Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020

I shared this talk with String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation on September 27, 2020.

Good Yontiff. For those of you who joined us for Rosh Hashanah, welcome back. And for those just joining us for the first time, it’s good to be connected with you tonight.

Tonight I’d like to talk about what Valerie Kaur calls “Revolutionary Love.” If you haven’t had the chance to read or listen to Valerie Kaur, you are in for a wonderful discovery should you decide to look her up. She is a civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, and is the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which I’ll say more about in a moment. She is also a Sikh-American – a member of the Sikh religion. If you’ve ridden a subway or gone to the grocery store and seen people wearing cloth turbans, there’s a good chance they are Sikhs. 

Valerie Kaur

Sikhism is a 500 year old religion that was founded in the Punjab region of what is now part of India and Pakistan. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was a witness to terrible violence between Hindus and Muslims, and he founded a new monothesitic religion based on core beliefs that are similar to those of many of the world’s religions and prophets. Sikhism teaches that all are equal before God – a teaching that we emphasize in Judaism through our practice of burying our dead in a simple cloth shroud in a modest coffin. Sikhism also stresses the obligation to treat everyone equally, to be generous with all in need, and to be brave and stand up to defend those who are being oppressed. 

It’s that last part that may distinguish Sikhism a bit from the other monotheistic religions. What I mean by that is this: all of the monotheistic religions share the same core values. We know this. One God. Do unto others. Justice, justice shall you pursue. But there are different insights, emphases, and commitments that jump out from different religions, in the same way that all doughnuts are made of dough and taste good, but they have different fillings and icings that distinguish one kind from another. I know: did the rabbi really just make a food analogy when we have only just begun fasting? And did he mention doughnuts, no less? 

Guilty as charged. I ask for your forgiveness.

Anyway, my point is this – different monotheistic religions have their own personalities. Judaism is really good at teaching about justice and the importance of seeing the complexity, the different sides of issues. Christianity is really good at teaching about the transformative power of unselfish love. Islam is really good at teaching about hospitality, caring for guests and strangers, and equality before God. And Sikhism, at least as much as I’ve managed to learn in a few months’ time, is really good at teaching about the duty to defend those who are oppressed. One of the key images in the Sikh tradition is that of the warrior-saint, the person who seeks peace but who is duty-bound to stick their neck out whenever they witness innocent people being mistreated.

This brings me to Valerie Kaur. A third-generation American from a rural family farm in California’s central valley, Kaur was just starting college when 9/11 happened. When that brutal attack took place, Sikh-Americans were shocked, horrified, grief-stricken, and angry, just like their fellow Americans everywhere. They were also very frightened for their own safety. The requirement to wear the turban is very serious in their faith, and they knew that many Sikh-Americans would be targeted for revenge attacks by people assuming they were Muslims, and indeed, that’s exactly what happened. On September 15, 2001, Kaur’s long-time family friend, her “uncle” for years, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was the first American to be murdered by another American in a so-called revenge attack for 9/11. He was but one of 19 Americans murdered in hate crimes in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Kaur and her brother decided to begin a filmmaking project, driving all over America to record the stories of Sikh-Americans who were killed, or whose houses of worship were destroyed, in these attacks which barely made the news. During those travels, she began to discover what she would come to call the power of revolutionary love. Eventually, her travels led her to India, where she interviewed the widow of her murdered uncle, Balbir. Balbir’s wife, Joginder, had not yet immigrated to the US when he was killed while working at the gas station he bought in Mesa, Arizona. When she asked her, “What would you like to tell the people of America,” Valerie was caught in surprise by Joginder’s response: “I can never forget the love they showed me.” 

Joginder explained. When she received the news that her husband had been murdered in a hate crime, she flew to America for the funeral. What she remembered – what made a deep impression upon her heart – was the thousands of people of all faiths who came to mourn her husband. She remembered that hundreds of people started coming to Balbir’s gas station in the days after the funeral, leaving notes, candles, cards, flowers. 

In the Song of Songs – Shir Ha-Shirim – we read: ki azah k’mavet ahavah, which means “love is stronger than death.” That’s what Valerie Kaur’s story reminds me of. It affirms my belief that love and human kindness are stronger forces than violent rage and fear-based hate. 

Valerie Kaur’s story is worth reading about, and you can in her recent memoir, See No Stranger. Here’s the nutshell version: she and her brother finished their film and it won awards in film festivals. After college, she went on to law school and became a lawyer with a civil rights practice, focused on protecting the lives and legal rights of people vulnerable to exploitation and indifference. More recently, she has worked on behalf of families being held in inhumane conditions, often separated from their children, at our borders, many of whom arrived seeking asylum, which they are legally entitled to apply for under US law. 

She is also a highly sought-after public speaker, and her focus is on what she calls revolutionary love. For Kaur, revolutionary love begins with the act of wondering about someone else. It literally starts with that basic act of human curiosity. I wonder what this person’s experience of life is like. She writes, “My grandfather taught me that I could choose to see all the faces I meet and wonder about them. And if I wonder about them, then I will listen to their stories even when it’s hard. I will refuse to hate them even when they hate me. I will even vow to protect them when they are in harm’s way.” And she adds, “Stories can create the wonder that turns strangers into sisters and brothers. This was my first lesson in revolutionary love – that stories can help us see no stranger.”

As a rabbi, the word “stranger” rings out like a bell. It is so central to our people’s story, our founding ancestors’ experiences as uninvited immigrants to the land of Canaan, their descendants misery and enslavement as sub-human strangers in ancient Egypt, and after the Roman destruction of the Temple some 2000 years ago, the countless places where Jews have lived as strangers, forever subject to suspicion and vulnerable to waves of violence. The Torah commands us to treat the stranger like one of our own, because we know the feelings of the stranger. Valerie Kaur’s tradition seeks to help people see no stranger in the first place, and the first step towards achieving that goal is to desire to know each person’s story. She repeats her tradition’s teaching: You are a part of me that I do not yet know.

Revolutionary love, according to Kaur, extends in three directions. It is a practice of choosing to labor for the good of three sets of people: strangers, opponents, and ourselves. It involves extending generosity and curiosity to everyone we don’t know as we come to meet them; it involves refusing to dehumanize the people who have harmed or are seeking to harm us, whether knowingly or not; and it involves maintaining self-respect and standing up for one’s own dignity and worth. It reminds me a bit of Hillel’s famous teaching: if I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? 

The organization she founded, The Revolutionary Love Project, has been endorsed by dozens of rabbis, priests, imams, and other faith leaders of note. At its core is a pledge that reads as follows:

We pledge to rise up in Revolutionary Love.

We declare our love for all who are in harm’s way — refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, queer and trans people, Black people, Indigenous people, Asian Americans, Latinx people, the disabled, women and girls, working-class people and poor people. We vow to see one another as brothers, sisters, and siblings. Our humanity binds us together, and we vow to fight for a world where all of us can flourish.

We declare love even for our opponents. We oppose all policies that threaten the rights and dignity of any person. We vow to fight not with violence or vitriol, but by challenging the cultures and institutions that promote hate. In this way, we will challenge our opponents through the ethic of love.

We declare love for ourselves. We will protect our capacity for joy. We will rise and dance. We will honor our ancestors whose bodies, breath, and blood call us to a life of courage. In their name, we choose to see this darkness not as the darkness of the tomb – but of the womb. We will breathe and push through the pain of this era to birth a new future.

* * *

What draws me to Kaur’s work and the growing audience it is attracting is connected to a deep impulse in Judaism that expresses itself in the hope of teshuvah – the process of self-evaluation and resolving to become better people that the High Holy Days asks us to undertake. We do teshuvah individually – hopefully reaching out to family members, friends, co-workers, and others to apologize and seek to make amends for harms we may have caused – but we also do teshuvah collectively. The liturgy is designed so that we recite the sins that have been committed among our people because we are all responsible for each other. Or, to borrow from Kaur’s teachings and those of many traditions, we say what we’ve done that’s caused harm out loud together because individual separation is ultimately an illusion. 

The hope of teshuvah is that we can transform our world to be better. No matter how bad things seem, no matter how bad they get. Whether they get better or worse, or some combination of both. A midrash teaches that teshuvah – turning, returning, pivoting, redirecting our energies for the good – is a basic building block of the universe. There were seven things that God created before creating the world, the midrash teaches. The Torah is one of them. Teshuvah is another. This is our medieval rabbinic ancestors’ way of saying that transformative healing and repair of the world is hard-wired into Creation. It’s part of the operating system that can’t be erased. But we have to act, to labor for it, and not to give up. For Valerie Kaur, that labor is the labor of revolutionary love, and labor is the metaphor she uses to describe it in one of her more famous talks. She asks:

What if all [our ancestors who have survived and struggled before us] are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave? What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future?

Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”

Thank you truly for listening, and may the Holy One bless all of us with a year of new hope, a year of release from suffering, and a year in which we labor with love – love of strangers, love of our opponents, and love of self. G’mar chatimah tovah – may we all be sealed for a good year.  

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