JVP Rabbinical Council Statement as Black Churches Burn

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Could it be that no one is running this world?

JVP Rabbinical Council Statement as Black Churches Burn
July 2015

A classical Jewish teaching compares Abraham’s spiritual awakening to a wanderer who saw a palace on fire. He said, “Could it be that no one is running this palace?” Just then the master of the palace looked out, and said “I am the master of the palace.” So too, Abraham looked out into the world and said, “Could it be that no one is running this world?” And the Holy Blessed One appeared to him and said “I am the master of the world.”

(Midrash, Genesis Rabbah 39:1)

God’s houses are on fire. The palace is burning and we cannot, must not look away. We are compelled to ask: Who is in charge here? Will we continue to countenance such acts of hatred? Will we allow white supremacist terrorism to threaten the fabric of Black life in the U.S.?

No, we cannot stand idly by.

We, the members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, are heart-broken, devastated and outraged at the recent murder of nine African Americans in the Emmanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston and the burning of seven Black churches. We stand in solidarity with church members and with all whose spiritual homes and communities are under racist attack. We believe a threat to sanctity anywhere is a threat to sanctity everywhere.

This is the time for people of all faiths to recognize the toxic reality of white supremacy in our country. We call upon our national, state and local leaders to prioritize challenging and eliminating white supremacist terror in our country. This work must include not only holding individuals accountable for their heinous acts, but also a re-commitment to uproot racism from the social, political, and economic fabric of our communities.

We offer our prayers, condolences and support to the members of the destroyed churches. We join with all people of conscience to act however and wherever we can to end the burning of Black churches, communities, and lives.

We commit ourselves to actively wrestle with the ways we may reinforce, benefit from, or be harmed by white supremacy in our lives, our communities and the wider world. As religious leaders, we stand with all who challenge structural racism, particularly inequity in educational opportunity, segregation in housing, and the shocking gap in wealth and income.

Let us find the courage to walk in the ways of Abraham, to be awake to what is real and true, and to see for ourselves that the palace is burning and that it is our responsibility to put out the fires that have been allowed to burn unabated for far too long. May we help to bring justice, healing and hope to our world, speedly and in our lifetimes.

Some ways you can take action:

  1. Help rebuild the fallen churches. Christ Church Cathedral, an Episcopal church in St. Louis, has started the Rebuild the Churches Fund. All donations are tax-deductible and will be dispersed equally to the churches whom investigators conclude were destroyed by arson.
  2. Intentionally pursue and support the leadership of Jews of color within the Jewish community.
  3. Create opportunities in your community for the study of institutionalized racism, including an exploration of white privilege and Ashkenazi dominance.
  4. Build relationships with African American religious congregations in your community, show up for their events, create opportunities to listen to their experiences and discuss how we can be in solidarity with their struggle for racial justice.

There for Each Other: On Anti-Semitism, Christian Privilege and Palestine Solidarity

The following is a transcript of Rabbi Alissa Wise’s remarks to the Friends of Sabeel North America Conference in Vancouver, BC April 2015.

As a young girl, I attended a Jewish day school in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bus I took to school was shared with the local Catholic day schools as well. I didn’t ride that bus for that long. After a few months, some of the kids on the bus started to tease me, asking if they could see my horns. I was quite naïve about what that meant. I thought they were just being silly. Today, I hope I know a bit more about the history of anti-Semitism in the Christian world and the wrong-headed myths about who Jews are.

At that Jewish Day School, education about the Nazi Holocaust was a centerpiece of our learning. In High School, I visited Auschwitz, Majdonek and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps with my Jewish youth movement. We were told stories of how the Christian world was complicit in Nazism and their crimes. I sobbed and wailed at each visit to the camps, horrified and disturbed. I knew then my life would be about interrupting today’s violence and hatred however I could.

In my twenties, I was inspired by the White Rose, a nonviolent group of Christian Germans who organized against Hitler’s regime. My first year in rabbinical school I adopted as my spiritual mentor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor, ethicist, and activist who was to me the embodiment of a spiritual leader. He was someone with vision, courage, passion, clarity and purpose. The model of both the White Rose and Bonhoeffer, that of those who benefit from the systems of power and oppression actively opposing and resisting it with their lives, continues to feed me in this work.

As for my Christian counterparts, I see you all working hard to get out from underneath the history of Christian violence against Jews, and I know that our work together as Jews and Christians to stand with justice and equality for Israelis and Palestinians is central to our ability to navigate their internalized messages of guilt and heavy conscience.

As a rabbi, working to support the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s efforts to pass a resolution calling for selective divestment from companies that profit from human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I am engaging with my Christian counterparts in deep, if unconventional, ways.  For my part, I am continuing to unlearn the legacy of trauma messages I got growing up like “no one will save us” or “we are all alone in the world”. Those dead-end ideas can lead to behaving out of a place of fear or vulnerability, rather than hope and resilience.

By a raise of hands…

– How many in the room are familiar with the claim by some large Jewish institutions that critique of Israel is anti-Semitic?

– How many of you feel like these charges have been made falsely?

Many of us – Jews and non-Jews alike – have had accusations of anti-Semitism lobbed at us for standing up for justice, equality and freedom for all people.

As we all know, there is a conscious strategy that has been developed by large Jewish institutions and Israel itself, to attempt to blur or even completely erase the lines between Israel and the Jewish people.

I want to be very clear that there is nothing anti-Semitic about criticizing Israel and there is nothing anti-Semitic in the BDS call by Palestinian civil society. It is a conditional call that will end when conditions of oppression end; that targets state policies, not the Jewish people. It is based on standards of universal human rights and international law that are specifically not reliant upon ethnicity or religion.

That being said, when I get asked how to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism i do caution people to ask themselves if they are in fact anti-Semitic. While there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic in critiquing Israel, that does not mean you do not also harbor anti-Semitic sentiments toward Jews. This is something worth exploring personally and perhaps also in your congregations or organizations.

As with all oppressions, anti-Semitism manifests institutionally, like the quotas at US universities that were in place until the 1970s, but also interpersonally – like ideas of Jews as greedy, controlling, rich, powerful – and also it is internalized by many Jews, leading some Jews to behave out of a place of fear or vulnerability.

Anti-Semitism, just like other forms of oppression, lumps all Jewish people together and assigns us a set of characteristics. Some of the stereotypes we hear include: Jews are rich, Jews are stingy, Jews are smart, Jews control the media, or Jews are to blame for whatever the current crisis is. Even when these stereotypes are framed positively, being reduced as an individual to having assumed attributes based on our religion can be very dehumanizing. That includes the idea that all Jews are implicated by the deeds of the Israeli government.

But – and here’s where things get complicated – that notion can be turned on its head, because Israel specifically defines itself as the state of all the Jews in the world, rather than a state of all its citizens. Israel itself may in fact be the greatest contributor to this fallacy.

To complicate things further, while critiquing Israel is not anti-Semitic, for some Christian Zionists, supporting Israel is.

Apocalyptic Christian Zionist John Hagee was recently quoted affirming that he does indeed believe that the Jewish people are going to burn in Hell for all of eternity unless they abandon Judaism and convert to Christianity. There is hardly a more deeply anti-Semitic notion than that.

While this example illustrates that anti-Semitism certainly does still exist in the here and now, it has largely lost its power in the US.  It does not keep us from jobs, schools, access to health care, housing, or positions of influence.  In other words, Jewish people are not impeded in any material way from pursuing the life of our choosing.

Anti-Semitism has been cyclical throughout history and deeply connected with other systems of oppression. Anti-Jewish sentiment has always served the interests of classism and white supremacy, by placing Jews as middle agents and scapegoats for the crimes of the ruling classes, thus obscuring the structural nature of injustices.

While the recents attacks in France are sobering, we have not seen that level of interpersonal violence against Jews in the US and Canada. Yet, there are still occasional outbursts against Jewish targets that helps keep Jewish fears alive. And despite the lack of structural barriers for Jews in the US, we still live in a country whose dominant culture is Christian. Many Jews in the US and Canada still feel very much like the “other” in society, as do other non-Christian people.  These feelings are real, and not easy.

I also need to name here: it is essential, when we talk about anti-Semitism, that we do so understanding the breadth of Jewish experience – Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews of Middle Eastern, North African, Asian and Spanish descent have had a very different historical relationship to anti-Semitism than those of us who are Ashkenazi, of Eastern European descent. Even when we are reflecting on histories and realities of oppression against Jews, we bump against the relative privilege of us Jews of Eastern European origin. The vast majority of Jews in the US and Canada are Ashkenazi and are thus generally classified as white, with all the race privilege that entails. The important and urgent topic of both internal and external racism within the Jewish community is not something i have time to delve into today, but still felt important to name.

So – it is a balancing act of being sensitive to Jewish history and trauma, without pulling punches about today’s reality. While Jews in the US have more political, economic, cultural and intellectual status than perhaps ever before, the Jewish narrative is still about vulnerability. Part of the work that we as progressive Jews need to take responsibility for is challenging that narrative.

It means that we all, collectively, need to be able to hold, simultaneously, the idea that anti-Semitism in our society is still real, if not very potent at this moment; and at the same time, recognize and fight how accusations of anti-Semitism are being used as an effective weapon to silence debate on Israel. In the US we are up against attempts to codify re-definitions of anti-Semitism that would encompass advocacy to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian human rights. This represents a scary and dangerous development and if successful, formidable obstacle in our nonviolent activism to ensure Palestinian human rights.

A bill was recently passed by the UCLA student government along these lines. The lawyers at Palestine Legal Support have said this about the proposed legislation making its way through campus and statewide legislatures:

The definition is so broadly drawn — and its examples so vague—that any speech critical of Israel could conceivably fall within it.

Likewise, any criticism of Zionism — which questions Israel’s definition as a state that premises citizenship on race, ethnicity, and religion — is considered anti-Semitic under this re-definition, because such speech can be seen as “denying Israel the right to exist” as a Jewish-only state.

Legislating a new definition is a new tactic that is evidence of the desperation of those fighting against the growing strength of BDS.

In light of these efforts, it is all the more critically important to speak out. For those of us who are Jewish in the movement, we strongly feel the obligation – strategically and morally – to speak out when false charges of anti-Semitism are used to tar the movement.

As Jews we often find ourselves in a position of privilege in this realm.  Partially this is because Jews can be the most effective at rebutting the accusations of anti-Semitism which can paralyze BDS efforts, and partially because our overall place in society, and our perceived connection to Israel, gives us greater credibility by society at large than Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian people.

At Jewish Voice for Peace, we try to use our privilege strategically when we can (for example, there is a reason it was useful to the conference organizers for the JVP Rabbinical Council to issue a statement of support for this conference). We also try  -though don’t always succeed – to not participate in reinforcing the very structures of power and inequity that the BDS movement is trying to address.

Nevertheless, as progressive people who are part of a social justice movement who should model the change we want to see in the world — we all need to speak out to make sure that everyone’s full humanity is respected in all cases and at all times.

It is both an ethical imperative and a strategic one to speak out against anti-Semitism if you hear it.  This movement is hurt any time a truly anti-Semitic statement is made, just as it is when we perpetuate systems of privilege – as Jews or as Christians – that we need to dismantle to win.

To that end, I offer  a challenge to you all as Christians in this movement: what can you all do to confront and address Christian hegemony in the world, and in our work organizing for justice? I have frankly been surprised that I am often the person to raise this questio, and hope to see organizations like Friends of Sabeel acknowledge, unpack and address Christian privilege, just as we at JVP do the same as I just explained with Jewish privilege.  Bringing in a Jew to talk on this topic is no replacement for doing the hard work of examining the legacy and current realities of anti-Semitism – and Islamophobia – in Christian communities, and Christian dominance in our culture.

For example, this could look like doing study groups about the legacy of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Christianity.

It could look like workshopping ways Christian dominance manifests in our media, educational systems, and pop culture, for example, reflecting on questions such as:

– Have you ever been given a school vacation or paid holiday related to Christmas or Easter when school vacations or paid Holidays for Ramadan or the Jewish High Holidays were not observed?

– Are public institutions you use, such as offices, buildings, banks, parking meters, the post office, libraries, and stores, open on Fridays and Saturdays but closed on Sundays?

– Is the calendar year you observe calculated from the year designated as the birth of Christ?

– Have you ever seen a public institution in your community, such as a school, hospital, or city hall, decorated with Christian symbols (such as Christmas trees, wreaths, portraits or sculptures of Jesus, nativity scenes, “Commandment” displays, or crosses)?

On top of these types of reflections, I can imagine your communities working to support and encourage each other to ensure that your work advocating for Palestinian human rights does not rely on anti-Semitic ideas.

Some members of our JVP chapter in Philadelphia recently put together materials for addressing issues of anti-Semitism and offered some examples. I would like to share them to help elucidate the differences between a clear criticism of Israeli policy and its backers and anti-Semitic ideas often repeated by activists with no anti-Jewish intentions and lines emerging from Neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic organizations.

For example:

– A clear criticism of Israel would be: “Israel has a repeated and ongoing record of human rights offenses.”

– A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-Semitic sentiment, even unwittingly, would be to say: “Israel is a worse humans rights violator than most or all other countries.”

– A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Israel is the root of the world’s problems.”

Here is another example:

– A clear criticism: “In this issue, as in so many, the corporate media provide one-dimensional, sensationalized coverage, usually biased toward whatever side the US government is backing – when they cover it at all.”

– A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-semitic sentiment, even unwittingly would be to say: “The media, controlled by Zionists, never talks about the plight of Palestinians.”

– A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Zionist control of the media is part of a vast web of Zionist power over banks and world governments in their conspiracy to rule over humanity.”

One final example:

– A clear criticism: “Many Israeli soldiers justify their actions toward Palestinians by saying they are just following orders.”

– A way to say this same idea in a way that reflects anti-Semitic sentiment, even unwittingly, would be to say: “Israelis are just like Nazis.”

– A way that anti-Semitic organizations or people say the same idea: “Israel is worse the Nazis. This wouldn’t be happening if the Nazis were successful,” and so on.

It is important for us to mindful of the ways we talk about the issue and ensure we are not replicating oppressions, as we seek to end them.

I want to reiterate that I personally, at least, find this to be an extremely small problem, much smaller than the issues of Jewish privilege and Islamophobia issues in our movement.

We together, Christians and Jews, are speaking out against injustice when we see it – as our faith demands of us.  As a rabbi I take my role seriously as a moral leader, as we are taught in the Babylonian Talmud:

“Whoever has the ability to denounce [the sins of] their 
family members, but fails to denounce them, is held 
accountable for [the sins of] thier family members; if
[ one has influence] over the residents of his city [but
fails to denounce their sins], he is held accountable
for [the sins of] the residents of his city; if [he
has influence] over the entire world [but fails to
 denounce their sins], he is held accountable for [the
sins of] the entire world.”  (Shabbos 54a)

We will be held accountable should we stay silent as the land theft, home demolitions, restrictions on movement, economic strangling, and other human rights abuses that are the daily realities of life under occupation for Palestinians.

May we have the courage, to not sit silent, but to be able to look back at this time with pride for how we, Christians and Jews together, manifested the most basic ethical tenet of our traditions: what is hateful to you, do not do to others.

May we be part of the transformation of a painful history of Christian anti-Semitism and of Jewish trauma by working together to realize justice, equality and freedom, not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but for all people.

My work alongside Christians is an important challenge to those dangerous and disempowering messages I learned growing up. I no longer believe Jews are inevitably alone in the world, but in fact quite the opposite. I now see just how much we are there for each other.

Child of the Commandments: Bar Mitzvah Speeches for Justice

This is the first in a series of b’nai mitzvah speeches delivered in recent years by members or family of members of JVP. The bar/bat mitzvah ritual literally means “son or daughter of the mitzvot,” and is the Jewish coming of age ritual that marks one’s transition into adulthood. With the honor of participating in a service as an adult, and the months of preparation that go into it, it also is the beginning of responsibility in Jewish life.

As part of the b’nai mitzvah ritual, the 13 year old will give a short d’var, a sermon, around the topic of the week’s Torah reading. Students might pick out a theme of ethics, or a textual confusion that interests them. However, these young people chose to speak to their congregation during their ceremonies about issues around justice in Palestine. How fitting that on the day that a child becomes a Jewish adult that they engage with one of the core issues of our lives as Jewish adults-how to Jewish ethics are in opposition to the Occupation. May they be an inspiration for us to similarly find words of justice in our Torah.

Bar mitzvah in New York City, December 2014
Submitted by a proud aunt in Bay Area JVP.

The story of Joseph can be approached many different ways. It can be seen through the lens of a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a parent, or a sibling. None of which I am. However, I can approach the story as what I do best, a student. Joseph is a very complex person who makes many controversial decisions.

At the beginning,  Joseph is a clueless son of a shepherd who angers his brothers. By the end of his life, Joseph is the effective ruler in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. I will explore how and why Joseph changed and how the country of Israel can follow from his example.

When Joseph was a teenager working as a shepherd for Jacob,  he fostered resentment among his brothers by telling them they would all bow down to him and he would be the center of the universe. If Joseph had any common sense,  he would realize that telling his older brothers he would someday rule them is not going to go over well. After being sold into slavery, Joseph probably realized that he made a few mistakes. Then, landing in the household of Potiphar, the chief steward of the Pharaoh, Joseph does not run his mouth as much, but still lands in prison. During his time in prison, Joseph tells the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief baker and his chief cup-bearer, who are fellow prisoners. He tells them that the cup-bearer would return to his post, but that the baker would be hung. Joseph also instructed the cup-bearer to mention Joseph’s name to the Pharaoh to help secure his release. This is an example of how Joseph is using his ability to interpret dreams in a smart way that benefits him in the long run and does not get him in trouble. Later, Pharaoh is having dreams that his advisers cannot explain. The chief cup-bearer mentions Joseph as someone who could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph interprets the meanings of Pharaoh’s dreams,  and is named the leader of Egypt by Pharaoh. Pharaoh determines that Joseph should be leader because no one understood God as well as Joseph, and was as wise as Joseph was. Once again, Joseph uses his dream interpreting talents in a good way that benefits Pharaoh, the people of Egypt, and Joseph himself.

A question still remains however: If it is so beneficial to change,  why don’t people do it? The answer is that people don’t like change and are comfortable with the status quo. People only change when they are forced to change. Once Joseph faced adversity and hardship because of his behavior, he realized that he needed to change or else things would just get worse.

The lessons that Joseph learns in Egypt can be applied to the way in which Israel handles itself in the modern-day world and especially in its relations with Palestine. Since Israel’s independence in 1948, and especially since the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel took over the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights, Israel has had very tense relations with Palestine and the other countries in that region. Israel has not helped the tension between the two sides in recent years.

This past summer, Israeli airstrikes killed more than 2,000 Palestinians on the Gaza Strip, most of them civilians. In contrast, fewer than 75 Israelis died with only 6 civilian casualties. In addition, Israel continues to announce new housing projects in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that undermine the peace process, are irrational and against international law. Israel has seemed almost to be fighting against itself each time it announces a new settlement.
Israel is not helped when senior members of the Israeli government say things like “I will do everything in my power to make sure they never get a state” in reference to Palestine. However, Israel can still fix its course just like Joseph did and achieve a 2-state solution, which it has repeatedly said is its goal. Israel needs to realize that being stubborn will get it nowhere and that international condemnation and sanctions will continue if Israel continues to be the way that it is. Israel must be forced to change if it cannot do it by itself. Compromise — not confrontation– is the right path for Israel.

Visions of Freedom

The following remarks are from Shabbat morning at the Jewish Voice for Peace National Members Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. Rabbi Alissa Wise opened the morning plenary, “Visions of Freedom” with Andrea Smith and Sa’ed Adel Atshan with these words of Torah:

It is my hope that this morning’s exploration of visions of freedom, which centers the sharp analysis and experiences of both Native American and Palestinian scholars, will begin to prepare us to think creatively and expansively this weekend–and ongoing. To begin, I’d like to briefly share some of my perspective on a source of knowledge and inspiration we rarely avail ourselves of at JVP: the Talmud.

In the summer of 2007, while I was in Rabbinical School, I traveled with Birthright Replugged, a trip that takes Palestinian youth from refugee camps in the West Bank for the first time to Jerusalem, the Sea, and the villages their families were from before they were displaced in 1948. Part of the design of the trip is for those of us with passports that allow us to move freely to use that privilege to support Palestinian youth getting a glimpse of return, before they turn 16 and get the ID cards that forbids them to travel into Israel.

As we stepped onto the land where the village of Bariqa once stood, somewhere between Nazareth and Haifa, two brothers—Ahmed, age 14 and Muhammed, age 12—called their grandfather, who had fled this land when the war came to his village in 1948. Instead of a village, what is there now are heaps of stones where houses once stood, with rusting barrels and piles of trash littering the ground.

Via cellphone, Ahmed and Muhammed’s grandfather described the village to them, as they tried to find where his house once stood. We looked for the hills and the trees the grandfather was describing to Ahmed, using the piles of stones from destroyed homes and the cacti traditionally used as fences as clues.

The grandfather told Ahmed that while they were packing their bags in 1948, fleeing the village as the Israeli army approached, the last thing he did was carve his name in the tree outside of his house. He didn’t know then that he would be leaving forever. Ahmed and Muhammed found the tree with their grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s names carved into it. The etchings were still intact.

Still on the phone with their grandfather, the boys picked some wildflowers growing nearby and held up the phone to the flowers so that the grandfather could talk to the flowers and say hello again. It was a reunion, two generations later.

On the way back to the refugee camp Ahmed asked me, “When will I get to return home?”

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This question: When can I return home? Is hidden by the forests that the Jewish National Fund plants over destroyed Palestinian villages and Israeli laws that forbid commemorations of the Nakba. It is shouted over by liberals rejecting the Right of Return, and by “Birthright” trips for young Jews whose grandfathers were born in Brooklyn not Bariqa. But those of us working toward Palestinian liberation must insist on this question. The question is real and urgent for us to ask and to demand an answer to.

In the same summer of 2007 when I return to the village of Bariqa , I had the chance to teach Talmud to some secular jewish Israelis in Zochrot–the organization we will hear from later today.

I wish I had recorded the experience. Never have I seen such a radical transformation in a classroom. When my Talmud teacher from Rabbinical School and I stepped into the space and announced we would be teaching Talmud, the group collectively moaned. “What?! Talmud! We have nothing to learn from Talmud! Feh!”

Somehow we coaxed them into it.

By the end it was a complete 180. They were leaving marveling at how the rabbis of the Talmud totally understood what it was like to be a Jewish Israeli in 2007 advocating for the right of return for Palestinians.

It makes sense-The rabbis of the Talmud interpreted and adapted things to make sense in their time and their inner logic: just as we must! They were proud of themselves and their project to continue and flourish Jewish culture outside of the Temple in Jerusalem: just as we should be!

With the fall of the 2nd temple in Jerusalem, Judaism began as an oral tradition focused on process, not product. This process, made up of arguments, deliberations,  laws, and stories combine to do more than impart Jewish law — the process teaches us ethical responsibility.

The text we taught was a short little story from Masechet Menachot in the Bablylonian Talmud. To understand there are a few basic things you need to know (the Talmud has a lot of proto-hyperlinks and assumes lots of other knowledge).

 

  1. Tefillin is a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah which are worn during weekday morning prayers.
  2. In Jewish biblical law, firstborn sons were  to devote their life to service in the Temple. Parents may “redeem” their sons from this obligation by paying a small sum of money. Numbers 18:15 states that you must redeem a firstborn son by paying the priest 5 shekel, or sela in rabbinic hebrew.
  3. When someone isn’t given a name, it means that they are not inside the authoritative system. The people inside the system are all referenced by name.

Ok, here is the story–

Pleimo asked Rabi: “With regard to someone who has two heads – on which of them does he lay t’fillin?”

Rabi said to Pleimo: “Either get up and be exiled, or accept upon yourself excommunication!”

Meanwhile, a man came.

The man said to Rabi: A baby was born to me who has two heads. How much must we give to the priest?

An old man came in and ruled: you must give him ten Selah.

Let me break it down a bit in case this short story’s brilliance passed you by.

Pleimo, the student who is himself a part of the approved system of the Talmudic rabbis–asks a seemingly outlandish, farsical question. Rabi chastises Pelimo and sees Pleimo as undermining his legitimacy and offers him to leave on his own accord or be banished. either way, Pleimo is out. If the story ended here, we might also think Pleimo was just being the class clown.

But then a man walks in–the Aramaic almost literally says “some guy”. And wait–there is such a  thing as a person with two heads. A problem of a two headed person is real. The man is obligated to pay to redeem his first born, he needs an answer. The answer comes from a random old man, who is not part of the authority structure established by the Talmudic rabbis themselves.

Rabi doesnt think it is real question, pleimo may or may not think of it as real question–we don’t totally know, but it is a real question and there is an answer. It may not come from Rabi, from the seat of authority, but as the old man contributes his wisdom as someone outside the authorized seat of power– he asserts that there is a remedy. Justice is possible—you must give him ten Selah.

It is important also to not miss–as we consider how Talmud can teach us ethical responsibility through its process–that this critique of authority–the limitations of Rabi’s imagination, and the idea that wisdom can come from outside the seat of power the rabbis of the Talmud themselves have created– is something itself the very rabbis who created the system wrote! It is a welcome reminder to us of the limits of the systems even we create, and the importance of flexibility and humility in order to be ethical.

For the Jewish Israelis in Zochrot, it clearly felt like an affirmation that when they do their work of bringing the history of the Nakba and bringing Ahmed’s question into Israeli society they are often met with the response of Rabi: get up and be exiled, or accept upon yourself excommunication. But the question is real.  The refugee is real. Our responsibility is real.

Our work in the Organizing program at JVP is about creating a situation where an ethical process can occur in palestine . Where an outside voice of wisdom and possibility outside a failed peace process, or an unethical status quo can vision freedom where Palestinians and Jewish Israelis as equal partners can determine the future they want to share.

Where Bedouin of the Negev can continue to live and thrive on their land in peace.

Where those who fall in love on either side of the Green Line can live wherever they choose,

where Gazan farmers can grow and sell and buy food freely,

where  palestinian children are not imprisoned in Israeli jails,

where boys playing soccer on the beach are not murdered,

where Ahmed and Muhammed’s grandfather can see those flowers in person before he dies.

The vision of freedom is then simple, as we learn in the book of Proverbs: withhold not the good from whom it is due when it is in the power of your hands to do it.


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Thank you to my teachers and co-thinkers: Rabbi Sarra Lev, Nava EtShalom, and Daniel Boyarin

The JVP Rabbinical Council Supports the Canadian Friends of Sabeel Conference “Seeking the Peace of Jerusalem,” (Vancouver BC, April 23-25, 2015)

As rabbis and people of faith, we stand in solidarity with the work of Friends of Sabeel North America and Canadian Friends of Sabeel.

Palestinian Christian liberation theologians such as Canon Naim Ateek of Sabeel challenge Jews and Christians to rethink our relationship to the Holy Land and each other on the basis of a universal standard of human rights grounded in nonviolence. We have long encouraged the Jewish community to engage the Palestinian Christian faith community with an open heart and mind in order to encounter another version of faithfulness.

As Jews, we believe it is enormously important to engage in dialogue and find common cause with Sabeel. We appreciate their justice-based approach for providing needed alternatives to Christian Zionism and Replacement Theology, which so often find their basis in fundamentalism and anti-Semitism. We are also aware that far too often, mainstream Christians are loath to criticize Zionism and/or Israel for fear of offending their Jewish sisters and brothers.

In fact, we must speak out – and we must do it together. The Palestinian people suffer from daily brutality by the Israeli authorities, who are destroying their homes, confiscating their land and water, manning the checkpoints that prevent freedom of movement to hospitals, work and study, shooting tear gas during demonstrations, and dropping bombs in civilian areas. They are also forced to endure a toxic form of racism growing in Israeli society, as was recently evidenced during Israel’s national election.

The work of Sabeel is rooted in a theological vision of justice for all who live in the land. This is why we, as religious Jews, are honored to stand in solidarity with them. When the Declaration of Human Rights was written in response to the Holocaust, Jews were grateful for a universal measure by which to judge human behavior. We believe groups like Sabeel are our partners in affirming these sacred standards that are rooted in our shared conviction that all human beings are created in the image of God.

We are proud to stand together with them in our shared work of justice, dignity and liberation for all.

– Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Everett Gendler teaches Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret’s Torah of Nonviolence

by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

A powerful take away for rabbis attending the fabulous Jewish Voice for Peace National Members’ Meeting emerged during a text study with the venerable Rabbi Everett Gendler, who introduced us to the important work of Rabbi Samuel Tamaret (1869 – 1903). As we listened to our elder teach, we realized our deep connection to previous rabbinic generations who also regarded militarism and nationalism as antithetical to Torah.

Rabbi Gendler, a life long proponent of nonviolent direct action, was introduced to Tamaret by Dr. Gerson Cohen, a librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary when R. Gendler was a student.  According to Rabbi Gendler:

We had a warm personal relationship beset by substantial differences of political outlook! One day Dr. Cohen sees me in the hallway near the library.  “Gendler,” he says, feigning the stance of a summons officer, Come in, I’ve got something for you.” He picks a thin volume off the shelf in his office, hands it to me with just a touch of disapproval, and says, “You’re an Iowa Quaker…this will appeal to you!”

How right he was! “The Community of Israel and Wars Among the Nations” was my introduction to the quite revolutionary writings of “One of the Passionately Concerned Rabbis,” – pen name of Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamaret.

The exchange between Gendler and Cohen is a beautiful testimony to rabbinic cooperation across the spectrum of opinion for the sake of knowledge.

Rabbi Tamaret, was a teacher of nonviolence as a core principle of Jewish life. He first supported and then opposed what he regarded as Zionism’s overweening nationalism after attending the fourth Zionist Congress in London in 1900. The following excerpts are from Rabbi Tamaret’s Shabbat Hagadol sermon during Passover 1906, translated by Rabbi Gendler. In the essay, Tamaret distinguishes two types of violence. He describes “natural violence” as direct violence arising from the inability to control human passions, and a second type of unnatural violence constructed from sophisticated falsehoods meant to persuade “whole populations to band together publicly in organized assaults upon weaker nations.”

Rabbi Tamaret regarded Zionism in the later category, as did significant numbers of rabbis in his generation:

Fradulent evil, that is, evil justified by the mind, or political evil, has become the greatest destroyer on the face of the earth. It is the source of the worst catastrophes which have befallen men since the beginning of the “improvement” of the intellect. For what have we seen? A steady reduction of private, natural crimes of individual violence, but an enormous increase in fraudulent murders…hypocrisy has united whole nations and entire societies in the pursuit of weaker ones. This is the secret of all the wars, conscriptions and organized slaughters which have occurred in the world at large…

It was in order to clear away these two corruptions: violence due to uncontrolled passion directed at immediate wants, and the unnatural ones resulting from misrepresentations of the intellect (systemic violence) that the Holy One manifested in the world through the giving of the Torah, preceded by the exile to and redemption from Mitzrayim (Egypt).  Servitude, the condition of one having dominion over the person of another, falls under the second category of evil, that evil which pretends to some justification.

We have no assurance that the unnatural evil of man’s falsifying intellect will not snatch the Torah, toss it into its valise, and make of it another weapon for destruction and murder. For this is the standard method of the evil-minded murderer: to take the fruits of enlightenment and intelligence, intended to enhance life on this earth, and turn them into their opposites, tools for the angel of death.

Rabbi Tamaret also offered the following Talmudic commentary to illustrate what he regarded as the greatest provider of authentic security and the true meaning of Torah:

A man should concern himself more that he not injure others than that he not be injured…. The Children of Israel must derive this lesson from the events of Passover eve: not to put their trust in wealth, and not to put their trust in might, but rather in the god of truth and justice, for this will serve to defend them everywhere against those who would dominate by the power of the fist.

May the power of the Torah of nonviolence liberate our hearts and minds this Passover so we can celebrate liberty and freedom for Palestinians and Jews next year.