Sunday, May 5, 2019

“My Heart Is In The East:”



Dear Friends,

I am writing you this message while on a ship traveling on the Iberian Peninsula. I am participating as a faculty member on a unique Jewish Music Cruise sponsored by the World Union For Progressive Judaism.  During the course of our journey we will be visiting Jewish Communities from Portugal to Spain. I will be performing music and teaching while aboard ship.  

While Sue and I are enjoying the many amazing experiences on our journey, news from around the world makes it difficult to focus on our surroundings.  Over the past two days over 600 rockets have been launched from Gaza into Southern Israel. The IDF has responded by seeking to root out and eliminate the Hamas terrorists who are responsible. As I write these words, we have learned that four Israelis have been killed in unprovoked attacks.  Twenty two Palestinians have died and there have been many injured on both sides. These numbers will surely increase. Already the propaganda wheels have been churning. News reports have been focusing on the damage inflicted on the Palestinians. Israeli casualties are but a footnote. Little has been said about the fact that this was an unprovoked attack upon civilians that demanded a forceful response.

This Thursday, I will be teaching a class onboard the ship about the Hebrew Poetry of two medieval writers - Yehuda Halevi and Solomon Ibn Gabirol. One of Halevi’s most famous works begins with the words:  “My Heart is in the East, and I am in the uttermost ends of the West.” This poem, written in 12th Century Spain, encapsulates both the longing for and the love that our people have expressed towards the Land of Israel. No matter where we live - in Denver, in Spain, in Ramat HaNegev (our partnership community in Israel that is directly in the line of fire), or any other corner of the world - Jews have always turned our hearts towards our homeland. The words of this poem echo in my consciousness as I travel in the footsteps of the poet and listen to the news of this latest outrage.

Regardless of our feelings about the current political climate, we must commit ourselves to supporting and caring for our brothers and sisters in Israel. Now is a time for public and vocal support of the legitimate actions of the IDF as they act to protect their citizens. The words of Halevi are as profound today as they were 900 years ago. Let us pray for peace. Let us strive to provide a sense of balance as we turn our hearts towards Jerusalem.

I look forward to seeing you all upon my return,

L’Shalom, 

Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Friday, April 26, 2019

Crumbs and Rememberance - Pesach Yizkor, 2019


Pesach Yizkor – April 6, 2019
Rabbi Joe Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO

Pesach always has been my favorite holiday. No – I don’t like eating matzah.  By the end the 4th day, I usually find myself dreaming about pizza and pasta. What is most special about pesach is not merely gastronomical (although I do love Green Chile Matzah Balls – something I picked up after 14 years in New Mexico).  Pesach is about memory.  It’s about tradition – the way we come together, tell an ancient story about rebirth and renewal and simultaneously holding on to ancient traditions that bind us together.  Pesach is as much about family recipes, personalities around the Seder table, love and laughter as it is about the powerful story of redemption and freedom that we retell every year.

But, as we grow older, we realize that Pesach – and other important occasions as well – are also about loss.  It’s impossible for me to go to or lead a Seder without remembering my parents, grandparents and dear family friends who used to sing, laugh, cook for us and eat with us – and who now exist only in fond and fading memories.  When I sing Chad Gadya, for example, it is the voice of my father who guides me.  When I cook Chicken soup for the Seder, I try to make it taste like my Grandmother used to make it – and I always fall short.  And, inevitably it hits me: my memories of pesach propel me to ensure that I create new memories for my children, family and friends, so that they, too can share the legacy of love and caring that shape their connection to Judaism and tradition.

There comes a time in each of our lives when we are suddenly thrust into awareness that a baton has been passed – that we are the ones responsible for telling the story to the next generation – the story that was told to us by our parents and grandparents – and that they, in turn, inherited from those who came before them.

Sometimes this awareness comes gradually.  Other times it is sudden, jolting and disruptive. This past week, as I was preparing to host my own Seder, for some reason, I was suddenly transported to the day that I learned that my father died. It was November, 2011.  My phone rang.  My sister, Nina was calling.  I picked up the phone and heard the words: “Daddy’s gone.” At that moment, everything changed. I remember telling someone: “I need to go home – my father just died.”

Saying those words, “My Father just died,” seemed surreal.  Impossible. I didn’t cry right away – although many tears were shed in the days and weeks that followed. I managed to hold it together and drive home – although, in hindsight, I probably should not have gotten behind the wheel. I remember looking at other people and thinking to myself: “These people are oblivious. They are going about their daily lives. They are experiencing joys and frustrations, but they still have a father – I don’t.”

Everything changed at that moment.

But the truth is, we have no idea what traumas and tragedies people are experiencing at any given moment. Each person’s loss is unique – but it is also universal. Those of us who have been blessed with relatively painless lives cannot conceive of others’ suffering until we are suddenly thrust into the abyss of loss. Most of us have been there.  Most of us were not prepared. Maybe that’s yet another function of Pesach. The Book of Exodus teaches us that the Israelites left Egypt in haste – eating Matzah because there was no time for bread dough to rise.  Matzah is not only the bread of affliction, it is also the bread of overnight transformation. On the eve of the Exodus, our ancient ancestors were suddenly thrust into a new reality.  They had little, if any time to prepare.  Matzah is messy – each year when we open our haggadot, the stale crumbs of last year’s Seder fall into our hands. Each crumb can be seen as a memory. Each speck of last year’s festivities remind us of just how fragile life is. Love and loss are intertwined. Memories, like matza crumbs, get nestled into the nooks and crannies of our life-stories and appear, without warning, when we least expect them. Sometimes they are welcome guests. Other times, they force us to relive the traumas that reshaped our lives in an instant.

When someone precious is taken away from us, we are bequeathed with both a gift and a responsibility. The gift, as painful as it can be to receive, is the opportunity to cherish the memories and the love that has been bestowed upon us. The responsibility is to share them with others and ensure that they will be passed on to the next generation.

On Pesach we celebrate rebirth and renewal. We give thanks for new beginnings and new life – even as we feel the pangs of our loss.
I want to conclude with a poem that I wrote about my father, shortly before he died.


My Father Has Hazel Eyes
My Father has hazel eyes.
I’d like to think when he was younger
He could see a world of wonders
With an emerald sheen
In between
The hardship and the hope
The need to fight or cope
With a panoply of lies.

My father’s skin is smooth
Though easily bruised.
He stares into a distant
Seeing. Not seeing.
Being .  Not being.
Perhaps recalling for an instant
A time
When legs and lips and loins competing
Jingling pocket sounds completing
A trajectory of mine.

My father, always singing
(Telling me that he was there).
With ancient rhythms mingling
Through our home and in the air.
His laughter pierced the sadness
His anger deep below
His love was filled with gladness
And his heart did overflow
His hopes lay in his offspring
And his dreams were locked up tight
With every day an offering
Whistling praises in the night.

My father’s voice is gone now
Like a winter’s lawn now
Or a debt repaid
Or a bed unmade
Waiting to be stripped
A hand that’s lost its grip
On the world that spins around him
Or the people that surround him
Preparing their goodbyes.

My son has hazel eyes.
He sees with intuition,
A clarity of vision
Searching hard for things that matter
Amidst the riffraff and the chatter
In the greenish hues of spring
In the songs he loves to sing
And every day a new surprise.

Chag Sameach

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Tragedy and Transcendence: Opening Prayer for the CO State House in a Time of Holiness and Horror


Our God and God of all people:

This Friday night, Jews around the world will tell the ancient story of Passover.  We will gather around our seder tables and experience the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom and redemption. On Easter Sunday, Christians will celebrate the potential to be reborn with hope and faith.

This is a sacred time – when we are reminded of both the fragility of life and the potential for renewal and redemption. Now should be a period of gratitude and introspection that helps us to see the best in all of humanity.

And yet, in the midst of these festivals of holiness and hope, over the past two days our state was suddenly and brutally thrust into a climate of terror and dread brought about by a heartbreakingly disturbed young woman who played out her demons as we anticipated the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

The juxtaposition of the anticipation of these two sacred festivals with the ugliness and paralysis of potential violence reminds us just how little progress has occurred in the years since our innocence was shattered on April 20th, 1999. We have become numb to the horrors of violence brought about by each new tragedy. For a parent to have to tell their child that it is too dangerous to go to school is an obscenity and anathema to the values that are embodied in this sacred chamber.

When messages of rebirth and redemption are overshadowed by fear, we must take stock in who we are and who we are becoming. We can try to write off each tragic incident as distinct and separate, but taken in an aggregate we have no choice but to acknowledge that there is a sickness in our nation that cannot be ignored. Whether it is caused by easy access to weapons of destruction or the political divisions that paralyze us, it is essential that we come together to bring about change – to strive to see the veracity and sanctity of all humanity – even if we disagree. If the deaths of innocents are not enough to move us to action, then what have we become?

May the messages of hope and rebirth symbolized by both Passover and Easter motivate all of us to see the holiness infused in every soul. As we anticipate this painful anniversary, may we be inspired to use every means at our disposal to ensure that the hopelessness and despair that we have been feeling these past two days will be replaced by a sacred determination to bring about healing and change.  Only then will we be able to ensure that we are doing God’s work on earth.

Amen




Friday, April 12, 2019

My remarks at the Religious Freedom Day Event at the CO State Capital - April 12, 2019


Our God and the God of all people:
God of the rich, and God of the poor;
God of the strong and God of the weak;
God of the faithful and God of those who have no God.
We come here today – from many different faith traditions – to celebrate the beauty of diversity and the freedom to proclaim, celebrate and practice our faith traditions without fear.
Our nation was built on a foundation of both tolerance and hope.  The immigrants and refugees who, in the past came to this country – and those who strive to follow in their footsteps today – all too often were driven to our shores out of desperation and with a vision of hope for a better world.
We also know that others were brought here in captivity in order to sustain a system of profit-making built on the backs of slave labor.
Our past is checkered.
There have been times when our doors were closed to outsiders.
There have been times when the ugliness of bigotry and prejudice threatened the very values upon which our constitution was framed.
In times of darkness and in times of hope, our nation’s strength has always been found in the twin premises of diversity and openness.
Let our prayers and supplications ascend – not only to the heavens, but also to all who challenge the freedoms that are the bedrock of our civilization:
·        The freedom to worship in safety;
·        The freedom to pass on our values to the next generation;
·        The freedom to serve those less fortunate than ourselves;
·        The freedom to proudly proclaim our allegiance to both our God and our Country without fear
As we gather today to celebrate religious freedom, let us also remember just how fragile and precious our freedoms truly are. We call you by many names.  We pray in different voices – but we are linked together in a chain of faith.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in Your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer.
AMEN



Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Our Budget Reflects Our Values: Invocation for the CO State House - April 4, 2019


Our God and God of all people:

On this sacred day – these legislators are focused on the difficult task of approving a $32 Billion budget for our beautiful State of Colorado.   While many perceive the budgeting process as a tedious wrangling of numbers from one column to another, there is another perspective.  Instead of seeing columns, figures and numbers, I humbly suggest that we also consider the fact that each dollar allocated can be an opportunity to bring about change and instill hope in the lives of all too many of our citizens whose capacity for wonder is compromised by the brutal struggle for daily existence.

Our budgets reflect our values.

Our values color our vision of the world around us.

Our vision determines the way we fulfill the sacred responsibilities that have been entrusted to us – as legislators, citizens and servants of a God who holds us to high standards of compassion and cooperation.

On this day of deliberation, let us pray that instead of numbers, these lawmakers might see faces of the men, women and children who are  affected by each column in the balance sheet and each line item that is added or subtracted before the final results are tallied.

At the end of this day, may all of these dedicated public servants be able to find peace in the knowledge they have done all that they could  to make our world, our state, our neighborhoods, our homes – ourselves – just a little bit better.

May politics and pride be no stumbling block to the achievement of the shared goal of working to perfect this all-too imperfect world.

God, we thank you for the opportunities You have given us to make a difference.  May we continue to go and grow from strength to strength.
AMEN


Saturday, March 16, 2019

Remarks at the Solidarity Vigil at the Denver Islamic Center Following the Shooting in New Zealand

Our God and God of all Humanity. 

We come here today to express our grief in the aftermath of the tragic and horrific act of terror that took place less than 48 hours ago in Christchurch, NZ. 

Our hearts are broken as we think about the violence and hatred that stole away the lives of at least 50 precious souls who did nothing other than come to a sacred house of prayer to worship on their holiest day.  We grieve with their spouses and parents, their children, family and friends who will have to deal  with this senseless act of violence and terror for the rest of their lives. 

For Members of the Jewish community, today is also a holy day. We have come here-some who have walked long distances in observance of the Shabbat- because we know the pain, the fear, the anguish of being targeted. 

Four and a half months ago, our synagogue- Temple Emanuel- was filled to overflowing - just as this holy Mazjid is also filled- with people of every faith, skin color and creed. The aftermath of the tragedy in Pittsburgh-showed members of the Jewish community that we are bound together with our sisters and brothers in the Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist and every other religious tradition in solidarity as we confront the evil of racism and intolerance. 

We pray that the God of Abraham and Ishmael, of Moses and Muhammad (Peace be upon him), of Jesus and Buddha of everyone who sees the holiness implanted with all humanity might inspire every human heart with compassion and determination to end our potential for hurt and see the good within all of us. 
We come together in peace. 
We come together in love. 
We pray that our next gathering will not be the result of violence- but a promise of hope.
עושה שלום בימרומיו, הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל יושבי תבל
May the One who makes peace in places far beyond our understanding, send peace to us and all humankind -and let us say, amen.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Urgency of the Halfway: Opening Prayer for the Colorado State House

The Bible teaches that Moses lived to be 120 years old. This May, I will be celebrating my 60th birthday. If I strive to be like Moses – I will have lived half of my life when I celebrate this milestone of 6 decades on earth. Modern medicine notwithstanding, the odds of replicating Moses’ longevity and strength are slim to none. Nonetheless, I’d like to think that I have a few more good years ahead of me.

At such a liminal moment, it is impossible not to think about two different, yet complimentary ideas: longevity and productivity. 

There are times in all our lives when we are confronted with a realization that many, if not most of our goals, hopes, dreams and visions no longer lie in some fuzzy future, but rather they become the province of the past and the vision of a very real present. They can taunt us with an unwelcome awareness of urgency – as though the lengthy path on which we have traveled suddenly transforms – becoming increasingly rocky – our ascent grows steeper as the summit draws near. And if we try to retrace our steps to see how far we have come; when we comprehend how little time and space lie in front of us, we suddenly realize that the end is now closer than the beginning.  We marvel both at how quickly the days are passing and how often we spurned the precious hours afforded us to complete our treasured tasks.

This morning, we come together in this sacred place at the half-way point of our legislative session.  We marvel at the passage of time while simultaneously feeling the anxiety of the layers of unfinished business that loom in front of us.  In a world that all too often demands unyielding perfection from its leaders, there is little, if any, margin for error.  Words of condemnation come easy in political parlance.  But as hard as we are on our colleagues, we are even more merciless on ourselves.  Those who have been chosen to serve feel the burden of answering the clarion call of the people:  to make a difference; to change the unchangeable; to fix the flaws in our laws, fate of our state and the holes in our souls.  And yet, the realities of time and space force us to acknowledge that we cannot complete every task.

And so we pray:

Dear God, You  created us with imperfections.  Watch over all who serve in this chamber:  the legislators and the lawyers, the captains and clerks; the interns and the innovators.  Give them both the strength to pursue the task of governance, and the patience to accept that there is always more to accomplish than is humanly possible.  Protect the souls of your servants who are exposed to the harshness to human expectation.  Help them to support one another –even in the heat of debate and disagreement.  Let any conflict that arises be for the sake of our Great State of Colorado and teach us to quickly forgive and forget the sting of slogans and slights that are thrown about in the messy process of  crafting legislation.   As the end of this session looms ever larger in the forefront of our consciousness, may every person here become reconciled to the sacred necessity for compromise and communion.

We thank You for the ability to make a difference.  We see You in the passion of our colleagues.  We seek Your presence in our daily lives.  AMEN

Monday, February 11, 2019

Thoughts on Representative Omar’s AIPAC Comments.


Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) recently was caught up in a firestorm of controversy when she tweeted remarks that were critical of AIPAC and the State of Israel. That is her right to do. And yet, many people (including me) believe that she crossed a line when she insinuated that AIPAC “buys” elected official with donations and that we need to “follow the Benjamins” to understand the Israel Lobby's considerable clout in Washington. This was not the first time that the Minnesota Congresswoman has been called out for controversial anti-Israel and potentially anti-Semitic comments. Social media sites have been flooded with both denunciations and defenses of her words.

While I do not share Ms. Omar’s positions in regard to Israel and AIPAC, I will defend her right to criticize. But in this case, she has gone too far. Her use of medieval anti-Semitic canards about Jews, money and dual loyalty have no place in US political discourse and are a great source of concern to me and many others in the American Jewish Community. 

To her credit, Rep Omar – after being rebuked from both sides of the political aisle - has offered an apology for her insensitivity and stated that she is grateful to those who pointed out the history of the bigoted tropes she referenced in her hurtful tweets. I have many friends in Minnesota who are leaders of the Jewish community and, up until this point, have tolerated her and believe that she is not an enemy. They are looking forward to a frank and intense dialogue in the wake of her insensitive  comments and subsequent apology. I look forward to hearing more from them about her desire and ability to learn and grow.

Current political conflagrations aside, the Omar controversy and the massive response it has generated has exposed ugliness from multiple sources. The growing anti-Semitism from the Far Left has been well documented. The disturbing convergence of intersectionality and anti-Israel rhetoric has made it difficult for those who are both proud Zionists and supporters of a centrist or center-left agenda to find their place. The recent calls for BDS[i], coupled with attacks on Israel, Zionism, and Jewish supporters at protest rallies around the country have instilled a sense of unease among many Jews who feel that their support of a just, Democratic and secure Jewish State is not welcome by their former peers. In addition, a new generation of young Jews are disillusioned by what they perceive to be out-dated knee-jerk support of Israel. Their anger and apathy are perfect targets for anti-Zionist propaganda.

The Far Right has also been strengthened by the tone set from the highest offices in our land. Racist language is commonplace. Islamophobia is rampant. Careless and incendiary missives on social media have emboldened angry bigots. When immigrants and Muslims are demonized, the Jews are never far behind. The horrific tragedy of the slaughter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh can be directly traced to a feeling of empowerment by those who, until recently, have lived in the shadows of society. It is both ironic and frightening that the language of the Far Right and the Extreme Left is eerily similar when it comes to demonizing both Zionism, the Jewish people and all who don’t fit into a pre-conceived notion of a White Christian America that does not exist.

In regard to criticizing the State of Israel, let me be very clear. There are many reasons to be upset about the current Israeli government. Prime Minister Netanyahu has used fear-mongering, protectionism and racist tactics to hold on to power. His Far-Right coalition partners have demonized Liberal Judaism and alienated many in the American Jewish Community. In addition, his apparent abandonment of the Peace Process in favor of isolating and ignoring the Palestinian people’s legitimate desire for a homeland has led to increased tensions, conflict and war. 

But that is only half of the complex equation of the modern State of Israel. The Jewish State faces multiple relentless foes who are determined to destroy her through any means possible. Over the past 71 years, Israel has had no choice but to defend herself – and she has paid dearly in lives lost and ruined. Peace seems far away from the realm of possibility. As a result, the Israeli Left is a shadow of its former self. It is easy for me to be critical from my position of safety and comfort in Denver, CO. It is quite another thing to live every day with the awareness that it is only through military power and strategic alliances – particularly with the United States – that Israel can survive.

In this era of sound-bite diplomacy, it is vitally important for all of us to look deeply at how we are both manipulated by and participate in the usage of salacious and provocative language. There are times – such as the case of Rep. Omar – when we must speak out and condemn blatant falsehoods. But, as I have learned over the years, it is as – if not more important to teach – by words and deeds – our values of inclusivity, social justice and Tikkun[ii].

It is my prayer that Rep Omar and the critics on both the Right and the Left might attempt to learn more about the complexity of the Middle East before they condemn. In this way, the suffering on all sides might be lessened.




[i] Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (against Israel).
[ii] Repairing the world.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Searching For God in the Legislature - Opening Prayer at the CO State House - February 7, 2019


Our God and God of all people:
God of the rich and God of the poor.
God of the haves and God of the hopeless.
God of the frightened and God of the fearless.
God of our certainties and God of our doubts…..
Throughout the Centuries men and women have sought your presence.  They have asked:   Where are You, God?
Some of us can find You in our churches, synagogues, mosques and Temples.
Some of us can feel Your presence in our sacred halls of governance.
Some of us catch glimpses of Your caring in the flotsam and jetsam of our daily lives:
·        in the faces of our loved ones
·        in the beauty of art and music
·        in the ever-changing majesty of the mountains that stir us with reflections of both immanence and transcendence
·        in the hopes of those who have sent these elected officials to sit in these assigned seats
·        Even in the scribbled margins of the pages stacked neatly on these desks.....You are here - now…If we but look with intention
You are present in moments of supreme Joy.
We long for You in times of shock and sorrow
We find You in our certainty and even in our doubts
Some of us ask if You are necessary.
·        Some deny Your existence – and yet live lives filled with meaning, purpose and value.
·        And others claim to know You intimately – to represent You - but whose actions and prejudices make a mockery of Your holiness.
Throughout history, we have looked to You to provide hope, courage and compassion for all Your creatures.
On this day of deliberation, we pray that those who seek meaning and purpose in their lives and through their work will find you in the potential to make a difference in their actions.
At this moment filled with possibility, may Your presence guide even those who do not seek You.
We pray that you might be present to those who labor on behalf of our community.
We pray that You might be found in the relationships that are forged within these chambers.
Thank you for all Your blessings.
AMEN.


Remarks at the first "Faithful Tuesday" at the Colorado State Capital

Yesterday, I spoke at the first of what will be weekly gatherings at the Colorado State Capital.  Entitled "Faithful Tuesdays," these will consist of leaders of Colorado Faith Communities coming together to pray for, advocate on behalf of and address vitally important imbalances in our State. This interfaith effort is sponsored by a wide variety of faith organizations and communities.  Here is what I said about the issue of creating a "Moral Economy."  
For more information about "Faithful Tuesdays," click here.

As people of faith we see the world from the prism of relationships.  This means that we believe the following:

·    We are created in the image of a benevolent creator
·    We have free will
·    We live in community

All of our lives are connected and, as a result:

·    We are responsible for one another
·    Our responsibility does not end at the doorsteps of our homes, our places of worship or the voting booth

Our lives are intertwined – regardless of faith, race, gender, sexuality, political affiliation or creed.  As such, we are obligated to work for a society that is just, moral and equitable.

·    To state that we are people of faith means that we are obligated to see the holiness in every person created in the image of God.
·    To state that we are people of faith means that we are compelled and commanded to speak out when we see injustice.
·    To state that we are people of faith means that we cannot be silent when we see inequities in housing, employment, wages, healthcare, childcare and a myriad of other ills that plague our cities, states and nation.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 16, verse 20, we find the Divine injunction:  Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice shall you pursue.  In my tradition, the ancient Rabbis asked the question:  Why is the word for “Justice” repeated twice?  One of the answers is to remind us that are many kinds of justice that need to be addressed. Some issues are beyond our control.  That does not mean that we cannot and should not attempt to rectify them. Economic injustices are the easiest to address because they are both caused by humans and can be solved by just and fair laws, practices and righteous indignation. The concept of a Moral Economy means that we have a responsibility to create an economic system that not only provides for growth and sustenance, but that also ensures that no one is excluded from sharing in the bounty of our society.

We come here today, on this first “Faithful Tuesday” not to demand change – but to state that we are willing and dedicated partners with people of good faith. We will work together to shine a light on the imbalances in our society. We will also support all efforts to bring balance and equality to the Great State of Colorado.

We are commanded by our Creator to partner with the Divine and one another to bring about change. The responsibility for making a difference does not begin and end with our elected officials – each of us must do our part.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Mishpatim and the Death Penalty


Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
February 1, 2019

In this weeks’ Torah portion, Mishpatim, we are presented with laws about everything from:
·        The treatment of slaves,
·        The return of lost property,
·        Civil penalties for disputes,
·        Festival observance
·        Conquering the Land of Canaan
·        Dietary Laws
·        Sacrifices
We also learn, for the first time, that the Death Penalty can be levied in cases of:
·        Pre-meditated murder,
·        Matricide or Patricide, Kidnapping,
·        Insulting a parent,
·        Allowing an ox to gore another person
·        Bestiality
Tonight, I want to talk about how we, as a nation, view punishment – in particular, Capital punishment – the Death Penalty
Since our State Legislature will soon be taking up a bill to abolish the Death Penalty, it is an appropriate time to look at the issues surrounding Capital Punishment.  Let’s take a moment and talk about the Penal system in general:   Why and how do we punish?  What are the goals of having a prison system?
  • ·        Is it to protect society?
  • ·        Is it to provide justice to the victims?
  • ·        Is it to deter crime?

Each situation is different.  As such, our justice system provides us with a wide variety of tools and options:  from monetary fines to community service, to prison time, to the ultimate punishment – the death penalty.
Our constitution guarantees against “Cruel and unusual punishment” so the sentencing given to the guilty must not be excessive or out of the ordinary.
I am opposed to the death penalty.  I find it immoral, inhumane and dangerous.
5 years ago, Reverend Jim Ryan and I wrote an op-ed [i]in response to then Governor Hickenlooper’s decision to stay the execution of the notorious murderer, Nathan Dunlap. We said, in part:
For us, as men of God and leaders of our congregations of Colorado faithful, it is deeply troubling that our state may move forward with the execution of Nathan Dunlap. Our calling to serve God involves a responsibility to seek justice, and we must be especially mindful of our role in supporting the poor and the weak, while advocating for fairness for all. Despite his terrible crime and the suffering he caused, we pray that Mr. Dunlap will receive executive clemency and will serve his life in prison without the possibility of parole.
I am not opposed to just punishment, or tough standards for violent and murderous criminals.  I am opposed to the death penalty – not because of what it does to the guilty – but what it does to all of us – you and me – here today and throughout our nation.
Ours is a society in which violence is becoming so commonplace that the threshold for events which shock, which give us pause, which cause us to cry out in horror at the inhumanity of humanity is constantly on the rise.
Murder is commonplace - both on our streets, in our homes, and in our prisons. 
The death penalty, some might argue, is a deterrent -  a way to show that we are in control of the most dangerous elements in our society.  It is not.
The death penalty, some might argue, is the ultimate form of justice and punishment at our disposal.  It is not.
You see, I do not understand how one act of violence can possibly be a moral punishment for another act of violence.
We live in a violent society.  Everywhere we look  in the media – in the newspapers, on television,  on the internet we are confronted with evidence of human brutality.  This violence is reinforced through the ways that we entertain ourselves – the films, television shows, books and video games that grow more violent every day.
Compounding this phenomenon is the fact there is very little left today that is shocking.
Rabbi Harold Kushner writes the following:
"Once, there was magic and a sense of mystery in our lives.  Once (in our childhood and in the childhood of the human race) there were places that were unlike all other places, and moments in time that were different from ordinary time.  They added color, texture, and excitement to our lives.  But today no place is off limits to human ingenuity.  WE have become so good at unraveling mysteries that few things still mystify us, and in the process we may have become the people to whom the late philosopher Joseph Campbell addressed this warning:  'When you get to be older and the concerns of the day have been attended to, and you turn to the inner life - well, if you don't know where it is or what it is, you'll be sorry.'
We have largely lost the capacity for reverence, the sense of awe that comes from realizing how much greater God is than we are.  We have lost it, paradoxically, because the twentieth century teaches us both how great we are and how small we are."[1]
We have become immune not only to the beauty and wonder that surrounds us, but also to the ugliness and evil that, unfortunately, pervade our everyday lives.   It is not our “…capacity for reverence…”  that is being lost, but our ability to be shocked as well.
The fact that the United States of America is the only Democratic country in which Capital Punishment is permitted……
The fact that other nations that share our penchant for ultimate vengance include Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, , Jordon, Kuwait, Libya, North Korea, Malaysia, Morocco, , Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, United States, Vietnam and Yemen…..
The fact that over half of those on death row are people of color, though they represent only 20% of the country’s population……
The fact that nearly half of those executed in the last two decades have been people of color, with blacks alone accounting for 38%. All told, 82% have been put to death for the murder of a white person. Only 3% were white people who had been convicted of killing people of African, Asian or Hispanic descent…...
These facts should give us pause…….And yet – they don’t.  We don’t even think about them.  We turn aside from the injustice of our current system in order to ignore our current reality in favor of a belief that Capital punishment somehow brings us justice, closure, deterrence….
My friends, the truth is that the death penalty is legally sanctioned murder - nothing more and nothing less.
There are those who may argue that the Bible does not prohibit Capital Punishment.  This is true - to a point.   And yet, as Judaism has evolved over the centuries, we have also developed a reticence to  impose the death penalty.  The Rabbis of old  made it practically impossible to impose the death penalty.  In the 70 year history of the State of Israel only one person has ever been executed by a court of law - Adolph Eichman - the architect of Hitler’s Final Solution and even that execution was hotly debated within the courts and around the kitchen tables of every citizen in the Jewish State.
For me, the central issue is truly none of the above.   For me the issue of Capital punishment 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 the voters – it may make some of us feel good - or politicians look good as they get tough on crime  - but ultimately, I believe that it lessens our own humanity when we take the life of another person.
Those who have committed atrocities need to be punished.  They 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.  There is evil in the world.  There are predators and murderers among us who deserve to be separated and cut off from society.  For some there can be no rehabilitation.  And yet, the price we pay for living in a civilized, moral society, is living with the fact that we cannot totally eliminate this evil.  But we can assert that we – as a society will not allow ourselves to stoop to their level.  We will not allow ourselves to become murderers as well.
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?




     [1]Kushner, Harold.  Who Needs God. p.51