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Torah Commentary Perashat Balak: Rising Above Being-Animal, Particularly Now

Jul3

by: on July 3rd, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Once again we find ourselves in a world of brutal murders, teenagers this time, with heart-rending images of mothers crying, on both sides of the political spectrum. The ensuing scenes of mobs calling for yet more violence, and the apparent “revenge” killing that occurred, make it likely that we will witness, and then become blase again, about the kind of violence that is truly endless- no parent can ever live normally after the death of children, it is an eternal sorrow that no human should need to suffer, and certainly not for reasons of “politics”. I submit that the point of this week’s Torah reading, which tells the story of a failed attempt by haters to do harm to innocent people (with “curses” prior to actual violence) foiled, in part, through a talking donkey, is meant to teach us just this lesson.

Perashat Balak, this week’s Torah reading, stands as a unique narrative segment in the Torah. For the first time, we are presented with a narrative episode which is entirely not experienced by the Israelites; a “behind the scenes” presentation, or to use contemporary film theory terminology, we are “sutured in” from an entirely different vantage point, outside of the usual concern with the Exodus. It can be assumed that if the Torah had not told us this story, no one would have ever known it, as it all takes place outside the horizon of the participants of the Exodus.

The film theory analogy may not be far off. In reading through this passage, one is struck by a preponderance of visual terminology. Again and again terms dealing with sight are used, even down to the description of the Israelite masses as covering “eyn haaretz”, the “eye of the land”. The Daat Moshe (son of the Magid of Kozhnitz, and an important thinker in his own right) suggests that even the name of the king of Moab, protagonist of our tale, Balak ben Zippor, reflects this, as the word “zippor” is akin to the aramaic “tzafra nahir”, inferring a certain type of clarity, as of daylight. Perhaps our text is trying to teach us a lesson in how to “see”?

This passage is so cinematic that there is even a novel special effect thrown in, when the bad guy Bilaam’s donkey starts to speak, a bit of “magical realism” tossed in, a sort of effect not found elsewhere in the Torah.

Now even if the Torah felt it necessary to give an historical perspective on how the surrounding tribal peoples responded to the emergence of the Israelites on the scene, and even if the resulting positive spin of Bilaam’s blessings are worth preserving, why tell us the odd story of the talking mule? The text never finds it important to present, for example, the rituals or political structures during the period of slavery in Egypt, so why do we need to know the details of Bilaam’s escapades? This type of story seems more reminiscent of those odd Midrashim that attempt to fill in gaps in the narrative, as in the details of Moshe’s adventures in Midian, etc. So what is this episode, and particularly the talking donkey segment, attempting to teach us?

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The NSA Should Be Worried After Supreme Court Ruling

Jun25

by: on June 25th, 2014 | 2 Comments »

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled today in Riley v. California that digital privacy is protected by the Fourth Amendment, holding that law enforcement must produce a warrant to search an arrestee’s cell phone or mobile device.

While this decision only addresses physical searches of a person’s cell phone, Riley v. California may not-so-subtly be signaling that potential legal thorns exist for the NSA and the intelligence community, particularly after one specific sentence written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the decision. However, before examining this aspect of the court’s decision, first let’s briefly examine how Riley v. California has unmistakably distinguished digital privacy as a Fourth-Amendment-protected entity when it comes to physical searches by police.

One of the most significant aspects of today’s ruling was the court’s distinguishing digital devices from other items a person might have on their person when searched by law enforcement. Justice Roberts wrote that such devices today contain digital records of “nearly every aspect of [one's] life,” and therefore cannot be treated during a search as merely one in a number of items an arrestee might have in her pockets:

Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy. But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. Third, data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an element of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records. A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.


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Eric Cantor and Karma

Jun23

by: on June 23rd, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons

When former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) lost his primary election, the Washington punditocracy was stunned. A flurry of breathless stories and commentary followed seeking to determine and to explain what the loss portends for public policy and for the 2014 mid-term elections. Since Cantor’s opponent, David Brat, a college economics professor and a Tea Party conservative, ran against what he calls “amnesty” in comprehensive immigration reform, conventional wisdom says immigration reform cannot pass during this Congress. At the same time, it seems that Cantor, busy with the responsibilities of national leadership, failed to stay in touch with his constituents. I say Cantor’s loss is a function of Karma.

I am not a Buddhist, but the concept that derives from eastern religions, in its most basic sense, is an economical way to think about the relationship between act and consequence, cause and effect. Karma means “act.” Good consequences come from good acts; bad consequences from bad acts. Karma reminds us that the things we do – the good, the bad, and the ugly – thinking it will have a negative effect on someone else will have a negative effect on us.

Karma says: “you reap what you sow.” It is akin to the wisdom found in Proverbs 26:27 – “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.” (English Standard Version) The late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson echoed the same principle when she said: “If you dig a ditch you better dig two ’cause the trap you set just may be for you.” It is a more specific understanding of the African-American wisdom: “The Lord don’t like ugly.”

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The Presbyterian Divestment Vote: Toward a New Model of Community Relations

Jun23

by: on June 23rd, 2014 | 19 Comments »

Jews and Presbyterians pray together during deliberations at the 2014 Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit

In the wake of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s recent decision to divest from three companies that profit from Israel’s occupation, Jewish establishment leaders have been expressing their displeasure toward the PC(USA) in no uncertain terms.

Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman stated last week that church leaders have “fomented an atmosphere of open hostility to Israel.” Rabbi Noam Marans director of inter-religious relations at the American Jewish Committee, declared that “the PC(USA) decision is celebrated by those who believe they are one step closer to a Jew-free Middle East.” And Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, publicly accused the PC(USA) of having a “deep animus” against “both the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

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Israeli Rabbi Evokes Hiroshima to Justify Collective Punishment of Palestinians

Jun22

by: on June 22nd, 2014 | 5 Comments »

The fate of three Israeli teenagers, kidnapped last week by an unconfirmed entity in the West Bank, remains unknown, a deeply concerning truth that has refocused attention on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, while their fate remains unknown, what is known is the fate of those Palestinians who have been killed, detained and shuttered with the Israeli military’s search for the missing teens transitioning into a collective punishment of an entire people.

Israeli troops raid Bethlehem as search for missing teenagers enters its eighth day (Credit: Creative Commons)

Since the IDF launched “Operation Brother’s Keeper” on June 12 to search for the missing teenagers, four Palestinian civilians have been killed, hundreds have been detained, and hundreds of thousands in the Hebron region have been confined to their homes. This in addition to over 1,600 sites in the West Bank which have been raided by soldiers, including Palestinian media, government offices and NGO headquarters.

The response has been so striking that the Obama administration has called for restraint, and human rights groups, including Rabbis for Human Rights and Amnesty International, have called upon Israel to cease what has clearly become a strategy of collective punishment which contravenes the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Despite these calls, Israeli officials are becoming explicit that Israel should collectively punish all Palestinians until the kidnapped teenagers are safely returned. Consider these words from Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Danny Dannon:

“[Israel should] shut off the electricity in the West Bank and Gaza … In my opinion there is room for extensive actions against the civilian population. I am saying something harsh here, but I believe it.”


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Presbyterian Church Votes to Divest from Israel Occupation Profiteers Caterpillar, Motorola & HP

Jun20

by: on June 20th, 2014 | 10 Comments »

Credit: Creative Commons

In a contentious vote guaranteed to be met with outrage by hawkish U.S. politicians and some Jewish leaders, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted 310-303 to divest from three major U.S. companies engaged in “non-peaceful pursuits” in Israel-Palestine.

PC(USA) voted on Friday evening at its 221st General Assembly in Detroit to divest from Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions, three companies which provide equipment and technological implements utilized by the IDF in its military occupation of the Palestinians in the West Bank. The church’s divestment overture focused only on these three companies, and was careful not to align itself with the international BDS movement or with any efforts to divest from the State of Israel (per a passed amendment during the proceedings).

At the General Assembly before the vote, Caterpillar was singled out for providing the IDF with equipment used in home demolitions, the construction of settler-only roads and the uprooting of Palestinian farmlands illegally appropriated by Israel; HP was singled out for providing biometric scanners used on Palestinians at checkpoints and customized software for the Israeli Navy; and Motorola was singled out for providing surveillance systems used by the settlements in the West Bank.


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I Now Pronounce You… Much More Inclusive! PCUSA and Marriage Equality

Jun20

by: on June 20th, 2014 | Comments Off

Photo taken by The Layman (an organization opposed to GLBTQ marriage)

Spoiler Alert: The Presbyterian Church USA, at its General Assembly, voted this week to allow ministers in states where same-gender marriage is legal, to officiate at such weddings. They also voted to change the language in their “Book of Order” to say that marriage is between “two people.”

Now a perspective from a Jew in the pew.

On April 8th 1990, Derrick Kikuchi and I were married in the First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto. Back then there was no state recognition of our marriage and the Presbyterian Church USA, which banned ordination of GLBTQ folks, had not yet gotten around to making it a no-no for ministers to perform “holy unions” or other ceremonies recognizing lifetime commitments between GLBTQ partners.

In June 2008, between the time that the California Supreme Court decided that the state’s ban on same-gender marriage was unconstitutional, and the vote on Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to say that marriage was only between a man and a woman, Derrick and I were to receive an award at the More Light Presbyterian’s dinner at the PCUSA General Assembly. Instead of giving a speech we thought it would be wonderful to finally get our marriage license signed at that dinner, making our marriage legal in the state of California, while we still could.

A reporter for The Layman, an organization and publication that opposes same-gender marriage, was at the dinner, took the wonderful picture above, and then spent the evening writing an article that lambasted us for what we had done that evening.

We never dreamed that six years later marriage would be legal in so many states and that the PCUSA would vote FOR marriage equality. But, despite not dreaming that it would happen, many many many people continued to work to make it happen and now…


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CNN Host Asks if Hillary Clinton Should Apologize for Telling the Truth About Israel’s Occupation of the Palestinians

Jun10

by: on June 10th, 2014 | 8 Comments »

Monday on CNN’s “Crossfire,” cohost S.E. Cupp prepared the viewing audience to brace themselves for a “doosy” of a statement embedded deep in Hillary Clinton’s new book, Hard Choices.

Curious to know what this controversial statement might be? It’s a sentence from her recollections of a trip taken with Bill Clinton to the Palestinian city of Jericho in 1981. Of that trip, Clinton writes:

“In the West Bank, I got my first glimpse of life under occupation for Palestinians, who were denied the dignity and self-determination that Americans take for granted.”

After reading the above statement, Cupp pointed to Tracy Sefl, a representative of the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary, and emotionally reminded her that Chris Christie was forced to apologize to ‘pro-Israel’ groups in America for using the language of “occupation,” emphatically employing air quotes for the word occupation.

She then looked at Sefl and asked the following:

“Is Hillary Clinton going to apologize to Israel for using that same language?”


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Remembering 9/11: Is There a Right Way?

May23

by: on May 23rd, 2014 | 16 Comments »

Last week, the famed 9/11 memorial museum opened with a host of items salvaged from that fateful day in American history. About the same time, Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative burst onto our collective consciousness by once again using the image of the burning twin towers on Washington, D.C. buses to malign an entire religion. It seems that almost thirteen years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we still have an antagonistic, feral response to this defining moment in modern history.


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John Legend, Anthony Bourdain & Shifting Use of the ‘P’ Word in America

May22

by: on May 22nd, 2014 | 3 Comments »

Growing up, I rarely heard the ‘P’ word uttered in my suburban Atlanta community, and not once did I hear it spoken in my Hebrew school at our family’s conservative synagogue, where teachers spoke of “them” in quick, hushed tones.

And whenever the ‘P’ word was mentioned, whether on CNN or ABC News, it was always accompanied by images of bloodied streets, of people who looked like me grieving, of extremists pointing guns toward the heavens. The message growing up in America, and in the American Jewish community, was clear: Palestinians were a people so evil as to not be named, unless appropriately malevolent images befitting such a people could be simultaneously conjured.

Palestinians were not human, their existence inhumane. This is what I was taught. And this is what I still believed when, in 2002, a Palestinian man planted a bomb at Hebrew University which injured my wife and killed the two American friends with whom she was sitting.

In 2002, in a post-9/11 America fomenting the early stages of a societal, systemic Islamophobia, this is what mainstream America believed as well. The ‘P’ word was used mostly to demonize, not to humanize.

But things have changed dramatically in American discourse in the last few years, mirroring a personal change which has happened within me over the last decade. It is a change which symbolically can be represented by two remarkable moments from this week, both of which happened on May 19.


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