It is Happening Here

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My mother, God bless her, has a number of favorite expressions.  One of them is “It can happen here”-referring to another Holocaust.  When things seem too good for the Jews, she will ominously say, “Don’t get too comfortable, it can happen here”.

I may be the only one, but it seems to me that in this “summer of Trump” there are signs that “it is happening here”.  The New York Times today carried a photograph of Univision anchor Jorge Ramos confronting Trump on his anti-Latino racism, while two shaven headed thugs stand ominously in the background, seemingly waiting for the signal from Boss Trump to crack some heads.   (I have nothing against shaven headed thugs, I’ve been accused of looking like one, but these guys were obviously Trump muscle).  What was astonishing to me was that the assorted “journalists” in the room (what we laughingly call the blow-dried- hair on- air personalities) remained absolutely silent.   To be fair, a “journalist” from MSNBC timidly spoke up after Ramos was thrown out, so I guess good for her.  C’mon guys, you all went to elementary school, I’m sure you’ve at the very least seen a poster of the famous “First they came for the Jews….right?  I’m sure you don’t know who said it (it was Martin Neimoller) but at least you saw it on a coffee mug or something? Maybe you had to read it off a cue card covering a local Yom HaShoa event?

Elie Wiesel has said that the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.  The other day, as an Hispanic reporter was harassed out of the room for daring to question a powerful man, I saw indifference.

Why I will support the dysfunctional “deal”

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It is a truism in the world of church and synagogue dynamics that a dysfunctional leadership makes exceptionally poor decisions.  Once a church or synagogue Board has collapsed into dysfunction and acrimony, virtually no decision can be trusted as healthy.  This is why many congregations must hire an interim pastor or rabbi when there is grave dysfunction; the leadership needs to be replaced or to heal before a permanent spiritual leader can be found.

The acrimony over the Iran “deal” can be traced directly to over thirty years of dysfunction amongst our political leadership class (aided and abetted by an entertainment -oriented pundit class) and an increasingly foolish and vapid electorate.  The fact is, our political system now functions so poorly that the bitter divide that exists over the Iran deal was inevitable.  That the same dysfunction exists to a great extent in Israel itself only exacerbates this problem.  Few Republicans were ever going to support the deal because it is now a political axiom that Obama must be opposed on Israel issues, and even many Democratic politicians are fearful of being seen as weak on the issue.  The Netanyahu administration has directly injected itself into the political morass of American politics and has no doubt contributed to the division.  The Obama administration has stumbled and made bad decisions regarding Israel in the past.  I am more than slightly nauseated by the attempt to sway the American Jewish community both by the White House and by opponents of the deal.  It smacks of manipulation.

It appears that many American Jewish community organizations are slowly aligning  against the “deal”.  Some because they genuinely feel it is harmful to israel.  Some because they answer to contributors or constituents who demand it.  Some because they simply do not want to be seen as “weak” on Israel’s security at a time when Israel remains in peril.

Here is my personal view.  I think the “deal” is flawed.  I think it is weak when it comes to oversight, weak when it comes to holding Iran accountable.  I think Iran is a truly bad actor in the world and a sponsor of terror.  War remains a possibility.

In the best of all worlds, reasonable people from all sides of the debate in America would have come together to work on an agreement that that has clear ramifications for our future and that of the world.  In the best of all worlds, Republican and Democratic politicians would have worked to strengthen the agreement in Congress, putting aside partisan animosities for the sake of peace and stability.  I wish that were so.  The deal is flawed.  It emerges from a dysfunctional political system.  The politicians have left town.  They are not going to work to make a flawed deal better.   However, given two bad choices, I have learned to make the least “bad” choice.  In my opinion, the deal should be supported with the understanding that it is deeply flawed and requires monitoring that goes beyond business as usual.  The fate of world peace rides on an honest assessment of whether the Iranians comply.   I know many of my fellow Jews will disagree with me.  I truly respect and understand their view.  But again, in my opinion we must be honest with ourselves.  We can’t denounce the deal without recognizing the dysfunction that led us to this moment.  We must be brutally honest with ourselves.  We are reaping the bitter, rotten fruit of three decades of dysfunction in our political system and in our national discourse.   We are partially to blame for that dysfunction, and it is up to us to repair it.  There are two poor choices.  I say, take the least bad and support the deal.  I welcome your responses.  (keep it civil, please)

Fellow Jews, the Syrians and the Saudis are not our moral measure!

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Like many of you, the Boxing Rabbi has been reading many reactions to the horrific actions of my fellow Jews in recent days.   First the murder of a young girl and the stabbing of five others by an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem, followed by the burning of a Palestinian infant by Jewish settlers in the Arab town of Duma.    One too common reaction I have encountered  is a condemnation of the killings followed by something along the lines of “Well, why aren’t the same people who are condemning Israelis today more outraged by the actions of the Syrians, or the Saudis, or Isis?”

Frankly, I don’t care why people are not more outraged by the depravities of the Syrians or Saudis.  The Syrians are not my moral yardstick, and the fact that they may have committed more atrocities than my people is not relevant.  It’s not a contest.  I’m not keeping score.  My moral compass is the Torah, the Jewish tradition, and the ethical principles that have guided the Jewish people for millennia.   Those who perpetrated these atrocities are a foul stain on our nation.  We are at war for the soul of the Jewish people.

Cut off their funding, bulldoze their homes, Mr. Netanyahu.

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Mr. Netanyahu-

You have, to your credit, called the actions of the man who stabbed six at the Gay Pride March in Jerusalem and the men who burned a Palestinian infant to death “hate” and “terror”.   (Although I wish you were more like President Rivlin, who had the moral courage to participate in a massive rally against hate in Zion Square).  You know what I know, what everyone knows in Israel-that these hellish actions of wicked men did not come out of nowhere.  They were sown by hateful and demented “rabbis”, by law-breaking settlers, by “yeshivot” that receive massive funding from the State.  Now treat them exactly as you would treat non-Jewish terror groups.  Go after the rabbis who incite hate, cut off funding to the yeshivot that teach hate, bulldoze the homes of the Jewish terrorists when found, and above all cut off all funding to any organization or institution connected with all these perpetrators.  Do it today.  For the sake of the soul of my beloved Israel.

Mike Huckabee, all I ask is that you keep your grifting hands off our suffering

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Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz was a gentle and renowned Talmudic scholar and Orthodox Rabbi, whose most famous book was entitled “Faith After the Holocaust”.  Rabbi Berkovitz was also known as an expert in Jewish law who sought to expand the rights of women in traditional Judaism.

However, when it came to the Holocaust, Berkovitz believed that it was as much a failure of Christianity as it was of German culture and society.  As a result, he did not consider it worthwhile to engage in dialogue with Christian scholars in a post-Holocaust world.  He famously asked only one thing of non-Jews in the wake of the Holocaust- “Simply keep your hands off our children”.

I thought of Rabbi Berkovitz’s words when I read that Mike Huckabee, presidential candidate, proclaimed that the Iran deal would “march Israel to the doors of the ovens”.  Huckabee, who has been a salesman for a diabetes “cure” based on bible verses, considers himself an evangelical Christian and stalwart defender of Israel.  All I can say to Huckabee is the following-Enrich yourself at the expense of your gullible followers, but keep your grifting hands off our suffering.

Today My Blood Ran Cold

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I don’t know if I can share this story.  It involves an innocent person, a person I just met, but he was introduced to me for a reason, so I will share the story for the same reason that his identity was revealed to me, and to others.

I finished my week and a half in Israel, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  It was, as usual, a magical time and I concluded my week with some sparring at the Jerusalem Boxing Gym, my home away from home.  I was greeted warmly by the Coach, Gershon, who remembered me well, and as the 20 or so boxers assembled he asked everyone to please have a seat.  Now last year, he did the same thing, and at that time he announced that the gym was to become a bomb shelter for the duration of the war.  Last year he required every one to take a shift manning the shelter, and, this year he had another request of the assembled fighters.  I was simply not ready for what he had to say.  He pointed to a little eight year old boy sitting on the bench with us wearing an old t-shirt.  The coach said quietly “Do you know who this boy is?  This boy who has been training with us?  He is the son of Yigal Amir”.  I have heard the expression “my blood froze” but until now, I had never experienced a sensation like it-my blood truly froze.  Yigal Amir, for those who may not know, is the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin.  Amir is serving a life sentence for the murder of the Prime Minister, and incredibly a few years ago he married a woman and fathered a child with her.  This was that child.  Why did the coach reveal his identity to us?  A filmmaker had made a documentary about Amir and his new family, called “Beyond the Fear”.  It was scheduled to be shown at the Jerusalem Film Festival this month.  As you can imagine, there was enormous controversy and initially the organizers of the Festival pulled the film.  However, it was decided that the famous Jerusalem Cinema, known as the Cinematheque, would show the film just before the Festival was to begin.  Since the child was now in this film, the coach was asking that his fighters go see the film, in order to support this little boy.  “After all”, said the coach, “for our friend this is just sadness and family tragedy”.  The assembled fighters were absolutely silent.  Looking around, I was sure I was the only one alive at the time of Rabin’s assassination, and yet these tough, broken-nosed young guys were absolutely silent.  Finally, the coach simply said, “Nu, let’s get to work”.  The bell rang and we began to move around the ring.

I recalled a verse we studied from the prophets IMG_0111this week, that declared “The sons shall not be punished for the sins of their fathers”.  As I watched the little boy move around the ring, I knew that these holy words were true.

The picture of me and the Coach was taken this afternoon.

The Voices of Birmingham call Out to Charleston

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I know that not everything the Boxing Rabbi writes is met with universal acclaim.  Many of you who I respect greatly take differing views.  Such is the nature of taking any position on a difficult subject.  But i feel that racism is the defining issue of our time.  Here is my sermon from Friday night.

The Voices of Birmingham call Out to Charleston

In September of 1963, white racist terrorists placed a bomb underneath the stairs of the 16th Avenue Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, an African-American congregation. It was a Sunday morning and little girls and little boys were in Sunday School, learning their lessons when the bomb went off. The resulting explosion killed four little girls and wounded 22 more people. Just two weeks before, Martin Luther King had given his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on the Mall in Washington, and Dr. King was invited to come to Birmingham to offer the eulogy for the children.

He said, in part –

“And yet they died nobly. These children are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. And so this afternoon, in a real sense, they have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every clergyman who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of the South, and the blatant hypocrisy of those in the North. They have something to say to every black person who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation, and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice. They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American dream.”

I wonder, fifty years later, if these four slain girls could speak, what they might say to us tonight in the wake of the horrific murders of nine Christian worshippers who had gathered to study the Holy Bible; the same Bible that is in your pews tonight, murdered by a white racist terrorist no different than the white racist terrorists who killed them on that Sunday morning.

If these four little girls could speak, they might say to us – why have you allowed white supremacist terror groups to go unchecked to the point that in the last ten years, more acts of violence have been committed in this country by American racists than by Muslins; and yet we fear and demonize Muslims and minimize the violence of white terrorists. These four girls might say to us, why have you allowed state governments, mostly in the South, to erode the voting rights of people of color; to make it more difficult to vote, to make it more difficult to participate in the democratic process? And why have you allowed the Supreme Court to repeal parts of the Voting Rights Act? A document signed not with your blood but with ours.

They might say to us:

Why have you found it acceptable for the first black President and his family – his little girls, to be compared over and over to animals and apes, to be the recipients of more death threats than any President in modern times?

Why have you allowed this? Why have you allowed black lives to be extinguished so easily by out-of-control law enforcements officers with a 12 year-old boy shot in Cleveland; a fifty year-old man shot in the back in North Charleston.

Why have you allowed this? Why have you permitted the airwaves and radio stations to be filled with racist and bigoted rants from pundits who have millions of listeners hanging on every vile word? In the fifty years since our death, why have you allowed this?

They would pose these questions, and I’m afraid that I would have no answer.

Tomorrow morning, three young people will be reading from the Torah portion called Korach. It’s a difficult portion, a challenging portion. There is little joy in it; there is no burning bush, no crossing of the Red Sea. It concerns a rebellion against Moses, led by his own cousin, Korach. Korach challenges the authority of Moses, declaring that any Israelite could lead. Who was Moses to raise himself over the people? And Moses is soon confronted by an angry, howling mob. It’s a difficult portion – but the ancient Rabbis felt it was one of the most important portions in the Torah. Because, they said, it teaches us how easy it is to find people who are willing to destroy and divide. How easy it is to find people who are willing to be accomplices to their division and destruction – and how hard it is to work for reconciliation and justice.

I think in the end, that is what I would have to say to these four little girls. I allowed these things because it was easy. It was easy to watch as increasingly openly racist politicians ascended to positions of power and influence both on the State and National level – I had other things to do. It was easy as voting rights for minorities were curtailed – I lead a busy life. It was easy. It was easy to sit idly by as the Voting Rights Act was gutted. It happened during the summer after all, and I was on vacation. And I don’t live in Cleveland or North Charleston or Ferguson, Missouri, so what happens there, doesn’t really concern my life.

Reading the portion of Korach, the Rabbis warned us that it was easy to divide and destroy, and hard to reconcile and bring together. And yet, I can no longer think of any task more sacred, more urgent, more holy, than this to address once and for all the scourge of racism in the country; to heal the divide, to eradicate the evil that poisons us.

In the Jewish tradition, when hearing of a death, it is customary to tear one’s clothing or to wear a ribbon that is torn. Thursday morning, as I awoke to the news of the killings in Charleston, I felt as if the very soul of this nation was being torn. It is up to us to suture the wound.

In the name of the four girls killed fifty years ago, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, and in the name of those slain while studying Holy Scripture in Charleston: Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor and Susie Jackson, in their names we pledge to pursue justice and reconciliation, peace and righteousness and the name of the church in Charleston was Emanuel