Friday, September 4, 2015

Asking Forgiveness of Myself on Yom Kippur

We are closing in on the High Holy Days – a time of reflection, celebration, and forgiveness. It is a new year that is filled with possibilities and it begins with the Ten Days of Repentance. As a Jew by Choice it’s this time of year that is pregnant with meaning for me. I do not have a long history of Hanukkah celebrations and Passover Seders. Nor did I have the privilege of listening to my grandparents talk about  putting carp in the bathtub or building a sukkah. The large family oriented celebrations have no back story for me – none beyond their biblical context and their historical significance. But the High Holy Days make it possible for me to connect with Judaism in a way the other holidays don’t – in a deeply personal and reflective way.

But they are also problematic for me. I struggle with forgiveness – forgiving. And I admit that I struggle with knowing when I should ask for forgiveness and of whom I should ask it. As a child who grew up in a highly dysfunctional home where violence was the norm, I struggle with my responses as an adult to that past. I struggle to find the line between forgiving my mother and step-father and the necessity of not allowing their dysfunction back in my life. I struggle too with their deeply held, but extreme religious beliefs that center on paranoia, fear and disdain of gay people. Do I forgive them? Do I ask forgiveness – and for what – for being me? For being angry that they will “stand with Kim Davis” in Kentucky but not with their gay daughter at her civil union? How and what should be the scope of asking and receiving forgiveness on Yom Kippur? Do I ask forgiveness for demanding a place at the table? Or for wanting to be accepted “Just As I Am?” I don’t have the answers – and even at 49 – almost 50 – I struggle with the ways in which the dysfunction in my past have, in many ways, colored my present – often in ways that I don’t even realize.

The key to gaining forgiveness from someone is by asking –and I admit that my step-father asked me once – almost twenty years ago. At the time I was not ready. Many things had been done and said in my childhood and young adulthood that were too big for me to simply brush away with an “I forgive you.” In many ways, I was (and perhaps still am) that 12 year old girl whose arms he pinned to the couch as my mother slapped at my face. I was 12 – and had flipped over a coffee table so my step-father would stop hitting my two younger sisters. It worked, because he chased after me as I ran to the bathroom, flipped me over his shoulder and threw me against the sofa. As he held me down, my mother hit me. And from that key moment in my life I felt – and continued to feel – as if my mother had taken sides – and had chosen the perpetrator’s side over her own child. She had always come to my rescue before this – if she couldn’t physically intervene, I could always hear her voice of protest. But that was now over.  Things like this loom large – and restrict the relationship I have with my mother and step-father. No  matter how hard I try to overcome these things, I cannot obliterate them – possibly because they have never specifically apologized for them. Whether it was my step-father hitting my mother, my younger siblings, or tying a garbage bag over the head of our dog and beating him, he has never said, "I am sorry for causing you pain, for creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity, for blaming you for my marital problems, for not loving you enough to stop the violence."

And for my mother it was the same, her harsh words and ability to deflate hopes and dreams was unparalleled, Whenever I chose to say, “this is what I really want in my life,” she was quick to stick a pin in it and downplay the importance. She continued to choose the perpetrator, the religion, the politics, over her child. And she continues to “stand with Kim Davis” and to leave her child on the opposite side of the divide. That’s her right, I suppose, but it’s not something I can understand. And I’m not sure it’s something I can forgive. She has repeatedly demonstrated to me that her choices and her loyalties lie elsewhere, not with me – and so I struggle with – do I forgive her? How do I forgive her? Should I forgive her? Is it possible to forgive her?

Perhaps these things cannot be forgiven, forgotten or obliterated. Maybe they have to remain in place – a barrier to reconstructing a fictionalized account of my life. My growing up was largely one of fear, self-hatred, violence, and anger. In my teen years I tried hard to cultivate a deep spirituality which was always undercut with a well-timed “You need to get your heart right.” from my step-father. It always left me reeling and unbalanced – unsure of who I really was or what I was really doing – I tried to change  - to be better – to do more – but always, without fail, was met with “get your heart right.” I would, in the language of fundamentalism, “walk down the aisle” – repeatedly seeking to be relieved of the false mask – to finally find that sense of spiritual acceptance. But no matter how many times I left it at the altar, my parents were there to hand it right back to me the next day or week.  Emotional, physical, and spiritual insecurity was what they offered me – their enduring bequest to me.

But as an adult – able to make choices for myself – I have to be ready to acknowledge that these things place me at a disadvantage but cannot define me forever. And perhaps I also have to learn that I cannot re-create a relationship that never existed – or at least one that was broken beyond repair. I cannot make them accept me anymore than I can wish my past never existed. And so I have to choose to move forward and not backward. I have to  take that broken part of myself and use it and grow from it. But I know from watching the world and from watching far more successful people that these “parent” issues never really go away – and so I have to be prepared to live with the brokenness – as Jacob had to learn to walk with a limp. A symbol of struggling with the limitations of being human.

And so as  I approach the High Holy Days – and the Days of Repentance, I think that perhaps this year I should finally ask forgiveness of myself. And I should be ready to forgive myself. I should forgive myself for not being what others think I should be – because it’s okay to just be who I was meant to be. I must ask forgiveness from myself for constantly questioning my own self-worth, my value – and basing it on what others say or think of me. I must ask forgiveness of myself for belittling my own pain and seeing it as something that should be simply brushed aside for the greater good, rather than as a valid response to dysfunction and hurt. I must also ask forgiveness of myself for not seeing my own intrinsic goodness. I am a good person—who has worked hard, put herself through college, and has done all the right things. I did this without the help of my parents, and should be proud of that. I should also be prepared to forgive myself when I still feel the pain of a dysfunctional family. It is right and normal to feel the pain of loss - even as an adult. I should forgive myself when I am imperfect and hurt – and when I long to be loved on my own terms – even though I know it is not always possible. I should forgive myself – because – I am still human after all.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Dear Christians: What’s Wrong with being Politically Correct?

My newsfeed has been exploding with outbursts of despair: the Confederate Flag is being removed from state buildings, painted over on “the General Lee,” and is generally (and finally) being recognized as a symbol which represents slavery, racism, and hate. This association doesn’t come out of thin air. Segregationists rallied around it, the KKK uses it, Neo-Nazis in Germany use it place of the outlawed swastika, and white supremacists fly it with pride. While the argument is made that is represents “southern pride” and heritage, no one can deny the use of this flag as a fight against equality and black voting rights in the south. When a symbol has more negatives attached to it than positives, it’s time to put it away. But like the old “lost cause” school of the early 20th century, many refuse to let the old Confederacy go – and they refuse to allow the old symbols of treason, hate, and racism go with it. Yes, I said treason, because those citizens who take up arms against the United States are/were traitors.

What is most surprising to me, however, are the numbers of Christians or so-called Christians, who are bemoaning the societal pressures to be “politically correct.” They are chaffing at the unpopularity of offensive nicknames, words, and symbols. Really? Not being able to use the “N” word is offensive to you? As a Christian? How does that work? The fight to rename the Washington Redskins, because it is hurtful to the Native peoples of this country somehow is bad thing – and as a Christian you can effectively make that argument work for you? When a group of people make it very clear that they want to pass judgment on your life based on “Christian” principles,” or loudly proclaim that the United States is a “Christian” nation, but also want to retain hurtful monikers and symbols as if they are sacred, I have to wonder how they make than jive with Christian scriptures.

I might be Jewish now, but the mikveh did not erase 40 years of Christian teaching and interaction with the Christian Bible. Nor did it erase 10 years of Christian education including training at a Bible College. At this point in my life, Christian language and scripture are still very much second nature, and that will probably remain true for the rest of my life. So I am completely at a loss as to how and why the idea of  being politically correct is such a blasphemous thing for Christian conservatives who see the Bible as God’s ultimate word on every subject: “God said, I believe it, that settles it” is a mantra they say they live by.

The first and only place to start for this issue is the Christian New Testament – the manual by which Christians are supposed to pattern their lives. According to Jesus, the very heart of Jewish Law and the foundation of his own belief was the command to “do unto others as  you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7.12) He elaborated in Matthew 22 when the Sadducees asked him “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” To which Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as  yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22.36-40) Every other commandment in the Torah is a demonstration of how to love God and our neighbor. The same can be said for the gospels and epistles of the Christian Bible.

At another time the question of “Who is my neighbor” was brought to Jesus and he responded with the parable of the good Samaritan. The Samaritan, rather than the priest and the Levite, stopped and helped the wounded man. He was of a different nationality, of a despised religious group, possibly even hated by the very man he helped. But he acted in the spirit of the law. His actions weren’t toward someone of his own tribe, or faith, or family, but rather toward a stranger who perhaps in some other circumstance would have walked to the other side of the road if the Samaritan approached him. The true test of loving one’s neighbor then is whether one can extend that love beyond our own comfortable circle – at least according to Jesus, the Author and Finisher of the Christian faith.

So at the core of the Christianity is the concept of loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Jesus has defined the most important laws in his religious worldview, and he has defined the object of that religious faith: God and one’s neighbor. He has even defined what he meant by the word “neighbor.” The writers of the Christian Bible go on to elaborate on these two core principles so that the followers of “The Way” would understand just how to put these ideas into practice. Paul, formerly Saul, even explained the importance of love in one of the most famous passages of the Christian New Testament: I Corinthians 13: “If I speak with the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing ….” (I Cor. 13.1-3). Without love, a Christ followers words would be nothing but clanging cymbals and gongs – and the practice of that faith (prophetic words and faith), would be nothing, would mean nothing, would do nothing. Love was – and is –key to living out the imperatives of the The Way.

Love, Loving God, loving one’s neighbor – and being filled with love are supposed to be the cornerstone of Christian belief and practice. Emulating God – Who, according to John “So loved the world….” Jesus wanted his followers to “love their enemies.” And Paul described this love in the following way: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”  Jesus has defined the key principle as love and explained whom we are to love. Paul has explained what it means to love – what love looks like. But what does it mean in real life – to love one’s neighbor?

For a Christian, the practice of this love is supposed to be the one thing that marks their behavior. The measuring stick for a Christ-follower isn’t political affiliation or protest: it is supposed to be the acting out love. Paul exhorted the Romans: “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them … do not repay anyone evil for evil … if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God … If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12.13-21). In Romans 13 he says, “owe no one nothing, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law … love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law”".

This Christian religion – rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3.17)  is supposed to produce certain actions or fruits. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5.22). This Christian way of life should lead a believer to live a life worthy of their calling: “with all humility, and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love.” (Eph 4.1-3) Further on Paul says, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ as forgive you. Therefore be imitators of God … and live in love.” A mark of Christian – living out love as an imitator of God is to be gentle and kind and generous … and to be subject to the other – wives to husbands, husbands to wives, children to parents, slaves to masters – and masters to slaves.

Each person is to submit their personal desires to the will of others. In Philippians Paul explains that “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians2.3-4) He reiterates his ideas about Christ-like living in Colossians: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience … Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” And if one thinks that this only applies to those within the group, Paul notes, “Conduct yourself wisely toward outsiders … Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt ….” or in I Thessalonians: “…aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands …. so that you may behave properly toward outsiders ..” One should remember that the good Samaritan extended his love beyond those of his own religion or his own tribe.

And for leaders it is even more imperative that they be a cut above and “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” (I Timothy 6.11) Further they should “not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.” (2 Timothy 2.24-25). To Titus he wrote, “a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled.” (Titus 1.7-8)

The Way of Jesus – to love God and to love one’s neighbor was supposed to entail a life lived in submission to others – or in the service of others. Paul encouraged believers to “Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.” (Titus 2.7-8) He then said, “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone.” (Titus3.1-2). This is what it meant when the founders of the Christian faith said to love their neighbor.

Which brings me back to the title of this piece: “Dear Christians: What’s Wrong with being Politically Correct?” As far as I have observed over the course of my life and my exposure to fundamentalist Christianity, many have chaffed at having to temper their language and not call people by derogatory names like Japs, or Spics, or fags. Somewhere along the line they have forgotten that while they have a first amendment right to speak – they have religious mandate to be gentle. If being politically correct means that, as a nation, we have reached a point where we realize that referring to a sports team as “redskins” is potentially offensive to someone – it would seem, based on the Christian Bible, that Christians should be in the forefront of that fight. If Paul demanded that Christians act in the best interests of others rather than in the best interests of themselves then dropping offensive names and language  and symbols  - should have been a gracious act of Christian love rather than decried as downward spiral toward despotism. Can you really claim we are “Christian” nation when you act like a petulant child every time you are barred from offending another human being?

James, the most Jewish of the New Testament writers was very clear about the power of language and the use of words: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! … but no one can tame the tongue … with it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so … Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom … the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.” (James 3.5-18) Gentleness is referred to again and again … gentleness is supposed to rule the day … a gentleness born of love … birthed from the most important commandments in Judaism: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.  You may choose to call it “political correctness” - -- but isn’t really just a call to walk in someone else’s shoes and to treat them they way you would want to be treated? Isn’t being ‘PC’ just another way for a follower of Jesus to live out their faith – to avoid hurting the feelings of others and demonstrate the love of God? What is so wrong with not wanting to deface the image of God in another human being? What is wrong with being politically correct?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Laying Down My Cross . . .

I can still hear the words to the old hymns and the contemporary music of my youth – urging, beseeching, pleading . . . “Follow Jesus, I will follow Jesus . . .,” “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, Come home . . .,” “Take up your cross, and follow Jesus . . .” They take me back to a time of simple belief that was tinged with doubt, but saturated with earnestness. Maybe zeal is a better word. I longed for peace, assurance, and a sense of finally belonging somewhere – and Jesus wanted me. His arms were always depicted as outstretched, or he was continually knocking at the door of my heart, or the church, or the house. I just needed to be willing to let him in and take control. I needed to take up my cross and follow him down the Via Dolorosa and be willing to crucify my old self – offer up a living sacrifice – holy and acceptable.

 I really tried. I would go knocking on the doors of strangers’ homes and offer to share the good news. I would talk to kids playing outside and make them kneel on the sidewalk to pray the Sinners’ Prayer after I had led them down the Romans’ Road. I studied the Bible, could win all the sword drills, memorized scripture – and sang – fervently sang – “Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” I made countless trips down to the altar to confess stubbornness and hardness of heart – asking for Jesus to help my unbelief – for Jesus to save me because I wasn’t sure I believed hard enough the time before. I desperately wanted to “lay my all on the altar” and know the “peace and sweet rest” as I yielded my body and soul to his ultimate will.
 And yet . . . doubt persisted  . . . and in spite of what I thought was my single-minded devotion, peace and sweet rest proved illusory at best. Often I felt as if I was alone in the world. Everyone else could see the power of God in a thunder storm – and I only heard the thunder – and feared the fire and brimstone that it seemed to portend. What was wrong with me that “blessed assurance” seemed so impossible for me to find?.

Throughout college and young adulthood I never did  find the security in Christianity that everyone else seemed to find. But I didn’t want to give up. There must be something to this if so many people could devote themselves wholeheartedly to Jesus – right? While I could not manage to drag myself through the doors of any church, I couldn’t let go of everything I had been taught.  Even after wrestling with my sexual orientation and coming out of the closet, I tried to figure out a way to remain in the Christian Kingdom. I tried to reconcile the truth of who I was with everything I had been told to believe about people like me. It was by no means an easy time. I had literally cursed God – I hated God for all those years of feeling isolated and trying so hard while heaven remained so silent and closed. Now – after all of my attempts to enter the kingdom of heaven though the one who proclaimed himself the “way, the truth, and the life”– I had been given an additional burden – a stigma far greater than anything else.

But I did find my way back to God and the slow, sometimes painful process of becoming reacquainted with my Creator began to melt the anger that I had carried for so long. At first I could not sing the old songs or even open the Bible. But I was surrounded by love. It was love in the form of a caring congregation that cradled me in their arms and allowed me to find my own way in my own time. Slowly I found it easier to sing again – and to talk about God  - and experience a faith tradition that was not so alienating and judgmental. But it was also a safe place – this wonderful congregation. I was safe to explore my spirituality, to ask questions, and – most importantly – to be myself. Their nurture and caring enabled me to begin the next phase of my spiritual journey with courage.
In 2011 I knew God was encouraging me to begin a new faith journey. I was scared but confident. Years of questioning the validity of my faith tradition had led me to the brink of the Jordan River – all I needed to do was take that first step. Nervous, but knowing that staying put was no longer an option, I called to make an appointment with a local rabbi – the first tentative step that eventually led to my conversion to Judaism. I had no precedent – no real exposure to Judaism – but I  had been convinced by my own study and by reading the works of Abraham Heschel that Judaism was my spiritual home. I had heard "Lech l’cha” – Go forth from your people, your friends, your faith – and everything that was spiritually familiar – to a new place – and find yourself.
From that first timid meeting – to a succession of false starts and then consistent meetings with a new rabbi – I grappled with the realities of leaving behind everything I knew and traveling to place that was both familiar and foreign – new and yet so old. Sitting in the middle of the synagogue during Shabbat services I felt conspicuous. I tripped over the unfamiliar Hebrew words, I got lost in the prayer book, I didn’t know when to bow or how to bow or if I should bow . . . but in a strange way I felt I was home.
As the months passed and a became a year . . . and then two years . . . I grew impatient. I began to feel the weight of Christianity pressing hard against me like an unwanted burden. I struggled with the political commentary of fundamentalists as they made their pronouncements against the LGBT community. I wanted to desperately to shed the label . . . to lay down my cross. I had been existing in a limbo – untethered and between faiths – not a practicing Christian – but not quite a Jew. And in those few months toward the end of my conversion process, I began to feel suffocated by being linked to something I no longer wished to be part of.
When my rabbi sent me an email with a date for going to the mikveh I was ecstatic. As the date approached I was nervous, excited – and joyous. I met with beit din and after gaining their final approval – entered the warm waters of the mikveh to a new life. I had experienced baptism by immersion at the age of 10 – but there was no equivalent to shedding myself of everything – even my clothes – and entering into a sacred ritual that would bind me forever to the Jewish people. I recited the prayers and the Shema – and as I came out of the water for the final time I felt this incredible sense of peace and wholeness.
I am an imperfect Jew at best- still working out what my Judaism will ultimately look like . . . still trying to get through a hectic academic endeavor to create space and time for study, growth, and mitzvot. But I am excited that the next phase of my journey has begun. It may be as slow and halting as my initial steps toward conversion – but progress will come.   And now, standing on the opposite bank of the Jordan, I can look back and be grateful for everything and everyone that brought me to this place. . . . and proud to be Elisheva bat Avraham v’ Sarah

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tisha B’Av and Reflections on Trayvon Martin


I found an article that discussed Facebook and the tasteless posts using the body of Trayvon Martin  while was doing some research on FB memes that had come across my newsfeed the week before my vacation . . . images of Trayvon Martin's body with hateful remarks and racist comments -- images of someone's dead child used to score a political point -- and yes - these points were on the extreme right of the spectrum . . . and I wondered to myself - how are these images any different than the images of triumphant good ol' boys standing next to the lifeless body of any number of un-named black men as they hung from trees in the south? The images were of black men that were murdered - and were used to send a message - to other blacks - to whites who sought to help blacks - to anyone who saw the images -  and even as souvenirs.  But they also demonstrated to all who saw them that black souls came cheap – and could be tortured, beaten and killed with impunity.

What struck me throughout these last 18 months or so - is that a young man - who was not in the process of committing a crime was shot and killed after being stalked by someone with a gun -- and the dead young man was subsequently put on trial both literally and figuratively in the blogosphere and social media. But why? For wearing a hoodie? For images on his FB page? For using the term "White ass cracker?” For buying Skittles?  Because he looked “gangsta?” Or was it because he fit our media driven profile of a criminal: young, black, male. 

This incident – along with the relentless flow of “information” (loosely called) on FB has made me angry. I’m angry that so many people I thought were "smarter than that" - just aren't. I’m angry that people  who love to sing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. . . . “ Only mean little black children that they know – or that go to their church – or who act like “the rest of us” – you know – don’t act too black, don’t like rap or hip-hop, vote Republican,  talk like “us”, keep their pants pulled up, and don’t rock the boat. But it doesn’t apply to black children who fail to make us comfortable, or who force us to confront our own prejudices.  I’m angry that ‘pro-lifers’ (so called) are pro-life in utero and play fast and loose with “life” after birth. They will bomb a health clinic to save a fetus, and be willing to look the other way when minority children grow up in substandard housing, go to substandard schools, and have substandard nutrition. While for them a fetus is everyone’s responsibility, a living child – especially a minority child – is no one’s responsibility. Suddenly, – “the right to life” doesn’t apply to a young black man with Skittles and Iced Tea – a  young black man that might make us nervous – or that might just be some mother’s son.

And the constant stream of social media has demonstrated to me that we are still far removed from being a “post-racial” society. Rather, it has reaffirmed that uncomfortable feeling that race is still a major player in American culture and in American politics. And those who claim otherwise are really only fooling themselves. If anyone has taken just a peek at the invectives thrown at President Obama – not on policy – an arena of legitimate criticism in a democracy – but on the basis “otherness” – then you can only conclude that we are far from where we need to be.

Tisha B’Av – the 9th of Av begins tomorrow after sunset. For orthodox communities it is a time of mourning the destruction of the Temple accompanied by fasting, prayer, and abstaining from things that are otherwise enjoyable – including Torah study. For other Jewish communities it is a time to contemplate the impact of “sinat chinam” – baseless hatred. Eitan Press quoted a passage from the Talmud in a Huffington Post article last year. It asks and answers the question of why the Temple was destroyed:

"Why was the first Temple destroyed? Because the three cardinal sins were rampant in society: idol worship, licentiousness, and murder ... And why then was the second Temple -- wherein the society was involved in Torah, commandments and acts of kindness -- destroyed? Because baseless hatred was rampant in society. This teaches that baseless hatred is equal in severity to the three cardinal sins: idol worship, licentiousness, and murder.”

He goes on to say that, “One of the most destructive ways baseless hatred manifests itself is through judging others. . . . Baseless hatred dehumanizes us, until we lose our empathy and no longer see the "other" as people like us, who feels like us.”   I would also add that baseless hatred begins by dehumanizing the “other.” They are not only different from us, they become “less than.”  The person on the other side of the political divide becomes a non person to us, which allows us to throw out all decency in how we speak to one another. The person who speaks a different language or practices a different religion becomes an enemy and someone or something to be feared rather than someone who has a family who loves them, who dreams of a brighter future, or  who seeks peace. Baseless hatred allows us to see the other as a criminal first, rather than as a son, a brother, or a neighbor.

Rabbi Micah Peltz of Cherry Hill notes in a recent Haaretz article  that, we read Lamentations – “Eicha”  on the Ninth of Av  and that “Eicha” – or "How?” is the central question of the day. “How do we find meaning in this ancient destruction?” He goes further and draws a parallel to God’s question of Adam and Eve in the Garden after they had eaten of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil: “Where?” The same Hebrew letters are the basis for both words. This is the first question God asks of human beings. "Where are you?”  Peltz continues, “When we hear the word eicha repeated on Tisha B’Av, we are not only crying out for answers, for insight into how these many tragedies could have happened to our people, but we also hear God’s question coming right back to us. Eyeka, where are you? What are you going to do to repair the brokenness that still exists in the world? How are you going to help?”

And so for this, my first Tisha B’Av as a Jew by Choice, I find myself wrangling with what this day of mourning an ancient catastrophe means to me. And how do I , as a Reform Jew, find meaning in this day? I can mourn the past, but I cannot change it.  I can be outraged and mourn the senseless death of a young man, but I also know that I cannot stem the tide of racism alone. That will require the work of all of us together. For my first Tisha B’Av I have chosen to reflect on my own “sinat chinam” – my own failures to see people as individuals with value and worth and the ways I can change my own thinking in order to help others change theirs. Because if there is to be change in society – and a move toward understanding and peace it begins with individuals. As Sy Miller and Jill Jackson wrote: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

“Whatever man does to man, he also does to God.”–Heschel

I came across this quote in Heschel’s book Man is Not Alone  (page 207).  What a profound and yet simple explanation of what it means to “love our neighbor.”

If we embarrass, or ridicule or belittle someone – we embarrass, ridicule or belittle God. If we commit violence or are without compassion – then we have done violence to God. This is the inverse of what is attributed to Jesus in the New Testament: “as you have done it to the least of these.” But where Jesus only mentions how the good things we do are counted as if we’ve done them to God, the idea in Judaism, the idea that Heschel proposes encompasses not just the good. The idea that our selfish actions have an impact on God  should  give us pause – and force us to think of the ramifications of all of our actions – not just on our fellow human beings – but on God. It’s the very essence of intentional living – living with a purpose, infusing the every day with the eternal. Each action we take becomes an opportunity to do good – to work toward Tikkun Olam – or to work toward only a temporal agenda.

This is what I have sensed about the beauty of Judaism and learning to think “Jewishly” – it is learning to live “intentionally.” We choose to light Shabbat candles, or study Torah, or wear tallit, or eat certain foods (or not eat certain foods) in order to give meaning to the mundane. To live with purpose and to carefully consider the implications of all of our actions – whether it is to learn Hebrew or  whether we choose to cut someone off as we drive to work . . . all of our actions are important and all of them can have eternal value.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Belated Thoughts on Yom Kippur

I hope some friends of mine will forgive me as I used parts of my post Yom Kippur emails to them to write this . . .

I cannot always explain to people the “whys” of my desire to convert to Judaism and my answers differ depending on who asks me and what I’m thinking or feeling that particular day. And yet, during the High Holy Days, I could feel the reasons I wanted to convert.

From the first strains of Kol Nidre, I sensed the millennia  behind me ... And the countless persecutions and pogroms  . . .and the voices of the Six Million ... the lament of a people longing for forgiveness, for atonement, for restoration .. . for a home. All of that history, all of those people from the past whose voices were  silenced too soon, all of the sorrowful laments of those who suffered were mingled together with those in the auditorium as I heard the mournful sounds of  Avinu Malkeinu. . . .sh’ma kolenu . . . hear our prayer . . . And I found myself so profoundly moved. I felt stirred in a way that I find hard to describe – but it shook me – profoundly – deeply – in ways I did not think were possible.

I came to Judaism so cerebrally. I was convinced by the poetic words of Abraham Heschel, by studying, and by hearing the call of Lech lecha. By calculation and by questioning I determined that this was my path – Judaism was a faith, a way of life, that seemed to coalesce with what I believed about God and the world and mankind. I have always had a more analytical approach to religion – never comfortable with outbursts of emotion or physical demonstrations like the raising of hands. High church, white bread, Anglo-Saxon, respectable and dignified. But on Yom Kippur – being hungry and thirsty – with a pounding headache – I felt so humbled and overwhelmed – and certain – all at once. I didn't know all the words to the prayers. . . I didn't know all the songs . . . I recited what I could and listened to the rest. Yet I felt so moved and so at peace. I felt that my soul had found its home after so much wandering - like this is where I was meant to be. I wanted to sway back and forth to the melody of Avinu Malkeinu – and get lost in the ancient sounds and the ancient language.
There is no religious experience in my life that I can relate it to - not baptism or first communion -nor the innumerable "walks down the aisle" to the strains of "Just as I am."  To stand in a room with hundreds of people, chanting words like, "We sin against You when we sin against ourselves.For our failures of justice, O God, we ask forgiveness. For keeping the poor in the chains of poverty, and turning a deaf ear to the cries of the oppressed." . . . and confessions of the sins of arrogance, slander, pettiness, anger . . . all out loud. . . all in unison . . . a people asking for forgiveness in community is so powerful.

They say that a convert to Judaism is one who is reclaiming or wakening their Jewish soul – something that happens when you emerge from the Mikveh . . . but on Yom Kippur, I felt as if I had received my Jewish soul early.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Musings on Chik-fil-a (again)

Why are we so adamant regarding Dan Cathy of Chik-fil-a? Is it merely that we are “Christophobes” (the “it” word for Christians who have a persecution complex the size of Texas), is it that we hate free speech? It’s actually none of the above, which may come as a complete surprise to some (those who pay absolutely no attention to what we’re saying because they’re too busy telling us what bigots they aren’t and how we’re so intolerant). But there’s a backstory to the Chik-fil-a drama. It’s all about the disconnect between what Christians say – and what Christians do – like funneling millions of dollars to organizations like Exodus International and the Family Research Council.

There is room for  differing opinions on the issue of gay marriage. For years Tony Campolo has been opposed to same-sex marriage, while his wife, Peggy has been a vocal proponent of gay marriage. They manage to live together and stayed married . . . so I suppose it shows us that there’s hope.

But in order to find civility and reasonableness, there has to be a common understanding and acceptance of the other person’s humanity and dignity . . . and that is the crux of the problem. You see, treating people with dignity is the key. If you were to read the articles on the Family Research Council website, soak in the tone, read the language - you get a sense that gay people are less than human, less than citizens, less than what we really are --created in God's image. But, the FRC is only the tip of the iceberg, other groups like the American Family Association, and the National Organization for Marriage also use the same language and rhetoric to turn glbt people into the "other" -- something different, scary, dangerous.

Take that language and match it up with the NT teachings of Jesus . . . "do unto other as you would have them do unto you" or in the words of Rabbi Hillel (who was born 100 years before Jesus), "What is hateful to you, do not do to others." I am particularly struck by Christians who are so vociferous in their opposition to gay marriage that the humanity of the people who are gay becomes subsumed under frightening terms like "gay agenda" -- or "homosexual lobby". Most of these groups are largely funded by and operated by Christians -- who are supposed to be following the teachings of someone named Jesus, not Tony Perkins, Peter Sprigg, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.
So -- if one were to truly live out the mandates of their faith - as a follower of Jesus (and Paul, John, James, et. al) - then you really have to treat people humanely, decently, the way you'd want them to treat you . . . and, in wondering whether you should boycott groups, or support them . . . follow the money . . . where did Chik-fil-a put it's money? In the coffers of the FRC . . . and how does their language and posturing measure up to mandates given by Jesus to "love your enemies", or Paul's admonition to "live peaceably with all men . . . I say any group that dehumanizes another person by their words is not worth supporting.

 Many of us in the glbt community know more about the Bible than the religious right would like to admit . . . because many of us grew up in your churches, schools and colleges. We have grown up reading the Bible – and we have the expectation that people will be held accountable to the working out of their faith in all the ways that Bible mandates. But what we find is that fundamentalist interpretations of scripture are carefully crafted to allow the fundamentalists themselves off the hook – they don’t have to treat us humanely, or with dignity – because we are going to hell. It excuses them from having to “love their neighbor” or act as a good Samaritan.

One of my favorite quotes is one by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who barely escaped Poland before the Nazis came – but who lost his entire family to the holocaust . . . he said that “the holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda.” Am I saying that these guys are Nazis? No. I am, however, making a point regarding the painfulness of words, something that James was keenly aware of when he penned James 3 – as is any Jewish person who studies the ancient Jewish sages. Words have the power to heal, and the power to kill. In Jewish thinking, to degrade someone, to shame them or embarrass them is equal to killing them . . . and in killing one person, you kill an entire world.

When I consider that Heschel quote I think of young men like Matthew Shepard, Tyler Clementi, and Jamey Rodemeyer. If we didn't have such heated and hateful language, such vociferous condemnations from spiritual leaders, and such a hostile debate on same sex marriage, gay rights, and equal protection in the civic sphere, would these young men still be with us? Two of them took their own lives – the result of spiritual and verbal bullying – they are  the victims of living in a country where certain segments of society love to portray gay people as “sick”, “diseased”, “perverted” and “going to hell”. If it weren’t tough enough for gay kids  to face  abuse and torment in this world, they’re warned that after a life of bullying here, they’re going to hell to suffer forever – for simply being who they are.

Fred Phelps, who is now famous for picketing military funerals, cut his teeth in the funeral picket business with Matthew Shepard’s funeral. For many years he kept a ticker on his website that said “Matt in hell” for however long it’s been since his death, now they have the Perpetual gospel memorial to Matthew Shepard. Matt in Hell is even a YouTube video now put out by Phelps’ group. I mention him because this is where it gets very tricky for Christians . . . and I admit to being very – passionate about the topic. If you take Phelps's message “God hates fags” – it’s jolting and shocking and immediately people are repulsed by it. But if you stop for a moment and consider his other message, that of “Matt is in hell” . . . how is it very different from anything that so many of us have been taught in church our entire lives? What separates the “good” Christians from Phelps? It’s semantics . . . Phelps uses inflammatory language, but sometimes even the self-styled “good guys” will say the exact same thing - with nicer words. We aren’t so foolish as to not be able to see that the message is the same, whether it’s sugar coated or laced with with fire and brimstone. This is the baggage that Christians of all stripes must bear as they wade into the culture wars. Whether it’s fair or not is something I can’t answer – but that’s the reality for Christians – they have baggage they must carry—and the stickers on that luggage says, “God hates fags.”

I said all of that to “set the table” so to speak. This is what glbt people have rattling around in their brains, day in and day out, reinforced with appearances by Tony Perkins from FRC, or Pat Robertson, and the rest. This is our back story – many of us spent our lives in churches and youth groups and internalized the things we were taught – those things are with us forever. Thus, when we hear Cathy’s glib “traditional values” – we know the dog whistle code, and we know the players . . . and we get angry. We’ve already heard about the Kill the Gays legislation in Uganda and then find out those behind it were some of the groups financed by Dave Cathy and Chik-fil-a, and we’re indignant and amazed that people think it’s all about someone’s freedom to speak their minds – when our life experience tells us these people are out to hurt us - sometimes physically, sometimes by inciting hate, and sometimes by exclaiming, like the pastor in North Carolina, that we need to be rounded up and put behind barbed wire fences.

There’s a saying in retail: “Perception is reality.” And whether Christians like it or not, the perception that most of us in the gay community have is that Christians are narrow-minded bigots, who condemn us to hell, who seek to deprive us not only of our civil rights but of our humanity. Is that true? I often feel that it is. But it isn’t my job to change the paradigm – it’s the job of Christians to change the paradigm.

The most Jewish of the NT books is the book of James – it’s good stuff, and James had quite a bit to say that many Evangelicals find hard to swallow . . . things like: “let everyone be slow to speak, slow to anger: for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” (1.19,20) and “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.: (2.12,13). But the most important thing James said was “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  . .Someone will say you have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by works will show you my faith.” (2. 17-18). James is talking about performing mitzvot, or tzedakah (righteous deeds), literally fulfilling the commandments – not just giving them lip service. We don’t want to hear your words – we want to see your deeds.

The story of Rabbi Hillel is an interesting one, it is the story of a young man who sought out several great teachers and asked them to teach him the entire Torah – but they must be able to do it standing on one foot. Several teachers refused – who could teach the entire Torah on one foot? Then he came to Rabbi Hillel, who replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor - that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it!"