White. But Trying Not to Be. (Feb. 2021)

Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg famously quipped about Jewish denominationalism: “I don’t care what denomination you belong to, as long as you’re embarrassed by it.” I’ve always taken his words to mean that, while Jewish denominations are useful in clarifying theological positions or practice, too much energy is put into what divides us. And when we focus so very much on what separates us, we run the risk of forgetting what unites us. Greenberg thinks we should be embarrassed about that.

But there is something that unites us that we should also be embarrassed about: race. Somewhere between 80-90% of American Jews are white. This wasn’t always the case. While it’s true that Jews were considered “free white persons” by the 1790 Naturalization Act (and therefore granted citizenship), we were regularly discriminated against as a class. There were neighborhoods in which we could not live, restaurants and clubs from which we were banned and quotas at major universities, including here in Baltimore. In the post WWII era, Jews were increasingly accepted into the majority in a process that has been called “becoming white.”

During the Trump era with its stunning rise in antisemitic rhetoric and violence, some Jews question whether we still belong to the white race. But Jews with white skin consistently reap the benefits of whiteness, despite the very real threat antisemitism poses. David Schraub of UC Berkeley uses the term “Conditional Whiteness. “…An American Jew whose grandparents immigrated from Austria might unambiguously benefit from White privilege when passing a highway patrol car, but not enjoy it in any way whatsoever when White supremacists are looking for a target to harass.”

Traub’s observation was driven home for me January 6 when the US Capitol building was ransacked by a mob of white supremacists. They fashioned nooses, carried and shouted racist slogans and wore clothing with abhorrent antisemitic messages. This was whiteness taken to it most brutal and sordid extreme – a brash and violent assertion of power by members of what they considered a superior race. This behavior on behalf of and in the name of whiteness was made worse by its having been incited by the president himself, leading to his historic second impeachment.

Given the legacy of white supremacy in this country, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Jews who look like me ought to feel about our whiteness. My answer? We should feel embarrassed. While there are many virtuous white people, whiteness as a social construct is no virtue. James Baldwin makes this point in his essay “The White Man’s Guilt.” “The record [of white supremacy] is there for all to read…. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it…. The fact that they have not yet been able to do this – to face their history, to change their lives – hideously menaces this country.”

The recent menacing attack on our democracy is only one, albeit stunning, reminder of how important it is for white Jews to paradoxically accept and reject our whiteness. Jewishness should be a source of pride. As should Gay pride. As should Blackness for African Americans. But whiteness exists only to marginalize, disenfranchise and do harm to non-white people. For this reason, describing our whiteness thoughtfully is key. How best to do so?

“White Jews” is accurate but unnuanced. “Ashkenazi Jews” doesn’t take into account Jews of Color whose familial and cultural traditions can derive from Eastern Europe. “Jews with white skin privilege” is better because it honors our Jewishness while acknowledging the unearned benefit which we are afforded. The only problem is that this term says nothing about our Jewish responsibility to help dismantle racism. So, lately, I’ve been leaning toward another phrase, one that is equally honest about who we are and the America to which we should aspire:

Jewish and also white – but trying not to be.

A version of this post appears in the February 2021 issue of Jmore.

Character Matters: Reflections on the ’20 Presidential Election (Dec. 2020)

My family and I were recently volunteering for the nonpartisan group Baltimore Votes at the Highlandtown Pratt Library early voting site. A Black man walked out of the polling place, and we offered him some refreshments and a sign to put in his window. He declined, clearly in a hurry.

My son called out, “Thank you for voting!” As he was walking away, the man briefly turned toward us and said, “Thank you for not suppressing!” I thought to myself, “Is the bar really that low?”

Unfortunately, I think it is.

Against the backdrop of the pandemic and many sins of the outgoing president and his administration, a silver lining has been the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the MeToo movement, the Women’s March, the youth-led March for Our Lives and, overall, more widespread grassroots advocacy than this country has ever seen in its 245-year history.

Each of these movements and more have (rightly) demanded we move beyond calls for basic civility toward the need for structural and systemic change. Many Americans have become more sensitized to the ways politeness, colorblindness and liberal do-goodership have been complicit in maintaining systems of oppression against women, LGBTQ people, Black and brown people, Jews, the disabled and more.

Civility isn’t enough. Civility can actually be part of the problem because it can mean avoiding confrontation and essential truth-telling. To dismantle racism and sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism, we need to go deeper; we need to work harder.

I think this is why I was so taken aback by CNN commentator Van Jones’ widely shared emotional speech after Joe Biden was declared to be the next president of the United States. Speaking through his tears, Jones said, “It’s easier to be a parent this morning. It’s easier to be a dad. It’s easier to tell your kids that character matters. It matters. Telling the truth matters. Being a good person matters.”

Jones was speaking an essential truth: civility is also important. In Yiddish, if you want to describe someone truly admirable, you call them a mentsch, a fundamentally good person. Being a mentsch isn’t about fighting for justice vs. speaking and acting with compassion. It’s about both.

Provocation without compassion can be cruel. And cruelty should be no one’s aspiration. As my late father used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

I didn’t hear Van Jones live, of course; I was in the middle of leading Shabbat morning services. But I did get word about the election outcome soon after CNN called it. I had just finished teaching a section from the Babylonian Talmud about minhag s’dom, the practices for which, in the rabbinic imagination, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah needed to be destroyed. Many crimes are listed but for me, the most upsetting was the way even kindness was weaponized.

“When a poor person would come to Sodom, each and every Sodomite would give him a dinar [a coin], and the name of the giver was written on each dinar. And [then] they would not give or sell him bread. When he died [of hunger], each and every person would come and take his dinar” (Talmud Sanhedrin 109a).

It’s one thing to systematically withhold assistance. That, in of itself, is unacceptable as an expression of basic cultural mores. But to provide assistance as a false flag and then deny human beings the dignity of acquiring vital sustenance is brutality on a different order of magnitude.

The emotional release Van Jones experienced when he learned a man known for pettiness and cruelty would no longer occupy the White House was a catharsis felt by many on Saturday morning, Nov. 7.

The work ahead of us, though, is daunting. In the coming months and years, we’ll need to rediscover our societal compassion while resisting the complacency that allows civility to mask the need for truth, reconciliation and justice. 

A version of this posted appears in the December 2020 issue of Jmore

The Danger of Incuriosity (Nov. 2020)

In a 1947 student paper at Morehouse College, a young Martin Luther King, wrote: “The function of education…is… to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society….We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education” (The Maroon Tiger, 1947). What Dr. King, the master teacher, championed then, and throughout his life and career, was learning embedded in moral pursuits. He believed in intellectual and ethical curiosity, and he wanted to know and understand not just his own people but also the other, as exemplified by his alliance with the Jewish community. Did you know that the week after Dr. King was assassinated, he was supposed to attend the Passover seder of his friend and collaborator, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel?

It’s always been true that people don’t know what they don’t know. But these days, too many people don’t seem to want to know anything new. And we don’t want to know about one another. Long before we were quarantined in our homes, we were siloed on social media, segregated in cities, suburbs and exurbs, not just geographically but emotionally and spiritually and intellectually. We’ve nearly perfected societal incuriosity. Many have noticed the world is on fire. Some act to put it out. Few wonder why, so just as often we add fuel to the fire.

Abraham, according to the midrash, also noticed the world was on fire:

“Rabbi Yitzchak taught: [Abraham] was like a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a bira doleket, a burning palace. He said, ‘Is it possible this palace lacks someone to look after it?’ The owner of the building peeked out [of a window] and said, ‘I am the Master of this palace.’ Similarly,” teaches the midrash, “because Abraham our father [seeing the world on fire] said, “Is it possible there is no one in charge here?” the Holy One of Blessing peeked out and said to him, “I am the Master of the Universe.” … Hence, God said to Abraham (in Gen. 12) “Go forth!” (Bereishit Rabbah Lech L’cha 39,1).

Abraham noticed the fire consuming the world, but he was also curious enough to name it and question whether it must be so. We often think of him as a man of faith, but what is the nature of Abraham’s faith? First he notices and questions why. Second, he cares about the outcome; he’s morally curious, Third, he takes action; he speaks out. “One shouldn’t remain indifferent,” says Deuteronomy (22:3), We must get involved. “Life’s most persistent and urgent question,” Dr. King once told a crowd in Montgomery, AL, “is ‘What are you doing for others?’”

But, Abraham didn’t begin with faith in God. In fact, he questioned God’s very existence! The world is like a majestic palace on fire and no one is putting it out, so perhaps the owner’s away?! Perhaps there’s no one home?! How does Abraham become a man of faith? He listens. He learns. He takes responsibility not for setting the palace ablaze but for mobilizing an army, a legion of family members and followers, those of his faith, and those whose faiths would grow out of his but who say “enough!” Abraham is, among other things, a warrior for social justice.

You think it’s an accident he calls God out at Sodom and Gemorah, that he negotiates for every life he can? That this neophyte has the audacity to say to God, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?” (Gen. 18:25). This give and take, this divine-human shared responsibility for the state of the world is at the core of faith. When we find the world is burning, we don’t get to give up. We don’t get to go home. First we must investigate the cause and put out the fire. And then we must start building it again.

When we’re curious, we become holy firefighters.

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

The Exurban Rabbi? Not So Fast! (Oct. 2020)

“Alas! Lonely sits the city Once great with people! She that was great among nations is become like a widow”

Lamentations 1:1

I’ve dedicated my career to the celebration of urban living and, in particular, urban Judaism. In my adult life I’ve gravitated toward cities, attracted to their racial and cultural diversity, museums, restaurants and population density.

But lately cities feel like they’re under siege. COVID-19 has led to a rethinking of proximity as a way of life. Home purchases in remote settings are booming. Space, away from others, has become a more coveted residential choice than any time, perhaps, since post-War suburban migration and white flight.

And then there’s politics. Progressive policies take root more easily in urban settings. Even in the most conservative of states, cities are blue enclaves surrounded by a sea of red. As a rule, the further you are from urban centers, the more conservative you tend to be. With the election looming, some who prefer a different administration are wondering whether they ought to abandon cities for exurban settings where electoral math means their votes would bear significantly more weight.

Are cities strong or are they vulnerable? Is the nation better with strong cities? When Moses sends spies to reconnoiter the land of Canaan, he wants them to “…see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many…whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps, or in strongholds” (Num. 13:18-19). Multiple commentators surmise that “camps” vs. “strongholds” means open vs. fortified cities. 16th century Italian exegete Ovadiah Sforno says open cities suggest “a sign they felt secure, not expecting any war” whereas walled or fortified cities means “the inhabitants were afraid of being invaded.”

Sforno points out that great military leaders preclude the necessity of fortification. According to Judges (5:7), Deborah the warrior-prophet was the harbinger of both victory and open society: “Deliverance ceased, ceased in Israel, till you arose, O Deborah, arose, O mother, in Israel!” (The Hebrew word for “deliverance” in this context can also mean “dwellers of unwalled cities”). The ultimate goal of war not simply armistice but a society no longer under siege, so it no longer behaves like it is. Peace is about peace of mind as much as anything else.

But peace of mind is in short supply these days. City-dwellers feel under siege. The president punishes urban enclaves for welcoming refugees, threatens to withhold federal funding from cities he deems “anarchist jurisdictions” because of their citizens’ ongoing fight for racial justice, and dog whistles to militant rural white supremacists to defend the white house against a legal and legitimate outcome of the election.

It may be enough to make some lose hope in cities, but not me. My resolve, my faith in the importance and promise of urban life is only strengthened by these developments. The pandemic will end, but the isolation it’s foisted upon us is a reminder of just how much we need community. Abandoning the density and diversity of urban settings for electoral reasons is a Faustian bargain that may only serve to reinforce the very phenomena (e.g. institutional racism) those voting for progressive policies wish to dismantle. Greater diversity (of race, culture and ideology) in exurban settings may serve to soften some hearts and minds, but cities are designed for proximity as much as variety. Cosmopolitanism is tough to maintain beyond the metropolis.

So, instead of losing hope, I pray for the restoration of urban life. In the words of Jeremiah (33:10-11): “…Again there shall be heard in this place, which you say is ruined…—in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate…, the voice of bridegroom and bride…. For I will restore the fortunes of the land as of old” (Jer. 33:10-11).

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

Five Years After Freddie (Summer 2020)

A mural of Freddie Gray’s face and the movement inspired by his death while in policy custody graces a wall in West Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester community. (Photo by Solomon Swerling)

In his new book “Five Days: The Fiery Reckoning of an American City” (One World), Wes Moore describes his experience on Apr. 27, 2015, the day Freddie Gray was laid to rest.

Moore had attended the funeral but left early to catch a plane to Boston for a speech he was giving on urban poverty. After the funeral, parts of West Baltimore boiled over, but Moore was already hundreds of miles away.

Wes Moore
Baltimore author Wes Moore (Provided photo)

“As I sat in that Boston hotel room and watched my city descend into a state of emergency, I experienced a strange feeling,” he writes. “I felt guilty being away, but it wasn’t just that. An audience in Boston would listen to me talk about poverty, but at a historic moment in my own city’s history, I was MIA.”

Moore’s recollection triggered some of my own memories of the Baltimore Uprising five years ago.

I am proud of the way Beth Am’ers and others in the Jewish community showed up during those five days – Apr. 25-29 — which are the focus of the book Moore penned with journalist Erica L. Green.

There was a protest convened Apr. 25 by Jews United for Justice during which I took the longest Shabbos walk of my life. It was one of many demonstrations that day converging on City Hall to demand justice for Freddie Gray and other victims of police brutality. I am proud that Miriam and I kept our children home Apr. 28, the day after the worst of the rioting, to join thousands in West Baltimore and help clean up the damage.

I’m proud of the way so many of my congregants, including those who are not regular shul-goers, showed up on Saturday, May 2, to worship on Beth Am’s historic front steps.

But as I read Moore’s words about Apr. 27, the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral, I was reminded that I, too, was MIA that night.

The funeral occurred in the late morning. Police were concerned about internet chatter and potential violence. Paranoid and over-prepared, the Baltimore Police Department showed up in full riot gear shutting down public transportation and blocking streets.

Students leaving school for the day were stranded at Mondawmin Mall. Some were looking for a fight. The vast majority, frightened and frustrated, wanted to go home but were prevented from doing so. By 3:30 police reported bottles and bricks had been thrown.

Things deteriorated from there. My house and our shul are about a mile from Mondawmin. Four years later, during our building renovations, our congregation would rent space in a church across the street from the mall because it’s within walking distance.

But that night, the whole world would come to know about Greater Mondawmin, about Penn North and the CVS on Pennsylvania Ave., about Sandtown-Winchester where Freddie Gray was born, raised, lead poisoned and deprived of most every possible opportunity to grow up healthy.

They would learn about how he was arrested and placed shackled (and cavalierly or maliciously unseat-belted) in a van, and how he came out injured beyond saving.

After the rioting and looting began, a call went out to local clergy. A number of my Christian and some Muslim colleagues showed up that night, to stand between angry police and fed-up youth.

I wanted to be there. Like Wes Moore, I, too, felt guilty not being there, but I knew I could not. That’s because I was on my way to Lutherville to lead a shiva minyan for the mother of a congregant.

I knew others could stand in the breach. I was proud to see how my colleagues gathered and, holding hands in the street that evening, helped to calm nerves. My task was to calm others’ nerves, to bear witness to a different grief.

In the weeks, months and years to come, Baltimore has been undertaking a reckoning. Perhaps you, too, reader, have grappled with your feelings, actions or inactions five years ago. Now, with the meteoric rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer, there is a growing sense that more of the country is willing to ask tough questions about systemic racism and police violence.

One way to confront these questions is by reading “Five Days.” Another is to dedicate some of your High Holy Day experience to exploring the question of racial justice in Baltimore.

In 2014, Wes Moore came to speak at Beth Am. This Yom Kippur afternoon, Sept. 28, at 5 p.m., he and his co-author Erica L. Green will do so again, this time online. They’ll be joined by one or more of the subjects in their book.

All are welcome. See our website (BethAmBaltimore.org) for details.

A version of this post appears at Jmore

Justice Delayed (June 2020)

Trump is a fan of Andrew Jackson’s and made a point of adding a portrait of the seventh president to the Oval Office soon after his inauguration.

Back in February, before COVID-19 struck and the world shut down, I was in Washington, D.C., with a few hours to spare before a class. I found myself in the National Gallery of Art, staring at an 1845 portrait of President Andrew Jackson that looked eerily familiar.

Then, it occurred to me. I’d seen that portrait countless times on the $20 bill.

A quick Google search reveals that the artist, Thomas Sully, has a Native American line of descendants who were quite pleased when then-Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced five years ago this month that a woman would be featured on the $10 bill. Those plans changed due to the confluence of two factors: the surging popularity of Alexander Hamilton on the heels of the wildly successful musical about his life, and a previous grassroots campaign to place a prominent historical woman on the $20 bill by 2020 to honor the one hundredth anniversary of woman suffrage.

And who was chosen overwhelmingly by that grassroots Women on the 20s campaign? Harriet Tubman, the heroic Underground Railroad conductor, the “Moses of her People.”

So there I stood in the Smithsonian, blocks from the White house, staring at that painting of Andrew Jackson and thinking about that old legal maxim: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Delayed because current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, at the direction of his boss, refused to implement planned changes and pushed off the redesign after President Donald Trump insisted the move amounted to “pure political correctness.”

Denied because this particular indignity — refusing to replace the image of a president who, as much as any other before or since embodied the value of white masculine supremacy, with that of Harriet Tubman — is a reminder of just how much the Trump presidency resembles that of Jackson’s.

Trump is, of course, a fan of Jackson’s and made a point of adding a portrait of the seventh president to the Oval Office soon after his inauguration.

In many ways, it reflects his own twisted self-image: that of liberator of white Americans from the multiculturalism of the Civil Rights Era through the Obama presidency and returning us to an imagined greatness of the 1950s when television cowboys shot Indians, a woman’s place was in the home (and certainly not on a $20 bill) and white people enjoyed the benefits of Jim Crow.

I’ve written in this column frequently on the subject of place, how a “new Jewish neighborhood” ought to embody different sensibilities of place and uplift our values of seeing each person as created in the image of God. I’ve written about how our Jewish community, whether in Reservoir Hill or beyond, should celebrate Civil Rights Era desegregation but also work assiduously to prevent the erosion of progress by racial justice movements.

We Jews know what it is to be displaced from our home and replaced by another civilization. There’s a story in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 3a) in which Rabbi Yosi enters the ruins of the Temple mount in Jerusalem to pray. There, he hears a voice “cooing like a dove.” In the story, the prophet Elijah explains that the voice cries out three times every day and even “when Jews enter synagogues and study halls.”

The restoration of the Jewish people to its ancestral homeland is worth celebrating. The restoration of Native Americans to sovereignty in theirs is unlikely to occur anytime soon. But coexistence need not be synonymous with erasure.

Among Andrew Jackson’s many sins was his slaughter and displacement of Native American peoples. Liberating the $20 bill from his image is a worthy goal. But we can also be more attentive to the very ground on which we stand.

In some places in the world (and in the U.S.), it has become common to acknowledge native lands that were forcibly taken by European and American settlers. Doing so does not right past wrongs, but it honors the history of place and those Native Americans who dwell among us.

All Baltimore Jewish communities are established on the land of the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe. Their house was destroyed by people who thought the color of their skin and the money in their coffers made them better.

Who among us is listening to the voice crying out from the ruins of Baltimore?

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

Black Fire. White Fire. (April 2020; written before Covid)

The Midrash (Tanchuma) teaches the Torah is written with “black fire on white fire.” This means there is a dynamism at play in the interaction of word and parchment. It also means we ought to be paying as much attention to the spaces between the letters as to the letters themselves. The rabbinic sages were teaching about the oral tradition, the layers of hidden wisdom beyond the Torah’s plain meaning. But this midrash is also a reminder of how often we see only from one perspective. Like the famous optical illusion of two faces with a cup between, some of us see the faces, others the chalice. But, say social scientists, we can train ourselves to see both, if not in the same instance.

The way we perceive gathering spaces is not all that different from how we see Torah or optical illusions. The Jewish community, of course, values our Jewish spaces. We construct houses of worship reflecting our aesthetic, with Torah verses or Jewish art adorning the walls. Jewishly oriented space helps us to feel comfortable and secure in a world where Jews too often don’t. The first (and only) time my wife and I ate (vegetarian) at Zahav in Philadelphia, I also felt that way. To see food in such a highly regarded restaurant served with Hebrew clippings from Israeli newspapers made me swell with pride.

Those of us who have white skin don’t always consider the ways our majority status means we are naturally comfortable in most spaces where people of color may not be. When the Dovecote Café opened around the corner from my house (and Beth Am), I was amazed at how quickly it became a central gathering spot for West Baltimore. Art by Black artists adorns the walls and music piped through the speakers affirms African American culture past and present. Neighbors, of all races and backgrounds, breeze in and out of this unapologetically Black space, picking up a coffee or slice of peach upside down cake, or sitting for hours working, or chatting with friends.

But this is not the image many people have of urban Baltimore. Instead, we hear of unbridled violent crime, failing schools and rampant drug use. These stories have become predominant narratives of Black neighborhoods, eclipsing the cultural vibrancy and social connectivity of Black spaces. These stories become self-fulfilling prophesies of doom, furthering divestment if not all out condemnation.

How many of us ask ourselves how we measure “good” neighborhoods over “bad” ones? Ibram X. Kendi notes in his recent book How to Be an Antiracist, “The idea of the dangerous Black neighborhood is the most powerful racist idea….for instance people steer away from and stigmatize Black neighborhoods as crime ridden streets where you might have your wallet stolen….” But Kendi points out “…estimated losses from white color crime are believed to be between $300 and $600 Billion per year, according to the FBI. By comparison, near the height of violent crime in 1995, the FBI reported the combined cost of burglary and robbery to be $4 Billion.”

When I support a Black owned and culturally Black space, with my dollars and my willingness to be present on the owners and patrons’ terms, I am contributing to a more just and equitable society. For those who want to see urban Baltimore at its best, there are numerous opportunities

to do so in many wonderful Baltimore neighborhoods. But you can also remain in Pikesville to support Black owned business. The Baltimore Sun recently featured the wonderful NextAct Cinemas, housed in the historic Pikes Theater on Reisterstown Road. I recently visited (all the way from the city) to see Just Mercy, the remarkable story of Bryan Stevenson who created the Equal Justice Initiative. The film was great. But seeing it in one of only a handful of Black owned theaters, in the heart of Jewish Baltimore, that felt a bit like the midrashic conception of black fire meeting white fire – something dynamic, just and even sacred

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

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.