Wednesday, November 26, 2014

So Much to Hold

As deep wells of turbid waters, sediment of our souls churning, blocking the light, each of us a holy vessel, precious containers of life, so much to hold. It has been such a hard week, touched so deeply, feeling pain as Jews, as people in the world, within ourselves, in our families, in our cities. I try to take a breath and be with it all. I try to be with the homeless people I heard yesterday at a meeting, people made homeless twice with the closing of the shelter and addiction programs on Long Island in Boston harbor, the bridge meant to join declared unsafe. I try to be with the transgender and queer as we mark Transgender Day of Remembrance, marked at this time of year for all of those whose way of gender and sexual being in the world doesn’t fit socially prescribed and presumed norms as they have been. We remember all of the attendant suffering that has been and pray for change and wholeness. I try to be with those among us who are hurting through family illness and strife, accidents and worry. I try to be with immigrants living in the shadows, some feeling a measure of relief today with steps toward open-hearted justice taken by President Obama, others forced deeper into hiding. Of tensions I experienced at meetings meant to heal, I wonder why it can’t begin with us, as meant to be. And as the backdrop for all that tears at our hearts, the horror that sent forth its torrent of pain from Jerusalem this week.

I realized this morning how close it all is to the surface. Going downstairs to answer the doorbell, I was surprised to see a police officer. Introducing himself, he asked if the synagogue was okay, if we had noticed anything unusual or of concern, whether there was anything they could do to help. I felt my voice crack as I thanked him and asked if they could fix broken hearts. “I wish we could,” he said, knowing what I meant. He said he had never been in a synagogue, so I invited him to come inside and see the prayer room, the ark, the holy books, and all that makes it sacred space. He stood quietly, conveying the spirit of one who felt the presence of God, unhindered by difference in faith or path, all to him as one in their intent. I thanked him for his concern, for the gift of unexpected connection, a way of soothing if not healing the ache of broken hearts. 

The shattering news from Jerusalem came home to Boston, four Jews killed at prayer and an Arab Druze policeman who responded first. As we are joined in death, so may we be in life. Rabbi Moshe Twersky, among the others, all of blessed memory, was the son of the Talner Rebbe, of blessed memory, rabbi of the Talner Shtibl, for many years a place of deep warmth, of Torah and Chassidic teaching in Brighton. The Talner is the spiritual template from the traditional world upon which our synagogue was modeled. So much email has come this week from so many grieving hearts. I feel and hold the brokenness, the heartache. There is another layer of heartache that has come with many of those emails. After the names of the victims many have written the letters, HY”D, which stand for the Hebrew phrase, HaShem Yinkom Damo/May God avenge his blood. Each time I see those letters I gasp and cry, mourning and sorrow joined with despair before such response as can only perpetuate the bloody cycle of death.

In the Torah portion Toldot (Gen. 25:19-28:9) that framed and gave of its comfort to a week so filled with sorrow, Isaac offers another way, a way beyond the prescribed and presumed norms of society, of nations, of men. The gentle strength and quiet courage of an Isaac type sings of wellsprings unblocked deep within, diverse waters flowing as one from all the caverns of the soul. Looking to the source of Isaac's being, of what made him who he is, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev draws on mystical teaching to look beyond the bounds of gender. Levi Yitzchak describes Isaac as being both mi'sitra d'nukvah/of the feminine aspect and mi'sitra di'dechora/of the masculine aspect. He then says so straightforwardly, v’az hayah lo chayim/and then he had life (Kedushas Levi, Parashat Toldot). The varied facets of himself joined, Isaac was whole. It is a wholeness that too often comes with a price, bringing both peace and torment to the one with an Isaac type of soul. In a discussion about gender with parents and children in our family Hebrew school, one parent, with impassioned voice, urged that we not think of qualities as feminine or masculine, whether strong-gentle, determined-deliberative, competitive-cooperative, but simply as human qualities. Qualities and ways of being commingling as waters to the well, and in whatever measure, unbound, each one free to be and become. Fittingly, at this time of Transgender Day of Remembrance, the story of Isaac offers a lens through which to consider matters of gender and violence. Facing down the bully, but not giving in to his or her way, Isaac offers strength and hope, and the possibility of change to all of us.

Seeking water in the desert, Isaac’s herdsmen dug a well. The herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen over the well. Naming that well Essek/ Contention, Isaac told his herdsmen to move on and to dig another well. The herdsmen of Gerar also quarreled over that well, which Isaac named Sitnah/ Obstruction. Moving on yet again, his opponent likely perplexed, wondering by now how long this would go on, still waiting for the expected fight, Isaac dug another well, and there was no quarreling. He named that well Rechovot/Spaciousness. Seeking to disarm the other of prior assumptions and make room for both, Isaac is not turning away, but turning toward. Soon after, Avimelech, the king of Gerar, came to visit Isaac, concerned that he might still try to do his people harm. Isaac asks, Why have you come to me, seeing that you hated me and sent me away from you? Referred to by Avimelech as one blessed by God, having gained the respect of the one who hated, Isaac then made a feast for his visitors. The next morning, they swore an oath not to harm each other, and Isaac sent them on their way, and they departed from him in peace/va'yelchu mey'ito b'shalom. Peace came, the rabbis teach, only because Isaac did not repond to Avimelech in kind, lo shileym lo k’ma’asav/he did not repay him according to the way of his own deeds.

Of wells finally filled with waters of life, clear and pure, so much pain in the moment, may the way of Isaac offer a way forward, not of vegeance, whether of God or people, but of the strength to persevere in hope and find another way.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Dialogue as the Beginning of Return

During a bleak time in relations between Boston’s Jewish and Muslim communities, as controversy swirled around the building of the new grand mosque, the ISBCC in Roxbury, a group of Muslims and Jews gathered in search of ways to overcome the divide. At that meeting, I befriended a young Muslim colleague with whom a friendship grew, offering a model and possibility beyond our selves. We sought to create a different reality, starting a program to bring imams and rabbis together to learn each other’s texts. The primary goal of “Building Bridges through Learning” has been to engage with each other as people, holy texts as the starting point for holy encounters.

The focus of study for the very first “Building Bridges” gathering in 2008 was our common ancestor, Avraham/Ibrahim. Following that session, a Rabbi shared reflections that continue to inspire me in this work, that speak to the essence of why dialogue is so important. He acknowledged honestly the suspicions he brought to the meeting, musing on degrees of separation among participants from a suicide bomber or an Israeli settler. “I came in not knowing what to expect…,” he wrote. “I was uncomfortable and uneasy…. But there were moments, as when I heard the Koran chanted for the first time, of awe and wonder…. By the time I left, my unease was reduced and I felt honored to have had a chance to meet the people I did.” Giving context to the poignant sharing of one participant, my Muslim partner wrote: “Sometimes I feel that family members are getting together after a loooong period of separation. We have so much catching up to do!"

It saddens me that we are still debating as a community the relative merits of engaging in dialogue with our Muslim neighbors. Whether to engage or avoid affects the overall tenor and tone of life in the Jewish community and in the general community, one of fear and suspicion or of openness and opportunity. There is greater security in relationship than in separation and alienation. Through open and honest dialogue that takes place on multiple levels, context is created in which to share concerns and pursue a common agenda. When out of our own fears and loyalties either party speaks words hurtful to the other, there is opportunity to address and redress. Direct knowledge of the other as it forms through dialogue and relationship is far safer than the misperceptions that give rise to stereotypes in the other’s absence. Dialogue and engagement is enriching, bringing joy and excitement on wings of discovery, recognizing so much of our selves in the other, realizing too that difference need not be threatening. One of the unexpected gifts and ironic challenges of dialogue for each partner is the necessity to know oneself, as an individual and as part of a people and tradition, deepening our own identity in the process of coming to know the other. The degree to which Jews and Muslims can engage with each other in Boston is its own measure for what is possible elsewhere. Instilling hope and offering a path of possibility, we empower our children to be active shapers of tomorrow and of the world in which they will live. Whether that will be a world of greater peace than we know today will depend on our children’s confidence and courage to engage with others.

There are wonderful people-to-people efforts in greater Boston to build bridges between the Muslim and Jewish communities. More needs to be done to deepen and expand those efforts, aided in common cause by the encouraging voice of communal and organizational leadership. One of our challenges as a community is not to be immobilized by the clash of worldviews among us, whether to see an enemy at every turn, or the possibility of a friend. The pain of separation and the hope of return fill the Torah portions of these weeks, Isaac and Yishma’el/Ismail torn from each other, each beloved of God and of their common father Avraham/Ibrahim. In dialogue is the beginning of return. “We have so much catching up to do!”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

The Peace Mural is created by a group of Jewish and Palestinian artists at Spontaneous Celebrations studio in Boston.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Death of a King

Once again, that book display as you enter my home town library grabbed my attention. The title was Death of a King, written by Tavis Smiley with David Ritz. It's about Martin Luther King, Jr. and focuses on the last year of his life. 

I learned two significant things in reading this book that I didn't understand earlier. Number one, I discovered considerable personal detail about the human being behind the media and public persona. Since much of the contents of the book came from interviews with those close to King, the material reveals the depth of the struggles and the intensity of emotions behind the legendary preacher. Especially in the last year of his life, King was meeting defeat and discouragement at every turn and suffering from deep depressions. Now I understand better why he had to be helped to his chair after that last amazing speech in Memphis. The man was utterly fatigued, physically and emotionally, and was called out of bed to attend at the last moment.

The second thing I realized anew, with power, primarily through all the quotations from his speeches highlighted in  the book, was that the evils in my country he identified live on, these many years after his death. Perhaps you remember his big three: militarism, materialism (with it's sister poverty) and racism. He meant this trinity as the opposite of the Christian trinity.

But we have a short memory in this country of King's last year. The media have none. That last year began with his speech at Riverside Church against the Vietnam War and ended exactly one year later with his assassination  in Memphis.

The recent U.S. election, according to the pundits, turned on disapproval of the Obama administration. But whatever one thinks of President Obama, he's been instrumental in winding down the disastrous and unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's pushed for diplomacy instead of war with Iran. And he's resisted the militarists for boots on the ground in Syria.

One would think that the rise of ISIS and the flocking of radical Islamists from around the world to them, would suggest that permanent and pervasive hot war against terrorism didn't work very well. But we have become such a captive of violence as a nation, that our economy and politics continually demand more. In 1967, King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." In 2014, I fear it's only gotten worse. Those were weapons made in  the U.S. that destroyed homes and schools in Gaza. And even as we are at war against radical Islam around the globe, we often find their weapons were "made in the USA."

The most recent figures from 2012 show the U.S. as the largest arms supplier to developing nations from 2004 to 2011, 44% of the total. The closest competitor was Russia, at 17%. As the budgets for diplomats, food aid, health resources in the poorest countries of the world plummets, war and weapons spending keeps escalating, defense industry keeps growing and the profiteers from misery grow wealthier. King also said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom."

One of the most tragic consequences of militarism is the way much of the religious community has blessed or ignored this addiction to violence. Aside from the constant wars, structural violence still decimates U.S. urban centers and economic inequality destroys the hopes and aspirations of millions. In the meantime, the federal government neglects it's responsibility to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare. The prophetic voice of faith is too often silent as the church ignores social and spending sins.

As far as materialism is concerned, the money spent this year on Halloween in the U.S. was astonishing. Estimates run to more than $7 billion. It's estimated that $10 billion would provide the whole planet with safe, clean drinking water. Perhaps we wouldn't have to worry about scary things like Ebola if people had access to water, basic sanitation and health care.

The third of the trinity of evils for King was racism. We've made some progress since the days of the U.S. civil rights movement, on the surface. But it's becoming increasingly obvious the progress is only skin deep. Witness the young black men being killed in cities all across the nation, sometimes simply for picking up a bebe gun in  a department store. Witness the new Jim Crow laws operating at the ballot box. And underneath all those ugly cartoon caricatures, the debate about the President being a Muslim and not an American citizen and all those policies white Americans see as benefitting black Americans, underneath it all, is frustration with how the color of the country is changing and the future will be colorful. We hesitate to say "race" anymore, or talk race, but it moves people, forward or back.

In one of his sermons King said, "Cowardice asks the question - is it safe? Expedience asks the question - is it politic? Vanity asks the question - is it popular? Conscience asks the question - is it right?" Let's ask the right question!

Carl Kline

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Greater Sum

Today, I spent the better part of the morning with a young friend,  studying TANYA, a book of Jewish wisdom, for a class of the same name.  My friend is Jewish. I am not.  Our rabbi/teacher is based in Israel at the Conservative Yeshiva.  She posts the relevant texts, translations, footnotes, and study questions.  We study together and post our responses in an online forum where we “meet” our classmates who are scattered around the world.

My study partner (my hevrutah) and I are in deep waters. Neither of us has enough Hebrew to be comfortable with the Hebrew references.  We are both neophytes in the exploration of the nature of the soul.  We have lots of questions and not very many answers – and yet we learn from each other and through each other as we explore together.  A deep love and respect is growing between us.

I have been pondering the dynamic process of learning together.  What we experience  is greater than the sum of its parts.  With our teacher’s guidance we do, indeed, come to greater understanding of this complex text, but the greater learning is intangible and un-nameable - - there to be enjoyed and not questioned over much – as though to examine it too closely might cause it to evaporate.  How does one speak of soul connections without sounding a little “woo-woo”? 

Over the weekend, a guest speaker at our local synagogue introduced us to a wide variety of joint Israeli and Palestinian/Arab and Jewish grass roots efforts at building understanding and creating peace.  We learned about Israeli and Palestinian children creating art together; learning how to literally dance together – -ball-room style;  learning and performing chamber music together - - all in camp settings dedicated to the process of getting to know one another as human beings through the learning process.

The speaker showed some amazing photos of  “the last day at camp” from each of several camps across a year.   Without exception, the photos defied the viewer to identify who was Palestinian and who was Israeli.  The group photos were just that – joyous photos of communities of kids who had spent time together, learning new skills, sharing art and dance and music.  Behind the scenes much dialogue had occurred as kids got to know each other as human beings.  There were social and political and spiritual challenges to be encountered and transcended.  Pain and fear and distrust were present as the inevitable guests in any inter-cultural effort at creating greater understanding between humans in conflict. 

And yet, for brief spaces in time - - the length of a summer camp program - - creativity, cooperation, spontaneity, laughter - - all symptomatic of a burgeoning humanity, ruled the day.

The kids who participated in these programs may or may not have opportunities to provide leadership when they returned home to their own communities.  That remains a huge question mark.  But seeds for a more hopeful world were planted.

My young friend and I are so different.  We have to span a 40 year difference in our ages.  We come from vastly different backgrounds –hers Jewish, mine Christian.  She is a risk-taker. I am risk averse.  We have very different educational backgrounds.  I have raised a family and she is a single young adult.  But when we sit down across the dining room table from each other to learn about something new and challenging  all of that melts into the background and we create something new and beautiful as we study and ponder and question together.  This feels very much like peace-building to me.   I wonder if this might be  the “greater than the sum of its parts” phenomenon  that could account for those joyous last-day -of –camp photos - - photos of beautiful kids of diverse backgrounds who have spent time together creating more than just art and music - - building peace together.

Vicky Hanjian

Sunday, November 2, 2014

To Be of Tender Heart

The Jewish conscientious objector to war, let alone the Jewish pacifist who eschews all violence, is the epitome of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s “lonely man of faith.” Often walking alone, there is yet great joy in the depth of meaning to be found in seeking to harmonize ultimate values with present realities, the ideal and the real, Sabbath time and weekday time. Years ago, as a student in Jerusalem, I would engage in deep conversations with a friend as we both sought to navigate our way in the early stages along that journey. Jeremy had made aliyah to Israel in his teens and was struggling with how to deal with the army. With conscientious objection not recognized as a legal category, he found creative ways to serve, remaining true to his own conscience while managing to fulfill the national expectation to serve.

At some point during that time, I too needed to struggle with an unanticipated expectation to serve. The Hebrew University dormitory in which I lived announced that all residents would be trained to use a gun and would then be expected to take a turn doing sh’mira/guard duty. Registering my objection, I was told I would be expelled from the dorm. Far more concerned with the underlying tensions than with where I would live, of Jews and Jewish values in conflict, of violence and nonviolence, of witnessing another Jewish way, another way of being in the world, I sought to engage with those responsible for enacting the policy. At first not sure what to make of me, the officials were willing to talk and eventually we came to a creative solution. I agreed to do two weeks of nighttime guard duty as my responsibility for the year, all in the time before the training was complete and the guns arrived. While leaving important questions unanswered and making for one tired student, it was a very valuable process that affirmed in a limited context the validity of Jewish conscientious objection and even pacifism. As ostracized as I might have felt and at times did feel, my presence in the dorm was respected.

I thought about these incidents and the deeper questions they raise as I followed an on-line discussion about Jewish conscientious objection. It was a discussion that Jeremy, still in Israel, still wrestling deeply, had started. While there is much to process, I find myself touched mostly by a deep sadness, even as I seek the joy that comes from a transcendent if lonely faith. With some expressions of support and some respectful disagreement, there has been so much vituperation and rejection of even the possibility of a Jewish basis for conscientious objection to violence. I found myself stunned by the certainty, by what seemed to be a dread of even allowing for the possibility of Jewish grounds for conscientious objection. Pacifists were referred to by one respondent as “partners with evil,” pacifism as a chilul Hashem/a desecration of God’s name. As one whose first taste of the depths of Torah came through study with my own rabbi toward developing a Jewish basis for my claim as a conscientious objector, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I sat bemused and bewildered. As a Jewish pacifist, an essential part of my being was called into question.

The discussion began in the context of the Torah portion called Bo (Ex. 10:1-13:16), set amidst the violence of the ten plagues. We struggle with the brutality of Pharaoh and the suffering our own people endured as slaves for four hundred years. So too, we feel the suffering of innocent Egyptians, paying in the end with their lives for the callousness of their ruler. Ruthless abuse of power and people is the backdrop, suffering even of one’s own the consequence of oppressing and dehumanizing others. It is a morality tale, one whose lessons are still unlearned in the world. The story of Pharaoh’s hardened heart is a reminder that hearts need to be softened if humanity is to survive. Trained in the way of tenderness, as vessels for humane values, it is about our own hearts, our people’s, our nation’s, the heart of all nations and peoples. 

The teachings emerge, beckoning, pleading for us to look, to pay heed. In the midst of the fearsome tenth plague, the killing of the Egyptian first born, the Israelites are told not to go out of their houses, that God will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses/v’lo yiten ha’mash’chit lavo el bateychem. The rabbis themselves explained this to mean: “once the destroyer is permitted to act, distinctions fall by the way.” Rabbi Aharon Tamares, in late 19th and early 20th century Russia, one of the great teachers of the Torah’s way of nonviolence, explained that this is not about ourselves being protected from destruction but about being protected from becoming destroyers. The Israelites are not to go outside “in order not to give permission to the destroyer within them, for once having permission there will be no distinguishing between righteous and wicked, and from ‘defender’ one becomes in the end ‘aggressor.’

In the very name of the parasha, Bo/Come, is an invitation to engage, to come near, to ourselves, to each other, even to the oppressor. Moses is not told here to go, but to come, to approach Pharaoh. Rabbenu Bachya, from 13th century Spain, begins his commentary with a quote from Proverbs, “Happy is the one who fears always, but one who hardens their heart shall fall into evil.” It is about Pharaoh and it is about us. Rabbenu Bachya then teaches that this verse indeed commands a person to be of tender heart/she’y’hi’yeh rach ha’levav. Rach ha’levav/of tender heart, is the same term that is used in Deuteronomy to describe one of those to be sent home from the army, the tender of heart as conscientious objector. As the human heart comes to know more fully the way of tenderness, there shall be in the world surcease from war and violence. Then the road of the conscientious objector and the pacifist shall no longer be lonely, Sabbath time and weekday time as one, the deepest vision of Torah fulfilled.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein