I write to you today with reflections on time-sensitive developments in Israel and the West Bank, namely, the Netanyahu government’s stipulated intention to annex, unilaterally, parts of the West Bank. My thoughts are rooted in my analysis of Jewish history and Jewish destiny. As always, I welcome dialogue on this subject and would be happy to provide a time in the coming days for discussion.
Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It begins with a moral imperative: that the Jewish people, having suffered centuries of persecution as unwanted or, at best, merely tolerated “guests” of foreign regimes, would at last enjoy freedom, sovereignty, security, and peace, as an independent Jewish nation.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence envisions a thriving Jewish democracy. Balancing the Jewish character and self-determination of the Jewish State alongside its intention to protect the rights and aspirations of its non-Jewish citizens and neighboring peoples has often proved difficult and painful. Yet promoting and achieving such balance remains critical to Israel’s success, both politically and morally.
Today, attacks on the Zionist dream abound. My rabbinate remains committed to defending Israel and, by extension, the Jewish people. Over the last twenty years, I have forcefully and consistently opposed BDS. I presently serve on Aipac’s National Council. I have refused to indulge the lie that support for Israel disqualifies one’s allegiance to other progressive causes and liberation movements.
I’ve also called out attacks from the right, when it weaponizes support for Israel for partisan political gain, and when it proposes that any critique of Israel—a basic right within any thriving democracy, one on which Israelis themselves depend—constitutes a betrayal of Israel.
But nothing breaks my heart more than watching attacks on the character of Zionism come from the Israeli government itself.
Zionism’s morality derives from its promise of national self-determination for the historically oppressed Jewish people. Zionism finds no virtue in interminable Jewish subservience and second-class citizenship. Rather, Zionism presents an alternative to Jewish powerlessness: to embrace national self-determination, and to wield power, ethically and responsibly.
Jewish nationalism can and must exist alongside Palestinian nationalism, no matter how difficult these two national aspirations have been to reconcile.
Zionism must not deny to others what it seeks to provide for Jews. My unwavering advocacy for two states for two peoples derives from my understanding of Zionism. Two states for two peoples remains the only way that a thriving Jewish democracy can hope to be preserved. Unilateral steps to undermine the status quo function only to undermine the essential character and principles of Zionism itself.
This is why I oppose all talk of annexation.
Many challenges inhibit the attainment of an enduring peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. Threats to Israel’s security are real and ongoing. Israelis and Palestinians and, especially, their current leadership, have given ample reason for each group to fear and mistrust the other.
Now more than ever we must double down on the true character of Zionism. We must reject the mercenary politics of division and cynical point-scoring that betrays the Zionist vision of a thriving Jewish state that guarantees the rights of its non-Jewish citizens and co-exists peaceably with its neighbors.
Zionism is a movement of liberation, not subjugation. Annexation would erode not only Israel’s security but also its moral credibility. Indeed, annexation threatens not only to undermine Zionism’s character, but also to erase its gains.
For the Jewish past, the Jewish future, and for the sake of all who seek peace and justice, annexation must be opposed.
Please join me in praying for the peace of Israel, the region, and all of God’s children.
There’s a song on the new Bob Dylan album—and I mean new, as in released today—called “Crossing the Rubicon,” in which Dylan invokes the old phrase attributed to Caesar, who, in the year 49 BCE, upon crossing the river Rubicon which separated Italy from Gaul, committed to a course of action from which there was no turning back — and which led to a war against rival Pompey and the Roman Senate.
Crossing the Rubicon. No turning back. We have reached such a Rubicon moment in American life—indeed, multiple such crossings from which there will be no turning back. Whatever comes next after this terrible global pandemic will not be the same as what came before.
And whatever must come next in our country’s unfolding saga of justice denied and opportunity withheld, when it comes to our relationship with Black Americans and all American communities of color—whatever must come next cannot be a turning back to the way things were before, the way things have too often been.
And, it so happens, as my colleague and friend Rabbi Noah Farkas, who serves the congregation of Valley Beth Shalom in the LA suburbs, points out, “[i]n this week’s Torah portion Shlach Lecha, the Israelites have reached their point of no return” (emphasis added).
Moses sends out 12 spies, one for each tribe of Israel, to scout out the land that God has promised them. Fully ten of twelve return impressed with the lush landscape and natural resources but frightened to death of the so-called “giants” who live in the land, whom, they fear, will eat the Israelites for lunch. And so these disheartened spies lead a campaign to demoralize the rest of the Israelites. Their campaign slogan is, “Let’s go back to Egypt.”
But they’ve already reached their Crossing the Rubicon moment. Once the Israelites taste the fruit of the promised land, there is no going back to Egypt. No going back to bondage, oppression, the invisibility of the Israelites’ lives under Pharaoh. No, there is only going forward.
My friends, for us, now, especially, there is no going back. No going back to the Egypt of denial and defensiveness when we talk about race in America. In recognition of the urgency of this Rubicon moment, we have reached out to our community partners in the interest of listening, learning, partnering, and shouldering together both the pain and the responsibility to face our fears and move forward together.
The congregation of Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church in Mount Vernon, and its pastor, our friend, the Rev. Dr. Stephen Pogue, have stood with WRT, and we with them, in times of joy and sorrow. When, five years ago this week, a white supremacist committed mass murder in the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, our congregations stood in solidarity. When, almost two years ago, a white supremacist murdered Jews in prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Dr. Pogue and our Greater Centennial friends were there for us.
Today, this Juneteenth, must not just be a moment for pledging solidarity, not just a moment to affirm that Black Lives Matter, but also, this must be a time for our WRT community to listen to the voices of our neighbors and heed the demands that our respective faith traditions—and that our common God of justice and mercy—now ask of us.
It is, as always, a distinct pleasure for me to introduce my friend and yours, Rev. Stephen Pogue.
A Sermon in Response to the Murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd
Westchester Reform Temple, Scarsdale, New York
Friday, June 5, 2020
A true story:
Seventeen years ago, just days after beginning my new job as the Associate Rabbi of Westchester Reform Temple, I was invited to participate in a conversion ceremony. It takes three rabbis to make one Jew. That is to say, a Beit Din, a rabbinical court, a panel of three duly ordained rabbis is convened to authorize a conversion to Judaism, so I joined my WRT colleagues, Rabbi Rick Jacobs and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl (and our soon-to-be-official Jew) at the local mikveh, the ritual bath, at Temple Israel Center in White Plains.
I was walking back to my car when I noticed a plume of dark smoke streaming from a nearby house. Rick and Angela immediately identified the burning building as our neighboring congregation, Bet Am Shalom, which, by the way, is just a few blocks from where Kelly and I presently live.
We rushed to the adjacent parking lot and met the firefighters, police officers, Rabbi Les Bronstein, Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller, and Bet Am Shalom congregants managing the evacuation. Moments after the fire had been extinguished, but before an all-clear had been issued to re-enter the building, some of my colleagues approached an officer and rushed into the smoldering synagogue with hospital stretchers, emerging minutes later with the miraculously undamaged Torah scrolls that they had rescued from the sanctuary.
In that moment, I felt deeply connected not only to our local rabbis and cantors, to our neighboring synagogues, and to these sacred scrolls that had been saved from danger, but also to Abraham, father-figure of our faith. A midrash, a Rabbinic legend, about Abraham, goes like this:
An ordinary man is going about his business, traveling from one place to another, when he notices a building all in flames. This man, Abraham by name, exclaims, “Why is no one doing anything? How can it be that there is no one to look after this place?” Suddenly, a voice calls out from the highest balcony—itself almost engulfed in the inferno—saying, “I am the owner.” At that moment, the story goes, God—the “owner of the building,” so to speak, the One whose world is on fire—selects Abraham to be the father to a multitude of nations, and to lead them from the darkness of superstition into the light of faith (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, 39:1).
Why Abraham? What special qualities did our ancestor possess that merited his divine election? In other words, what did God see in him?
The answer, according to this parable, is twofold: first, that Abraham walks with eyes open, that he pays attention, that he notices the fire; but also, that Abraham wonders aloud why this is happening, why is no one else paying attention, why is no one doing anything; and then he demands a response. What makes Abraham special is that he sees things not only for what they are, but for the way they ought to be, and then roars out his objection.
Abraham’s journey begins, that is to say, in an act of holy protest.
The world is an inferno. Who shall we be, in this moment? How shall we respond?
When I was a kid, we learned that the response to a fire is “stop, drop, and roll”—not, “run into the inferno.” We practiced this maneuver on the floor of the cafeteria of Parkway Manor Elementary School in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I was pretty good at the “stop” and “drop” parts, less coordinated around the “roll” — I usually ended up careening all 44 pounds of my first-grade body straight into Brian Chu’s kidneys.
And yet, this is no time to stop, drop, and roll away from the fire.
I am not talking, by the way, about that small percentage of lawbreakers who have seized upon this historic moment by breaking into stores, vandalizing buildings, or setting cars ablaze. The actions of this small and misanthropic few diminish, disgrace, and distract from a vital and just cause. We condemn them. There is no holiness in havoc.
But they are not the story, despite what some media choose to portray.
No, the fire of which I speak is a flame of righteous anger over a centuries-old legacy of American racism that continues to treat Black lives as less valuable than White lives, that continues to treat Black bodies as expendable, that continues to confer disadvantage on communities of color, adversely affecting access to quality education, professional mobility, and equal treatment under the law.
An admirably principled and forthright figure you may have encountered in this week’s news, Marianne Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, speaks for so many of us religious leaders who cherish the Bible, who study the Bible every day, and who find in the Bible a wellspring of wisdom acutely suited to this moment.
“Scripture is clear,” she says: “Justice, which is the societal expression of love, matters most to God. Justice is also what is most important to those who are exercising their right to peaceful protest. They are expressing what we all know to be true: It’s past time to fix a law that allows police officers and vigilantes to go unpunished for crimes against people of color. It’s past time to correct the gross disparities in health care that Covid-19 has revealed. It’s past time to change economic and educational systems that privilege white people (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/opinion/trump-st-johns-church-protests.html).
Racism finds expression not only in vile words and violent abuse. Such overt racism is grossly offensive, deserving of censure. But that kind of racism is, truth be told, the easier kind to address.
The hard racism to extirpate is covert: the racism that insidiously burrows into the fine print of policy and the distribution of resources, into how wealth is accumulated and inherited, in the infrastructure of our cities and the all-too-intentional placement of highways and factories. If you want to confront racism, first you have to see the building burning.
In early March—it might as well have been a lifetime ago—Rabbi Levy and I traveled with 63 WRT members, eighth graders and their parents, to the American South. We marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. We got up close with a history-making bus ride at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. We prayed at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was baptized, where he preached, and where he was eulogized. And, most heartrendingly—at least for me—we visited the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.
Founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer and the author of Just Mercy, which last year was turned into a compelling biopic movie of the same name, the Equal Justice Initiative provides legal representation to people who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state jails and prisons.
The Equal Justice Initiative challenges the death penalty, excessive punishment, and helps formerly incarcerated people return to lives of purpose and productivity. We toured the EJI’s museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which opened to the public just two years ago. It is America’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.
Set on a six-acre site, the memorial features over 800 steel monuments engraved with the names of racial lynching victims, one massive column for each county where a lynching took place. There are more than 4,400 names. Like visiting Yad Va-Shem in Jerusalem, or the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, you leave such a place transformed—not just aghast at the horror of it all, but awakened, aware that you share in a terrible legacy; you inherit a profound responsibility; you cannot just go back to “business as usual”; you may not control history, but you must exercise what agency you have over future destiny.
The poet Rilke described such a moment of transformation: “…[H]ere,” he wrote, “there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life” (“Archaic Torso of Apollo,” 1908, translated by Stephen Mitchell).
“You must change your life.”
That is the message embedded in this American moment.
Before today, we could walk along and not even notice the palace going up in flames. We could glide along, silent among the passers-by.
Today we must be Abraham.
These are tremendous times, terrible times, transformational times, times that demand courage, not complacency; sacrifice, not smugness; curiosity, not close-mindedness.
This is no time to stop, drop, and roll ourselves away from the flames.
Fortunately, it turns out that “Stop, Drop, and Roll” is not what they teach kids nowadays. Today, the concept we want children to internalize is this: if there’s a fire in your house, you should get yourself to a designated meeting place and wait for your family there.
And so, here we are, tonight. We are at our designated meeting place—it’s called Shabbat—and we are among family.
Tonight, we take comfort and shelter in one another. But we will not hide from the fire. Judaism exists in order to model a more perfect world. It demands that we not hunker down in fear of what is, but rather, challenge ourselves and our world to become what it ought to be.
Today, with our WRT family, our Jewish family. Our nuclear family, as it were. Tomorrow, with our extended family—the human family.
Because we can’t do this work alone. If this crazy time—mass demonstrations colliding with a mass pandemic—has anything to teach us, let it be how deeply and inextricably interconnected we are, and must remain.
Tonight, this Shabbat, with our WRT family. Tomorrow, with the family of humankind, each soul an image of God, each life a divine flame.