Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What can an ancient Jewish custom teach us About National Coming Out Day?

Yesterday, the Washington Post published a sensational opinion piece by Matthew Birkhold calling for an end to National Coming Out Day.  Using his own experience as a white, affluent, married, cisgender gay man and opinion polls of what the general population thinks, he argues that it's 2017 and National Coming Out Day has outlived its usefulness.    Worse yet, according to Birkhold, whose credentials are in Germanic Literature and History of Law,  the day perpertuates and possibly causes heteronormative asumptions.  He writes:
            Nevertheless, we should question whether the benefits of National Coming Out Day 
            still outweigh its harms. Continuing to use the rhetoric of “coming out” reinforces a 
            view that heterosexuality is the norm. “Coming out” implicitly announces — to 
            LGBTQ individuals, allies and enemies — that gay people are aberrant. Our 
            homosexuality is so different that we must proclaim it; heterosexuality, however, is 
            normal and expected.
He goes on to consider alternatives in which everyone is expected to come out and a homonormative future where everyone is assumed to be gay.  He calls these alternatives "absurd" because they are "offensive" to straight people.   While his compassion for heterosexuals is admirable, his insinuation that National Coming Out Day is ultimately for straight benefit belies his own internalized heteronormativity.

The problems with his piece don't stop there.  His article gives no room for bisexual folk, transgender people, genderqueer folk, and any other people besides gays, lesbians, and cisgender heterosexuals.  And when you get into those categories, and the interesectional oppressions queer folk of color face, his delightful illusions of safety in being out and the sufficient progress of queer liberation disappear.  Globally and in America, transgender women of color are among the groups at highest risk for identity-based violence.  In Birkhold's home state of Ohio, there is no legislation protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, hate crimes legislation does not include sexual orientation or gender identity, same-sex marriage was outlawed by state constitutional amendment until it was struck down by Obergefell v. Hodges (let's not forget that the original Obergefell case was brought in Ohio against Kasich), the state is appealing the federal ruling that it can't defund Planned Parenthood (the largest provider of not only sexual and reproductive health care but also primary care and gender affirming health care to trans, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming people in Ohio and throughout the US),  and any modicum of protection from discrimination in employment that Birkhold may enjoy as a professor at Ohio State is either from a flimsy executive order covering state employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation but not gender identity.  If he resides within Columbus, he lives in one of only three Ohio municipalities where so-called conversion therapy for minors, well known for its actual harms to LGBTQ youth, is banned.   And that's just the start of the list.

Birkhold's main point is that encouraging queer people to come out reinforces the idea that straight is the default category.  It's a fair idea; it's a good idea.  And it belongs to Adrienne Rich, who executes a better version of the argument against the perceived need to come out in her essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence", first published in 1980.  Rich didn't need the human rights gains queer activists have made in the last 37 years or the social acceptance (where present) that has accompanied them to make her argument. Giving Birkhold the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he thinks her treatment, which predates National Coming Out Day by nearly a decade, doesn't address the issue of having a specific day to come out.  But neither does his article.  Or maybe his familiarity with queer theory is so lacking that he doesn't know that his attitudes are products of Rich's work.  After all, she isn't included in most liberal arts curricula.  Referencing compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity without citing Rich is both academically and socially irresponsible.

I don't blame the Washington Post for publishing Birkhold's drivel, though their Opinion editor should be well-enough informed to note that Rich isn't credited for her idea.  The cis gay white male hot take on queer culture is trendy right now,  and it would be good click bait if better presented.  But Birkhold's shallow consideration pales in comparison to better critiques of National Coming Out Day, like Preston Mitchum's 2013 piece in The Atlantic examining whether the queer community puts so much emphasis on coming out it harms those who may still suffer fatal consequences from doing so.  Do queer elders really want to encourage queer youth to come out if the animus they face is deadly?  Shouldn't the goal of established queer adults be to protect queer youth?

National Coming Out Day was designed to be two things: a commemorative celebration of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, and a day to mark a deliberate activism of queer people putting themselves at risk to make their identities known.  It was designed as a strategy to combat compulsory heterosexuality. Its founders, Robert Eichberg and Jean O'Leary, also demonstrated the political alliance between different parts of the LGBTQ community. The theory of coming out in the political struggle for queer liberation is that if people know they knew gay people, if they looked beyond their stereotypes and prejudices into the eyes of their coworkers, neighbors, and family members, they could unlearn their prejudice to support their friends and loved ones.  They could combat the animus of others by relating stories of real live queer people rather than some shadowy figure out to corrupt the children.   And you know what?  It works.  The speedy gains (compared to other social justice movements, not to the needs of impacted folks) of queer liberation are due in no small part to the idea that others know who we queer folk are because we tell them, not just on October 11th but frequently.  And other struggles have adopted a politics of coming out because it works.  A notable example is among undocumented youth.  Birkhold admits to the success the strategy of coming out brings, but thinks we've entered sexual orientation's equivalent of a post-racial society, and coming out is drawing undue attention to ourselves.  But there are few places in our country where, even on paper, the rights of LGBTQ persons are equal to the rights of others.  And he doesn't even live in one.

Still, this is the 30th National Coming Out Day.  We should take that as an opportunity to examine the wisdom of the strategy of coming out and the day for it.  Do we reinforce  compulsory heterosexuality by acknowledging it exists when we "need" to come out?  Is there a better strategy to combat compulsory heterosexuality than coming out that we overlooked because coming out is effective enough?  Should we interrogate our straight friends about their sexuality the way they do us (as Birkhold suggests facetiously) in an effort to shed light on the absurdity of those questions?  Should we retreat given the homophobic and transphobic rhetoric in the public sphere and many of our communities?  Do we need to revamp our expectations of the day and make clear that we don't expect folks to risk their lives to be out?  Should we expect folks to risk their lives (or at least their livelihoods) to be out? Which elders should we follow?

My own relationship with National Coming Out Day is loose, at best.  My queer education was so lacking before I came out that I didn't even know the day existed until I was already out (the first time around, anyway).  At my college, we held a National Coming Out Day Ball, and occasionally someone would get the courage to call their parents, but it was mostly an excuse to celebrate.  And an event that is associated in my mind with National Coming Out Day based on juxtaposition is the anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepard.  So we'd all trek up to Boystown to join the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network (now the Gay Liberation Network) and its coalition for the commemorative march.  And while there is little more than adjacent days linking these events (October 11th and October 12th), the connection between coming out and reducing homophobic violence was wired, rightly or wrongly, in my brain.  The role of National Coming Out Day personally and politically is complex.

This year, National Coming Out Day co-occurs with the Jewish holiday of Hoshangna Rabba.   Like National Coming Out Day, I hadn't heard of it growing up.  It's the seventh day of Sukkot, and it has unique liturgy and customs.  There are seven circuits of the synagogue holding willows (or perhaps a lulav) and beating them against the floor until all the leaves fall.  In some communities, it is customary to clutch the lulav and etrog during the musaf amidah.  And we pray for God to save us from transgression and impending doom.  The liturgy mimics the themes of the Day of Atonement, and borrows passages, too, as well as having its own dedicated liturgical poems and constructs.  We can trace the physical aspects of the ritual to the agricultural celebrations of nations bordering the ancient Israelites.   The hailing of winter through a technique academically termed "sympathetic magic" and the pleas for God to protect us through it may have been important, useful, actions for our ancestors who lacked effortless heat and refrigeration, whose food storage may have been easily infested, and may still be meaningful to thse who find themselves in those conditions today.  But in large part we go into the Middle East's rainy season knowing, if we are healthy, we are very likely to survive winter.  And if we need help with other things we are more inclined to ask friends, family, or helping professionals than we are to pray for God to save us.  Yet we parade around beating the leaves off our willows.  Or maybe we skip it.  And it's hard to connect.

We can raise many of the same kinds of questions about Hoshangna Rabba as we can about National Coming Out Day.  Has it outlived its usefulness?  Why do we do it in the way that we do?  Should we update it?  Which elders should we follow? What about the trees?  The congregants who can't make seven circuits around the synagogue?  We say that the gates of repentance are open on Hoshangna Rabba.  Don't we know by now that they never really close?  If we don't believe in this ritual should we still do it to be part of community? Do we expect God to save us speedily in our day?  Is there some better way to go about making known that it is always time to repent?  That it is always time to choose life?

On this National Coming Out Day, I am quite conscious that Hoshangna Rabba represents a queering of the Jewish calendar year.  The gates are supposed to close on the Day of Atonement, yet they are open today.  We add extra flare to our processions.  We insist on staying alive against the odds.

Coming out is certainly correlated with massive political gain for queer liberation, but it is not a panacea.  It does not resolve internalized homophobia and transphobia; it does not necessarily improve your life.  Its gains are not immediate.  And it still often entails sacrifice.  Yet it creates visible queer community that gives those who come after us hope.  Which, underneath the veneer of morbidity, is also the message of Hoshangna Rabba.  The world may look bleak, but the flowers will bloom in the spring.  The trees will again be covered in green leaves.  The dormant seeds will sprout fabulous new plants.  You can survive the winter.  You can survive the school bullies.  You can survive the street harassers.  You can survive Trump.


Friday, September 22, 2017

In The Season of Open Gates - A #nocopacademy 'Aqeda for 5778

The penitential poem עת שערי רצון was written by the medieval poet Yehuda Ibn Abbas, who was born in Fez, spent time in Baghdad, and died in Aleppo.  It connects the story of the sacrifice of Isaac with the blowing of shofar.  The sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac is regarded as the origin of the shofar, not only by Ibn Abbas, but starting with our early rabbis, who explain in the midrashic work Pesikta deRav Kahana that the shofar blown during revelation at Mount Sinai was one horn of the ram Abraham sacrificed instead of his son and that the other horn will be used as the shofar when the Messiah comes.  Ibn Abbas' version of the binding of Isaac doesn't attempt to shield the reader from the gruesome nature of sacrificing one's son.  It includes a verse of Isaac, bound and ready to be sacrificed, envisioning his mother's grief.  Other poets were so inspired by Ibn Abbas' poem that it started a genre of 'aqedot, poetic retellings of the binding of Isaac, including one purportedly by Maimonides.  In pan-Sepharadi communities, from Morocco to Baghdad, from Curaçao to London, עת שערי רצון is sung on Rosh Hashanah before the blowing of the shofar.

I wrote the below poem for Tzedek Chicago's Rosh Hashanah action at City Hall.  At our action, the shofar was blown to wake the city and its mayor up to social justice.  This year, we sought to highlight the injustice of spending $95 million on a luxury building for police training in West Garfield Park, which saw six of its schools close in 2013 because the city supposedly did not have money to run them.  At Tzedek, we endorse the #nocopacademy campaign, which seeks to have those $95 million reinvested in schools and social service agencies in disinvested neighborhoods including West Garfield Park.  I was thinking about all the Black and Brown "Isaac"s living in our city whose lives are viewed, especially by the police, as needed sacrifice to keep our city safe.  This is my 'aqeda for 5778, dedicated to those working on the #nocopacademy campaign and dedicated to Cynthia Lane, mother of Roshad McIntosh, a sister-in-grief with the Biblical Sarah.  Lane recently succeeded in getting further review of her son's murder by CPD Officer Robert Slechter.  Though the original investigation did not interview any civilian eyewitnesses (but did interview officers who didn't see the shooting) and did not include a forensic investigation, eyewitnesses say that contrary to original police testimony, McIntosh was unarmed, and, in fact, was in surrender posture when Officer Slechter shot him.  Many of the lines allude to specific incidents of murder by police in the city of Chicago, though they are taken from far too many murders.

Structurally, I attempted to maintain similarity, where possible, with the original piyyut.  The refrain "the binder, the bound, and the altar" comes from Ibn Abbas, and there are several other allusions to the original poem.  I did not  Every line Ibn Abbas wrote rhymes.  That is a poetic feat I have not achieved, though I have used many end rhymes and approximate rhymes, as well as internal rhyme and alliteration to attempt to create the type of connections through lines Ibn Abbas creates.

In this new year, may the shofar be heard in our city as the call to end police shootings.

In the season of open gates

In the season of open gates
When you blow the shofar
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Abraham got up early that day
picked up his partner
packed the tear gas and riot gear in the trunk
loaded his gun and gassed up the squad car.
He felt good about his mission
to serve and protect our city
driving west, looking for some kid to call son
before putting in the ground
Bear in mind how we got here,
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Abe drove past a church with a sign on the lawn
A list of shot children, already gone
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Unfazed, Officer Abraham began to recount
how his wife got so mad at him
he had to send his first son and his baby mama clear across town
"To a neighborhood like this?" gasped his partner, astounded.
I wouldn't know, haven't talked to Hagar since.
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

The dash cam caught Abe joking around
Gun already cocked while driving through town
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

He pulled to a corner not unlike many others
BK, McDonald's, and Family Dollar
Where his partner saw a drug deal take place
With a boy who doesn't yet shave his zit-covered dark face.
Seeing the squad car, the boy started to run
Abe thought, "What's he holding?" and lifted his gun
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Abe shouted, "Stop!  Hold it right there.
Drop your weapon; son, and please come with me."
The boy thought of his mother
The tears she would cry
He wished her solace
As his life passed before his eyes.
"Abraham!  Abraham!  Put down your gun!
It's just some pot; I'm unarmed."
Knees on the ground, hands in the air
Young Isaac pleaded, "Officer Abe,
don't shoot me, please."

While the Biblical Abraham took this chance to relent
Officer Abraham hardly noticed till his cartridge was spent
Later he'd say he feared for his life
He felt for the family but
Our safety needed this kid sacrificed
And the chief and the mayor would join in assent
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

In Chicago, we have
                                Too many Isaacs
And the list starts with
Cedric Chatman, 14
Laquan McDonald, 17
Roshad McIntosh, 19

In Chicago, we have
                               Too many Officer Abes still being paid.
And way too many modern-day Sarahs.
We still cry "Abraham!  Abraham!"
             with every blast of the ram's horn

Stop. Killing. Isaacs.
Beat your pistols into shofars, your AR-15s into trumpets, your M-16s into trombones.
Use your riot shields as drums.
Use the $95 million to turn
The FOP into a city-funded brass band
playing fanfares declaring #blacklivesmatter

Abraham!  Abraham!  Put down your gun!
Will this be the year the mayor listens to the shofar's call?
When will Rahm repent?
When will he say "Hineni - Here I am."

In the season of open gates
when you blow the shofar
Bear in mind how we got here
The binder, the bound, and the altar

Monday, December 5, 2016

An Anti-Islamophobic Hanerot Hallalu - for Januka 5777

Hanerot halalu anu madlikin In our longest nights, we are reminded of our own darkness.  We become intimately familiar with the moments when we were less than our best selves: we expressed hate, we acted from fear, we stood idly by when others were targeted.  As darkness surrounds us, we cannot escape the dark recesses of ourselves where we harbor our internalized societal hatreds and phobias.  Yet, navigating our inner selves, we search for our flame, that inner place of light and warmth, the Divine spark, however faint or vibrant, that seed of our potential to be better people - that long forgotten inner wellspring of hope.  Finding it, our path forward toward better selves, toward a better world is illuminated, and we need only stay in its warmth.  So we light these lights, acknowledging our potential to create a more just world, reminding ourselves that we need not succumb to the darkness around us or in ourselves.

We light these lights acknowledging that for brief moments in our individual and collective histories, we have experienced moments of great enlightenment: miracles, redemption, and courageous actions, moments of salvation, wonder, and comfort.  Just as those moments light up our history, so to do we affirm the possibility of moments like those in our day, and recommit to creating a world where the darkness of hatred, fear, and ignorance is overwhelmed by the warm light of wholeness.  Like the ancient priests who tended the Temple lights every day, and especially the eight days of the first Festival of Lights, may we, too, come to know the fruit of creating light in the darkness.

We light these lights to publicize our hope for this miracle.  Many of our Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and indigenous neighbors face the darkness of fear, the piercing cold of hatred, and the pain of isolation.  The darkness they face threatens us all.  In the long nights we hear their lingering cry; when morning comes may we greet them with joyous welcome.  We light these lights for these neighbors  - for they are holy, and we do not have permission to use them.  Rather, we must learn to truly see them for who they are, in order to properly praise Your Name, O Merciful One, and experience all the miracles, redemptions, and wonders You yet have in store for us.

This Januka, may the lights we kindle in our homes and in our hearts lead to compassion, understanding, and action.  Then may we dwell in the warm light of Your Presence all the days of our lives.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

#OccupyHeaven: A Poem for Ne'ilah 5777

United not by common language or experience
but by action, by clapping, using our hands
to give voice to our rising power
transcendent heartbeat of our collective will, we say

petaj lanu sha’ar b’et ne’ilat sha’ar ki fanah yom
hayom yifneh hashemesh yavo veyifneh navoah sh’arekha
Keep the gate open for us when the day turns to night!
As surely as the closing bell sounds, we will rush the gates!

The word ne’ilah means closing time, buildings locked, gates bolted, alarms set
so no intruders can infringe on God’s spare time He spends like spare change
Ne’ilah means our time is up, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here
If God didn’t get to you today, you should have showed up earlier

Forced to participate in this frustrating process of penitence
God’s yearly performance review of humankind
all denied food and water for the last twenty-four hours
some denied food and water each and every twenty-four hours

we convene today for protest’s sake
as the sun sets on this Day of Atonement
The Day of Judgment
when even the Hosts of Heaven are judged
God thinks if management has to do this too that we won’t notice
the glorified injustice of the pinnacle of our calendar year

So we’re here ready to make some noise - our voices will be heard
We will make God listen; that’s what we’re here to do, to insist on
to insist on not being ignored, to insist on disrupting God’s dinner party
"No humans allowed" except the help; be sure to use the service entrance

If you are a veteran of actions like these, great.  If this is your first, even better.
Let’s start with refreshing our memory at why we’re here
God says He seeks our repentance, not perfection
God says this is all He desires, as soon was we repent, He will forgive

Adonai adonai el rajum vejanun
erech apayim verav jesed ve-emet
notzer jesed la-alafim
nose avon vafesha  vejata-a venakeh

My Lord, My Lord, God is merciful and gracious
endlessly patient overflowing with kindness and truth
bestowing kindness to the thousandth generation,
forgiving wrongdoing, sins of commission and omission and granting pardon

What a load of -
oh right, no cursing - there are children present - yeah, right
You may not know yet but we have the full text of that quote about God’s kindness
it’s taken out of context and when you play the tape all the way to the end
He’s actually talking about how He won’t forgive

and instead He’ll punish people to the third and fourth generation - at least
God and His cronies don’t want us to know He seeks revenge and calls it justice
God and His cronies don’t want us to know the Messiah is ready to come tomorrow
if police lay down their weapons and superintendents reopen closed schools

if we tear down separation walls and throw welcome home parties for refugees
as they come back to the properties whose deeds they have safeguarded for generations
if we abolish prisons and establish a justice system that respects even the cockroach
and one that never treats humans like roaches - but that would destroy God’s master plan

Hypocrite on High - we see through Your empty rhetoric
this was the year that God increased, not decreased, extrajudicial execution of Black boys
this was the year that dancing in your queer Brown body became punishable by death on Shavuot
that going to mosque in Queens became a capital crime for Imam Alauddin Akonjee

On Tisha B’av.  This was the year God further punished poverty
and humiliated and killed transgender women of Color
this was the year God sanctioned the scapegoating of Muslims for violence
even though God gave us violence millenia before the life of the Prophet

that’s why we’re here to #occupyHeaven, here for the immigrant, for the beggar, for the refugee
for the orphan and the child soldier, for the domestic workers, the sex workers, and ourselves
here to negotiate a new covenant, here to strike if needed
God and His cronies don’t want us to know we can throw off their yoke

But now is the time
we #occupyHeaven
Now is the time
we deem God an unsuitable negotiation partner
Now is the time
we hold out for a better offer
Now is the time!

Now is the time
               we say no más to deportation
Now is the time
we make the sun stand still over Jericho and Silwan and Susiya
declaring #existenceisresistance against God’s weaponized bulldozers
until Jacob and Esau once again embrace

This is the year, the poet says, this is the year the squatters evict landlords
the year we refuse to go home until everyone has housing
the year we refuse to be satisfied with forgiveness until all are forgiven
the year we tell God not to make foolish promises, the year we abolish not only prisons but sin

The sun hasn’t set yet, the gates are still open.  So here’s what we’ll do
even the worst sinners and those whose guilt weighs heavily though they are blameless
we’re going to join hands and enter the open gates. Our chant starts simply:
Hear our voices!  Hear our voices!  Hear our voices! Hear our voices!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Reflections of a Student Rabbi Against the Occupation of Palestine for Shabbat Shuvah

These holidays have been particularly hard. The difficulty comes not only from the added, expected stress of increased responsibilities in the planning department.  As someone preparing to enter the rabbinate, I have many friends who are rabbis or cantors or Jewish educators or who are, like me, currently in school to become Jewish professionals.

As in any community of shared purpose and interest, we exchange thoughts and writings.  Among those writings are the High Holy Day Israel sermons I have dreaded since adolescence, when my curiosity about where the trees we raised money to plant in Israel uncovered the horrifying truth.  We were taught to think about the Jewish National Fund (JNF) both as an environmental organization and part of the Zionist effort to make the desert bloom, which, in and of themselves, are two oppositional ideas.  Because we were taught that the JNF was beautifying our homeland, to discover that the real purpose, now extremely well-documented, of this beautification, much like beautification projects in our major cities, is the continued displacement and erasure of its prior residents.  The ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people by the JNF, the Israeli government, and other Zionist organizations, is a Jewish communal wrongdoing I could not unsee - that I would not unsee.  So to see my colleagues and friends embody and enshrine the concept of "progressive except Palestine" 

I am deeply bothered by the content of these sermons.  They often conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, or, worse, redefine anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism, thus ignoring the very real ways anti-Semitism persists as a system of oppression independent of Israel's existence and independent of her actions.  They fear-monger about open discussion of Palestine on college campuses, urging congregants to empathize with Zionist students over and against Palestinian students and those in solidarity with them, including a growing number of Jewish students against the Occupation.  They tell, essentially, conversion stories of Zionism.  These stories explain the exceptional spiritual experiences of spending time as a Jew in Israel.  Even as liberal, marginalized Jews in the Jewish state, they were able to appreciate the modern-day miracle of having a Jewish state in a historical Jewish homeland.  In none of these stories do the authors stop to consider Palestinian experience.  A few share stories of spending time with Palestinians in the West Bank, stories of Palestinians being peaceful, stories of Palestinians graciously allowed by the Israeli government to inhabit their own land, stories of Palestinians providing hospitality, of baklava, kanafeh, and Turkish coffee, stories which strip Palestinians of power and agency and leave them backdrops for an empathetic Jew.  They share the trauma of the Holocaust to justify the existence of the state of Israel.  Again and again, Western Jewish experience is privileged over indigenous Palestinian experience.

Fewer of these sermons focus on the demographic threat and the urgency of a two-state solution the way such sermons did before the incursion in Gaza in 2014, now a yearly summer ritual of the IDF.  Fewer focus on oppressions within Green Line borders like sexism, racism, and xenophobia.  None focus on the problem of Occupation.  Instead, in a globalized world, they focus exclusively on Zionist Jewish concerns.  Some on the need to oppose Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.  Some on the need to oppose #BlackLivesMatter.  Some on pinkwashing.  But don't say they're Islamophobic because they think Arab Muslims throwing rocks are more inclined to violence than white Jewish soldiers with M-16s.  Don't say they're racist because they're willing to throw away half a century of solidarity over the exclusive right to use the word genocide.  And they certainly aren't using LGBT people as pawns to deflect from other human rights abuses.  See, they're liberal Jews which means they treat everyone equally and God is on their side.

Worse than the content of their sermons is the framing.  There's the coded language of "starting a difficult conversation about Israel."  I wonder if they learned that phrase in school, or from AIPAC or J Street.  It's doublespeak for silencing dissent.  There's the Israel-has-problems-but-so-do-we, a kind of deflection which is often used by domestic abusers to distract from their own wrongs.  And there's the gross manipulation of the recent lost of Shimon Peres, z"l.  Ignoring the complexity of a peacemaking leader who participated in the Nakba, ignoring the failures of the Oslo Accords and the decades since then, ignoring that Peres' understanding of the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict (that is, land in historic Palestine being controlled by Palestinians), has never truly been implemented, and ignoring that the lack of implementation of that solution is Israel's fault, my colleagues are using congregants' grief over Peres' death as a political tool of redoubling support for Israel.  That most of these sermons were for Rosh Hashanah rather than Yom Kippur strikes me as telling on an ethical level.  How can one truly repent while transgressing?

I have become increasingly skeptical about the utility of so-called dialogue about Israel in American Jewish communities.  The privilege and oppression dynamic that exists between Jews and Palestinians means at best we are like a bunch of suburban white folk discussing the impact of racism in American cities.  Plus, the people leading these so-called open dialogues are often the authors of the sermons people like me walk out of.  In the year ahead, I think we should move more toward a model of uplifting Palestinian voices, of hearing from those targeted by the Occupation.  Of reminding ourselves over and over that Jewish opinion and reaction is not the point.

The broader context of "discussion of Israel" in American Jewish life has made me even more grateful to be a part of Tzedek Chicago.  The Pro-Israel hegemony in American Judaism and the way that hegemony is increasingly detracting from our ability to be engaged progressively in other realms (#BlackLivesMatter being the most notable case) are our most pressing collective wrongs.  I am blessed to be part of a community that sees that.  I look forward to another year of working for justice together.

As fellow Tzedek member Adam Gottlieb said in his interpretive Haftarah for Rosh Hashanah,

This is the year the whole system is indicted!

Adam, from your lips to God's ears.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

New Beginnings

I have wanted for some time to begin a new blogging project.  I have for some time maintained blogs at different places essentially for the purpose of writing therapy, for working out my thoughts as I develop them.   However, I have not yet undertaken a blogging project meant primarily to post more well-formed ideas.  That is, not until now.  So what better way to begin than starting at the beginning of the New Year.  I am proud that my first post contains my Rosh Hashanah remarks.  I hope it will be the first of many well-formed reflections in this tiny corner of the internet.

The Emperor’s New Liturgy: Remarks on Malkhuyot delivered at Tzedek Chicago - Rosh Hashanah 5777

The Emperor’s New Liturgy
In 1837, Hans Christian Andersen published “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.[1]  The fairy tale describes a vain emperor and the con-artists who convinced him to let them make an extraordinary garment.  Its fabric had the power to be seen only by those who deserved their jobs; to anyone else, it would be invisible.  After commissioning the garment, the emperor sent advisers to check on its progress, and they returned and gave good reports.  When the con-artists presented the “garment” to the emperor, not wanting to out himself as unfit for his post, he praised the garment. At the parade showing his new outfit, all his subjects cheered his magnificent new clothes.  Then, a young child shouted, “he’s not wearing any clothes!”  As everyone realized the emperor was naked, he kept the parade going with more gusto than before.
As modern pursuers of justice, this story expresses our critique of monarchy, imperialism, and selfish leadership.  Monarchy is antithetical to our value of equity.[2]  Leaders with or seeking absolute power do whatever they must to maintain that power, and the naked truth of their corruption becomes obvious to us all, with or without a child to vocalize it.  We know too well the costs of the destruction of modern-day despots and dictators.  We know electing a leader doesn’t resolve the problem of abuses of power.  Investing a leader as ultimate authority is morally repugnant.
To make matters worse, our High Holy Day liturgy refers to God-as-monarch.  Confronted with malkhuyot, Divine sovereignty, a central theme of the Days of Awe, we wish we weren’t. Hamelekh Hakadosh - the Holy King - and its paternalistic version - Avinu Malkeinu - Our Father Our King - block our process of teshuvah.[3]  We don’t believe in a Book of Life or Book of Death.  Whether or not we believe in God, we’re sure She’s not poring over ledgers of our deeds to see if we’re good enough to live another year.  We come for the music and company and ignore the prayers.  
Still more of us stay away.  This - our imperialist liturgy - keeps us away from the synagogue.  In “A High Holiday Manifesto for Millennials”, Rabbi David Wolpe writes “the High Holiday theme of being judged is alienating.”[4]  Rabbi Wolpe wrongly asserts that young Jews do not wish to be evaluated. People my age do not fear being judged; our misdeeds are recorded and accessible with a simple internet search.  We are judged constantly by people everywhere, and the process has made us more cognizant of our responsibility to a globalized world.  This experience isn’t unique to my generation; Baby Boomers are the fastest growing demographic on social media.[5]  Being critiqued isn’t alienating; being arbitrarily judged by a supposedly Benevolent Dictator in the Sky who determines our fates is abhorrent.
If the only goal of the High Holy Days is to become better people, the staying-home solution to the malkhuyot problem is adequate. This undercuts Rabbi Wolpe’s argument that young Jews should come to services, as every suggestion he makes can be done having dinner with friends. We don’t need Judaism or synagogue or a bunch of words we don’t believe to help us grow or feel more connected.  And yet, we’re here.  Tzedek is not a default; we chose to be here today.  Today, we need to add our legacy of imperialist liturgy to our litany of transgressions.  Today, we need a better solution to the malkhuyot problem than dismissing our discomfort at the words on the page.
Actively persecuted by the Roman Empire,[6] the early rabbis responsible for our liturgy developed an idea of God in opposition to empire.[7]  God was independent of any state power.  Yet, especially in High Holy Day liturgy, our rabbis used the language of empire to refer to the Divine.  At first glance, the tactic seems a simple enough critique of human rule.  In a hierarchical system, God is the One True Monarch and all human rulers are merely posers.  The Diva of Divas, Her whims are honored rather than those of obviously unjust human rulers.  Under closer examination, the picture of God these radical rabbis painted is not like any human ruler.  Avinu Malkeinu cares deeply for His subjects.  God ‘al kise ram venisa (on a high and exalted throne) balances compassion and justice. She keeps good people alive and kills the bad ones.
Great, right?  Except the killing part.  And the fact that this is plainly not how the world works.  Ask any mother who has lost her child too young: who shall live and who shall die is not based on any system of justice.  Anyone involved in the justice system knows that compassion doesn’t oppose justice; it enhances it.  The rabbis’ idea of malkhuyot is so fanciful it is clearly fictitious.  Some might say that this shows lack of imagination on my part; human, I refuse to consider that for God all is possible, including just use of absolute power.  But our rabbis left clues in our liturgy that they did not believe God-as-absolute-authority was good.  Our Torah and Haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah show God as demanding and callous, allowing Abraham to cast out one of his sons and demanding he prepare the other for slaughter, granting the prayer of a barren woman for a child only to require that child be separated from her.  And unetaneh tokef calls God’s judgment of who shall live and who shall die “roa’ hagezeirah” - the evil edict.[8]  Our rabbis peppered our experience of praying to Hamelekh Hakadosh with depictions of God’s malevolence as a ruler.
What was their aim with the fanciful and fictitious description of the Sovereign God?  They show us God-who-has-transgressed.  Our liturgy does not show us our inadequacy in the face of a Perfect Being.  Instead, it vividly describes some of the worst of God’s mistakes. We have not fulfilled our end of the covenantal relationship, nor has God fulfilled Hers.  Our liturgy includes God along with us as needing to make teshuvah during these ten days.  
At the end of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the Emperor deliberately continues the parade naked. While we read this before as a sign of gross incompetence, there’s another way to look at it.  When the emperor’s humiliating mistake is revealed, he views that vulnerability as a positive.
This is the Sovereign God our rabbis imagined while writing our liturgy: vulnerable, flawed.  A King of Kings who, like any other king, messes up.  Out of good and bad intentions.   Often.  Catastrophically.  But who carries on dealing with the consequences of Her mistakes head on, publically, without shame.   We pray to God who joins us in the process of teshuvah, the Queen who needs our forgiveness as much as we need Hers.  The King whose capacity for missing the mark is the one on which ours is modeled.
Contrary to Rabbi Wolpe’s message in his excoriation of my generation, we don’t need to celebrate Rosh Hashanah to understand ourselves better or improve our connection to a Greater Power.  We don’t need to celebrate Rosh Hashanah because we’re afraid of God’s judgment.  We don’t need to come to synagogue to become better people.  We need to come to experience the wisdom of the radicals who designed our rituals.  We need to celebrate Rosh Hashanah to be reminded that we are partners in creation, made in God’s flawed image.  To assert that God’s best isn’t good enough yet.  Our best isn’t good enough yet.  Creation is still unfolding, and we have a critical role to play.  The question malkhuyot leaves us with is: will we continue the work with our nakedness exposed?

[1] Hans Christian Andersen.  Fairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. (Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzel, 1838).
[2] A Judaism of Equity is one of Tzedek Chicago’s core values.  For more information, see Last visited October 1, 2016.
[3] See a traditional Maḥzor for the liturgy to which I refer.  Translations are my own; any similarity to other translations is accidental.
[4] David Wolpe.  “A High Holiday Manifesto for Millenials; For estranged seekers, a leading rabbi suggest a roadmap.”  The Jewish Week, September 21, 2016.
[5] The data which show this are numerous.  A report of one such study can be found at, last accessed October 1, 2016.
[6] Flavius Josephus. The War of the Jews, or the History of the Destruction of Jerusalem.  75.
[7] Solomon Schechter,  Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud (New York: Schocken Books, 1961; originally published 1909).
[8] While the pseudipigraphical authorship of unetaneh tokef attributes the prayer to 11th century sage Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, its presence in the earliest stratum of the Cairo Genizeh, indicates that it dates at the latest to the 8th century, with some scholars placing it even earlier.  See, for example, Planer, John H., “The Provenance, Dating, Allusions, and Variants of U-n'taneh tokef and Its Relationship to Romanos's Kontakion,  Journal of Synagogue Music, vol. 38 (Fall 2013).