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.

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