Yom Hashoah 2020 / 5780

Primo Levi wrote: “Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”

So much of what he described characterizes our time, here in the US, and in so many other parts of the world. It’s in the macho strutting of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the craven racism of Netanyahu and his allies, the smirk Putin wears, the raging tantrums of Trump, the successful con-artistry of Nigel Farage, the entitled murderous manipulations of MBS. Here we are.

Thankfully, there are a zillion people refusing to consent to these authoritarian delusions. Levi also wrote of his time in Auschwitz, “…We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.” There are, all over this country and throughout the world, all kinds of people who are repeatedly refusing their consent. I put my faith in them, and in my own determination to be counted among them.

I see a connection to a very different text – a biblical text from Psalm 146:

אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ עַל־ה’ אֱלֹהָֽיו׃

Happy is the person who has the God of Jacob for help, whose hope is in the ETERNAL ONE,

עֹשֶׂ֤ה שָׁ֘מַ֤יִם וָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּ֥ם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֑ם הַשֹּׁמֵ֖ר אֱמֶ֣ת לְעוֹלָֽם׃

maker of heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who safeguards truth throughout all times and places;

עֹשֶׂ֤ה מִשְׁפָּ֨ט לָעֲשׁוּקִ֗ים נֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לָרְעֵבִ֑ים ה’ מַתִּ֥יר אֲסוּרִֽים׃

who makes justice for those who are oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The ALMIGHTY sets prisoners free;

ה’ פֹּ֘קֵ֤חַ עִוְרִ֗ים ה’ זֹקֵ֣ף כְּפוּפִ֑ים ה’ אֹהֵ֥ב צַדִּיקִֽים׃

The ALL-SEEING ONE restores sight to the blind; the SOURCE OF LIFE makes those who are bent stand straight; the TRUE JUDGE loves the righteous;

ה’ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃

The SOUL OF THE UNIVERSE watches over the stranger; God gives courage to the orphan and widow, but makes the path of the wicked go crooked.

May the power we hold, to refuse our consent to authoritarian rule, and to continue to seek fairness, justice, peace, and empathy, be nourished by the Source of Life and the True Judge. May we strengthen one another’s hands in this effort. May the memory of the 6 million Jews and the millions of other peoples and groups who were murdered by the wicked Nazis and their supporters be a blessing and an inspiration for all of us to continue working for a world redeemed.

PrimoLeviquote

C’mon dudes this could be a great year progressives…

So, in the midst of this pandemic, those of us deeply hoping for a Democratic White House win this November have been reflecting on Bernie’s recent announcement that he has ended his campaign, leaving Joe Biden as the presumptive nominee.

If Bernie can help Biden and Dems win a big wave election, there are A LOT of very progressive young Dems running for literally everything downballot, and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with at every level of government.

I no longer engage with my FB or other social media the way I used to back in 2016, when I spent hours and hours reacting to comments by pro-Bernie friends who hated Hillary and, unbeknownst to me at the time, often re-posted Russian-troll generated fake news about her. I don’t do that anymore, so I don’t know whether the intensity of that kind of thing is as bad as it was then. I know there’s a pro-Bernie / Biden-loathing constituency out there, but I am not interested in debating people about my determination to support whomever is the Dem’s nominee, so I have no sense of what that whole situation looks, sounds, or feels like, and I don’t intend to find out.

And Then There Were Two: Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden | The New Yorker

What I am aware of, however, is that there’s an incredible opportunity that could be brewing, if Bernie, Joe, and a bunch of other Dems and progressives figure it out.

Here’s what I see: if Bernie leads by example and focuses on defeating Trump and maximizing the influence of his core supporters on the Dems’ platform and Biden’s agenda, and if Biden and all the other major figures in the D party seek to meet them halfway and show that their top priorities will be part of the overall D agenda, 2020 could be an unparalleled year of progressive gains.

By dropping out at this stage, so much earlier than he did in 2016, Bernie has already changed his behavior from four years ago. Right now he has leverage to influence a center-left nominee and (I hope) administration. I hope Bernie will focus on that goal and stay engaged with and identified with the party. If he leads in this way, he can continue to move his core ideas forward and build up the progressive wing of the party. He’s in a strong position to play the role of the father of a progressive renaissance within the Democratic party – one that works with center-left Dems to defeat neo-fascist Republicanism at every turn, while simultaneously promoting and popularizing progressive policy ideas. Part of this strategy should include Bernie elevating young Dems who can be the future of his agenda.

If Bernie can help Biden and Dems win a big wave election, there are A LOT of very progressive young Dems running for literally everything downballot, and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with at every level of government. That’s the key. 2020 could be a great year for progressives if Bernie and Joe both see the opportunity for what it is and work for common goals.

A Serious Injury or a Mortal Wound?

Is this the end of the USA’s democracy? Or does American democracy recover in a few years from Trump and his supporters? I wish I knew. This American dystopian unraveling of democracy that we’re living through, and which may easily last another 5 more Trumpian years (or more), has made me question a lot of things I have taken for granted my whole life about this country. I’m in agony, and I know a lot of other people who are too.

One of the things I didn’t see coming was the way that the times we’re living in have made a newfound literary love of mine feel prescient and relevant in immediate ways I never previously thought possible. I’m talking about sci-fi. And I wish that what I’m about to describe wasn’t the case…

Continue reading “A Serious Injury or a Mortal Wound?”

Relieved, grateful, frightened

I’m listening to a Laura Marling song, which I find really moving and beautiful. It’s maybe half an hour after I’ve absorbed the news that the House voted to impeach, and I’m thankful for the Dems determination, perseverance, focus, and willingness to take political risks to try to save our democracy.

But seeing no Republicans (except I think one ex-Repub) vote yes, and hearing that they seem to be locking arms around a narrative of lies, and hearing that Trump’s approval ratings have even ticked up recently, and knowing that he and his fellow GOPers are going to full-court press their Fox News conspiracy theory BS and present it as “the real truth” and continue to whip up the frenzy of hate and lies — well, it’s what frightens me even more than Trump himself. It’s my fellow Americans who are all in for 45, for the kind of willful pretending that he hasn’t lied over and over again, conned people left and right, and spewed racist and sexist and just plain nasty divisive speech over and over and over again.

Continue reading “Relieved, grateful, frightened”

People I’m Grateful For

Fred Halliday

Aretha Franklin

Adam Schiff

Melissa Crabbe

Lori Pompa

Andy Levin

Deborah Waxman

Kitty Piercy

Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin

Arik Ascherman

Stephen Colbert

Harvey Milk

Bernard Lipnick

Leon Lissek

Walter Kania

Sheila Peltz Weinberg

David Teutsch

Linda Holtzman

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Harriet Tubman

Anat Hoffman

Sarah Silverman

Marjorie Berman

Jon Stewart

Jerry Curtis

Leonard Cohen

Fred Rogers

Melanie Oommen

Rosa Parks

MLK

Bob Dylan

Barack Obama

Michelle Obama

 

D’var Torah – T’rumah (5769 / 2009)

D’var Torah ­ T’rumah 5769 – Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

By Rabbi Maurice Harris – Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR, USA)

Parashat T’rumah details the construction of the mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built and took with them during their 40 year journey through the wilderness. The early rabbis noticed the high frequency of similar words used in this story of the creation of a holy sanctuary and the language used in Genesis to describe the creation of the world.

The portable temple – the mishkan – is the Torah’s early preview of the permanent Temple that would be built centuries later by King Solomon in Jerusalem. Jon Levenson, a Bible scholar and the teacher of my Bible professor, Dr. Tamar Kamionkowski, wrote that the parallels between the Torah’s account of the creation of the universe and the Exodus chapters detailing the creation of the mishkan provide “powerful evidence that, as in many cultures, the Temple was conceived as a microcosm, a miniature world.”

For this week’s Torah portion, the ancient rabbis chose a haftarah, the public reading from the books of the Prophets, that accompanies the weekly Torah reading, from the book of First Kings. That text describes Solomon’s building of the first Temple in Jerusalem. One of the most commented upon verses we find in the description of this massive construction project reads as follows:

“When the Temple was built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the Temple while it was being built.” [1 Kings 6:7] Continue reading “D’var Torah – T’rumah (5769 / 2009)”

D’var Torah – Chukat (5771 / 2011)

D’var Torah: Parashat Chukat – 5771 – July 1, 2011 – Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, OR, USA)

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat [Num 19:1 – 21:2], is fascinating. We open the parashah still in the second year of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert following their exodus from Egypt, but by the time we reach the end of the parashah we’re in year number 40. There are strange laws and unusual episodes, the deaths of leaders and of dreams, pitched battles, winged serpents, temper tantrums, water miracles, and leadership transitions, all within the contours of a single week’s reading from the Torah.

Chukat starts with a description of the priestly ritual that the Israelites are to follow whenever they come into contact with a corpse. The priests are instructed to take the ashes of a red cow and use them as part of a purification ritual. The laws of the parah adumah, or red heifer, have perplexed rabbis for thousands of years, and continue to be the subject of speculation to this day.

Then, the Torah portion jumps forward 38 years in time, leaving us to wonder what happened to Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and the Israelites during all those long years in the desert. When the story resumes, we read about the death of the prophet, Miriam. Shortly after losing his sister, Moses and Aaron face a grumbling, thirsty population of Israelites clamoring for water. God instructs Moses to take his rod, approach a particular rock, and speak to the rock to give forth water for the people. Amidst the peoples’ complaints, however, an over-stressed Moses finally comes unglued. With Aaron watching helplessly, Moses throws a fit in front of the entire assembly, yelling at them for their endless rebelliousness and striking the rock repeatedly with his rod. Water gushes forth, but in the aftermath of this drama God informs Moses that he and Aaron will not be accompanying the Israelites into the Promised Land. It’s a shattered dream following almost 40 years of shepherding this difficult flock.

 

Continue reading “D’var Torah – Chukat (5771 / 2011)”

Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” Speaks to the Present Times

Just finished reading Charles Johnson’s 1990 novel, Middle Passage, and I’m wishing it had been considered mandatory high school reading for me.

Screenshot 2019-10-16 at 09.11.44

Well, by 1990 I was already in college, but in my fantasy I wish to have read this novel in my high school English class my junior or senior year. First of all, it would have prevented me from graduating high school without knowing what the term “The Middle Passage” meant re slavery – something I’m ashamed to acknowledge. (I didn’t learn the term until I was in my 20s.) 

The novel won the National Book Award, and the NYT Book Review blurb on the back of my paperback edition states, “A novel in the honorable tradition of Billy Budd and Moby Dick . . . heroic in proportion . . . fiction that hooks into the mind.” I agree with all of that (though I’ve never read Moby Dick and don’t plan to).

A bit over 200 pages, Johnson’s novel is told in first person in the form of a series of 8 journal (or ship’s log) entries over the course of the summer of 1830. Our narrator and anti-hero is Rutherford Calhoun, a 20-something freed former slave living (and committed to little more than partying) in New Orleans. Rutherford was born into slavery and he and his brother were the slaves of a man named Reverend Peleg Chandler, whom Rutherford says was morally against slavery and thus arranged for the manumission of his slaves just before his death (why is it that so many of the white men we hear about who had slaves but opposed slavery only granted their slaves freedom upon their death – I mean, if they really found slavery morally repugnant… right?)

In any case, our narrator describes Chandler this way:

“A Biblical scholar, he endlessly preached Old Testament virtues to me, and to this very day I remember his tedious disquisitions on Neoplatonism, the evils of nominalism, the genius of Aquinas, and the work of such seers as Jakob Böhme. He’d wanted me to become a Negro preacher, perhaps even a black saint like the South American priest Martin de Porres – or, for that matter, my brother Jackson.”

We later learn of the many ways in which Rutherford resents his brother Jackson, who was constantly being praised by the Reverend/Master while Rutherford was being admonished.

Continue reading “Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” Speaks to the Present Times”