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More Blood Flowing, Will It Ever End?

Jul11

by: on July 11th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

Two more black men shot dead by police, blood flowing from their bodies. As I think about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and the blood flowing from their dying and dead bodies, I wonder if their souls are free from the societal stories about who black men are and the internalization of some of those stories. I think about the impact these stories have on the psychological, spiritual, physical, and social presence and existence of Black people in our society and how police and others react to them as a result of these stories.

Our society treats African Americans as though black bodies are less worthy or less valuable than white bodies; that black human beings are dangerous and threatening. I want to paint their bodies full of life, full of blood, but with different letters and societal stories inscribed on them. I want our societal stories to be ones of love, of acceptance, of worthiness, of value, of safety, of nonviolence, of beauty, of strength, of grace. Stories that in fact are the truth of who all of us are but on black bodies all we see are the negative images. I want these positive stories to shine brightly.

How might we get there? Spiritually, we need a mikvah – a bath of flowing, fresh water washing over each and every one of us that brings down the loving grace of the transformative energy of the universe to cleanse us. So each and every one of us can compassionately and gently, with love and strength, disrobe ourselves from these places of constriction, these stories that have become so embedded in our beings and in our culture that they become us instead of just stories. So that black bodies are finally free from the stories that they are dangerous and to be feared, from the hatred and prejudice that our society has imprinted on them so we can see their humanity rather than be obscured by our projections. And so that those of us who fail to see through these inscribed stories can wash ourselves clean of the stories imprinted upon us that impede our capacity to see the humanity of others.

What would happen then? Might black lives be freed from the legacies of prejudice, fear, and hatred that our society places upon them? Might police officers be freed from seeing black men as dangerous and threatening? Might we all be able to see the humanity in each other?

As I enter Shabbat with a heavy heart, I hold in my heart the memories of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, their family members and all who loved them, the Black women and men who are reminded once again of their own fragility in a country that is supposedly free, and of all the lives throughout the world who are killed and whose true stories we are unable to see. May we one day find a path to our true freedom where we see through the stories to the souls that live within each of us. Until that time, may we continue to do the work needed to fundamentally heal and transform our world.

Cat Zavis is the Executive Director of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. She is also an attorney, mediator, and trainer in conflict resolution and empathic communication. She has co-led trainings with Rabbi Michael Lerner on integrating spirituality and activism and on communicating across differences on Israel and Palestine. You can reach Cat at cat@spiritualprogressives.org. To learn more about the Network of Spiritual Progressives, go to: www.spiritualprogressives.org.

Trending Now in Albany: Boycotts

Jul7

by: Zachary Aldridge on July 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

The man walked into the courtroom wearing a fine suit. He was handsome and poised. It was August 18, 1955 and the man, Pete Seeger, was testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, asserting that he would not comply with the Committee and have his First Amendment rights stripped from him. We all know how this story ended; Seeger, who was one of scores of activists and artists who were blacklisted for alleged communist affiliations, was indicted for being in contempt of Congress in what is now recognized as one of the lowest and most fearful points in American democratic history.

Though the Red Scare has since been packed away in history textbooks, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has mandated something disturbingly similar: an executive order that forces state entities to divest from businesses and organizations linked to boycotts of Israel and the larger BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. The order requires the creation and publication of a list of companies and institutions that support BDS, a tactic of intimidating pro-Palestinian voices and silencing critical discourse around Israel reminiscent of McCarthyism.

The BDS movement represents a call in 2005 from Palestinian civil society to pressure the State of Israel to end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands taken in 1967, recognizing the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens, and respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution #194.


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Night and Elie Wiesel’s Legacy of Transforming Youth Consciousness

Jul5

by: Ari Bloomekatz on July 5th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Source: Flickr (World Economic Forum).

Most of the discussions surrounding Elie Wiesel’s life and legacy seem to be focusing on him as a person, his dubious politics, what his life and survival has meant to Jews and the memory of theShoah, and, to put it simply, what his death means to adults – those old enough to remember his Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 or his efforts to dissuade President Reagan from visiting the Bitburg cemetery a year earlier.

But Wiesel’s legacy in the United States, and in many parts of the world, is not about adults. It’s about children, about teenagers, and, for the most part, his impact on non-Jewish youth everywhere. His legacy will beNight and the legions of American youth who read it.

Nightis how most non-Jewish youth in the U.S. learn about the real horrors of the Holocaust (along with perhaps Number the Stars andThe Diary of a Young Girl) and is one of the most important books in U.S. history not just for its role introducing Americans to the concentration camps, but in many ways also introducing them to Jews.

Night is required or suggested reading in many colleges, high schools, and some middle schools. I’m certain many of those I grew up with in Tennessee – where the first question everyone asked me after I moved there in middle school was “What church do you go to?” – would not have known much of anything about the Holocaust if it hadn’t been forNight.

While Wiesel’s politics have, at times, surely been suspect for progressives, we are forever changed as a society not merely for what he said, but what we’ve read. Wiesel the witness is amplified through Night into something bigger – we are all witnesses.

There have been efforts to banNightfrom schools in the past, and if we want to honor the best aspect of Wiesel’s legacy, we’ll make sure that never happens.

Like most young Jews, Night was not my introduction to the Holocaust and when my father took me to see a public conversation between Wiesel and Maya Angelou when I was young, I had no idea who he was. But I’m spiritually indebted to Wiesel because it was that conversation at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst that helped shape my own thoughts about miracles, the existence (or lack there of) of a God, and a transformative power of the universe.

I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but at one point Angelou the poet asked Wiesel the survivor if, after the horrors of the Holocaust, he still believed in miracles.

I love someone and they love me back, Wiesel said. Isn’t that a miracle?

I talk to someone and they understand me, Wiesel said. Isn’t that a miracle?

The idea of ordinary miracles, of a transformative power that’s not God or God-like but rooted in us as a people, has never been far from my mind after that day. And if we want to honor his legacy, we definitely should keep teaching Night in schools – and we should also understand what a miracle it is to read it.

Ari Bloomekatz is the managing editor of Tikkun magazine.

Jewish Law and Our Most Cherished Traditions Require Justice for Hassan Diab

Jul5

by: David Mivasair on July 5th, 2016 | 6 Comments »

Out of the 613 commandments our tradition identifies in the Torah, only two are expressed with the word tirdof -pursue it! One is “seek peace and pursue it. “The other famously is“tzedek, tzedek tirdof -justice, justice you shall pursue” in the Book of Leviticus.Our sages of old taught that in repeating the word “justice,” the Torah is telling us that we must pursue justice only through just means.

When acts of terror are committed and innocent people are tragically killed, to apprehend the perpetrators and assure they will never kill again is just.However, identifying and apprehending the perpetrators must be done only by just means.

This is why we must not remain silent as Canadian citizen and Ottawa professor Hassan Diab faces conviction in France for a gruesome crime for which no credible evidence against him has been presented.

Mr. Diab is accused of a crime of the most heinous sort: planting a bomb outside a Paris synagogue in 1980, which killed four people and seriously wounded scores of others. Such a crime demands justice for the victims, of course, as well as the family members of those innocent lives stolen on that fateful day.

But justice can only be served – as in any case, regardless of the degree of horror inflicted – if the evidence points clearly to the culprit. Should a man be convicted of a crime for which there is no credible evidence against him?

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The False Consciousness of Stewardship

Jun28

by: Eleanor Johnson on June 28th, 2016 | 2 Comments »

According to New York Magazine, citing data from NASA and Bloomberg, it’s been the hottest month in recorded history for a year now. In these temperatures, we’ve got big frozen things melting, low-lying places flooding, hurricanes swooping out of season, trash pools whirling in ever-widening gyres, and species quietly going extinct. The long-term impact of the heating up of the earth’s surface is not entirely clear, but what is clear is that something needs to change.

In all of this discomfiting warmth, I am primarily concerned about people, and I am of a mind to start pointing fingers. Not at big industry, emerging nations, or even the U.S. government. I want to point at people who read the Christian Bible superficially, thus engendering misunderstandings that become powerful and damaging political ideologies. More specifically, I want to point fingers at Christian environmentalists who, with the best of intentions, take on the mantle of environmental “stewardship,” which they derive from the Bible, but actually use that mantle to the detriment both of the earth and to accurate readings of the Bible itself.

I’m talking about the Biblical treatment of stewardship. Many Christians invoke the idea of stewardship as a justification for their environmental stances. In one interpretation of Christian stewardship, God gave the earth unto mankind, so that mankind could act as steward of that gift, using the earth’s resources to the greatest possible advantage. Now, of course, many Christian Environmentalists understand stewardship not as carte blanche to do what they will with the earth, but as an obligation to manage God’s gift responsibly. But all too often, the idea of stewardship is impressed into the service of demands to drill for oil in the arctic or dump massive amounts of waste into the seas because, well, there those places are, kind of big and empty and underused.

What I find fascinating about the discourse on stewardship is that it misses the point of the steward parable – often by wrongly conflating it with the Parable of the Talents. The actual stewardship parable, often called the Parable of the Unjust Steward, tells a story of a steward who is entrusted to manage his lord’s wealth responsibly. But the steward fails in his assigned task, wasting all of the lord’s goods, so that the lord demands an account of his expenditures and fires him from his job. Bad news: it looks like there are pretty dire consequences for mismanaging the lord’s goods. But things get more interesting. In response to getting busted, the unjust steward goes to people who were in debt to the lord, and he reduces their debts by half. Now things get really weird: the lord praises him for redistributing the lord’s wealth in this way, for being “unjust,” and for taking wealth from the lord himself.

Needless to say, this parable has historically been a source of consternation for Biblical commentators. But in the 1380s, a cleric named Thomas Wimbledon had a great insight into it. He delivered a public sermon on the Unjust Steward to a group of Londoners, which emphasized how the steward’s original squandering of the lord’s wealth would have consequences for the weakest, poorest, and most desperate in society, and how that neglect to take care of those in need was his primary crime. Thus, the steward’s redistribution of wealth at the end makes sense: it is direct atonement for the initial act of wasting and squandering.

Now, the circumstances of the 1380s were different; Wimbledon wasn’t protesting environmental squandering by nation-states and corporations. But his fundamental insight is deeply relevant to our current socio-political and environmental situation. The Parable of the Unjust Steward only makes sense if you understand it as a claim for the importance of economic justice, the redistribution of wealth, and the protection of the poor. That is what the Bible endorses as the mandate of a steward. So, if the industrialized nations — in fact, I’ll just say the U.S. – wants to orient its environmental policy around the idea of stewardship, it needs to do so with the awareness that stewardship is ultimately about the protection of other people. Poorer people. People down the ladder of socio-economic stability and security.

In our current geopolitical moment, then, anyone who wants to lay claim to stewardship of the “earth” should actually make an effort to foster economic and environmental justice that will include, for instance, the Global South — the area of the surface of the earth that suffers the most acutely from the ongoing effects of colonialism, structural inequality, and environmental decay. If you want to be a good steward, a good Christian using the earth’s resources well and responsibly, you have to do so with an eye not simply toward the material preservation of what you have been given — like coal, oil, gas, or water — but also toward the people who have less than you have and who are structurally positioned to have less access to what you have.

So, as the earth continues in its perhaps doomed course of warming up, I would like to make a plea that people who rely on the Bible to justify their political stances on the environment read a little more carefully, so as to recognize that, to Jesus, the goods of the earth that we are most meant to preserve are the welfares of its human denizens.

Eleanor Johnson is a professor at Columbia University.

Review: Why People Pray by Mordecai Schreiber

Jun27

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

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.

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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.

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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).