Friday, January 31, 2020

Humility! Can We Impeach on this Value?

It's a sad and tragic time in the U.S.A. An impeachment trial in the Senate is underway. Democrat or Republican, one can only grieve that the political situation has become so desperate that we have reached this critical event.

Neither of my Senators have responded to my fundamental impeachment question. I asked them both if it was against the law to solicit help from a foreign government for aid in an electoral campaign. Now the non-partisan Government Accountability Office has just issued a report that when the President held up aid allocated by Congress for Ukraine, he broke the law. Whether that legal opinion, or the news from one of the principal Ukraine players, Lev Parnas, will have any effect on our Senators, the trial, and the hyper-partisanship in the Senate, remains to be seen.

            For me, the legal questions are secondary to the moral questions. I'd like to see an impeachment inquiry by a broad and diverse gathering of religious leaders and ethics scholars to try the President on ethical and moral grounds. There's nothing I'd like better than to witness the retiring editor of Christianity Today, who sees the President having a "grossly immoral character," in the same debate hall with Franklin Graham. Or I'd love to watch Serene Jones , President of Union Theological Seminary, go toe to toe with Paula White, the President's personal pastor.

Probably the first moral issue I'd ask them to address would be lying, since that seems to be the President's most grievous sin. As of December 15, the Washington Post claimed the President had made 15,413 false or misleading claims. That's a lot! Of course we all know the Washington Post is part of the "liberal" press that doesn't like the President. Besides, I can hear some of his supporters say, some of those claims may have been out of ignorance or to protect some important national secrets. Can we forgive what my mother called, "little white lies?'

        But then yesterday I watched the President answer a question about Lev Parnas, saying he didn't know him, didn't know who he was or what he did. That, after I had seen several different pictures of the President with Mr. Parnas, including video at Mar-a-Lago, and several others where Parnas was laughing it up with the President's personal lawyer, Mr. Giuliani. The President's response to the questioner was what my mother would call a "bald-faced-lie!

I'd ask the moral impeachment gathering to consider what Scripture has to say about lying. Although I'm not one to use Scripture as proof text for my personal convictions, I know many evangelical Christians do. So I'd like the gathering to consider Proverbs 12:22: "The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy." Or given the tendency of the President to bully, threaten and demonize his opponents, maybe the moral impeachment trial should consider Ephesians 4:29: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

Maybe the religious leaders could take the following list of Christian values and examine the defendant according to each of them. Christian Sunday Schools try to instill these values in children (that's where the list originates): respect; responsibility; self control; moderation; honesty; integrity; kindness; compassion; forgiveness; contentment; thankfulness; patience; perseverance; peace; loyalty; commitment; justice; hope; service; joy; humility.

Humility! Can we impeach on this value? There's a story in the Gospel of Luke about two men who went up to the temple to pray. Jesus told this parable, "to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others." In the parable, one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. One was a braggart and the other one recognized his limitations. Jesus concluded, "for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

I'd like the trial to consider humility … and wealth and poverty. Maybe they would consider the story of the widow's mite in relationship to the Trump Charity that cheated kids with cancer, was fined and disbanded.

Perhaps more important than any other, the impeachment gathering might examine the President on his concern and care for God's good Creation. How might he respond to Romans 1:20? "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

Carl Kline

Friday, January 24, 2020

You don't have to Like Everyone, but you do have to Love Them

            At the neighborhood Black Lives Matter Vigil for January, the fiftieth monthly vigil since we began standing together on the first Thursday of each month, there was not the customary speaker prior to taking our places along Centre Street. Instead, people were asked to bring favorite quotes of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to publicly share. I tucked into the big pocket in my old barn jacket one of my favorite books of Dr. King, a collection of sermons called “Strength to Love.” I had in mind one of his subtler teachings, one that is not carried on his soaring rhetoric, one that I often share, especially with children. It is a teaching not so much about the world, the nation, and society, but about the individual, about ourselves and about our way of interacting with others, particularly with people we might prefer not to engage with. In that way, of course, it does become about the world and about the cosmic interconnection of all life, about how our own individual behavior and ways of engaging with others sends out ripples into the world and becomes an influence either for good or ill.

The essence of Rev. King’s teaching that I had in mind is very simple, and so complex and challenging. It seems almost as a riddle, which is how I present it to children, trying then to resolve what appears to be its paradox, “you don’t have like everyone, but you have to love them.” In a sermon titled, “Loving Your Enemies,” Rev. King gives greater expression and theological underpinning to the tension between liking and loving. Drawing from the Greek, Rev. King speaks of agape as, “understanding and creative, redemptive good will for all (‘men’) people. An overflowing love that seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love (‘men’) people not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some type of divine spark; we love every (‘man’) person because God loves (‘him’) them. At this level, we love the person who does an evil deed, although we hate the deed….” As Dr. King contrasts the difference between the romantic love of eros with the love that is agape, it may be similar in Hebrew to the difference between ahava as the love of hearts joined as one, and chesed as loving kindness that is an expression of one’s humanity and that of the other.

Reading Rev. King’s sermon, I thought about Jewish approaches to the same question, of how we respond even to those who would harm us in a way that acknowledges their humanity. It is the great challenge that is planted in the very beginning of Torah, in the sublime and seminal teaching that every person is created b’tzelem elokim/in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Here, in this noble affirmation of humanity is also planted the painful problem of evil. What happens to the image of God when its bearer does not do it justice, even entirely abusing it through the abuse of other bearers of God’s image, failing to acknowledge either their own humanity or that of others? Yet, because God’s image is planted within every human being without exception, there remains something of the human essence to love. It is that love, I think, which is in part at the root of our horror in the face of vile and violent behavior. Our horror emerges in part in response to that grotesque twisting and violation of the godly image and of all that it means to be human. Our horror in the face of brutality is perhaps an expression of hope. God protect us if we become numb and fail to be horrified by brutality against anyone. And so too, we are horrified that one can so twist the image of God that has been planted within them.

As Dr. King draws on Christian sources to teach love of the enemy, so I look to Jewish sources. In the tension between love and like, as Dr. King draws it out, is a root teaching of nonviolence. Whether in regard to confrontations between collections of people or between individuals, the challenge is to recognize the inherent humanity of the other and to seek points of contact, offering a mirror in which the other might be able to see him or her self. In the Torah’s way of teaching, we often learn of human behavior and of what we can identify as the ways of nonviolence through stories and situations, challenged to ask what we would do.

          There is beautiful teaching to be drawn from the weekly Torah portion that framed the January vigil, the portion called Vayigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27). It is a teaching that offers insight into the ways of nonviolence, drawing out the essential dynamic of recognizing the image of God in the other and helping them to do the same. While it plays out through the portion, the essence of the teaching is at the very beginning, vayigash elav yehudah/and Yehudah approached him…. It is the moment when Yehudah steps forward to plead with the viceroy of Egypt on behalf of Binyamin, the youngest son of Ya’akov, the youngest of the brothers, who has been framed for the theft of the royal goblet, now to remain in Egypt as a slave to the viceroy. While the brothers do not yet realize, that the viceroy is their brother Yosef, whom they had sold into slavery long ago, Yosef, on the other hand, does realize that the brothers have surely changed, that their t’shuvah is complete.

As Yehudah begins to plead for the sake of Binyamin, commentators ask what it means that he approached the Viceroy, given that he was already standing right there. In a beautiful commentary that begins with this question, the Or Ha’chaim, a seventeenth century teacher from Morocco, Rabbi Chaim ibn Atar, speaks of a deeper turning that is more than physical. Drawing from Proverbs (27:19), he teaches of a reciprocal approaching of hearts one to another: ka’mayim la’panim la’panim ken lev ha’adam la’adam/as in water, face answers to face; so the heart of one to another…. The Or Ha’chaim teaches that if Yehudah would awaken compassion in the Viceroy, he had to first awaken his own love and compassion for the Viceroy. Only then could he draw Yosef near to him and open Yosef’s heart to receive his words and his effort toward reconciliation. It is a powerful teaching about the dynamics of nonviolence, underscoring that it is not enough to utilize nonviolence only as a strategy. The power of nonviolence lies in heart to heart connection, in seeking to awaken recognition of a common humanity, recognition of the image of God that defines each as a human being. While we cannot like every person, in our love for the humanity of the other we affirm our own humanity and theirs. Having the courage to approach the other, as in water, face answers to face, so the possibility is opened toward rapprochement.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Friday, January 17, 2020

Consider the hummingbird...

 Brian Doyle, in "Joyas Voladoras," asks us to consider the hummingbird. For the most part, Doyle wants us to consider the size of the hummingbird heart, about the same size as a child's fingernail or an eraser on a pencil. That little heart beats about ten times a second. That rapidity is understandable given the enormous energy needed to do the amazing aerodynamics the hummingbird displays. It can fly backwards, dive at sixty miles an hour, fly five hundred miles without resting, visit a thousand flowers a day.  But that little heart can only go so long before it burns itself out. The hummingbird lifespan is maybe two years.
         Joyas Voladoras (flying jewels) is the name given hummingbirds by the first white explorers in the Americas.  The Americas is their only habitat, all three hundred plus species of them. Once, in Mexico, sitting in the open-air veranda of a Mexican restaurant, I saw more flying jewels in that one spot than I had seen in my whole life. There were feeders hanging from the roof sheltering us from the sun and rain and dozens of hummingbirds were darting in and out. Their music was audible and their visual background to an excellent meal was extraordinary.Hummingbirds are the world's second largest family of birds with an estimated 338 species. Few in the world are aware that thirty-four species, or nearly ten per cent, are threatened with extinction.

          Honey bees work hard. Their wings can beat about 200 times per second and they can fly fifteen miles an hour as they visit fifty to a hundred flowers on a trip. Bees have a heart in an open circulatory system that pumps blood from the back of the bee toward the front. There are no veins or arteries. All its organs float in a combination of lymph and blood.

We're becoming more aware of the threat to bees and other pollinators from several factors. Industrial agriculture is one with it's heavy reliance on insecticides. Other factors are destruction of habitat, parasites and pathogens, lack of forage and climate change. Fortunately, some are working hard to improve the honeybee population.

      The "Flow Hive" is a man made bee house that allows honey to be collected without disturbing the bees. Australian beekeepers Cedar and Stuart Anderson developed the hive and have sent more than fifty thousand of them to beekeepers around the globe. It's estimated they have helped increase the honeybee population worldwide by ten percent. All of the profits of the sale of the flow hive go into protecting pollinator habitat in Australia and the U.S. It's amazing what this father and son team have done, just the two of them, to respond to a critical need.

Brian Doyle tells us the blue whale has the largest heart of all earth's creatures, about the size of a small car.  A child could walk around inside of it, with valves the size of swinging doors in a saloon and four rooms to explore. You need a big heart to drive a creature a hundred feet long, about the length of three school buses.  The blue whale weighs more than seven tons, as much as four tons at birth. (I always thought I was twelve pounds at birth till I told my mother and she laughed so hard she cried). According to Doyle, we don't know a lot about blue whales except that they are in all the world's oceans, usually travel in pairs and they make exceptional sounds.

Human hearts beat somewhere between sixty and a hundred times a minute, Depending on your life span, it may beat somewhere between three and four billion times. During a recent cardiogram, I watched my own heart beat and listened to it working hard to keep my blood flowing. It was an awesome and humbling experience. How amazing an instrument we have all been given, How amazing an instrument in the blue whale, the honeybee, the hummingbird, the human being.

There's a long tradition in the Christian faith affirming each and every part of creation as a gift from God. The Genesis story repeats again and again, in refrain, that each and every thing God created was "good." That includes the hummingbird, the honeybee, the blue whale, the human being. Each reflects God's glory and the world is poorer if any one creature is lost.

        As the power brokers and profiteers of the planet dim God's glory in the destruction of God's good creation, let those feeding the hummingbirds, creating hives for the honeybee and recording the sounds of the blue whale, continue their good work. The human heart, holding all that is in loving relationship, fulfills its destiny. It is the preeminent way to give glory to the Creator.

Carl Kline

Friday, January 10, 2020

Beyond Nationalism, Learning to Make Peace Where We Dwell

          I had come to the meeting feeling somewhat wary, but eager and open to hearing a scholar’s presentation on the life and work of Rabbi Menachem Froman. Rabbi Froman was an entirely unique Israeli rabbi who died in 2013. He was a “settler rabbi,” which would make him immediately suspect to me. At the same time, the contradictions that made him controversial in very diverse settings have fascinated me. He believed passionately that Jews should be able to live in any part of the West Bank. Yet, he sought accommodation with his Palestinian neighbors and condemned the often brutal and racist behavior of many of his fellow settlers. He felt that Arabs and Jews of the region shared a natural bond through a common attachment to the land. Most significantly, though not formally engaged in politics, he suggested that as part of a two-state solution, Jews should be able to remain on the West Bank as citizens of Palestine, not of Israel. The great question, of course, is how such a conversation about the land and its peoples can take place in the midst of such an inherent inequity and imbalance of power, the occupation remaining for now the backdrop for any such discussion. In the shadow of that question, I sat quietly, gauging when and what I wanted to say as the question and discussion period began following the talk.

           As discussion unfolded, from wary but open, I began to feel weary and alone. Not surprisingly, there was much discussion about Zionism, both in theory and in practice. The conversation then turned more broadly to discussion of land and nations, of nationality and nationalism. There was in one comment a tone of disdain for those who eschew nationalism. The thread was clear, from nationalism to Zionism. I could feel within myself an uncharacteristic sense of retreat, as I turned inward. Feeling soul-tired, I realized that it was not so much retreat as weariness. 

         As one who eschews nationalism, I began to feel a sense of personal attack, of not having a place there where we dwelt in conversation. Feeling a deep attachment to what is best in America’s elusive image of itself, so too I recognize the gifts of other nations and peoples, and the equality of all among the family of nations. Similarly, I would never identify as a “patriot,” a word and notion that too often comes to express exclusivity in which the interdependence of nations is shunned. I fear the over emphasis of what is seen to be exceptional in regard to one’s own nation and people, even one’s own group within that nation, that too often comes to be at the expense of the place and rights of others. When we are able to hold in healthy tension the falsely competing needs of both independence and interdependence, we are then able to give due consideration to the commonweal of a common world.

I realized the irony in the timing of this conversation, in the same week as the president’s executive order emphasizing Jewish nationality. There is irony, as well, in an order that cynically expands and distorts the meaning of anti-Semitism in relation to the very issues of place and belonging that were at the heart of the conversation from which I had withdrawn in weariness. So too, I realized that it was the week of the Torah portion Vayeshev (Gen. 37:1-40:23). I have long been drawn to the very first word of Vayeshev, the word itself that gives its name to the portion. As the portion opens, Vayeshev Ya’akov/and Ya’akov settled down, a strange comment is offered in the Talumd by Rabbi Yochanan, in every place where it says ‘vayeshev,’/eyno eleh lashon tzar/ it is only the language of pain (Sanhedrin 106a). We struggle to understand, and then we realize that the struggle to understand is not so much with Rabbi Yochanan’s words, but with the word vayeshev itself and the consequences of not understanding what it means in truth to settle, to live in a place, to truly dwell.

I have long been fascinated with the possibility of a slight grammatical shift in the simple word with which the portion opens, a shift that speaks to a shift in human understanding that is not at all slight. With a shift from vayeshev to the more active verbal form of piel, we have va’y’yashev/and he made peace. Referring to Ya’akov in this case, the teaching is for all of us, to truly dwell is to make peace where we dwell. The word yishuv can refer to a community of people, as it specifically refers to the pre-state Jewish community that dwelled in the Land of Israel. In a powerful teaching beyond grammar, yishuv can also mean to resolve or settle conflict, as in yishuv sichsuch, It was this that Ya’akov failed to do, failing to see the discord among his children, discord that he himself had sown in showing favoritism to one child, to his beloved Yosef, forgetting then the commonweal.

As one family becomes all families, the human family, all struggling to learn the way of making peace where we dwell, I realized with this year’s reading of Vayeshev a powerful teaching in the words of the portion’s first line beyond its first word. It is a line of seven words in the Hebrew in which five of those words are about place and dwelling, and Ya’akov settled down in the land of his father’s sojourning, in the land of Canaan/va’yeshev ya’akov b’eretz m’gurei aviv b’eretz c’na’an (Gen. 37:1). 

       Ya’akov’s failure, as seen by many commentators, is that he sought to settle down as though all was fine in the world around him, rather than fulfilling the deeper meaning of what it means to settle. In a powerfully moving comment on Ya’akov’s failure to make peace where he dwelled, the Torah T’mimah, addressing all who would be righteous, offers challenge from the nineteenth century to all of us in whatever time and place we dwell: for their complete tranquility is not in this world, because it is their duty only to repair the world and fill its deficiencies/l’taken et ha’olam u’l’malei ches’ro’no’teha….

In the approach to Chanukkah that week and its gentle challenge to raise up light, may the flickering of candles call us forth from weariness to the renewal of voice and spirit. Each one as a shammes helping to enkindle another’s light, the way of lighting Chanukkah candles is itself a simple affirmation of interdependence. Beyond the narrowness of nationalism, so may it be for nations and peoples, all realizing that we need each other’s light if our own would truly shine, all learning together to make peace where we dwell.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein 

Friday, January 3, 2020


          We received another letter to the congregation from our  beloved rabbi this week.  They seem to come ever more frequently.  One more letter  exhorting us to pray for one more Jewish community under violent assault as they celebrated Hanukkah.  One more call to prayer for the complete healing for the Jewish brothers and sisters in Monsey as well as the victims of anti-Semitic violence in so many other places around the country. One more call to stand in solidarity with Jewish communities around the world.  One more call to a commitment to work toward making this world a safe place for everyone in the midst of our vast diversity.

Each event of violence toward the Jewish community anywhere challenges our local community’s commitment to lovingkindness, generous hospitality, nonviolence and extravagant welcome to the stranger as  locked doors and armed police presence in the synagogue become the norm.  The high calling to be peace-seekers and peace makers keeps us all on edge as we struggle to maintain the level of chesed, grace, lovingkindness, mercy that we claim as part of our identity.

Meanwhile, a Christian church in Texas comes under attack.  In the aftermath, the congregation gives thanks that there are highly trained, armed members of the congregation who could shoot back, thus saving the lives of many in the congregation.  The wise teachings of a non-violent Jesus give way to armed self defense in the sanctuary in the service of saving lives.

I wonder how to articulate  the difference between hiring protective police presence and  arming members of the congregation?

For today, I am simply sitting in the pain of this conundrum.  How, indeed, do we keep our sanctuaries safe.  In other parts of the world, Muslim communities, Hindu communities, Buddhist communities also come under attack.  It seems that the places where humankind can most aptly work toward a nonviolent world are also the spiritual communities that are most readily and conveniently the targets of violence and hatred.

I recently read the following  paragraph from  The Secret Commonwealth  by Phillip Pullman.  Lyra, the heroine of the story is in a conversation with Farder Coram, an aging gyptian with whom she became acquainted in her childhood in an earlier Pullman novel,  “The Golden Compass” . They are conversing about the hopelessness of overcoming the negative forces that seem to be winning the day:

Farder Coram:  “The CCD faction can’t arrest as many people as hate it, and the people en’t got  the organization to move agin the CCD.  The other side’s got an energy our side en’t got.  Comes from their certainty about being right.  If you got that certainty, you’ll be willing to do anything to bring about the end you want.  It’s the oldest human problem, Lyra, an’ it’s the difference between good and evil.  Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t.  Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back.  To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ‘em.”

         It takes effort on my part to resist dualistic thinking - to pull myself back to center to a non-dualistic perspective - to focus on the Shema - Listen God Wrestlers! God is One!  There is nothing else!    Indeed it does take a lot of wrestling to keep my grounding in that truth, that all is within the Divine Being - all is in dynamic process.    All suffering, all violence, all blessing and cursing manifest the swirling, creative process of Holy Being.  I cling to my understanding,  drawn from my reading of Genesis,  that drawing order out of chaos is what Holy Creativity does.
So, I take a deep breath and enter another day at the very beginning of a new year, with a prayer that 2020 will be a year of 20/20 clear vision for us all -that we may see this world and all its beauty and conflict with clear eyes and incisive wisdom to meet the needs we encounter with lovingkindness, courage, and nonviolent strength that comes from compassion.                                             

Vicky Hanjian