Friday, June 26, 2015

Idolatry and the Confederate Flag - Huqqat 5775

About a month ago, I was in Budapest with my family to celebrate my sister’s having given birth to a baby girl, her first child. We did not have a lot of time for sightseeing, but I did do something there that I had not done before: I went to the municipal flea market. It was a weekday and deep into the afternoon, so not many stalls were open. But of the handful that were, several had Nazi items on display for sale: SS pins, swastika rings, standard-issue helmets, a soldier’s jacket. Some of these items were, perhaps most jarringly, for sale alongside Soviet memorabilia and Judaica items as well.

Now I suppose that finding WWII-era military paraphernalia is nothing unusual, particularly at flea markets. But the fact that these things were casually, non-judgmentally on display, merely for sale next to Jewish odds-and-ends was particularly jolting, since it suggested that Hungarians do not quite appreciate how deplorable these symbols are, how they stand for hatred and killing and the worst that humanity has to offer.

I found it utterly fascinating this week that in the wake of the horrible killings at the Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a number of southern states are finally, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, moving to remove the Confederate flag from their public spaces. Yes, it is “only” a symbol, and removing symbols means nothing if it does not change the content of our hearts and minds. Taking down the flag at the South Carolina capitol building will not cure the problem of white supremacist activities in that state or anywhere else. But it is a step, and, at least with respect to Jewish tradition, a significant one. Allow me to explain:

We read today in Parashat Huqqat that might give us some insight into the scourge of hatred.

God was angry at the Israelites for complaining their way across the desert, speaking out against God and Moshe, and so, for inexplicable reasons, God sends serpents to bite them. What do the Israelites do? They apologize, but then ask for Moshe to intercede with God to get rid of the serpents. So God has Moshe build a seraph / winged serpent figure out of copper and mount it on a flagpole, and when anyone is bitten by a serpent, he or she is instantly cured.

But later there is a problem. This seraph-on-a-pole stays with the people for hundreds of years, and they forget its original purpose, but it continues to be revered. So later, as recounted in the book of II Kings (18:4), King Hezekiah destroys it as part of his anti-idolatry reforms.

Idolatry is one of the biggest no-nos of the Torah. The Talmud counts it among the three biggest sins, the three that Jews are forbidden to violate, even to save a life (the other two are murder and sexual impropriety). We are told in our halakhic codes that we must stay far away from anything that is in any way connected to idolatry. (The Hebrew term is avodah zarah, “foreign worship”).

So for example, we cannot eat foods produced by idolaters, or drink wine made by idolaters, lest these items may have been used in some idolatrous ritual. We cannot enter a temple containing idols. We cannot have business dealings with idolaters in the days immediately before one of their festivals because we may make them more happy and hence more likely to praise their idols. And so on. (It’s worth noting that true idolaters are hard to find today: Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and many contemporary pagans do not fall into this category.)

Why is avodah zarah / idolatry so reviled by Jewish text and tradition? Why must we avoid it so zealously? Because it corrupts us, it leads us astray. When the Israelites are told that they will enter the land of Canaan to possess it, one of the first obligations they are given is to destroy the bamot, the unholy altars of the Canaanites, lest they be tempted to worship. Throughout the Prophetic books, the Israelites struggle with the influence of Canaanite gods. And our tradition teaches us that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians due to the Big Three transgressions identified earlier. Idolatry is an infection that proves hard to remove, even though King Hezekiah tries valiantly.

So why am I telling you this? Because in the public discourse this week surrounding the church shooting and the removal of Confederate flags, all I could think about was avodah zarah. That flag is a symbol of a particular kind of idolatry: the idolatry of institutionalized racism.

Symbols are used precisely because they have the power to inspire for good or bad.  But hatred corrupts, just like idolatry. It leads people astray, to do things that are violent and disgusting, acts which damage people and society. And although defenders of the Confederate flag might claim that it is merely a symbol of Southern pride and/or culture or the principles of “states’ rights,” we know better. The flag is a symbol of slavery, of racism, of hatred.

Confederate Flag protest in South Carolina (16 images)

And furthermore, it is clear that even if all the Confederate flags in America were to magically disappear, it would not cure the pernicious problem of racism. It might drive it further underground. (Think of the worldwide collective guilt inspired by the Shoah; it drove anti-Semitism into the shadows for decades, but we see it now begin to re-emerge in all its insidious forms.)

But our tradition teaches us something very important here: that the way to eliminate a problem is to distance yourself physically from all of its trappings. We the Jews are still around, thousands of years after the idol-worshipping Canaanites, Babylonians, Hellenists and Romans are all gone. The strategy worked; you don’t find too many Jews today seduced by the appeal of Ba’al or Zeus.

And that brings us to an essential principle in Jewish tradition: that symbolic acts ultimately lead to a change in one’s behavior and/or beliefs. That idea is encapsulated in the following passage from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 105b:
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצווה, אפילו שלא לשמה, שמתוך שלא לשמה - בא לשמה. שבשכר ארבעים ושתים קורבנות שהקריב בלק, זכה ויצאה ממנו רות.
Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name: One should always occupy oneself with Torah and good deeds, though it may not be for their own sake; because when one does something not for its own sake, eventually it comes to be for its own sake. For as a reward for the forty-two sacrifices offered up by Balaq, he was privileged that Ruth should be his descendant.
To explain, a midrash suggests that Balaq, the Moabite ruler who appears in next week’s parashah, and, by the way, is also mentioned in today’s haftarah. Balaq hires Bil’am ben Be’or to curse the Israelites, but Bil’am blesses them instead. So Balaq makes restitution by offering sacrifices to the Israelite God.  After doing so symbolically 42 times, his heart had truly changed, and thus he ultimately became the grandfather of the Moabitess Ruth, who is largely considered the first convert to Judaism, and is the subject of her own book of the Tanakh.

Judaism has always highlighted deeds over beliefs, because the performance of a deed, even without the proper kavvanah / intention, will ultimately change one’s motivation behind it. Do we all necessarily understand why we pray daily, wear curious ritual items during prayer, eat only kosher foods, abstain from certain creative or destructive acts on Shabbat? No. But we encourage fellow Jews who do not do those things regularly to do so. Why? Because after doing something 42 times, you will come to understand how the act improves your life, how it makes you a better person.

Our tradition teaches us that symbolic behavior, even if there is nothing behind it, leads one to change.

That is why we teach our children tefillah / prayer, or how to sing Shabbat songs, or how to participate in the Passover seder, etc. Because although we know that they will someday make their own choices about whether or not to be involved with Jewish life, the basis of having done something at least a few times will make the chance that they will embrace these rituals as adults much greater. Furthermore, the more often our children have participated in these rituals, the greater their chance of embracing their heritage for the rest of their lives.

If Rav Yehudah were here to counsel us on how to end the scourge of hatred, he would probably suggest that the way to cure racism is to compel everybody to seek out somebody of a different racial group, or even a different ethnic group, each day, and talk to that person, to spend some time getting to know him/her, to hear his/her story, to try to understand. You all know that each of us carries with us a certain amount of prejudice, a modicum of opinions that we form about people that are different from ourselves. But when we meet and get to know people from another group, those prejudices break down. The individual relationship outweighs any other opinions. And at first, while these inter-group conversations would be entirely symbolic, soon the symbolism would be replaced by genuine trust and admiration.

Now Rav Yehuda’s (theoretical) plan of action might be a little impractical. But we have to start somewhere, and the disappearance of the symbols of slavery might be a good start. Although, as many commentators have observed, taking down the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina capitol building will not change what is in people’s minds, it will certainly change the perception of what is tangibly acceptable, and what is not. And that will go a long way toward changing people’s thinking and behavior.

Hatred is idolatry. Racism is idolatry. We have to distance ourselves from the trappings of racism and hatred. Only that will cure us as a society.

Perhaps only with the coming of the mashiah / messiah will we eliminate hatred, racism,  anti-Semitism, and any other form of “my-people-are-better-than-your-people-ism.” But we CAN purify our hearts by working harder to lead more haters away from their idolatry. Let’s take down those Canaanite bamot. Remove the idols.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 6/27/2015.)

Friday, June 19, 2015

Identity: Today's Heavenly Controversy - Qorah 5775

There is an ancient rabbinic story that goes something like this:

Reuven Goldstein walks into the New York Athletic Club, circa 1962. He approaches the clerk at the front desk, and announces, in a thick Yiddish accent, “I vant to join your club.” The clerk, stern-faced, says, “I’m very sorry, sir, but we do not admit Jews here.” Mr. Goldstein stomps out furiously, and vows to convert to Christianity so he can join. He promptly moves to England, starts going to church, changes his name to Stevens, takes diction lessons to improve his accent, and learns the ways of the polished upper class.

Three years later, he returns to the New York Athletic Club, walks in, and announces in the Queen’s English, “My name is Richard Stevens, and I would very much like to join your club.” The clerk says, “Very good, sir. Please fill out this form. And there is one small formality, really nothing, but I have to ask, sir, what is your religion?”

“I am of the goyish persuasion,” says Mr. Stevens.

Among the onslaught of news from the past couple of weeks have been two individuals who have changed or attempted to change, fundamentally, who they are: one famous athlete who has very publicly become a woman, and one president of her local NAACP chapter who, although born to two white parents, has spent a decade or more passing as black.

Rachel Dolezal is accused of pretending to be African American (Rachel ...

The public discourse on Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal has been uproarious. What they have shown is that now more than ever, we have the ability to change our identities. We might very well be able to become something totally different than what we were at birth. This is an essential question for us today as Jews, because of where we are as a people: who we count, who we do not count, and what it means to be Jewish.

Certainly, there are some among us who are perhaps confused or troubled by these cases. Why would a grown man want to become a woman, and do it so publicly to boot? Why would a young woman want to change her race?

Both have been criticized by voices on the left and the right for a whole range of reasons. The Dolezal case is particularly infuriating to a large segment of black Americans, because of their history, and understandably so: Ms. Dolezal may have claimed to be black, but at least one commentator I read on the subject wondered what race she would claim if she were stopped by a white policeman. She chose to present herself as black, but she has the choice; most black people cannot change how they present themselves to the world.

Really, what Rachel Dolezal is guilty of is not trying to be black. That is not a crime, and, as I heard another African-American commentator put it (I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the quote, although I heard it on WNYC), “We like white people who admire us so much that they want to be black.”

What she is clearly guilty of is lying. It’s one thing to darken your skin and wear a hair-weave of tight curls and sign up to work for racial justice. It’s another thing entirely to claim black ancestry when you have none. I imagine that some of us in the Jewish world would be a little miffed to discover that there are people walking around, calling themselves Jewish and joining synagogues when they actually 100% “of the goyish persuasion.”

Of course, it is really only within the last few decades that such things would have happened at all. In the 1950s, there were not too many American Christians who wanted to be Jewish. (That has changed. A Pew Research study from 2014 showed that Jews are the most admired religious group in America.) And I suppose that there were far fewer white Americans (Jewish or non-) who fancied being black. And although there have probably always been men who desired to be women and vice-versa, it’s only very recently that this became possible. Or visible.


Meanwhile, self-described feminist Elinor Burkett’s commentary on Caitlyn Jenner in the New York Times calls out the inconsistencies surrounding our reaction to Ms. Jenner’s “coming-out” as a woman. She notes that former Harvard president and Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers was skewered for suggesting that men and women think differently, but when Jenner made a similar statement to justify her transition, she was lauded. Furthermore, says Ms. Burkett, Ms. Jenner’s transformation and glamour shot on the cover of Vanity Fair only serve to reinforce gender stereotypes, something that women like Ms. Burkett have always fought against.

So the opinions have flown fast and free. But the bottom line is this: our identities are today far less fixed than they used to be, and this is a challenge to our sense of how the world works. Like it or dislike it, the concept that identity is fluid is a phenomenon that is here to stay. We have to grapple with this challenge.

(After reading the sermon to this point, my wife said to me, “I can’t wait to see how you’re going to tie this to the parashah.”)

And this is what brings me to Parashat Qorah. The rabbis see  Qorah’s uprising against Moshe and Aharon (Num. 16:1ff., Etz Hayim p. 860ff.) as the archetype of a mahloqet she-einah leshem shamayim, a controversy that is not for the sake of heaven (Pirqei Avot 5:19). Why? Because Qorah and his gang of distinguished rebels are struggling for their own personal benefit.

By comparison, a mahloqet leshem shamayim, a controversy for the sake of heaven, like those between Hillel and Shammai, is one where both sides are united by a single, holy purpose: to further our knowledge and understanding of the Torah, and how we interact with God. Only such a mahloqet will stand forever, says the mishnah.

We might be inclined to dismiss the over-played news items about Ms. Jenner and Ms. Dolezal as only so much tabloid fodder. But looking past these individual cases, the contemporary controversy of identity is a mahloqet leshem shamayim.

We may be on opposite sides of these identity issues - some of us might insist that Caitlyn Jenner will always be Bruce, no matter how many Vanity Fair covers she graces in her lingerie. Some of us might feel that Rachel Dolezal should be able to call herself black or white or Alaskan native or whatever, since race is merely a social construct anyway with no basis in biology.

But the question of identity - what does it mean to be a certain race or ethnicity or gender or yes, religion - will be with us forever, and we cannot ignore it. (I have often thought about becoming Sephardic, especially around Pesah.)  

If our identities are truly fluid, if we can in fact switch genders or races with ease, all the more so religion! Jews can more easily become non-Jews, and vice versa. And while Judaism has always set the bar relatively high for entry, the bar to leave is set much lower.

Many of us will be uncomfortable with this idea, including me. But that is where we are today.

The highest value of American society, like it or not, is choice. Just check out the selection of salad dressings at any supermarket if you need proof. “Have it your way,” a treyf restaurant chain once touted. “America,” I once heard Rabbi Ed Feinstein say, “is choice on steroids.”

But let’s face it: personal choice is not the highest value in Judaism. We (the Jews) have a vested interest in maintaining our identity as Jews, in perpetuating our tribe, in upholding our legacy, in passing on our ancient tradition. Many of us know and understand the value of what has been passed down to us. And yet, when society tells us that we can be anything we want to be, what will guarantee a Jewish future?

We must respond to this mahloqet by being knowledgeable and committed to our tradition. But more than that, I think that the best way to respond to these concerns is to:
  1. Make sure that we are the best ambassadors for Judaism that we can be, and
  2. Trust that the richness and value of our tradition will ultimately prevail.

Some of our children and grandchildren may decline their heritage; they may not choose to live Jewish lives. But we who are dedicated to the Jewish future have to hold them tight while we can and demonstrate to them the value of maintaining the connection to the generations that came before them. And we better be prepared with the right language for when they challenge us, because they will.

There is one piece of good news this Shabbat: tomorrow is Father’s Day, an opportunity to fulfill one of the greatest mitzvot of Jewish life (and one of the Top Ten): kibbud av (va-em) - honoring your father (and mother).

I heard a wonderful piece on This American Life this week about an Israeli immigrant father who had never told his children that he loved them. He is advised by his cantor’s wife to try calling each of his children every day for a month to tell them that he loves them. He tries it, but fails after day 3. But even those three days had a palpable impact on both the father and his family.

Our identities are forged with love, and the stronger that bond of love, the more likely that our children will recall fondly what we have given them.

And so, while you remember to reach out to your father this weekend, let me suggest something to all the fathers (and mothers) here: Tell your children how much you love them. Do it more often. And tell them that you will trust them to make good choices about their lives, and that you will support them in whatever they do. And mean it.

There will always be Jews, and there will always be Judaism. And we have to be secure enough in our heritage to not be anxious, and even while we struggle with this heavenly controversy, to hold our children close and tell them how much we love them, we trust them, and we hope that they will be part of the same Jewish nation that produced us, and live the same values.

Shabbat shalom, and happy Father’s Day.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered on Shabbat morning, 6/20/2015, at Temple Israel of Great Neck.)