebbe Nachman offers a beautiful insight on what it means to see the world from within: 

So it is when we want to look at the ultimate goal of Creation, which is all good, all unity. One has to close one's eyes and focus on one's vision -- i.e. the inner vision of the soul -- on the goal. For the light of this ultimate goal is very far away. The only way to see it is by closing one's eyes. One has to close them completely and keep them firmly shut. One may even have to press on them with one's finger to keep them shut tight. Then one can gaze on this ultimate goal... (Likkutei Moharan 65:3).

During the past week and weeks, as in hard times always, it can be very tempting to close our eyes, as though to block out the images and the hate. There are times, indeed, when we need to do that, when we know we can’t take in any more. It is the nature of Shabbos, to step back and renew, to look beyond. On this Shabbos, whether one is praying on the streets or in the synagogue, may we all take note of a different sense of time and being, pausing in some way in order to renew. If on the streets, pause if even for a moment along the way and offer a prayer, saying to another, singing out, Shabbat shalom, not simply a greeting, but a prayer for peace expressed in the essence of a day. And if in synagogue, hold the same kavannah in saying these two simple words, and be aware in the same way of the depth of our prayerful words and song, closing eyes and imaging walking feet, legs that are praying as well as words, all moved by an inner vision of wholeness, joined together as one. When we have had enough, though, and we close our eyes in pain, may it not be to block out, but to bring in, to see ever more deeply, to envision from within.

        What do we see when we look into ourselves and into the eyes of others? Do we see the love as well as the fear, the strength and nobility as well as the weakness and vulnerability? Do we see the fear even in the eyes of the haters, wondering how the love that surrounds and joins us in resistance might surround them as well, until there is no place for their hate to go but to dissipate? It is the way of nonviolence to allow for that possibility, not to allow their hate to infect us, but in fierce opposition that in its core is nevertheless gentle, yet to love. It is the lesson and the way of making Shabbos each week, to create the change we wish to see all along the way, to live the future now.

It was the way in Charlottesville, so much fear and so much terror, the flags and chants that sickened, love and hate in fateful dance. In the coming together of so many people across so many lines, joined in love and horror, seeking good and goodness, daring to hope. Speaking truth to power, people unimagined, governors and mayors, we are challenged to imagine new coalitions and partners, young and old leading the march together, weeping and praying in synagogues, and churches and mosques, a great call and cry throughout the land. The fear is real, even as we try to look beyond. I felt panic, nausea, in seeing the images of Nazi flags, and the Confederate too, realizing the same sickness felt by African Americans, trying to see what they see, to imagine the psychic memories called forth for them. The hate makes us all as one, and so too shall love.
       I pause and pick up a small piece of glass   sitting on my desk, turning it in my fingers, feeling tears rise. I picked it up out of the grass alongside the New England Holocaust Memorial, a small fragment of shattered glass, glass that remembered shattered lives, glass etched with the numbers that were etched in the skin of so many dead. It was the second time the Memorial had been desecrated this summer, a glass panel smashed with a rock. People gathered in beautiful diversity across all lines, there to support, to stand with the Jewish community. I cried when Izzy Arbeiter spoke, telling of the horrors, a ninety-two year old survivor, instrumental in bringing the Memorial to be. I felt fear, imagining Jews in Germany, in that time and place. I closed my eyes and then opened them. I looked out across the crowd and saw the difference from then to now. We were not alone.
There among the gathered people, I saw Ralf Horlemann, the German Consul General who led our group of twelve Boston area rabbis to Germany last summer on a Journey of Remembrance and Hope. His face reflected pain, pain that he shared later after the ceremony, the pain of his own psychic memories. How can it be to see that flag? I remembered something he said to me when we visited a refugee center near Berlin. I asked him of the meaning of a postcard with the words, “Wir sind viele. Berlin gegen Nazis/We are many. Berlin against Nazis.” I wanted to know if it meant “neo-Nazis.” He looked at me and quietly asked, “does it matter?” I have since preferred not to speak of neo-Nazis, but simply of Nazis.

I had closed my eyes tightly to see beyond. Opening them again, I saw the crowd that had come to embrace our Jewish pain, Christians and Muslims and so many others, a rainbow gathering of diversity, all there together. We are challenged to see, to really see, to see ourselves in all our differences gathered as one. It is the quiet challenge of the weekly Torah portion called Re’eh (Deut. 11:26-16:17); Re’eh/See! anochi noten lifnei’chem ha’yom b’racha u’kla’lah/I am setting before you today blessing and curse. If hate is the curse, then love is the blessing. It is so easy in these days to be sucked down by the hate, to feel the pain and cry. The blessing is not only the love that flows from so many hearts. The blessing is the seeing itself. It is to close our eyes in pain and see the vision within of what might be, to open then and project the vision outward and onto the world.

There has been so much pain and sorrow so much cause for anger and lament. If we really try to see, to close our eyes and open them again, there is an equal measure of good, of hope and love in the way of our response. With eyes both open and closed, may we see the reality of both, as we make our way toward Shabbos, as it comes now and as it shall be in the future when the world is filled with Shabbat shalom. In whatever way you make Shabbos this week, may all be safe and well, joined together with each other and so many others, love surrounding, enveloped by Sabbath peace.

Victor Reinstein

Friday, October 6, 2017

Climate Change




I wrote to my friend in India yesterday asking about the welfare of relatives and friends he has in Houston. He replied that they were scattered but safe. Then I realized he probably also had friends if not relatives threatened by the flooding in South Asia, where thousands have died and millions have been made homeless. The latest reports say 1,000 have died in India alone. India's Prime Minister has been quoted as saying, "climate change and new weather patterns are having 'a big negative effect.'"

I remembered walking in Mumbai during monsoon on one visit there. I was walking in the street in knee deep water. Fortunately, I was with a friend who kept me away from the holes in the road where the rushing water was draining into the catchment systems below. Many, especially children, lost their lives that way. The undertow was strong and sometimes undetected till it was too late.

The reality is that climate change is upon us and affecting the lives and well being of people all over the globe. As we watch the unfolding events in Houston, we might be able to envision what is meant by environmental refugees. We might be able to begin to understand why the U.S. Defense Department has declared climate change a national security concern.

It's interesting to look at climate change through the eyes of the Defense Department. Everyone, at least in politics, seems to find this agency the most credible, given the enormous slice of the pie they are awarded year after year. Public perceptions of their interest in climate change are limited. But military planners have been concerned about the impacts of climate change at least since the George W. Bush administration. Some institutions, like the Naval War College, have been issuing warnings since 1990. And members of the intelligence community have had an ongoing relationship with climate scientists to assess the security implications since 2008.

In 2015, the Senate Appropriations Committee requested a report from the Defense Department about the most serious climate related security risks and what they were doing to minimize those risks in their planning processes. The subsequent report mentioned impacts of climate change were already being observed in the U.S., the Arctic, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and South America. The observable impacts included aggravation of problems like poverty; homelessness and large refugee populations; environmental degradation leading to water shortages and famine; and ineffective, weakened and unstable governments.

The largest naval base in the world is at Norfolk, Virginia. It floods about ten times a year. When this happens, the entry road to the base is underwater. Other roads on base are impassable. The concrete piers for the ships are flooded, shorting out power hookups. This all happens today simply because of a full moon that raises higher tides. Sea level at the base has risen 14.5 inches since WW1 when the station was built. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts the naval station will flood 280 times a year by 2100.

             After his confirmation hearing, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, stated how important it was for the military to consider environmental changes like open water routes in a thawing Arctic and drought in trouble spots around the world. For him, these were present day concerns and needed to be included in defense planning and implementation.

But as recently as last year, Republicans in the House of Representatives tried to block any new emphasis in the Defense Department on planning for responding to climate change. The same voices blocking new efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change are often the same voices refusing to help restore the livelihoods of those most affected by it. We saw the lame response of some politicians to Katrina and Sandy, and the non response to many of the most vulnerable, often the poor and people of color. We should insist they open their eyes to the reasons for, and ramifications of, Harvey.


Claiming climate change is "fake news" or "in the hands of God" or somehow irrelevant to our future is now not only immoral but bordering on the criminal. Decision makers who continue to hold hands with the fossil fuel and other corporate interests that keep us on a path to climate catastrophe need to be held accountable. And we need to celebrate those good neighbors who always seem to wade through the waters with a helping hand; who spend 24/7 in the kitchen turning out hot meals; who treat an emergency like an emergency and leave their own lives and well being to turn up with healing and comfort and compassion for the afflicted.

Carl Kline

Friday, September 29, 2017


“By three things is the world sustained...”

          This morning while anticipating commitments in the month of October, I turned the page of my beautiful Jewish art calendar to peruse the coming month and fill in the necessary appointments.  On the art page facing October, beautifully and mystically wrapped by a 12 pointed star (created by superimposing 3 Stars of David) are these words: By three things is the world sustained: by justice, by truth and by peace.
The words come from the Pirkei Avot, a work that is  often translated  as “Ethics of Our Fathers”.
         I don’t have a lot of familiarity with Pirkei Avot, but I have heard these familiar lines from the same body of wisdom:

“If I am only for myself, who am I?”

“Say little and do much”

“You are not obligated to complete the work, 
but neither are you free to desist from it.”
           
           The daily headlines in The Boston Globe are disheartening and frightening, filled with immature name calling, treacherous threats, post  hurricane anguish, NFL protests, more name calling and on and on.
            As I it sit with the ancient words in front of me - meditating on them, if you will, I find them by turns, challenging, condemning, and filled with hope.
            If indeed, the world is sustained by justice, by truth and by peace, then we are on very shaky ground in this, what used to be considered a shining, democracy.   In too many spheres, justice seems owned by the white and the wealthy.   Truth suddenly has many “alternatives.”  Peace seems more fragile than a spider web in a storm.
            From a highly placed UN podium, the word is declared: every nation for itself!  And  I feel  a profound loss - a shrinking of the expansive boundaries of generosity, of international commitment to one another’s  wellbeing, of dependable friendships that help to keep this planet viable for human existence.   If I am only for myself, who am I ?” 
            So many words - - too many words - -  swords rattling and rampant rumors of war as destructive wordiness fills the headlines.   Ineffective wordiness in the houses of Congress; hyperbolic wordiness and juvenile insults on Twitter and in public rallies - but no positive and creative action on health care or tax reform; no humane development of a sane immigration policy; no life embracing action toward preserving the life of the earth.  I wonder what “the Fathers” encountered as they concluded it was wise to ”Say little and do much.”  
            Still, I am encouraged by the faithful energy of this small island community.  Together we  meet for interfaith study about how to instill in our young people an ethic of concern for “the other” as we read “ACTS OF FAITH” by Eboo Patel.  The book plainly lets us know that even as young people can be taught to hate and fear, they can also be taught to embrace and care for the stranger - - faith communities and  and schools need to be more proactive.  I am encouraged by the annual “Living Local” festival at the Agricultural Hall, with booths and displays drawn from every corner of island life in an attempt to educate us all about our role in sustaining the holy life of this planet.  
            A premier island grocer is figuring out how to sustain his profits while providing steep discounts for islanders to be sure that our elders and our immigrant population can afford to shop in his markets.  These modest efforts are thousands of miles from the centers of power. We are in a place where we might be tempted to throw up our hands in helpless despair at things over which we have little control.  But the ancient wisdom dictates otherwise. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
            If, indeed, the world is sustained by justice, by truth, and by peace, then even a small island in the Atlantic is both judged and challenged...and blessed by the “Ethics of Our Fathers.”   We dare not lose sight of the power of simple actions that keep faith with the care and concern for others and for the earth in focus.  And even though we may have cause to wonder if the grass roots actions we take have any effect on the whole in the end, we are never free to simply slack off and hope that someone else will do the job. 

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, September 22, 2017


The Prayer of a Small Folding Challah Knife
September 22, 2017

One of my treasured ritual items is a small folding challah knife that came to me a few years ago when my wife and I were in Israel. It feels that indeed it did come to me. I had searched for one through many decades since first seeing such a knife for cutting the Sabbath bread when I was a young student in Jerusalem just starting out on my journey. At some point I found a contemporary one, made with a plastic handle and a blade of stainless steel. It did not have a story and never moved me, eventually disappearing during one move or another. During that more recent visit to Israel I made it a point to go into every little store where I might find antique Judaica. I asked many store keepers if they had one, if they had ever seen one. Here and there, one would nod, “no,” they did not have one but had seen one once. Sometimes a friendly storekeeper would direct me to another store, and perhaps from there I would be directed to another. Whether offered a friendly and sympathetic smile or a brusque and dismissive wave of the hand, as though such a thing did not exist, the end result was the same, no folding challah knife.

On our last Friday in Jerusalem during that visit, as we made our way home late in the day to get ready for Shabbos, we went into one more store. It was the week of the Torah portion called Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1). The store was next to the car rental office from which we would leave for the north on Sunday. As I asked my question, the storekeeper pointed to a display case in which there were two folding challah knives. One had a pearl handle and the word “Marienbad” engraved on a section of metal between two sections of pearl. This begins to explain one of the reasons for a folding challah knife. Jewish tourists would take one with them when traveling, easier to carry than a larger challah knife. Marienbad was a tourist destination that was popular with Jews. The other knife is the one that eventually became mine. We held our breath as we asked the cost, releasing our breath with sorrow, knowing it was too expensive. When we came to pick up the rental car on Sunday morning, my wife said she was going to go back into the antique store. Time passed as I waited in the car. When I saw her in the rear view mirror, I realized that she had a small paper bag in her hand. It was the knife, an agreement having been made. I wanted to believe that the meaning I attached to the knife had touched the storekeeper, as I hoped it would now touch others through my sharing.

         The handle of my small folding challah knife is of old ivory, somewhat yellowed with age. Not quite six inches in length when folded, the knife was probably made in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. There is no place name engraved in the center of the handle. Rather, on both sides of the center plate, there is a word. Beautifully etched in black ink, as though by a fine scribal hand, are the words, Shabbos Kodesh/the Holy Sabbath. The blade, which opens in the way of a jackknife, is dark and stained. I imagine the many hands that have opened it over the years of its life, imagining what it would say if it could speak and tell its story. The fact that it does not have a place name engraved on it, suggests the other reason for such a challah knife, the reason that inspired my search over so many years.

There is a custom that I follow with care, to remove knives from the table before singing Birkat Ha’Mazon, the series of blessings that are said following a meal in which bread has been eaten. A folding knife does not need to be removed, the blade remaining hidden throughout the meal, opened only as needed for cutting bread. The removal of knives is based on the commandment in the Torah portion called Yitro, Exodus 20:22, concerning the building of an altar. There we are told that an altar must be built only of un-hewn stones, so that no steel tool shall come upon them. Later in the Torah (Deut. 27:6), such uncut stones are called avanim sh’laymot/whole stones or, quite literally, peaceful stones. The word for steel tool is charb’cha/your sword; ki charb’cha haynafta aleyha va’t’cha’l’leha/for if you have wielded your sword over one (of the stones), you will have desecrated it. In a beautiful midrash, the rabbis teach that the altar is made to prolong the years of a person and iron is made to shorten the years of a person. It is not right for that which shortens life to be lifted up against that which prolongs life…. How much the more then should one who establishes peace between one person and another, between spouse and spouse, between city and city, between nation and nation, between family and family, between government and government, be protected so that no harm should come upon them.” The human being is the ultimate altar, every person a potential peacemaker against whom the sword should not be raised.

Crying for peace in the midst of war, far more than swords unsheathed now, I found the small folding challah knife in the week of Torah portion Pinchas, the week in which the Gaza war of 2014 had begun. As we drove north, we passed many columns of armored vehicles making their way south. My small knife, carefully carried now in my pack, became a prayerful symbol for me. As it came to me in a context of violence, so its connection to Pinchas, a portion whose name tells of a violent zealot who took the law into his own hands in the face of Israel’s seduction into Midianite idolatry. From out of that context, as is often the case, the rabbis weave a teaching of nonviolence, drawing from within the text itself a challenge to the violence on the surface. At the end of the previous Torah reading, called Balak, we are told that Pinchas rose up/va’yakam and took/va’yikach a spear, the spear with which he then killed two people, Zimri, an Israelite prince, and Cozbi, a Midianite princess.

Beyond the context of the killing and the moral challenges with which the rabbis wrestle and which torment us, the rabbis offer a remarkable teaching that becomes codified into Jewish law. It is assumed that as part of a meeting of elders Pinchas was in the Beit Midrash/House of Study. Because he had to get up and go to get his spear it is deduced that he did not have it with him. From that, a commandment evolves that one is forbidden to bring a weapon into a synagogue or house of study. In a beautifully sensitive commentary that draws on the ancient teaching concerning steel upon the altar, the Mishna B’rurah, an early twentieth century legal work by the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, teaches, the synagogue, which is uniquely intended for prayer, increases the days of a person, while a knife shortens the days of a person/l’fi she’beyt ha’k’nesset she’hu m’yuchad la’t’fillah ma’arechet yamav shel adam v’ha’sakin m’katzer y’mei adam. In an earthy legal discussion of practical import, the question is asked about students who spend all of their time in the Beit Midrash, what should they do if they need a knife to cut their food? The answer is that they may use a knife so that they do not have to leave their studies for too long, but they should cover the blade when it is not in use and when they say the blessings after the meal.

In approaching Shabbos each week, I think of this teaching and of how a small folding challah knife represents the ultimate removal of the sword. On this Shabbos of Parashat Pinchas, named for a man of violence whose blade cut down human altars, I draw hope from the rabbis’ way of teaching nonviolence in the midst of violence. It is a way of transformation that calls for us to do the same, challenging and transforming violence in text and in life. As the altar of un-hewn stones was meant to bring people together for the sharing of a sacred meal, so for us the Shabbos table, the sword not to be raised upon it, even blades for cutting bread to be covered in order to remind. Toward the day that is all Shabbos, of lessons learned in simple ways, swords turned to plowshares and spears to pruning hooks, that is my prayer and the prayer of a small folding challah knife.

 Victor Reinstein

Friday, September 15, 2017

A Fragile Democracy

Democracy is a fragile arrangement. Basing a system of governing on one person one vote can be challenging, especially in a country as large as the U.S. and with all of our diversity.

Some are always tempted to define "one person" according to their preferences. In our history, the vote has been denied to: Native Americans, those without property, slaves, women, certain religious groups, the poor, young people and prisoners. (It might be noted that white men with wealth have always had the vote.)

Some states where there is one party in power work tirelessly to remove voters from the registration lists, limit certain groups from accessing the polls and discourage voter registration. For instance, the Supreme Court will rule next term on whether to allow Ohio to proceed with removing tens of thousands of voters from their rolls, Many believe Ohio has targeted minority populations.

One might question whether this limiting isn't at work right here in my home town of Brookings. The issue is either lost or on a back burner, but the South Dakota State University Student Association (SA) asked the county for a polling place on campus. Problems were raised about too many polling places and not an adequate, available space on that huge campus. The question faded with turnover at the SA. One would think we would want to make it as easy as possible for our young people to vote, helping them develop a life long habit. But maybe there is some fear they might vote and disturb the status quo?

And it has to be said, what the President is doing to undercut our diverse democracy and encourage race baiting is despicable. There are Mexicans picking the fruits and vegetables I eat. Mexican workers put a new roof on our home last summer, working from sun-up to sun-down in the heat of the day. They did an amazingly professional job. It is Mexican laborers I've seen on highway construction jobs in this state. If we're honest, our country is still being built on the labor of people of color, the way it was during the days of slavery.

So now we have a President who intends to build a wall to keep "them" out (except for the ones working at his estates), even if it means shutting down the government. So now we have a President who blames our economic malaise on Mexico, when the opposite is true; where when we cough, Mexico gets pneumonia. So now we have a President who says Mexicans are rapists, criminals, killers, drug lords; while he represents the epitome of materialism that is killing the souls of our young and turning them toward buying those drugs. So now we have a President intent on campaigning to stroke his ego, stirring up racial division, and then unable to govern.

Democracy is a fragile thing.

Democracy is especially fragile when it is threatened by those who divide rather than unite; those who prefer violence to dialogue; those who exclude rather than include; those who elevate hate over love.

Some of my Christian brothers and sisters also bear some responsibility for undercutting the inclusiveness and diversity of our democracy. For instance, I tire of the constant refrain one hears from the Gospel of John, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." Many Christian church people take this passage totally out of context to preach a gospel of exclusion. Jesus said this to his disciples, who after all the time they have spent with him, still don't know who he is. It wasn't meant as a proclamation for all people for all time.

I'm sorry to say, that kind of exclusionary thinking is not gospel ("good news") and it's not the gospel of Jesus. Jesus was inclusive. He would want Muslim-Americans to vote. He didn't discriminate against people on the basis of their race (Sunday morning is STILL the most segregated time of the week). And Jesus certainly wouldn't agree with the Presidents' Inauguration pastor who recently proclaimed, "God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong-Un" (who also happens to be a person of color).

We need to wake up! KELO TV recently informed us we have the Creativity Alliance in our midst. They are dedicated to elevating the white race to the supreme place where they believe whites belong. In short, they are white supremacists. That means getting rid of lots of others. Check out their web site. It's hateful.

And in the meantime, we need to raise our voices in defense of democracy; in defense of, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men (sic) are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Carl Kline

Friday, September 8, 2017


In the Fullness of Nonviolence
Transcending the Language of Violence on the Path to Peace and Justice


I tend to eschew martial language, even to a fault, and often, I admit, it is to a fault. In almost every context of striving, whether personal or social, or for the sake of analogy and metaphor, I prefer to find alternatives to what might be construed as military terminology. I prefer to work for peace and justice, to strive and to struggle, rather than to fight for it. I find dissonance in the very thought of fighting for peace, easier then to lose sight of the critical tension between means and ends. The language we use influences behavior, and subtly gives shape to consciousness and form to conscience. When called “to pray with our legs,” as in the holy words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I prefer to walk, to journey, to trek, rather than to march for whatever good cause summons us to the streets.

From long before I could give it a name, I have been drawn to the way of pacifism. I generally tend not to call myself a pacifist, but to see and describe myself as one who seeks to follow its path, to rise to its challenge. Failing too often to meet its challenge, I continue to seek and to wrestle, striving to come ever closer to the way of the pacifist. Often misunderstood, pacifism is not passive. To be true to its own calling, it is meant always to be active, whether in the larger spheres of life or in the most intimate, whether in word or deed, witnessed by others or not. It is a way of love and respect for the human creature and condition that becomes the seedbed and catalyst for active and creative nonviolence.

A seemingly simple word that has no single, positive way of expression in English, nonviolence, which I prefer not to write with a hyphen in order to better convey its own reality, is often as misunderstood as pacifism. Even though a more common term and referent to action, nonviolence is rarely recognized for its uncommon depth and breadth. When nonviolence is expressed or adopted only as a tactic, however preferable to its opposite, we fail to access its spiritual depth and larger strategic possibility. One can refrain from picking up a weapon or a stone, but still do nothing to bridge the chasm that stands not only between people in opposition to each other, but between the present and a better future.

In the way of Ghandi and King, the spiritual depth and power of nonviolence lies in its recognition of a common spark of humanity in every person, the image of God in each one. The challenge is to draw on that common spark, that common humanity, in seeking ways to bridge the divide that separates people from each other, helping each side in a struggle to see at least glimmers of common human ground and of a common stake in the struggle. We shall overcome does not mean overcoming or defeating the other, but overcoming the injustice and suffering which the other may in fact represent, ultimately overcoming that which divides us and bringing our opponent along with us to a better place for all.

It is so hard to do or even to imagine such bridging in times of struggle, and yet this is when we are especially called to the challenge, the process itself illuminating new paths. Even if unable to move an opponent in the present moment, nonviolence as active witness models for others a living alternative to violence, hate, and injustice. In the wrestling, we come to new insight and possibilities. Reflecting a way of striving, shalom as peace emerging form wholeness/sh’laymut can only grow when the tree of peace is not separated from its root meaning, shalem/whole, complete.
 More than terminology, the challenge is to find a way of striving that will ultimately bring wholeness. It is the way of the Sh’ma (Deut. 6:4), “Hear, O, Israel, God, our God, God is One.” If God is one, than so too, created in God’s image of oneness, all people are one.

As does any sensitive reader of Torah, I struggle with so many of the Torah portions as we make our way through the latter part of the fourth book, Bamidbar, and into the fifth book, D’varim, in which we encounter the violence of the Canaanite wars. These portions are among those that contain what Heschel so helpfully refers to as the harsh passages. In reading and learning Torah, we are meant to learn how to navigate the harsh passages of both Torah and life, always remembering that the Torah is not about them and then, but about us and now. So too, engaging with sacred text, encountering and conversing with commentators and teachers of other times and places, we realize that our struggles were also their struggles, all part of a great human struggle toward shalom u’sh’laymut/peace and wholeness.

As for many of our ancestors, I struggle with the language of these portions, as well as with what that language represents in various ways of understanding and in the particular bias of a translator. This week’s portion, Parashat Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10-25:19), begins with words that appear several times in the surrounding portions, Ki Tetze la’mil’chamah/if you go forth to war. It need not be an absolute, an assumption of inevitable human struggle as reflected in the frequent way of translation, “when you go forth to war.” If, neither inevitable nor eternal, the vision is held before us of a world without war, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4).

Particularly in Chassidic tradition, the surface meaning, the p’shat, is transformed almost immediately to reflect a different reality. In this way of reading, the Torah is not speaking about warring peoples, of external battles, but of internal struggle to change and bring out the best that resides deep within our selves and others. It is the essence of nonviolence and is not dissimilar to the Islamic concept of itjihad, jihad or struggle with oneself. For the Chassidic teachers, the battle that we are called to engage with is the battle with our own yetzer ho’rah/the evil inclination. It is that very inclination that the rabbis see as a positive force when channeled into the building of homes and the loving creation of families. The possibility of transformation is set in the deepest of human urges.

Turning the metaphor into reality, the Karliner Rebbe, among others, looks to the singular formation in the Hebrew, ki tetze la’mil’chamah al oy’vecha/when you go forth to battle against your enemies and says very simply, zeh yetzer ho’rah/this is the evil inclination. With the suffix for your in the singular, it is addressed to each one of us. Of your enemy in the singular, the Slonimer Rebbe teaches that this refers to ha’oyev ha’m’yuchad shelcha/your specific enemy. We each have our own personal struggles, our own demons. As the Slonimer teaches, we also each have a unique task and purpose in the world that is only for us to complete. In order to accomplish that unique purpose for which we are in the world, we must first overcome our own personal demons, our own unique “enemies.”

The Chassidic way of reading Torah through a lens of metaphor finds resonance in a statement from deep within Jewish tradition that is brought into conversation with the beginning of Parashat Ki Tetze. Once having gone forth to battle, warning is given that if a soldier desires a captive woman, he is to take her home and make her his wife (Deut. 21:11-14). For all that is problematic, acknowledged, wrestled, and cried with as we make our way through a harsh passage, in seeking to control the evil inclination of the soldier, the commandment helps to control the possibility of rape in war, which is no small matter in itself. From the Talmud (Kiddushin 21b), Rashi draws on a fascinating statement: lo debra Torah elah k’neged yetzer ho’rah/the Torah does not speak, except to challenge the evil inclination.

In the overall expression of this teaching and of Torah itself, the Torah seeks to replace evil with good, offering ways to navigate its own harsh passages and those of life; guiding us toward creation in the human sphere of a world of wholeness and peace that does justice to the physical beauty of creation, the world as it was envisioned at the very beginning. In speaking in relation to the yetzer ho'rah/evil inclination, there are times when the Torah offers opening and invitation to metaphor, when that is to be our way of reading, and other times when the way is clear, when we are meant to heed the commandments and respond to beauty of word and deed, learning to affirm life and creation in all that we do. So does the Torah speak not but in relation to the yetzer ho'rah/evil inclination.

As we make our way through the Hebrew month of Elul toward the new year that begins with Rosh Hashannah, looking within ourselves and seeking to effect wholeness and make amends with others, the Slonimer suggests that we need new “weapons” in the “fight” with our yetzer. Language that I eschew, he writes, the old weapons from years past are not sufficient/lo maspik ha’neshek ha’yashan…; one needs, therefore, to search for ways and wisdom with which to find the renewed weapon/aych lim’tzo et ha’neshek ha’m’chudash.

Grateful for the way of transformation in text and life that our teachers have given us, at times I struggle with their language, even as I often do with the language of our activism today. In the holy work of seeking peace and justice, inspired by a way of reading Torah that transcends war, so it is for us to transcend the language of war and then war itself. Seeking the way of nonviolence in all of its fullness, in speech as well as in deed, praying with our legs, means and ends as one, may we journey together to the day that is all Shabbat shalom, a world of peace and wholeness, shalom u’sh’laymut.

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Victor Reinstein