Thursday, February 23, 2017

President's Day - Opening Prayer for the Colorado State House February 23, 2017

Our God and the God of all people
God of the strong and God of the weak
God of the distraught and God of the complacent
God of the patriots and God of the dissidents
God of those who have no God

Yesterday was my mother’s 91st birthday.  It also happened to have been the birthday of our nation’s 1st president, George Washington.  This past Monday, our country celebrated President’s Day where we commemorated the leadership, dignity and Vision inspired by both Presidents Washington and Lincoln.

Our First President understood the necessity for us to come together against a common enemy.  He led the fight for our Independence and blazed a trail of Democracy that continues to be an inspiration around the world 241 years later.

Lincoln came to power in the midst of a terrible period of national divisiveness.  He stood up to injustice and bigotry and forced our nation to come to a bloody self-reckoning that almost destroyed our Union. He paid the Ultimate Price for his steadfast belief in Humanity’s embodiment of Divine aspiration. 

My mother was born in Leipzig, Germany – just before Hitler came to power.  She and her parents narrowly escaped the horrors of the Final Solution and came to our country as refugees – I stand here today as a testament to God’s grace and the high ideals for which Washington, Lincoln and so many others fought and died.

On this week when we remember our greatest Presidents we pray that might continue to strive to emulate them and all that they stood for.

We pray for our leaders of the Great State of Colorado that they might work together to legislate and forge new bonds of connectivity with our highest national values.

Guide them as they work, O God – not as partisans, but as partners – transcending pettiness and finding holiness in this august chamber.

Bless all who come to this place:  elected officials, advisors, administrators, those who keep order and those come simply to observe the magic and the messiness of creating laws.

We thank you for the opportunity to make a difference.
We thank you for extraordinary leadership.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Testimony at the State Legislature on Behalf of Abolishing the Death Penalty - February 15, 2017

This afternoon, I will be testifying, along with other clergy and concerned community leaders on behalf of Senate Bill SB17-95 which Abolishes the death penalty in Colorado.  Here is what I will be saying:  

Statement on Capital In Support of 
Abolishing the Death Penalty in Colorado
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel- Denver, CO
February 15, 2017

As a Rabbi, as a Jew, as a person of faith, I am taught to see the holy in every human being.  I believe, with all my heart and soul that God has placed all of us here for a reason – and that reason is to make the world a better place. 

There is evil in this world.  We have seen it – many of us here today have experienced it first hand.  There are bad people in this world.  They commit horrible crimes.  For me, the central issue is surrounding the death penalty revolves not around how we see the most evil elements of society - but how we perceive ourselves. Are we going to allow our fear of crime, our desire for vengeance, our bottom line mentality to govern how we conduct ourselves?  Capital punishment is a quick fix - it may be popular with voters – it may make some people feel that “something is being done” - but ultimately, I believe that it lessens our own humanity when we take the life of another person.

Today you will hear about moral, economic, psychological and legal reasons why the death penalty should be abolished.  These are all valid and important.  But my reasons for opposing it are based on my understanding of myself and all of us as spiritual beings.

Those who have committed atrocities need to be punished.  There are some men and women who, as a result of their crimes, cannot be a part of a civilized society.  But, I firmly believe, one of the prices of being “civilized” is taking on a responsibility to act in a way that is consistent with our own internal holiness.

All religious traditions teach that one day humanity will be judged.  I believe that our judgment will not merely revolve around how we treated the best elements of our society – but how we treated the worst elements of our society.  The price we pay for living in a civilized, moral community is living with the fact that we cannot totally eliminate evil.  But we can assert that we will not allow ourselves to stoop to the level of those who wreak havoc, fear and despair in our lives.  We should not allow ourselves to become like them.

While the Bible certainly makes provisions for Capital punishment, over the centuries, the ancient and modern Rabbis of my tradition have nullified these laws and made it virtually impossible to implement the Death Penalty. 
The only time that the Israeli court system ever instituted the death penalty was in 1962 – when Adolph Eichman  – the architect of the Nazi Final solution – was put to death - and even his execution was highly controversial and is being debated to this day.

In the book of Genesis we learn that we are all created in the Image of God.  There is a spark of holiness inside every human being. All life is holy - even that of the most damaged and evil members of our society. When we take a life - whether that life has committed murder or not - we are diminishing the image of God.  Yes, the murderer has done the same - but the fact that we claim to be a moral society calls us to rise above our desire for vengeance and understand that one act of murder does not make up for another.

Killing human beings can never be justified as a just punishment for who are we to act in God’s stead?

Thank you for your consideration.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

"Love and Legislation:" Invocation for the Colorado State House. February 9, 2017

As a nation and as a State, we’ve been experiencing a great deal of anger and division of late. Demonstrations – here at the Capital and in the streets of our cities have unleashed powerful emotions. It’s been difficult, sometimes, to see how we might find the ability to come together in support of what we hold most dear. Maybe it’s time to look for love in the midst of the anger, frustration and hatred.
Today is February 9th. In case any of us here this morning forgot, in just 5 days it will be Valentine’s day. You still have time to buy a card for that special someone in your life…..but the clock is ticking.
Some here today – the more cynical among us - might think that a day set aside to focus on love is a ploy to sell chocolate and flowers. And they may be right. After all, shouldn’t we show our love every day? Shouldn’t we be grateful for the laughter and the tears, the kisses and caresses, the support and the joy, the passion and the playfulness we share that makes each day seem brighter than the one before? The love that we give and receive makes us better human beings…….
But we aren’t always aware, are we? We are forgetful. We are creatures of habit. We take the people around us for granted and we expect them to love us nonetheless. And the crazy thing about it is that they do. Most of the time….
Let us pray.
Dear God,
Our diverse traditions teach us that Your essence is love. You love us –otherwise why would you tolerate us?
If You did not love us, how would you be able to stand idly by while we diminish Your image by despoiling your beautiful world with toxicity and waste?
If You did not love us, how could You let us live when we ignore the suffering of the innocents in our streets or the violence that is daily fare for women and children; for those targeted for hate because of the color of their skin, their birthplace, who they love or how they love?
If You did not love us, you would not have given us a conscience that wakes us from our slumber and forces us to realize our weakness, our frailty, our greed and our hubris.
Help us to love You - O God of Love. Help us to love one another – so much so that we might rise above the pettiness and partisanship that all too often places stumbling blocks in the path of social change.
Help us to live so that we see that our very ability to love is a gift.
Bless these legislators O God. Help them to love one another. Help them to love their compassion and their quarrels. Help then to love the differences and the moments of clarity that occur when they do Your sacred work and help to perfect our world.
On this Valentines day – may we all find ways to rejoice in the love that makes our lives complete.
It takes time to love – it takes patience. Sometime it even takes chocolate and flowers.
But sometimes, our love makes Your love a reality.
May it be so today.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Speaking Truth to Power: Moses, Pharaoh and Executive Orders. February 3, 2017 – Parashat Bo

This week’s Parasha, Bo, contains the last 3 of the ten plagues: Locusts, Darkness, Slaying of the 1st Born.  But the plagues themselves, as powerful as they are, take a back seat to the dramatic confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh.  With each successive plague, Moses speaks truth to power and becomes more insistent that Pharaoh free the Israelites. Pharaoh, in turn becomes more intransigent.
Now there are some sticky theological issues in our parasha:  particularly the fact that God “hardens Pharaoh’s heart” so that the deck is stacked against him.  It is very clear that, although the dialogue takes place between Moses and Pharaoh, it is really a standoff between God and the King of Egypt who was perceived to be a god.  The fight that takes place therefore, is as much a cautionary tale against idolatry as it is a story about good triumphing over evil.

One of the key questions that must be pondered when looking at the story of Moses is why he feels compelled to leave a life of comfort in Pharaoh’s court and set out on the path of leadership.  We read in the beginning chapters of Exodus how Moses’ consciousness was awakened when he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave.  The text reads (Exodus 2:11-12)

“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out among his kinfolk and observed their burdens; and he saw and Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man – one of his brothers.  He looked all around him, and when he saw that there was no man, he struck the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.”

There is a commentary on the words: “He looked all around him and saw that there was no man…”.  The rabbis asked what this means.  Was he making sure that there were no witnesses so he could get away with his act?  Or was something else going on?  One school of thought teaches that Moses realized that, if he didn’t act to prevent this act of brutality, no one else would.  He was called by circumstances to stand up and act – he had no choice.

Throughout his life, a key aspect of Moses’ character is that he speaks out when he sees injustice.  He challenges God on several occasions when God is so angry with the Israelites that God wants to destroy them all and start over again.  Moses convinces God not to do so.  There are also times when Moses confronts his people with anger and chastisement. 

Our prophets received the mantle of leadership from Moses.  Our prophetic texts are filled with recrimination.  The role of the prophet is to call out inequities, falsehoods and corruption whenever they appear.  The prophets were independent of political affiliation.  They were God’s voice in a world that was increasingly corrupt and they spoke out when leaders abused their power and their people.

Of course, we no longer live in a prophetic age.  And yet, the Torah teaches us that, just as the prophets received the mantle of leadership from Moses, we, too are called - when we see injustice- that we have no choice but to speak out.  In particular, the commandment “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” appears no less than 36 times in the Torah.  Judaism has both inherited and passed along to each successive generation the call to take action against injustice.  We have a long tradition of activism.  In our nation, Jews have been on the front lines of the battles for Civil and Voting Rights, worker’s rights, the Women’s Movement, anti- War Protests, Environmentalism and many, many other movements for social change.

It is for this reason that so many national Jewish organizations including all branches of the Reform Movement, The Anti-Defamation League, The Movement for Conservative Judaism, American Jewish World Service, HIAS, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America; as well the Jewish Community Relations Council here in Denver, and many congregations including the lay and professional leadership of Temple Emanuel have spoken out against the recent Presidential Executive Order on Refugees and Immigration that was enacted this past week.  In the document that we circulated within our community yesterday we wrote the following:

We, the lay and professional leadership of Temple Emanuel in Denver, CO, believe that it is imperative that our nation be secure and that all our citizens live without fear and in peace. We also acknowledge that the sad reality of terrorism and brutality experienced over the past two and a half decades has taught us that we must be ever-vigilant as we protect our nation.

At the same time, we also believe in human dignity and basic values. Our Torah teaches that all people are created in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26-27). Real dangers arise when entire groups of people are set apart and identified as potential threats simply because of their religious beliefs and countries of origin. It is for this reason that we join with the leadership of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and many other national Jewish organizations, as well as the Colorado Jewish Community Relations Council, in condemning the recent Presidential Executive Order that that bans citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.”

After the letter was sent I received many responses from members of the congregation.  The overwhelming majority were supportive, yet a number of responses were critical of the idea of the congregation and its leadership making a statement about something that was perceived to be “political.”  Most people who wrote were concerned that we were getting involved in an area that had nothing to do with the Synagogue.  The purpose of the congregation is to provide spiritual guidance and Jewish tradition, they wrote.  We should stay out of politics and stop attacking the president.  Others felt that our statement was misguided because President Trump is doing what he feels is correct in keeping our country safe.  If it takes 90 days to review policies to make sure that no terrorists enter our country, and, during those 90 days, some people might be inconvenienced, it’s a small price to pay for protecting our nation.

In regards to so-called “politics” from the Bema, I fully agree that political language should not be heard in the sanctuary.  But this is not political, it is moral.  To single out 7 Muslim countries while ignoring others sends a dangerous message to both the world and to ourselves.  As I understand it, of the millions of refugees who are fleeing the absolute hell of Syria, Iraq and North Africa, less than 10,000 a year were permitted into the United States under recent policy.  Every single refugee who was admitted underwent a rigorous and thorough vetting process by the Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Naturalization Services.  Furthermore, while we, as a nation, have had to deal with incidents of terror on our soil – many of which were committed by men and women who came under the sway of Islamic Fundamentalism - not one act of terror was successfully committed by a Syrian refugee.  Most were radicalized here in the United States.  In addition, of the Muslim terrorists who were successful in carrying out the attacks on September 11, 2001, most of them came from Saudi Arabia – one of the countries excluded from this Executive order.

As Jews, we know all too well the consequences of policies that ban refugees from the shores of our nation.  On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. Most were German citizens, some were from Eastern Europe, and a few were officially "stateless."  These refugees were fleeing certain death and they were refused entry into Cuba and the United States.  Eventually, they were forced to return to Germany where they all perished in the Nazi death machine.

For me, it’s also personal.  My mother was born in Leipzig Germany.  She and my grandparents lived through Krystalnacht the “Night of Broken Glass” – November 9th, 1938 – when Hitler’s armed thugs marched through the streets of Germany and Austria, burning synagogues, looting stores and arresting thousands of Jewish men.  My mother and Grandparents were among the lucky few who were able to flee in the weeks following that fateful night that marked the beginning of Hitler’s Final Solution.  They only reason that they were able to obtain a visa to our country was because they had Russian, not German passports and the Russian quota for immigrants still had room since no one was able to leave the Soviet Union at that time.

Our nation has a proud history of welcoming those fleeing oppression and persecution.  When we turn our back on those in need we are not only denying their request for help, we are also denying the highest values upon which our nation was built.

Another troubling aspect of this ban is that, for the first time in a long time, our nation is on record singling out one particular religious tradition- Islam – from entering our shores.  To paint all of Islam with a single brush is not only immoral, it is dangerous.  It feeds the fires of extremism here and abroad.

Those of us who oppose this ban are speaking out – not as a political tactic, but in response to a moral imperative that is essential to our essence as Jews.  Like Moses, we are called to speak truth to power when we see our values being trampled.  Silence is complicity.  If we do not speak out now, then when CAN we speak out?

As such, I will be participating tomorrow afternoon – on Shabbat – in a rally at Civic Plaza – alongside colleagues from the Interfaith Alliance of Denver.  As a rule, I usually refrain from participating in public events on Shabbat, but this cause is too important for me to remain silent.  Like Frederick Douglas and Abraham Joshua Heschel, I will be praying with my feet on Civic Plaza tomorrow afternoon.  I urge you to join with me in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.

For those who may be uncomfortable with the thought of their rabbi participating in a public demonstration that may be perceived as hostile to our President, I understand.  But I am not participating for partisan or political reasons.  I will march and I will let my voice be heard when my Jewish values are being attacked.  I would be happy to sit down and talk with anyone of you who feel that I am misguided.  We can agree to disagree.

My Dear Friends, so much of our nation is divided along political lines.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to live together when politics become personal.  We need to move beyond the election and find ways of seeing the human and the holy in one another.  On this Shabbat when we tell the story of our liberation as a people, let us also work to liberate ourselves from the polarization that has gripped our nation.

Shabbat Shalom.