Thursday, January 22, 2015

Remarks for a Roe v. Wade Commemoration in Las Cruces - January 22, 2015

     It is important for me to be here to speak to you today, but not only about issues of Reproductive Choice in our country.
  I am here representing myself.  I am here representing the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform Jewish Movement in the United States. 
    I am here as a rabbi who has studied passages from texts that are less than 100 years old and over 3000 years old on this and other issues.  I am here because I believe that Judaism concluded a long time ago that there are always hard questions to ask when there are difficulties surrounding an impending birth, especially for the mother.  In Judaism, it is the mother’s life and health that are primary until the birthing process begins.  That principle guides me in my views and in any counsel I might give to anyone who approaches me.
      As a man, there are reproductive choices to be made that are not mine to make.  In forming my own viewpoint, I have listened to the voices of women.   Several women who are also Reform Rabbis have spoken out over the years about difficult decisions they made in their lives.  They were following not only their own conscience but Jewish laws and interpretations they had studied in rabbinic school.  In the mid-1980s, one of my female rabbinic colleagues told of watching from a hospital bed as the sitting American president made a speech on television about restricting the choice she had just made to end a pregnancy for a developing child that would not survive the birthing process.  After that, she was emboldened to share her story.   I cannot imagine having to make such a decision myself.
  Based on what I just said, I know that there are many Americans who agree with me, and many who don’t.  That is one of the great aspects of our country and our society.  Of course, some may choose to disagree through shouting and accusation. Some may assume that any organization to which I belong necessarily agrees with my position and that group should be shunned.  Others may believe I should shun an organization that doesn’t totally agree with me.   If that were the case, I would have had to leave every congregation which I have served as rabbi, because of differences of opinion among my congregants.  That has never happened, though. We stay together, and we get along by getting to know each other’s perspectives and having thoughtful conversations.   There are diverse clergy groups and interfaith organizations of which I have been a part that have not taken a position on reproductive choice. Yet, we defend each other’s right to have our own opinion, and we accept that different faith groups come to different conclusions.  And we agree that in a nation where we enjoy religious freedom, we need to make room for our various viewpoints and make it possible for people to put those perspectives into practice.   Freedom of speech gives us the opportunity to express why we hold our beliefs, and what values have led us to our current position whether religious or secular, whether from knowledge or experience.  
   Freedom of religion is the basic principle that brings me here to this event.  Pure and simple. I cherish a right to be able to tell a Jewish woman who is facing a difficult decision related to a pregnancy who comes to me, “Here is what Judaism would tell you to do in this difficult situation.”   The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision made it possible for people to struggle with hard decisions based on the dictates of conscience and faith.  
One thing I would add – I believe that everyone here today agrees about how we should care for children who are born into this world.  They deserve a roof over their heads – they deserve to be fed well, to be nurtured by loving parents, to have a fair chance at a good education, and to be safe and healthy.   Perhaps that is where our dialogue needs to start.  I would welcome anyone here today to come to my office to discuss our similarities and differences while we respect each other as fellow citizens.   This is the America in which I believe.    

P.S.  Clarification for local Las Cruces community members (which was delivered in the first paragraph): I must clarify that I am in no way, shape or form representing NM CAFé (Communities in Action and Faith), an organization I serve as board president.  NM CAFé had no role whatsoever in this event.  Those who have made such a suggestion are totally wrong. The Torah says in the book of Exodus, "Keep far from a false charge."  Anyone who has heard this charge should dismiss it as absolutely untrue. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Praying with our feet - Thoughts on the Martin Luther King, Jr. March in Las Cruces, NM on January 18, 2015

     I wouldn't miss it.   On April 7, 1968,  when I was 13 1/2 years old, I stood with my parents and brother at the memorial service in Kansas City for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   My rabbi, William B. Silverman, spoke.  Many members of my congregation and people from throughout the community filled the plaza by Liberty Memorial (created to remember soldiers who died in World War I).   That memory has led me to a constant desire to be a part of some commemoration of the need to realize Dr. King's dream.  His dream was challenging and inclusive, one that called for us to adopt "a new heart and a new spirit" that would lead us to freedom, justice and equality, one that would leave behind vestiges of past hatred and prejudice.
      It hasn't worked out that way.   Making Dr. King's dream real takes action and presence.  That is why I go.  I was fortunate to take part in the "Whose Dream Is It?" commemorations of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday in Topeka, Kansas from 1994-2006.  I joined the Dover Area Religious Leaders Association in Dover, NH for 5 years at their annual commemoration, and I also participated in events at the University of New Hampshire at around the same time.  In Las Cruces, NM, the local NAACP chapter plans a march on Sunday afternoon of the weekend, and sponsors a breakfast on the morning of the birthday observance.  These events are staples on my annual calendar.
    This year was just a little different.  Yes, as the rabbi, I get called upon each year to offer a spontaneous prayer.  Yes, I am present with members of my congregation and groups in which I am active as a leader (in this case, New Mexico Communities in Action and Faith, a local affiliate of the PICO National Network). It was heartening to see members of the Las Cruces Muslim community present at the march this year, some of whom I have met a previous local gatherings.   That was appropriately reminiscent of some of my past involvements in interfaith work, and it was inspiring to see how diverse this group of marchers had become.  
    I was given the microphone to conclude the event with a prayerful reflection.  I can't reproduce exactly what I said, but the essence of the thoughts I shared began with my sermon on the Torah reading for this past week from Exodus Chapter 6, in which God told Moses to communicate five promises to the people, declarations that they couldn't hear because they were broken of spirit (or their spirits were "short").  Perhaps the people were simply exhausted from their harsh labor, but it was also that they couldn't see any possibility for change.  They had no hope.   
   What I told the group is that we should have hope, but that we may feel broken because, in many ways, we have fallen so short of making Dr. King's dreams real.  Yet, we shouldn't allow ourselves to feel broken and give up.  We have to keep working towards freedom.  The last two promises to Moses can guide us today.  One was, "I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God."  I told those assembled that we should see each other as one people, linked together to realize Dr. King's dream of justice, freedom and equality.   The last promise was that God would bring the people into the land sworn to their ancestors.  As we marched, we sang traditional American songs that spoke of that freedom and equality that, hopefully, remains a goal for most (if not all) Americans.    I declared that we are in a land that could be a place  of liberty and justice for all.  We aren't there yet, but we can't be broken, we can't give up.   We have to keep on marching to that goal.   
    This is a message in which I truly believe.  Too many people allow their narrow ideologies to stand in the way of working with people of different faiths and backgrounds with whom they may disagree on some issues, but with whom they would find welcome and energetic partners for alleviating poverty and eliminating hatred and prejudice from our society.   We need to focus on making our lives better, together. 
      One of the songs I have learned in my community work over the last year, "come and go to that land," sees a land of peace and justice and freedom, a place where there is no more sorrow.  We have to get there, and we will only get there marching side by side, looking a lot like we did today in Las Cruces, with a group of people with differing backgrounds united in one common purpose.   
       Psalm 133 declares, "How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together."   May we believe in that vision and live it every day.  If we do, we will truly honor Dr. King's legacy. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Everyone's Dreams - D'var Torah for Parashat Va-era - January 16, 2015

What kind of hopes do we hold from one week to the next?
Sometimes we just want to get through the next week by fulfilling all of our usual responsibilities, maintaining as much of a positive attitude as possible, navigating through the small and major challenges that may come our way, and retaining a glimmer of optimism that the coming days may bring some unexpected gift or a welcome opportunity for growth or a new source of satisfaction and even joy.  
   These thoughts and considerations may represent our dreams for the steps immediately ahead of us on our life’s journey. 
In the Torah reading for this week, Moses brought the Israelites notions that were well beyond their expectations and dreams.   
Their bondage in Egypt was the same, week after week.  
It was all about survival from one moment to the next, and not provoking the cruelty of a nearby Egyptian taskmaster. There was little hope for change.   
To those people who were engaged in hard labor, Moses brought a set of promises, dreams of freedom directly from God:

  •  I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians
  •   I will deliver you from their bondage.
  •  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.
  •   I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God
  •   I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal One.

Moses likely expected to see wonder and hope in the eyes of the people after they heard him speak, but the Torah recorded their response in the next verse:  “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.”
Whenever we begin the Martin Luther King, Jr. birthday observance weekend, “having a dream” is very much on my mind, based on the declarations from Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington in 1963. 
To reexamine that dream, I went to see the film “Selma” last night on Dr. King’s actual birthday.   Much has been made about portrayals of President Lyndon Johnson and the involvement of the Jewish community not being quite accurate.  Even if that is the case, “Selma” effectively  zoomed in on the hard work it took to make known the seriousness of the plight of blacks who were denied the right to vote. People around the country accused participants in this movement of provoking the violence of law enforcement officials and others by their public demonstrations.  Dr. King and his partners knew that they couldn’t stop, for if they did, they would never reach their goal.  Instead, they focused “their eyes on the prize” and continued to keep the issue uppermost in the minds of as many Americans as possible.  After the attempts to march in Selma had met with resistance, one change, according to this film, turned the situation around.   THIS IS A SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT!!!   President Johnson told Governor George Wallace that he didn’t want to be seen as supporting a leader who refused to guarantee all of the citizens in his state the possibility of full communal participation.  It was then that Johnson began to openly support the Voting Rights Act, which, in recorded history, was drafted at the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington,  DC.  That exchange reminded me of a scene in the movie 42 which depicted a conversation between Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey and the uncooperative Philadelphia Phillies owner Herb Pennock who had said that his Phillies would refuse to play against the Dodgers if Jackie Robinson made the trip with his team (some of the language has been updated just a bit):
Branch Rickey: You think God likes baseball, Herb?
Herb Pennock: What is that supposed to mean?
Branch Rickey: It means someday you're gonna meet God, and when God inquires as to why you didn't take the field against Robinson in Philadelphia, and you answer that it's because he was Black, it may not be a sufficient reply!
   42 and Selma tell a similar story of a movement that began with the courage of one person or a group of people to bring about change that made society more welcoming and inclusive and tried to truly promote “liberty and justice for all.”
So what about our dreams and hopes?  
What aspirations do we share with people of all races, ethnicities, faiths, nationalities and backgrounds?
Or do people even get to the level of aspirations when their basic needs aren’t met, often due to no fault of their own when they are working hard to provide for themselves and their families?
In the spirit of the 5 promises that Moses proclaimed to the Israelites, I would offer these updated promises that can apply to all of us as we move forward in our lives:
I will free you from the burdens that hold you back from developing your own potential for strength, wisdom, and generosity. 
I will deliver you from people and circumstances that prevent you from realizing at least some of your cherished dreams.
 I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and a helping hand through the support and love that will come to you both from caring strangers and from the most treasured people around you.  
I will take you and link you to other people with whom you can join hands, hearts and minds to work for freedom, justice, equality, and understanding for all.
I will bring you to a land, a place, without hatred, violence and prejudice, a place where all shall sit under their vines and under their fig trees and none shall make them afraid.  I, the Eternal One.
May we make these dreams, these promises real for ourselves and for our fellow human beings through dedication and commitment to heal and help every soul and the entire world. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Hearing Voices of Hope - D'var Torah for Parashat Sh'mot - January 9, 2015

As I have been watching the news over the last few days, and reading columns in the local newspaper, I have been thinking about a summary of the basic teachings of Judaism that comes from rabbinic tradition.  It is contained in the Mishkan T’filah Weekday and Festival Prayerbook, and you have it on your handout.
Our rabbis taught: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses. Micah reduced them to three: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.’’
Isaiah based all the mitzvot upon two of them: “Keep justice and righteousness.”
Amos saw one guiding principle upon which all the six hundred and thirteen are founded: “Seek Me and live.”
Habakkuk expounded the Torah on the basis of a single thought: “The righteous shall live by their faith.”
Akiba taught:  The great principle of the Torah is expressed in the Mitzvah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 
But Ben Azzai found a principle even more fundamental: “This is the story of humanity: when God created us, God made us in the divine image.”
And Hillel summed up the Torah in this maxim: What is hateful to you, do not do to others.  That is the whole Torah - the rest is commentary: you must go and study it.
Why was there an attempt to create such a concise list of basic Jewish values?  I believe that it was an exercise in prioritizing what is essential to Jewish life.   Note that the statements that the rabbis cited are about ethics more than about ritual, although many Jewish observances do express and illustrate our values.
   So Judaism believes in practicing justice, mercy, humility, mutual respect and consideration, righteousness, and seeing and seeking the divine in each other. Those values, taken together, require us to look at all people as part of one human family.   They challenge us to break down barriers and build bridges.  They direct us to open up channels of dialogue when possible.  They lead to the rabbinic declaration that, “When you save one soul, it is as if you have saved the whole world; and when you destroy one soul, it is as if you have destroyed the whole world.”
   The Torah portion for this week finds the Israelites mired in their predicament of bondage in Egypt, working hard under harsh treatment from their Egyptian taskmasters.   They had places to live, they received food to eat, but their lives and the conditions in which they lived and under which they worked were not ideal.  It was so difficult for them that when Moses offered them hope, they couldn’t believe his promises of liberation.  Their notions of the possibility of freedom, equality, engaging in personal decision making, and following their own faith were all but gone.   The opening chapters of Exodus, alongside a portrayal of the power of God, demonstrated how oppression and subjugation of some people under others who possessed temporary power violated basic human decency.  This tale of slavery led to the far-reaching acceptance of all fellow human beings in Exodus 23 as expressed in this verse: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”    The historicity of this experience is not as important as the impression it has left on anyone who sees this passage as sacred scripture.   We are commanded to be open and welcoming, and to overcome the fear of people who are different by creating opportunities for the so-called “stranger” to become a valued partner in community life.
    In the last few days, it is not just the tragic events in and around Paris that have demonstrated a lack of respect for other human beings, where power and ideology trumped basic human decency and mutual consideration.   The recent bombing at the NAACP offices in Colorado Springs didn’t injure anyone, but it was a violation of communal peace that reminded citizens of all backgrounds that respect for property and for the ideas of freedom and equality are fundamental to a civil society.  Our hearts go out to the NAACP and to the citizens of Colorado Springs in the hope that they will understand the need to be partners and neighbors rather than strangers.
And I have that hope as well for citizens of Paris and all around France.   For me, it’s not just about the freedom of speech issue, which is important.  It is about how to respond to those with whom we may vehemently disagree. People who see each other as partners use their words to challenge each other.  For example, as much as I was angry about a notorious family and church of picketers in Topeka, Kansas focusing on me and others with untrue accusations, ridicule and hatred, I always answered them indirectly with words that reflected the values embodied in the reading we shared earlier.  I tried not to make any such accusations in return, but, rather, to state positively what I believe.      
     Those who combine faith with a desire for power and revenge for what they perceive others have said about them or done to them and use violence rather than words in response often twist their own beliefs well beyond their original intention.  When that occurs, potential partners and neighbors become strangers who become enemies who need not be seen as human beings any longer.   This has happened all too many times in human history, and it saddens me that it still happens today, not just in France, or Colorado Springs, but in our own community from time to time. 
    And I have to add, after the murder of hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris today by an associate of the perpetrators of the original attack, we now know the nature of their hatred was as we suspected.  It was focused on all of the people they considered to be their enemies:  some, because of what they did, and others, specifically, Jews, simply because of who they are.  Our hearts go out to the French Jewish community in particular and to the country of France with prayer for some semblance of calm and eventual harmony that can overshadow and dispel hatred.   

   Such actions across the globe and in our own country may make us feel that we have no choice but to despair of the possibility of a human community based on justice, fairness, equality, freedom, fellowship and peace.   We could become like the Israelite slaves, who couldn’t hear, at first, a voice offering them a feeling of hope.    However, we need not be like them, because Judaism teaches us to be optimistic.  It is not that we should wait for a leader like Moses to come, but that we should be leaders ourselves like Moses, who believe in those values that the rabbis cited so long ago as central to making our lives meaningful and complete.     So may we always be open to hearing those voices of hope inside of us, which can guide us to work for cooperation, partnership, and peace.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Prayer for NM CAFe Press Conference on 1/5/2015 for the New Minimum Wage - and for the many communities in the United States that have raised their minimum wage as well

Eternal Creator and Sustainer of us all,
We come to you today in gratitude
For the creativity, for the determination, and for the vision that have led us to this time.
We are grateful for those who arrived at a place of insight over the past year
That enabled them to see that economic issues have a human foundation….
That once voices of people in need are heard,
They should not be ignored or marginalized.
We have heard many voices express concern and fear, as well as hope and respect. 
You are the Oneness that unites and us all, and we call upon Your oneness to bring us together
to overcome conflict
and to engage partnership and cooperation that will engender respect among community members and city leaders, business owners and hard-working employees, all who have a desire for security and a measure of comfort in their lives. 
We thank you for the opportunity not only to feel dignity inside ourselves as we engage in our chosen work,
But to accord dignity to others as a gift, especially those who work with us and for us, to create a fellowship that bears the mark of a sacred covenant.
You are with us, Eternal Spirit of the Universe, as we tread this new path – walk by our side and teach us to continue along this journey with each other to bring joy and satisfaction to all of our citizens who seek only to live and provide for themselves and their families.    
Even in our struggles and disagreements, may we bring blessing to one another – help us make those blessings real in the days and years to come.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Breaking down barriers - message for Temple Beth-El Las Cruces Adelante Newsletter - January 1, 2015

In recent weeks, Hamas leaders in Gaza prevented a group of 12-15 year-olds from taking a trip into Israel and into areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.  The reasoning for canceling the journey was to “protect the culture of our children and our people,” meaning that Hamas did not want these children of Gaza to take part in discussions that might give them a more positive view of Israel.  Each child had lost one parent in Operation Protective Edge during the summer. Yoel Marshak from the Kibbutz Movement, who led the initiative, noted, “These children will one day be the leaders of Gaza and they would have remembered this trip and known that we can live in peace, side by side. The trip was meant to be a big hug for them.”
   When I was exploring the story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers in Genesis Chapters 44 and 45,  I realized that two words were at the center of the narrative.  One was VAYIGASH, which means “and he approached.” In that case, it was Joseph’s brother Judah, who recounted all that he and his brothers had done to follow the requests of this Egyptian leader that they didn’t know was actually their long-lost brother.  Once Judah got close to his brother, both in physical proximity and on a deeper emotional level, he made it possible for Joseph to see that it would be both safe and wise to restore his ties to his family.  Closeness did not mean perfection, but it did lead to a recognition of bonds of kinship that would not again be broken.
   The second word that was central to this passage was “L’HITAPEIK,” “to restrain himself.”  The verse that begins chapter 45 declared that “Joseph was no longer able to restrain himself.”  He had been trying to hold back his conflicted feelings, which included the need he saw to test his brothers to see if they had changed, as well as his desire to re-enter his family circle.  It was only when he allowed his emotions to flow more freely that Joseph was able to complete the process of reconciliation and reunion.
   Joseph can be a role model for us as members of a community and an exemplar for anyone who would seek to build peace among people.   Peace cannot be made from a great emotional distance.  Approaching each other, getting close in some way, is what can build and sustain bridges that can link us together in common cause and shared goals and hopes.  There are times when we may restrain ourselves because we are afraid to reveal too much about ourselves due to a fear of vulnerability.  Those fears can melt away when family and community members reach out to us in a way that engenders honesty, mutual respect and trust.    
   Like his father and uncle before him, Joseph embraced his brothers after years of separation.  May all that we do bring us together as a warm, caring and peaceful community!