Friday, October 25, 2019

To Walk in God's Ways - Knowing for Whom and When to Cheer

      My seven-year-old grandson is a passionate lover of sports. Depending on the season, his wardrobe becomes rather limited, oversized jerseys, caps, and full uniforms. Whether for the teams on which he plays or watching professional sports, game days are a veritable yontev/holiday. Like most athletes, Leo is committed to winning, sometimes fiercely so. Even more than when his own teams lose, he is crushed when the professional teams he supports lose, often feeling personally let down, angry and despondent. Even from far off Los Angeles, he remains faithful to his Boston roots as an ardent fan of Boston teams, all of whom have provided much to talk about in the way of sports and life. We have had many conversations about winning and losing. Until now, our conversations have focused primarily on winning and losing as representing the ups and downs of life, two parts of one whole. We have not talked yet about moral character and how the quality of one’s character fits into the calculus of winning and losing. What does it mean to be worthy of winning? Perhaps it is not surprising that Leo and I have not had that conversation yet, given that as a society we have barely begun to have it, that we barely know how to have it.

          Beyond winning and losing and how we incorporate each one in its turn, important lessons for life are learned on the sports field and in the arena. Whether played on a grassy field, on a wooden floor, or on well-groomed ice, athletic competitions play out in the larger arena of life. Games become greater than themselves for the lessons they teach and the values they convey. Referees and umpires are essential to the internal order of a game, but they are secondary to the One in whose ways we are meant to walk. Life is not a game, but games are played in relation to, often in the shadow of, what most religions would describe as the rules of life. There are consequences for those who cheat on the field, though primarily in regard to winning and losing. The consequences are more tepid in response to the moral errors of athletes that occur off the field in the arena of life.

I acknowledge the hard ethical and legal questions of when and how we judge a person based on allegations, and how and when we make room for compassion and the repentant turning of t’shuva. It would seem at the very least that a “time out” is called for in the face of serious allegations, a time in which to give as much credence to the pain of the accuser as to the protestations of the accused, to acknowledge the importance of moral conduct in the win/loss column of a team and in the larger standings of life that include all of us.

Though I enjoy following baseball, I have never been a football fan. I am drawn to human-interest stories as they emerge from all sports, lessons to be learned and shared with Leo and the other children in my life. Whether it be the dignity of Serena Williams in her loss at the US Open;
or the champion spirit of Mookie Betts in going out to anonymously distribute food to the homeless, discovered to his chagrin, after one of last year’s Red Sox championship games; or the chesed/kindness of athletes in all sports who truly befriend and help sick children and their families in the quiet beyond the headlines, these are athletes as life heroes.

Boston sports news recently has focused on a different dimension of an athlete’s behavior as a person, and a different kind of human-interest story becomes a mirror in which to see the seamier side of sports and our own place in the picture. Almost immediately after the Patriots signed a player named Antonio Brown, sexual assault allegations emerged, including rape. Brown’s star quality and his ability to help his new team win is clear, and so is the moral pass that is thrown to the Patriots and to all of us. The question is whether or not we will catch it. What is the moral price of winning and are we willing to pay it? That is the conversation I haven’t had with Leo yet, and that the Patriots haven’t had as a team yet, and that we haven’t had as a society yet.

       I cringe when I think about Leo cheering when Brown catches a touchdown pass from Brady. And what about all the other little boys, and the not-so-little ones who model for their sons? And what are they telling their daughters, perhaps some of whom are watching too? It is not that these little boys are aware that their heroes are so morally sullied. It is that collectively their innocent cheers become part of our society’s emphasis on winning at all costs, including the abuse of women as we cheer on the abuser.

A question emerges as a lens from the weekly Torah portion called Ki Tavo (Deut. 26:1-29:8) through which to consider our behavior in all realms of life. What does it mean to walk – or to play – in God’s ways? The 611th of 613 commandments appears in Ki Tavo. In some ways it is an all-encompassing mitzvah, what one of those around our weekly Thursday morning learning table at a local coffee shop called a “meta-mitzvah.” It is a call to emulate God, lalechet bid’rachav/to walk in God’s ways (Deut. 26:17). It is hard to know just what that means. Without details given in the Torah, the rabbis explain that fulfilling the mitzvah means to follow the truly godly ways of God, to visit the sick, to clothe the naked, to bury the dead. Such ways are all specific commandments in them selves. The question becomes, but what about when facing situations for which there isn’t a specific commandment, how do we know what to do then?

There is a cumulative effect to the following of mitzvot that guide our relations with others of God’s creatures. As our souls become sensitized, so we are meant to act in all situations. The Slonimer Rebbe offers a powerful teaching in this regard: one should do the will of God even in matters upon which there is not an explicit command/she’ayn alayhem tzivu’i m’forash…. For we should always do the will of God and in all of our deeds we should consider, what is the will of God in this/ma’hu ratzon Hashem ba’zeh…? And a person is able to attain and to know this within themself because a person’s soul will teach them/nishmat adam t’lamdenu (N’tivot Shalom to Parashat Mishpatim, p. 183-4).

For our souls to be able to teach us right from wrong, we need to be athletes of the soul, working out regularly in order to strengthen our moral muscles. When moral behavior is given that degree of importance and moral heroes receive the same accolades in the arena of life that athletes do on the field, then we shall have come to a new place on God’s path. There is a beautiful linguistic teaching that a dear friend and study partner reminded me of, that in Hebrew the word for conscience, matzpun, and for compass, matzpen, are virtually one and the same. So we learn the importance of a moral compass.

As I think of Leo and of difficult conversations that I hope we will have, I am reminded that his little league team this year was the Mariners, with uniforms modeled after the Seattle Mariners. The logo of the Mariners is a compass rose, the needle pointing north. As we seek our way, players all, on the field of life, may we have the courage to engage with the hard questions that ultimately define who we are and what it means to win or lose. With souls sensitized through the ways of loving-kindness, knowing for whom and when to cheer, may our inner compass guide us on the path of life, always seeking to walk in God’s ways.

Note: The Patriots have since released Antonio Brown, offering the following empty statement without any reference to moral or ethical concerns:

“The New England Patriots are releasing Antonio Brown. We appreciate the hard work of many people over the past 11 days, but we feel that it is best to move in a different direction at this time.”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, October 18, 2019

The greatest of these.....

The first forecast of frost and snow in the fall brings with it a sense of panic. The window air conditioners need to come out. The flowers and plants need to come in. The lawn mower should be tucked safely under cover. The snow shovels must be uncovered. We wonder why we haven't had a long enough fall for the leaves to turn color. Will fall even return? Why can't fall last forever? It's my favorite season!

           We have a maple tree in our side yard. It hasn't even started to turn colors. It never seems to get a chance. The cold and snow comes too soon for it to turn. We planted it to replace a huge, old dutch elm. I said for many years if we lost that elm, we would have to move. I wouldn't be able to live here with it gone. It was a wonderful shade tree and harbored a family of screech owls for several winters. I wanted it to last forever. But diseased trees will come down. It did! Obviously, we didn't move and the maple we planted is large enough to provide shade and harbor birds as well, if only fall would last and it could turn the promised red. I want this maple to last forever.

The divorce rate in the U.S. has gone down over the last decade. Some believe it's because millennials are waiting longer to get married. Others believe it's because cohabitation is a more common arrangement and actual marriage is less common. Whatever the reason, there's a good possibility intimate relationships are more stable than ten years ago. Still, there is considerable evidence relationships don't always last. There is brokenness in families, brokenness in the work place, brokenness in most every person's life. Relationships are not always lasting.

As the four of us sat around the table the other evening, talking about the aches and pains of aging, we wondered where all those years of easy physical activity went. We still have the family volleyball game over the Christmas holidays but the football game at Thanksgiving is long gone and the racquetball rackets lie unused. Recognition that the body doesn't last forever becomes a kind of whole body knowledge and a topic of conversation among elders.

       Once driving through Iowa, we came upon a town recently hit by a tornado. I had never seen a storm ravaged community up close and personal like that one. Trees were broken or uprooted. Houses were only shells or foundations. People had been working on clean up long enough that there were huge piles of debris that one imagined would be hauled away somewhere. Sometimes whole communities are blown away like that. We think they are our home forever and then with a quirk of nature or mistake of human kind they are changed or gone, never to return.    
             One can only imagine how refugees must feel, leaving cities and villages that have been home to many generations as they lie in war torn ruins. We are sometimes invited to recall cities and towns of ancient civilizations, recently unearthed under tons of wind blown dirt over centuries of time. If history is any teacher, our human communities simply won't last forever. Homes will disappear.

One begins to ponder, if not seasons or trees or relationships or bodies or communities, is anything lasting?

In World Religions class we are studying Hinduism. This religious tradition asks the question of what people really want. The initial answer might be called the path of desire. We desire pleasure over pain; success over failure; recognition over obscurity. There's no shame in this. These desires are natural. But eventually we discover that these desires are fleeting. They don't last! The good meal has been eaten. The sexually addicted is satiated. The "famous" are falling into rehab or obscurity. There's nothing left for money to buy.

What lasts has to be beyond oneself. We are finite. We seek the infinite. When we are able to give up self centeredness, get beyond the ego, that is when we find true religion and discover what Hinduism calls the path of renunciation. Then the emphasis is on duty and service, where one finds personal fulfillment and what is truly lasting.    Perishable as we are, we need to put on the imperishable! Finite as we are, we are in need of connecting to the infinite. It's not only Hinduism that points us toward what lasts. Christianity does as well. 1 Corinthians tells us, "Love never ends." It's as simple as that. Flowers may fade. Trees may die. Relationships may break. Bodies will die. Communities may be destroyed. But the infinite, love, remains. "Faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love."

Carl Kline

Friday, October 11, 2019

Discovering Ourselves in the Process of Discovering Each Other

It was a rare gathering, one in which vulnerability was on full display. Walls fell away and defensive fortifications crumbled, all of the ways we use to separate ourselves from each other by closing off what is hardest to share in being who we are. There were tears and outbursts of passion. So too did compassion flow as people met in the open camp of true encounter. There were interruptions, as when a speaker used pronouns that excluded some among us, a lovingly firm challenge calling the speaker to pause and consider. And so the speaker did, setting at ease the one who had taken a risk.

        Race and racism became real as lived experience, challenge felt by the most open of those whose whiteness brings privilege, if even in spite of ourselves, yet to acknowledge. There were shallow assumptions of Christians in regard to Israel, failure to understand the deep roots of anti-Semitism, Jews challenged to convey the immense complexity of our historical fears and why. And among us all, there were microcosms of identities within identities. 

There were times when those most alike met as a caucus, Ashkenazi Jews meeting separately from Mizrachi and S’fardi Jews, Christians of color meeting separately from white Christians. It felt awkward, painful, to so separate, and yet to strive within our own microcosms to break down the walls we carry within ourselves just a little more by looking most honestly and freely at who we are.

It was a three-day conference under the organizational umbrella of “Faith in Action.” The organizing rubric of the gathering was, “Anti-Semitism, Racism, and White Supremacy.” From the beginning we were challenged to bring all of ourselves into the open camp, to truly share who we are. In so sharing so we could dare to tread upon the common ground, to know the love that joins us, even as we walked gingerly among the minefields. We gathered to the singing of an old spiritual, sung from deep within the soul of a people, all of us sharing, trying to feel what it means, to grasp the intimations of its meaning beyond the words, “Before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord and be free….” How to hold the fear of a black mother and father among us for their young son growing up to be a black man in America?

How to hold the courage of a young trans person only recently become in the world who they always knew they were within? It was their courage in quivering voice that challenged the one who spoke with pronouns that denied this young person’s presence. How to hold the brave awkwardness of a white Christian man trying to figure out his place in all the swirling of identities, amid all the sharings of what it is to be of a minority of one sort or another. How to hold and honor the depth of not knowing felt by most of the non-Jewish participants who listened as Jews discussed in a fish-bowl setting the ways of our relationship and struggles with Israel and each other? 
How to hold the tender truths of who we are among ourselves as Jews? We shared of our fears in the face of resurgent anti-Semitism, and of the challenge in discussing Israel even, especially, among ourselves. As Jews shared in that fishbowl setting, there was something poignant and tender in a common thread of attachment to Israel, a thread so frayed for all the torment in the nature of our relationship to what is today, and yet a thread of hope that joins us to each other in our struggles and in our yearning. As walls fell away, trust emerged, vulnerabilities shared in the open space of our gathering.

       It is a powerful teaching that pulsates just beneath the surface of the weekly Torah portion Sh’lach L’cha (Numbers 13:1-15:41). The words mean send forth. Moses calls on leaders from each of the tribes to go ahead of the people to scout out the land. All but two, Calev and Y’hoshua, return with a gloomy report, warning the people that giants live in the land and there is no way for us to enter. As the people weep and plead for a leader to take them back to Egypt and the chains of slavery, the scouts tell of the giants in the land and then say, we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers/va’n’hi b’eyneynu k’chagavim, and so we were in their eyes. It becomes a powerful teaching about identity. How do we see ourselves, and how does our self-perception influence how others see us? Should it matter to us how others see us?

With an ironic twist, the Torah teaches of strength found in vulnerability. On the surface, the narrative is about a people’s desert journey. In reading Torah, it is always important, though, to remember that the sacred narrative is not primarily about them and then, but about us and now. 

       So does the Toldos Ya’akov Yosef, an early Chassdic leader, teach of Moses’ call for scouts to go forth to search out the land. It is not about an external search says the Toldos, rather, dayka la’tur et atz’m’cha/it is surely to search out yourself. Moses tells the scouts to see what the cities are like in the land to which they go, whether the people live in open or in fortified places. The great Torah commentator Rashi teaches of this verse’s import, if they dwell in open cities they are strong, and if they dwell in walled cities they are weak.       
             Strength does not come from walls, from closing ourselves off from each other. As the Toldos Ya’akov Yosef guides us, we needn’t read the text as too often read, as simply about a long ago military matter, the gauging of an enemy’s strength. It is about us and about where true strength is to be found.

As walls fall away and we come out into the open space of shared humanity, our vulnerabilities revealed for all to see, the gift of new opportunity emerges. Acknowledging that sometimes we feel like grasshoppers so easily crushed, in sharing of both fear and pride a new strength emerges. So may we learn to share, bravely coming out into the open space of encounter, discovering ourselves in the process of discovering each other. 

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, October 4, 2019

Climate Strike - A Modest Proposal for an Environmental Ethic

             The Climate Strike on September 20, 2019 was the largest global action in the history of the world. According to various news reports more 4 million people joined in the strike. There were more than 4,000 events that happened in more than 150 countries. In addition to labor unions, and well-known organizations like MoveOn, 350, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, other participants included: Friday for Future, started by Greta Thunberg; Extinction Rebellion, a London-based organization dedicated to creating political change through nonviolent direct action; Our Children’s Trust; Future Coalition; and Friends of the Earth International, and many more. The Climate Strike was to call for an end to the age of fossil fuel. “Climate Justice for All,” was a rallying cry for Climate Strikers.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifies land use and the world’s food system as critical issues that must be addressed, if we want to create a sustainable future. According to the IPCC, the world’s food system is “a top cause of deforestation.” Population growth, increasing demand for food, feed and water, more resource-intense consumption and production, and more limited technological improvements in agricultural yields will result in higher risks of water scarcity, land degradation, and wide-spread food insecurity. Shockingly, the IPCC reports that one-third of the food produced is either lost or wasted. The IPCC report calls for reduced food waste, eating less meat, practicing sustainable land management, eliminating poverty, and reducing economic inequality as necessary and practical steps that offer the best chances to tackle climate change. The IPCC report calls for reforestation and carbon dioxide reduction as necessary first steps. 
In the United States, Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D. Cal.) has introduced a resolution that would require climate education be taught in all schools. Many members of Congress support the Green New Deal, which in simplified terms is a proposal to wean the US economy from fossil fuels, and create new clean energy industries. Importantly, proponents of the Green New Deal argue that we have the necessary tools and knowledge to begin to implement many of the proposals included in the Green New Deal. But do we have the political will?
There is both domestic and international opposition to calls to end the age of fossil fuels. The Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP) exemplifies this opposition. The RCEP is China’s response to the failure of the Trans Pacific Partnership. If it is finalized later this year, the RCEP will include 16 nations that encompass one-third of the global GDP and almost one-half of the world’s population. One goal of the RCEP is to liberalize trade and investment by reducing government oversight and regulation. A second goal is to protect intellectual property rights. A controversial center-piece of the RCEP is a mechanism called the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). If adopted the ISDS would allow corporations to sue states, if state regulations have a negative impact on corporate profits. Critics of the ISDS argue that it is already testing the government’s ability to protect human rights and the environment in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, India and elsewhere.

           Faith communities in the United States can help us get past the present impasse by reframing the debate. A study conducted by Yale University and George Mason University entitled “Climate Change in the American Mind” offers some clues. The study found that 70 percent of Americans (people living in the United States) think of themselves as Christian, and 64 percent of us think the global warming is either extremely, very, or somewhat important. According to the study, two primary motivations for wanting to mitigate global warming are to provide a better life for our children and grandchildren (29 percent), and to protect God’s creation (19 percent). Taking our clues from this study, an ethic for the future must be both intergenerational in the fullest meaning of the word, and ecologically sustainable. A theological ethic based on these two principles will emphasize the importance of achieving balance in all our relationships--present and future to the seventh generation. Mutuality and reciprocity are two key concepts in this ethical framework.
The concept of mutuality carries with it a sense of shared or common interests. Mutual relationships are by definition balanced relationships. Parental concern for our children and grandchildren implies that the present generation is willing to balance its interests with the needs and interests of other generations--both present and future--to safe-guard everyone’s well-being. There are well-established metrics of well-being, which include such things as access to affordable health care, education, housing, public safety, environmental sustainability, and so forth. Mutuality is not an abstract concept. The ethical mandate is to extend the concept of mutuality beyond the family to include the broader community, recognizing that we live in through our relationships with others--including the earth. We live in a cosmic web of mutuality and interdependence. Mutuality is not a foreign concept, but rather a basic value that makes and keeps us human.
Reciprocity is a second key concept in the ethical framework that I am proposing. Narrowing defined, reciprocity means that there is a give and take, an exchange of things of relatively equal value between or among parties. More broadly, however, we may think of reciprocity and an anticipatory ethic. We act in ways that anticipate a response from others. Thus, our actions create a space for the action of others. The commandment, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is an example of the ethic of reciprocity. The concept of reciprocity empowers us to act in ways that are consistent with the kind of future we envision and want to create, and it creates a safe space for others to respond to our actions. The response may come in the form of a challenge, a refinement, or in some new and novel way we had not anticipated. Reciprocity is, thus, a dialogical model. We live each moment of our lives in dialogue with the earth, with others who are seen and unseen, and with future generations.
        The dominant ethics in Western culture have been the ethics of right and wrong, and the ethics of ends and means. The proposal introduced in the foregoing paragraphs leads away from the ethics of certainty, which is implied in the ethics of right vs. wrong and ends justifies the means, toward a more flexible framework. It is a relational model that asks us to begin with an awareness of our present situation. Know thyself. Aristotle said that self-knowledge is the beginning of the moral life. It still is. If we will simply have the courage to examine our present situation, our relationships with others, and our hopes for and obligations to future generations, I believe we can fashion a fitting ethical framework that will benefit both the present and our shared future.
David Hansen