Fearing the change that has already happened

A piece I wrote in 2011 – wondering if it still holds up to the scrutiny of hindsight given the last decade’s events.

Recently I saw Romney on TV warning that Obama is on a mission to change America into a country that we hardly recognize, and that this election represents our last chance to stop him before we lose “the America we know.” Echoing this message of cultural paranoia, last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC provided a platform for the most extreme versions of this thought, including panelists associated with white nationalist and anti-immigrant groups. The GOP’s core campaign message so far appears to be “Obama is dangerous because he isn’t really one of us.” 

In the first couple years of Obama’s presidency, the right promoted this message in the form of “birtherism” and the “he’s a Muslim” claim. Now they’re pushing it in the form of the “he’s a European socialist” canard. In the space of three years, right wing paranoia has moved the geographic location of Obama’s Otherness from Kenya, where he wasn’t born, to Mecca, towards which he doesn’t pray, to Western Europe, whose fully socialized medicine he didn’t promote. Republicans are going to need a GPS navigation system to keep the American people up to date on the geography of their fictional portrayals of Obama. 

The truth, however, is not that Obama is trying to change America into a country we won’t recognize, but rather that the GOP’s leaders don’t recognize the country that America has already become. America has already changed into, and will continue to become, an ever-more-diverse nation of many cultures, religions, and ideas. Before anybody knew who Barack Obama was, this change had already taken root. Obama is an American with mixed racial heritage and family ties to Kansas, Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia. He also has Muslim, Christian, and even Jewish relatives. He is a walking American melting pot who could only have become president long after the death of Jim Crow America. What the fearful right doesn’t see is that Obama is an awful lot like most people in this country – mixed heritage, ties to different strands of the weave of this nation, and a values system that has tolerance and respect for all these different cultural elements. 

Continue reading “Fearing the change that has already happened”

Abraham, Isaac, and Bob

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – Sermon 2021 / 5782 – String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)

Rabbi Maurice Harris                           

Shana Tova to one and all. I’d like to talk about midrash this morning. Midrash and Bob Dylan. And then invite us to have a chance to break into small groups for a bit of discussion. I’m not sure where the inspiration for this came from, so I hope you’ll indulge me and see what we discover together. 

First, a word about midrash. I know many of us are already familiar with what midrash is, but because we are all bringing different kinds of knowledge to this moment, let me start with a definition. 

Midrash, and I’m quoting someone here, “…can be described as a form of storytelling that explores ethics and values in biblical texts.” Midrash adds to, expands upon, or even challenges the plain meaning of the biblical texts it works with. It is a method and a form of biblical interpretation that is open to multiple interpretations of biblical texts. In many ways it is creative and almost free form, yet it does follow certain rules and traditions. There is no one set of books called “The Midrash” – midrash is a disorganized collection of writings scattered across many different anthologies.

Midrashim – the plural of the word in Hebrew – often take the form of stories elaborating on incidents in the Bible, to derive a principle of Jewish law or provide a moral lesson. The ancient rabbis would create midrashim in response to something puzzling, interesting, disturbing, or confusing in a biblical text. Any number of bumps or oddities in the Hebrew of a biblical passage could trigger the sages to develop a midrash – an explanation or fanciful story that would provide an explanation for the unusual or perplexing feature in the text.

The tradition of developing midrash took hold in early rabbinic communities up and down the land of Ancient Israel during the time when the Second Temple – the one that the Romans destroyed about 2000 years ago – still stood in Jerusalem. After the Roman destruction and the beginning of the great exile of the Jews, midrash became one of the ancient rabbis’ primary tools for reinterpreting the Bible to make it speak to their time and situation. 

Let me offer an example. In the Book of Genesis, chapter 13, we find this passage in which God says to Abraham: 

“Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust (!) of the earth; only if a person could count all the dust of the earth could they actually count the number of your future descendants. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”

Genesis 13:14-17

In the aftermath of the great Roman destruction, the surviving rabbis were struck by something curious in this text. They wondered why God tells Abraham that God will make his offspring like the dust of the earth, when God could have used a different metaphor that might be a little less, well, dusty and, well, dirt-like. In fact, two chapters later in Genesis 15:5, God repeats the promise to Abraham of uncountably large numbers of descendants, but in that text God says to Abraham, ““Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” Why not just stick with stars – why also dust? This question led to the development of the following midrash

Why in the Torah does God say to Abraham, I WILL MAKE YOUR OFFSPRING LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH? Why dust?… Here is what God was trying to say to Abraham: just as the dust of the earth extends from one end of the earth to the other, so too your children will be scattered from one end of the world to the other. … And as dust is made to be trampled on, so your children too will be made for kingdoms to trample on. Also, as dust wears vessels of metal away, but itself endures forever, so with the people Israel: all the idolatrous nations shall disappear, but the Jewish people will endure.

Genesis Rabbah 41.9

What a poignant glimpse this midrash offers us – not so much of what the actual meaning of the verse in Genesis is – but of how a newly scattered and exiled people saw their own predicament woven into the words of the Torah itself. And that brings me to the main idea I’d like to explore with you: that midrash is often a mirror, a mirror that allows us to look at an ancient bit of the Bible, bring in our imagination and our literary creativity, and discover something of our own situation refracted through the prism of the original text. 

Continue reading “Abraham, Isaac, and Bob”

Surrender, Chutzpah, and Being in It Together

Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2021 / 5782 for String of Pearls – Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shana Tovah to everyone. 

One of the most wondrous names of God in the Torah is Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. This is the divine name that means, “I Am Who I Am.” You may remember the scene when God introduces Godself by this name. It’s from Moses’s encounter at the Burning Bush, that scraggly thornbush on the slopes of Mount Sinai that Moses approached because it strangely appeared to be on fire, but not burning up. That’s where God first spoke to Moses. And where God told Moses to go to Egypt and tell the Hebrews that the God of their ancestors has sent him to be the instrument of their liberation. Here’s how the scene plays out from there in the text:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-asher-ehyeh – I am who I am.’ This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am’ has sent me to you.’” 

Genesis 3:14

Can you imagine being Moses in that moment? First off, you might be thinking “this is a profound, mind-blowing experience. This must really be the Living God and Creator because It just told me that Its name is all-encompassing, inscrutable, fluid, beautiful, immense, abstract, and intimate all at the same time.” But if you were Moses you might also be thinking, “Hang on a moment. How am I not going to be run out of town on a rail by the Hebrews if I show up – a runaway fugitive from justice in Egypt and a former member of the royal family now claiming to be Jewish – and I tell them their God has sent me back to Egypt to liberate them, and then – when they ask for God’s name – I tell them it’s something like the riddle of existence, and that they should trust me?” 

Moses’s predicament is even worse than that, because grammatically it’s not clear whether what God tells Moses is that God’s name is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.” In Biblical Hebrew, the verb tense is unclear – it could be present or future. (If you want to get really nerdy about it, it can also be causative – “I will cause to be what I will cause to be.” If you open up a typical English translation of the Bible – Jewish or Christian – there’s a good chance you’ll see a little footnote tagged to this phrase, which will take you to an editor’s note that states some of the other possible translations. 

I think there’s a lesson here about both God’s nature and ours, one that’s connected to this time of year in the Jewish calendar – this time of self-reflection, of personal moral accounting, of seeking forgiveness and of working to try to become better versions of ourselves in the coming year. God reveals a crucial aspect of Godself to Moses with this famous declaration – and it’s a really intimate thing God shares. God says “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be” in the same breath. Both are simultaneously true. And both leave us with a lot of questions. When God says “I am who I am,” does God mean to say that God also doesn’t fully understand Godself, but on some level simply accepts who God is? When God says “I will be who I will be,” does that mean God doesn’t know what God’s future being will be like – is God becoming at all times and developing in ways that the God of the moment can’t predict?

Continue reading “Surrender, Chutzpah, and Being in It Together”

Ben & Jerry’s attacks West Bank settlements: new front breaks out in Starbucks’ War on Christmas

In a stunning development that has world leaders scrambling, Ben & Jerry’s Corporation and the Government of Israel are now officially in a state of war. The outbreak of hostilities is the latest strange expansion of the ever-growing War on Christmas begun by Starbucks back in 2011, and which has come to involve dozens of popular snack and beverage vendors in an epic struggle to destroy once and for all the holiday of Christmas and other central icons of Western Civilization such as Columbus Day, the Confederate battle flag, and – apparently – the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Until last week, it seemed July 2021 would end much as July 2020 had – with stalemates in the War on Christmas remaining entrenched, literally and figuratively, across multiple fronts in North America and Europe. But then at dawn on Monday, July 19, thousands of teenage ice-cream store workers converged upon several West Bank settlements and outposts wielding metal scoopers and taste spoons, and demanding that the residents of the settlements surrender unconditionally. Within hours, the settlements of Beitar Illit and Ariel had fallen to Ben & Jerry’s unstoppable phalanxes of cheerful dessert-dishers.

Elite units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) initially responded by surrounding the conquered settlements with tanks and infantry, but each of these situations turned into a stand-off after Israeli troops discovered that the ice cream workers had surrounded the captured settlements with moats of hot fudge and caramel sauce and used a drone force to dump tons of Sprinkles on the approaching rescue teams.

According to several sources, the Ben & Jerry’s commandos were able to get past Israel’s vaunted security measures by offering free ice cream and presenting themselves as innocuous and harmless teenagers working their summer jobs.

As thousands of Israelis vowed to throw away any pints of Ben & Jerry’s they had in their freezers (after eating most of the remains because it would not be right to waste food), newly sworn in Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened his cabinet to address the first major military crisis of his administration. By midweek, Israeli war planes had laid waste to much of northern Vermont.

Continue reading “Ben & Jerry’s attacks West Bank settlements: new front breaks out in Starbucks’ War on Christmas”

Give Rabbi Mira Wasserman 20 minutes & she’ll give you a solid introduction to Reconstructionist Judaism

Rabbi Mira Wasserman currently serves as director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. LINDA JIMÉNEZ of RadioSefarad.com interviewed her recently, and Rabbi Wasserman offered a concise and clear portrait of the movement of Judaism that trained me as a rabbi and that is my spiritual home base.

You can find the interview at this link.

Top 10 ways that Bibi is (really really) different than Jesus

You may have heard news that one of the world’s foremost Christian Zionist leaders, Rev. Mike Evans, published an anguished and angry op-ed excoriating Israeli Jews who are supporting the ouster of Netanyahu and the upcoming swearing in of a new coalition government to be headed by Naftali Bennett. Now I’m a rabbi, not a New Testament scholar, so I might be showing my ignorance here. But given that Evans specifically describes the anti-Bibi Jews as forming a chorus shouting “crucify him!” in their satanically-inspired desire to end Bibi’s time as Prime Minister, I felt I should do a little fact checking to see whether Evans has a point? Is Benjamin Netanyahu Christlike?

After what can only be described as minutes of painstaking research, I regret to share my perhaps surprising conclusion: no, Netanyahu is actually really really not like Jesus. Like, those two are super different.

Top 10 Differences between Netanyahu and Jesus Christ

  1. Bibi: Quote most remembered for: “The Arabs are voting in droves!” / JC: Quote most remembered for: “Love your enemies…” (Matt 5:44)
  2. Bibi: Wields state power and wants to keep it / JC: Defied state power and was ultimately murdered by the state
  3. Bibi: Doesn’t keep kosher but engages in l’shon hara (harmful and cruel speech, which is forbidden in Jewish law) / JC: Kept kosher and warned about the moral consequences of l’shon hara – urging people to pay attention to the words that come out of their mouths
  4. Bibi: Doesn’t observe the Sabbath / JC: Observed the Sabbath and commented on special circumstances when other Jewish values should take priority over strict ritual observance of the Sabbath
  5. Bibi: Has lied to so many people, friends and foes alike, so many times that even those politically aligned with him want him out of power and no one can trust his word on anything / JC: the opposite
  6. Bibi: Put on trial for 3 different cases for corruption. Claims that the trials are a sham but they’re actually not. Faces possible fines or jail time. / JC: Put on trial for staying true to his spiritual and moral convictions. The trial was actually a sham. He was actually crucified by the imperial authorities.
  7. Bibi: followers of his party have been shrinking over time / JC: followers of his party have grown into the billions
  8. Bibi: alpha male narcissist / JC: charismatic altruist
  9. Bibi: demagogue / JC: demigod (not trying to cause a theological kerfuffle here… just going for the easy laugh. Also, no disrespect intended.)
  10. Bibi: has lived a life of privilege and luxury / JC: not so much, though did have special access to unlimited loaves of bread and fishes

Discovering Fred Halliday

Blogger’s note: I’m using this space to place a number of quotes from the late international relations professor, Fred Halliday, on a bulletin board of sorts. My plan is to add my own thoughts and comments, as well as other quotes from him and those in dialogue with his ideas, as I continue to process these ideas. By placing this content here I am not implying agreement or endorsement of these views – only a strong interest in learning more.

Selected Quotes I am studying:

One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own. At the extreme end you have the PKK, the Shining Path, the Khmer Rouge and so forth. They may often be involved in inter-ethnic conflicts where they use a progressivist language to conceal what is in fact chauvinism towards another community. It goes for both Israelis and Palestinians. It goes for the IRA in Northern Ireland. It goes for the Armenians and the Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh, and other cases. So solidarity should not be taken at face value. Solidarity should be critical of what people say and do, while also being guided by the longer-term evaluation of people’s interests and rights and material social progress.

One should not accept at face value what people who are struggling say: they may well be committing atrocities of their own.

Prof. Fred Halliday

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

You got away from the stuff about which one was there first, or who was massacred most, or what their holy books say, or who were collaborators with imperialism—all such questions were secondary. The key question is, you have two communities which meet minimal criteria of self-determining peoples. And on that basis, you accord them equal rights. And secondly, you critique the chauvinism and the fake justifications and the violations of the rules of war of both sides.

The level and tone of polemic in the U.S. and in Europe on the Palestine question has degenerated enormously since the collapse of Camp David and the rise of the second Intifada. I find that much of the stuff put out in the name of Palestine is so irresponsible and sometimes racist. I also find the degree of anger and the one-sidedness of Israelis, and from pro-Israel people in the West, very disturbing.

Source: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/who-is-responsible-interview-with-fred-halliday/

What the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968 were to the cause of international communism, the US enterprise in Iraq in 2003 was to the ideals and legality of humanitarian intervention.

The war over Lebanon of July-August 2006 offers an example. The crimes of the Israelis (in wantonly attacking the infrastructure of Lebanon, and denying Palestinians their national rights) and those of Hizbollah and Hamas (in killing civilians, placing the lives and security of their peoples recklessly at risk, hurling thousands of missiles at civilian targets in Israel and fomenting religious and ethnic hatred) do not require particularist denunciation: that the one killed Arabs or Muslims, and that the other spilt Jewish blood. They are crimes on the basis of universal principles – of law, decency, and humanity; and should be identified as such. Particularism undermines the very basis of the denunciation, which presupposes universal principles.

Continue reading “Discovering Fred Halliday”

B’Tselem, Apartheid, and questions on my mind

Note: I wrote almost all of this piece before the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and the accompanying violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians that erupted in mid-May 2021. This post does not address those events.

Recently the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, released a new report making the argument that the State of Israel is guilty of apartheid. B’Tselem’s claim is different than one made some months ago by a different Israeli human rights group, Yesh Din. Last September, Yesh Din released a report making the argument that apartheid as a legal term should be applied to Israeli rule in the West Bank, but they declined to address the question of whether apartheid should be used to describe “Israel proper,” ie. Israel within the Green Line, where Arabs and Jews both have citizenship and voting rights.

B’Tselem’s report says that Israel is guilty of apartheid throughout all the lands over which it is the ultimate ruling power. Here’s how they explain their view:

Continue reading “B’Tselem, Apartheid, and questions on my mind”

Letter from Jerusalem

My friend Rabbi Amita Jarmon posted this message to some of her colleagues a few days ago, and she gave me permission to re-post it here…

It’s 2 AM here.  Lots of sirens and booms in Jerusalem until about 1 AM.  It’s quieter now but still an occasional siren. I was at an Omdim B’Yachad demonstration tonight.  There were similar demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Haifa.  The J’lem one was small — I estimate about 250 of us.  We chant, accompanied and punctuated by a circle of drummers — the same as at the Sheikh Jarrah demos:  

“Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”  

“In Gaza and Sderot, boys and girls want to live.”  

“The rule of the right doesn’t want security.”  

“Stop the Escalation, we don’t want war.”

We marched from the Old Mashbir down King George and Yafo to Kikar Tzion (Zion Square). There, a large number of right wing youth gathered around and started shouting with bull horns and ripping our posters out of our hands and shredding them. The police intervened. They brought dogs and horses and we were forced to disperse.  One friend told me that the police have a legal obligation to protect peaceful demonstrators, and should have made the youth who were disturbing us back off.  

Continue reading “Letter from Jerusalem”

What I learned reading an essay by Andre Henry

Andre Henry is program manager for the Racial Justice Institute at Christians for Social Action.

Stumbled upon this column by Andre Henry on Religion News Service, and I learned a lot: From the Capitol to critical race theory, white Christians grieve declining hegemony. I just am using this space to jot down a couple things I want to remember going forward.

First, I learned an important use of the term “common sense” and about the term “pillars of support” as it is used in non-violence studies. Here’s the paragraph that lit these terms up for me:

“…it’s helpful to understand an essential concept of nonviolent struggle known as “the pillars of support.”

Basically, the idea is that the structure of any social injustice can be imagined as something like an ancient Greek temple, with large columns supporting its roof. The roof represents the injustice — in this case, white supremacy — and the columns represent the social institutions that uphold it. Organized religion, media and the educational system are useful institutions to legitimate a regime by shaping the public’s common sense. White Christianity, more specifically, has always been an essential pillar of support to American white supremacy.”

Henry also writes about racial caste in American society in this essay, and offers a 1967 quote from MLK that absolutely speaks to this moment 53 years later:

“The enterprise of racial caste has in this sense always been at war with democracy. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this when he wrote in 1967 that some white Americans seem to have ‘declared that democracy is not worth having if it involves equality. The segregationist goal is the total reversal of all reforms, with the reestablishment of naked oppression and if need be a native form of fascism.'”

In the aftermath of the Jan 6 2021 attempted insurrection, I am appreciating Henry’s clarity, and appreciating the chance to learn concepts and language that I wish I had learned years ago.