Something Greater (Feb. 2020)

Recently, while driving my daughter to school, I saw a bumper sticker which read God > 1 and spent several minutes trying to figure out what it meant. Was the driver a pagan and this was a polemic against monotheism? Were they a mystic who understands God as somehow infused into every aspect of creation and therefore irreducible to a single entity? Maybe it was a snarky retort to Christians who identify water (H2O) with Jesus, an image based in the Gospel of John, but also an acronym: “Humble 2 One.” Nonplussed, I asked my daughter what the bumper sticker meant. Ellie quickly replied: “God is greater than I.” I not 1! I wish I could say it was the first time my 14-year-old made her Abba look like a dope.

What’s the purpose of faith for Jews committed to justice work? We often speak about Biblical sensitivity to the “orphan, widow and stranger,” the laws from Deuteronomy about how to construct a just society, or Talmudic Sages’ advocacy on behalf of the poor. But it’s pretty rare to gather for an action, congressional testimony or protest and hear words or see messages expressing faith. God may be on the minds of some in the crowd, but Jews simply aren’t including our deity on bumper stickers or protest signs. For example, a quick survey of T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights available signage on their website includes “My father was a Syrian Refugee,” “Resisting tyrants since Pharaoh” and “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” T’ruah is known for its clever signage, so I’m not critiquing the anachronistic translations of Torah verses. But in the Bible, “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (cited chapter and verse on the placard) concludes with two Hebrew words: “Ani Hashem, I am the Lord.” These words don’t make the sign.

There are a few reasons for this. Many modern Jews are discomfited by the God of Torah and liturgy who often appears masculine and with qualities (judgement or anger) that may make us uncomfortable. I take issue with these characterizations of God, but this perception is very real. Also, unlike Christianity, we’re not a proselytizing religion. Much of the God language we see on highway billboards, bumper stickers or pop-up ads is about trying to convince onlookers of certain theological truths. Jews don’t feel the need to convince others of our beliefs, and we don’t need others to believe what we believe in order to be saved or counted among the righteous. Finally, behavior more than faith has always been the measure of a worthy Jewish life. A famous passage from Avot D’Rabbi Natan (31) says, “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you the Messiah has come, plant the tree and then go and greet him.”

The danger here is we can confuse the preeminence of action over faith as an indication that action is important and faith is not. Our equation becomes God < Everything Else. But to claim this, we’d need to simply ignore the many times our tradition’s call to justice is accompanied by a reminder of God’s presence. Why include God in the commandment to act in the face of violence? The commentator Rashi says “I AM THE LORD — Who is faithful in paying reward to those who obey My commandments and Who is certain to punish those who transgress them. In other words, God is included because God cares enough to be included.

Today’s post-modern society (and current political moment) is one, too frequently, of moral relativism at best, nihilism at worst. Many seem to the feel that what is right is what feels right or what I can get away with. Torah says no, there is right and there is wrong. This doesn’t mean it’s always easy to know the difference. This also doesn’t mean the world is black and white; it’s plenty grey. But there is power (and efficacy) in saying don’t stand idly by… because I am God. Or (two verses later) love your neighbor as yourself… because I am God.

It means there’s something greater than political expediency or personal satisfaction; it means you do the right thing because it’s right, because right matters on a cosmic level, because justice pleases the divine. It means there is something greater than you or me alone, that humanity’s worth stretches beyond what we can see. That greatness has a name which we Jews call God. We say, Shema Yisrael: that God = 1. And also, that God > I.

A version of this post appears in the February 2020 issue of Jmore

Lines Through the American Heart (Nov. 2019)

The day after Yom Kippur, needing to clear my head, I loaded my bike onto my electric vehicle and took a (guilt-free) drive north, to the NCR. From the parking lot north of Monkton, I biked 10 miles along one of the oldest rail-trails in the country. It was a misty morning, the sun breaking occasionally through the clouds, and I was in a delightful mood. 

Then, I realized something had changed. The path no longer crushed gravel, but asphalt, and the signage was different too. Without knowing it, I had crossed the border into Pennsylvania. I backtracked a few dozen yards and returned to the border. A sign read “Mason-Dixon Line.” My mood suddenly more circumspect, I contemplated the divide on which I was standing.

This is of course, no ordinary border. The Mason-Dixon line represented, for much too long, the division between slavery and freedom.  When enslaved people escaped, they headed here. Harriet Tubman, over and over again, guided freed men and women northward to cross this line. It is a boundary separating the former slave state where I now live from the free state of Pennsylvania.

In that moment, though, something else occurred to me. The state toward which those fleeing slaves fled, the state whose landmarks include the liberty bell and whose territory encompasses the blood-soaked battlefield at which Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg’s Address, is also a state that elected Donald Trump. The state to my north, a colonial refuge for Quakers, Catholics, Jews and blacks, helped elect a man whose presidency represents, among other things, the reassertion of white hegemony. As Ta-Nehasi Coates writes: “Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.”

Harvard historian Jill Lepore, in her new book, These Truths, quashes a common myth: that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights. Lepore asserts, rather, that it was fought for white supremacy. A century and a half later, standing on the border, I was struck by how full of hypocrisy the confederate claim had been. While purporting to champion voices unheard at the American federal level, the new Confederacy regularly suppressed free speech, making it a capital crime to speak against the new government. While supposedly standing for individual state’s rights, the Confederacy forced recalcitrant states into their union. And with a large majority of their population disenfranchised (enslaved blacks and women), they made, through their democratic elections, a minority the arbiter of what was right and good for all.

There is a name for this sort of governance: tyranny. But the relevant question is less whether America will become tyrannical de jure a la dystopian fiction like The Man in the High Castle where the Axis powers win WWII or the (controversial) proposed series Confederate from the duo who created Game of Thrones. What’s more relevant (and therefore more terrifying) is how much the Mason-Dixon line is widely viewed as a curiosity of history instead of an ongoing cautionary tale. Hypocrisy did not begin nor did it end with the fall of the antebellum South, and as 17th century French author François de La Rochefoucauld wrote, “hypocrisy is a tribute vice pays to virtue.”

Leon Litwack began the preface of his 1961 North of Slavery:“The Mason-Dixon line is a convenient, but an often misleading geographical division.” The Mason-Dixon line once ran through the heart of America. But today, as then, it runs through the heart of Americans. Malcolm X once said: “America is Mississippi. There’s no such thing as a Mason-Dixon line—it’s America.”

Or as a therapist once told me, “you gotta name it to tame it.”

A version of this post appears in the November issue of Jmore.

Savor and Enjoy (Dec. 2019)

The iconic post-ride shot: standing in the Red Sea after a week of incredible riding

The Torah tells us Adam, the first human, was created from Adamah (ground). Rabbi Arthur Waskow, noticing the pun, calls Adam the “first earthling.” Being “of” the earth is the Bible’s way of telling us we are sacred mud, kinetic sculptures of a divine craftsman, destined not to transcend our earthy origin but to elevate it. Understanding this, it makes perfect sense the first human being was given a task, a vocation even, to cultivate the very substance from which he was taken: “And YHVH (God) took the human and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and safeguard it” (Gen. 2:15). Eleven chapters later when Abraham enters the Promised Land, he’s instructed “Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth” (Gen. 13:17).

Years ago, I served on the board of a Chicago community group whose primary focus was medical access and housing. When we added environmental justice work (lead paint abatement, green construction, etc.) I remember a fellow board member wondering aloud whether sustainability was too “bourgeois.” Nowadays, we know well the dramatic consequences of climate change and also the unjust ways global warming, air and water pollution, and general human failure to uphold the promise of Genesis, disproportionately affect low income neighborhoods and communities of color.

At the time of my writing our Team Beth Am has just returned from the annual Israel Ride, a 5-day cycling trip from Jerusalem to Eilat. The ride benefits two wonderful organizations, the Arava Institute for environmental studies in Israel and Hazon, a Jewish environmental group based in the US. What I discovered on the ride was not only the incredible work of these organizations, but something elemental, surprising and deeply human: the power of my own body and its relationship with the land.

A philosophy in the early days of the Zionist Yeshuv was “livnot u’lehibanot, to build and to be built” through labor and interaction with the natural environment. When Adam worked the garden, he actualized his own essence. When Abraham roamed throughout the Promised Land, he mapped his natural surroundings. That’s how I felt biking through Israel. I’ve traveled to and throughout Israel many times. I’ve spent two academic years learning in Jerusalem, backpacked as a young man in Tel Aviv and the Galilee, stayed in all kinds of accommodations, including a sweet little house new the Valley of the Cross with my new bride in 2002. I’ve spent meaningful time with American and Israeli family, visited with Palestinians in Rawabi and Israeli settlers in Tekoa. And I’ve traveled the country by car, train, bus and lots of walking. But to hop on a bicycle in the Jerusalem hills one day… and step off that same bike a week later on the shores of Red Sea was not only a new and unique experience, not only one of the most breathtaking ways to see the land of my ancestors, but it brought a place which, due to its complexity often appears fuzzy, powerfully into focus.

While I was surprised at my ability to ride more than 275 miles and climb 12,000 feet, I was most surprised by how familiar places (a road I had previously taken by bus, a mountain I had

hiked as a youth and again with my family a few years ago, Ben Gurion’s grave at S’de Boker) took on new relevance. This, I think, is the overlooked ingredient of environmental work. Young climate activist Greta Thunberg isn’t simply giving up jet airline travel, she’s become an experienced sailor on the open seas. Eating less meat (produced by an industry that contributes greatly to greenhouse gasses) means exploring new food possibilities. Gardening, planting trees, or cleaning up the Jones Falls spillway creates excuses to be outdoors in the fresh air. And not driving from Jerusalem to Eilat means experiencing the journey in a whole new way.

Joni Mitchell tells us “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Sure, by adding asphalt something is lost. And yes, this is serious stuff: The Earth, which the God of Genesis charged humanity of stewarding, is at serious risk of become less inhabitable. But as the Psalmist tells us, “The heavens are God’s, but the Earth was entrusted to humanity” – This means we’re not only supposed to protect it but also to savor and enjoy it! So, instead of bemoaning the concrete, steel and asphalt, let’s plant greenery on the roofs, buy fresh local produce under the highway, walk around the city and take to the pavement of country roads, urban cycle tracks or the State of Israel with our bikes.

What I Learned Worshipping in a Black Baptist Church (Nov. 2019)

A key Jewish value is k’vod habriot, honor afforded by us to all human beings. It’s common for social justice-minded people to seek out opportunities for justice. As the Torah instructs: “justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deu. 16:20). But sometimes justice can pursue us. This occurred for Beth Am Synagogue this past year as we were struggling to find swing worship space for our congregation during our nine month renovation period. We knew we had to be fully out of our building to have a chance at completing the construction within our compressed timeframe.

We had a few criteria for where we might land. First, it had to be a fitting space for weekly Shabbat services, holidays and learning. It also needed to have a commercial kitchen and a large enough social hall for our congregation to enjoy kiddush lunch each week, a signature element of our services. Second, it had to be fully accessible for Beth Am’ers of all abilities. Third, it needed to be within walking distance of the shul as we have a number of attendees who are traditionally observant and/or moved to Reservoir Hill and its surround neighborhoods to be within walking distance of shul.

This last criterion proved to be a bit challenging to meet. We considered various churches and other religious institutions. We looked at university settings like Hopkins and MICA or theater venues like the Parkway. We explored the possibility of another historic synagogue building in the area. None of these worked out. Finally, we were able to arrange a long-term lease with Mount Lebanon Baptist Church. The walk was a bit further than other possibilities, but it was a pleasant stroll through Druid Hill Park and the clergy, staff and membership of MLBC couldn’t have been more hospitable, generous with their time and understanding of our particular needs from kosher luncheons to covering or relocating Christian iconography.

As the relationship continued it also evolved, and yet, truth be told, there are were positive developments we expected might occur that never did. Early on in our tenure, Senior Pastor Dr. Franklyn Lance’s mother became ill and later passed away. Then, Dr. Lance took a full time position (in addition to his pastoral leadership) as executive director of Parks and People Foundation, a wonderful non-profit whose headquarters are across the street from MLBC (and through whose grounds I walked every Shabbos on the way to the church). It also took a while to get used to the natural alignment and misalignment of Jewish and Christian religious calendars – their church “High Holy Days” (Good Friday through Easter) are in spring when Jews are more focused on home ritual (seder). These developments and Beth Am’s own staff and volunteer resources having been stretched during construction meant opportunities for the two congregations to collaborate were limited.

We have and continue to do work together around sustainability and the Chesapeake Watershed, and we are exploring further partnership focusing on harm reduction and the opioid crisis this coming year. But there was no official pulpit swap, no big media events to celebrate our rare collaboration. Some might see this as a missed opportunity, but I don’t. Instead, I see it for what it was.

First, this was a chance to direct Beth Am’s resources toward a legacy black institution in greater Mondawmin across the street from where, in 2015, rioting broke out in the midst of the Baltimore uprising. Second it was a chance for Jews to be hosted by African Americans, on their terms, in their beautiful space. In the July issue of Jmore, I mentioned how in 2013, Beth Am members gathered at Metropolitan Methodist Church in West Baltimore to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the successful fight to desegregate Gwynn Oak Park. White folks showing up in black spaces on their terms is an important rebalancing of the complicated Baltimore racial equation.

There’s great value in achieving a more just society by pursuing opportunities for justice. But k’vod habriot, honoring all human beings, frequently means doing things quietly, methodically and without a big splash. Greater racial equity finds us when we show up in an unfamiliar places, pay the rent on time and exercise a little patience and perspective.