Tikkun Daily button

Archive for the ‘Rethinking Religion’ Category



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

Jun24

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.

Building Upon Nostra Aetate: Fraternity Over Collaboration

Jun17

by: Timothy Villareal on June 17th, 2016 | Comments Off

Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thomas Merton

Abraham Joshua Heschel and Thomas Merton

In April, news reports surfaced that the Vatican was on the verge of granting canonical status to a far right breakaway movement within Roman Catholicism that rejects the Second Vatican Council: the Society of Pius X (SSPX). Most Catholics became familiar with this group’s existence in 2009, when Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, though not granting it canonical recognition, lifted the excommunication of its members, including an infamous bishop of the Society, Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier since expelled from the group. Sadly, the removal of that bishop has not, as documented by the Anti-Defamation League, done anything to cleanse the SSPX of its anti-Semitism.

In January 2013 – just two months before Pope Francis ascended to the papacy – the leader of the Society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, blamed the Vatican’s refusal to grant his group canonical recognition on the Jewish people. As reportedby the ADL:

In his remarks, Fellay accused Jews of lobbying the Vatican to accept the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. “Interesting, isn’t it?” Fellay said. “People from outside the Church, who were clearly during centuries enemies of the Church, say to Rome, ‘if you want to accept these people (SSPX) you must oblige them to accept the Council.’ Isn’t that interesting? Oh it is. I think it’s fantastic, because it shows that Vatican II is their thing, not the Church’s. They see, the enemies of the Church see, their benefit in the Council. Very interesting.”

Fundamentally, what Fellay was referring to when he said that Vatican II was “their thing, not the Church’s” was the landmark Vatican document, Nostra Aetate: a document which revoked the charge of deicide against the Jewish people, and which paved the way for the following 50 years of positive Catholic-Jewish relations.

Indeed, without that so-called “Jewish interference” at the Second Vatican Council generations of Catholics would have likely been imbued with the same anti-Semitic, or at least anti-Judaic, religious mindsets that plagued pre-Vatican II Catholicism.Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the twentieth century, was the lead representative for the American Jewish Committee on the Council text addressing Catholic-Jewish relations in this post-Holocaust world, helping to shape its outcome for the better.

Read more...

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

Jun16

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.

Read more...

Tikkun’s Rabbi Michael Lerner to Speak at Memorial for Social Justice Hero Muhammad Ali

Jun6

by: Ari Bloomekatz on June 6th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Rabbi Michael Lerner, who worked with social justice hero Muhammad Ali in the peace movement against the war in Vietnam, has been invited to speak at the great boxer’s memorial service this coming Friday in Louisville, Kentucky.

While Ali earned fame for his boxing skills and as the heavyweight champion of the world, his legacy is that of a radical revolutionary who fought against the established power structures – a fact made clear when he gave up the title and refused to serve in Vietnam.

Ali’s family called Rabbi Lerner to represent the Jewish people at the memorial service and told him Ali and his wife had been fans of his for many years. There will also be Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist speakers, and former President Clinton is also expected to give an address.

The last time Rabbi Lerner heard from Ali was in 1995 when he sent Rabbi Lerner a note saying how much he enjoyed the book Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, which Rabbi Lerner co-wrote with Cornel West.

“I was very amazed to hear from him then, and all the more amazed that his family remembers me two decades later,” Rabbi Lerner said in a statement. “I never know who reads Tikkun, my articles in other social media, my books, or has seen or heard me on television or radio, and what impact, if any, my ideas have on people.”

Lerner said he was humbled and moved that Ali and his family had been following his work all of these years and impacted by them.

“I feel deeply humbled by this honor and moved to know that my ideas touched Muhammed Ali,” Lerner said. “American Jews have played an important role in the continuing fight for social justice and peace, so our presence in this memorial will be a testimony to the very many in our community who celebrated Muhammad Ali’s courageous fight for peace, social justice, and a world in which love and generosity wins out over fear, hate, militarism and domination.”

Lerner said he also wanted to use the opportunity as a way to reaffirm the Jewish people’s “solidarity with Muslims around the world who are experiencing a growing Islamophobia that blames the billion and a half Muslims for the crimes of a small fraction of Muslims-the kind of hatred that we Jews have known all too well in our history.”

CNN has asked Rabbi Lerner to speak on a show that will be aired at 9 a.m. Friday morning Eastern Daylight Time. He can be reached for other interviews by emailing Leila@tikkun.org or by calling 510-644-1200 (8 a.m.- 5 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time).

Rabbi Lerner will also talk about the experience of the memorial during his synagogue’s celebration of Shavuot (the Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai) on Sunday, June 12 (details at www.beyttikkun.org).

Muhammad Ali Was a Freedom Fighter Not an Icon or Celebrity

Jun6

by: Henry A. Giroux on June 6th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

The death of Muhammad Ali strikes at the heart of what it means to lead a life of dignity, unsurpassed skill, and the willingness to step into history and call out its most insidious injustices. I am one of many, I am sure, whose heart is broken over the death of Muhammad Ali, who was a hero for those of us raised in the sixties and for whom he modeled that poetic dialectic between the body and a notion of resistance. For my working-class generation, the body was all we had – a site of danger, hope, possibility, confusion, and dread – he elevated that understanding into the political realm by mediating those working class concerns into a brave and courageous understanding of politics as a site of resistance. He made it clear that resistance was a poetic act that was continually being written. He unsettled the racial order, protested the war, and danced in the ring like a butterfly – a master of wit, performance, and sheer courage. Resistance for Ali was not an option, but a necessity.

One of his greatest gifts was using his talent as a world-renowned fighter to flip the script, a script used by the elite of the time to define poor black and white kids by their deficits. In his speech and actions, Ali taught a generation of young kids that their deficits were actually their strengths, that is, a sense of solidarity, compassion, a merging of the mind and the body, learning, and willingness to take risks, embracing passion, connecting knowledge to power, and being attentive to the injuries of others while embracing a sense of social justice. Ali taught us how to talk back to power. Many of us learned early that what Ali was saying was THAT WE had to flip the script in order to survive and WE became acutely aware that the alleged strengths of those who oppressed us in the streets, schools, on the job, and in other spaces that our bodies inhabited were actually vicious deficits, extending from their racism to their unbridled arrogance and propensity for violence. Ali provided a language and sense of agency that provided a turning point in our being able to narrate and free ourselves from one of the most sinister forms of ideological domination – what Marie Luise Knott calls “those unexamined prejudices that keep us from thinking.”

Ali was dangerous not just as a deftly skilled boxer but also because he deeply understood that challenge, if not slow process, of unlearning the poisonous sedimented histories minority youth often have to internalize and embody in order to survive. Unlearning meant becoming attentive to the histories, traditions, daily rituals, and social relations that offered both a sense of resistance and allowed people to think beyond the inflicted misery and suffering that marked their neighborhoods and daily lives. It meant not only learning about resistance in their lost histories but also how to narrate themselves from the perspective of understanding both the toxic cultural capital that shored up racist state power and those modes of knowledge and social relations that allowed us to challenge it. It also meant unlearning those modes of oppression that too many of us had internalized, obvious examples being the rampant sexism and hyper-masculinity we had been taught were matters of common sense and reputable badges of identity. But in the END, Ali taught us to believe in and fight for our convictions.

Outside of being the greatest boxer in the world, Ali sacrificed three-and-a-half years of his career for the ideals in which he believed. He was not merely an icon of history, he helped to shape it. Ali had his flaws and his ridicule of Joe Frazier and his disowning of Malcolm X speak to those shortcomings, but Ali was not a god, he was simply flawed differently. What is most remarkable about him as a fighter for the underdog was his ability to flip the script. It will be hard to find people like Ali in the future now that self-interest and a pathological narcissism have taken over the culture in the age of casino capitalism. I will miss him and only hope his legacy will leave the traces of resistance and courage that will inspire another generation. He was a champ in the most courageous sense who showed generations of working class kids how to resist, struggle, and talk back with dignity and grace.

Photo credit: Dutch National Archives, The Hague. Vikipedija.

The New Anti-Semitism: Islamophobia

May16

by: Ron Hirschbein on May 16th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

It is acceptable to advance anti-Semitism in film – provided the Semites are Arabs. I call this habit of racial and cultural generalization “The New Anti-Semitism.” I call it “new” not because stereotypical screen Arabs are new (they aren’t) or because anti-Semitism against Jews is dead (it isn’t). I use the word “new” because many of the anti-Semitic films directed against Arabs were released . . . at a time when Hollywood was steadily and increasingly eliminating stereotypical portraits of other groups.

- Jack Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People

The new anti-Semitism extends far beyond darkened movie theatres to the spotlight shining on Donald J. Trump, the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. What if Trump had substituted “Jew” in his diatribe against Muslims? What if he told enraptured followers that: Jews should be banned from entering the country until we can figure out what’s going on. And imagine: He’d require Jewish-Americans to register with a government database, and mandate special identification cards. Warrantless surveillance of American Jews and their places of worship would become the new normal.

It’s possible that such blatant anti-Semitism might have derailed his candidacy – but who could say for sure in these peculiar times? In any case, I suspect that degrading Jews would evoke more outrage than the calumny visited upon Muslims. Indeed, Trump’s followers celebrate Islamophobia, but is this anti-Semitism?

Jews and Arabs are both Semites. To cite a headline from the Israeli paper Haaretz: “Jews and Palestinian Arabs share genetic roots”; they’re “blood brothers” – much to the chagrin of the Semitic-deniers. Jews and Arabs also share a history, theology, and language. Linguists readily uncover the Semitic roots of Hebrew and Arabic. No wonder our prayers for peace bear a family resemblance – shalom and as salaam. But there is no peace. And there will be no peace until Jew and Arab stop mirroring hateful stereotypes of one another.

To be sure, in theory, Islamophobia cannot be reduced to prejudice against Arabs – only about 15% of Muslims are Arabs. In practice, however, Islamophobes keep it simple. The pervasive, Islamophobia mobilized and exploited by Trump and too many others is not the product of a nuanced analysis of the demographics of the diverse Islamic world. It is not tempered by the lessons of history found in works that should be required reading in these times, studies such as Hofstadter’s Paranoia in American Politics. The Arab is the Islamophobe’s idee fixe.

Read more...

Nazi Policy and Black Victims—Before, During, and After the Holocaust—from Africa to Berlin to North Carolina

May16

by: Edwin Black on May 16th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In recent years, too many in the African American community have expressed a disconnect to Holocaust topics, seeing the genocide of Jews as someone else’s nightmare. After all, African Americans are still struggling to achieve general recognition of the barbarity of the Middle Passage, the inhumanity of slavery, the oppression of Jim Crow, and the battle for modern civil rights. For many in that community, the murder of six million Jews and millions of other Europeans happened to other minorities in a faraway place where they had no involvement.

Surviving Herero after their escape through the arid desert of Omaheke in German Southwest Africa (modern day Namibia) circa 1907 (Ullstein Bilderdienst, Berlin)

However, a deeper look shows that proto-Nazi ideology before the Third Reich, the wide net of Nazi-era policy, and Hitler’s post-war legacy deeply impacted Africans, Afro-Germans, and African Americans throughout the twentieth century. America’s Black community has a mighty stake in this topic. Understanding the German Reich and the Holocaust is important for Blacks just as it is for other communities, including Roma, eastern Europeans, people with disabilities, the gay community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other groups in addition to Jews. The dots are well known to many scholars – but rarely connected to form a distinct historical nexus for either the Holocaust or the African American communities. This is understandable. The saga behind these connections started decades before the Third Reich came into existence, in a savage episode on another continent that targeted a completely different racial and ethnic group for death and destruction.

But the horrors visited on another defenseless group endured and became a template for the Final Solution. Students of the Holocaust are accustomed to looking backward long before the Third Reich and long after the demise of the Nazi war machine. African Americans should do the same.

Read more...

Unrighteous Anger – Queen Vashti and the Erasure of Transgender Women

May13

by: Mischa Haider and Penina Weinberg on May 13th, 2016 | 8 Comments »

Queen Vashti Refuses To Obey Ahasuerus' Command by Gustave Dore

The night after Purim the two of us sat feasting – a queer Hebrew bible scholar and a trans woman activist. The book of Esther was on our minds, as we read Esther every year on Purim, the festival when we celebrate the brave Jewish queen who saves her people from annihilation in Persia. Also on our minds was the “bathroom panic” gripping the nation over the perilous prospect of transgender women using women’s restrooms. To address the threat, state legislatures are being flooded with proposed measures to deny transgender people access to restrooms and facilities in accordance with their authentic gender identity, instead forcing them to use the restroom matching the inaccurate gender assigned to them at birth. To those who may have missed the news, the rallying cry of these bills is “no men in women’s restrooms.” Since the trope that transwomen are actually men is patently absurd, we sought to delve into the mental plumbing of the cisgender men who craft these “bathroom panic” laws. What is it that compels them to enact such draconian measures? What is the source of their unrighteous anger?

There are many parallels in the story of Queen Vashti, as related in Esther. The lesser-known Queen Vashti, who enters the story prior to Queen Esther, is a proud and determined woman. Her strong-willed independence prompts the men in power to erase her existence, much as the enactors of the bathroom bills seek to erase transgender women. Perhaps in exploring Queen Vashti’s defiance and subsequent disappearance, we may illuminate the motivations of the cisgender men legislatively erasing transgender women, and get to the root of their anger.

As Esther opens, King Ahasuerus is holding a feast for his princes and subjects – a farcical extravagance lasting six months. The narrative is replete with gold and silver divans; dyed linens and fine cottons; abundant royal wine. While the king entertains his courtiers, his queen, Vashti, banquets the women in her quarters – the women’s area of the royal house. On a certain day, the king sends his seven eunuchs – sarisim – to bring Vashti before him. Note that the word in the text, sarasim, is often translated as chamberlains, owing to their function at court. However, it is their status as eunuchs that enables them to be admitted to the women’s quarters.

Vashti defies King Ahasuerus by refusing his summons to display herself before his royal banqueters. A preliminary clue to the ideology of those who seek to obliterate transgender womanhood may be found in the reaction of the court to this insubordination. In a masterful engraving, the French artist Gustave Doré perfectly illustrates both the refusal and the reaction.

In the engraving, the figure of Vashti stands in the spotlight in an unbowed posture. The expressions and carriage of the men around her suggest fear and anger – arguably arising from their inability to control her. Visualize Doré’s interpretation as we explore the interactions between Vashti’s independence and the enactments of King Ahasuerus and his princes in the text. We will argue that the forced erasure-by-legislation, which certain cisgender men in power today enact against transgender women, is rooted in the same feelings as those illustrated by Doré: the perceived loss of ownership and domination of the women in their intimate circles.

Read more...

Why anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism – but criticising Israel isn’t

May12

by: Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah on May 12th, 2016 | 28 Comments »

The Labour Party has become embroiled in a row about anti-Semitism. Why the row? After all, the Labour Party is committed to challenging racism and anti-Semitism – which is a particular form of racism. It’s a row because the anti-Semitism in question concerns anti-Zionism – and not everybody in the Labour Party agrees that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. At the heart of the current row, a tweet re-tweeted by Labour MP Naz Shah, which suggested that Israel be relocated to the United States. For those who shared the tweet, it seemed fair comment, given the support of the United States for Israel – and the fact that the second largest Jewish population in the world resides in the United States. Of the 14.2 million Jews living in the world today, six million live in Israel and over five million live in the US.

The tweet was anti-Semitic for at least two reasons. Within living memory, the Jewish communities of Europe were made Judenfrei, ‘Jew-free’, or Judenrein, ‘clean of Jews’, as the Jews who lived in them were systematically deported to ghettos, concentration camps and death camps in Eastern Europe. The ghettos themselves, where hundreds of thousands were penned into walled areas of cities, were simply holding places, from which the Jews were sent on to the death camps. After the defeat of Hitler, those who survived became displaced persons, the majority of whom were collected into camps – most notably on Cyprus – with nowhere to go. To suggest that Israel, which became the principal place of refuge for the Jews who survived the Sho’ah, should be relocated elsewhere suggests either an inane forgetfulness or a shocking indifference to the annihilation of six million Jews – at the time, one third of the world Jewish population – which took place in the space of just six years from the onset of the violent persecution of the Jews of Europe on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.

The tweet was also anti-Semitic in the context of the way in which, again and again, regardless of the oppression of peoples across the world by numberless nations, Israel is singled out for special condemnation because of its on-going oppression of the Palestinians. Where is the protest against the murder of the Tamils by the Sri Lankan regime? Where is the protest against China’s occupation of Tibet? Why is it that these nations and others like them have not been subject to boycott and disinvestment campaigns? Of course, the anti-Palestinian policies of the Israeli government must be challenged, and support must be given to the Palestinian people, in their struggle for self-determination, and the establishment of an independent state of Palestine. Equally, the regimes of China and Sri Lanka should also be challenged, and the Tibetans and Tamils should be supported in their struggles for self-determination.

Read more...

Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Four: Borrowing Reason from Hellenism

May2

by: George P. Fletcher on May 2nd, 2016 | 3 Comments »

Genesis 1:26.

AND GOD SAID, LET US MAKE ADAM IN OUR IMAGE, AFTER OUR LIKENESS.

Part IV: Borrowing Reason from Hellenism.

There is a romantic story implicit in the way the words s’vara and its related grammatical forms came to be adopted in modern Hebrew.  The tale highlights another ray of influence of God’s Image in contemporary thought.  It is well known that ‘reason’ is a Hellenistic idea – generally absent from Hebrew thought.  This was evident in the drafting of the first criminal code ordinance in Israel/Palestine under the British mandate.  The drafts took a code developed by the nineteenth century scholar Fitzjames Stephen for all the British colonies. When it was translated into Hebrew, the drafters had particular difficulty the word omnipresent in English legal discourse – reasonableness.

The drafter opted for a different idiom in very context.  One of my favorites was: mitkabel al ha-daat – “It presents itself to the mind.”  When I presented a paper at the Hebrew University in the early 1970′s, I focused on this problem of translation.  I was aware that it was difficult to translate Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into Hebrew, largely because of the same divide between Hellenism and Hebraism.  The translators choose the word tvunah which was apparently too sophisticated for use in drafting statutes.

After I presented the paper, my old friend and colleague Shalev Ginossar took me aside and told me of a meeting in the ministry of justice in which they discussed the problem of translation.  They decided at that time to take a word from the Talmud s’vara and introduce it into modern Hebrew.  The word does not exactly mean ‘reason’ but it is as close as you can get.  This is the word that subsequent drafters invoked to capture the English conception of reasonableness.

There was an implication for my own future work.  Fifteen years later, in cooperation between Columbia and the Hartman

Read more...