Friday, April 12, 2019

This Is Not What You Have Taught Us, Our Teacher



I wasn’t going to go there. I rebelled as it repelled. With much to struggle with in the weekly Torah portion called Ki Tissa (Ex. 30:11-34:35), and much to uplift, I was not going to go to its lowest point of encounter with Torah, with life, with God, with Moshe. It is with Moshe with whom there is the greatest struggle here. I have tried hard over the years to embrace Moshe, having once struggled with him, hard for me at times to seek out the teacher, Moshe as Rabbeinu/our Rabbi/our teacher, to feel at ease with him, comfortable asking questions, challenging him and still loving. And now there is this, anger worse than when he later hits the rock when asked by God only to speak to it, and of greater consequence, at least for others if not for him. 

          It is understandable that Moshe was filled with despair, even anger on seeing the people dancing around the golden calf when he comes down the mountain, the holy tablets held in his arms, as though stone of flesh pressed to the flesh of his body, embraced with all his being. Enraged at what he saw, he threw the precious tablets to the ground and they shattered, shards littering the space between him and the people, between the people and God. Those shards are holy for all time, reminding us of our moments of brokenness. They too are to be placed in the Holy Ark along with the whole tablets for which Moshe will return to the mountaintop. It had all begun so hopefully at the beginning of the portion. There is a census, each of the numbered ones to give half a shekel, the rich shall not give more and the poor not less, equality underscored, each but a half without the other. In the giving, there shall be no dying among them, each one numbered, each one important, each one counting. A census initially for those going into battle, there is atonement in the giving, in the counting, atonement for killing, as though such atonement is possible, yet in the illusion of such atonement an expression of horror for what it means to take a life, even the life of a presumed enemy. We extrapolate from the teaching of the half shekel, opening it up, remembering that all are created in the image of God. Every life counts in our striving to be whole, each one needing the other.

And then we come to the verses that I so wanted to avoid but couldn’t. By going where we don’t want to go, by engaging with challenges we would prefer not to face, in Torah and in life, we learn about both, Torah and life, and about ourselves. After shattering the tablets, Moses called for all of those who are for God to gather around him. The tribe of Levi gathered. Moses commanded each one to put a sword upon their thigh and to go through the camp killing all who had worshipped the golden calf, let every man kill his brother, every man his friend, every man his kinsman… (Ex. 32:27). As the horror ended, in the aftermath of this paroxysm of violence, some three thousand were dead.

       How does such horror unfold? How can people carry out such violence? These are the same questions we ask when we read or hear the day’s news. How? Why? Struggling with these questions in the controlled context of Torah, as we are meant to struggle, we learn to struggle with the same questions as they assault us in the world. 

         Then we come back to the beginning of the verse, when Moses calls the people together and the tribe of Levi gathers. Moses says to them, ko amar ha’shem/thus says God…. And then we look, and we look again, and again, and we realize that God has not spoken of this, that God has not told Moshe to so hideously command the people. And then I realized why I had to go there, to come to this verse that repelled me, precisely in order to rebel, to cry out, to say no, that is not what God said, not then, not now. There are commentators who justify, who see the command as implicit, such killing, God forbid, as a cleansing after the sin of the golden calf. It is not dissimilar to justifying and rationalizing violence in so many realms of our lives today, too often avoiding our own complicity. It is hard not to see the slaughter, as other commentators do, as vigilante justice, as what amounts to extra-judicial killings. 

       Only in entering the “harsh passages” of Torah, as Rabbeinu/our teacher Heschel so aptly calls them, do we learn to wrestle with violence and learn how to transcend violence, first in Torah, and then in life. Bravely entering the places we would prefer not to go, we encounter others who struggle, learning from their wrestlings, joining ours with theirs across time and space, becoming a timeless movement for justice, peace, wholeness, and gentleness, finding with their help our own voice with which to cry out, to challenge.

        The voice of a teacher thunders in disbelief from the school of Elijah, so carried as though to be registered as a cry of protest in the work of midrash called Tana d’vei Eliyahu/A Teacher of the School of Elijah:

I call heaven and earth to witness before me, that the Holy Blessed One did not say to Moshe to stand in the gate of the camp and say, ‘whoever is for God come to me, and let each one put their sword upon their thigh and let each one kill their brother, and their friend, and their relative;’ and he said ‘thus says God, the God of Israel….’ Rather, it was Moshe himself who so judged and said in his heart, ‘if I say to Israel that each one should kill their brother, their friend, their relative, Israel will consider and they will say to me, ‘this is not what you have taught us, our teacher/lo kach limaditanu rabbeinu’ (Tana d’vei Eliyahu, Seder Eliyahu Rabba 4:1).

And even if God had said it, then as well to remind, “this is not what you have taught us, our teacher!” Fittingly, drawing on an ancient legacy of protest, the midrash from the school of Elijah appears in commentary to the Torah portion Vayera in which Abraham challenges God (Gen. 18) not to destroy the innocent with the guilty in the violent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, our ancestor’s words amplified by the teacher in the study hall of Elijah and come to us, “shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?!”

        It is, ironically, or perhaps by intent as counter balance to remind, that in the very portion of Ki Tissa God reveals to Moshe God’s true essence: Hashem, Hashem/God, God, Kel rachum v’chanun/God who is merciful and compassionate, long suffering, and abounding in loving-kindness and truth… (Ex. 34:6). Confident in what we have learned, in the spirit of father Abraham and a long ago teacher in the school of Elijah, we therefore say even to God, lo kach limaditanu rabbeinu/this is not what you have taught us, our teacher
            
           It is from that confidence in what we have learned from God, from Torah, from Moses, from our own experience, that Rabbeinu Heschel speaks of our approach to the “harsh passages,” those “which seem to be incompatible with our certainty of the compassion of God. In analyzing this extremely difficult problem, we must first of all keep in mind that the standards by which those passages are criticized are impressed upon us by the Bible, which is the main factor in ennobling our conscience and in endowing us with the sensitivity that rebels against all cruelty…” (God in Search of Man, p. 268). He reminds us that the “harsh passages” do not represent abiding values, that they are not prescribed as a way of behavior, “that they stand in sharp contrast with the compassion, justice, and wisdom of the laws that were legislated for all times” (ibid). 

         In this spirit, the Slonimer Rebbe teaches: concerning every matter that one rises to do, one needs to discern whether it is good in the eyes of God…; and in all of our deeds, we need to weigh, ‘what is the will of God in this?’ So a person is able to attain and to know in themself in the way of the teaching nishmat adam t’lamdenu/so shall a person’s soul teach them… (N’tivot Shalom, Par. Mishpatim, p. 183-184). Infused by the essence that we have suckled from Torah, and inspired by our teachers when teaching in that spirit, so shall our souls teach us to know and to do what is right and good.

     Through the words of a long ago teacher, there is ironic hope in Moshe’s recognition that the people have integrated the very teaching that he himself would violate. Such is the power of the people to remind leaders of what God most wants when a leader turns from the path of righteousness, justice, and decency. We need to have enough grounding and faith in the very Torah that we learn and love, and so for each people’s holiest books and highest ideals, to know how to challenge from within whatever violates its own ideals and ultimate values. Entering the harsh passages, we learn to struggle and to look deeply at who we are and are meant to be. We look at the values that have shaped us in our core and given expression to the ideals that define us as a people, for which we have been known in the world. We learn from the very sources of our ideals, from our texts and their teachers, to know in our souls when the essence of the sources themselves, and of their Source, is violated. We know from all the way back when God’s spirit is violated, even by God, from that gentle beginning when the breath of God hovered over the face of the waters. In that knowing, so shall we have the courage to say when necessary, this is not what you have taught us, our teacher/lo kach limaditanu rabbeinu.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, April 5, 2019

"Dear Christian American Patriot..."



          I received a piece of mail the other day addressed to "Dear Christian American Patriot." I am all that, but it still seemed a surprisingly unique way of addressing me in a fund raising letter. The appeal came from the Faith and Freedom Coalition. They are intending to register five million "Brand New" conservative Christian voters in the run up to the 2020 election in order to "STOP the Radical Anti-Christian Left from Winning the White House and Control of our Government in 2020 so They Can Destroy America Forever."
         I didn't know the threat was so serious! Here I've been worrying about climate change and a renewed nuclear arms race and the cost of drugs and health care and all the roll backs of environmental regulations and why my friends from Mexico and other people of color are constantly being harassed and sometimes deported or killed,  and why we have a President who seems more concerned about being thanked for a funeral than the flooding crisis in the heartland and the issues of the day, and here I've been ignoring this looming catastrophe that could   "destroy our country forever."

It's a good thing Ralph Reed and his friends have put together a "Battle Plan." Anyway, although I'm not what Ralph and the Faith and Freedom Coalition call a "conservative" Christian (although I think labels like conservative and liberal have lost their meaning, except for purposes of political warfare), I did take the survey and mailed it in, without a contribution to the $42.7 million goal. The reason I kept my wallet in my pocket is because I don't agree that the "anti-Christian, anti-freedom, anti-America left" … wants to "erase America's borders so we no longer have a country," and "be governed by the United Nations, not our own Constitution."

Honestly folks, can't we have a dialogue in this country anymore, a rational conversation, about our immigration system and how to regulate it? We all know it's broken. No one is suggesting "open borders" and there's no "invasion." Could we stop using emotionally loaded words and get down to the business of solving the problem?

The demonization of political opponents and the way religious groups are going to bed with candidates or political parties is a terrible tragedy. It's led me to think about the future of religion lately, wondering sometimes if there is one, because of the way faith traditions are captured by politics. It's not happening just in the United States but in other countries as well; in India, Israel, Iran. Instead of religious life influencing politics, politics influences religious life.

In a paper Martin Luther King wrote in Seminary on the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, he reflects on how the essence of Jeremiah's teaching is that the prophet must always challenge the status quo. For someone who has a vision of a realm where God dwells, all of our human constructs come up short. Someone needs to point that out, speak truth to power, the role of the Biblical prophet. 

    If Christianity is to have a future in this country, it needs to become more prophetic and less partisan. It needs to become more dialogical and less evangelical. There needs to be more listening and less preaching, more walking and less talking

     If Christianity is to have a future in the U.S. it needs to welcome the whole human family. In the Faith and Freedom Coalition materials it is clear the appeal is primarily to "white" conservative Christians. Implicit in the survey questions and the written material is the imperative of keeping the country safe from the open borders policy of the radical leftists, which will turn us into "a third world country." Really?

I must confess that the most uplifting spiritual experiences of my life have been in sanctuaries where the barriers between human beings are no longer in evidence. The person next to me is a person of color. The person in front has a disability. The person behind me is transgendered. The congregants are diverse, men and women, rich and poor, old and young! All children of the same God and present in all their fruitfulness and failings. For me, that's Christian community at it's finest.
    And rather than demonizing people of other traditions (along with the politicians), the Christianity of the future (if there is one), will welcome dialogue and common service to society with other traditions. 

        Omaha, Nebraska is becoming a hub of inter-faith activity. The Tri-Faith Center is expected to open in early 2020, a campus demonstrating the cooperation of the three Abrahamic faiths. Jews, Christians and Muslims will celebrate there together and use it as an educational resource center for all. In a world where politicians and partisan religionists spread distrust, hate and terror, the Center will point us toward the true relationship between these Biblical cousins.

There are also some values, some virtues, that seem essential for any kind of human future. They guard against the divisiveness and partisanship one finds in the F&FC materials. One is humility, a first requirement for any kind of cooperative decision making in religion or politics. A second is nonviolence in thought, word and deed. And a third is service for the common good. 

There are those working tirelessly to aid those trapped or trashed by floodwaters. Others are helping people stranded at our border fleeing violence and poverty. Still others are taking seniors to health appointments and delivering them meals. While still others do child care for sick moms and foster care for abandoned children. How can people of faith work together to structure our institutions and society to serve the common good? That's the question that needs our attention!

Forgive me, Ralph! I'm going to keep all the titles you gave me, Christian, American and patriot. But I'm not going to join your crusade. The status quo is not my idea of the Kingdom of God!

Carl Kline

Saturday, March 30, 2019

A Teaching of Humility and the Rising of Hope



 
          As I left the mosque, so many having come to offer comfort, I encountered an acquaintance I hadn’t seen for a while. He didn’t look well, so through word and manner I asked in the way of invitation of how he is doing, either to share or not as he wished. Our arms around each other’s shoulders, he said, “I’m tired, I’m weary.” That is probably how we are all feeling, personal struggles becoming one with struggles in the world, each of us feeling tired and weary. It can feel hard to respond to a question of how we are doing with much more than a sigh. To each other’s sigh, may we at least be able to say, amen/ameen and may that be the beginning of hope.

We have been here so many times before. We have cried so many tears. We have cried for Charleston. We have cried for Pittsburgh. We have cried for Orlando, for Sutherland Springs, for Newtown. Now we cry for Christchurch, New Zealand. We cry for so many other places too, their names no longer just of place, no longer distant or foreign, all now part of our own inner geography of grief. We have cried for children, for adults, for black and white, for Muslims, for Jews, for Christians, for Sikhs, for gay and straight and queer, for people cut down in all their innocent humanity by hate and by the guns that give ultimate expression and power to the haters.

           This was not what I was going to write about in the week of the Torah portion Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26) and yet in a way it was, though I had planned a different framing. I had planned to speak about anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as the two have recently swirled in regard to Representative Ilhan Omar’s hurtful words that conjured age-old hatred of Jews. And of the fierce attacks against her as a Muslim woman from people with little true empathy for either Jews or Muslims.

This is what in the end we are indeed struggling with, yet reminded now so viscerally of how interconnected we all are, how deeply joined Jews and Muslims are, how deeply joined all people are, whether we realize it or not.
 One of our greatest challenges is to realize the depth of that connection before it is too late, before we succumb hopelessly to the easily seductive call of “us and them.” It can seem easier sometimes to simply be right and refuse to engage with those who are wrong. In the synagogue my wife and I attended on Shabbat while visiting in Los Angeles, the service held in the gymnasium of a Jewish high school, there were many posters on the wall meant to make people think about that elusive yet inherent connection among us all. One of the signs said, “Speak as though you are right. Listen as though you are wrong.” While there may be limits to all such calls to reflect and consider the limitations of our own moral standards, there is nevertheless a basic truth in such a call to humility, in a call to avoid the hubris that so infects social engagement and inhuman politics today, and even the struggle for justice and humanity.

Returning home, the portion of Vayikra was also Shabbat Zachor/the Shabbos of Remembrance. It is the Shabbos that comes just before Purim, the second of four special Shabbatot that bring us to the month of Nisan and the journey to freedom. It is the Shabbos whose special Torah reading (Deut. 25:17-19) begins with the words, Zachor et asher l’cha Amalek/remember what Amalek did to you. Amalek is the desert chieftain who attacked us at our weakest, attacking our elders and our children at the end of the line of march as we left Egypt, bewildered and unsure. Amalek, ancestor of Haman, the Purim villain, becomes symbolic of evil. On this Shabbos we remember that there is evil in the world and consider how to engage with evil in ways that shall truly see its end and not in ways that shall unwittingly facilitate its metastasis.

In its first word, in one Hebrew letter, the Torah portion Vaykra offers humility as a starting point for all that we would do, a place from which to begin. Vayikra/and God called to Moshe, is written with a small letter aleph at the end, as in VAYIKRa. It becomes a teaching about Moshe’s great humility. So too, in a hard time in his own life, it becomes a teaching about our teacher’s broken heart. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that God called to Moshe from out of that which was broken and bent within himself/mitoch she’haya shavur v’shefel b’kirbo. It is the way we feel when personal struggles and those of the world all around become as one, making us feel tired and weary, unable to say more.

I was going to frame my original thoughts in the context of a story. Somehow the story still feels right, so I will share it, allowing meaning to emerge in its own time and way. It is a story about my own struggle to be present with hope in the face of another’s initial crudeness and disdain, to be open to the possibility of another’s heart opening and, indeed, that my own heart can just as easily be closed.

While in Los Angeles, I looked for a shul near where we were staying in order to say the Mourner’s Kaddish each weekday for my father. There was a shul at both ends of our street, one a bit larger and one seemingly more humble. I felt more drawn to the smaller one but the larger one was closer. The larger one also had a sign out front that suggested politics and affiliations that troubled me. Nevertheless, it was closer and so I that is where I went. The entrance was through a side door, the daily minyan in a small room to the side of the sanctuary. The deep sound of Ashkenazic East European prayer style touched me and drew me in. The people were sitting at a long table in the middle of the room. I hesitated, seeing where I might sit down among them. A man smiled and motioned me to a seat. I put on my talis and t’filin and joined them. As we came to the Torah reading, the rabbi came over to me and asked me to take an aliyah, my own Ashkenazic pronunciation of the blessings over the Torah making me feel at home among them. As I returned to my seat, people extended their hands to mine.

        When we finished the morning prayers, people came over to me and asked where I was from. Some of the people spoke of their own connections to Boston, remembering long ago visits, a long ago job. A rather gruff man sitting on the other side of the table from me seemed to snarl. He spit out the word “Massachusetts,” adding “they’re all Communists there!” He continued, “what’s her name, what’s that woman’s name, a Communist…?” I was surely not going to fill his memory gap by saying Elizabeth Warren’s name. Now I knew my initial reasons for hesitating to come to this shul were right, what did I expect?

I hesitated to return, but in a hurry on Monday morning I did return, finding it more convenient to come to the nearer shul. The same man was sitting right across from me. We said nothing to each other during the service. At the end, as I completed the saying of Kaddish, the man said to me in his same gruff voice, “say it louder, you should speak up so that we can say Amen.” I was touched by his concern. After the service, he volunteered that his grandson was a student at Harvard, making me smile at the irony. We spoke a little about his grandson and about himself, a Jew from another world, from Afghanistan originally, someone who had known much violence, whether from Communists or from warlords. 
               As I placed my talis bag under my arm to leave, standing on opposite sides of the prayer table, we reached for each other’s hand. Holding my hand in his, the man looked me in the eye and quietly said, “God bless you.”
I cry now as I recall his blessing, the blessing of a man I had closed my heart to, a man who had convinced me that I had come to the wrong shul. Feeling so tired and weary now, as did my acquaintance who seemed unwell, as we all do in these days, the blessing of that man touches me with hope. Something so small does not take away a larger, encompassing pain.  It does not offer a political plan or global vision for change. And yet, in its essence it does offer a greater vision in its simple reminder of the small ways in which we can find hope in every day interactions, thereby encountering the point and the person from which change begins. The blessing of the man to whom I had initially closed my heart came to me at the start of the week of the Torah portion Vayikra, all held in the small aleph, a broken heart acknowledged, a teaching of humility and the rising of hope.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, March 22, 2019

The Holy Ark of Wood Within and the Shattered Fragments To Remind


There are times when our Thursday morning Torah learning becomes its own time of prayer, gathered around the large coffee shop table placed especially for us. Learning is indeed meant to be its own way of prayer, passages of study inserted in the Siddur, the Jewish prayerbook, words of Torah as God’s word encountered on the page, joined with our own words, rising together on wings of heart’s yearning and mind’s delight. Providing prayerful context for the saying of Kaddish, mourners are given an opportunity to say the Kaddish d’Rabbanan/the Kaddish of the Rabbis following our learning. Gathered there around the table, saying Kaddish, remembering; encountering the holy in the midst of the ordinary.

     Around the table, we become together the vessel to hold what each one brings. There are times when the vessel is quickly filled. As so often, we began with what would appear to be rather prosaic verses, surely not ones that jump out with meaning at first glance, the ordinary waiting to be recognized as the holy that is right there before our eyes. In the weekly Torah portion called T’rumah (Ex. 25:1-27:19), God calls upon us to build a sanctuary that God may dwell among us, v’sho’chanti b’tocham/and I will dwell among you. God does not need a sanctuary in which to dwell, but we do if we would dwell together. The sanctuary is the means of our convening, of our being together, thereby to feel God’s presence among us.

As our eyes are opened, meaning quickly emerges from the seemingly prosaic. Excited by the purpose of the sanctuary, not as a dwelling for God, but as a place for us to gather with each other in God’s name, we consider the items that are to go into the sanctuary when it is built. The first item is the Holy Ark to hold the tablets, as the Holy Ark in synagogues today is the dwelling place of our Torah scrolls. We are told ever so simply, v’asu aron atzei shitim/they shall make an ark of shittim wood. Later, in Deuteronomy (10:2), coming now as a reminder, it is more basic, to be an aron etz/an ark of wood. In the portion T’rumah, there is more, not only specifying the type of wood, but of how the wood is to be surrounded and enveloped by gold, v’tzipita oto zahav tahor mi’bayit u’mi’chutz/cover it with pure gold, from the inside and from the outside…. Drawing on traditional understanding of wood overlaid with gold inside and out, the great commentator Rashi teaches from eleventh century France that the ark is in fact formed of three boxes, sh’losha aronot, two of gold holding within themselves the essential one of wood. We pause here with the wording in Hebrew for inside and out that describes the placing of the gold. Something stirs in the text and within ourselves, far from prosaic, deep and poignant, why the phrase mi’bayit/from the house, as though to tell of what is truly of ourselves, the feelings we have when alone at home, all of the thoughts and feelings, the yearning and longings that come along the way of life. So shall the holy ark be gilded with the pure gold of all that comes from within ourselves, brought out from the innermost and placed as well upon the outermost, there made visible, meant to be shared.

Quickly then we came to wonder of what is to be within, from that which is within ourselves to what is to be within the holy ark. From the pages of his commentary, Rabbenu Bachya spoke from thirteenth century Spain, pointing us to Deuteronomy 10:2. God there tells Moses to place within the ark of wood the broken tablets of stone,
the shattered fragments from the first tablets that Moses had thrown down in anger. It was a moment of such brokenness when Moses came down the mountain and saw the people dancing around the golden calf, then of precious metal misused and made as dross, the gifts we are given misused and abused, whether of body or of possessions. The people were in a state of brokenness. Moses was in a state of brokenness. The shattered tablets tell of life as it really is, littered with the shards of shattered dreams and hopes that are still holy because we dared to dream and to hope. We cannot be whole if we pretend there is no brokenness. The whole tablets are to dwell in the ark of wood, and so too the broken shards of the tablets that were shattered in anger. Only if both are placed within the ark can we learn of life’s wholeness. Wholeness is not the same as perfection. Perfection is an illusion that distracts from life’s meaning to be found along the way of living. Perfection is in the striving. In striving we fail and fall at times, and in our getting up we become imperfectly whole. The whole tablets are only whole because they dwell with the broken tablets, because Moses got up and went back up the mountain.

All of life is held in the aron etz/the ark of wood. Overlaid with the preciousness of life’s striving, the pure gold of loving and creating and doing good, the qualities that define us are imperishable in their continuing to tell of who we were when we have gone. Of material possessions, whatever is acquired in the living of our days are meant to embrace the organic essence of life itself, to be in its service. The innermost vessel of wood is the aron, organic and therefore imperfectly whole, ephemeral in its decomposing in the passing of time. As the Holy Ark of wood, our essence is within, the physical to be honored, the body as sacred because it is the vessel of the soul. As the body is the vessel of the soul, the vessel in which the body is placed in death is also called aron, also a holy ark as the vessel of the body’s return to the earth from which it comes. So this aron too is to be completely organic, without metal, neither screws nor nails, only wooden pegs with which to fasten, the gold of life's external sheen put aside and left behind, shining now for the living to tell of who we were, rays of light to shine as a blessing.

       A midrash subtly shifts the word for ark and speaks not of aron, but of teva. It is a word that we understand as ark, but in a different context, and yet in the turning of life somehow the same. Teva tells of birth, of emerging through the waters, the ark upon the flood, tevat No’ach/ark of Noah, new life emerging with all the hope and possibility of an olive sprig held in the beak of a dove. Telling of a baby, Moses in the basket, the teva among the bullrushes at the river's bank, saved by compassion sprung from hate, the daughter of Pharaoh defying her own father's edict to kill. Violence that filled the world until it could not be sustained, life and death, love and hate weave together, all held within the ark of life, all within the rainbow’s arc of hope renewed.

And teva also means word, the vessels we create that sail from our heart's innermost harbor across the banks of our lips and out into the sea of life, whether words to heal or words to hurt, vessels to carry precious cargo, love and hope as the gold that overlays all that is innermost, organic and perishable, thus the truly precious in its fleetingness.

      Words flowed around the learning table, and tears, moments of brokenness recalled and placed lovingly in the holy ark of memory, safe to share among us. Around the table, we become together the vessel to hold what each one brings. And in the end, when Kaddish has been said, honoring the living and the dead, vulnerable enough to acknowledge the brokenness that allows for wholeness, the shattered fragments to remind, then together we say, Amen.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Paul's Open Letter to the Empire


Arguably there are strong and disturbing similarities between what is happening in the United States today and the gradual transition of Rome from a republic in the sixth century BCE to an imperial order governed by an emperor in the first century BCE. During this long and turbulent history, strongmen rulers inspired personality cults; senatorial ineptness and personal avarice compromised democratic institutions; and, the demands of an expanding empire taxed both the resources and the will of the republic. It is not a foregone conclusion that our republic will suffer the same fate. Our democratic institutions and traditions may yet prevail over personality cults, the influence of dark money, the global reach of US militarism, and the threats posed by global warming. But the parallels are worrisome. I argue below that the resemblances between then and now make Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome especially timely.
Paul’s letter to the Romans, most likely written sometime between the year 54 and 58 CE, is often interpreted as a letter of self-introduction in which he set forth his theological positions. It is also read as a defense of Gentile Christianity against Judaizing influences. Yet another theory finds Paul offering a Christian theology of the state, sometimes referred to as the “two kingdoms” theory.
What all the above named schools of interpretation have in common is that they make Paul into a social conservative. They dull whatever political edge his counsel carries. As a result, the revolutionary Paul who endured numerous arrests, beatings, and imprisonments, and who was eventually executed by the state, is buried under a mound of theological tomes. Fortunately, today postcolonial biblical scholars are bringing us a more radical understanding of Paul’s letter to the Romans as a message of glad tidings of good news to people who are oppressed. I am indebted to these scholars for today we need this radical Paul, who counsels resistance to the empire.
While the Romans generally tolerated religious diversity, the aristocracy long regarded Jews with suspicion and contempt. The lower classes resented the parasitic Roman tax policies that privileged Jews, and they blamed Jews for the high taxes they had to pay. Anti-Jewish propaganda circulated throughout the empire from the time of Augustus onward. Sometime between 41 and 53 CE, the emperor Claudius banished Jews from Rome, in part because they rebelled against a tax he levied on them. Nero rescinded this policy when he became emperor in 54 CE. The Jews and Jewish Christians who returned to the city were very likely a wretched lot with great needs and meager resources. It may well be, as postcolonial scholars suggest, that this is the situation that necessitated Paul’s letter to the Romans. So understood, Paul was not writing to defend Gentiles against Judaizing influences, but just the opposite. He was encouraging a congregation that was threatened by external pressure and internal division to stay together. I argue below that an ethic of mutual obligation, literally an ethic of “one-anothering,” is one of the central themes of this letter and a core strategy of resistance to the empire.
Paul begins this letter by identifying himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God . . .” (Rom. 1: 1, RSV throughout). The translation “servant” is a bit misleading. A more accurate translation is “slave.” Paul calls himself a “slave of Jesus Christ,” thus defining not only his relationship with Jesus, but also his solidarity with the lowest class of people in Roman society. Noteworthy, too, is the word “gospel,” meaning “glad tidings.” “Gospel” is a term the Roman military used when sending the emperor glad tidings of victory from the front lines of battle. Paul’s use of the word “gospel” is, thus, a direct challenge to the militaristic “glad tidings” of the empire. Paul’s first sentence puts the Christian community on the front lines of struggle against the empire.
The contrast between the Way of Jesus and the way of the empire is sharpened by the claim that Jesus was “designated the Son of God . . . by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1: 4). Since Octavian, Rome’s first emperor, had been given the title “Augustus,” (Reverend/Highly Honored), the Roman imperium claimed that it had established a new world order, with itself as the only superpower. Octavian and those who followed were acclaimed “Saviors” of the world. Spires and temples honoring the emperor were erected in prominent places throughout the empire. But Paul charged that the empire was a culture of death, responsible for killing Jesus, who was raised from the dead by God. Those who “belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1: 6), belong to a culture of life. The difference between the Way of Jesus and the way of the empire is clear and unequivocal.
        Later, in Rom. 1: 18 - 32, Paul vividly describes the Roman culture of death as a culture that is ruled by “dishonorable passions” (Rom. 1: 26). Contrary to what is commonly alleged, in these verses Paul is neither launching into a diatribe disparaging human nature in general, nor condemning homosexuality as a sin. Rather he is denouncing the practice of turning human beings into sex slaves, and even more broadly he is condemning the practice of human trafficking sanctioned by imperial power and the aristocracy. He alleges that people who claim to be “wise,” are, in truth, “futile in the thinking,” because “they have exchanged to glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (Rom. 1:23). Simply put, the sin of idolatry manifests itself in the disparagement of human dignity. Positively stated, the measure of a good society is not the wealth of the few, but the well-being of the many, especially slaves and the marginalized. A good society honors the image of God by protecting human dignity and nurturing healthy communities. A moral society promotes a culture of life for all people.
       Paul not only exposes the callous cruelty of the empire, he builds up communities of resistance by giving them encouragement and practical advice. We have to read passages like the following in this context: “In all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 37 - 39). Here, Paul is not denying the reality and power of the empire, but he is saying that a community rooted in the power of God’s love will find the strength to resist the pressures the empire brings to bear upon it.
Paul forthrightly addresses the theme of imperial power in Chapter 13, which I suggest it is best understood as a treatise in political realism. Christians in Rome would have remembered that Nero became the emperor after his mother fatally poisoned the emperor Claudius, and that Nero himself killed his own mother four years after he became emperor. They would also have remembered that Claudius had expelled Jews and Jewish Christians from Rome in the year 49. Therefore, the admonition to “pay taxes” (Rom. 13: 7) was more than a summons to good citizenship. Additionally, Paul may have anticipated future persecutions, which began in the year 68 with the Great Fire in Rome. At the very least, his message served to remind the congregation of the recent past and the power of the empire.
We might also surmise that Nero rescinded Claudius’s ban of Jews because it was politically expedient for him to have them in Rome. The presence of an unpopular religious minority provided a convenient “target” when Nero felt it was necessary to “fire up his base,” to use a contemporary phrase. Additionally, he may have anticipated that the return of the exiles would give him added leverage over both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
Paul’s response to this situation was to encourage a spirit and an ethic of “deep solidarity,” to use a phrase coined by Joerg Rieger, a postcolonial theologian. The following verse is one of many in which we find this ethic: “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13: 8). I believe that the ethic of mutual obligation, the ethic of “one-anothering,” was then and is now a core element of the good news that kept and keeps the community together. The concluding chapters, in which we find an appeal for funds for “the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Rom. 15: 26), and recognition of fellow workers and prisoners in Chapter 16, is further evidence of the importance of the ethic of deep solidarity.
Before concluding this brief study of the letter to the Romans, I want to call attention to two additional passages. Paul boldly declares: “I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1: 16). Roman society functioned on a system of honor and shame. Honor is a statement of worth and an affirmation of a person’s value to others. The dynamic of honor and shame structures social relationships and institutions. Thus, Paul’s statement, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” is a declaration of freedom from the Roman shaming culture of death. He is not ashamed to be a slave, because he is the slave of Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead by God.
         Lastly, I want to offer a reflection on the passage that is often called the centerpiece of the Protestant Reformation. We are “justified by . . . [God’s] grace as a gift . . . [through] faith in Jesus” (3: 23 - 26). There is a strong tendency in contemporary theology to reduce these words to a narrow framework of atomistic individualism and a personal belief in Jesus. But in the letter to the Romans faith in Jesus is evidenced by loyalty to and trust in members of the community of liberation who are opposed to the prevailing culture of death, and who are witnessing to a culture of life, a cultural of mutual obligation, a culture of “one-anothering.” Faith is made real through the practice of deep solidarity with members of the body of Christ.
Against all common sense, Paul had the temerity to tell Christians living in Rome in the first century that Pax Romana (the peace of Rome), was a culture of death to be resisted at all costs. The basis of resistance, he counseled, was the love of God revealed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which made possible the creation of a new order based on an ethic of mutual obligation.
      In these worrisome times, it is not a foregone conclusion that the republic of the United States will go the way of the Roman republic. Our democratic institutions and traditions may yet prevail. Likewise, it is not a certainty that Christian communities in the United States will have the wisdom and courage needed if we are to follow Paul’s wise counsel. But we know this simple truth. Creation is groaning in travail and standing on tiptoes of expectation (Rom. 8: 22), eager to see how followers of the Way of Jesus will answer the call.
Rev. David P. Hansen  

Friday, March 8, 2019

"How A Christian Overcomes Evil"


Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a short essay that is not well known but profound in it's simplicity. It's titled, "How a Christian Overcomes Evil." Perhaps the essay is not well known because it starts with introspection, a recognition that evil is not just "out there" but "in me" as well. We are usually quite competent in recognizing the evil in others, seldom in ourselves. So the first step in overcoming evil for King is identifying that evil in me that is most in need of change. What is my greatest temptation; envy, pride, lust, greed? You can go through the seven cardinal sins and a dozen more to find your change challenge. After all, if we can't change ourselves, what makes us think we can change anything external to us? 

Of course one can't overcome a personal evil until it is recognized and admitted, brought into the light of day. Sometimes it takes a shock to the system for us to recognize the evil. 
           Apparently Michael Cohen didn't admit the water he was carrying for President Trump, "fixing" things, over ten years of their relationship, was all that terrible, until it was exposed to the light of a criminal investigation. Now, he says he wants to be truthful, especially as he sees the impact the evil in his life is having on his family. How many of us do things in the dark, that if exposed to the light, would hurt those we love?

Evil in us has to be recognized and faced before it can be changed. To start the change process, King would have us first trust in the grace of God. We probably can't do it alone. 

Then we might add an inventory to our evening routine. How did I do today? How often was the temptation to do my evil apparent and what was my response? Instead of counting sheep, we count successes and failures and will to do better. We work to turn "the predominant fault into it's opposite virtue." It's not a passive project to change but an active one.

        Then comes the heart of the matter. "Concentrate not on the eradication of evil, but on the cultivation of virtue." Again, "Evil is never to be attacked directly, but indirectly. Evil is not driven out, but crowded out."     When our children were young and tempted to do things they shouldn't, my response was usually to force them to do something different. I would attack the situation directly with the intention of driving the misbehavior out of them. That's what I learned from my father and I expect from his father before him. On the other hand, my wife was a master of distraction. She could identify something the children would rather do than what they were doing and draw their attention to it. She was able to replace the misbehavior with something better. She crowded out the evil with a seeming treat.

                It's simple, really, if often hard to implement. Our reliance on the power of force, coercion, intimidation, violence and war is so inbred, it's often difficult to see the alternative. We forget the ends don't justify the means; that the means often determine the ends. Hate doesn't get rid of hate, only love can do that. War doesn't make an end to war, only peace can do that.

One of the examples King uses in his essay comes out of Greek mythology. He describes the different responses of Ulysses and Orpheus to the temptations of the song of the Sirens, luring sailors to their deaths. Ulysses puts wax in the ears of his sailors and ties himself to the mast of the ship. Orpheus, the divine musician, instead of using wax and rope plays such beautiful music, the song of the Sirens falls flat. The temptation is replaced by something better. The evil is crowded out.  

King's essay has application in so many circumstances, from child rearing to international relations. How can a superpower with thousands of nuclear weapons, convince another country without them they are sinful? What moral authority does the U.S. have unless we get rid of our own? I read just this morning a request that the UK dispose of their nuclear weapons, a small number that do them little good, and become a broker with countries like North Korea and Iran to stay out of the nuclear club. We need to ask ourselves, how is it that one country with a nuclear sin has managed to create a whole club, that continues to grow and welcome new members? 

        There is, in King's words, an "expulsive power for good." In the days of the Cold War, everyday citizens were going to Russia to meet their complements in that country, person to person, farmer to farmer, teacher to teacher. Women in South Korea have been walking across the DMZ to North Korea, seeking to reunite families. Different NGO's bring young Israeli's and Palestinians together to help them recognize their commonalities and crowd out their differences. Muslims, Christians and Jews come together in dialogue around common concerns. Once we confess our fears of the other and replace them with human relationship, the picture of our world begins to shift. We can't leave it up to Presidents or Parliaments. We all need to do our own inventory and take the first step to replace the evils of our time with the joys that can drive them out, the joys of music, beauty and caring relationships. With God's help and the wisdom of folks like M.L. King, we can do it.  

Carl Kline 

Friday, March 1, 2019

Recognizing the Possibility of Common Ground



I cringed as I read the first letter in an online exchange, sharp in its tone and hurtful in its misunderstanding and characterization. Unexpectedly, differently, but equally pained, I cringed as I read the second letter, a response to the first. It too was sharp in its tone. I imagined how it would be hurtful to the writer of the first letter in its own perceived misunderstanding. I had expected to be soothed by the second letter, knowing that in principle I shared the views of its writer, knowing that we shared similar pain in response to the first letter. I hold the awareness, as well, that I too may be unfair in my critique and judgment.

Such a swirl of feelings in regard to conflict is good, helping us to take stock and consider the ways of our response in the face of difference and its expression. So we pause, even if after the fact, and ideally in the future before pressing send, to reflect on the dynamics within ourselves and in relation to the other. In that place of pause, the first challenge is to clarify the goal of our engaging with the other. That will determine the nature of our response.  Is the goal and reason for our response to vent and rage, to express our own hurt at another’s insensitivity? At times such response may seem needed for the sake of moving others. And yet, it will rarely move anyone who is not already of similar mind. That leads directly to the other possibility. Or, is our response meant to change the other, to move them from what seems to be an entrenched position by moral suasion and the power of sharing lived experience?

If the goal is to change others in order to create a more just and caring society, to bring the other along with us, then the first step is to find common ground wherein we might meet and seek a way forward together. It is the way of nonviolence expressed in the ordinary unfolding of our lives in relation to others. The goal, therefore, is not to demean and diminish the other, but to raise them up so that we might look directly into each other’s eyes. There are times, such as in the face of entrenched evil, or of explosive hate waiting to erupt, when the focus needs to be on those not yet involved in the struggle, whether for fear or apathy.             Our task then is to create allies with whom to counter evil, rather than to focus on the evildoers themselves. This was hardly the case in regard to the writer of the first letter. There was clearly common ground between the two writers, shared experience and shared language in regard to a common endeavor requiring great commitment by each. The common ground begged to be trod, a place where a meeting might have happened in which change might have been gently nurtured. For all of the nastiness in the exchange, there were surprisingly fine lines of difference between the letters, and ironies of similarity to be brought out, to be given shape and offered as loving challenge.

It is just such a fine line in the weekly Torah portion called Miketz (Gen. 41:1-44:17), that lies between Yosef and his brothers and speaks to the grammar of engagement. Yosef has risen to be viceroy of Egypt, second in power only to Pharaoh. Following seven years of plenty, in which, according to Yosef’s plan, the granaries of Egypt have been filled with grain, famine has now gripped the land and the entire region. Yosef’s brothers, sent by their father, have now come down into Egypt among the hungry masses seeking to buy food. In a dramatic moment when dreams from the past flood the screen as flashbacks, the brothers now in reality bow down to the viceroy, unbeknownst to them as the brother they had long ago thrown into a pit and given up for dead.

The Torah captures the tension of the moment and makes it our own, bringing us to ask what we would do. Is this to be a moment of revenge, of attacking the other in kind? Or is it to be a moment in which to pause and consider the way ahead, to reflect on what will allow for transformation and repair? We are told simply, when Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them. But he made himself a stranger to them (Gen. 42:7). The tension between recognizing and making himself unrecognized is held between two words that appear in the Hebrew in quick succession as one phrase, va’ya’kirem va’yit’na’ker/he recognized them, but he made himself unrecognizable to them.

In Hebrew, the words to recognize and not to recognize are formed of the same root, NaCHaR. That is how fine the line is between knowing and not knowing someone, between recognizing and not recognizing the other for who they are. Yosef puts forth a plan by which to test his brothers, by which to determine if indeed they have changed from who they were when they threw him into the pit. It is not for the sake of revenge, but for the sake of change, seeking to reweave the family bond with honesty and hope, allowing long estranged brothers to embrace once again.

Standing in the narrowly demarcated space, it is the fineness of the line between recognizing and not recognizing the other with which we are given to wrestle. It is the fineness of a line that we are given as a thread to weave into the fabric of our own lives and struggles with people. Speaking to fine lines of difference so easily magnified, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch looks at the grammar of engagement as it plays out between Yosef and his brothers. Of this phrase whose tension we inherit, va’ya’kirem va’yit’na’ker/he recognized them, but he made himself unrecognizable to them, Rabbi Hirsch writes, “Apparently two contradictory meanings of the one and the same root, NaCHaR: to recognize and to be strange to. But only apparently…. We only recognize an object by making it singular, separating it out from everything else. The more signs of difference we see in an object, the more specially do we recognize it….” Our differences can become, in effect, ways of singular connection, a bridge to common ground.

In the way that differences jump from a letter, from hurtful words both written and spoken, and in all the ways of our interactions with others, may we become attuned to reading between the lines and recognizing the possibility of common ground. In the very differences that so upset us in relation to another, may we see the possibility of recognition and reunion.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein