Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Am I My Brother's Keeper? Strengthening the Bonds between the African-American and Jewish Communities

(These are my remarks from the Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Stone Temple Baptist Church on Monday, Janurary 19, 2015)

Thank you so much Bishop for your kind words and for your graciousness in hosting this community gathering today. To the Jewish United Fund, to Pastor Phil and the Firehouse Community Arts Center, the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society, and to the Sinai Health System whose work continues to be a powerful example of ongoing partnership between the Jewish and African American communities for sponsoring today’s gathering as we honor the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When an emptiness so profound in the soul of one man caused him to murder his own brother, the question, which arguably became the most important question for humanity throughout time, was “Am I my brother’s keeper?” And the resounding answer to that question, echoing still in our day, remains: Yes. We are each other’s keepers, and we are all in this together.

And so, together, let us listen to Dr. King’s words from March 17, 1966 whose message rings so true today as well: “…in order to tell the truth, it is necessary to …say not only have we come a long, long way, we still have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved in our country…we need only to turn on our televisions and open our newspapers and look around our community….We must learn to live together or we will perish together as fools.”

On this day commemorating what would have been Dr. King’s 86th birthday just 4 days ago, 50 years after the march at Selma, we come together to acknowledge that although we have come a long way, indeed we still have a long way to go. In this age of “colorblindness,” as Michelle Alexander, the author of the critically important book The New Jim Crow calls it, we build walls not with bricks but with zip codes and school districts; we create distance and impose borders with words like South Side or North Shore - good neighborhood or bad as if those terms somehow justify our disparate standings. When the wealth gap between white and black America is greater today than it ever was in Apartheid South Africa[i], when 1 in 3 black men will end up incarcerated at some point in their life[ii], when we know so deeply that although all lives matter, this is the moment to name the fact that #BlackLivesMatter because we can’t breathe anymore, we must ask ourselves: what does it mean to be each other’s keepers and to act as such in the world today?

One of my teachers, Rabbi Jack Stern of Blessed Memory, served as a student rabbi in Greenville Mississippi in the early 1950’s. He gave a sermon on “The Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man” - everyone loved it. Sometime later, he proposed to the synagogue president that the congregation should hold a clergy Institute where all the clergy in town could gather to study and break bread together.
President: All the clergy?

Jack: yes.

President: White clergy and black clergy breaking bread together? Jack: Yes

President: Well that will never happen.

Jack: But just last week, I gave a sermon on the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man and you thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread?

President: It was a great sermon, but you have to be careful when you get specific.

Friends, we are here together today to get specific.

Throughout his life, Dr. King often drew inspiration from the specifics of the story of the flight of the ancient Israelites from bondage to freedom. Picture it:

Behind them, an advancing army. Before them an expansive and impassible sea. Trapped, Moses cried out to God, but God rebuked him: “Why do you cry to me? Tell the Children of Israel to move forward.” Forward where? The Israelites hesitated, until a leader appeared willing to step ahead into the rushing waters with faith that his actions could make a difference. This leader, teaches Jewish tradition, was not one of the headliners of the Exodus narrative, not Moses or Aaron, not Miriam or Joshua, but instead, was a man named Nachshon. Wading through the rising tide, only when the waters rose all the way up to his nostrils, the story tells us, did the Sea part.[iv] Nachshon was willing to take risks for a better future for his people, for his faith in the promise of freedom from On High, and in doing so, he catalyzed the Israelites’ redemption.

There were countless Nachshon’s in the Civil Rights movement whose specific actions and partnerships demonstrated their deep understanding that we are in fact each other’s keepers. So many African American and Jewish partners, known and not, who marched the road of justice together. Take Fannie Lou Hamer and Heather Booth. Born in Mississippi, Hamer grew up as a sharecropper. In 1961, she was sterilized against her will as a part of Mississippi's plan to reduce the number of poor blacks in the state. When, at a 1962 Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meeting she learned blacks could vote, she raised her hand immediately to volunteer, despite the grave risks she would face, as many were beaten or even lynched for attempting to register. Hamer quickly became a leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, fighting for dignity and the right to vote, and was a true hero of the civil rights movement.

Heather Booth, an 18 year old Jew, who after visiting Israel and making a commitment at the Yad VaShem Holocaust memorial to struggle for justice, went to Mississippi to volunteer at the Freedom Summer Project. Booth’s synagogue actually funded the $500 bail money required to participate in Freedom Summer in the case of an arrest. It was during Booth’s volunteering that she met Fannie Lou Hamer and was inspired by her activism, moving forward herself to serve as the founding director of the NAACP National Voter Fund and Americans for Financial Reform, along with becoming very involved in the women’s movement, in particular here in Chicago.

The time for us to get specific is now. In our day, we can no longer assert that proof for a living Jewish and African American communal partnership is demonstrative through the many Jews and African Americans who marched together half a century ago. We must not claim that because our communities come together one day a year to remember Dr. King that we are somehow fulfilling the best of his and his activist partners’ vision for a just world. There is so much more we can do together, and there has not been a better moment in the last 50 years for us to envision what is yet possible together.

Who will be our Nachshons today, stepping bravely forward into the rushing waters, risking for each other, for freedom, with faith that we can yet create hope and change?

· Because the work of social justice is not the sole reserve of the students who attend a social justice school.

· And the prospect of education, employment training and opportunity is not the sole reserve of organizations tasked with that singular mission.

What can each of us do to get specific when it comes to the holy work of keeping each other?

Will business owners commit to hire kids from Lawndale for internships this summer?

Will students ask themselves, can I organize my community at my school to demand equal access to quality education?

Will churches and synagogues from all over our community partner with each other, eat together, pray together, beyond this day once a year?

Will we find new ways to know and see each other, to learn from each other, to be sensitive to our assumptions and words, to listen to each others histories and stories so that we are actually keeping each other in the highest expression of that ideal?

The sages of my tradition tell a story about a man who goes out on a boat with his friends and, once offshore, starts to drill a hole under the bottom of his seat. His friends ask him to stop, but he continues, “The hole is only under my own seat and not yours.” His companions cry out, “But if you continue, the boat will sink and we will all drown. Don’t you understand that we are all literally in the same boat together?”

As the great human rights activist Lilla Watson famously said: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Because not one of us is free until every last one of us is free. Indeed, let us work together, my brothers, my sisters. We are each other’s keepers.


[i] Kristof, Nicholas. “Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5” New York Times, November 29, 2014
[ii] Report of The Sentencing Project to the United Nations Human Rights Committee Regarding Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System, August 2013
[iv] Exodus 14:15. Midrash Tehillim 114:8; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Meaning and Meaninglessness

(My remarks from Shabbat services on Friday, January 9, 2015)

In this past week, we’ve once again watched a scourge of horrific violence and terror wreak havoc, death and destruction around our world: from the senseless bombing of the Colorado Springs NAACP office, to the unconscionable and brutal attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the murder of 12 innocent people, including 2 police officers, to the horrific acts that played out today at a Paris Kosher grocery store.  And all of it can leave us feeling terrified, angry, bewildered, and wondering how people can do such horrible and senseless things?  Where is the meaning in any of it?

And in times like this, we first ask questions like those that involve us looking outside of ourselves for meaning, but often afterwards turn to look more internally, and ask ourselves what our existence means in the grand scheme of things when so often everything can seem so meaningless? And the truth is, both these and those questions come not only to characterize our responses to traumatic moments, but rather, they  actually characterize what is perhaps the ultimate and quintessential human pursuit.  And for millennia, scholars, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, talk show hosts and many others have offered theories and advice on how to find the meaning that we, as humans, so desperately seek.

And so, David Brooks’ op-ed from Monday “The Problem with Meaning” caught my interest.   In his well-articulated, somewhat vitriolic critique, Brooks asserts that this yearning for meaning has actually become most problematic in our time. He rightfully observes that “how meaningful something is” has become a standard metric for how we gauge whether something is worth our while.  In general, we seek meaningful relationships, we want to use our time meaningfully, we want our learning and growth to be meaningful.   But whereas in its purest sense, meaning is what you feel and find when you’re serving that which is beyond yourself, today we have instead commodified “meaning,” using it as a vehicle for serving ourselves instead.  

In Brooks’ words:
"As commonly used today, the word [meaning] is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life...Let me put it this way: If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time."

Put more simply, meaning is what should result as an ancillary benefit of a life grounded in a totally different, much more fixed force - morality -   asserts Brooks.  He concludes: “Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is a pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.”

But I think Brooks misses something in his relatively black and white analysis, something he should have been taught when he was in Hebrew School growing up.  When it comes to this battle of meaning versus morality, from the Jewish vantage, there actually is no battle at all as the two forces not only navigate the same ground, but in fact, blend together so as to strengthen each other.  

Morality, living according to a set of culturally or communally agreed-upon principles about right and wrong, might actually prove a little less fixed than Brooks assumes. Sometimes we may not know what the absolute right or wrong thing to do is in a given situation, but we will still have moral foundations to serve as guidelines.  As an aside, this premise is the basis for the entire structure of the Talmud.   Morality, from a Jewish sense, establishes the ground upon which we navigate in the world, but if we lose the understanding that everything, every experience, every relationship, every act, every breath, is imbued with the potential for deep, impactful meaning in life, we diminish both in the process.  

As Rabbi Geoff Mittleman of Sinai and Synapsis puts it: Meaning is how we make sense of the world; ultimately, it is how we figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” So it is meaning that can help us discover how we can best bring our best gifts and talents to better not only our own lives, but our communities and our world.  And one of the great gifts of Judaism is the understanding that our ethical choices and grounding, our morality, is in and of itself a form of making meaning.  

Victor Frankel, the famous neurologist, psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the masterwork “Man’s Search for Meaning,” recounted a life-changing decision. With his career on the rise and the threat of Third Reich looming, Frankl was granted a visa to America in 1941. Frankl knew that it would only be a matter of time before the Nazis came to take his parents away, and that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety.

Frankl was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, "Should I leave my parents behind?... Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?" Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a "hint from heaven."When he returned home, he found a piece of marble from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment from the 5th Commandment: honor your father and your mother. Frankl decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.  He later wrote about the relevance of the wisdom he derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering. "Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -- be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is."*

Those who would choose to use violence and terror, those who murder in their perverted understanding of what they claim as their religion and their god, poison the moral good in society and prove nothing more than heathen idolators whose actions truly merit no meaning in the construct of our existence.  We, those unwittingly subjected to their crimes as witnesses, can choose whether or not we will permit the deaths of the innocent, the destruction of innocence, to fall into meaninglessness as well.  Victor Frankl so rightly said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  Our faith calls upon us not to be silent or complacent because the task is too daunting, not to accommodate oppression because it is easier that way, but rather because our lives and our world are filled with meaning and potential even in the darkest moments, to move forward with moral courage, clarity, and clear resolve.  In this week’s Torah portion, the Pharoah issued an edict of infanticide intended to destroy the future of the Jewish people, commanding the Hebrew midwives to kill all the Jewish male infants upon their birth, or risk their own execution.  The Torah tells us though that because, "the Hebrew midwives feared God, they did not do as the king of Egypt spoke to them, and they caused the boys to live.”  A profound example of courage and defiance, morality and meaning.  Today too, we are called upon to make meaning out of the meaningless, and so we must act too to defy oppression in any form, to bring justice and healing to each other and our world.    

*As told in Victor Frank: A Life Worth Living by Anna Redsand