Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Rebirth of Know Nothingism

Immigration is in the news. In his recent visit to the United States, Pope Francis I introduced himself on the lawn of the White House as a “son of immigrants,” and he referred to the United States as a nation of immigrants. While many applauded the Pope for this affirmation, many Republican candidates for the Presidency are debating how high to build the wall along the border between Mexico and the United States, and some are proposing another wall to separate Canada and the United States. Suchproposals would transform this “land of immigrants” into a gated community.
Of course the immigration debate is not new in the U.S.. Benjamin Franklin questioned the loyalty of German immigrants. Secretary of State Alexander Hamilton was Francophobic. The Naturalization Act of 1795 and the Alien and Sedition Laws of 1798 targeted immigrant populations. In 1875, in the infamous Dred Scott Decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that African Americans could never be citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first anti-immigrant law that specifically identified a nationality for exclusion. Native Americans did not gain citizenship until 1924 when the Indian Citizenship Act (also known as the Snyder Act) became law. The anti-immigrant campaign is not new.
The anti-immigrant movement reached its zenith in the 1840s and 1850s, following the influx of Irish Catholic immigrants who came to the U.S. during and after the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. At that time the anti-immigration movement coalesced into a national political party called the Native American Party. After 1855 it was renamed the American Party. The American Party later morphed into the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. Horace Greeley is credited with pinning the “Know Nothing” label on the party, but the name is also attributed to the semi-secrecy of the movement itself. When asked about their affiliation members would say, “I know nothing.”
Membership in the Know Nothing party was limited to white Protestant men. The party supported women’s rights, divided on the question of slavery, and championed the regulation of corporations. The main plank in the party platform, and the stand for which it was best known and for which it is best remembered, was its virulent anti-immigrant policy. The party won important elections in California, Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. Millard Fillmore was the party’s candidate for President in 1856, although he himself was not a member of the party, and he did not share the party’s anti-Catholic position.
The Know Nothings professed to be a value-based political movement that would keep America Protestant and pure. Immigrants, especially Roman Catholic immigrants, were by definition “un-American.”
I suggest that whether they acknowledge it or not, today’s “wall-builders” are drawing on the history of the Know Nothings. They are, in fact, the most recent incarnation of the Know Nothing Party. Know Nothingism is alive and well in the United States in the twenty-first century.
Those of us who identify with a faith tradition have an obligation to unmask the pretense of this modern Know Nothingism and name it for what it is. It is fear mongering in the name of patriotism. It is demagoguery in the name of democracy. And in the past, Know Nothingism spawned violence in the name of faith. In the 1830s members of the Know Nothing movement in Maine rioted against Roman Catholics. Anti-immigrant fever reasserted itself in Maine in 1851 when a Jesuit scholar, Johnanne Bapst, who later became the first President of Boston College, was tarred and feathered. In 1854 a Catholic church in Bath, Maine, was burned to the ground following a Know Nothing rally. In 1855 Know Nothing adherents rioted in Louisville, Kentucky, and Baltimore, Maryland. However, by 1860 the Know Nothings were no longer a national political movement. Political leaders like Abraham Lincoln had rejected their philosophy. The rise of two national parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, spelled the demise of the American Party, but not the Know Nothing philosophy.
Immigration remains a hot issue in American political and cultural life. Many cities in the United States are already a mosaic of minorities. Pluralism is a fact of life in public schools, in the workplace, and in many neighborhoods. At the same time we are witnessing a growing effort to expand segregation along economic, religious, racial, and ethnic lines. It is often said that demography is destiny. In the not too distant future the United States will be a nation of minorities. By adopting what Pope Francis calls “a theology of encounter,” and by rejecting the ideology of Know Nothingism, people of faith can help to shape and create a future that honors our more noble past and makes this nation what Emma Lazarus promised we could be,
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows a world-wide welcome
--The New Colossus
Rev. David Hansen

Thursday, September 24, 2015

In the Eyes of God and People

On a recent trip to New York to visit our children, I did something entirely out of character and experience. I walked into a McDonald’s Restaurant, specifically the one at 1499 3rd Avevue and 85th Street. Looking over my shoulder, casting furtive glances, I wondered to what degree motive offset appearance. Motive was important to me, but I was sweating with discomfort, a sweat quite distinct from that in response to the heat of the day. Wearing my kippah, this was clearly a case of maris ayin/appearance to the eye. Though an act involves no direct violation of a commandment in itself, it is preferable not to do it if others may be led astray or make false assumptions, as in McDonalds being kosher. I made my way to the counter, fidgeting in line, chuckling at my urge to explain. Finally coming to the counter, I in fact did start to explain, to simply be asked with impatience, “what do you want?” Taking a deep breath, I made my order, the bill still on my desk to prove it, one quarter-pound burger with cheese, fries, and a chocolate shake.

Carefully carrying my purchase, I made my way back to the homeless man on a nearby street. As my wife and daughter and I had walked past him a little while earlier, he asked for money. I only had larger bills in my wallet and not enough change to give respectfully. The man asked if I could get him some food. Feeling torn for a moment, realizing that anything more than giving him money would take time from our outing, I asked if he wanted to walk to a restaurant with me, where I figured I could pay and leave him. He motioned at what were his worldly possessions scattered around him, a milk crate, a packed garbage bag, a blanket, and said pleadingly, “I can’t leave all of my stuff, would you go for me.” I took the man’s order and said I would return. I called out to my wife and daughter, who had crossed the street in one direction as I prepared to cross in the other, “I have an errand to do,” and they understood.

As I walked, I thought of the verse from the Torah portion Re’eh, read just the day before, pato’ach tiftach et yadecha/open, open your hand to your brother, to your poor and your needy in your land (Deut. 15:11). I mused at the irony that in the same portion is a lengthy enumeration of that which we shall eat and not eat as Jews, culminating with perhaps the most familiar verse pertaining to kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws, “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” (Deut. 14:21), the source of separating milk and meat. As I walked, I thought about how seriously we are to take such calls as to open our hands to the poor and needy. What is our role and responsibility to strangers? As I inconvenienced my own family, I wondered to what degree in real terms I was to see this homeless man as my “brother.” Of course, to take the time to go to McDonald’s, with all of its ironies, is such a small thing, hardly worthy of mention or merit in the grand scheme. And yet, the small deeds of healing and repair that come to our hand in the day-to-day are of great and instructive meaning. It was I who was the recipient of the greater gift on that sweltering New York afternoon.

From the root tzedek/justice, tzedakah is not charity, as the Hebrew is often unfortunately translated. We give to help others for the sake of justice, for the sake of correcting an imbalance. In the weekly Torah portion Ki Tetze (Deut. 21:10-25:19), numerous commandments are given for the sake of correcting social and economic imbalance. In truth, tzedakah is meant to remind us of the greater work needed to create a just and equitable society, one in which there shall be no need for such trips to McDonald’s as mine on that hot summer’s day. Of caring for the poor in Ki Tetze, we are told, u’l’cha ti’hi’yeh tzedakah lifnei hashem elokecha/and this will be for you “an act of righteous duty” before God, your God (Deut. 24:13), the sacred obligation of tzedakah emphasized in Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s translation. The portion goes on to speak several times of our responsibility for the “stranger, the orphan, and the widow.” These three come to represent the most vulnerable members of society, those most in need of concern and response for the sake of justice. We are reminded here, one of thirty-six times in the Torah, v’zacharta ki eved ha’yita b’mitzrayim/you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt. Elsewhere we are told, v’atem yadatem et nefesh ha’ger/for you know the soul of the stranger (Ex. 23:9). To know another so deeply is indeed to be as family, intrinsically connected, all part of the human family. 

In a climate of xenophobia, hate, and disregard for the image of God in every person, when the words of a presidential candidate are cited by those who would brutalize a homeless man on the streets of Boston, Torah offers challenge to all that dehumanizes, pleading that we listen. The Torah portion Ki Tetze contains seventy-two commandments, more than are found in any other portion in the Torah. Underscoring just how seriously we are to take the Torah’s call, just how much is at stake, the Sefer Ha’Chinuch, a Medieval work that offers reasons for each of the commandments, teaches the ultimate purpose of the commandments, l’lamed nafshenu le’ehov ha’tov/to instruct our souls to love the good.

Though I would prefer to have provided the man on a New York street with healthier food, I am grateful that I could help him with at least one meal on one day. The receipt that sits on my desk is a reminder of how much more there is to do for the sake of true justice. For all of my discomfort in entering McDonald’s with a kipah, I would have felt far greater discomfort had I not gone, feeling then a far greater weight upon my head. In the same portion, Re’eh, just before the verses pertaining to the dietary laws, the Torah pleads with us to do that which is right in the eyes of God/la’asot ha’yashar b’eyney ha’shem (Deut. 13:19). A clear case of maris ayin/appearance to the eye, I realized later that my concern for how people might perceive my entering McDonald’s had been entirely misplaced. To do right in the eyes of God requires no justification to people, only to share and explain with joy and patience. The eyes of the homeless man were as the eyes of God. Waiting, hoping, upon seeing my return the man’s face lit up, his eyes shining with appreciation, the glow of faith affirmed. His words were warm and embarrassing, “you are the best.”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Thursday, September 17, 2015


It's been a long time for people with short memories since the fall of the Berlin wall. In my mind's eye I can still see the rejoicing as the wall came tumbling down. Families were reunited, former neighbors found each other and a symbol of terror and division was destroyed. The nightmare of a divided city was over.

Before it was built, there were some 3.5 million refugees who fled East Germany illegally in the hope of greater freedom and opportunity. The East German government claimed they built the wall to keep out the bankrupt culture of the West but no one was killed trying to cross into East Berlin. The numbers are still debated but most believe somewhere between eighty and one hundred fifty were killed trying to reach the West. They ranged in age from a one year old to an eighty year old woman. 

There's another wall I've not seen in person but I've heard it described by those who have and seen pictures of it on the internet. I'm referring to the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. It's a twenty first century response to the simplicity of the Berlin wall. For instance, the average height of the Berlin wall was 11.8 feet compared with the maximum current height of Israel's wall at 25 feet. The Berlin wall was 96 miles long. Israel's is expected to be 403 miles long.

That's not to mention Israel's added electrified fencing, deep trenches, patrol roads, thermal imaging, electronic sensors, video cameras, drones, sniper towers and razor wire. Not only does the wall keep Palestinians from their fields in many cases but it even divides a University. Check points are few and far between and people can line up for hours to get through. Some of the deaths along this wall happen in ambulances, stalled in check out lines.

Now we're seeing even more walls in Europe as many countries are building them as quickly as possible to keep out the hordes of refugees streaming across the seas from war and starvation. The scenes on the evening news are devastating. Hundreds if not thousands drowning in overloaded boats. Thousands trapped in train stations. More thousands fighting razor wire to cross unmarked national boundaries. 

Governments seem helpless. Those societies not affected feign ignorance or close their eyes and purses. A few compassionate people and groups in European countries welcome "the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Why aren't there U.S. ships in that area, retrieving at least Iraqi refugees, since the U.S. is mostly responsible for their status? 

And Pope Francis is right! Climate change and poverty are intimately related. Many believe the war in Syria is so intense and devastating because it has its origins not just in politics but poverty. The economic reality of a long and destructive draught made subsistence living impossible for thousands of Syrians. 1.5 million of them left rural areas for urban centers, one of the contributing factors in the revolt against the Assad regime. Now thousands of them are moving again.

Which brings me to the wall being trumpeted by one of the U.S. presidential candidates. That construction project keeps growing as candidates play to the most threatened, the most fearful, the most racist, the most greedy, the least compassionate and the most economically oppressed segments of U.S. society. Now they would build a wall not just on the southern border but the northern one as well. 

The wall with Mexico will need to be 1,933 miles. (That will top Israel in length for sure and I expect there will be other technological advances better than theirs as well.) The wall with Canada will need to be 3, 987 miles long. And don't forget Alaska. If you want to protect that state there will need to be another 1,538 miles of wall between it and Canadians.

We know the history of walls, if we remember. The Berlin wall did not resolve the conflict between the Soviet Union and the West. It exacerbated it. The Israeli wall with the West Bank is not resolving that decades long conflict. It's exacerbating it. A wall between the U.S. and Mexico and/or Canada will not make better neighbors. When will the country have to wall up beaches and shores?

You solve problems by talking and sharing. Consider Robert Frost in his poem "Mending Wall," that "fences make good neighbors". The one he writes about he and his neighbor reconstruct together. They are the kind you can talk over and they have gates where you can walk through and share things.

My grandson was fascinated with a Veggie Tales segment when he was younger. It was the story of the walls of Jericho. He had the rewind button to the VCR. As the Israelites walked round and round those walls and blew the horn and the walls fell down, my grandson rewound the tape and played that segment again and again. What a miracle! How fascinating! That a group of people (I think the Israelites were asparagus and the guards on the walls were peas) could actually, through the power of God and ceremony, bring those walls down!

Awesome! Awesome!

Carl Kline

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What's Your Story

I want to ask you a very personal question. I want to ask you, “What’s your story?” And, is this the story you want to tell?
We all have a story to tell. We may not be professional story tellers, but we have a story. Stories are the way we organize things and bring order to the chaos around us. Stories are how we connect events and find meaning. Recognition of the importance of stories has given rise to a form of theology called “Narrative Theology.” Narrative theology asks us to become aware of not only our story but also the stories of others. Sometimes when we see or experience conflict it may be because our story and the story of someone else are in conflict, or maybe we just do not understand what their story is. I am convinced that Narrative Theology offers us a path toward nonviolent conflict resolution. So today I want to ask you to think about your story.
There are some preconditions or assumptions we make at the beginning. First, all stories are true to the people who believe them. We cannot say that if this story is “true” other stories must be “false.” All stories are true. Second, there are usually sacred and secular versions of the story. Actually all the stories are sacred but you will see what I mean. Third, all stories are subject to change. As we change, or learn more, or have different experiences, our stories change.
In the Bible the story of the Exodus is a primary story. One popular author, Bruce Feiler, has written a book America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America (HarperCollins, 2009). It is not only an important biblical story, it is also our national story. I am sure you know the outline. The Hebrew people were liberated from slavery by the outstretched arm of God, who led them through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, until they entered the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. That’s the story. And, I’ll get back to it, but first let’s look at some other stories.

You may or may not like Donald Trump, and you may or may not agree with me, but I think he is telling a story that a lot of people are listening to, and I have been asking myself, “What is the story?” I have decided that I think the secular version of his story is The Three Little Pigs. It is a popular story and one we all know. It is also in the contemporary context a xenophobic story about a big bad wolf who is lurking at the door threatening to huff and puff and blow our house down. We need to protect ourselves. We need a house with a solid foundation and strong walls. And we need to keep the home fires burning. That’s the basic story. It has a ring of truth.
There is a biblical story that is a little bit like this story. You can find it 1st and 2nd Chronicles and 1st and 2nd Kings. Here we read about “good” kings and “bad” kings. The judgement is not based on their foreign policy or how long they were king. It is based on whether or not they were true to the spiritual and moral foundation of Israel. It has a ring of truth. We understand it, even if we don’t necessarily agree with it.
Let me offer another story. You have heard that we are all sinners. That is a basic narrative that can be found in the prophetic tradition of the Bible. I was surprised to see this same story in the movie Jurassic World. In this movie wealthy investors have built a dinosaur theme park and hired brilliant scientists to populate it. In an effort to get a better return on their investment, the investors pressure the scientists to create ever bigger and more dangerous dinosaurs. Enter the prophet who warns them that they are violating the laws of nature. Before the movie ends, the people who do not listen to the prophet are consumed by their own greed and hundreds of lives are destroyed.
Imagine my surprise when I saw the same narrative being played out in Seattle, Washington, where a ship from Shell Oil Company was trying to leave the harbor and go to Alaska to drill for oil in the pristine wilderness of the Artic. Environmental prophets hung suspended from a bridge to block the way and prevent the ship from leaving port. There are conflicting narratives. Shell Oil wants to spin oil into gold. The prophets are warning that we are destroying the earth, our home, and we will be consumed by our own greed if we don’t stop.
Which brings me back to Exodus. It was a story that I loved in my pre-teen years. I went to see Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie, The Ten Commandments (1956), and I was hooked. Moses became a superstar. When I left the theater The Exodus was my new theme song. “This land is mine. God gave this land to me.” I was enthralled, until my Native American neighbors pointed out that my Promised Land is their Home Land.
As I learned more, I became aware that I did not want to sing this song any more. I did not want to make this story of conquest my story. If I was going to claim the biblical narrative, I needed a different place to belong. Eventually I turned to the story of Creation in Genesis. There I learned that God created all things and blessed all that God made. I learned that we are each created in the image of God—to remind each other of the presence of God. I learned that we were enlivened with the breath of God and entrusted by God to be partners in the stewardship of life and in caring for the earth, our Mother.
As we look to the future, a future in which we are all minorities, I believe that this is a life-giving narrative that needs to be shared. It is a story that I want to tell. Having shared my story, I want to ask you, “What is your story?”

Rev. David Hansen

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Wrestling with Our Own Texts, Transcending Violence

How can it be the same Torah, the same stuff of a human soul, the same breath of God as breathed into every birthing baby? As the Book of Lamentations begins, so recently read on Tisha B’Av, day of mourning, destruction brought through hate of one for another, Eicha/how, how? Against the fires of world conflagration, the seventieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remembered, so many incinerated, two young lives consumed in a conflagration of hate and its violence. We hold in our hearts the victims of Jewish terrorists who rooted their deeds in our holy Torah of life. How, oh how? We hold so close the memory of Ali Saad Dawabsha, an eighteen-month old Palestinian child whose home was fire bombed on the West Bank, his parents and his four year old brother severely wounded. (And now, his father, Saad, has also died.) We hold so close the memory of Shira Banki, a sixteen year old Jewish young woman who attended the Jerusalem gay pride parade, affirming love and embrace for all, stabbed along with others by a Jew filled with hate. May their memories be a blessing.

Showing no mercy, the killing of a Jew and a non-Jew in the name of Torah. When others are killed it soon becomes our own as well, or starting with our own it quickly becomes others, and then we realize that there are no others, they are all our own. We belong to each other and to God. How can it be the same Torah? Those who draw on the violence in Torah stop there, failing to grasp the essence of Torah, the spirit that rises up from within the entirety of the text itself, the spirit of Torah that challenges all that violates the Torah's own essence. The Torah is a context in which to struggle with violence toward its eradication, not, God forbid, its emulation.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us the helpful phrase, “Harsh Passages,” with which to refer to those disturbing parts of Torah and Tanach that tear us apart in their violation of the very essence of Torah as we come to know it in its fullness. From out of his own anguish and struggle, Heschel writes of these passages, “which seem to be incompatible with our certainty of the compassion of God…. 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. We must, furthermore, realize that the harsh passages in the Bible are only contained in describing actions which were taken at particular moments and stand in sharp contrast with the compassion, justice, and wisdom of the laws that were legislated for all times.”  We learn of Torah's essence from living and learning Torah, just as we learn of God's essence through engagement with Torah and life. We challenge both, God and Torah, when their essence is violated from out of that very essence as we have come to know it, as we have learned it through relationship and experience.

Taking a deep breath, we go into the places of violence, daring to stare into the painful abyss in Torah and in life. From the deep places of pain, the very sources of violence, begins the journey to healing and wholeness, teachings of nonviolence emerging through the struggle. Only by going into the places of violence do we begin to find healing, imagining through painful interaction with text and life what alternative responses to fear and perceptions of threat might look like. It is not simply what else Moses and the people could have done, but what can we do to transcend violence? That is the challenge of Torah in bidding us to look at harsh realities, not to avoid, but through painful encounter learning ways to transcend. In the Torah portions of these weeks, so many harsh passages. In this week’s portion, Parashat Ekev, we engage directly, unflintching, with one verse (Deut. 7:16) that takes our breath away, rebreathing as we go: You will have to annihilate all the peoples that God your God is giving you/v’achalta et kol ha’amim, your eye shall not feel any mercy for them, for this is a trap for you. Such fear, such brutality, violating the very essence of God’s compassion. Midrash reminds us of our own crying out to God as Kel rachum v’chanun/Merciful and compassionate God…. But it is Moses who is speaking, not God, reminding us of human responsibility for violence and human responsibility to transcend violence. 

Just a short distance later in the text (Deut. 8:10), so far in human understanding, there is hopeful dissonance. The same word, v’achalta, not as a word of destruction, but in its more common meaning, and you shall eat, v’achalta, v’savata, u’ve’rachta/you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless…, the source of Birkat Ha’Mazon, the blessings after a meal. Looking back, necessary in order to look ahead, a challenge to make peace emerges from the verse of destruction, reading the little word et in its meaning as with…; and you shall eat with the peoples…! So we learn the way of mercy, attitudes changing, fear giving way to hope as we eat together, a paradigm shift.

Whatever happened then, whatever this verse is about, it is not on its horrifying surface about how Jews should treat or regard non-Jews. It is only with that recognition become paramount that the rabbis could turn the verse on its head, modeling for us a way of transformation in text and life, and root in the midst of such violence a law that prohibits mistreatment of non-Jews. Through their own wrestling with this verse, out of what must have been their own horror, horror for what the consequences of such words can be, the rabbis derived a law called by the focus of its concern, gezel ha'goy/robbery of the non-Jew. Forcing us to wonder why, it is startling to find this verse as the proof text for a law of such concern. Not in the Ten Commandments, with such clarity as in "Thou Shalt not Steal," not in such universal underpinnings as the creation of every person in the image of God, not in the exhortation repeated thirty-six times in Torah to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, but here in one of the harshest of passages, here in a call to violence the rabbis rooted an antidote to violence. It is rooted here because it is needed here. Teachings of concern for others, emergent paths of nonviolence, do not rise from the harsh passages with immediate clarity, but only through the wrestling that comes of confronting their brutality with horror and asking what then of us, what of ourselves and our own behavior? That is how Torah is to be read, the text become context for our own struggles, for the struggles encountered in the world beyond the text today. To simply read or chant such verses, however beautiful their cantillation and precise their pronunciation, not to vary the manner of reading, not to recoil in horror, is to be complicit in the violence. Torah is timeless in its call to respond, not about them and then, but about us and now.

Of so many paper cranes rising, one for each soul to remind, for Ali, for Saad, for Shira, may their memories be a blessing, a prayer, and a challenge.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein