Saturday, July 4, 2015

A sermon on ethics and walking humbly with God in light of controversial issues today.

This week the Torah Portion is Parahsat Balak in the Book of Numbers The parashah tells the story of Bilam who was a prophet for hire and was engaged to hurl a mighty prophetic curse against the Israelites by the enemy  Balak king of the Moabite tribe. To make a long story short Bilam started out on his mission to create this curse which in the spirit of psychological warfare would intimidate the Israelites camped on the border of Moabite territory. In order to discredit and even mock the prophet Bilam the Torah tells the story about the instance of this hired gun prophet who rides a donkey that actually talks to him protesting the way Bilam treats the animal. At the end of the day the angel of the Eternal confronts Bilam, to the fury and anger of his employer King Balak, and he ends up convincing Bilam to  bless the Israelites instead of cursing them. Bilal intones, “How goodly are your tents O Jacob, Your dwelling places O Israel.” This verse became the standard beginning piece of music and davening in the daily prayerbook. Ultimately  the Moabite King Balak’s plan to destroy the children of Israel is foiled and they move on in their journey towards the Promised Land.

The reading from the Prophets, the Haphtarah, comes from the Book of Micah which makes mention of what God did to the Moabites and especially to King Balak That is the connection why the Rabbis chose this portion to compliment the story in the Torah portion this week.

In the poetic language of Micah,God promises  the destruction of Israel’s enemies and then accuses the children of Israel and threatens severe punishment for engaging in idol worship and immoral behavior. Finally, at the end of  Chapter six of Micah, God  gives a hopeful message through Micah saying, “ God has told you O man what is good, and what the Eternal demands of you: but to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with Your God” (6:8).

For many people this famous verse captures the essence of the ethics of religion. Yes, we have a rich heritage of laws and mitzvoth to follow. Yet, this verse sums up a basic mandate in Judaism to practice not only the laws and customs but to be gentle and kindhearted in the way we live out these commandments. In other words this verse teaches us to be a mensch.  How does that work for us today given the challenges we see before us in America with race relations and in particular the Confederate flag issue as well as  the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage?

As Jews and as Americans we are engaged in  contentious issues today that sometimes challenge our patience and our political views as well as basic morality and ethics. Houses of worship burn and terrorism leads to most recently the brutal murder of clergy and parishioners at a house of worship. As far as we have come in race relations we still witness segments of our country who bath themselves in hatred against people of color. Soon we will see the debate in our own state legislature regarding the Confederate Battle Flag flying before the State Capitol in Columbia. Will our elected leaders vote to retain it or lower it and put it away?

This is an issue where religion, politics and justice coalesce. Is this not what Micah was talking about in his adjuring our ancient forbearers to change our attitude in how we treat each other? The time has come to de-commission this flag because it has always been viewed as a code symbol for South Carolinians of color that whites only rule this state. The narrative of the Southern heritage is part of our nation’s past. The problem is that that heritage ignores the heritage of slavery which formed the economic and social backbone of that antebellum world view. Sadly too many of those who cherish that aspect of southern history somehow cannot see past their own ancestors’ view to the African American perspective. Two conflicting narratives exist about what southern was all about. Has the time come to acknowledge how that flag represents a painful reminder of the bondage of African Americans as well? The battle flag of the CSA embodies those two conflicting narratives. Is it not time to affirm mercy and to do good and walk humbly with God? 

The recent Supreme Court decision to legalize Gay Marriage in our nation will also challenge our ethics to respect the love that LGBT Americans share and equate it on an equal footing with heterosexual marriage.  I am hearing tremendous push back that the fear is that civil authorities
 will be forced to sacrifice their religious freedom to comply with this new law. People have the right to believe and to disagree with the court’s opinion. On the other hand if they work for government and cannot carry out their duties then they should seek other employment.  The teachings of Micah compel all Americans to stretch psychologically and spiritually to find it in their heart to accept this new reality.

This is a time for the religious community to unite to hold this nation together. What makes us a great nation is how to live with a diverse population of different races, religions and political ideologies. We hear a lot of talk about freedom but does that only apply to people who live and believe as we do? We tend to choose the verses from Scripture that fit our own values but we also struggle to apply those values to people and beliefs different than our own. We could apply this same dilemma of people talking past each other within our own Jewish community in America in relation to ongoing tensions between the branches in Judaism. We read reports of how this struggle for acceptance goes on between Jews of different branches of religious practice in Israel as well.  In either of these situations it is a necessary debate.

The prophet Micah warned us that God will punish us for our own transgressions as much as God will punish other peoples who will threaten our national survival. It is a two way street and we cannot have it both ways. In Psalm 85 we read, “
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Yea, the Lord shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.
Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps.

For America to yield its increase can we embrace these prophetic values to be a better more accepting nation which learns how to live with each other and those who do not always fit into the mainstream? Have we as Jews not asked for the same understanding and compassion from our neighbors as do our fellow citizens of color or from the LGBT community ask from us?
Do they deserve less that what we asked for ourselves?

Shabbat Shalom


Richard Bernheimer said...

An excellent sermon. Thanks for sharing. Best, Nancy Bernheimer

Richard Bernheimer said...


Joe Cooper said...

Dear Rabbi Bloom,

I really appreciated your sermon about the destructive prophet Bilam. That story has also been a favorite of mine. It is amazing just how many obstacles the Israelites encountered getting to Eretz Israel. Unfortunately, as prophesized by Micha, they didn’t get to remain there.

Your extrapolation of that story into the Confederate flag controversy is right on.

Now, may I humbly suggest that you take another look at the Supreme Court case that creates a “New Normal” for marriage.

I’m sure you have read the four Court dissents, but it needs another read. These Justices are more worked up on this issue than they have been in other Court cases. It was a 5 to 4 decision, which says that one Judge created a “New Normal” for a nation of over 300 million Americans. The first amendment on religious freedom is very clearly written as part of the original (Constitution) document. The fourteenth amendment needed to be extrapolated by the five Justices in order to establish the “New Normal.” Previous “New Normals” established by the Court were results of 7 to 2 majority votes and even 9 to 0 majority votes (Brown v Board of Ed).

The way this Court handled this issue will cause confrontations between the first amendment’s religious freedom and the fourteenth amendment’s equality for many more years. For example: The original 7-2 Roe v Wade decision, also a “New Normal” (for its time), is still being fought with many 5-4 outcomes and it might continue until it is finally overturned.

The Court should not be in the business of creating “New Normals.”

Lastly, one of the Justices was very heavily involved in the adjudication of this issue for the United States when she was the Solicitor General, prior to being named as a Justice on the Supreme Court. Perhaps a recusal on this case would have been in order for her.

Rabbi, I don’t have a position on this issue but I’ve studied and have an interest in the Court and I think they went off the rails on this one. Perhaps they should not have agreed to take the case in the first place. Perhaps they should have thrown it back to the States as a better option for the nation at this time.

Joe Cooper

Lauren Donnellan said...

I hope I'm not dragging your blog too far afield if I respond to the comments of Joe Cooper, specifically on blessings and the "New Normal"? I'm guessing he is not alone in his trepidations.

In Loving v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court also created a "new normal", for a very small minority: those in interracial relationships. For those few (at the time), it was life transforming. But, for everyone else, life went on as usual, protestations aside. Over time, absent legal discrimination, interracial relationships gained increased practical acceptance, and in the end, it helped bring all Americans to a place of slightly greater social equality.

Now, in Obergefell, a few judges have decided that the practice of excluding some Americans couples from marriage, based on their gender is, as it was with race, serving no state interest and therefore an unjustifiable form of discrimination.

In both cases, it was decided, legal equality demands that a small segment get a "new normal", and everyone else can learn from it, at their own pace. And in hindsight, we can see that the "Loving" case offered no threat to religious freedom. No one lost any of their constitutional rights. In fact, it's hard to identify ANY direct historical impact on the lives of same-race couples, except, as an object lesson in social equality.

Does anyone today seriously argue that it is a violation of a clerk's religious freedom to be required to hand out marriage licenses to mixed-race couples? How about bakers and photographers, do they need a religious anti-miscegenation exemption? No, the religious objections of the time (and they were many) now seem as simple pretext for a bigotry that has no place in matters of law, and no justification in faith.

It will be no different with same-sex marriage. There will be cries that the sky is falling, but no one will be harmed, no traditional marriages will be changed in the slightest, no constitutional rights will come undone, and in the end the historical impact on heterosexual couples will be negligible, except for the symbolic importance of Americans having treated a small minority with some greater measure of equality. If you are skeptical, look north of your border: Canada has not suffered for its extension of marriage rights; if anything, that public has only become more sensitive to the importance of marriage, and family, for everyone.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his study of America, identified social equality as the precondition for true democracy. I'm inclined to agree. So, as I see it, the U.S. has become a MORE democratic place, exactly because a handful of judges identified an area of equal protection that was not being applied, and they applied it. In their wisdom, the Framers of the Constitution determined that the consent of the governed does not require mobs be permitted to dispense justice, or extend constitutional protections, preferentially. A nation of laws must sometimes resist the majority's will, when that will would twist law, or withhold justice, to punish the marginal or tyrannize a minority.

I'm new to studying the Tanakh, and know very little about Halakha, but I find it hard to imagine that the Reform interpretations of either would justify condemnation of this small act of legal protection, for a group that is so traditionally vulnerable and historically oppressed. I read the Rabbi's words as gentle encouragement, and hope I am not wrong.

Above all, I hope that opponents of gay and lesbian marriages will find it in their hearts, like Bilam, to exchange their curses for blessings, for all marriages are in need of those.

Lauren Donnellan