Friday, October 20, 2017


Contrary to the Gospel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Vicky Hanjian




















Friday, October 13, 2017


Closing our Eyes to See More Clearly


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victor Reinstein

Friday, October 6, 2017

Climate Change




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Carl Kline