Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Time of Our Freedom

As I look out the window, the pond is still snow-covered, so celebrating the advent of spring seems more appealing than it has been in previous years. Spring is a major theme in the celebration of Passover. Historians teach that the agricultural aspect of Passover predates its religious meaning (exodus from Egypt). The celebration of the rebirth of nature at the end of winter is not uniquely Jewish; other ancient peoples marked the cycles of nature with religious holidays. The Jewish people, however, re-signified the celebration of nature’s changes by teaching that the Jewish people was born in the “spring” out of the “winter,” which we call “slavery” in Egypt.
 In 1937, Rabbi Mordechai M. Kaplan wrote, “It is not often that an individual wants to be reminded of his humble beginnings; but that a nation in ancient times should glory in having been held in bondage by another nation is certainly an unrepeated phenomenon.”
We took the idea behind the nature-oriented holiday and gave it new, theological, meaning. Kaplan suggests that such unflattering origins contain a new and different conception about God, a unique Jewish conception that would guide us in our moral behavior. Unlike other Gods of antiquity, the God of Israel does not legitimize the power of kings and rulers, but rather imposes a code of behavior that all individuals must follow. This is the true etymology of the word yisrael, “God is our Ruler,” (implying, “not some godlike earthly king or pharaoh”). Kaplan wrote, “The first and the most solemn protest against human bondage is the declaration that the God of Israel is essentially the Redeemer of the oppressed. As believers in the God of Israel, we must hold to the conviction that slavery must be abolished not only in name, but also in fact.”
 At Passover, we are reminded of the bondages in our society as a way of stressing the central teaching of our tradition, that all oppression is morally unacceptable. In the words of Kaplan, “The new redemption to which Jews look forward involves the redemption of society in general from present ills. It implies the transformation of human nature and social institutions through the divine power of intelligence and good-will.”
 In this sense, the ideal of freedom we find in our festival of Passover is yet to be realized. As we celebrate Passover, let us think of the many ways we can all contribute to our congregation and our society so that we can come closer to making our ideal of freedom a reality. 
Please, take a moment to comment below and add your personal way to make freedom happen. 
Chag ha-pesach sameach, Happy Passover!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Standing on the Side of Love

            Six months ago, HJR-3 was considered a “done deal;” however, over 300 clergy from across the state thought otherwise. Last month, I travelled to Indianapolis where I was joined by other clergy in support of Freedom Indiana and their efforts to defeat HJR-3. House Joint Resolution 3 is the attempt to bring to the voters of Indiana a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. With the help of other groups, we succeeded in persuading the Indiana House of Representatives to remove the second sentence of HJR-3 (the second sentence would have also banned civil unions). Later on, the Indiana Senate voted to keep the second sentence out of HJR-3. As a result, HJR-3 is not going to be in the ballots in November.
               I have personally learned a lot during the experience. I have learned that we can have a civilized discussion with people with whom we disagree. For instance, my conversations with our local state representative Dan Leonard were friendly and with compassion. I learned that there is no use in having a “Bible War” over this issue.
               Let me be clear: I would have liked for HJR-3 to go away completely, but this was a victory which seemed unlikely just six months ago. It happened in part because the faith community was represented not only by those who supported HJR-3 and the ban on gay marriage and civil unions, but also by other religious groups (including the majority of the rabbis in the state of Indiana).
               HJR-3 is still alive and well and it may make it to the ballot in 2016, so we will have other opportunities to speak against it from a Jewish religious perspective. It might be obvious to many of you why Jewish teachings are incompatible with supporting discriminatory language in any state constitution, but from talking to legislators and the media, I have learned that articulating our position is sometimes not easy. I would like share with you a few ways in which you can speak to others about your Jewish values in this regard so you can be agents of change as well.
               During these past two months, I had the pleasure of meeting other like-minded clergy individuals who have taught me some new lesson about how to address discrimination. Here are two new lessons I suggest we add to our great Reform tradition of fighting discrimination:
               1. The Platinum Rule. We have all heard of the Golden Rule –and many people aspire to live by it. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Golden Rule implies the basic assumption that other people would like to be treated the way that you would like to be treated.
               The alternative to the Golden Rule is the Platinum Rule: "Treat others the way they want to be treated." The Platinum Rule accommodates the feelings of others. The focus of relationships shifts from "this is what I want, so I'll give everyone the same thing" to "let me first understand what they want and then I'll give it to them." In the case of marriage equality the platinum rule is a perfect fit. We are not asking people to want and be all the same; we live in a better society when we celebrate diversity and show compassion for all people.
               2. Our Unitarian Universalist friends have started a new campaign; the motto is “standing on the side of love.” Every major religion has compassion and love at its center and we need to stay true to these religious values. Too much of our public discourse is driven not by love, but by fear. This campaign is based on a few basic values:
  • We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Everyone deserves respect and love for who they are.
  • Right now, both love and fear are rising up in our nation. We stand on the side of love. We harness love’s power to stop oppression, exclusion, and violence against people who are targeted because of their identity.
  • We are working to build a society where the color of our skin, the conditions of our birth, who we love, how we worship, and how we express our gender do not determine our worth, rights, and opportunities.
        The final point I need to make is that we Jews are guided by the very basic belief that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim, in the Divine image. We read in the book of Genesis 1:27, “And God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.” If we believe in seeing the Divine image in each one of us that means that we are inherently good. Having the Divine image is a positive thing.
           This fundamental Jewish value has guided us in the past when we Jews played a pivotal role in the struggles for women’s equality as well as during the Civil Rights movement. Let me remind everyone here that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the auspices of the Leadership Conference, which for decades was located in the RAC's building. We see marriage equality as THE civil rights issue of the time and as such a matter of religious conscious.
             I pray that we will come to believe that each of us, created in God’s image, has a unique talent, with which we can contribute to the high moral purpose of tikkun olam, the repair of our world. May we all come to understand that excluding anyone from our community lessens our chance of achieving this goal of a more perfect world. May we all be able to stand up against fear and unfairness as we all join hands together on the side of love and compassion.