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Serve and Protect Who? A Thought Experiment


by: on July 9th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

People are posting a brief video clip excerpted from a mid-nineties film on educator Jane Elliott’s work. The clip shows her addressing a large audience, predominantly white people:

I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our citizens, our black citizens—if you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand. [No one stands.]

You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand.

Nobody is standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening. You know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you are so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.

In less than a minute, Elliott demonstrates two profound and terrible truths. First, as she indicates, everyone knows that Black people as a group face far more hostility, danger, and discrimination than white people. And second, as a group, it is easy for those whose skins insulate them from this treatment to ignore the price others pay for their ability to move about safely and comfortably.

Elliott is best-known for a behavioral experiment called “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes.” In a classroom or other group setting, participants are divided by eye color. Those possessing blue eyes are treated as inferior—reprimanded, made to repeat tasks arbitrarily, made to sit in a corner for minuscule infractions, and so on. In a remarkably short time, the members of that group begin to doubt themselves, stumble over simple tasks, find themselves living into the experimenter’s diminished version of themselves.

This is the response of the defenseless. By and large, blue-eyed people haven’t had a lifetime of practice resisting oppression, ejecting the oppressor’s voice from their own hearts and minds. They just succumbed. But when this sort of treatment is meted out over time, the dignity, righteous anger, and resilience of the oppressed grow, and they fight back.

You and I aren’t in a room together, so we’ll have to settle for a thought experiment. To take part, read the next few paragraphs, then answer the questions I pose.

Right now, in the aftermath of a week of assassinations—first Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA; then Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul, MN; then five police officers in Dallas—people are calling for drastic cuts or even dissolution of policing as it now exists. Mychal Denzel Smith’s eloquent April 2015 polemic in The Nation quotes James Baldwin fifty years ago expressing a so far enduring truth:

In 1966, James Baldwin wrote for The Nation: “…the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.” This remains as true today as it was in 1966, only now we have bought into the myth of police “serving and protecting” wholesale. What do you do with an institution whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly?

You abolish it.

Smith points to the fact that the average police officer uses only about one-tenth of work time on the clearly criminal matters that fill the scripts of TV series, and the rest on enforcing elements of conduct that present no threat to public safety, but give police official reasons to detain anyone they wish. Eric Garner was killed for selling cigarettes, Sandra Bland for driving while Black, Oscar Grant for being in a BART station. Every day, people are detained, arrested, beaten, shot, or left for dead whose only crime is exercising the right to exist.

We spend more and more money to lock more people up, earning the shameful title of Incarceration Nation. The following is from a recent White House criminal justice report:

Real total government spending on the criminal justice system grew by 74 percent between 1993 and 2012, to $274 billion. Similarly, in 2012, real per capita criminal justice spending was $872 per year, up 43 percent over the same time period.

When it comes to policing, there’s a lot of talk about bad apples. But when the barrel gets this full of rot, you have to stop and ask whether it’s time to toss the whole thing out and switch to oranges.

In a July 8 interview with Essence, Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza advocates cutting police budgets by half:

…[I]t’s important to note as well that we are so enraged, in particular at the lack of serious action to defund police departments that continue to wreak havoc in our communities. We are enraged at the lack of action towards demilitarizing the police to make sure they are not carrying weapons of mass destruction to test and experiment in our communities. And we are outraged that we are not having serious conversations at the legislative level about slashing police budgets.

And certainly, we have to make sure our police forces do not have weapons of mass destruction with which they can terrorize our communities. I think if we’re able to focus in some of those areas, we’ll be in a much different place than we are right now.

So here’s the thought-experiment: Reading the last few paragraphs, what was your response to the idea of drastically cutting—even abolishing—policing as it now exists? Did you think, “That’s crazy! Who will protect me?” If so, there is a colonizer in your head making you believe it is in your interests to perpetuate the system Alicia Garza describes so clearly:

Why are we paying tax dollars to departments that continue to murder our people? I don’t want to pay for people to kill us, and I don’t think anybody in our communities want that. What’s also really important is what you just said, that’s so fantastic: there’s not enough people inside of these departments that are seeing what’s going on, speaking up and speaking out. And so, we’re at that point now, and we’ve been at that point for a while, where we have consistently said: ‘What side are you on?’ And if you’re quiet, knowing that there’s a culture of racism inside most police departments, and you’re not saying anything, you are on the wrong side of history.

Those who’ve historically benefited from this system at the expense of Black people and others targeted by the police have a simple choice right now. Separate yourself from a system of white supremacy through word and deed. Or maintain your loyalty to that system and the perks it provides, turning a blind eye to the costs it exacts. Then wait and see how well it protects you when the violence festering at every level of American society—from street-level policing to Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric—explodes.

Fania Davis, who knows what she is talking about, makes a powerful argument in Yes! Magazine for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as an essential step, starting with Ferguson. We need all the truth we can get.

“There Will Be Time” by Baaba Maal and Mumford & Sons.

Meditation on Pedagogies of the Traumatized


by: on July 8th, 2016 | Comments Off

Print: Amos Paul Kennedy Photo: Gina Athena Ulysse

There is a mini-poster by the journeyman printer Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. on one of my bookshelves. This black block print on cardboard contains an equals sign with the caption “Equality is a special privilege for Blacks these unitedstatesofamerica.” The USA is spelled out in lowercase (as presented), as a single word, bracketed by the stars and stripes upside down ― a signal of distress. I also keep a copy in my office where I teach to look at everyday as a crude reminder that in the eyes of the law, Whiteness is supreme, we (Blacks) were never equal, and know full well, we still are not.

We live in a market economy, where the value ascribed to Black bodies remains high only when we reinforce the state of our original conditions as human chattel. Property. Slaves. We were restricted by a system of codes, rules that managed our behavior and manners back then. In a sense, we still are. Lest we were to forget, or if and when we dare to question this order of things, the price for our disruption is a lashing of one kind or another from the seemingly benign, to the fatal. In her award winning book, Citizen: An American Lyric, the brilliant poet Claudia Rankine puts it this way, “because white men can’t police their imagination, Black men are dying”. The fact of our Blackness to paraphrase Frantz Fanon, is non-negotiable, since our belonging in this society has always been provisional. Human chattel. Property. Slaves. As the great James Baldwin once wrote, “we could hope to arrive only by imitation.” We are rewarded in the myriad ways we are accorded opportunities to uphold and re-inscribe White supremacy. So the message, just in case we didn’t get the memo, is clear: This is a White world. The story of our existence therein is one of inequity that, at the least, requires our infantilization to thrive, and at best, our absolute submission to survive. There are no boundaries and protection. Respect is exclusively reserved for Whites only. It is their birthright. We must stay in our place.

I woke up too early this morning and broke my own rule by going to social media. I inadvertently saw Lavish Reynolds’ livestream video of the police killing of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, on my Twitter feed. Caught up, in a sense of outrage, disbelief, and shock, I tried to suppress it. I was still processing Alton Sterling as another victim of police violence days before, trying to decide whether to write about it. I decided against it (because I can), and also pondering like Roxane Gay ― what more could be said that has not already been said? My vocabulary does not need to expand to rephrase what members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement have been demanding in three words: Stop Killing Us!

I avoid these videos. There’ve been so many. They stay with you and threaten to desensitize you. They are numbing us to the spectacle of Black death according to Jamil Smith. More evidence of the normalization of a civilization predicated upon the near annihilation of a people and the fortification of a nation intimately structured with violence. That’s always been the hypocrisy in our moral values. We remain cavalier in our practices of discard and ‘so aghast’ by the racist rhetoric of he who shall not be named.

My FB feed contains continuous advice from folks warning each other to avoid encounters that will further aggrieve this trauma. Human chattel was always disposable. Property’s value depreciates. Slave need to be dominated. Each hashtag memorial, and media report that reverts to stereotypes, become new trigger points. Reminders of how White Power works. Last summer, the incessant assault on Black Lives prompted @eveeeeezy to suggest a more vigilant approach to self-care. It may have been delivered with comic relief, but “Calling in Black” was a cry of “Enough!”

Indeed, the devaluation, embodied or otherwise, takes its toll. #BlackLivesMatter made its way into the Ivory Tower with the student uprising last fall. Institutions, not made in our image, were forced to confront their Whiteness and their cultivation of “exclusionary practices.” Centuries later, we did not, and could not, escape the fact of our history. It has simply been digitized.

As an educator in an historically white institution, inspired by Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I have been confronting this dilemma personally and pedagogically. I have been reorienting myself interrogating notions of belonging to figure out collective and sustainable ways to deploy my intellectual knowledge in a manner to be of service to a greater good. That is the story I tell myself knowing the greater good often subsumes us and leaves Black folks behind. I have gotten more involved in institutional matters with a mature awareness of the potentials and impossibilities of some interventions. We can’t keep running away from the past. Besides, social media has assured we can only run so far; the brutality that used to happen in private is now ever so public. My optimism wanes and my patience continues to be tried with each new extra judicial killing, each exoneration. Each one is more confirmation of the deep rootedness of our inequality. We bear the weight of history so unequally. It is written on our bodies and etched in the color of our skin. Human chattel. Property. Slaves. That is the undue burden, the inequity we live with, that simply cannot be undone unconsciously. Its transformation, if that (I am not naïve), requires so much more than will. To bring about a modicum of change we must not only intentionally attempt, but also be determined, to shift. It will not happen par hazard. Because history has seen to it that the exchange, use, and sign value ascribed to Black lives remains unequal to that of Whites. We are differentially positioned and invested.

What story do you tell yourself to assuage the comfort you find in the social luxury of being in an unmarked body. Your silence is your complicity. Where is your outrage as we all bear witness to this moment?

Talking to Josh Fox and a Review of How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change


by: Heidi Hutner on June 28th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally posted on Heidi Hutner’s Blog, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

“Can a person stop a wave? Could you stand on the shore and stop a wave from crashing? What are the things that climate change can’t destroy? What are those parts of us that are so deep that no storm can take them away?”

- Josh Fox

How to Let Go of the World opens with Josh Fox dancing to the Beatles — joyously celebrating the banning of hydraulic fracturing in New York State. Fox and thousands of fellow “frackativists” had just successfully pushed through the ban on ‘fracking’ in New York (2014).

Fox’s first environmental film, Gasland (2010), brought national attention to the negative environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

So, Fox had good reason to celebrate the New York State ‘fracking’ ban, and yet…

Fox soon recognized that while the banning of ‘fracking’ in New York State was a big win, there was and is much more to be concerned about in the environmental battle.

Namely: global Climate Change.

How to Let Go of the World next takes the viewer on Fox’s journey of environmental despair (a condition I deeply identify with and talk about in my TEDX talk “ECO-GRIEF”).

Fox returns to his family home in the woods that inspired the making of Gasland, only to discover that a favorite childhood tree is infested with parasitic insects (induced by Climate Change). The infested tree is a living symbol of the changed world we now inhabit–a world gravely altered by the ravages of fossil fuel extraction.

Fox is thrown into a state of hopelessness.

Yet Fox determines to, “find the people who’d found this place, this place of despair, and gotten back up.”

The film then takes the viewer all over the globe. We follow Fox as he seeks to understand how others cope with environmental grief.

We observe the negative environmental, health and social impacts of Hurricane Sandy in New York, sea-level rise in the Marshall Islands, deforestation and oil spills in the Amazon, and the wanton burning of fossil fuels in smog-laden China, among others.

Along the way, Fox has heart-to-heart conversations with prominent Climate Change authors Bill Mckibben, Elizabeth Kolbert, and climate scientist, Michael E. Mann. He also speaks with the activist and “civil disobedient” Tim DeChristopher, who went to jail for 21 months for protesting a Bureau of Land Management lease auction to the fossil fuel industry in Utah.


Review: Why People Pray by Mordecai Schreiber


by: Alice Ogden Bellis on June 27th, 2016 | Comments Off

Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber’s Why People Pray is a remarkable book. It is ecumenical and yet aware of a great deal of the history of both Jewish and Christian spirituality, as well as Muslim and Eastern approaches. Rabbi Schreiber is learned, but down to Earth. He is not afraid to tackle the difficult questions (e.g., is anybody listening?) nor to give, on the one hand, the honest answer that ultimately we do not know many of the answers, but on the other hand, his own convictions born out of a lifetime of serious searching. The thirty-five chapters are short, most just a few pages, but they are packed with insights for the pious and even the free-thinkers. He quotes sources as disparate as Huckleberry Finn and Thomas Merton, William Blake and the Muslim Al-Hadid, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, and Stevie Wonder and Karen Armstrong, as well as much scripture from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament and many traditional Jewish sources.

Born in Israel pre-1948 to secular Jews who had escaped the horrors of the Holocaust in time, Morry Schreiber found his way to religion on his own. Perhaps because of this, his approach to spirituality is fresh and open. He does not preach, but inspires and leads the reader gently to consider the value of prayer. The tone is conversational, and yet a great deal of wisdom from a life lived on three continents and that has traveled much of the globe is packed into this small volume.

The book is divided into three parts: What is prayer? What do people pray for? Prayer today. In the first chapter we learn about Rabbi Schreiber’s childhood and also his general approach to the subject, in which he says, more or less, that to live in a sense is to pray. The second chapter “Is Anyone Listening?” is one of the most important because the author’s honesty and openness is so clear. He admits that we do not know for sure, but he senses a divine presence in his life. Of course, he says it much more eloquently than that. He goes on to talk about the sources of prayer and then the essence of prayer, which he calls the “expression of our deepest emotions” (p.17). In this chapter the range of expression is seen, from the quiet of a traditional Quaker meeting to the exuberant African-American holiness worship service. An interesting chapter on prayer and magic explores the difference between magic in its negative connotations and at the same time explores the positive associations of the word magical in our understanding. Another interesting chapter deals with prayer and sacrifice and notes that after the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis used Hosea 14:3 as a way of transitioning from a religion of sacrifice to one of prayer:

Forgive all guilt

And accept what is good;

Instead of bulls we will pay

[The offering of] our lips[1]

In a chapter entitled “Creative and Static Prayer” the focus is on the need constantly to update written prayer materials so that they will reflect the current context. Nevertheless, some prayers are timeless and seem to be able to cross temporal boundaries better than others. Rabbi Schreiber gives a wonderful example of a fourteenth century Syrian Muslim prayer for peace which would be very appropriately prayed today. The next chapter is a reflection on the power of words, both their positive and their negative power, depending on how they are used. They were used rhetorically in very negative ways building up to the Holocaust, but they can also be used with great positive power. In the chapter called “Prayer, Work and Creativity” the concept of prayer is extended beyond words to the area of human work and especially creative work. The works of Van Gogh and Gauguin are briefly considered in this section.

In the section on prayer and meditation, Eastern spiritual traditions are brought into view, especially Buddhist practice. Rabbi Schreiber notes that in Judaism Kabbalistic traditions and in Christianity contemplation are also forms of meditation. He moves from meditation to life with people, in which he balances the individual nature of meditation with the communal aspects of prayer.

The next chapter is a reflection on praying to God as a father figure, where Rabbi Schreiber admits the problems inherent within Judaism and Christianity given the overwhelmingly masculine imagery in the Bible. He indicates that God is neither male nor female and that there is the Virgin Mary for Catholics, the Shekinah, the feminine divine presence for Jewish women, though this may be too abstract, and women biblical characters now included in the prayer book. What could also be said is that since God is neither male nor female, we can create new imagery for God that is gender neutral or that is binary: God as mother and father, since there is some female divine imagery in the Bible.

In the Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer, Mordecai Schreiber not only shows the specific Jewish roots of the Christian Lord’s Prayer, but also tells a moving story about a group of Polish soldiers facing death who together recited the Lord’s Prayer, allowing them to go down in dignity. The next chapters deal with prayer and various attitudes/experiences: humility, triumphalism, suffering, repentance, afterlife. The final chapter in Part I deals with the efficacy of prayer. The bottom line is that there are no guarantees, but one should pray anyway.

In Part II about what people pray for, there are chapters on: Healing, prosperity, life cycle prayers, yearly cycle prayers, sabbath and prayer, prayer and peace of mind, prayer and war, and prayer and world peace. Part III on prayer today has several important chapters. “Prayer and the Holocaust” deals with the difficult issues of how to pray in the aftermath of the horrible genocide. The chapter on the “Detractors of Faith” deals with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and reflects on how to respond to their attacks on religion. “Prayer for Freethinkers” is a chapter making the case that prayer is not just for the pious, God-intoning crowd; there is plenty of room in his mind for those who are uncomfortable using God-language. The last two chapters are “Prayer as a Way of Life” and “A New Language of Prayer” in which Rabbi Schreiber considers some of the areas in which we need new vocabulary, less sin oriented, more gender neutral, less tolerant of poverty, more eco-friendly.

Why People Pray provides ample material for a study group and includes many anecdotes that will be of use to those preparing sermons. It could be used with teenagers straight through to senior citizens. This is a rare book, delightful, and wise.

[1] Jewish Publication Society, Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), Ho 14:3.

Alice Ogden Bellis is the Professor of Hebrew Bible at Howard University School of Divinity.

The Chuppah That Held Us All: What We Found in Our Gay Marriage That the Supreme Court Missed


by: Michael Rothbaum on June 24th, 2016 | Comments Off

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum and his husband Anthony Russell under the chuppah.

“We probably have to leave at some point, right?”

I stood at the edge of the bandstand, Anthony’s hand in mine. We were under the chuppah, having just crushed the glass, two feet descending on one piece of fragile stemware. The weight of two grown men – men who had waited to know the time was right, who had waited to be ready, who had waited for the law to catch up with them – came crashing down on that one glass. It never stood a chance.

We had been led on this journey by my mentor and teacher, Rabbi Les Bronstein. His words, in that place at that moment, brought tears to our eyes. His partner in work and in life, Cantor Benjie Schiller, had composed a setting of selections from Song of Songs especially for the occasion. The ceremony was perfect.

But it was not the ceremony that led me to look over my shoulder at Rabbi Bronstein and ask the question I did. It was our friends and family, the people who stood facing us, cheering and hooting and clapping and hollering, after we had stomped on that glass. It was the love we felt from them, a love so fierce it felt like it would hold us up if we leaned forward. A love that did hold us up.

“We probably have to leave at some point, right?”

We did, of course, eventually leave the bandstand, the protection of the chuppah, the love of the community assembled that day. Within a week, we would receive news of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples in every city and town throughout the country. Throughout the country, there was jubilation, celebration, and talk of rights – gay rights, marriage rights, individual rights.

But in all the talk of individual rights, something felt a bit off. Anthony and I had come together, married each other, two individuals joining together as one. It was amazing, it was miraculous, and it was legal. But what about all those people who hollered and cried and cheered along with us? Where were they in the conversation, in the celebration of same-sex marriage?

Could it be that in the struggle to achieve the right to marry, we’ve lost sight of something, something key to the redemptive power that the tradition of marriage promises?


Far be it from me to turn a cause for celebration into a cause for concern. A year out of that momentous moment, the fact that our marriage is legal remains a source of great joy and much appreciated reassurance. We do not have to worry about forbidding healthcare regulations, pernicious tax codes, or burdensome inheritance laws (at least any more than straight couples do).

So why not rejoice over the victory of our newly recognized rights? It is the “individual” part of these “individual rights” that gives me pause. Courts have ruled that the right to marry resides with the individual. And thank God that they have. But to define our marriage in such a way separates us as some sort of other, a lone couple protected from the larger community’s disapproval of our strangeness.

What is missing is community.

Queer folks are queer, yes, but not to each other. We belong to each other, in the same way that members of other groups similarly have in-group allegiance. While it goes without saying that courageous individuals took the lead in achieving this legal milestone, the fact that the Supreme Court decided that we are indeed included in the protections of the 14th Amendment is the result of decades of visionary struggle on the part of a community of activists.

Even for queer people who reject marriage as fundamentally heteronormative, the victory of this movement represents the successful establishment of a multi-generational community, comprised of any and all queer folks who dared to publicly demand the recognition of our full humanity. From the Mattachine Foundation to Lambda Legal, from the Daughters of Bilitis to ACT UP, from support groups to sanctuaries, from parties to prayer circles to parades, queer community had to be created for queer people by queer people. This triumph of “individual rights” is also the triumph of community, self-created and self-sustaining.

And when we were reminded that queer people remain targets of violence in this world, at a nightclub that became a crime scene, it was community that came together to mourn, to uphold, to begin to heal.

It’s obvious that Justice Kennedy’s declaration that the “right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” could have only come about through exhaustive efforts of generations of queer activists, networked into underground community, often at great professional and personal danger.

Paradoxically, celebrating same-sex marriage as a victory for “individual autonomy” does an injustice to the power in those communities that continue to support us.

Even as a married couple, Anthony and I do not exist as a solitary unit, quietly living our private life of discreetly-exercised rights. As vital as the rights paradigm is, what it misses is the lived history of actual gay people, not just as individuals but within communities – the very real communities queer folks have had to build in the absence of a civil society or infrastructure that refused, until very recently, to acknowledge our full humanity.


A rights-focused discourse misses something else. For generations, Jewish communities have assumed the responsibility to support and sustain married couples – like the very real Jewish community that loves and supports our marriage to this day.

Anthony didn’t know it then, but it was in 2013 that I began planning to propose. In June of that year, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that the “Defense of Marriage [sic] Act” (DOMA) unconstitutionally denigrated same-sex couples; in the same session, the Court refused to uphold California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that had prohibited same-sex marriage.

Our marriage would thus be fully legal under both California and federal law. I began to make plans to propose. In a beautiful June afternoon, on the bow of a sailboat in San Francisco Bay, I gave Anthony a filigree gold hamsa pendant with a tiny diamond in the center. I asked him if he would marry me. He said, “Of course.” We hugged and kissed, two figures finally legally permitted to one another, blissfully floating in solitude.

We wouldn’t stay that way for long.

Only one year prior to U.S. v. Windsor, the Conservative movement of Judaism had formally sanctioned same-sex marriage, and created ritual language sanctifying those relationships. Yet, from the response to our engagement by our community, Congregation Netivot Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Berkeley, you would not have known that this was in any way new or novel. Love poured in from all quarters. People interrupted their davvening (and sometimes ours) to wish us the best, to inquire about plans, to pour out their support and joy and blessings. It was so sweet. And pleasantly surprising.

But in planning the wedding itself, we awoke to the stark reality of making a big gay American Jewish wedding. Catering, music, clothes, flowers, linens, not to mention the chuppah and ketubah and (of course!) the rabbi and cantor – there were dozens of details to arrange, each seemingly comprised of a dozen more. (Let me publicly apologize, here, to all the couples at whose marriages I officiated: I’m so sorry. I had no idea.) We were baffled. We were exhausted. We were short-tempered, with the process and with each other.

It quickly became clear that the individual autonomy championed by Justice Kennedy is refracted through the lens of a wedding industry that sees autonomous couples as autonomous consumers, celebrating their private rights in the private sector. Having once snickered at the idea of a professional wedding planner, we soon came to understand why couples hand over hard-earned money to someone hired to handle the details. Two individuals come together as an individual couple to make an individual celebration. Why not hire another individual to make that celebration happen?

Little did we know that as our anxieties began to mount, help was already on its way. The wedding industry was telling us that the way to celebrate a wedding was by creating a moneyed extravaganza, our love measured by the heft of the price tag. Our community told us otherwise. All the people who offered their love when we announced our engagement were now offering their assistance. Friends (and, to be honest, people we didn’t realize were friends) offered assistance with logistics, ritual, emotional support. “Can we help you with the chuppah?” “Do you need help with place settings?” “Do you need help with food?” “Do you need a coordinator for the big day?” It was completely overwhelming. And completely wonderful.

And so it was when our shul friends danced around us at our aufruf, we were encircled by the people who had helped prep our place cards and table signs, by the people who would transport our chuppah, by the people who picked up our ketubah, by the people who had fed us the night before at a Shabbat dinner for dozens of out-of-town guests, by the people who would bake ten challahs for the wedding.

It was our friends who took Anthony and me to our respective mikvehs. It was those friends who helped us with clothes and shoes and kittels. It was those friends who led the dancing and the entertainment at the reception, and it was those friends who calmed and soothed my tears and trembling on the big day. It was those friends who, directly following our ceremony, guarded our holy space in our first moments of married life. It was those friends who would host us, in homes across the Bay Area, for sheva brachot celebrations the week following our wedding day. And today, it is those friends we count on to help us through the vicissitudes of married life.

Some question the logic of going through any of the “typical” wedding rituals. Why follow convention at all? Certainly, in the Bay Area, many couples reject entirely the trappings that accompany modern wedding. Anthony and I both harbor traditionalist tendencies; we knew that wouldn’t be our path. What we didn’t know, however, was how much love and sweetness would come through to us through those old words and rites. Even me! Even a rabbi who has led countless couples on this journey, I didn’t fully understand the deep wisdom in the wedding rituals of Jewish that evoke the love and support of those around us.

In short, we have been held and sustained by community before, during, and after our wedding. This community is not our “right.” It is our blessing. And our wedding could not have happened – not in any way resembling the awesome, precious way that it did – without the blessed love of that community.


In his decision affirming the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, Justice Kennedy utilized particularly majestic language. His words are beautiful. Marriage, he argued, is a response to “the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.”

In doing so, it promises “the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.”

Like I said, beautiful. But Anthony and I have learned that the marriage is not just the response to a call from one “lonely person” to another. It also a response to the anxious call of a “lonely couple,” afraid they might call out only to find no kinship there. It holds out the promise that this loving couple will become part of a loving community, an entire collective that cares for each other.

Our marriage, we continue to discover, is more than a mere two-person union. It is two people held in communion, sacred and spiritual association, by their community.

The rituals of Jewish marriage attest to its communal nature. Numerous Jewish commentators have noted that the chuppah is open on all sides, a paradigm of the welcoming home the couple is expected to create. Jewish texts instruct that the ketubah is signed by witnesses unrelated to the couple, and read before the community. The wedding blessings praise God not for the couple, but for all couples, for all the house of Israel, for all of creation.

A wedding in any religious tradition, if done right, is not just a moment or space for a couple. It’s not just an opportunity to drop a load of cash on a personal dream of a lavish party. Our celebration was not just a celebration for us, just as our wedding day was not just a day for us. It brought everyone together; queer couples forced to marry several times in various jurisdictions; straight people who only had to marry once; single people who hadn’t yet married; and single people, gay and straight, partnered and uncoupled, who had no interest in marriage. They all elevated us in celebration. And we found that our celebration, in turn, elevated them.

Early on in our planning, Anthony told me that his ideal Jewish wedding was the wedding in Fiddler on the Roof. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. “The walls of the wedding were the walls of the community,” he told me, in that way he has of making me wonder if he should have been the rabbi rather than me. “The trappings of that wedding were the joy in other people’s faces.”

Anthony and I belong to each other. We declared as much under the chuppah. But now, as a couple, we belong to our community. And our community belongs to us.


County clerk Kim Davis briefly achieved notoriety last summer when she went to an honest-to-goodness jail cell in rural Kentucky rather than grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It was, she said, “a matter of religious liberty.” A judge ruled that Kim Davis has the right to hate gay people, to refuse to sign those licenses, as long as she doesn’t interfere with the ability of her deputies to issue them.

Some people hate her for hating us, but I’m not sure I begrudge her that right. We still have the right to be married. And as long as Davis can’t interfere with that right, she has the right to not want to take part in it.

Judges speak in the language of legal rights and liberties. That’s their job. Like same-sex couples throughout the country, we now have the right to a marriage license. But just as it’s the job of judges to speak in the language of rights, it’s the job of religion to speak in the language of communal responsibility and connection and love. And it’s the job of sacred community to cultivate sacred space around married couples, supporting and sustaining them on their journey.

Al tifrosh min ha-tzibur, Rabbi Hillel teaches in the Talmud. “Don’t separate yourself from the community.” More than a set of legal rights – even the most crucial of rights – marriage opens a couple to a constellation of love, within them and surrounding them. Having dwelled within the awesome miracle of our wedding, it is plainly obvious that individual marriage rights and sacred community move in concert, two newlyweds dancing in counterpoint, held in holy embrace.

For us, Anthony’s vision came to life, the walls of our blessed community containing and defining our wedding. It was the joy in their faces that embraced us, inviting us to embrace them. We did ultimately have to leave the chuppah, to walk off the bandstand and walk into the unknown of our married life together. But the chuppah didn’t leave us, just as our friends and family didn’t leave us. They continue to sustain and support us, defining marriage not merely as a legal contract, but as an integration of souls – with each other, and within a holy community.

Rabbi Michael Rothbaum speaks, teaches, and writes about the intersection of culture, politics, justice, and Jewish choices. He serves as Co-chair of the Bay Area Regional Council of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and lives with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell, in Oakland. Photo credit: Clara Rice.



by: on June 23rd, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Tuesday night, antisemites on Twitter attacked me in a particularly visceral and disgusting way, and I want you to know about it.

I believe that each of us who shows up for love and justice should be able to come as we are, fully owning our ancestors, our multiple identities, and our personal choices. I’ve been involved in Jewish social action for a long time, chiefly in my role as president of The Shalom Center, led by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a beloved and inspiring teacher in the prophetic spirit, rebuking injustice and directing attention to the moral grandeur of which human beings are capable. A foundational principle in our work – and in all the interfaith work we engage – is respect for heritage and willingness to renew tradition so that it speaks directly to the present.

So when I stand up for justice, I show up as myself: a first-generation American Jew of Eastern European heritage who takes very seriously the exhortation from Amos 5:24 to “But let justice well up as waters, And righteousness as a mighty stream.” When Dr. Martin Luther King quoted that passage in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, he acknowledged a shared point of connection, evoking a primary text for both Jewish and Christian human rights advocates, a ground to stand together. In my own small way, I have discovered that showing up as myself often opens the possibility of connection with people from other faith traditions – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, practitioners of indigenous traditions and more – who also draw strength from the teachings and traditions they have inherited.


We Can Stop This Violence


by: Michael Nagler on June 17th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

During the G. W. Bush years a friend of mine lamented, “We have a war President, a war economy, and a war culture.” Yes on all three; but he might have gone on to add, the key is culture. If our culture did not promote violence the way it does we would not elect a war president, we would build our economy on very different, sustainable and just principles; we would find ways to avoid conflict and use robust, creative ways of dealing with it when it surfaced. In all this our belief system, or mindset is the key three-quarters and there are signs that we’re beginning to notice it.

I have been teaching, writing and speaking about peace for close to forty years; I founded a non-profit that long ago to educate people about nonviolence. I therefore do not make this statement lightly: I feel that we are beginning to see a breakthrough. If we widen the crack there may actually be a silver lining behind the mass shootings that took place last week in Orlando, the latest and worst we’ve yet endured.

The new awareness I’m referring to is admittedly slight, but it’s enough to make a three-quarter difference  if we seize the opportunity it represents. Two examples showed up in my local paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democratic on June 13th: the editorial board writes, tellingly, that nothing will stop these massacres “unless something changes in our culture, our conscience or our Congress.” On the same page, a cartoon by “Venn Detta” from theWashington Post shows Uncle Sam bowing his head (in grief ? shame? both?) before three circles labeled “Terrorism, Homophobia, Islamophobia.” They intersect a central circle called “Hate,” and the caption explains, “What ties it all together.” Why do I say that these might be signs that we’re turning a corner? Because up to now the responses to every one of these tragedies has followed a script, almost ritualized, and the one thing they have never included is any look at our culture or any attempt to probe some of its underlying forces. They have been at best irrelevant and at worst a sure way to provoke the problem. Most of them, to be sure, still are: statistics, “This is the largest number of victims in a mass shooting;” details, “Here are the names of the victims,” “Police are reconstructing the timeline,” and labels, they are “searching for the motive” so they know what kind of label to slap on the event, thus shielding us somewhat from its emotional impact. We’re being lead to relive the massacre instead of understand it.


Grieving the Orlando Massacre


by: on June 16th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

We at Tikkun reaffirm our commitment to the safety of and respect for the LGBTQ community.

“They” are “us”–we are both straight and gay, bi and trans, Jewish, and Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist, Hindu and earth-based religions of every variety, young and old, religious, secular humanists and atheists.

We will not let any sector of “us” get scared that the rest of us will abandon them. Just as I said at Muhammed Ali’s funeral that Jews will stand with Muslims in the face of growing Islamophobia (all the more needed now that some politicians are trying to use the horror of the mass murder of members of the LGBTQ community in Orlando by a supposedly Muslim young man to justify repression against Muslims). We will not let any of them become an “acceptable” target for the haters. Not the LGBTQ community, not anyone.

We are one global “we,” and we must never let any part of us become the target that is somehow made a “legitimate” target.

But true solidarity needs to go beyond standing with the victims of hate crimes, including, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, xenophobia and all the other variants of hatred. True solidarity should guide us to the imperative to develop strategies to heal the distortions and pains that lead people into communities of hate.

Our strategies must separate the hateful behavior from the pain in people that underlies their misdirected rage, and sometimes violent actions. We must develop ways to speak to those deep psychic wounds and hurts, and show people that there are better and more effective strategies to deal with those pains than to act them out on others, whether that acting out be in the form of demeaning, raping, making war against others, or in the form of mass politics of hatred.


Dissolving Tyranny Instead of Voting For It


by: on June 16th, 2016 | 5 Comments »

According to the masters of the moral universe who have housed themselves in the Democratic Party, that bedrock foundation of all human wisdom and enlightenment, I shall forever wear a Scarlet B on my chest. B for Bush.

I was one of the “Nader Spoilers” of 2000, one of the 97,421 Floridians who cast a vote for Ralph Nader.  If those of us in this group – the “Scarlet B Community” – had voted for Al Gore instead, George W. Bush would never have been president of the United States. I don’t dispute that math. But I do roll my eyes at the partisan emotions behind it, as if Al Gore had the political heft to save this country’s early 21st century descent in proto-tyranny.  Barack Obama’s magnetic persona and persuasive ability – and I would say his intellect too – far surpasses that of Al Gore, with all due respect to the former VP, and even he could not stop it.

Let’s be clear: At present, we have probably the most corruption-free, morally-minded, intellectually-disciplined president to ever occupy that office in U.S. history. And here we are.

Lest there be any doubt that we are at a chilling point in the American democratic experiment, consider these words of University of Texas law professor, Sandy Levinson, who writes at Balkinization:

This really and truly may be the most important election in our lifetimes if, as I fear, it will call into question basic issues of political stability within the US. We really are looking more and more like Weimar in the late 20s, where parliament is basically beneath contempt because of an inability to respond to the challenges facing the country, and the political parties increasingly view their opposition as Schmittian enemies to be crushed…

Indeed, as far Congress goes, what could be more “beneath contempt” than the fact that U.S. soldiers are now deployed in Iraq and parts of Syria operating under the same AUMF (Authorization to Use Military Force) that was passed in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, 2001, before ISIS even existed.  As Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) said last fall about his failed bill to require congressional authorization for any deployments to Syria to fight ISIS, “I get it, members of Congress are afraid to cast a vote on war.”


A Call for Love in the Face of Hatred: Rabbi Lerner’s talk at Muhammad Ali’s Memorial


by: on June 16th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

In case you who missed it, here’s Rabbi Lerner’s talk at Muhammed Ali’s funeral.His vision is all the more relevant given the horrific killings in Orlando and the way it is being used to promote fear, hatred and Islamophobia. It has gone viral on social media and inspired over a million people already. If it inspires you as well, please read below for how to be an ally with Rabbi Lerner to help build the world he describes.

Wondering why Rabbi Lerner got invited and how to respond to the handful of naysayers who have been upset by Lerner’s powerful message? Please read below.

Muhammad Ali had known Rabbi Lerner as a friend and ally in the 1960s and early 1970s when both were indicted by the U.S. government for their roles in opposing the war in Vietnam. He then wrote Rabbi Lerner to praise his book with Cornel WestJews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin.Approximately seven years ago, he decided to invite Rabbi Lerner to represent the American Jewish community at his memorial service. Rabbi Lerner only received a phone call invitation from the Ali family four days before he got on an airplane to Louisville.