Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When Tzedakah Becomes Social Justice

So, one of my favorite teachers, my daughter, Rachie, is teaching my high school classes today, Wednesday December 22, 2010. She is presenting a seemingly innocuous concept but one that is important for all of us to consider – namely the similarities as well as the differences and connections between Tzedakah and Social Justice. It’s a very interesting differentiation to make to be sure.

Rachie has really been dedicated to causes within the framework of Social Justice and was able to put this dedication into practical and ongoing application throughout her one year with Avodah, The Jewish Service Corps (part of Americorps). She worked in New Orleans in the office of the Public Defender. Her clients were the poor, under privileged, lacking resources, and poorly educated. She continually shared how she was struck by the vast differences between her life and theirs, and that when people do not have access to the ongoing resources and support which we generally take for granted, we are all responsible in some way for this unbalanced inequitable distribution of resources.

I always teach that Tzedakah is NOT CHARITY, but rather it is THE OBLIGATORY SHARING AND CARING WITH OUR RESOURCES. Consider the many practices we are taught in our Torah about which parts of our crops that are harvested in our fields are ours and which parts BELONG TO OTHERS, with our responsibility being to insure that the distribution of THESE resources to THESE others actually occurs, through giving them an opportunity to COME INSIDE of “our property,” so to speak, and WORK FOR THEIR ACCESS TO THESE RESOURCES. This is Social Justice in a Jewish way – it is not just distribution of resources, be it money, food, clothing, or even pockets of donated time. Rather, it is the ongoing engagement in BRINGING THE OTHER INSIDE OUR CIRCLE and providing for each person as ONE OF US. This is the society that John Rawls encourages us to strive for – in which each person can achieve their potential in a constructive and meaningful manner through such access.

Rachie talks often of her experiences in townships in South Africa when she was a student at the University of Cape Town a few years ago and more recently in New Orleans. She explains how cultural context creates significant boundaries of which we must be aware. In Cape Town, she was this rich, white, educated privileged young woman who came to help (and she tried to do so in a meaningful manner) poor black kids in the townships who were without resources and with very limited opportunity. In New Orleans when she works with her predominately male prisoner population, she is the Northeast white Jewish girl with the education and the opportunity that they never had.

How do we help in such situations? How do we ENTER the world of the other and more importantly, bring them INTO OUR WORLD? Is this even possible on any level at all? For me, Tzedakah is about giving out…. We are taught by our Jewish sources to not have our hand JUMP when we give money, that is to do so graciously, looking the other person in the eyes and letting that person know that WE SEE THEM. This is difficult enough to do. How much harder it is to work, truly and continually ENGAGE OURSELVES in the tasks related to social justice with those with whom we cooperate and work to build such a community? Here we bring the people with whom we are engaged into our world. We recognize that this is an ideal but in actuality how much are we prepared to do so?

Consider this one fact that Rachie pointed out to me. Churches often run shelters IN THEIR BUILDINGS for homeless members of the community, invite these same people to worship and prepare food for and SIT AND EAT with these same people. How many of our synagogues, shuls, and temples do this?

This is a challenge. I love the teaching (words that Rachie lives by) that “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time,… but if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” This comes to us from an Aboriginal Activist Group from Queensland in the 1970’s.

So how do we do this in our world, practically, really, and honestly? Is it even possible? Maybe Margeret Meade can help us with this one, when she teaches that if we each take care of our one square foot of the earth (and all that are included), we will have accomplished some degree of social justice, so to speak.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Our Leaders and A Reality Check

So, I am in the process of teaching the work of Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato, or Ramchal, to my Tenth Grade class on Jewish Thinking and Philosophy. I love teaching Luzzato because he brings so many different endeavors of thought and intellectual pursuit in his work. He also reminds us of probably the most important tenet to remember as human beings, Jews or otherwise. WE ARE FLAWED HUMAN BEINGS and must be content to live with these flaws. The only true perfection or שלמות אמיתית as Ramchal calls it resides with G-d. ONLY THE CREATOR IS PERFECT NOT THOSE THAT THE CREATOR CREATES – that would be us. Now, on one level this can be disconcerting, but what does every therapy and support program known to us teach us – the best way to love and cherish ourselves is to accept ourselves – our flaws along with what we love best about us. I think this is so basic (remember the very middle of the Torah teaches “and you shall love your neighbor/friend, including that which is not so great about him, as yourself!” ואהבת לרעך כמוך

A simple concept to be sure, but…. This is not always the behavior modeled by our leaders. We are seeing ongoing articles and information in so many public arenas about our leaders in our country, in Israel, and yes, in the leadership of our Jewish community who are leading by tying the noose of the power they wield around the necks of those of us who live in the community, while abusing and considering themselves above and beyond the reach of law. This is absolutely against everything I have ever learned about what it means to be a Jew. Don’t we always teach that we are to lead BY FOLLOWING THE RULES AND LAWS GIVEN US BY G-D, THE ONLY PERFECT ONE and not make it up as we go along, so to say? Isn’t that the point of Torah M’Sinai?

So, why is it that I am constantly dealing with people who are feeling the horrible impact of what is going on with the reversal of conversions that are LEGITIMATE and HALACHIC in Israel while some of the very gatekeepers of this decision are being investigated for crimes and misdeeds that we would never accept in our own lives – those of us who care, anyway?! Why are we seeing such abuse of individuals in our community, such as our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and friends and others who are gay while they are so intent on being שומרי מצוות and yet feel that they are not welcome in our shuls and Jewish institutions too often? Why are women becoming more and more invisible in a growing sector of the Orthodox observant community? This pains me to no end.

My own children who are all as observant as they can be on so many levels DO NOT FEEL COMFORTABLE AND EMBRACED by our Orthodox world because of this… and yes, let’s call it what it is, HYPOCRACY! How sad this makes me, how very sad and despondent. They are each wonderful role models and fabulous exemplars of everything that is wonderful about being Jewish and yet, feel marginalized too often. Admittedly, I have certainly felt this as well but just plod on through because I have just been doing so my whole life. This is not good enough for my children! I can’t fault them for this. They can and should be AMONGST OUR LEADERS but alas, will not…. not in that way anyway, not within the community in which they grew up and learned how to be the wonderful human beings they are. What a loss. How many other wonderful people feel the same way? Who does this leave us with for our leadership? I know…. the ones who make up the rules as they go along without the feeling of modesty and respect that we see in our fathers and mothers of old… and as they lead, the community over which they wield their power will become more and more depleted of wonderful Jewish exemplars of the closest to perfection we as humans dare come while these leaders might feel that they can continue to cross every line of decency and lawful behavior.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Melech Chezkiahu and the Wall -- Soulful Teaching of Text

I have written before about the value and focus of Soulful Teaching and Learning. In fact I am now looking forward to a week of this careful and quieter mode of learning and consideration of texts and teachings with all of my high school classes I teach – I habitually try to do this the last week of the academic term when there are so many other pressures and demands on them. I love the notion of truly engaging in Torah Lishmah – learning and consideration of the texts for the sake of …. learning and consideration of the texts. It’s kind of like intellectual yoga.

So, as I prepare for this week (my Hannukah gift to myself and my students as it turns out, I guess) of soulful learning, my son Brian and I came across a great text in our learning of Gemara that is instructive in soulful learning, prayer, and so much else.

On Berachot 10b, we find a discussion regarding King Hezekiah and Isaiah in terms of asking and answering the question of whether the King should come to the prophet when there needs to be a delivery of news or the prophet should go to the King to do so. As the teachers and voices of the Gemara often do, there is an example given of each case, when the prophet Eliyahu came to King Achav to deliver news and conversely, King Yehoram came to the prophet Elisha to hear his news. So, G-d, we are told facilitates the answer that Isaiah should go to Hezekiah and this occurs circumstantially when Hezekiah falls ill (how did G-d manage that, you might ask?!).

At any rate, Isaiah has some particularly difficult news to deliver to Hezekiah, that his entire lineage and household will die and end. The report is specifically “you will die and you will not live.” In the Gemara, we see a discussion in which it is suggested that “you will die” refers to what will happen in this world (HaOlam HaZeh) and “you will not live” refers to not being given a portion in the world to come (HaOlam HaBa). Hezekiah is devastated, as we can imagine, and we read as follows “he turned to the wall and prayed to G-d.” As the discussion moves on, we are confronted by the question “what is meant by wall?” Then comes the suggestion that is the reason for this inspiration. The notion is presented that Hezekiah turns inward to THE WALLS of his heart. What a wonderful idea! When we soulfully learn and pray and consider our station in life, we are to move away from all of the distractions and STUFF around us and focus on turning INWARD TO THE WALLS OF OUR HEART.

As the text continues, Hezekiah tries to make what he has done wrong better and tries to undo his ultimate punishment. This does not happen and Hezekiah dies --- perhaps a broken man. But, look at the powerful lesson he has left us – we should engage in soulful learning and prayer by turning to the wall – that is the walls of our heart, for there we find G-d, we find our past, present and future, we find ourselves! Hag HaUrim Sameach, Shabbat Shalom, and my gift to all of us is may we find our way to soulful learning and prayer.