Category Archives: politics

He Said She Said

Like the first baseman chatting with the player who just hit a single, we’ll never know what that exchange between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren was about at the end of the most recent Democratic primary debate.  From all appearances it didn’t look warm and fuzzy.  There was no handshake, no body language of ‘we’re all in this together.’  If anything, it looked more like an agree to disagree moment.  That may be the best we’ll get at this point.

I am guessing that you know that the entire kerfuffle came about because of a disputed statement, supposedly made by Sanders to Warren, during a closed door meeting.  She said he said that a woman can never be president.  He is saying that what he actually said is a woman won’t be able to beat Trump.  When asked about it at the debate, he denied, while she came up with the line of the night (only the women on this stage are undefeated in elections!).  Whichever one of her staffers came up with that zinger should get a bonus.

I am less interested in the he said, she said than in the substance of the claim itself.  Actually, both claims.  Can a woman be president?  And can a woman beat Trump in a general election?  The answer to both questions has to be yes.  The first one is easy to answer – of course at some point a woman will be president.  Many have pointed to the fact that Hillary Clinton had millions of more votes than Trump, despite losing in the electoral college system.  That alone indicates that women are very close.  It seems (to me, at least) it is just a matter of time.

Which leads to the second question – can a woman beat Trump in a general election?  We can’t answer that by returning to Hillary’s simple majority victory.  Instead, what we are really asking is can two specific women – namely, Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar – beat the current president in the upcoming election of 2020?  You would have to hope so.  Both women are intelligent, well versed in the issues, savvy, have a nuanced understanding of and respect for the political system, and are experienced as well.  But the real answer is we won’t know until first of all, one of them becomes the nominee, and second of all, the general election results are counted in November of this year.

One thing I can tell you for sure – the time feels ripe for a woman in the White House.  Just take a quick glance around at popular culture, always, I believe, a good measure of the general zeitgeist.  Little Women has returned as a splendid movie that feels entirely contemporary, with its protagonist Jo March playing as a proto-feminist character.  If you watch the Crown on Netflix you are currently seeing a truly spectacular performance by Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth.  The series Fleabag  on Amazon (via the BBC) has become a sleeper hit with its living on the edge lead character making her life in London.  Even the newest Star Wars trilogy focuses on a young woman as its central hero!

You may remember the Star Wars setup line:  A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

If it can happen there, it can happen here.  In fact, maybe it should!  We will all know soon enough.

And by the way, can it only be coincidence that the Queen and Senator Warren share the same first name?

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Strangers in a Strange Land

Following is a text version of my sermon from 12/14, touching on the Executive Order signed this week to combat anti-Semitism.

     It has been a tumultuous week in the news, to say the least, from the election results in England to the need for a third election in Israel, to the impeachment hearings taking place in Washington DC, to the tragic shooting in Jersey City.  But there was a particular story that, at least for a couple of days in the middle of the week, captured the attention of the Jewish community.  That was the signing of an Executive Order by the President entitled Executive Order on Combatting Anti-Semitism.  As with so many other issues these days, reaction was swift and at times fierce, some people in the Jewish community claiming this was a good thing for the Jews, others claiming it was not so good.  

     If you didn’t follow the story, the order essentially connects Jewish identity to Title VI of the Civil Rights act that was passed in 1964.  That act outlaws discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance.  So, for example, if a university receives financial assistance from the Federal Government – and most do – and it refused to hire someone because of their race – that university would lose the federal assistance it receives.  And for many universities this is serious money – at Maryland, for example, %16 of the budget comes from federal money.  And the new Executive Order ensures that this same law will be applied to Jews.

     Whether in the end this will be good or bad for the Jews only time will tell.  If I had to guess at this point it will be mostly neither good nor bad.  If you’ve read the order it has a parve feel to it, and sometimes within the document, which is short – the whole thing is about a page long – there are sections that work at cross purposes, and it really doesn’t say anything new as far as I can tell.  I would honestly be surprised if at some point in the near future we read a story in the paper about the Order actually being applied in a court of law.  

     What did catch people’s attention about the order, particularly in the Jewish community, was the inclusion of Jewish identity in the general rubric of the Title VI law, which again, is about race, color, and national identity.  And of course the question about this is does Judaism fall into any of those categories?  By and large we understand Judaism as a faith tradition, as a religion, like Islam, or Catholicism.  You cannot convert into another race or nationality.  If I wanted to be Italian, for example, I can’t!  There is no mechanism, no structure, that I can use to become Italian – it is a nationality, an ethnic identity.  But it is possible to convert to Judaism.  That in and of itself seems to indicate that Judaism is defined not as an ethnic identity, but as a faith, a religion.

     That being said, there is a strong ethnic flavor to Jewish life.  You can’t find, for example, lox, or herring, or gefilte fish for that matter, listed as requirements for a Jewish diet in any of the codes of Jewish law.  But those foods are associated with Jews and with Jewish life, with Jewish breakfasts and lunches.  There is a tribal sense to being Jewish, and that comes from ethnic identification.  In the most recent Pew study of the Jewish community younger Jews report that they are very proud to be Jewish, but they don’t want to do anything religious.  And what that means by definition is that they see themselves as Jews, even though they are not at all engaged in religious life.  How can they do that if not through their ethnicity, through ethnic or national identity?

     So the truth seems to be that Judaism is an odd bird in terms of the world’s great faith traditions.  It is a weird hybrid of ethnic and national identity, on the one hand, and religion on the other.  It is possible to live your life as a proud Jew, connected to Jewish history, to the Jewish people, proud of Israel, and to be entirely areligious.  You can’t say that, for example, about Catholicism.  It just wouldn’t work.  

     In part Judaism developed this way over time because we have so often in our history lived in lands that were not ours.  When Moses’ wife Zipporah has their first child she names the boy Gershom, and she gives the name an etymology, an explanation for its origin.  The name Gershom comes from two words – גר – which means stranger – and שם – which means there.  “I was a stranger there,” or as Zipporah herself says it in the Torah, גר הייתי בארץ נכריה – literally, I was a stranger in foreign land.  And that sums up the majority of Jewish history.  

     And that also is the story of our ancestor Jacob, about whom we read in this morning’s Torah portion.  At the beginning of the reading we find Jacob returning to the land of his birth, but he has been away for twenty years, living in a land not his own.  If you think about it the arc of Jacob’s life parallels the history of the American Jewish community.  He leaves home as a young man, with nothing – he himself says כי במקלי עברתי את הירדן הזה – I left with a staff in my hand, nothing else.  Exactly like our grandparents and great grandparents left Eastern Europe, with a few bags, with little to no money, with virtually nothing in terms of material possessions.  

     And then Jacob arrives in Haran.  A foreigner, a stranger there.  But he makes a good life.  He marries, he has children, he works hard, he is clever, and also smart.  He builds a business, becomes very wealthy, his life is a success in every measurable way.  And again the parallel to the American Jewish community and our ancestors – coming to these shores, working hard, emphasizing the importance of education and the intellect, creating successful businesses, and over time the Jewish community here, and many of our families, becoming successful and thriving.

     But Jacob never feels fully settled in Haran.  And he is never fully accepted.  He always feels that he is other, he remains the stranger who arrived with nothing so many years ago.  And I think that is also our experience here.  Despite the fact that we’ve put down roots, despite the successes we’ve had, despite the level of assimilation, the way we’ve integrated into American life – despite all of that, there are moments when we are reminded we are still ‘other,’ still looked at as strangers.  

     The shooting in Jersey City this week was certainly one of those moments, now one in a series of anti-semitic incidents that our community has had to grapple with over the last year plus.  But the Executive Order signed into law this week is also one of those moments.  It is theoretically designed to protect Jewish life, but it is also a reminder that we are still seen as a distinct minority, we are still seen as other, by the culture and society in which we live.  

     That is why we need each other.  And by the way we need each other in both senses of Jewish identity, both ethnically and religiously.  We need that tribal feeling of connection and caring, that sense of responsibility, of looking out for one another and caring for each other.  But we also need a connection to religious life, to our distinct rituals and customs and holy days.  We need to have Hanukkah when there is so much Christmas around us!  

     We should always be grateful for where we are.  We have been truly blessed as Jews to make a life, both as families and as a community, here in America.  But when we are grateful for where we are, we should never forget who we are.  Ethnically, religiously, in every facet of our being, in every aspect of our lives.

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Gun Laws

As the nation goes through yet another round of soul searching following not one, but two mass shootings that took place within a few hours of each other, I would suggest our legislators look to Israel to get a sense of what responsible gun regulation legislation looks like.

Maybe that sounds surprising to you.  There is a common misconception among Americans that guns are commonplace in Israel, that most Israelis own guns and know how to use them.  How often do Americans return from their first trip to Israel struck by the vision of young Israelis, many still in their late teens, walking the streets of Jerusalem in their Army uniforms, machine guns slung over their shoulders?  And it is true that Israelis are more familiar with guns than most Americans, because the vast majority of Israelis serve in the military where they are trained in the use of firearms.  But the truth is guns are very carefully and thoughtfully regulated in Israel.

First off, there are a series of preconditions that Israelis must meet before they can even apply for a gun license.  They must first of all be of a minimum age.  That is defined as 20 if you have completed your military service.  Let me restate that.  In Israel, even if you’ve served in the military and been trained in the use of firearms, you can’t apply for personal gun ownership until you are 20.  And if for some reason you did not serve in the Army, you can’t own a gun until you are 27 years old.  27!  In addition, background checks are strict.  Any person who applies for a gun license must include medical information from his or her doctor, with the doctor’s knowledge that the person is applying for gun ownership.  The doctor takes into account both physical and mental health in the evaluation.  Once the individual satisfies these requirements, they are permitted to apply.

In the application the individual must explain why he or she needs to own a gun.  And the answer ‘because I want to keep my home safe at night’ is not acceptable.  Licenses are typically granted to people who might regularly cross through the West Bank, or who work in security, people who could find themselves in truly dangerous situations.  Figures vary, but estimates are that minimally 40% of applicants are rejected.  Let alone the fact that the entire process of applying takes many months.

Even more importantly, gun ownership is tracked carefully by the State.  Citizens are permitted to own a single gun at a time.  One gun at a time.  If you want to sell your gun, you have to ask the Israeli government for permission first.  Ammunition is also regulated.  An Israeli can legally be in possession of fifty bullets at any given time.  That is it.  Before they buy new bullets they must shoot or return the old ones, and that has to happen at a tightly regulated shooting range where the bullets – the bullets themselves! – are registered.

There is more, but I suspect you have a pretty good sense of it at this point.  After these most recent shootings the President, parroting Fox News, talked about the problems of mental health and video games.  Clearly mental health plays a role in these tragedies.  But video games?  Seriously?  The problem is crystal clear, in each and every shooting, one after another after another:  someone who should not have a gun was able to quickly and easily purchase one, and often times more than one, with as much ammunition as they wanted.

The Israelis, pragmatists that they are, understand this and have taken care of it through strict and responsible gun regulation.  When American Jews talk to their legislators about Israel, they might want to remind them that along with Israel’s many other accomplishments it has some of the most tightly regulated gun laws in the world.

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Same as it Ever Was

In the fall of 1980 the Talking Heads released their fourth studio album, entitled ‘Remain in Light.’  Jimmy Carter’s presidency was winding down, and in November, a month after the record was released, the country would elect Ronald Reagan to be its 40th president.  The signature song of Remain in Light would become Once in a Lifetime, a charged blending of funk and world music beats overlaid with David Bryne’s surrealistic ravings delivered in a series of preacher-like cadences.  Here are the lyrics of the memorable first verse:

And you may find yourself
Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself
In another part of the world
And you may find yourself
Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

In the band’s live version of the song, recorded for its 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense, Byrne shakes, trembles, and sweats as he sings, conveying the sense of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  It is all too much.  Too much going on.  Too much to understand.  Too much information.  What is real, what is important, what is true, what false, and how, indeed, did we get here?

One answer to that question is found in the song’s haunting refrain, that Byrne hypnotically chants over and over, slapping his hand against his forehead – ‘same as it ever was.’  It is in essence a reframing of the famous biblical line from Ecclesiastes 1:9:  ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’  Here is that verse in its entirety:  “What was will be again, what has been done will be repeated, for there is not a single new thing under the sun.”  In other words we get to ‘here’ because it is inevitable.  We don’t have a choice because we are doomed to repeat the same story lines over and over.  Make the same mistakes, never grow, never change, never break new ground.  Same as it ever was.

I’ve been thinking about both the song and the verse from Ecclesiastes over the last weeks, while finishing Jill Lepore’s masterful one volume history of the United States, entitled ‘These Truths.’  In vivd and elegant prose Lepore recounts moment after moment in the history of our nation.  Many of those moments are glorious, stirring tales of the human spirit at its very best.  In generation after generation Americans stepped forward to risk everything for values that we hold to be true and eternal – human dignity, freedom, justice, and mercy among them.

And yet.  Reading through the book’s 800 plus pages also reminded me that so many of the sorrows and troubles we live with today have been a part of our country from the very beginning.  Lepore makes it clear that racism is chief among those.  But we must also add to that list populism, political partisanship, poverty, the conservative / liberal divide, wealth inequality, and the list goes on and on.  Just like in the Talking Heads song, or the verse from Kohelet, we got here because we’ve been here before, and we just can’t seem to figure out a way to move forward.  Same as it ever was.

But I did not put the book down in a state of despair.  Instead I felt inspired, touched, moved, and reenergized.  In a way what is truly astonishing is that we have not given up.  We keep trying.  There are lights along the way, great figures and thinkers that show us who we are and encourage us to be better.  They help us to move down the road just a bit, a step or two.  Sometimes we slide back, sucked in by selfishness or fear to past mistakes and hatreds, repeating and revisiting them as if for the very first time.  But other times we are better.  We do better.  We live up to the ideals that we believe should define our country, our lives, and ourselves.

Of course the true question is how can we more consistently follow, using Lincoln’s term, ‘the better angels of our nature?’  There is no clear answer to that question.  One thing we should all know – it is not easy work.  Another is that Lepore’s splendid book can remind us all of where we’ve been, which will help us chart a safer and straighter course through the storms of the future.  Perhaps that is why she concludes the prayerful last paragraph of her history with the metaphor of a boat sailing on choppy seas:

“It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea.  If they meant to repair the tattered ship, they would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer haunted forest and raise a new mast that could pierce the clouded sky.  With sharpened adzes, they would have to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true.  They would need to drive home the nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill.  Knowing that heat and sparks and anvils are not enough, they would have to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals.  And to steer that ship through wind and wave, they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art:  how to navigate by the stars.”

In that clarion call Lepore reminds us all that the stars are there if we have the vision to see them, and the strength and will we need to chart the course.

For those interested here is a link to the classic Talking Heads performance of ‘Once in a Lifetime.’

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A Thin Blue Line

A paraphrase of the title of the 1988 documentary film ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ about the mistaken murder conviction of Randall Adams for the killing of police officer Robert Wood.  The events the film investigates took place in Dallas, Texas, in the fall of 1976.  The title of the movie is taken from a phrase the prosecutor uses in his closing argument at Adams’ trial – the police in essence form a ‘thin blue line’ that separates an ordered society from anarchy.

I would argue there are other ‘thin lines’ of varying colors that serve the same purpose.  The rule of law, the democratic system, honesty in voting, decorum in public discourse, honesty and integrity, and personal responsibility, just to name a few.  All of these ideals form, each in their own way, a thin line between ordered society and anarchy.  We might throw in the separation of church and state as well.  At different times one or the other of these lines might strain, even crack, but if the others maintain their integrity the line – the big one that separates us from a total breakdown – holds.

Some might say those lines are being stretched and stressed as they never have before.  So it was heartening this week to see that there are still some lines that cannot be crossed, still some standards that are held as inviolable, even in Washington DC.  If you’ve followed the news you know that Representative Steve King of Iowa went on the record earlier in the week in an interview with the NY Times, stating “”White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”  King has a long history of making questionable, if not outright racist remarks about immigrants and minorities, and the fact that he occupies a seat in the House is troubling enough in and of itself.  But this last statement was beyond the pale, and politicians from both sides of the isle condemned King.  He also was stripped of his committee responsibilities.  Just a few minutes ago as I type this the House overwhelmingly voted to pass a resolution condemning King’s comments.

The line still holds.  At least it does today.

There is a concept in Judaism, ‘one should be killed, and not violate.’  The idea is there are certain commandments that are so central one must not violate them even upon pain of death.  The tradition specifies three commandments that fall into this category:  sexual sins, the spilling of blood, and worshipping idols.  The idea seems to be that the violation of said commandments so thoroughly corrupts the sinner that he or she becomes irredeemable.  In other words, the sinner crosses an inviolable line, and once they’ve crossed it, there is no way back.  Better to die knowing what you are and what you stand for than to be lost, both to yourself and to your culture and society.

What are we, and what do we stand for?  In part we answer those questions by the ‘thin lines’ we draw and how we protect them.  This week Steve King found out that at least one of those lines still holds.  What about the others?  Do they still hold?  And if so, do we have the will and the strength to make sure they do not break?

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Winter Reading

As the nights get longer and the days colder one might be tempted to spend time on the couch or in a favorite chair, sipping tea (or perhaps brandy, or whisky!*), and reading.  Here are a few suggestions for winter reading as we usher out 2018 and welcome in a new year:

The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey – This short novel (294 pages) describes in colorful detail life in the medieval village of Oakham during four days in February of 1491.  The village priest, John Reve, is the story’s main protagonist.  Part theologian, part pastor, part Sherlock Holmes, he struggles to understand how the body of a villager ended up in the river, drowned.  Fate or misfortune?  A Divine Decree fulfilled or a human plot gone awry?  The author’s beautiful prose will lead you backwards in time towards the answer to this delightful mystery.

These Truths, A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore – Critics have called this one volume (932 pages) history of the United States a ‘masterpiece.’  Lepore, a professor of American History at Harvard, analyzes key moments in the history of our nation, and ultimately creates a lens we can use to contextualize our current troubled and divisive times.    George Harrison, in his song Any Road (paraphrasing Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland) includes the lyric ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.’  Lepore’s point is exactly the opposite – it is by knowing where we’ve come from that we understand where we are, and gain insight into where we should be going.

And last, but buy no means least:

The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani – This series of short essays explores the way truth has historically been both understood and manipulated.  Read together, the chapters provide a devastating critique of the Trump administration’s attempt to reshape   how Americans understand what is real and what is not, and where actual truth resides.

*May I suggest a dram of Lagavulin 16 as the perfect match for a cold night, a warm blanket, and a good book.

And enjoy the reading!!

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Setting Aside Shabbat

There has been a bit of a brouhaha in Conservative Movement circles about the United Synagogue’s decision to allow their teens, in the context of a United Synagogue Youth program, to ride public transportation on Shabbat in order to participate in the march for sensible gun control on March 24th, in Washington DC.  This is a departure for USY, an organization that has done wonderful work with young people in the Movement, but has been for the most part rigidly and strictly devoted to a narrow interpretation of how Shabbat should be observed.

A couple of thoughts –

First, (and maybe foremost) doesn’t a loosening of Shabbat restrictions make sense given the observance level of the vast majority of people affiliated with the Conservative Movement?  Do we imagine that most of the young people who participate in our USY programs are Shabbat observant?  Do we think they don’t drive on Shabbat, use their computers and mobile phones, even go to the mall for that matter?  This is not to say we should throw the baby out with the bath water, but rather to suggest that we realistically look at who our teens are, and for that matter, who our adult congregants are as well.  It may be time to acknowledge that a narrow and strict definition of and adherence to Shabbat observance has become a thing of the past for the vast majority of Conservative Jews.

And secondly, if we want to stay in the realm of halacha (Jewish law) for a moment, lets think about the question of when it is appropriate, and even required, to set aside Shabbat observance for some other value.  In ancient times this was done so that on the Sabbath day the Temple’s sacrifices could still be offered.  In modern times this idea exists in a number of different areas, most prominently vis a vis the principle of preserving life, where virtually all halachic authorities agree that a physician may set aside Shabbat observance in order to attend to patients.  Brit milah (ritual circumcision) is another example.  If the 8th day fall on Shabbat, the bris is supposed to take place regardless.

Along these lines, doesn’t it then make sense to teach our teenagers a lesson.  Shabbat is important, one of the defining institutions of Judaism.  But there are times when other ideals, other values, other commitments, should take precedence.  Our teens this weekend will experience a meaningful sense of Shabbat, with Friday night dinners and services, Saturday morning study sessions, and sleeping in local synagogues.  But then on Saturday they’ll take their prepaid Metro cards, climb onto the DC subway, and join thousands of other teens in an effort to make a better, safer, holier world.

Some might in fact argue that there is no better way to spend our most sacred day.

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