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.

Walking for Peace

Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace, co-founded by Rabbi Lynn Gottleib and Abdul Rauf with local Philadelphia activists. This sign is hanging on the walls of the International Airport in Philadelphia in the International Terminal as part of a Civil Rights display. Abdul Rauf is wearing a white kufi and holding the banner.
Philadelphia Interfaith Walk for Peace, co-founded by JVP Rabbinical Council member Rabbi Lynn Gottleib and Abdul Rauf with local Philadelphia activists. This sign is hanging on the walls of the International Airport in Philadelphia in the International Terminal as part of a Civil Rights display. Abdul Rauf is wearing a white kufi and holding the banner.

I know our hearts are breaking for the many wounds we tend, and the sorrow we feel for the brokenness of this world. As a comfort to our hearts, I would like to share these moving words from my dear friend and peacewalk colleague, Abdul Rauf Campos Marquetti. Abdul Rauf has been unflagging in his advocacy for peace building among his brothers and sisters in Islam, as well as among people of faith everywhere. He has a life long commitment to serving incarcerated brothers and working for prison justice. His vision of Islam is shared with hundreds of millions of Muslims throughout the world who have suffered immense trauma at the hands of the West for a thousand years. We join interfaith brothers and sisters who are choosing to actively pursue healing and restorative justice, to build peace, and walk into the future with awareness, skill, determination and hope. We choose to heal the wounds of structural violence and transform attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that perpetuate violence through the work of restorative justice and peacebuilding. May Abdul Rauf’s words inspire us in our interfaith work.

–Lynn Gottleib
In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful, The Muslim-Jewish Peacewalk is about transformation and the use of an alternative methodology that is deeply rooted in the Ibrahimic traditions.

Each peacewalk has its purpose, its challenges, its different forms, yet they all lead to dialogue, conflict resolution, reconciliation, peace, justice and compassionate actions. These are walks of peace without the violence that so mars the face of our world. As a Muslim I have personally conducted many peacewalks that have taken these different forms. Twice the journey of Umra from my home in Albuquerque, NM to the Holy City of Mecca. I have walked through Palestine, Lebanon and Israel and seen the devastation of occupation and woe, as an interfaith peace delegate with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I have walked the PeaceWalk from masjids to synagogues to churches throughout the US and Canada, and to the Nevada Test Site on Shoshoni Land. These peacewalks have transformed my life and given me a new perspective on what it means to be a Muslim and the responsibility that it entails.Why the Peacewalk? Allah Subhana Wa’tala says in the Holy Qur’an: “I made you different so that you may get to know one another.”And for what purpose? “that you may learn righteousness.” And the crux of righteousness? It is centered on the pursuit of justice and peace for those who are suffering and those who are oppressed. Why the Peacewalk? In these times of conflict and unrestrained military violence we must be able to find creative, nonviolent and alternative ways to build Peace…for the future of our children. “

Abdul Rauf Campos Marquetti, 2004

JVP Rabbinical Council Response to Escalating Violence in Jerusalem

As the horrific news of more violence and more death pours in from Jerusalem, the JVP rabbinical council stands in mourning with all those who have lost parents and children, homes and houses of prayer, sisters, brothers, and friends. We renew our efforts to be a voice for justice and peace for all people in Israel and Palestine.

We offer this bundle of poetry as a way to reflect and heal from the reports of mounting violence and to recommit to being part of building a future of which we can all be proud.

1.  A prayer in remembrance
by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb

May the memories of those killed in senseless hatred be for a blessing.

May their spirits be lifted up and comforted in the close embrace of God’s motherly presence.

May our precious children be safe from harm.

May all the children be our children.

May we protect all parents from mourning.

May our hearts and the hearts of our people be healed quickly in our day from the wounds of the past and present.

May every grieving parent find comfort.

May we live to see the day when no parent has to grieve.

In Hebrew, translated by Rabbi Lila Vesid:

תפילת זיכרון

מאת הרבה רחל ברנבלט
והרבה לין גוטליב

יהי רצון שזכרם של בנינו
שנהרגו בשל שנאה חסרת פשר
.יהיה לברכה

יהי רצון שרוחם תעלה
ותתנחם בחיבוקה החם
.והאימהי של אלוהים

.יהי רצון שילדינו היקרים יהיו בטוחים מכל צרה

.יהי רצון שכל הילדים יהיו ילדינו

.יהי רצון שנגן על כל ההורים מן השכול

יהי רצון שלבבנו ולבבם של בני עמנו
יירפא במהרה בימינו
.מפצעי העבר וההווה

.יהי רצון שכל הורה אבֵל ימצא ניחומים

יהי רצון שנזכה לראות את היום
שבו לא יהיו עוד הורים אבֵלים

2. Let Us Join Those Who Refuse
by Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz

let me be strong as history
let me join those who refuse
let there be time
let it be possible
let no faction keep me
from those who suffer
let no faction keep me from those who needed a home
and found one
[let no faction keep me from those who had homes
and lost them: stolen, walled off, razed, occupied]
let no faction keep me from those
who need a home now.

3. Revenge
by Taha Muhammad Ali

At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
expelling me
into
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!

But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.

Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbours he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school …
asking about him
and sending him regards.

But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbours or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.

4.  Dirge Without Music
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave.
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

JVP Rabbinical Council Statement on Gaza – Summer 2014

We are currently amidst “the three weeks” – the annual Jewish period of quasi-mourning that leads to the fast day of Tisha B’Av. This is the season that bids us to look deeply into the soul of our community and examine the ways that our sinat chinam – baseless hatred – has led to our communal downfall.

Driven by the spirit of this season, we cannot help but speak out in response to the horrific loss of life currently taking place in Gaza, at the hands of the Israeli military. We deplore the Israeli government’s military crackdown in the West Bank that led to its lethal, military onslaught on the people of Gaza.  We mourn the deaths of hundreds of innocent people, including children.

We condemn Hamas’ rockets attacks on Israel and are deeply grieved by the anxiety, injury and death they have caused. But we cannot view this as a war between two equal sides. Israel has unlimited hi-tech weaponry; it dominates Gazan airspace, its borders, its utilities and economy.

Moreover, it was Israel who willfully launched this mission of death on the Palestinian people. Israel hides behind the pretext of avenging the still unsolved kidnapping and killing of three Jewish boys. Rather than seeking recourse through civil, legal means, Israel’s leaders have called for vengeance, with terrible consequences.

We can not stand idly by as the Jewish State acts with such wanton disregard, with such sinat chinam, for the humanity of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, children and elders of Gaza.

As Jews, we abhor the abuse of human rights that are standard practice of our fellow Jews in the Israeli government and Israeli military. This is not the path of justice.

As rabbis, we must speak out against collective punishment, the blowing up homes of innocent people, the terrorizing of an entire people, and the killing of innocent children.

This Jewish season asks us to engage in a collective moral accounting; to reckon seriously with the ways our own failings have historically led to our communal downfall. Mindful of this spiritual imperative, we call upon the government of Israel to end its military onslaught, which we believe will only lead to more tragedy for Jews and Palestinians alike.

We stand with all people of conscience who reject the ways of militarism and occupation and who seek a path to a truly just peace in Israel/Palestine.

*Statements of the JVP Rabbinical Council represent the council as a whole but not necessarily individual members