Saturday, December 25, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Seattle Metropolitan Transit Authority takes a stand on the Middle East?

Hate speech against Jews and Israel on the buses of Seattle? Before I get into this issue it is important to clarify a few points about criticizing Israel. I don’t have a problem with vigorous debate on Israel and the Palestinians. Of course there is plenty of room today in the media outlets for people passionate about these issues to fight it out. There are bloggers like myself and countless forums  found on line to debate the issues. But for the Seattle Midwest Awareness Campaign to buy adds on the buses of Seattle that will say “Israel War Crimes: Your taxes at work,” departs from the realm of legitimate public debate and enters the domain of hate speech. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Association  the other side, American Freedom Defense Initiative, is purchasing the same kind of advertisement which says, “One billion dollars to Hamas: Your tax dollars at work.”  Where does this get us? How do these placards on buses educate and give persuasive arguments to educate the American public?
The fact is that these kinds of strategies gain public attention and probably are effective at creating sound bite political saturation. Strangely enough the metropolitan transit authority condones this kind of transaction which makes me question why municipal government steps into the mix of a foreign policy issue and apparently take sides. What is going on Seattle, Washington?
This kind of torch throwing attack upon the average bus rider and passerby on the streets of Seattle spreads toxic rhetoric and not thoughtful dialogue. How can we ever find a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians when people are slugging it out on billboards or public buses? It reminds me when I am driving along the nation’s interstate and I will see on a gigantic billboard a picture of an embryonic infant and the message of how abortion is a form of murder. All that kind of advertising does is to inflame people. Have we not seen enough of this hatred on the reproductive rights issues? Are we now going to see this kind of escalation of the debate on peace in the Middle East thrown up onto the billboards across the cities and highways or the taxi cabs and public buses of America? Is that the way to carry on the debate in a civil way?
Obviously there is a constituency which thinks that is exactly the way. I beg to differ. These strategies of mass advertising on foreign policy issues has the effect of demonizing  two entire peoples, Palestinians and Israelis alike, at the cost of out of control flame throwing advocates for a specific position. Second, these kinds of organizations simplify complex issues to the point where no one learns the history and the background of these issues which is critical before coming to an intelligent position of these volatile issues.
I hope all of us will speak out against this kind of divisive action against Israel not just because it is hate speech when it appears on the buses of Seattle but it is also the wrong message to teach Americans that this is the appropriate way to work through controversial issues. Truly, we have enough problems teaching ourselves how to debate domestic issues without distorting and condemning entire peoples, races and ethnic groups.
Here is the link to the Jewish Telegraphic Association article on the subject.
Here is the link to the article in the Seattle newspaper for further information.
If you feel so inclined to speak out on this issue, please note the link below.
“Write your comments opposing the ad to the metro operating authority:
Please contact Linda Thielke, Transit Spokesperson for the King County Metro
in Seattle, Washington. Her e-mail address is,
If you prefer to call her, the direct number is 206-684-1151.  Please leave
her a voice mail directly at that number or send her an e-mail to voice your
Finally, this issue is not about thwarting freedom of speech. This is an issue about responsible speech and whether or not municipal government should get involved in foreign policy debates. It is about finding a constructive way to dialogue and achieve mutual understanding on the issues of our day.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Finding the Voice of God to be a clergyperson: A Public Television Documentary

Public Television is airing a program this week entitled Independent Lens. It is tracking the burgeoning careers of young clergy people from a variety of faith traditions. They are all fiercely devoted with enormous enthusiasm. The documentary follows them in both their private and professional lives. They are all balancing so many responsibilities.  The program focuses on two young orthodox rabbis. One is passionately committed to social justice. Not only does he challenge injustice in the world but also those in the Orthodox world who commit crimes. Most notably he leads a group of friends from New York  to Iowa to challenge the Kosher food industry specifically the agriprocessors plant  who were found to violate labor laws and put into question the credibility of the entire kosher food industry. The other rabbi and his spouse have found a job in a small orthodox congregation living above the shul itself. He is shown leading Shabbat and Purim services. It was a beautiful sight to watch the rabbi lead his congregants in dance during the shabbat services welcoming the Sabbath bride.
The clergy all have to face the challenges of making a living in the ministry. Some are single parents and others are facing their past as they make new directions in their lives. No surprise that they are all totally overextended doing so many different things as they bring their joy to the holy work they are called to perform for their faith communities. The money issue is there but it is not about why they have chosen to be clergy.
They are balancing their unbridled commitment with the reality of the congregations they serve. Some segments show them receiving counseling from their placement directors as they look for jobs. They hear things about themselves they need to hear but do not necessarily want to hear. They receive advice and feedback from mock interviews preparing them for the real world.
But the beauty of the program is how the documentary succeeds at showing the humanity of these clergy. They so want to make a difference in the world. Their emotions are very near the surface of their being. They all have an inherent desire to be there for their parishioners. They are looking for community. They want to make a difference in the world. They are prepared to make the sacrifices in their personal lives to fashion a life of service to God and humanity a reality for them.
I loved watching this series. I watched it drawing from their experiences the inspiration to remember what I first felt when I anticipated my own ordination back in 1984. I remember that moment when the rabbi blessed me at ordination. It was one of the greatest days of my life. My family was there and Linda and I headed off to California for my first job. We experienced ups and downs in the rabbinate over the years. Yet we never lost that enthusiasm and the joy to do the work of the rabbinate.
I am realistic not cynical about a life of service in the rabbinate. Watching the documentary I wondered what would happen when these young clergy encounter their first political issue with a board or a conflict with a congregant. How will they manage their families while at the same time giving of themselves to the community? How can they grow and mature in their own time and pace while still meeting their professional obligations? They will make mistakes. They are human. Will their communities understand and be compassionate towards their areas of growth and still show respect for the title of clergy that they have received?
I suppose it all comes down to the calling to the faith. All of the clergy felt that divine voice calling them and they fought through so many personal and professional challenges in their lives. An African American minister said, “All that I have been through with my life and the church, I shouldn’t really be here. But I must continue because I have a calling.” We all have that same sensation regardless of the religious tradition we came from. It is in all of us. This documentary reminded me of the Bible when God calls to the prophets. The prophet says to God, “Heneni” I am here.” The documentary touches something holy inside me. The Pirke Avot Ethics of the Fathers say, “The reward of performing a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.” I still hold fast to that principle today. It is what propels me every day. I just feel blessed despite the wounds and the ups and downs over the years and because of the amazing experiences I have had to walk into the door of my congregation and be the rabbi, the spiritual steward of my sacred congregation.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Are you a MOT?

Parashat vayechi December 17, 2010
If someone came over and said, ‘Are you an MOT?’ What would you say? We know this popular phrase MOT means member of the tribe and describes Jewish identity in its most basic form which is that we are a tribal people. MOT is not about describing us as the people of the book or the religion of monotheism, the belief in one God as the source of all being. This phrase MOT does not take into consideration the Judaism of Maimonides or the Kabala. MOT transcends national borders and even time and place. MOT stands for the basic tribal structure that we as Jews supposedly descended from in ancient times.  And no matter where we hail from all of us who call ourselves Jews originate from that tent in the ancient desert or towns of Canaan, later to be known as Judea. In fact the word Jew itself refers to a person descended from the tribe of Judah. Everything about who we are appears to be from its inception a tribal identity.
Because of the Torah portion we are reading tonight we are all walking through a museum of history returning to the point of inception to the development of this tribal system for the ancient Israelites. Have we not evolved out of that ancient physical and spiritual existence?  The Torah portion for this week, “Vayechi” establishes the beginning of the formal tribal system. We see it happening in the pages of the Torah itself. Even before we became the world’s most famous ancient slave people by the beginning of the pages of Exodus which we shall read next week, Vayechi inaugurates our tribal formation with the final blessings of Jacob to his sons who themselves become the patriarchs of their respective tribes.
So if our spiritual and maybe our ethnic DNA as well are tribal in nature what then does that term MOT mean today? Does it still have the same power and relevancy for us as it did in ancient times?  This is not necessarily an easy question to address. Jews straddle between ethnic and religious identities. These identities supposedly binds us together as a people and yet our makeup is so diverse on so many different levels how can we really call ourselves a tribe given that diversity? That is what we have to grapple with as an outgrowth of this week’s parasha. Look how far we have come since the moment Jacob declared his sons to be chiefs of the tribes of Israel.
We can see the genesis of our tribal structure not only in Abraham and Sarah’s times. Yes, the patriarchs and matriarchs set the stage for the tribes. It is, however, with the final words of blessing by Jacob that we see the antecedents before the official birth of a nation that had been enslaved for 400 years in Egypt. 
Basically there are three things happening in this week’s portion that illustrate this tribal structure. First Jacob appeals to Joseph to take him back to Canaan and bury him in the ancestral cave of Mahpelah in Hebron. Second we see the guilt in Jacob’s eyes for not having buried Rachel in that cave. Jacob buried her on the road to Bethlehem. Third, Jacob blesses each son as the head of his own tribe.  The end result is that being a MOT back then meant belonging to one of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, identifying with the sacred land of Canaan and paying homage to the ancestors.  It is not clear where God fits in to the spiritual awareness of these new tribal leaders.
Jacob foretells the future with his blessing of the tribes. For example, Judah will wear the scepter of kingship one day.  Simeon and Levi represent weapons of violence and received a rebuke from Jacob for seeking revenge against the native population after the rape of Dina. They in fact, will be scattered throughout the all the other tribes. The tribe of Dan will be a serpent in the way a horned snake in the path that biteth the horse’s heels so that this rider falls backwards.” Thousands of years later the chief rabbinate of Israel will declare the Ethiopian Jews to be descendants of the tribe of Dan. Despite the fact that their Judaism practically bears no resemblance to anything we know as Judaism, the tribal roots trump the religious rites. We are tribal through and through.  Jacob blesses each child as a tribe with the kind of statement of character whether it is an admonition or a prediction of future behavior is up for debate. But the main point here for our purposes tonight is that this week’s parasha defined the Jewish nation as a series of tribes.
How far we have evolved from the days of our tribal roots in the land of Canaan!  How we have evolved into so many diverse ethnic and racial identities! Yet, we are still questioning what makes one a Jew? Are we ethnic and tribal or have we transcended those ancient boundaries of ethnicity?
Are we Ashkenazi, Sephardic or Mizrahi or Ethiopian? Is the core of our Jewish identity the branches of Judaism such as Reform, Conservative, Hasidic and Orthodox or secular? Does our religious affiliation or ethnic identity define our identity as Jews?
What is so fascinating is when we add in the state of Israel to the mix. In a way now that we have a nation of many cultures of Jews we can see more clearly how we evolved and adapted, some would say acculturated, into larger cultures.  Hundreds of years from now will Israel create a new tribal structure that blends these historical distinctive traits, borne out of 2000 years of Diaspora, into a new religio-ethnic identity? Is it already happening before our very eyes?
This is why we see the continuing saga of parliamentary debate in the Knesset and the sounding of the alarm throughout World Jewry when an MK starts a new “Who is a Jew’ bill. We get so upset and mobilize because we know that we cannot afford to be excluded from the nation which is the same as being exiled from the tribe and cast into the wilderness.
What is not clear and is intriguing to us is how do we fit into this ancient narrative? Does it still work for us today? Are we really one people historically speaking? Or is the idea of our being one people more about theology than history?
Just like we who live in the Diaspora have challenges to our tribal roots so too does Israel face challenges as well. We have intermarriage and we are learning how to incorporate loved ones into our community who remain, spiritually speaking, outside the official framework of Judaism. Israel will have to deal with those issues more often in the future as well. Whether we are in fact many peoples living under the banner of a theological conviction of our being one people, we will have to figure out ways to balance that rootedness in the ancient tribal narrative versus being open and welcoming of newcomers and those who live with us even if they do not affiliate in a complete religious sense.
So when someone asks next time; ‘Are you a MOT?’ What will we say?  We are no longer a tribe in the traditional sense of the term. But we are a people with many different cultures, languages, racial and ethnic identities. Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote years ago.
”The Jews are a people. A people are a body of people who partake together in a social past and its heritage, a present and its problems, a future and its aspirations.   To outsiders it appears as a distinct identifiable historic entity. Viewed from within, it is marked by a sense of kinship and shared interests among its members. It is in sum a fellowship of tradition and a destiny. People then express a broad reality, yet political sovereignty and allegiance are not essential to it. Wherefore, both in what it says and leaves unsaid it fits the Jews.”
Some scholars say we are living in a post ethnic stage of Jewish life. I am not so sure about that assertion. There is something buried deep inside us that resonates with that spiritual DNA that resembles a tribal identity. How we see ourselves from within versus how others from outside of Judaism view us will influence how we answer that question. “Are you a MOT?”