Monday, July 4, 2022

The Aftermath of the Highland Park 4th of July Massacre: A Reflection on Idolatry.

This past weekend, my family and I attended a wedding in Los Angeles. It was a beautiful affair. Two wonderful families were joined with lots of love, fanfare and celebration. There were many events that brought us all together. As we awoke this morning and got ready to attend a farewell brunch before flying home, our joy was diminished by the news of a violent act of murderous terror that filled the airways and social media. This time, however, it was personal. 

Highland Park is a Chicago suburb with a substantial Jewish population that is very close to my hometown of Evanston, IL. When I was in high school and college, I taught and led services at several congregations there. I have many close friends and family who live in or near the area where the shooting took place. The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band – dear friends and musical collaborators – were performing on a float in that very parade. So far, I have not heard that any of the people I know personally were harmed, but, as of this writing, 6 souls were snuffed out and more than 2 dozen others were wounded by a lone gunman armed with easily-obtained high-powered weaponry and multiple rounds of ammunition. 

 It is hard to write about the plague of gun violence that has infected our society without wading into murky waters. The politicians, lobbyists, and pundits on every side of the political spectrum will do all that they can to spin this horrific event – and the hundreds of others like it – to underscore their specific agendas. Accusations will be thrown about. Somber and angry speeches will be delivered. Tears will be shed. Funerals will be held, lives upended…and nothing will change: the daily deluge of violence will continue unabated. 

Many of you know my views on firearms. While I am not “anti-gun” per se, I have written and spoken extensively on how gun violence is not merely a social or political problem. It also screams out to the world that we are in the midst of a spiritual crisis: idol worship. Simply put, idolatry can be defined as the worshipping of physical objects and imbuing them with powers, qualities and cosmic significance that supersedes logic and undermines the foundations of our nation. Our society’s obsession with the ownership and deification of weapons of mass destruction – fed and exacerbated by gun manufacturers and the lobbying organizations on their payrolls – has taken a horrific toll on the social fabric and spiritual capital of our citizens. It is nothing less than idolatry. Highland Park now joins the ranks of Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, Parkland, Pittsburgh, Colleyville, Uvalde and too many others to mention. We have seemingly lost the capacity to be shocked anymore. The question we are asking is not: “How can this happen in a civil society, but when will the next tragedy occur – and will it impact those whom we know and love?” 

In the Torah portion we will read this Shabbat, Parashat Chukkat, we learn how Moses, instead of speaking to a rock and commanding it to yield water for the thirsty Israelites, strikes it three times and is punished by God and told that he will not enter the promised land. The Rabbis are puzzled by the severity of this decree. Why was Moses treated so unfairly? What did he do to receive such a cruel sentence? There are many possible answers, but one recurring theme is that Moses’s actions were both violent and defiant. He appeared to show the Israelites that he - himself – was the source of life-giving water – not God. In other words, Moses places himself in the role of provider and creator. The violent act of hitting the rock appears to be an attempt to make it look like the staff itself – wielded by Moses - is imbued with the power to sustain and protect the people – thereby diminishing God’s authority and deliverance. 

For those for whom the Right to Bear Arms is sacrosanct, any attempts to place sane limits on the ownership and use of weapons of mass destruction is nothing short of blasphemy. For those of us who see the consequences of these weapons in the blood flowing in our streets, schools and publics spaces, the fact that so many lives have been snuffed out so meaninglessly is, in and of itself a Chilul HaShem – a desecration of God’s name. 

If we cannot acknowledge the spiritual, psychological and societal toll that the proliferation of firearms on our streets and in our homes continues to exact, then we, like Moses, are rebelling against the godliness implanted within us by our Creator. 

 I do not have answers to this tragic situation. But I do know that unless and until we move away from political slogans and lines drawn in the sand, we will continue to see grieving parents and children mourning the loss of their loved ones following senseless acts of violence. We need to learn to look at the facts on the ground and find sane measures to reduce the carnage. 

 May we never fail to be horrified by tragedy, and may our horror move us to look within ourselves and our souls and strive to make a change. 

 L’Shalom, 


Rabbi Joseph R. Black

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Roe V. Wade and Parashat Kedoshim -May 6, 2022

Dear Friends,

This past week, when the draft of the Supreme Court’s position about repealing Roe V. Wade was leaked, it became increasingly clear that the right to have an abortion in the United States – a right that has been in place for the past 49 years - is about to disappear. It will soon be up to each individual state to decide if those who are able to become pregnant will be permitted to make decisions about their own bodies and choices regarding fertility, family planning and medical procedures. In addition, 26 state legislatures (are eagerly poised to enact punitive and draconian measures that will not only eliminate access to abortion services but, in many cases, will also penalize certain forms of birth control and create a system of intimidation and recrimination that will impact every aspect of society. 

These new laws will be driven by a narrow interpretation of religion based on fundamentalist Christian principles whose proponents are openly seeking to create a theocratic government that tears down the fundamental values of our nation. In addition, it is very clear that the same forces that are pushing to ban abortion are also looking to use the Supreme Courts probable decision to abandon Roe to do away with other basic rights including Gay marriage, in-vitro fertilization and criminalize many other practices that impede upon individuals’ privacy personal space.

Lest I have been less than clear how I and many others are feeling at this watershed moment in our history: The idea that that Government, Church, synagogue, or mosque should be placed in the position of legislating or interfering in the most intimate aspects of our lives is antithetical to the foundation of the separation of religion and state upon which our nation was founded and for which too many have died.

As I have stated on numerous occasions, there are those who have struggled with the issue of abortion and, after deliberate and careful analysis – after much prayer and reflection – have come to the conclusion that they cannot support an individual’s right to choose. While I, personally, do not agree with their conclusions, I respect their deliberation and I feel that the process of dialogue and discussion is vitally important. We can agree to disagree- honoring the process that has brought us to our own conclusions. But when these disagreements become the basis for regressive legislation that represses, punishes, and demonizes, a dangerous line has been crossed.I am speaking tonight, because I am disgusted by the hypocrisy that we witness on a daily basis that justifies the creation of laws that, on the one hand, prohibit someone from terminating an unwanted pregnancy, and on the other hand, make it difficult for that same person to receive proper healthcare, nutrition or childcare once that unwanted pregnancy comes to term.

I am speaking tonight because we all have listened to the stories of those who, not so long ago, have had to resort to desperate measures to terminate an unwanted pregnancy:

  • Women who were victims of rape or incest; who were emotionally, spiritually, physically or financially unable to care for an unwanted or unexpected pregnancy;
  • Women who were butchered by incompetent practitioners in unsanitary conditions;
  • Women who were subjected to scorn and abuse and worse because they were in crisis and had nowhere else to turn.
  • Trans individuals who were beaten, raped and brutally attacked because of the way they express themselves in society and celebrate they way that God created them;
  • People from low income or immigrant communities who have no access to reproductive health care;

I am speaking tonight because I am dismayed by the misogyny and gas-lighting that is the bedrock of many laws that attempt to silence women’s voices and marginalize their experience- while saying nothing about the responsibilities of the men who are responsible for every pregnancy.

Throughout history, demagogues have always looked for easy targets and those who threaten their narrative . They spew their fear-mongering at them – creating perceived enemies who represent the evils of society. The movement to abolish abortion and put laws in place that will demonize birth control and women’s rights show us once again how those who are able to become pregnant - especially low-income individuals and people of color - have always been a favored target. We are increasingly seeing how national Far-Right, fundamentalist, PACs, advocacy groups and state legislatures have tried to undo decades of progress in women’s health and bring us back to a much darker time.

Banning abortion and curtailing reproductive rights serves the function of shifting attention from the real issues that plague us by claiming to have a singular understanding of God’s will. Abortionists, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, “wokeness”– these are the ills of society – these are those who God hates. Forget about the poor, the homeless and the hungry. Don’t talk about voting rights, racism, ignorance, abuse, homelessness, climate change, war, pollution (the list goes on and on) – no – those who would outlaw reproductive choice teach us that it is the women and trans people – anyone who has a uterus - who want to make choices about how to take care of their bodies and the courageous Doctors, nurses and counselors who make that possible - upon whom we should focus our attention.

 In a recent article, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat writes:

This week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, tells us: “You shall be holy, for I your God am holy.” The charge is in the plural. This is not about singular individual holiness. These are instructions for communal righteousness. Sometimes Torah speaks in poetry and metaphor, but this week Torah gives us a very concrete clarion call to justice.

How does a community act righteously? Torah is very clear. Feed the hungry, says the Book of Leviticus. Also: Don’t withhold a worker’s wages until morning. Don’t place a

 stumbling block before the blind. Judge justly. And do not stand idly by upon the blood of your fellow.

These verses are so important that we hear them twice a year: not only now, in our cycle of regular weekly Torah readings, but also on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As the holiest and most awe-filled day of our year draws to its close, as we grapple personally and communally with who we are and where we have missed

 the mark, these verses ring out.

A righteous society, Torah says, is one that centers the needs of the most vulnerable. And we must not stand idly by when others are harmed.

Last March, here in Colorado, a bill was passed and signed into law called the Reproductive Health Equity Act – that guarantees the right of those who can become pregnant to have access to reproductive health care and abortion services – regardless of what actions the Supreme Court of the United States might take. I was honored to be asked to testify and share Sue’s and my story about how we had to terminate a pregnancy early on in our marriage because  the fetus we conceived was Tay- Sachs positive and carried a fatal genetic flaw. With the repeal of Roe V Wade- and the laws on the books in many states, we would not have been able to make that choice – had we lived in a community that passed those measures. We all are fortunate to live in a state where the rights of individuals to make choices about reproductive freedom are secure – at least for now. But if we look at the map of those states are poised to ban abortion, we realize that we are surrounded by communities hostile to reproductive freedom. This means that people seeking abortions will be traveling to Colorado – in many cases at great risk to themselves due to punitive laws that target individuals seeking reproductive health care – as well as targeting those who assist them. Temple Emanuel is currently exploring avenues to partner with other congregations and organizations – from multiple faith traditions – to find ways to support those seeking abortion care and coming to our state. Abortion providers are already overtaxed. The numbers of medical professionals who are trained to perform abortion services are limited. We will need to help people find housing, transportation as well as physical, mental and spiritual assistance. This is a fluid situation, and we are actively pursuing avenues of solidarity and support. For the time being, as I wrote in my letter to the congregation, if you would like to help, donate to the COBALT Abortion fund - 100% of the monies raised go to support abortion seekers and providers.

A word about language. There was a time that those of us who supported the right to terminate a pregnancy shied away from using the word “abortion.”  Instead we spoke about the right to choose. To state that one is “pro abortion” seemed to imply that we reluctantly engaged in a battle over freedom while still casting aspersions on the medical procedure itself.  I will no longer use this type of language. The fight ahead of us is about reproductive freedom. Period. I do not want to judge anyone’s choices. Abortion Rights are the issue at hand.  Any other terminology is obfuscation and misses the point.

My friends, the task that lies ahead of us is clear. We – as people of faith who stand as a beacon of hope and reason in the face of darkness and disinformation – we must never waiver in our work. No one knows the mind of God. No one has a monopoly on faith.

This week’s parasha commands us to be holy. Holiness is not always easy to understand. Sometimes it is messy. Sometimes it means marching in the streets, raising money or holding the hand of a scared young person who feels isolated and persecuted. This is our sacred task. We cannot desist from carrying it out.

We all are committed to working together to bring wholeness and holiness to our world. Let us start right now.

Shabbat Shalom


Thursday, April 14, 2022

Opening Prayer For the Colorado House of Representatives - Passover, Easter and Ramadan 4-14-22

 This is a sacred time for many religious traditions. All over the world, Muslims are celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. For Christians, Easter begins this Sunday. Tomorrow night, Jews around the world will begin celebrating the festival of Passover.  On the first and second nights, we will gather around festive tables and retell the ancient story of our redemption at a special meal called a seder.  With song, prayers, special foods and ancient symbols we will heed the call to relive the experience of liberation from Egyptian bondage. 

For seven days we will refrain from eating foods that are leavened - no bread, no pastries, nothing that contains yeast - in order to remember the haste with which our ancestors had to flee Egypt.

Passover is a joyous festival.  As we tell and retell our ancient story of deliverance, we literally taste the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom.  We drink 4 cups of wine to remember the 4 divine promises of salvation.

As we look around the world today, we see that there are many people for whom the messages of freedom and redemption are a distant hope.  In too many dark places freedom is stifled.  Repression is rampant. 

The horrors in Ukraine remind us that tyrants will always try to force their will upon the innocents. As we bear witness to the genocide unfolding in front of us in real time, we are compelled – not only to pray for the safety of those in harm’s way, but also to do all we can to support the innocents.

But we do not need to look so far away to see despair.  Here, in our beautiful state of Colorado, there are those outside these walls who are enslaved to lives of violence, poverty, drugs, alcohol, homelessness, and abuse. The suffering in our streets and the cries of the downtrodden call upon us to build bridges of compassion and understanding while tearing down walls of separation and degradation. The festivals of Passover, Easter and Ramadan all teach us of the necessity to look for hope in the midst of darkness.  Their messages must echo deep in our hearts and souls.

Here in this sacred chamber, we also must ask painful questions: How many of us are enslaved to enmity and strife?  How often do we refrain from reaching out in compromise and retreat to partisanship?

On this day of hope and promise, O God, we ask Your blessing on this place.  May these legislators, officials, clerks and dedicated public servants find new hope in the process of governing.  May any arguments that arise during deliberation and debate be catalysts for communion with You and one another. 

O God – You have bequeathed to us a world filled with beauty and hope.  Help us to find the eternal messages of liberation and self-determination that echo within this sacred chamber and in our hearts.  May the messages of our holy festivals stir within us all a burning desire to bring hope and freedom to all.  And Let us say, AMEN

Friday, April 1, 2022

Jerusalem Needs Love. (C). Rabbi Joe Black. April, 2022. All Rights Reserved.

In cafes, waiters pour sweet wine
While shepherds call their flocks
A golden light that transcends time
Has bested all the clocks
Crosses clash with minarets
Push has come to shove
A city filled with deep regrets
Jerusalem needs love.
 
The blinding sun leaps up at me
Reflected from white stone
Although I’m here all by myself
I know I’m not alone
The weight of ancient history
Haunts me from above
These walls are filled with mystery
Jerusalem needs love 
 

CHORUS or BRIDGE:
Jerusalem needs love
Like a river needs the rain
Jerusalem needs love
To wash away the pain
To bring us home again
 
An ancient poem that’s filled with promise
Pierces my cold heart
Soldiers march in step with psalmists
Joined and yet apart
A young boy holds a well-worn stone
In his ragged glove
The song of conflict’s constant drone
Jerusalem needs love
 
Bullet holes and Bible belts
Sultans dance with sages
The twisted  awe crusaders felt
While burning sacred pages
A falcon casts his hungry eye
His prey, a frightened dove
I walk without an alibi
Jerusalem needs love

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Testimony by Rabbi Joseph R. Black in support of House Bill 22-1279, The “Reproductive Health Equity Act.”

 I am here today because this is personal.  My wife and I are carriers of Tay-Sachs – a rare, incurable genetic disorder that primarily affects Jews of Eastern European descent. Tay Sachs babies endure a painful and gruesome death - usually within 5 years of birth.

31 years ago, we were blessed by the birth of a healthy daughter.  Our luck changed with our second pregnancy. Thankfully, at that time, abortion was legal and safe.  As difficult as it was to say goodbye to the hopes and dreams of a second baby, the thought of having to care for and eventually bury a suffering child was unpalatable.  We chose to have an abortion. My wife received excellent care and together we grieved the loss of what might have been.

This bill is designed to ensure that those who are able to become pregnant or terminate a pregnancy will have the right to do so. When government puts itself in a position to legislate how people can care for their bodies, unless that decision impacts the health of the general population, we have crossed a dangerous line of personal autonomy.

In the book of Deuteronomy, we find the following:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live! 

This text is often misunderstood and twisted to deny abortion care. For me – the words, “Choose Life” mean that we have a responsibility to live our lives in ways that honor God’s creation.  They command us to work together to respect individual choices and empathize with the difficulties faced by all. They do not mean imposing our narrow understandings of life’s questions, traumas and values on others – nor do they disavow us from disagreeing on the many complex paradoxes with which we are confronted on a daily basis.

The decision to terminate a pregnancy is very difficult and painful.  And yet, I also feel - passionately - that such a decision should be made by individuals- not elected officials or courts.

We can agree to disagree about the personal choices involved in having an abortion but when these disagreements become the basis for attempts to repress and demonize others, a dangerous line has been crossed. Please support the Reproductive Health Equity Act.

Thank you.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Ukraine: On Watching the Land of My Ancestors At War

Some of my Ancestors.....

My grandparents, Avram and Esther Kovalevsky (z”l), were born in the Ukrainian city of Zolotonosha – not far from Kharkov. My grandmother (a brilliant woman) received her MA in history from the University of Kharkov- not a small feat. As a Jewish woman, she was prohibited from attending classes. She studied on her own and passed all her exams with high honors. My grandfather received his MBA in Germany from the University of Leipzig.

After returning from his studies abroad, Avram married Esther in the early 1920’s. They hoped to build a home and raise a family in the city of their birth, but after a series of violent, anti-Semitic pogroms in Zolotonosha, they fled Ukraine on foot – journeying for several months until they arrived in Leipzig to begin a new life in a “civilized” country where they thought Jews would be safe.


My Grandmother's Family in Ukraine.  She is in the top row - far left.

My grandfather started a business selling wholesale hosiery and soon was very successful. My mother, Sophia Kovalevsky, was born in Leipzig in 1926. The Kovalevsky’s, despite their education and economic status, were never accepted by their German neighbors. They were considered foreigners- “Ostjuden” (Eastern Jews) who were ostracized by the German Jews who snubbed them and the general populace who were raised on the Jew-hating mother’s milk that paved the way for Hitler's ascension to power.

After the rise of Nazism, my grandparents’ dream of a safe haven fell apart. The Kovalevsky’s would have to flee again. Since they were not German citizens, their Soviet passports, in an ironic twist, saved their lives. In December of 1938, shortly after Kristalnacht – the “Night of the Broken Glass,” they left behind their comfortable life in Leipzig and came to America. By that time, the number of German refugees admitted into the United States was miniscule. The blatant anti-Semitism of the State Department prior to WWII has been well documented. The only reason they were able to get a visa was due to the fact that no one was able to leave the USSR, and quotas for Russian Jews at that time were not filled.

My Mother and Grandparents in Germany

I share this small piece of my family’s history while the world looks on in horror as Russia invades Ukraine. The names on my television screen of the cities currently under bombardment:  Kharkov, Kyiv, L’vov, and others are familiar to my ears. My grandmother – never one to wax nostalgic or dwell in the past - would, on rare occasions, share happy stories of her childhood in Zolotonosha with my sister and me. Despite the anti-Semitism that she endured and the horrors she witnessed, it was clear that she deeply loved her birthplace and the life she left behind. She never quite fit in anywhere else - whether in Germany or the United States.

My story is not unique. Many American Jews trace their history back to the former Pale of Settlement – the lands set aside for Jews to live in poverty and constant danger from official anti-Semitism and the murderous pogroms caused by rampaging Cossacks and other Jew-haters. Most of my mother’s family was murdered in Ukraine – both by Hitler’s forces and willing local collaborators. The graves of my ancestors bear witness to the horrors of our history.

To see these cities now prominently displayed as they face the brutal onslaught of Putin’s overwhelming force brings a variety of emotions. The fact that Ukraine now has both a president and a prime minister who claim Jewish ancestry, as well as the fact that just a few months ago the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law outlawing Anti-Semitism is a remarkable turn of events. Add to this the obscenity of Putin’s “anti-Nazi” ravings.  Currently, there are over 200,000 Jews living in Ukraine. Compared to the 1.6 million murdered in the Shoah, this is a small number.  And yet, this place that destroyed my family has now become a symbol of resistance to totalitarianism and a victim of megalomaniacal greed.

As we watch in horror as innocent people are slaughtered, let us strive to learn from our history. Totalitarianism and demagoguery pose real dangers to us all. As people who strive to live in peace, we also have learned the painful lessons of the past. If we do not call out atrocity – wherever it lives – we forsake both our birthright and our sacred responsibility towards all of who are created in God’s image.

If you would like to help support the Ukranian Jewish community, consider donating to one of the following organizations:

Jewish Colorado Fund for Ukraine:  https://www.jewishcolorado.org/jewishcolorado-ukraine-emergency-fund/

The World Union For Progressive Judaism:  https://wupj.org/give/ukraine/

Natan - an Israeli disaster relief NGO working with Doctors on the ground in Poland - helping Ukrainian Refugees:  https://www.facebook.com/NATANAID/

Pray for the peace of Ukraine.

Pray for the lands of our ancestors.

May sanity be restored before it is too late.

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Love and Legislation: Opening Prayer for the Colorado House of Representatives - February 10, 2022

 Our God and God of all people.

We know you by many names:

God of mercy

God of Justice

But this morning – let us call you God of Love…..

Today is February 10th. In case any of us here this morning forgot, in just 4 days – this Monday -  it will be Valentine’s day. We still have time to buy a card for that special someone in our lives…..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….

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 pollution and greed?

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 permit the toxicity of discourse that poisons our politics with jockeying for power and forsaking opportunities for compromise.

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 governance.

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.

At this season of 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.

AMEN