I have the privilege of getting to work with Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., as part of my job at Reconstructing Judaism, the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement of Judaism. The current landscape of antisemitism is toxic in ways that demand clear thinking and a willingness to make our struggle – the Jewish people’s struggle – interconnected with the struggle for justice and equity for all.
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.
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.’”
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?
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:
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.
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.
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?
Just finished reading Charles Johnson’s 1990 novel, Middle Passage, and I’m wishing it had been considered mandatory high school reading for me.
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.
Recently I sawRomney 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 dangerousbecause 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 andfamily 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 “In summer 2012 I wrote an essay proclaiming that America-the-diverse had prevailed over America-the-white-supremacist. I don’t know any more if that was right. Here’s the essay…”→
Along with at least 63 million fellow citizens, I’ve been all kinds of a wreck since the election. I don’t see myself as having any special insight, wisdom, or forward-looking strategy to offer, and I’ve been ambivalent about blogging for all kinds of reasons. I’m not sure if what I might have to add to the conversation is useful, but this morning I find myself following my instinct to write. Maybe it’s the coffee.
The one idea that keeps resurfacing for me is that the election of Donald Trump is an event that has so profoundly disrupted, frightened, shocked, and disoriented me that it has thrust me, kicking and screaming, into what some have called a state of “narrative wreckage.” I’m working on an upcoming book about an ancient 1st – 2nd Century rabbi (I know, another big money making book, right?), and I’m going to excerpt a small part of the current draft, because as I’ve been working on this book I’ve gotten into this whole narrative wreck idea. Here goes:
Arthur W. Frank is a sociology professor at the University of Calgary, and he is the author of The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics, published in 1995. In the book, Frank discusses the ways that people cope with the disorientation, disruption, and chaos that come with the arrival of a serious illness or disability, with a special focus on how illness affects their life narratives. I was assigned readings from his book in rabbinical school in some of my pastoral counseling classes.
As a congregational rabbi, Frank’s ideas aided me in my efforts to provide people with helpful pastoral counseling during times of crisis and loss. …
In The Wounded Storyteller, Frank claims that when someone discovers that he or she has a serious, life-altering illness, the person becomes a “narrative wreck” (Frank credits this phrase to the American philosopher, Ronald Dworkin). The idea is that each one of us has an operating narrative that orients our lives. Serious illness interrupts that narrative and, initially, throws its subject into narrative chaos. …
Let me be clear that I’m not saying I think the election = the country suddenly having a serious illness. In the book I’m working on, I also explain that the illness metaphor doesn’t exactly fit the point I end up making about the time of the ancient rabbis’ historical situation.
What I find helpful, however, is the idea that sometimes life brings incredible disruptions – a death, a war, an epidemic, a shocking election with serious implications for millions’ of peoples’ safety and future – and that Frank’s description of the ways that we sometimes confront these narrative earthquakes may be helpful to us in our situation now.
Let me quote Frank again. In describing his work with people facing the news of serious illness or disability, he observes that for each of these people, the operating narrative each of them functioned within, whether consciously or not, became suddenly “. . . wrecked because its present [was] not what the past was supposed to lead up to, and the future [was] scarcely thinkable.” I think it’s fair to say that about half the U.S. population, at minimum, is feeling something like this, not to mention who-knows-how-many people around the world who are still trying to pick their jaws up off the floor in response to last November 8th.
Here’s another quote from the current draft of my book:
Frank writes that, having become a narrative wreck because of the shock and disruption of seriousdisease, the person coping with the illness faces the challenge of having to find a way to re-narrate his or her life going forward.
That’s part of what’s been so hard for me, and I assume for so many others, these past 12 days. The many competing theories of why Trump won, what the Democrats did wrong, what the media did wrong, what the Russians did to us, what the Republicans did with gerrymandering and voter suppression, and the competing rants about what the Democrats should do going forward all have added to my sense of confusion and disorientation. I don’t know whose analysis is right, and I don’t know what the best way forward is. I still can’t accept what happened, and I can’t simply shift into a posture of hunkering down and helping to do the work that now needs to be done because I’m confused about what exactly that work is. (Okay, on some of the immediate issues, like Bannon, or objecting publicly now to the creation of any kind of national registry for Muslims, I’m not having confusion about what to do, but I’m talking bigger picture than that.)
Some people are saying organize, resist, and fight! Others are saying try to understand our white working class & rural neighbors! Some are saying there needs to be a combo of both. And some are still saying it’s not too late to stop this from happening! I’m thinking of the petitions to the Electors urging them to either put Hillary in the White House or cause the House of Representatives to select the next president, presumably a Republican other than Trump. No, I don’t believe there’s any chance that’s going to happen, and yes, I signed on to all those petitions.
In The Wounded Storyteller, Frank describes the people he has worked with as ultimately responding to the crisis that serious illness has brought into their lives by trying to find a way to re-narrate their lives going forward in one of three common ways: the “Restitution Story,” the “Chaos Story,” and the “Quest Story.” Some of his patients would move from one of these coping strategies to another. Frank clearly thinks that only the third option is the most helpful, though he doesn’t judge people who end up going with either of the first two strategies. Here’s what I’ve written in the draft of my book about these three kinds of coping responses to the experience of narrative wreckage caused by serious illness:
The Restitution Story treats the illness as something temporary that medicine is going to heal completely. The subject tells herself that the interruption it is causing is only transitory, and that her pre-illness self-narrative will resume shortly. If this in fact is medically true, then the Restitution Story can work well for the subject. But, the Restitution Story can also be an expression of denial, serving only to delay the subject’s need for a new life narrative.
When a seriously ill person embraces what Frank calls a Chaos Story, he gets “sucked into the undertow of illness and the disasters that attend to it.” His new story is, in some respects, not even a coherent story – there is no viable narrative, except maybe the expectation of continued chaos or doom. He has no sense of a path towards a viable future meaningful life narrative. Here’s the contemporary American Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg, quoting Hannah Arendt as she reflects on this idea. Salzberg writes:
In commenting on the power of a story to give our lives cohesion, writer Hannah Arendt says, “The story reveals the meaning of what otherwise would remain an unbearable sequence of sheer happenings.” To perceive the events of our lives as “sheer happenings” is indeed unbearable. [I wanted to explore a new story that] would take the scattered shards of my life and fit them all together in a new and different way.
The Chaos Story is full of panic and disorientation, and it is painful to witness someone who is living within its brutal and sorrowful grip.
Finally, there is the Quest Story, which Frank argues is the healthiest and the noblest kind of new narrative for the person facing severe illness to adopt. “Quest stories meet suffering head on; they accept illness and seek to use it. Illness is the occasion of a journey that becomes a quest.” When a person facing severe illness develops a quest narrative, she engages in an act of courage and creativity that enables her to tell a new story about her life that incorporates the disruption of her previous life narrative, accepts the parts of that narrative that are permanently lost, and designates new meaningful destinations and goals for her life.
For a Quest Story to be successful, Frank writes that it needs to be what he calls a “good story.” A “good story” is one that is honest about the past and what’s been lost, while also setting forth a new direction in which the subject’s goal is to “rise to the occasion” that has been created by the changed reality – including the losses and new challenges. The Quest Story that is also a“good story”“. . . meet[s] suffering head on . . .”, accepting the illness and seeking “to use it” so that it propels the subject into a quest to create meaning and goodness within a new and unexpected framework that couldn’t have been anticipated before the arrival of the illness.
There’s another part of the challenge of embracing a Quest Story that Frank discusses that I think is important to mention here. He writes that a surprising number of the patients he works with use some version of the metaphor of being shipwrecked to describe their experience of being confronted with the news of their serious illness or new disability. He writes:
Almost every illness story I have read carries some sense of being shipwrecked by the storm of disease, and many use this metaphor explicitly. Extending this metaphor describes storytelling as repair work on the wreck. The repair begins by taking stock of what survives the storm. The old map may now be less than useful, but it has hardly been carbonized. Disease happens in a life that already has a story, and this story goes on, changed by illness but also affecting how the illness story is formed. (p. 54)
What stands out to me in this quote is that if the moment we’re living in is calling upon us to develop a Quest Story, Frank reminds us that that task will involve identifying which parts of our shipwrecked narrative are truly lost, and which parts are still intact and are going to be important components of a successful Quest Story, a “good story.”
One thing that’s clear to me now as much as any other time in my life: I need a narrative to operate within in order for my life to feel meaningful and worthwhile. I need a new personal life narrative – a mythic story of Maurice’s life – because of this election. I’ve come to accept that this election in particular is that personal, that huge, for me, and that the narrative wreckage I’m experiencing is literally on par with some of the worst narrative-wreck-moments I’ve experienced in my life, including the sudden and traumatic loss of my father when I was 18. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.
Beyond my personal need for a new, good, functional life narrative, progressives in this country collectively need a new organizing narrative that gives meaning and purpose, and a sense of hope, to guide and focus our activism and provide us with an emotional, psychological, and even spiritual bedrock that can give us inner calm and strong faith in our vision. What is that narrative? I still don’t know.
But. Frank’s work on narrative wreckage and illness feels really useful to me right now. Listening to him, I feel a little bit more clarity and hope. His writing says to me that even if we are currently stuck in Restitution Stories and Chaos Stories – and I am definitely still shifting back and forth between those two a lot – our aim should be towards a Quest Story. I can picture getting to a Quest Story for my personal life narrative. I don’t know what it looks like, but Frank helps me remember that it will still include a lot of the elements of my pre-Trumpocalypse personal operating narrative.
The same applies to progressives in America. Frank reminds us that despite this shipwreck (or earthquake, or whatever you want to call it), we have a lot of maps and assets that have survived intact. That includes the religious, moral, and historical wisdom of the Jewish people, which given the devastations and crises Jews have survived over many centuries, is probably more prescient than we realize. It includes the remarkable social progress that African-American leaders and organizations have brought into being in our society through many decades of creative organizing, moral suasion, inspiring preaching, and inspiring leadership. It still includes countless lessons learned and battles won by progressives throughout American history. Trump’s win doesn’t erase the power of MLK. Or Stonewall. Or Cesar Chavez. Or Harriet Tubman. Or even the fact that, as Jon Stewart recently put it, the same country that elected Trump also elected Obama twice.
That said, some things have been permanently lost in this shipwreck, and identifying them and letting them go is, according to Frank, part of what makes the difference between working with a dysfunctional operating narrative or developing a healthy Quest Story. At this moment I’m not sure what those things are, but I expect that’ll become clearer.
I’ll close out this post with some early thoughts about what some elements of a new Quest Story might look like for progressives. In order for a new, shared progressive narrative to be what Frank calls “a good story,” I think it needs to include a moral imperative to “not stand idly by the blood of our neighbors” (Lev 19:16) and to be our brothers and sisters keepers (Gen 4:9). For me, as a white Jewish man with a middle class job and a graduate degree, my freak out over Trump, while intense, frightening, and excruciating, does not include the sudden dread that my cousins or school mates might be deported. It doesn’t include the threat of a national registry for people of my religion (though I’ve signed a pledge to register as a Muslim if such a policy is attempted, and I hope others will do likewise). My trauma and disorientation doesn’t include what millions of women in this country now have to face in the form of increased fear of consequence-free sexual assault, nor am I stuck suddenly having to wonder whether in a couple years my marriage to my beloved partner will be reversed. I’m not saying that as a Jew I’m scot free – not by any means. For the first time in at least 20 years, I’ve been on the direct receiving end of anti-Semitic hate speech, and many of my rabbinic colleagues have described the same. Shit got real for me, for sure, but I’m less in the cross-hairs of the most aggressive and threatening aspects of the angry right wing than a lot of my neighbors. Anyway, my point is that a Quest Story for progressives needs to include a mandate to stand up for the most vulnerable and viciously targeted groups in our society, now and going forward, and not just for the less vulnerable to stand up for the most vulnerable, but for all of us who share these values to stand up for each other.
I’m also guessing that while a Quest Story that works will need to motivate an organized and honorable defense of the vulnerable, it will also need to motivate organized and honorable efforts to try to connect with and have transformative experiences with Trump supporters. I say “with” because I do believe there’s a role in a new progressive Quest Story for insisting on the humanity of our neighbors who went for Trump and for trying to better understand their needs, hopes, and fears, and yet there’s also a need to hold firm to the convictions we hold that bigoted and dehumanizing beliefs don’t get a free pass under the banner of economic insecurity or perceived cultural disenfranchisement. Perhaps this looks something like MLK’s core civil rights message, which never wavered in its determination to advance the rights of African-Americans, but which invited white Americans to join in the creation of a society of equals and insisted that we would all be – and it hurts to use this phrase but I will – stronger together in this new vision.
I’m out of steam, so I’m going to stop writing now. If you read this, thanks. If you have ideas about what a healthy Quest Story might look like, I’m very interested.
Note #1: I need to get back to this and add in some citations for works that I’ve quoted or referenced. Sorry not to have done that just yet.