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Finding Hope In Hard Times

Fri, 09/21/2018 - 06:44
In the past, as in the present, people who occupied positions of political leadership had their own press agents, who were paid handsomely to make their employer look splendid in the eyes of the people and in the historical record. But there were also court reporters who told an unvarnished version of events.
While the former spun straw into gold, the latter chronicled the heavy human price paid for such finery. Take the case of King Solomon, for instance. The question we must ask ourselves as we read the biblical text is not which version of events is true, how do we separate fake news from the truth, but rather, how do we distill hope for the present and the future from this history.

To this very day Solomon is renowned for this legendary wisdom, When he became king, he asked God for the gift of wisdom.Clearly his ambition was to make Israel great again.He assembled a core of press agents to "capture" stories that might detract from his goal and to promote news that would advance his agenda. The royal press agents were so successful in their effort to cast the king in a positive light that the phrase "the wisdom of Solomon" has slipped into common usage.

Reading the biblical text more closely I find that there are lesser known and less celebrated aspects of Solomon's reign that members of the press corps inserted into the historical record. For ease of reading I do not cite chapter and verse in the following. Rather, I invite readers to do their own investigation of biblical texts and draw their own conclusions. The following highlights of Solomon's time as king raise two questions for me. Why were these stories allowed to remain in the sacred text? What lessons might we take from this history.

When King David was approaching death there was more than one candidate to take his place as king. There were no televised presidential debates as we have now, but clearly Solomon was neither the natural choice, nor was he everyone's first choice. There was backstage maneuvering and palace intrigue. Solomon did not have the popular vote, but the Electoral College was on his side. This helps explain why Solomon conducted a palace purge soon after his coronation. Loyalty paved the pathway to the king's inner circle.

Marital fidelity was not one of Solomon's virtues. According to the legend he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. In the eyes of religious conservatives Solomon's lack of fidelity was his great sin. They did not forgive him.

Solomon had a great edifice complex. He not only built a great Temple for God, he also built a fine palace for himself, and he is credited by the biblical story with erecting many other impressive buildings. There is no record that he named any of the buildings after himself, but he had enough gold and sliver and precious gems that he could easily have done so if he had wanted. He was not lacking in hubris.

King Solomon was a skilled deal-maker. He used the power of his office to build international alliances, and to amass great personal wealth. There was no emoluments clause to fuss with. Legend has it that many rulers from many lands came to him to pay tribute, stay in his hotels, and shower him with favors and gifts of every sort. He was a very wealthy man.

Some would refer to the reign of Solomon as Israel's "Golden Age," but others might call it the "Gilded Age." Forced labor was a fact of life for many, while the few basked in the blessed light of previously unknown prosperity. The chasm between the rich and the rest was deep and wide. And, there was no social safety net for so-called "takers."

Near the end of his reign Solomon reflected on all that he had done, and he wrote the following:

"So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil that I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (Eccl 2: 9 - 11, RSV).

      Upon Solomon's death the kingdom was split in two, never to be reunited again.
Yet, to this very day there are many who cherish the hope that perhaps, one day, a new Temple will be erected on the very spot where Solomon's Temple once stood, and there will be a new Golden Age for Israel.

This nationalist dream is not unique to any one nation. Indeed, we live in an age when nationalist ideology is re-asserting itself in many forms and in many places. In some instances this resurgent nationalism borders on idolatry.

Rather than thinking of the reign of Solomon as a Golden Age, I see it as the foreshadowing of a failed state. His policies, practices and priorities left a divided nation that did not have either the will or the resources to heal itself. While Judaism remains a vibrant and vital religious heritage and faith, Israel itself has perhaps never fully recovered from the hubris of Solomon. Other nations, including our own, labor under their own outworn mythologies of exceptionalism.

I ask myself if we are witnessing the making of a failed American state today. Our national debt has reached historic heights, yet the stock market continues to climb ever higher; the social safety net is being shredded in the name of fiscal austerity, yet the defense-homeland security-industrial complex continues to expand; federal oversight and regulatory agencies are stripped of power and personnel, yet the ecological crisis deepens; and, a growing chasm separates the rich from the rest. The list of concerns grows longer if not by the hour then by the day.

         Are golden dreams the only refuge we have for hope?  .

While wrestling with the above, I have been reading Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America (Monthly Review Press, 1997). First published in 1971, it remains a compelling book. In the concluding chapter, Galeano writes: "In this world of ours, a world of powerful centers and subjugated outposts, there is no wealth that must not be held in some suspicion" (p. 267).

I am inclined to believe that there were reporters in the age of Solomon who were suspicious of wealth and so they seeded the official record with stories of dissent, knowing that in doing so they were sowing seeds of hope for a more open society.

The questions for us, then, are these: Where do we see seeds of hope being planted today? What stories are we telling and celebrating? Perhaps these questions are the true legacy of a wise king who at the end of his days wanted to tell a cautionary tale.

David P. Hansen,
Author and Contributor

Crossing the Bridge to Freedom

Fri, 09/14/2018 - 09:48

I remember well that day, February 11, 1986. I was sitting with a group of colleagues that had formed a religious court, a Beit Din, at the mikveh in Vancouver, British Columbia. We had just served as midwives, if you will, having welcomed several new Jews into our people. Far away, and worlds away, a Jew had been returned to his people. It was the day that Natan (then as Anatoly) Sharansky had crossed from East Germany to West as part of a prisoner exchange, ending the long saga of his imprisonment in the Soviet Union. Along with his wife, Avital, who had campaigned tirelessly for his release, his was the face of Soviet Jewry.
On that day in the winter of 1986, three rabbis sat spellbound, responsibilities completed, listening to the news and sharing what we had read. Beyond the euphoria of one person’s liberation, of a long trek to freedom completed, we kept coming back to one moment, the very final moment of the trek, continuing to imagine it, to replay it, exploring its significance as we might mine a text for meaning. The text in this case was one person’s courageous final act in the face of oppression, one final step toward freedom in which that step became its own affirmation of what it means to be free.
          Sharansky crossed from East Germany to West at the Glienicke Bridge, where at its Berlin terminus of Wannsee, Nazi chiefs affirmed the “Final Solution” in 1942. As he began to walk alone across that bridge to freedom, when we might have expected him to virtually run, to at least walk as directly and quickly as possible to the other side, he did something very different which bewildered all of those who watched, those waiting for him at the other side and all of those watching on televisions around the world. The newly freed prisoner took a long, slow, zigzag course across the bridge. Beyond the deep, existential questions of survival, of faith, of hope that would become the primary questions over time, answers to inspire and challenge, the immediate question was obvious. Asked by newscasters and loved ones, by common folks and famous, by three rabbis in Vancouver, British Columbia, the question was the same, asked with incredulity, the answer awaited with baited breath. Why had he walked that zigzag course across the bridge? The answer was as startling as it was simple. The KGB agents who had brought him to the bridge had told him to walk quickly across in a straight line. And so, of course, as his one last act of defiance in the face of his oppressors, turning to the right and turning to the left, he walked in a slow zigzag course across the bridge to freedom.
I haven’t thought of that story for some time and am intrigued that it came to me while reading one verse in the weekly Torah portion called Shoftim (Deut. 16:18-21:9). Such is the joy of making our way through each year’s Torah cycle, a journey repeated year after year, new insights and associations emerging in the context of a given year’s realities, whether from within ourselves or in the worlds around us. I have never thought of that story before while reading Shoftim, but for some reason it came to me this year. Perhaps it is because the specter of tyranny is afoot in the land, the call to resistance and courage needing models to inspire, joined together in holy disobedience. Perhaps it is because the tensions within the Torah are the tensions with which we live, the tensions we seek to resolve, or not, in seeking our way across the bridge.
The Torah portion opens with a call to appoint judges and officers to insure that justice be done in the land. A call to justice as the way of the nation, there is an underlying recognition that the collective flowering of justice depends on each one’s adherence to doing what is right. The challenge of justice is addressed to each one of us and then to the nation that is the collective formed by all of us, tzedek tzedek tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue (Deut. 17:20). The entire passage at the outset of the portion is in the singular, understood in Chassidic commentary to mean that each of us is to appoint an inner judge to mediate our engagement with the world. Placed within our hearts, or at each portal of the senses, we are to discern from within the way of good or evil. It is from within ourselves that we are to learn the way of self-control, whether with our eyes, our ears, our noses, our tongues, our hands, that we channel our desires in the way of doing good and not harm.
Of the external judges, the priests, the Levites, the judge that will be in those days/ba’yamim ha’hem, meaning in each age, that will be in our own time, we are told that we shall do according to the utterance of the word that they will tell you…; you must do with care all that they will teach you….There is to be a process of collective discernment, a process of learning that leads to teaching that leads to doing. Then comes the verse that brought to mind that zigzag journey across the Glienicke Bridge, Upon the utterance of the teaching that they will teach you, and upon the judgment that they will say to you, must you base your [own] action; you must not turn aside from the word that they will tell you, [neither] to the right [n]or to the left/lo tasur min ha’davar asher yagido l’cha yamin u’s’mol(Deut. 17:11). Our commentators wrestle to understand what these words mean, the latter ones in particular. There are conflicting views. One suggests that even if it appears to us that left is right and right is left, we should do as instructed. Another view says precisely the opposite; that we should do as told only when left is left and right is right, when our actions do not violate the truth that is before us, the very truth that the Torah itself has planted within us. The commandments are holy and are meant to guide us in the way of truth and justice, of compassion and peace, helping us to see the image of God in each person. Rejecting a ruling concerning the ways of Torah may at times be the greater affirmation of Torah. The rabbis taught that at times we should even violate a negative commandment of the Torah when another person’s honor would be compromised in our heeding of Torah (B’rachot 19b). 
         Ideally to walk hand in hand, in accord with good and righteous teaching, learning and inquiry as the way of discernment, the way of the nation, accepted and affirmed, inner judge and outer judge then to be in harmony.   There are times when the truest way of walking the straight and upright path, at one with Torah, God, and people, is to walk a zigzag course that says no to tyranny. With discernment, courage, and hope, the vision affirmed in the way of our walking, we cross the bridge to freedom.
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Believe In Something

Fri, 09/07/2018 - 09:20

I did not intend to watch the funeral service for Senator John McCain, televised by every major media outlet in the country, but the television was on and once I looked at this remarkable event I found it difficult to turn away. So many aspects of the service were so disturbing that I simply have to share my reflections--and give thanks to other journalists and writers who likewise found the spectacle mystifying. Let me count some of the ways.It seemed to me that Senator McCain planned the caravan across the country from his home in Arizona to Washington, D.C. with Abraham Lincoln in mind. The Lincoln funeral train traveled from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois.  Lincoln's funeral train traveled through 180 cities and seven states. One procession was for the President of the United States, the other for a Senator. One person was assassinated, the other died of cancer. The differences between the two men are immense, but I can imagine that in his own mind as he planned his own funeral procession, McCain was thinking of Lincoln. He, McCain, wanted to be remembered and celebrated as a hero who died in service to his country in the tradition of Lincoln, or so I think.
            McCain’s funeral was not held in a federal office building, but in the National Cathedral. I wonder if he attended worship services there on a regular basis. I don’t know. What I do know is that the church-state-military-security alliance was on full public display for all the world to see. At the very least the scene should give Christians pause when they read the story of Jesus’ birth found in the second chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew, or the story of his death, found in Matthew, Chapters 26 and 27. Every empire needs religious legitimation, but are there any limits?       During the funeral service a great deal was made of McCain’s experience as a POW in Viet Nam. I take nothing away from his bravery, courage and solidarity with other Prisoners of War. But simple honesty demands that we acknowledge that he broke his arm and leg after he ejected from his fighter jet and landed in a lake with something like fifty pounds of equipment on his back. The Vietnamese did not break his arm or his leg. He likely would have died in that lake had the Vietnamese not rescued him and taken him to a hospital where he received the attention and care of skilled doctors and a well-trained medical staff. The simple truth is, the Vietnamese saved his life even though he was flying missions that killed countless numbers of their own people.Figures vary widely but perhaps as many as 2,000.000 Vietnamese died in what they call the “American War.” The “Viet Nam War,” the U.S. name for the conflict, claimed the lives of over 282,000 U.S soldiers and allies. It is not a chapter in U.S. history to be celebrated.           As citizens of United States we want, I want, to believe that our nation is defending democracy around the world, protecting the down-trodden and championing the causes of freedom and human dignity. This desire to believe makes the contrast between Senator John McCain and the Nike advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, which was released the day after the McCain funeral I think, all the more remarkable.
              Both men embody in their own way the Nike slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Two visions, two nations. Can a house so divided stand? Deeply troubled by the display of unity between church and state that I saw in the National Cathedral, I remain a “prisoner of hope,” to borrow from the Apostle Paul, for I believe that fundamentally Christians must witness to a gospel of nonviolence. Such a witness changed the world once, and it may do so again.
David P. HansenContributor and Author

First to Cry Out in Horror, then to Raise up Sparks -- Torah’s Challenge from within its Own “Harsh Passages”

Fri, 08/31/2018 - 12:52

The pain was palpable around the learning table. How to enter the harshness of the passage, even as it seems the Torah itself wishes to soften what it knows to be wrong in its essence? How do we read through the lens of our own sensibilities words that hurt and discomfort, words that describe a situation that never should have come to be? Yet it does come to be, then and now, over and over and over again. It is one more instance of the brutality that people bring upon each other, reflected not in the news of the day, but in our holiest text. Regardless of how the details vary, of time and context, in the varied guise of people and place, degrees of sophistication in the ways of our hurting others, so we have done and so we continue to do.
This weekly Torah portionKi Tetze (Deut. 21:10-25:19), opens in the midst of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes so helpfully as one of the “harsh passages” of the Torah. Whether of life or of Torah, we struggle to know if this is what defines the essence. Is this the Torah? Is this life? Is this what it is all about, what we are left with when all else is scraped away? The portion opens, ki tetze la’milchamah al oy’vecha/when you go forth to war against your enemies, and, God, your God, delivers one of them into your hand, and you will take his captives, and you see among the captives a woman of beautiful form, you desire her and you take her as your wife.... It is the pain of women that sears the pages. Perhaps that is why it is there, to help us appreciate the pain of others by seeing the pain of those most vulnerable, those most in need of empathy and help, as in the constant reminder of our duty to the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. And here it is the woman, torn from her family, her people, her land to become another’s wife, to be forcibly married to a soldier who has been drawn to her body.  First we cry out with horror for such debasement of women, not to see in the controlled license given to the solder an act of sensitivity, but a glimmering of sensitivity that bids us to complete it. Before we can act on that glimmering, though, first we need to address the situation for what it is—rape—in the context of a forced and unequal marriage.
           It is painful to read these verses, painful to share them, to draw attention to them. And yet I do, because if we avoid what is painful, fearing to engage with the harsh passages of Torah and life, then we shall never transcend them. For all of the pain in life, we see and feel the warmth of a summer’s sun; we delight in the gleeful and oblivious laughter of children, in the spark of love when people are truly drawn to each other as equals. We witness within ourselves and in the world around us the power of kindness to transform and transcend. We stay engaged because we are alive, we are human, we have no choice if we would feel and affirm goodness and hope, a future for those very children whose laughter keeps us engaged.
In the face of the very harshness that he identifies, Rabbi Heschel responds out of the pain of his own soul.        Having witnessed enough of human brutality, fleeing the fires of Europe, much of his family having remained and been consumed, he describes the “harsh passages” as seeming “to be incompatible with our certainty of the compassion of God.” Wrestling for his sake and ours, he writes (God in Search of Man, p. 268), “the standards by which those passages are criticized are impressed upon us by the Bible…, which is the main factor in ennobling our conscience and in endowing us with the sensitivity that rebels against all cruelty….” He reminds us that the “harsh passages” do not represent abiding values, that they are not prescribed as a way of behavior, “that they stand in sharp contrast with the compassion, justice, and wisdom of the laws that were legislated for all times.
We scream, we cry out, and we ask where do go from here and how do we get there? The Torah is a context for struggle. It is called Torat Chayyim/Living Torah, Torah of Life. It is real and often as seamy and sordid as it is sublime, a reflection of life in all realms of life. We are meant to wrestle and to struggle with life as it is reflected in Torah in order to learn how to struggle with life as it happens around us. The challenge is to learn the ways of redirecting the violence, of transcending and transforming the seamy and the sordid, of text and of life. That is why we engage with texts, to learn about life and how to live. The Torah is holy because it challenges us to be holy, not only through exhortation, but through engagement with the profane as well as the sacred, all part of life. Moved by the beauty of creation as it is in the world around us and by the words of B’reishit/Genesis that describe the world’s coming to be, moved by the laughter of the children and of the flowers that sway in a summer’s breeze, we know that it is “the compassion, justice, and wisdom” that are meant to abide for all time, the vision and the way until we get there, when the harsh passages shall be but a memory of a long and arduous journey.
          We take a breath around the table. There is a glimmering that rises through the pain. The law that the soldier is to marry a woman that he is drawn to hurts in its incompleteness, and yet it is a glimmering, a channeling on some most basic level, an effort to redirect initial passion, perhaps to prevent rape on the battlefield, so incomplete, but a glimmering. Perhaps? The challenge then is where do we go from here…; from there in the Torah to here amidst the churning of our own gentler sensibilities, from here to there…, to a time when the harsh passages shall have been smoothed away by the very gentleness that allows us, that demands of us to feel such pain.
The rabbis spoke of this law, in all of its incompleteness, as a context of struggle with the yetzer ho’rah/evil inclination: lo dibra torah eleh k’neged yetzer ho’rah/the Torah speaks only as counter to the evil inclination (Kiddushin 21b). Some say the statement is only about this context of struggle, the soldier on the battlefield. And yet, from the most extreme context of violence in which this teaching is set, the context of war and its brutality, a way is set to help us find the way out. For the Chassidic teachers, the context of war in the Torah becomes a context in which to face our own inner struggles with the evil inclination and our own demons, to wrestle toward the transformation and redirection of the less than admirable forces within our selves. These are the very forces, anger, greed, lust, self-loathing, which on a mass scale if left unchecked can precipitate the ways of war, violence, and rape that the Chassidic teachers seek to transform. The surface meaning and context, the p’shatof the text, is immediately transformed, deftly turned with gentle hand as though to say this is not the way, the transformation of words pointing the way to the transformation of reality.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta, the Apta Rov, called the Ohev Yisrael/Lover of Israel,ancestor of our Rabbi Heschel, a thread unfolding through the generations, transforms the very verse that is the source of our pain. Of the captive referred to in the opening verse of the parsha, this refers to the holy sparks that were scattered, and engulfed, and locked away, and confused in all the external realities of the world….         Our task is not to abuse and betray one another, but to raise up those scattered sparks of holiness and return them to their source, thereby creating a world of wholeness.    Referring to us, and so to encourage, the Apta teaches of the vision and the way, of how to get from then to now, from here to there, b’ma’asehem ha’tovim, u’v’machshavtam ha’t’horah hayu podim otam me’ha’sh’vi/through their good deeds, and through their pure thoughts, shall they redeem them (the holy sparks) from captivity.
What may be the most startling transformation of the text, and so of war and violence, is in the commentary to this passage of Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov in his work Igra d’Kallah, fittingly, The Letter of the Bride.         The Dinover teaches that the captive woman is none other than the Sh’china, God’s female presence in the world: l’derech ha’m’kubalim/in the way of the kabbalists/mystics, kol ha’parasha m’daber al golus ha’sh’china/the entire portion is speaking about the exile of the sh’china/she’hi b’shiv’ya/for she is in captivity. The harsh passage is softened, touched by sparks of light, in the way of our reading and making our way through it, in the challenge leveled from within at the violence of its own context.
Reading through the lens of my own experience of text and life as a male, I acknowledge with humility that the possibility of so re-creating the p’shat/surface meaningis, of course, rooted in the painful real-life experience of women as reflected in the words of Torah themselves. The challenge and the glimmerings of response also begin in the Torah itself, awaiting completion through us. Raising the nascent sparks to fullness, it is for us to liberate the captive by insuring, first and foremost, that such brutality doesn’t occur in the first place. Our task is to free the captive woman of Ki Tetze, as everywoman and as Sh’china, allowing her gentleness to flow out into the world, softening its harshness with her motherly love, and ours.
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

That We MIght Walk Humbly With God and People

Fri, 08/24/2018 - 09:47

After the rains fell so suddenly and then the sun appeared, I quickly got up from my desk and went downstairs, opening the door and stepping outside. As I always do in such times of rain and sun in quick succession, I had come to search for a rainbow. A rainbow is a symbol of peace, of wholeness and harmony. The rabbis long ago taught that the rainbow is the symbol of God’s universal covenant with all of humanity, a promise not to again destroy the earth. In ancient times, an inverted bow was a sign of peace, a hope for reconciliation. As between heaven and earth, so the rainbow becomes our challenge to respond in kind to God’s promise. The rainbow as our witness, we too are then to solemnly swear not to destroy this precious planet, that we too turn all weapons upside down and promise not to use them again.
Searching diligently, I did not see a rainbow on that morning. Walking back up the front stairs, I could see the quizzical look on the housepainter’s face. I explained that I had come to look for a rainbow, sharing my disappointment in not seeing one. The housepainter smiled and offered a beautiful teaching. He quietly said to me, as though to reassure, “somewhere there is a rainbow.” It is such a deep and encouraging teaching, expanding the arc and embrace of the rainbow. Somewhere else, other people are looking up and seeing a rainbow and delighting in its magic and promise.

God needs all of us to see a rainbow and be reminded of its promise and its challenge. Simply to see a rainbow softens the heart and opens our souls to greater embrace. The very presence of a rainbow is the beginning of its own promise fulfilled. Touched by wonder, how can we countenance the ways of damage and destruction?
With heart softened and soul opened, we are more able to ask of ourselves and of God, what do you seek of me, what shall I do, how shall I be in this world? It is a question in the weekly Torah portion called Ekev. Moses says to the people, and now, O Israel, what does God your God require of you/mah ha’shem elokecha sho’el may’imach? Only to revere God, your God; to walk in all God’s ways and to love God, and to serve God, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul… (Deut. 10:12). Soon after, the Torah explains what it is to love God, to be as God, for God is one who secures the rights of the orphan and the widow and loves the stranger, to give the stranger bread and clothing. You too shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt… (Deut. 10:18-19). Love of God requires that we love people. That is what God seeks of us.
            There is an immediate parallel between these words in our Torah portion and the words of the prophet Micah in the Haftorah, the prophetic reading for the Torah portion Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9). Micah also asks of what God wants and then tells us, higid l’cha adam/it has been told to you, O mortal, mah tov u’mah ha’shem doresh mim’cha/what is good and what God seeks of you/ki im asot mishpat v’ahavat chesed v’hatzne’ah lechet im elokecha/only to do justly, to love lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God… (Micah 6:8).
I feel a particular connection between the verses of God’s seeking in in the portion Ekev and in Micah. Ekev is my birth portion, though my Bar Mitzvah was a few weeks earlier on the Shabbos of Balak. Ever since chanting the words of Micah at my Bar Mitzvah, they have remained as a compass in my life, as a rainbow reminder of what God seeks in all the ways of my going. As I always like to share, when I spoke of Micah’s words at my Bar Mitzvah, my mother, her memory be a blessing, asked me to add a few words to Micah’s. Urged to walk humbly with God, so my mother asked me to say, “and with people.” In the portion Ekev, the portion of my birth, my mother’s concern is given voice. If we would revere God and walk in God’s ways, so we are to love the most vulnerable among us, to walk humbly with them as our way of walking humbly with God.
These two portions become as one to me, joined beneath a rainbow’s arc, the Torah portion of my birth and the Torah portion of my Bar Mitzvah, Ekev and Balak. As the housepainter taught, “somewhere there is a rainbow.” With that awareness, feeling the wonder as beheld through another’s eyes, may our hearts be softened and our souls be opened, that we might walk humbly with God and with people.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Seeking Simplicity

Fri, 08/17/2018 - 13:28

              Quite a few years ago, I gathered with a number of other folks from our community for a 6 week series on “Voluntary Simplicity”.  The workshop sessions were designed to raise our consciousness about the methods by which we can simplify our lives in all kinds of ways, from de-cluttering to down-sizing to re-cycling and on and on.  The idea being that, in many cases, small and less are better - that there is liberation in simplification.   Even though I have not necessarily made lifelong friendships with the people in the group, they are still “there” as a virtual support group for my own personal efforts to simplify my life.
Fast forward to today, the work is ongoing.  My “support group” currently resides between the covers of three books: EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis,  FREEDOM OF SIMPLICITY by Richard Foster, and THE BUDDHIST PATH TO SIMPLICITY by Christina Feldman.
As my husband and I age, we are acutely aware of a desire not to leave a huge mess for our kids when we “shuffle off this mortal coil.”  So simplifying has a very concrete reality attached to it.    We need to downsize our pile of “stuff.”  I am the first to admit that this process is physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting, as well as very time consuming. Every book, every tchotchke, every old photo, every piece of furniture evokes emotions, memories, and the inevitable choice of whether to retain or let go. 
To maintain a bit of momentum with this process, I have engaged Morinis, Foster and Feldman as my spiritual “clean-up” support people.  Much to my delight I have found that the spiritual practice of simplicity is well developed in Buddhist, Jewish and Christian tradition.   My first eye-opening reminder came from Foster: “The first insight into simplicity that we receive from [the Hebrew Scriptures] is radical dependence, the second is radical obedience.  Perhaps nowhere is this more graphically seen than when Abraham was called upon to surrender his most priceless treasure- his son Isaac...through a long and painful process Abraham’s life had been honed down to one truth - obedience to the voice of YHWH.  This “holy obedience” forms the grid through which the life of obedience flows.”
As I reflect on the notion of “radical obedience” I am aware that this is a challenge to the various idolatries of  “more”, “bigger”, “shinier”, “newer.”  “Radical dependence” implies letting go of a lot of contingency plans - the illusion that I can create a  secure, worry free future if I can acquire just the right “stuff.”    And that inevitably leads to more complexity - - how to insure it all?  where to store the excess?  how to protect from the corruption of moths and dust?   As Foster notes: The idolatry of affluence is rampant.  Our greed for more dictates so many of our decisions.”   

 On a personal level, greed might determine where I choose to live, how I spend  my resources, what I demand in the way of services and resources to keep me comfortable in the manner to which I have become accustomed.  In the larger world greed for more determines whose land will be violated for more oil.  Greed determines which oceans will be polluted with untold square miles of plastic waste.   The need to protect what we “have” dictates who may enter this country and who must leave.  Greed dehumanizes life from the highest levels of government on down.   Radical dependence and radical obedience are somewhat alien concepts - - easily rejected challenges to our unexamined way of being..
      Alan Morinis  offers a brief bit of wisdom: “An American visitor was passing through the Polish town of Radin  and stopped to visit the Chafetz Chaim.  Entering the great sage’s simple apartment he was struck by how sparsely it was furnished.  ‘Where is your furniture?’ the man asked.  ‘Where is yours?’ replied the Chafetz Chaim.  “Oh, I am only passing through,” answered the man. ‘I too am only passing through,’ was the Chafetz Chaim’s reply.”
The principle behind this wisdom is “being content with what we have,”  perhaps identifying what we really need and separating it from all that we want.   Again from Morinis: “A need is different from a desire.  A need really is essential.  A desire on the other hand, is backed by an emotional force that turns it into a virtual demand: I have to have it.  And it is our desires that create trouble for us.  Desires can commandeer our lives on behalf of their fulfillment. And when they go unrealized, they deliver up anxiety, anger, frustration, and unethical behavior that we want to avoid.”
Thankfully, when confronted with our everyday desires, most of us have a built in mechanism that keeps us from veering into unethical behavior in order to achieve what we want.  But I would venture to say that few of us are free of the anxiety and frustration that accompany our desires.   Therein lies the challenge to simplify, I think - - to do the spiritual work of downsizing in the “desire department” in order to experience a simpler sense of inner peace.
         My morning reading today led me to Christina Feldman’s notion of compassion as a key element in a life of simplicity.  She describes Kuan Yan, the bodhisattva of compassion, as “one who  listens to the sounds of the universe.”  Feldman writes of compassion: “Compassion is a true vastness of the heart and a depth of wisdom that listens to, embraces and receives suffering.  It is an antidote to hostility, resistance, and division.  Learning to listen to the sounds of the universe is learning to soften and melt our armory of fear, mistrust, and imprisonment of self.”
Whew!!  Exploring the path to simplicity is anything but simple.  The very micro-environment of my home becomes a constant external reminder of the internal work I need to be doing.   So - just for today - my inner focus will be on “learning to listen to the sounds of the universe” in order to discern more clearly where I need to dismantle my own personal “armory of fear, mistrust, and imprisonment of self.” 
It seems to be a fundamental truth that a path to liberation, whether in the inward realms of spirit or in the external world of wealth, power and politics, may be found in the discipline of simplicity.
Vicky Hanjian

The Unformed Image In The World

Fri, 08/10/2018 - 10:41

       It is a truism, yet one whose truth and its implications is most often forgotten. Not a matter of remote theological musing, but of urgent and immediate challenge, Jews sing of it in prayerful song, in Yigdal, as drawn from Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles, eyn lo d’mut ha’guf v’eyno guf, lo na’aroch elav k’dushato/God has neither bodily form nor substance, holiness beyond compare. It is deeply held in Jewish thought and tradition that God has no body, no physical form. It is for that reason that iconography finds no place in artistic expressions of Jewish faith. And yet…, a small word in whose balance so much hangs, the human being is created in the image of God, b’tzelem elokim (Gen. 1:27). The human being is told to be holy as God is holy (Lev. 19:2), God, whose holiness is beyond compare. It is the human being who carries God’s unformed image in the world and gives it form. That is in part why we are not to create images by which to depict God. God already has an image to represent the Godly in this world, and that is the human being, mortal adam..
        In caring for other human beings, we care not only for God’s representatives in this world, but so too for God’s very likeness, and so we become holy, as God is holy. Beyond perception in itself, God’s likeness is, nevertheless, ever before our eyes. Meant to be cared for, every person carries the precious image of God. Every act that harms another human being is a failure of moral perception, a failure to recognize and acknowledge God’s presence in this world. God has no form or image, and yet over and over and over again, we destroy God’s image, and God weeps with pain. Every word that cuts to the quick of another’s soul cuts to the quick of God’s soul. Every act of callous disregard for the depth of feeling that makes us human is an act of disregard for God’s pleading presence in the world. Every act that harms the body, soul, and psyche of another human being fills the world with cosmic weeping from beyond the world itself.
       Created in the image of God, the human being carries the divine likeness, reflecting God’s image in all the ways of human diversity, refracting God’s light through deeds of holiness. As a focal point of veneration, therefore, images are not to be fashioned either of God or of people. It would be as though to replace, or displace, the human, and so to displace God. It would be to replace who we are as vessels and means of holiness, in all of our eternal essence, with finite images of stone, or metal, or wood. As a thread that runs through the weekly Torah portion Va’etchanan (Deut. 3:23-7:11), we are both cautioned and commanded not to make images. There are some thirteen direct or indirect references to images and to the way of our perceiving things in the portion. There are four specific prohibitions to the making of images, culminating in the second of the Ten Commandments as carried in Va’etchanan (Deut. 5:6-18), You shall not have another God before My Presence. Do not make yourself a representation/lo ta’aseh l’cha pesel, in the form of an image, nor in the form of any other likeness….
It is not only God who is not to be replaced by an image, but the human being. As its own teaching on care for others as rooted in care for ourselves as bearers of God’s image, introducing the Torah’s several warnings not to create images there is a preface with some form of the word shamor/watch over: as in rak hi’shamer l’cha u’sh’mor naf’sh’cha m’od/only take heed and guard your soul exceedingly Deut. 4:9); v’nishmartem m’od l’naf’sho’teychem/so take heed exceedingly for the sake of your souls… (4:15); hi’sham’ru l’chem/therefore take heed to yourselves (4:23). It is in the various forms of this phrase as a call to watch over ourselves that the rabbis rooted a sacred obligation, a mitzvah, to look after and care for our bodies, to regard the body as holy, a sacred vessel worthy of respect and care.
In its joining of respect and care for the human body as a reflection of God’s image and the prohibition against creating what we might call replacement images, so the Torah roots the moral power of that prohibition. Every single human being is irreplaceable, each one unique and precious in their humanness. Of that moral import, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes in a powerfully moving essay in his book, “Man’s Quest for God” (p. 125), “Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.” Heschel goes on to write (p. 126-127), “What is necessary is not to have a symbol but to be a symbol…. The divine symbolism of man is not in what he has—such as reason or the power of speech—but in what he is potentially…: to be holy as God is holy….” The likeness of God, Heschel writes, “may be defiled, distorted, and forfeited…. The goal of man is to recognize and preserve his likeness or at least to prevent its distortion….”     As Rabbi Heschel teaches, evil finds its root in our failure to recognize God’s image in every human being. In fierce tension, such is the potential for human goodness and the potential for evil. In our failure to live in accord with who we are and are meant to be, in our failure to recognize ourselves and others as bearers of God’s image, the potential for evil is realized. In a nation, a world, a time of so much violence, of so much disregard for each person’s humanity, God’s image is cut down as though it was so much stone, or metal, or wood.
We are the flesh and blood representation of the Holy One. It is that all-inclusive we of humanity that underscores the barbarity of tearing children from their parents’ arms, of hounding human beings as though they were so much vermin, of speaking in ways to demean and belittle, of wars, of nuclear imaginings, of disregard for the very earth on which we live and strive. And God weeps and mourns for the image-bearers, groaning with the pain of God’s flesh and blood children.
At the end of a day while in Prague recently, a day when I had traveled to Terezin, one of so many hells on earth where human beings were burned as though wood, or stone, or metal, I prayed at the Alt Neue Shul, most famous of Prague’s synagogues. It is the synagogue where the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, prayed, the place where so long ago he learned and taught and wrote his books. I stood directly across from the seat that had once been his, no longer used since the 15th century in deference to him, still his seat.     It was my father’s sh’loshim, the thirtieth day since his funeral. As I rose to say Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead that speaks only of life, so too did the one member of the local community, saying Kaddishas a matter of course for all of those for whom there is no one to say Kaddish. When the man realized that I was a mourner, he lowered his voice and motioned to me in deference. I was overcome with emotion, trying mightily to stem the flow of tears as they rose with the sacred words carried on my voice. As well as for my dad, I realized that I was saying Kaddish for all those nameless souls, there in the synagogue of the Maharal, across from his seat, words rising to the vaulted ceilings and then beyond.
       On portion Va’etchanan, the Maharal wrote on the matter of images, a teaching to remind of what is ultimate, of the human being who is not to be displaced: ki v’tzelem elokim bara et ha’adam/for in the image of God did God create the human, and since the human was created in the image of God, hinei/behold, k’mo she’ha’shem yisborach hu/the human is like the holy blessed one…, she’ha’adam she’hu nivra b’tzalmo hu kolel kol olamo/for as the human is created in God’s image, the human contains all of God’s world… (Gur Aryeh, vol. 5., p. 31).          Of urgent and ultimate truth, of challenge as immediate as the day’s wrenching news, God’s formless presence is crystallized in the form of every human being. Such is our potential to be vessels of holiness, our choice through deeds of goodness to be reminders of God’s presence. Beyond the work of human hands in stone, or metal, or wood, of imperishable essence before the edicts of pharaohs, fuehrers, or presidents, before the fires of hell on earth in which Jewish bodies were burned, every human being is of ultimate meaning. Caring for and honoring the flesh and blood reality of each one’s being, tending to the needs of each one’s soul, so we honor the formless Holy One, source of all life in whose image we are created.

Rabbi Victor Reinstein

The Ba'al Shem Tov and the Skunk

Fri, 08/03/2018 - 07:57

At least twice a week I take a walk with a friend.  We pass a school and often hear laughing children at recess.  We enter a wood that lets out onto a clearing, and the children’s voices fade away.   Occasionally a red tailed hawk is perched on a branch over our heads or soars hunting over the field.        The crows caucus loudly, and I hope for a flock of bluebirds that turn iridescent in the morning light.  Back in the woods there are some houses.  One has an impressive garden in which an orange fruit, perhaps a persimmon, clings to its branches even as the temperatures drop.  Another’s breezeway gives us a glimpse of the ocean we’ll encounter full on a little ways ahead.  Sometimes the waves come over the seawall, the spray chilling our faces with 30 mile an hour winds.  Sometimes we see all the way to the mainland. We walk along a road that winds along a pond. Once we stood there for half an hour routing traffic around a box turtle making its daily pilgrimage from the wetlands on one side of the road to the pond on the other.  But these last few months we’ve been marking the decay of a skunk.           At first it shocked us, its blood staining the ground.  The blood seemed still to be running, so freshly dead it was on those first sightings.  Hungry crows eventually carried its viscera and part of its carcass down into the swamp.  But they’d left the skunk’s head, tufts of fur, skeletal detritus and the depression it had made in the ground.  Then the snow covered it all, but we still stopped to talk about the skunk, because there is always a lesson for us.  The snow has since melted, yet we still see the skunk, the pieces, the whole, its shadow.  Three yards on we stand at the edge of the pond counting geese or mallards, marveling at the light, watching a swan feed, looking across to the sea.   
“When you grasp the edge, you grasp the whole,” said the Ba’al Shem Tov. One lesson of the decaying skunk and the pond beyond:  I can get both into my field of vision at once, or I can focus on only one or the other.  When I focus on just the decaying skunk, I am overwhelmed by sadness, by ugliness and by the pain of seeing another being tortured, even in death.  Sometimes I can see the ecological whole cloth:  the carrion nourishing the crows, the minerals of its bones leeching into and enriching the earth, the fur providing nesting material for birds and small rodents.  This is beautiful, if I can get there.  If I can’t, I am just in pain in the World of Separation. When I am able to capture the picture of the decaying skunk in the same field of vision as the pond beyond, I can begin to fathom the World of Unity. If I can glimpse the world of unity, if I can accept that all sides of the contradictions—the ugliness and the beauty, the pain and the love, the suffering and the relief—are all God-given, I can glimpse the goodness that runs through everything in this world. 
Why do both the World of Separation and the World of Unity exist? 
 The Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, who lived in Poland in the 17th century and is attributed with founding the Hasidic movement of Judaism, teaches that both good and evil are parts of the unity.  He explains through the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt that the goodness of Israel’s redemption from slavery was only made possible by the evil of Pharaoh’s enslavement.  This and This are both true.   The question for us is: can we see the goodness in the evil?  Can we discern the unity in the separation?  Can we “find sweetness in the heart of the judgment” so as to “find the loving-kindness within”?
We walk along, back into the woods.  Today the snow hangs on the cedar branches.  We have to walk single-file and duck under the branches to stay on the path.  I go first.  When I look back, I see my friend in a sparkling green and white world.  I have been telling her my hurt at feeling slighted by another, my guilt for speaking about another, but now I see her beautiful smile reflecting my own back at me, the hurt having melted into sheer joy and wonder at seeing the beauty of the snow glisten in the sun. I am grateful for the connection between us that deepens and widens every walk we take.       We are in both worlds, the world of division and the world of unity.  We experience pain and suffering and we have the power to ameliorate them.  Our exile from Eden, from ourselves, from others and from God is the source of the pain we feel.  If we accept that the pain is part of our existence, if we understand in our hearts that God gave us both the pain and the love, we can then perhaps open our hearts to discover the sparks of the Divine within ourselves that can act to ameliorate the pain and suffering.
The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the meaning of the verse “’you will love your God with all your heart and with all your soul,’ wherever you are and whatever is going on, counters the pain and suffering.”  Accepting the daily troubles is accessing and connecting with the “spirit soul.” The teaching continues:  “You shall love your God with your God, taking the loving side of God to love the judging side.” By accepting with love the daily challenges we face, the harsh, judging side is cancelled out. 
      She teaches me what it means to sit with people in pain, to receive and hold the pain.  The skunk teaches this to me, as well.  In the early stages of its decay, its odor dominated the air like murder dominates the Metro section of the daily paper.  Walk after walk, I seemed to become more connected with the skunk.  I looked forward to seeing it after a while, because I felt I was seeing a part of me now and how I will become in time.  I have stopped being repulsed and the separation between the skunk and me has begun to dissolve.Our job is to end the separation between the Realm of Unity and the Realm of Division, within ourselves and within the world.  To do this, we need to “channel the love and the unity consciousness that we have experienced into our daily actions, consciousness and relationships.”  One way we do this is through prayer.  
The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that our degradation is from a loss of faith.  Yet everyone has access to Divine grace.   This comes from sincere prayer, because “God wants to kiss the lips of the man who speaks Torah, [God’s instruction], from trembling and awe.”  Focused, sincere prayer touches God, which leads to repair of the brokenness of this world. 
Today on our walk I had the sensation of absorbing  the shadow of the skunk.  My eyes were doing this funny thing of independently—without my willing it—zooming in and out on the piece of ground on which the skunk had died, like you can make your digital camera zoom in and out of a scene on which you are focusing.  As my eyes were in this process, it seemed to me that I was absorbing the essence of the skunk, along with the essence of the pond beyond, the essence of the phragmites and of the crows that had devoured the carrion.  It seemed as if my eyes were the first part of my consciousness of the absorption, but that the absorption was taking place on many levels and that I, too, was being absorbed.
How do we serve the Divine in this world?  There are some actions in which this is more easily achievable for me, and perhaps you, than others.  In the garden and at my CSA I have no trouble seeing the unity; God is everywhere abundantly.  But it is much harder for me to maintain mystical mindfulness in the mundane and in the momentary annoyances, such as when the phone line is not working at intervals and having to replace the burner on the stove. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that “God hides behind many barriers and is veiled in many garments.  But what is true is that ‘the fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory.’  Every thought, every movement comes from God.  Everything is made of God’s own essence.  Those who truly understand this know that the walls, towers, gates, gold and castle are only God in hiding, ‘for there is no place devoid of the Divine.’” 
       What keeps coming back into view for me is that I live in both worlds, the world of skunk-Oneness and the world of skunk-Division.  In truth, I’m not sure I want only to be in the Realm of Unity, not yet.  In truth, I’m earthy and lusty.  I know that about myself.  Just watch me eat some time.  The Ba’al Shem Tov honored this.  This is why I think he would honor my belief about where I am right now:  that I can do what it takes to help heal the brokenness, to help bring about repair in the universe, to be with people where they are and help them move closer to God, to love God with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might, to see the goodness in the evil,  AND also to struggle with the dis-integration, the ugliness, the desire, the brokenness as one who experiences that and feels that and yearns for the Unity of the One but isn’t there yet all the time.  I sit with being in the “both/and” place, the This and This place, and try to be both content with where I am in the World of Separation as I strive to be in the World of Unity.
Rabbi Lori Shaller, guest blogger
Elior, Rachel.  The Mystical Origins of Hasidism.  Portland, Oregon:  the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.Jacobson, Burt.  Teachings on the Ba’al Shem Tov:            The Four Core Truths of the Ba’al Shem Tov with texts of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s             teachings:                        A Perennial Kabbalist, June, 2009.                        The Four Core Truths, Shorter Version, sent via email, October, 2009.                        The Quest for the Divine:  a parable of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Do No Harm

Fri, 07/27/2018 - 09:57

         About 2000 years ago, a gentile came to Rabbi Shammai, one of the great teachers of Israel.  The gentile said he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot.  Rabbi Shammai was an engineer and he was known for the strictness of his views.  He drove the man away with his builder’s measuring stick.  Then the gentile went to Rabbi Hillel with the same challenge.  "I will convert to Judaism if you can teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot."  Rabbi Hillel converted the gentile by telling him  “That which is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.  That is the whole of Torah.  The rest is commentary and explanation.  Go and study it.”         For some reason, reading this classic Jewish story brought  John Wesley, founder of Methodism, to mind.  He was a prolific writer.  There are volumes and volumes of his writings, his prayers, and his theology.   It is highly  unlikely, however, that multitudes will ever come to salvation through reading his collected works - - just as most of us will not ever come to salvation by trying to commit to memory the entirety of all the wisdom in the Bible.  But, like Rabbi Hillel, Wesley also had a genius for creating a briefer version of what was central to his teaching and theology, something that his early followers could easily remember and relate to.  His “General Rules”  encapsulated his theology and his guidance for newly forming societies of believers who would come to be called “Methodists.”  The General Rules were to be used as a way of guiding those early groups in how to conduct their lives individually and in community.           John Wesley’s body of theological thought is complex and extensive.  It is  challenging – and it is foundational to understanding the depth of the General Rules.  But the rules represent the essence.  And the first of the rules encapsulates the rest. Wesley taught:  “First – do no harm.”  Rabbi Hillel's words echo in the background:  The rest is commentary and explanation.  Go and study.”          “Do no harm.”   What might that mean for us today?  If Wesley were here, what might he include in his notion of not harming?  Would he think about the care of the planet?  I wonder if he would stand on the rocks at a threatened and vulnerable beach on the coast of Maine or on the crest of Bear Butte in South Dakota and shout to whoever would listen “Do No Harm!”  to this fragile environment.  Maybe he would stake out a spot at a major city intersection – cautioning frustrated, frazzled drivers with cell phones in hand to “Do No Harm!”  Perhaps he would see a child being shamed in public and take the parent aside and whisper “do no harm!”           I like to think he would have a voice in congress when our lawmakers are considering massive cuts to social welfare programs, or punitive solutions to immigration issues, or discriminatory laws affecting women and LGBTQ folks. Perhaps he would stride up and down the aisles shouting  “Do no harm!”           Those simple words are a great challenge in a complex and  frustrating world.  What would our days be like if “Do no harm” was the first thing in our minds when we woke up in the morning. Might our lives become more holy if our days were structured by the intention to do no harm?  Would we temper our speech?  Would the words remind us never to do or say something to another person that we would not want them to do or say to us?  Would Wesley’s rule encourage us to speak out when, indeed, we see the potential harm in any debate or law or action going on around us?         The Book of Exodus contains more than a few notions of what it means to “do no harm”: “Do not spread false report.”  (It might mean biting off the ends of our tongues before passing on a choice comment or bit of gossip.)   
 Do not side with the majority so as to pervert justice.  (Just because most people are in favor of something doesn’t make it right.) Jesus challenges us with the words “Do not judge - - do not condemn” -    First – do no harm.  It’s pretty comprehensive.
The General Rules don’t stop  with the prohibition against doing harm.  Wesley includes a second general rule.  A little wordier, but pithy, nonetheless: “It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, secondly, by doing good - - by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all people.”  
The second general rule echoes the words of  Jesus: ”Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  Once again in Exodus there is an illustration of the combined principles of “do no harm - -do good”:  the wisdom of Exodus 23:5: “When you see the donkey of someone who hates you lying on the ground under its load, and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.”  What on earth does helping an over-laden donkey have to do with anything?  Well - - To whom does the donkey belong?   Why – lo and behold!  - - It belongs to someone who hates you.  You feel absolutely justified in leaving it alone.  But the command is to help set it free.  Who do you have to help in order to set the donkey free?  Well – of course - -the owner who hates you!  What does this accomplish?  It fulfills the command to “do no harm”    It fulfills the teaching to refrain from doing something hateful to another being – even if it is a donkey.  And – it fulfills the command to do good.  By helping an enemy, the possibility for a positive relationship is set in motion. The dynamics of a relationship are changed.  A certain kind of redemption is set in motion.  It is amazing how more than 3000 years of wisdom and religious teaching interweave.  Jewish law says help your enemy set his loaded donkey upright.   
Jesus says do good to those who hate you.  Wesley says do no harm – do good.         All of these challenges are intended to wake us up to living our lives with the highest possible intention for good. Rabbi Art Green sums it all up this way: “Our faith awakens us from the sleep of unawareness and calls us to release the bound, to raise up the fallen, to uplift those who are bent over.  In this we are doing godly work, serving as the limbs of the divine presence in this world.  It is only through our acting in this way that God’s work is done in the human community.  And it is only by recognizing such acts as God’s work that we transcend ourselves and our own needs in fulfilling them.”         First – do no harm.  This is a great starting place.  We can all refrain from harming ourselves, others, the world, by creating our intention each day.  It is within the power of every one of us to do no harm. If we got no farther than that, our lives would be of service to God.  But we are also called to be pro-active – to do good whenever there is opportunity to do so.  Wesley took this seriously as he constructed his own life and the religious community that became the Methodists.  His famous dictum is:“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”   So – there it is:  Do no harm.  Do good.  All the rest is commentary and explanation.  Go and study it.  Go and live it.  
Vicky Hanjian


Fri, 07/20/2018 - 10:44
In most areas of our lives, if something isn't working right, we try to discover the cause. So if I'm feeling a lot of pressure in my chest and upper torso, I might be moved to consider the reason. In fact, if it's something new and powerful enough, I might want to hurry to the emergency room and make sure it's not a heart attack.
One morning last winter, I went to start the car. To my surprise, nothing happened. Since I had recently purchased a new battery, I was puzzled about the cause. I had the car towed to our mechanic. To my surprise, one of our local rabbit population chewed through several wires under the hood. Apparently the manufacturer soaks them in peanut oil to keep them pliable. 
Sometimes it's easy for us to understand the cause of why people are refugees. They lose their home to a natural disaster. I'm thinking of all those homes burned to the ground by wildfires or flooded by ten to twelve inches of rain in a short period of time. The disaster that was Katrina sent many to temporary or permanent locations all over the country, just as Maria chased so many Puerto Ricans from their homes to the mainland.
If we can attribute a disaster and the resulting refugees to an act of God, it is simpler and more acceptable to name the cause. It leaves us free from complicity and guilt. Our hands are clean; no blood there. But then there are those causes we'd just as soon ignore.
You would think as a country we would want to understand the cause, the reason, why there are so many people seeking asylum on our southern border. Tens of hundreds of desperate people, risking lives and limbs, even with small infants, to seek asylum in a country miles and months away. Why? Isn't that the way one usually resolves a problem, looking for the origin of the situation and correcting it?
      Hungary recently passed a law making it illegal to help a refugee. It was aimed at those churches and non-profits that have been aiding refugees from the wars in the Middle East. Now if you want to feed, clothe or shelter the homeless, tempest tossed in that land, you risk arrest. There have been similar threats in the U.S. on our southern border. Water left by aid organizations in the desert for thirsty travelers is regularly destroyed by the border patrol. Some seem to prefer dead bodies on the desert floor to live ones they have to detain.
Hungary is not the only country in Europe plagued by refugees. Every other country in the European Union has been trying to respond as best they are able without outlawing the helpers. But few are talking about the cause for record numbers of refugees. Do these countries, like the U.S., contribute to the wars that destroy the homes of these desperate people? What are they doing to bring violence to a halt in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Afghanistan? Do they spend more money on military aid that fuels the conflicts or on peacemaking and peacekeeping?
And what about climate refugees? Southern Texas has now experienced three 500 year floods in three years. Island nations that once were home to many for generations are gradually being covered by rising seas. Kiribati dikes will not hold the water back much longer and young people there wonder if we in the U.S. could lower our carbon footprint.
There are some causes we would rather ignore. As the only country on the planet to reject the Paris Climate Accord, our government doesn't want to confront the fact we have some responsibility for climate refugees. As the leading purveyor of weaponry in the world, our government prefers to ignore what our weapons are doing in Yemen, or Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan. And as the most pervasive military and fossil fuel presence on the globe, we hide our responsibility for authoritarian and corrupt governments, especially in the global south. As long as exploitation on behalf of a consumer society and the 1% is secure, the government feels comfortable hiding the reality of our complicity in producing the world's refugees.
       Jeb Johnson was interviewed on TV the other evening. He was a former head of Homeland Security under President Obama.  He was asked about the situation on the border with immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. He rejected the idea of the wall as a politically symbolic but ineffective solution. He suggested we might want to go to the source of the problem, the violence so prevalent in those countries. People are fleeing for their lives and the lives of their children. Much of the violence stems from the drug trade, dependent on users in this country.
Why do we have a drug problem? What's that cause? Why do we have an opioid epidemic? Why are the Central American cartels getting rich off American dollars? Why is the suicide rate among 18-34 year olds at epidemic levels? Why are more middle aged, middle class males killing themselves? Why is racism raising its ugly head with new and growing ferocity? Why are we separating families on the border like when we took Indian children to boarding schools and children of slaves to other masters? What is the cause?
       The simple answer is we have lost our soul. We have set in the seats of government those who say, "me first." That has become the mantra foisted on the country to the exclusion of all "outsiders," including "insiders" of the wrong color. Mexico and Canada be damned. Traditional allies be damned. China be damned. Muslims and their nations be damned. Refugees be damned.

The problem is when we say "me first," and damn all the others, we destroy the foundation of meaning underlying all human life. Relationship is what makes life meaningful. The new neighbor is what makes life interesting. The boredom of self seeking selfishness is a sickness unto death.

Carl Kline

The "Yoga of clean-up"

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 10:07

       For years I studied with a yoga teacher who delighted in finding ways to make difficult yoga postures restorative for me.  She  would encourage me to use every bit of equipment available to support my body so that I could assume a posture and rest in it.  By the end of a session the space would be cluttered with bolsters, mats, blocks, straps, cushions and blankets - all used in the service of my practice.    And then, at the end of a gloriously restful “final relaxation”   she would sweetly bring me back into the present moment and whisper “and now for the yoga of clean-up.”    
          It took me quite a few sessions to  integrate the cleaning up of the yoga space into my practice as a continuation of all that I had learned in the sessions.   Leaving the yoga space in an orderly condition is part of my yoga practice.
I probably would not be described as  fanatical housekeeper.  I can live with a bit of dust for awhile.  I don’t have to empty the dish drainer before company comes.   OK -so I am a bit fussy about the bathroom.  But lately, I have taken to doing a lot of yard work, going after weeds with a vengeance, brooming cobwebs off the exterior logs of our home, scraping and painting the foundations, cleaning out flower beds, trimming back bushes and raking the yard smooth - - trying to bring a sense of order and serenity to the space that surrounds our home.   Curiously, I have had a lot of energy for this endeavor. 
The pay-off has been  my enjoyment of a sense of pleasure as I walk about our simple yard.  We have an “island” landscape and lawn- which means no beautiful green grass to be mowed,  no manicured gardens,  no sculpted shrubberies.  Basically we just keep the “jungle” from encroaching too much.  And yet, there is still this inner urge to create an orderly, serene space around our home.
I have been reflecting on my need to create order.  I could become compulsive about it.  I realized that my tolerance for chaos has been and continues to be severely tested by the relentless assault on my sense of order - whether it is the terrible chaos at our southern border, and the human suffering it has unleashed, or the great uncertainty of the anticipation of full blown trade wars.  The orderliness of civility and common decency staggers under the daily beatings.  As summer unfolds on our lovely island and the multitudes come to enjoy the sun and sand, the level of aggression and in-civility is noticeably worse than last year during the first two weeks of July. 
        We come to expect that this will be the case in August as weariness and over crowding take their toll, but I have heard many people say with a bit of  dismay that “the August people are here early this year.”   It is metaphorical language pointing  to the increased stress  we are somehow expected to live with while coping with a world of chaotic and unpredictable behavior that affects us all at some level.   Our island home is a microcosm.   And we struggle to maintain our balance, to choose a higher way in the face of enormous incursions on our sense of  community, our sense of  civility and decency and self respect, of respect for one another.   
Alan Morinis in his book “Every Day Holiness”  writes that “....disorder inevitably involves some sort of dishonor.  The only question is, what or who is the target of dishonor?”   He says “It’s interesting that we use the phrase “unholy mess” to describe a situation that has really been trashed, because to be disorderly dishonors  [not only human beings, but] inanimate things that are also part of our lives and may also be our responsibility....The real “unholy mess,” of course, is the disorder we bring to divine service, in whatever ways we might serve God, which dishonors HaShem....All of us are, after all, made in the divine image, and so when we dishonor people we dishonor God...”
Morinis’ reflection on how disorder dishonors human beings and creation, and ultimately dishonors the Source of all life  brought my unnamed stress into focus.The “Trump Era” has  elevated disorder to the level of an art and with this nurturing of disorder comes the most fundamental disrespect and dishonoring of  human beings, of the environment, of hard won (even though imperfect) working relationships between both allies and adversaries, and ultimately the disrespect of the  Source of life - - however we might name it.   
There are days when it is so hard to live joyfully in the face of such disorder and disrespect of the holiness of Life.   “Hegemony” isn’t a word I use every day.  It came into my vocabulary years ago in seminary.  I had to look it up again to be sure I was understanding it correctly.   It means “a preponderant influence or authority.”    We are living under the hegemony of the “Trump Era” - - a time when chaos and disorder, disrespect and dishonoring color so much of life around us.   It creates stress in every corner of life.  As I age, I find it difficult to do the big actions that might effect change.  It is easy to get lost in feeling so small.    There is a danger inherent in allowing myself to sink into that smallness though.
So, a bit of yoga practice helps.   The simple act of organizing the space around me in a harmonious way makes a difference. Filling  a few flower pots with bright blue lobelia creates a moment of beauty on the  way into the house.   Scraping off flaking paint to create a smooth surface for fresh color fills a need to bring  something new and clean into being.  Creating an orderly space honors and respects the lovely humans who cross my threshold.   Small bits of color and beauty sooth the spirit and restore a sense of harmony in a disordered world.   I’m grateful to my yoga teacher who so gently awakened me to the “yoga of clean-up.”
Rev. Vicky Hanjian

Things Not to Divide, but to Join and Celebrate

Fri, 07/06/2018 - 11:00

We can probably safely say that we all have too many things, too much stuff. There are those things, though, that are different, that are not about money or intrinsic value, that when we see them, even out of the corner of an eye, bring a smile to our lips or a welling to our eyes. These things are "the sacred stuff of memory." Pause for a moment, even to close your eyes if you wish, and call to mind some of those things that for you are the sacred stuff of memory. Perhaps for some, it is a table cloth that comes to mind, one that graced a table around which family sat at special times of gathering, and even now when set upon the table of your heart, here they are again, if but for a moment, a smile of pride, a word of encouragement, as long ago, but now to say, "keep going, you'll be okay, set the old cloth upon a new table and place upon it the sacred stuff of future memories." 
           Perhaps it is a pair of candlesticks passed through generations, telling of a family's migrations, children whose faces were once illumined by the dancing flames, now grown with children of their own; or of brand new little ones whose eyes are just starting to open wide to the wonder of light. Or a book with fading margin notes, as though just written for you today; a string of pearls that was your mother's, or a tool, or ritual item, a ball or a bat, an article of clothing perhaps, a sweater worn when a hug is needed from the one who wore it once, her or his warmth forever inhering in the warp and woof of life's threads.
There is stuff and there is stuff. The challenge is to distinguish and to weigh, not merely to acquire, not to hold and hoard.   When ultimate meaning is given even to the most precious of things, it becomes idolatry. Judaism is not an ascetic tradition, not a religion in its normative strand that devalues the physical, but offers a framework through which to envelope the physical in a weave of holiness. Drink is not in principle to be eschewed, but to be held in a kiddush cup, blessing offered prior to partaking. Sex is holy when held in the embrace of love and respect, as a bridge and song between equal partners. Money is not inherently evil when kept in perspective, when not allowed to be the measure of a person’s worth, when seen not as a source of privilege, but of obligation, of mitzvah, as in the way of tzedakah.
A thread runs the Torah portion Naso(Num. 4:21-7:89) that interweaves people and possessions as part of one whole. As a delicate embroidery thread, it offers subtle teaching and warning on the nature of our relationship to things and to each other, to the physical and material realm. It is all part of life, the question only as to how we use the things we are given and how equal we are in our ability to acquire. Through the lens of Torah, the ideal society that shimmers in the distance is one with little discrepancy between ideal and real, with little need for terms of social dichotomy, such as rich and poor. Along the way and even once we are there, the challenge of things is in how they mediate relationships, meant to join, not to divide, to attune us to the needs of others, to inculcate sensitivity.
The word naso is formed of a root meaning to lift, to carry, to take, to bear, to raise. The prince of each tribe is the Nasi. The word tells of a very different way of leadership than is most often manifest. A leader is one who is meant to raise up, to lift the people, not in the way of carrying and doing for them, but to raise them up to be of equal stature, reminding the people that each one is meant to be a leader, a bearer of the people. Each one is needed to help carry the collective hopes of the people and to engage in the work needed for the fulfillment and flowering of hope. Celebrating this manner of leadership, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) writes, They were the n’si’ei yisra’el, Israel’s ‘bearers who had been raised,’ those who by their position stood at the height of the national mission and from that position were to elevate the nation to equal height…. The responsibility of leadership was not to be rooted in what one possessed, but in one’s ability to insure that none would be dispossessed of their sacred calling as a human being and member of human society.
    As we lift and carry each other as part of a collective mission to create a society in which all are equal, in which none bask in abundance while others starve, God’s blessing is called down upon us in equal measure. The beloved words of the Birkat Kohanim/the Pristly Blessing(Num. 6:24-27) are found in the portionNaso. In the familiar first phrase, y’vare’ch’cha ha’shem v’yish’m’recha/may God bless you and protect you, commentators see the tension between the blessing of things and what can become the unwitting curse of the same things. In this way, we ask God to bless us in the material realm, and so too, to protect us from those very things with which we are blessed.
The role and attendant vow of the Nazir/the Nazirite is given in the same portion, the opportunity for each person to separate himself or herself at times in holy retreat from the ordinary flow of life. Taking on a temporary way of abstinence, the Nazir is to refrain from products of the grape, to let their hair grow wild, to refrain from contact with the dead. At the end of the period of the Nazarite’s vow, a sin offering is to be brought, a reminder that abstinence from the ways and pleasures of life is not our way. The Slonimer Rebbe teaches, for the essence of creation and the essence of serving God is to engage in all realms of the material world and to raise them up to the Holy One. The goal is not to avoid this world, but to engage and raise up the ways of this world to God.
            As Parashat Naso begins with teaching on the way of leadership as service so it ends. Raising each other up, the princes of Israel teach by example, modeling a way of things used to join and not divide. In a lengthy passage that might be quickly passed over for its abundance of repetitive details, with careful reading deep meaning emerges. On each day of the sanctuary’s dedication a different prince is to bring their tribe’s gift for the sake of the commonweal. We are told at the outset, nasi echad la’yom nasi echad la’yom/one prince to the day one prince to the day. Each one is to have their moment, emphasized in the double saying of the phrase. As the long list unfolds of what each prince brings, we quickly come to realize that each prince has brought exactly the same gifts, no difference whatsoever in substance, weight, or measure. The lesson becomes clear, no one is to be raised up higher than another, no one more important or of greater value or honor than another. Brought in a spirit of caring and cooperation rather than competition, the gifts are meant to join and uplift, not to separate and bring down. As each day turns to the next, though the gifts of each prince are described with exactly the same words, there is not a single letter vav, not a single conjunction between them. A collective celebration of each one’s uniqueness, each tribe stands on its own, each with its own place and time, their own day in the sun.
The challenge is to raise up our things to serve a greater purpose than acquisition, things as the “sacred stuff of memory” to tell of people that came before and of those who shall come after. And simply of the stuff in our lives, putting things in perspective, we are all to be as the n’si’ei yisra’el/the bearers of Israel, and so as part of the human family.     Our common task is to raise each other up, things not to divide, but to join and celebrate, each one’s presence and each one’s gifts to be  honored in equal measure if we would dwell together in the sanctuary of humanity.

Rabbi Victor  H. Reinstein


Fri, 06/29/2018 - 11:26
Former President Carter is interviewed in a recent article on the publication of a new book. The book, Faith: A Journey for All, is number forty seven that has come from his pen. In the interview he shares the kind of optimism that has probably helped his longevity. The man is ninety three years old and still going strong.
When asked about the current divisiveness in our society, he reminds us of our history and the struggles of the past we have survived as a people. Then he states, "the resilience of our country and the principles of our Constitution have always prevailed." That kind of optimism is sorely needed when all around are those who are despairing and depressed, lamenting the possibility of a promising national future.
His optimism is not grounded in naivete. Carter understands the nature of our challenges as a country. He places race front and center. He recognizes the new dimensions of our challenges that include a soaring prison industry, extension of racial discrimination against immigrants, and the growing inequality of economic opportunity and resources.
The optimism, moral stature and faith of Carter, is a balm in a time when those qualities seem in short supply. He represents the best of what we know as evangelical Christianity. For him, an evangelical is "someone who has faith and tries to put that faith into practice and tries to convince other people to share that faith by setting an example." His example of service to others is more than evident in his work with Habitat for Humanity, the Carter Center and his institutional relationships with church and academy. He still teaches classes at Emory University and adult Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church.
      The part of the interview that was of most significance to me was the comments he made about the U.S. as a superpower. It's clear to him we want to be a superpower. But Carter contends there are other ways to exercise power than through military might. "The United States of America ought to be seen by the rest of the world as a champion of peace, not war, a champion of human rights, a champion of equality, and a champion of generosity to help people in need." Those are the values implicit in Carter's faith, and at our best, implicit in the values of our country. 
One of the enduring memories of the Carter Presidency for me was his emphasis on human rights. In one of my cynical moments at the time, I bemoaned what I saw as window dressing on human rights in the presence of a friend from Latin America. He was quick to correct me. What I couldn't see from my vantage point he was able to clearly witness. The emphasis Carter placed on human rights was making a daily difference in his country and the activities of governments in the whole region.
A few weeks ago a friend gave me a children's book titled "America Will Be Great." It's a good book for big children as well. The first page begins with, "America will be great when all people feel safe, no matter the color of their skin, no matter where they were born, no matter who they love, and no matter where they do or do not worship." We might add, "no matter where they go to school." People ought to feel safe there too.
Page two and three read, "America will be great when every person has a safe place to sleep at night and enough food to eat each day. America will be great when every person can go to the doctor and get the medicine and care they need when they get  sick." You see where this is going? The book raises some fundamental national values. What does it mean in our time to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility and promote the general welfare?" How is it that greatness in this country has become synonymous with global military extravagance, nativism and economic dominance? How is it that while we blow up homes in foreign lands the number of homeless in this country grows in leaps and bounds? How can we have so many hungry children in the richest country on earth?
    Former President Carter believes Christianity is wrongly understood when it is seen as a box, like a telephone booth, that is so confining. One is surrounded by rules and regulations to the point where you can hardly move. In contrast, he sees faith as liberating. Faith opens one up to the world and to other people. Faith helps one approach life thankful for the day's blessings instead of always looking for more. Faith gives you the confidence and passion to move out and care about others. Faith gives you the vision to structure sound social systems. Faith is, as Scripture says, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." 
We could all use a bit more of the faith of a Jimmy Carter. As he says, it's a journey for all. 

Rev. Carl Kline            

Theology, the American Dream, and Human Rights in the Age of Trump

Fri, 06/22/2018 - 06:54

President Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy is as heartless as it is cowardly. It is also chillingly cruel. When this policy is paired with the president’s decision, announced on June 19, 2018, to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, we may reasonably conclude that the American creed promising “liberty and justice for all” is more than tarnished. The torch held aloft by the Statue of Liberty is being extinguished before our eyes.      Some commentators compare the detention centers and “tent cities” housing immigrants and refugees to the Japanese internment camps of World War II. In 1998, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which offered an official apology to the people of Japanese descent who had been incarcerated in the camps, and paid each survivor $20,000 in compensation. It is possible that somewhere in the future another president will make a similar apology to persons incarcerated by President Trump, but there is another precedent that I think is more likely.In the late eighteen hundreds the US established and funded Indian boarding schools to solve what was then thought of as the “Indian Problem.” In the beginning these schools were located on Indian reservations and run by Christian missionaries. It was not long before off-site residential schools were established and private enterprise began competing with religious denominations for federal dollars.                 The motto for the boarding school movement was “Kill the Indian, save the man.” In addition to receiving a classic Western education, students were beaten, handcuffed, locked in closets, and suffered multiple cruelties. Unsanitary conditions contributed to numerous student deaths. All of this was done in the name of love, and for the purpose of civilizing and Christianizing Indian children. Thanks to organizations like the Native American National Boarding School Healing Coalition stories about school conditions and atrocities are being documented today. We should anticipate that today’s immigrants will form similar healing coalitions in the future.     Indian boarding schools were established ostensibly for the purposes of breaking down indigenous tribal communities, undermining tribal authority, dismembering Indian families, and assimilating Indian children into a white Christian culture. One of the unintended consequences was that the schools gave rise to a pan-tribal movement, because children from many different tribes from different regions of the country were thrown together in one place. The schools also strengthened Native resolve to achieve sovereignty. President Trump’s Zero Tolerance policy is ostensibly for the purposes of solving the “immigration problem“ and “protecting our borders.” The government assumes that people crossing the US-Mexican border are criminals, and they are treated accordingly. Civil Rights advocates are organizing in response to the government’s actions. Collectively the experiences of the people who are being incarcerated, the enduring trauma of families torn apart by the Zero Tolerance policy, families the government now refuses to help reunite, and the work of Civil Rights advocates may begin a new and more hopeful chapter in US history. As the government is trampling on individual rights and freedoms, counter measures are being taken.The role of the Protestant church in the midst of this struggle is of particular interest to me.        There are Christians whom I believe are confusing the ways of Christ with the ways of our dominant culture. These members of the faith community continue to support President Trump, and to disregard or dismiss the myriad scandals that cling to him and mounting lawsuits pending against him. But, at the same time, a broad healing coalition that strongly opposes the administration’s policies and practices is coming into being.Broad coalitions of this sort are welded together over time by the torch of experience. Some members of this coalition remember the 1960s as a time when hope for change was ripe. Other members of this coalition have more recent experiences such as the Occupy Movement, the protest at Standing Rock, participation in the Me Too movement, or the Black Lives Matter and the GLBTQI campaigns. Participation in these movements is not mutually exclusive. People who are active in one movement often have ties to other movements. The common thread that weaves these diverse and otherwise apparently disparate causes together is other-regard.        In this hour of darkness, I remain “a prisoner of hope,” to use a biblical expression, for I see us coming to a level of theological maturity that is not driven by ideological theology or un-proveable metaphysical doctrines, but simply by respect others, respect for the earth, and respect for ourselves. I submit that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the charter document for a future in which such respect is honored.
Rev. David Hansen

We Will Do and We Will Understand

Fri, 06/15/2018 - 07:46

I began to weep as I stood in the kitchen that day, and heard the news of yet another school shooting. This one in Texas, ten dead, eight students and two teachers. Such had been that painful week for all of us, for this poor, sorrowing world, for this nation, sick in the grip of its plague. So too had the week began, with far away gunfire ever so close, sixty Palestinians dead on the Gaza border, the grip of plague in Israel too. Oblivion seemed to reign in the face of such loss of life, while people from another planet partied in Jerusalem on the opening of the American Embassy, blood on their hands, on our hands.
It was the prelude to Shavuous, the feast of weeks, second of the year’s three harvest festivals that mark the seasons in the Jewish calendar. It was the Torah portion of Bamidbar/In the Desert, the turning of Torah calling us to turn, to seek a new way. We come to Sinai and are reminded of the greatest unity that ever joined the Jewish people as one, in that moment when the Torah was given and we spoke with one voice and said, na’aseh v’nishma/we will do and we will understand. We are still trying to learn what to do, what it means to live the values of Torah, to live human values, humane values, still waiting to understand, waiting for the way to open. Through acts of love and compassion, we are touched by intimations of what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves, not to oppress or mistreat the stranger, to provide for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the most vulnerable among us, and so to be holy as God, our God, is holy.
       By doing, we come to understand. It is in the way of means and ends, the nature of means determining the nature of the ends.
I had an intimation during that week of what it might mean to act and only then to understand, receiving an unexpected gift, a moment of pause in the midst of all the sorrow. It was from the beginning a bittersweet evening, invited to a gathering of friends of the German Consul General to New England, Mr. Ralf Horlemann, a gathering of those whom he had touched in his time in Boston. My own life was touched deeply as part of the journey of twelve rabbis to Germany two summers ago, Ralf our guide on a Journey of Remembrance and Hope. Whenever I need a moment of catharsis I close my eyes and feel the hot torrent of tears that poured down my face at Dachau, Ralf crying with us. It was a transformative journey, one through which I will always be joined to Ralf, son of a German soldier from then, and a Jew who had vowed never to go to Germany.
Of people joined across divides, the gathering was held in an art gallery, a Holocaust survivor’s tormented art upon the walls. After words were spoken, words were then transcended as a string quartet of young musicians lifted their instruments and began to play. Members of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, they were led by Maestro Benjamin Zander. It was not a concert, but in effect a master class, the Maestro dancing among them, singing the notes from memory, so loving and as enthralled as we were. Suddenly he would stop the violinist, asking of her feelings in such a moment of loss of which her instrument sang. And then the deeper feeling came through as bow returned to strings, bringing tears to all of us. And to the cellist he said to raise his eyebrows, show the surprise and magic of the music and the moment. He emphasized the importance of the second violin, the message clear, that each one has their own task and purpose, each one so needed for the gift of their presence.
So the lessons continued to come, the bittersweet teachings of the bittersweet gathering, sweetness somehow touching the bitterness of that week. The Maestro spoke of these young musicians, from Russia, from Asia, from North Carolina, joined across whatever might divide. “They all speak Beethoven,” he said. He modeled the finest way of the teacher, how to correct without hurting, doing so with such love, with such joy. Suddenly stopping the music, he said how perfect it was, and then said, “that is what Motzart wrote, but it’s not what he meant….” It was a lesson in Torah, the written Torah of notes on paper, and the oral Torah of soul and spirit interpreting.
In sharing words of friendship with Ralf, the Maestro told of his own father as a young man, a Jewish soldier in the German army of World War I. He told of how his grandmother would send her son music scores that he would bring to life in a place of death, giving wing to notes on paper, song rising from the trenches.           And now Maestro Zander has those scores, precious reminders of hope, of a universal language, that one day the song of the human heart might transcend inhumanity and violence. Then the whole world shall stand as we did at Sinai, saying with one voice “we will do and we will understand….”

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Uprooting Racism and Colonialism: An exercise in historical theology

Fri, 06/08/2018 - 10:26

Politico and other news media reported recently that the president has advanced the idea that Native Americans are a race, and not sovereign nations. I argue in this article that this is a racist idea rooted in the history of white domination, subjugation, and exploitation of Indians and the history of Indian genocide, which Native scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn calls, “The Disavowed Crime Lurking at the Heart of America” (Cook-Lynn 2007: 185–95). We must expose this criminal history and oppose the president’s plan.          For centuries Native Americans have been targeted as the “objects” of Christian missionary zeal. White missionaries were intent on “civilizing and Christianizing” Indians, whom they branded as “savages,” “heathens,” “pagans,” and worse. Steven T. Newcomb argues in Pagans in the Promised Land that this enthusiasm was and is rooted in “Christian Nations Theory.” He explains as follows: “The United States has the right to exercise ultimate control over American Indian nations simply because Christians ‘discovered’ non-Christian lands and simply because Christians supposedly succeeded in conquering the ‘heathen’ nations of North America” (Newcomb 2008: 117). According to Christian Nations Theory, indigenous peoples appeared to be human beings, but because they were not baptized into the Christian faith they lacked both morality and basic human rights (Newcomb 2008: 108). Euro-American Christians thought of themselves as guardians and purveyors of Christian morality and culture, defending the same against Indians, whom they called “wild beasts,” “savages,” “pagans,” and “heathens.” Such stereotyping dehumanized Indians, and at the same time it created a shared identity among white people. The residue of this painful history is displayed in the contemporary use of disparaging images of Indians in sports logos, and in the president’s proposal. According to Robert A. Williams, Jr. the word “stereotype” gained currency in the US in the nineteenth century when Walter Lippmann featured the term prominently in his book, Public Opinion (1922). Lippmann called stereotypes “pictures in our heads” (Williams 2012: 2). These pictures function even now as “identity badges” for Native Americans who are still required by law to identify themselves as tribal persons in order to sustain treaty rights, which otherwise would be denied, and to get permission to hunt or gather domestic or religious material from the countryside (Cook-Lynn 2001: 190).          It is an ironic twist of history that “reservations” for American Indians have become a new flash point of conflict between the dominant culture and Native peoples. Observes Cook-Lynn: “Some suggest that ‘reservations’ for American Indians in the West were and are extermination centers, and it may have been the intent of the predatory democracy called the United States of America to kindle in this way an end either by death and starvation or economic destruction for the native peoples with whom they had fought wars of annihilation for many decades for possession of the land.” But, she notes, “The citizens of Indian nations now believe ‘reservations’ to be their homelands, and they defend them legally and economically on a daily basis.                 . . . [Reservations are] treaty-protected enclaves, now called domestic ‘nations-within-a-nation,’” (2001: 191, 192). The president’s proposal to identify Indians as race would deny them their political status. Many people view the proposed shift as advancing an agenda of cultural and economic genocide because it would put the lives of many Natives at even greater risk than they are now, and it would deny them the necessary resources for self-determination. Tribal leaders argue in response that their status as sovereign governments was recognized by President George Washington and more recently affirmed by presidents Clinton, George Walker Bush, and Obama. Though largely unreported by the mainstream media unless there are major confrontations such as happened in 2017 at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation when Indian nations and water protectors sought to protect treaty rights that were being violated by the Energy Transfer Partnership and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, issues related to tribal rights and the sovereignty of Indian nations are test cases for uprooting racism and colonialism. Steven Newcomb’s definition of colonization is worth quoting at length here to remind us that this is still the reality: “Colonization can be thought of in terms of steps involved in a process of cultivation: taking control of the indigenous soil, uprooting the existing indigenous plants (peoples), overturning the soil (the indigenous way of life), planting new colonial seeds (people) or transplanting colonial plants (people) from another environment, and harvesting the resulting crops (resources) or else picking the fruits (wealth) that result from the labor of cultivation (colonization). . . . From a Christian European colonizing perspective, the indigenous peoples are considered as being among those solids (objects) that must be filtered out of (or expunged and washed from) the land in order to acquire that which is most valuable . . . that can be transmuted into wealth to fuel the economy and enrich the elite of the imperium” (Newcomb 2008: 14–15). Fortunately there is a growing international consensus that offers an alternative future—a future that recognizes the humanity and rights of indigenous peoples. This emerging consensus is embodied in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international agreements. These documents and agreements chart a path into a future beyond racism and colonialism.There are also significant theological traditions upon which Christians can build, beginning with the foundational claim that all people are created in the image of God and, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Additionally, we can refer to the “innovation of Christ,” a phrase coined by Will Herzog as a way of moving away from the classic idea of the “imitation of Christ.” Joerg Rieger adopted this phrase in his book Remembering the Poor, and identified the following elements (Rieger 1998: 174). One is mapping out plans and paths into the future that will reduce pain and suffering. These maps must be drawn with an awareness of the terrain of past and present experiences of oppression and repression. Second, as cartographers of the future, we must make strong connections between the present, as understood by the experiences of those who are marginalized and oppressed, and shared hopes for a future that has not yet attained its full form. Third, we must pay attention to the distribution and use of wealth, power, and authority in our society. Rieger notes: “The most pressing problem of modern theology is not that it has become relegated to the private sphere of the modern self, an often repeated criticism, but that theology has become politicized without being aware of it” (1998: 185–86). Lastly, he calls Christians to reclaim the power of the Eucharist. Citing first the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez who proclaimed: “Here, on the terrain of real life, among the poorest, is where the eucharistic celebration takes on its full meaning of sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ,” Rieger goes on to write: “The power of the Eucharist is experienced in new ways where the conflicts and brokenness of poor people are included. In this context, the Eucharist becomes one of the nodal points where new thought about the redistribution of power and authority begins to germinate” (1998: 214).              Traditional tribal communities and people of other faith traditions have their own nodal points. What is important at this time in our history is that together we find ways that honor our diversity, build on our commonalities, and construct new ways to distribute wealth, power, and authority. Simply put, indigenous peoples and all people, regardless of race and creed, are not the objects of Christian mission, but partners in a common task of creating a sustainable and just future. David Phillips HansenReferencesCook-Lynn, Elizabeth, 2007. “Anti-Indianism and Genocide: The Disavowed Crime Lurking at the Heart of America,” Anti-Indianism in Modern America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Diamond, Dan, Rachana Pradhan contributing. May 4, 2018. “Trump challenges Native Americans’ historical standing,” Politico. Accessed June 5, 2018.Newcomb, Steven T., 2008. Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.Rieger, Joerg, 1998. Remember the Poor: The Challenge to Theology in the Twenty-First Century. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International.United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Williams, Robert A., Jr., 2012. Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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