Monthly Archives: March 2017

Just the Evidence, Ma’am

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 3/20/17

Some of you will remember the TV show Dragnet, which ran on first NBC and then ABC through the entire decade of the 50s.  Week in and week out a dedicated audience would tune in to watch the adventures of the plain spoken detective – what was his name?  Joe Friday (Jack Webb) – as he methodically and systematically investigated crimes, solved cases, and brought in the bad guys.  There was very little actual action in the show.  Occasionally Joe Friday might draw his gun and run after a criminal.  But for the most part he went about his job using his mind, interviewing people who were connected to the case, figuring out what the truth was by assembling the facts.  And if you remember the show you also remember Joe Friday’s famous phrase, which became part of the vernacular – what was it?  Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

It is sad to say, but it is hard to imagine Joe Friday being successful in today’s world.  The criminals he chased down were not psychopaths or serial killers, they didn’t have some kind of infernal plot to destroy an entire city like so many of today’s TV evildoers.  There was no violence in the show, I don’t recall even a fist fight, there were no explosions, no car chases.  There were no fancy cars for that matter – I think Joe Friday drove around an old Buick – and no fancy clothes – just a plain grey suit, a white shirt, and a dark skinny tie.  And of course in those days, in the 50s – admittedly a simpler time – there were actual facts – something that today seems to be regularly called into question.

So in Joe Friday’s world, he could say ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ and everyone knew what he meant.  There was a fundamental assumption shared by all that facts could be determined, and once they were determined they were not debated.  Something either happened or it didn’t.  A person said something, or they didn’t say something.  If you read something in the newspaper or heard Walter Cronkite say it on TV you believed it was true.

But today we seem to be in a different place.  Facts are debated, not accepted.  People seem to make assertions about what did or did not happen based more on what they wished had transpired, as opposed to what actually did.  This isn’t entirely new, and no question it is something that has been going on in politics in one way or another for awhile, but it does feel like it has reached a new level.  Certainly a number of assertions that have been made by the current administration don’t seem to have any factual support at all, from inaugural numbers to wire tapping accusations to voter fraud.  But the left does it too.  You may remember the uproar a couple of weeks ago from the about Uber, the car service.  There were claims that when JFK airport taxi drivers joined in a strike against the administration’s immigrant policy Uber had rushed in and taken advantage.  Almost immediately the left started a #deleteUber campaign to try to get people to stop using the service.  The problem was, there was no actual evidence that Uber had done anything wrong.  To put it simply, there were no facts to support the claim that the left was making.

And it is precisely about this issue that Judaism might have something to teach us.  Going all the way back to Torah times Judaism has insisted on the use of evidence to determine what has happened or not happened.  The Torah teaches that witnesses – first hand, eye witnesses – must be consulted when criminal cases are tried.  And one eye witness is never sufficient – at least two are required, because when two people say the same thing it is more likely to be true.  Rabbinic law develops this idea further in the Talmud, creating strict criteria for determining whether witnesses should be considered trustworthy, and also describing an extensive procedure for examining witnesses to make sure that the actual facts of any given case are being uncovered.  Joe Friday might not be very comfortable with the way we deal with facts today, but had he studied the Jewish laws about evidence requirements and witnesses he would have been in very familiar surroundings.

The Torah also insists that the system of law should not be influenced by the power, or lack thereof, of those involved in any given case.  That is to say that a poor person should not be believed just because they are poor – nor should a wealthy person, a person in a position of power, be believed just because of who they are.  The very same requirements of evidence apply either way.  Neither the low person or the high person on the totem pole should get any preferential treatment.  Torah law is insistent on this point, teaching in Leviticus 19 the following:  לא תישא פני דל ולא תהדר פני גדול – do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich – rather judge them fairly. (19:15)

In fact I would argue that the Torah seems to believe that even God is not to be believed without verification.  In this morning’s portion we read about the sin of the golden calf.  It is a story we know well – Moses at the top of the mountain, communing with God, receiving the law, while the people at the mountain’s base are worshipping an idol.  At a certain point God says to Moses ‘hey, you had better get down there, the people are out of control, and they are worshipping an idol.’  And Moses’ first reaction is to defend the people and try to calm God down.  Once he does this Moses goes down himself, and he is carrying the tablets that God gave him.  What does he doe with those tablets?  He breaks them!  When?  Not until he sees with his own eyes what has actually transpired.

God have given Moses testimony.  God had told Moses exactly what was going on.  If he fully believed God, why didn’t he just break the tablets right then and there?  But he doesn’t – he waits until he has seen it with his own eyes, until the actual evidence is right in front of him – and at that point, the facts become clear to him, and he acts, shattering the tablets and punishing the people.  It seems that even with God the tradition insists on actual evidence to establish the facts, to determine what has or has not happened.

I think we should insist on the same.  When statements are made today, regardless of who makes them, when stories are reported, regardless of whether we hear about them on Fox News or read about them in the NY Times, we should follow our tradition and wait for the evidence to appear.  A claim without evidence is not a fact – it is simply a claim.  That was not good enough for Moses, even though the claim came from God.  It was certainly never good enough for Joe Friday.  And it shouldn’t be good enough for us either.  Just the evidence, ma’am, just the evidence.

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One Good Day

For me, the ingredients are simple and straight forward.  First of all a chance to read, to spend time with my mind drifting to the furthest shore, to go back in time or forward, and then back again, to visit faraway lands, to feel the sting of loss or the triumph of truth or the swell of a heart, all through the pages of a book.  Perhaps also to study a new subject, or to relearn an old one.  To reflect on the issues of the day.  I still read the ‘old fashioned’ way – real books, with covers and pages, even actual newspapers, dirty-finger producing, paper crinkling, awkwardly sized as they might be.

The second thing?  Just some family time.  Unhurried, unscheduled, no clear agenda, no places to be, no times to keep.  There is a simple and calm joy in those moments, rare as they are, almost a quiet wonderment, a lightness of being and a poignant feeling of gratitude.  Just to be together.  To celebrate, without word or ritual, or even thought, the powerful connection that binds us to those we love.

And also to spend some time outside.  Preferably during the liminal moments of the day, dawn or dusk, the sun rising or falling, the colors changing, the unmistakable sense that the world is moving beneath your very feet.  To mark the wind and see  – yes, see – the air.  To hear the sharp bark of a dog, the rustle of a breeze, the subtle song of a bird.  To notice how an acorn falls from a tree, or how the nose of a rabbit wrinkles again and again, wondering if the scent of danger has arrived.  To walk in quiet thought, pondering, musing, considering, and also wondering – how is it that this great world in all its beauty is somehow connected to me?

Last but not least, to play my guitar.  Not particularly well, of course.  But just to strum the strings and form the chords, to juxtapose the majors and minors, to pick a simple melody which has been picked so many times before, for so many years.  Perhaps to play a song I’ve loved, and to hum along, occasionally forming the words in my mind.  There is something calming about it to me, almost meditative.  The world outside recedes, the troubles and tribulations and sorrows and sadnesses begin to fade.  For the song is eternal. It was always in the world, just waiting for some unknowing person to pick up an instrument at just the right time, so the song can, ever briefly, find a home.  It may stay for a time, a generation or even two, and then it will go back to the place from whence it came.  But while it dwells with me, in my hands, in my mind, in the sweet spruce and dark mahogany woods of my guitar, it brings a sense of soul-calm.

But soon the guitar must be laid aside, the song let go.  Darkness has fallen, somehow the day is coming to an end.  And the dog must be walked!  A last dish or two attended to.  And if I hurry some time, at the very end of this day, to go back to my book.

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Anti-Semitism and Rising Tides

This a text of my shabbat sermon from 3/4/17 –

A generation ago my father, growing up here in Baltimore in the lower Park Heights area, was all too familiar with anti-semitism.  There were particular days when he would choose one way to walk home from school because he felt he was less likely on that route to encounter a group of boys that would try to beat him up because he was Jewish.  My dad ran track at City College – his event was the high hurdles – and he said to me many times when recounting some of the trials and tribulations of his youth that he was grateful he was one of the faster runners around.

I also encountered anti-Semitism growing up in the small town of Binghamton, in upstate New York.  Some of it came from a place of simple ignorance – my friends’ mother once asked me if I had ever seen my Orthodox relatives without their hats.  When I told her I had, she in all seriousness asked me if they had horns on their heads.  But there were also some malicious incidents along the way.  I remember in particular one evening where a drunk man was pounding on the door of our home screaming anti-semitic slurs at my father, who after all was conspicuous as a Jewish doctor in a town with few Jews.

My children, by and large – the next generation – as far as I know, have been free from any kind of anti-Semitic experience.  Part of that has to do with growing up in the heart of Baltimore’s tight knit Jewish community.   But part of it also has to do with the gradual dissipation of anti-semitic sentiment in this country.  It was only one generation ago where Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods, or where schools like Hopkins had ‘Jewish quotas,’ or where certain law firms, or accounting firms, or businesses, would not employ Jews.  But today, thank goodness, a Jew can live in any neighborhood, work at any job, go to any school, or work at any business without fear of disclosing his or her religious identity.  Over the last couple of generations the Jewish community in America has become the most successful, integrated, and wealthy diasporic Jewish community in history.

Now was there anti-semitism out there?  Of course there was.  It would rear its ugly head when a comment would slip out about ‘Jewing’ somebody down, or in a crude joke someone would make about how Jews like money, or have big noses.  But by and large in the last quarter century or so as Jews in this country we felt safe and secure, we felt confident, we felt American, we felt accepted.  Do we still feel that way today?

Ten years ago a rabbi probably would not have felt the need to ask his or her congregation that question in America.  Maybe in parts of Europe or South America, but not here.  And yet I imagine you know why I am asking you that question today.  This week again there were bomb threats delivered by phone to JCCs around the country, and also for the first time in the recent spate of such calls, to Jewish day schools.  Another Jewish cemetery was desecrated earlier in the week, this time in the Philadelphia area.   We have seen a rash of anti-semitic incidents over the last 6 months unprecedented in my lifetime, and in the last two months alone we have seen 90 such incidents in 73 locations in 30 different states.

Now it may be that with the first arrest in these cases, late yesterday afternoon, things will begin to settle down sooner as opposed to later.  What we would hope to see in terms of how this has been addressed is what we have seen – local law enforcement agencies and the FBI on a national level have taken this very seriously and have been working with the various Jewish organizations from day 1 to ensure first of all safety, and second of all that those responsible would be held accountable and punished.  But what I want to think about with you for the next couple of minutes is what creates the kind of atmosphere that becomes fertile ground for this kind of behavior.  Why all of a sudden is this going on?  What has changed?

And I think the President, in the beginning of his speech from the other night – the first couple of sentences – had it exactly right.  Let me quote those sentences for you:  “Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our Nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

You see what he did?  He connected the dots between three things: Black History Month, the recent anti-semitic incidents, and the shooting in Kansas City.  If you are not familiar with that shooting, it was a hate crime perpetrated against Indians because of their ethnic identity.  Three separate minority groups – the African American community, the Jewish community, the Indian community.  And the president is suggesting that when one of those groups is threatened, they are all threatened.  The old saying is a rising tide lifts all boats.  But the opposite is also true.  To use the metaphor when the water sinks to a low level, it brings everyone down.  When one minority group is targeted, when it starts to feel acceptable to go after one minority group, other minority groups will soon be targeted as well.

That seems to me an important idea for the Jewish community to remember when dealing with the current anti-semitic activity.  We have been very strong in speaking out and standing up for our rights and freedoms as these incidents have occurred week after week.  As we should!  But what I want to argue this morning is that we must be just as public, and just as forceful, in defending the rights of other minority groups.

When any minority group is threatened and targeted – the Muslim community, the African American community, the LGBTQ community – any minority group – Jews should be the first to speak out about it and to come to that group’s defense.  First of all because it is the right thing to do.  But secondly, because our fate is connected to theirs.  When you let the hate and the prejudice and the racism out of the bottle, it doesn’t neatly and carefully go into one little area and stop.  It seeps and bleeds and creeps to the next group, and then the next.  And we have to remember as Jews we are one of those groups.

One week from tonight its Purim, and we’ll gather together here in the Berman Rubin for our annual reading of the Megilah, the story of Ester.  One of my favorite verses in the entire Bible is in the 4th chapter of that book – this is Mordecai speaking to his niece Ester, now the queen:  “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life because you are in the King’s palace.  On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, delivery may come from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.”

Long ago those words spurred Ester to action.  The Jewish community today should not forget that lesson, those words, or Ester’s activism as we wrestle with our own world and its challenges and troubles.  May our people and our communities be part of the tikkun, the healing, that we all hope to bring about for a better, safer, and kinder world.

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