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

Calling Pope Francis…..

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The local news is abuzz with the firing of a popular priest at Seton Hall University in South Orange, the Rev Warren Hall.  Rev Hall’s crime was to express support for gay and transgender people, something also done by the current Pope.

Shortly after, Rev Hall came out as a gay man.  By all accounts he has been true to his celibacy vows, but was fired anyway by Archbishop John Myers of Newark for the crime of supporting gays and others.

I rarely use the word execrable, but John Myers of Newark is an execrable man.  There is credible evidence, including pages of testimony from victims, that he knowingly protected child molester priests.  He has lied about transferring known child molesters to clergy positions involving children.  He has appropriated Church funds to build himself an enormous retirement mansion in a tony part of New Jersey.  He has threatened Catholics who do not vote for conservative candidates with exclusion from communion.  He is such a horror that the Vatican has appointed a “co-Archbishop” to run the parish and who will succeed Myers when he mercifully retires.  It is Myers who removed Rev Hall, despite the protests of the Seton Hall students.

The only puzzle is why Pope Francis has not removed Myers entirely, as he has done with other church leaders.  One can only guess that he has powerful friends in Rome who are protecting him.  All the more pity for a good and caring priest, Father Hall, who is now out of a job.

Why Not Treat Bankers Like Football Players?

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The media and the country is agog over the four game suspension meted out to Tom Brady for the crime of deflating footballs.  Brady and the Patriots cheated to win the Superbowl, but the most that they will “pay” is that Brady will be absent for the first four games of the upcoming season.

I can’t blame the Patriots or their owners, or their fans for being outraged.  People in politics and finance have done far worse, wrecking the economy and destroying countless lives, and gotten away clean.  Why punish a successful athlete who “did what it takes” to win?

Which brings me to a modest proposal.  Treat bankers like athletes.  No one really thinks that those fund managers and Bank executives who cynically manipulated (deflated?) mortgages and other products and defrauded investors  will ever pay any price or go to prison.  Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein and others are going to live out their lives as very rich men.  So why not “suspend” them?  Close Bank of America for four months, or four weeks, or four days, even.  Annoy customers (I’m one of them) and inconvenience thousands.  Maybe then, people will get angry enough to ask why petty criminals go to prison, and wealthy criminals in nice suits go to the Hamptons.

Einstein of the Ring

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Ok.  The Boxing Rabbi made his comments about the obscene display of idolatry and wealth-worship at the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight.  Now to the actual fight.

The reason many viewers found it boring is that Mayweather is a consummate counter-puncher.   The counter-puncher is by definition not aggressive, he waits for his opponent to make a move and then “counters” with a move designed to exploit the opening that appears.  (Every punch leaves the puncher exposed, it is a basic principle of boxing).  The counter-puncher is usually faster and smarter than his typical opponent; he is able to “read” the punches and react before the other guy knows what is happening.  Because the counter-puncher reacts, rather than initiates, the fight is usually more slow-paced.

But there is more.  Mayweather is not just a counter-puncher.  He is a genius.  He has been gifted by God with a genius that boxing has not seen since Muhammad Ali.   He is not only faster and bigger than many of his opponents, he is way, way, way, way smarter.   He is smarter than me.  He is likely smarter than you.   His ability to assess and react with lightening speed is uncanny.  Imagine playing chess but your opponent is throwing chess- pieces at you while making a move-Mayweather is able to catch the flying chess-piece and make a brilliant counter move at the same time.

I’m not sure Floyd Mayweather is a good man.  Many boxers actually are, but Mayweather beats women, and that, in my mind, makes him a violent criminal rather than an elite athlete.  The fact that he is excused for his behavior (which got him jailed) while other athletes are hounded out of their sports is one of the puzzles of our media-soaked age.  His situation is not atypical-there are dozens and dozens of really bad men (and women) who walk free and are even admired for their savvy and business acumen, despite having stolen millions, if not billions.  Mayweather is one of many in our society who pay too little a price for the injury they cause others.  He is not a particularly good man, but when it comes to boxing, he is the only genius.

Boxing as Metaphor

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In the end, the fight was boring.  Despite the efforts of second rate announcers to inject excitement (sorry Jim Lampley but you are not Don Dunphy, and Max Kellerman, you are not A.J. Liebling) the fight was a sorry mess.  Floyd and Manny lunged at each other and tangled arms and necks for 12 rounds, and in the end, it appeared to me that the two “warriors” just wanted to hop into their private planes and go home to their mansions.

That was the problem all night.  The gap between the .01% of America and the rest of us could not have been clearer.  For almost two hours we were treated to the spectacle of a parade of the wealthiest Americans strutting proudly down a red carpet (no, I’m not kidding) and enjoying 200k seats right up front.  The announcers seemed to work not for HBO and Showtime but for People Magazine and Tiger Beat as they breathlessly squealed with joy at the sight of Donald Trump and Tom Brady (who also was at the Kentucky Derby yesterday).  The culmination came when they delayed the fight so more people could shell out the 100 bucks to buy it on cable.  The only nice moment was when they interviewed Denzel Washington who seemed embarrassed and uncomfortable and clearly just wanted to get back to his seat and enjoy a beer.

The late A.J. Liebling (the real one) used to write of boxing as a metaphor for the complex class system in society, as the wealthy “swells” descended into the smoky halls and clubs to mingle with the ordinary folks, if only for one night.  Now, we make no pretense that the astronomically wealthy elite and the ordinary, struggling people even share the same planet.

The Rabbi Reform Jews should revere-but few even know his name

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The Jewish world lost a giant today, with the death of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at the age of 81.

Rabbi Lichtenstein was the head of the Etz Hayyim Yeshiva, which is located in the settlement of Alon Shvut, in the West Bank.  Rabbi Lichtenstein was an Orthodox religious Zionist, who believed that Jews should be allowed to live on the West Bank, as it was part of biblical Israel.   He was the most respected leader of what would come to be called “Modern Orthodoxy” and his influence is felt today in such institutions as Yeshivat Hovevei Torah, the forward-thinking Orthodox Rabbinical school founded by Avi Weiss.  He was also the most powerful and respected voice for demanding that religious Jews live according to the highest ethical and moral standards, including in the treatment of the Palestinians and in the conduct of war.  He courageously took on other rabbinic authorities who he felt were distorting the moral nature of halakhic Judaism.  Every Reform Jew should know his name, and revere his memory.

He’s no Jonas brother

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The business news reports today that Bernard Bernanke, former Fed Chairman, will be accepting a senior position at a major Wall Street Hedge Fund firm.

I am old enough to recall a time when some prominent men (and they were mostly men, back then) considered it unseemly to “cash in” on their period of national service.  At most, they would accept a university position and teach for the remainder of their careers.

Now, it would be astonishing if a prominent official did not trade on their prominence and more importantly, their connections to make vast fortunes in the private sector.  Actually this is one of the last truly “bipartisan” actions today-everyone does it regardless of affiliation.

I seem to recall that Dr Jonas Salk refused to sell the polio vaccine that he discovered, believing that it would be immoral to personally enrich himself from it-he literally gave it away.

How quaint.