Tag Archives: Twitter

Head Coverings and Harmful Words

A text version of my sermon from Shabbat morning services on 2/17/19 –

     It has been quite a week for Ilhan Omar, the freshman congresswoman from the state of Minnesota.  The 37 years old has a powerful background story.  She was born in Somalia, the youngest of seven siblings, and lost her mother when she was only 2 years old.  When she was in her early teens the Somali civil war began, and she fled the country with her family, spending four years in a refugee camp in Kenya.  When she was 14 her family’s application to come to the US as refugees was approved, and after living in the Virginia area they moved to Minnesota where she went to high school, and then on to college.  When she first came to this country she did not speak a word of English.

     By the time she was in high school she was already interested in politics, and throughout college worked on various political campaigns and issues.  Her rise in the political system has been rapid.  Three years ago she became the first Somali born Muslim legislator in the United States when she was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives.  And then just a month ago she was sworn in as the first ever Somali born Muslim member of congress.  In her personal life she is a wife, and a mother to three children.  She is smart, charismatic, and out spoken.  She is also young and has grown up in the world of technology, and like many politicians these days, she is a Twitter user.

     And that is what got her into some trouble this week, and brought her into the national spotlight.  Mrs. Omar has a history of strongly supporting the Palestinian cause, and has in the past not hesitated to criticize Israel.  But earlier in the week she sent out two tweets that contained traditional anti-semitic motifs, one the idea that Jews are overly concerned with money, and the other that Jews somehow are secretly controlling the government.  

     Reaction to these comments was both swift and furious.  The Jewish community was quick to condemn the tweets, and various and sundry Jewish organizations from around the world released statements that called attention to the anti-semitic tone of what she wrote.  Mrs. Omar was also severely criticized from both sides of the aisle in Washington, and she was called to what our past president Jerry Schnydman would call a ‘come to Moses’ meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  Not long afterwards Mrs. Omar sent out a tweet that apologized for her previous statements, which in part read as follows:  

“Anti-semitism is real, and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-semitic tropes.  My intention is never to offend my constituents or Jewish Americans as a whole.  We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity.  This is why I unequivocally apologize.”  

     Some in the Jewish community have not been satisfied with Mrs. Omar’s efforts to mend fences, but at this point I think we need to take her at her word.  The truth is an apology is worthless unless it is backed up by action, so we’ll see in the months ahead whether her actions show a deeper sensitivity to the Jewish community and a stronger understanding of what anti-semitism actually is.  As the saying goes, time will tell the tale.

     We night have expected better from Mrs. Omar.  After all, her story is in many ways the same as the stories of our own families.  An immigrant, escaping war, time spent in a refugee camp, arriving in this country with no money and unable to speak the language, working hard, obtaining an education, and becoming successful, making a better world for her children.  That is a story that fits my family, it fits Becky’s family, and I am guessing many of your families, because it contains all of the classic elements of the Jewish journey to America.  Certainly Mrs. Omar knows what it feels like to be an outsider, to be marginalized, and we might have hoped that precisely that experience would have helped her to understand what Jews have struggled with historically.  It is a curious irony of this whole business that if anyone should understand Mrs. Omar’s experience it is the Jews, and if anyone should understand our experience it is someone like her – because we’ve both been looked at and treated as ‘other.’

     Mrs. Omar is easy to spot in halls of Congress as she is punctilious about wearing her hijab – what is that?  The religious head covering worn by observant Muslim women as a sign of their connection to their faith and respect for God.  Her commitment to wearing the hijab if anything shows the courage of her convictions, and it is yet another connection to the Jewish experience, b because as Jews we certainly know what it means to wear religious garb.  We have, for example, the tallit that many of us are wearing this morning.  We also have the kippah, and I suspect that if there were a young Jewish member of congress who showed up to work each day wearing a kippah as a Jewish community that would be something in which we would take a lot of pride.  

     In fact you might be able to make the argument that we were the ones who invented religious garb.  All you have to do is spend a few minutes reading through this morning’s Torah portion to get a sense of how important the ritual clothing of the priests was in ancient times, specifically from this morning’s portion what the High Priest wore, not only the robes but the special breastplate, and the head covering, and all of the intricate details the Torah discusses.  I don’t know of any other tradition that codifies the use and type of ritual clothing the way does.  The High Priest’s special garments made him stand out, and he was immediately recognizable to the entire community.  Also the clothing he wore held him to a higher standard, serving as a reminder of the special duties that he had to serve the people and to serve God.  

     Certainly Mrs. Omar’s hijab makes her highly visible, to the point where she is one of the most immediately recognizable members of the House.  I would argue that it is precisely because of her visibility that she has an opportunity to be an example, both to the Muslim and the non-Muslim world.  I think the question she has to answer for herself is what does she want to be an example of?  If the answer to that question is fairness and tolerance, justice and understanding, and equality and possibility, then her apology is a step in the right direction.  We can only hope and pray that she will take the lessons from this experience to heart, and that she will continue to walk on that path towards a better, brighter, and more tolerant future for all.  

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Tweets and Coffee

     Well, if you follow the news at all you probably know it has been a tough week for Roseanne Barr, the actress and comedienne.  She had been riding high.  The reboot of her mega-hit sitcom was at the top of the ratings, and had just been renewed for a second season.  Roseanne seemed to be as popular as she was during the mid-90s, when her original show was pulling down huge ratings.  But as is true in many areas of life, everything can change in a single instant, or in her case with a single tweet.  And after sending that tweet – that many read as racist – a crude comment about an African American woman named Valerie Jarrett – Roseanne suddenly found the rug pulled out from under her.  Within a few hours ABC had cancelled her show, and she faced a firestorm of criticism, much of it coming at her on that same Twitter platform that got her in trouble in the first place.

     It seemed more than coincidental that all of this happened the very same week that Starbucks closed its stores – almost 8,000 of them across the US, so that its 175,000 employees could engage in a conversation about race, and could participate in a training program that was designed to help the workers be more sensitive to people of different racial backgrounds.  This was Starbucks’ response to an incident that occurred in one of its Philadelphia coffee shops, where staff called the Police on two African American men because they were sitting in the store and had not yet ordered.  In a moving and beautifully worded letter about the closure Howard Schultz, the founder of the company – who is Jewish by the way – wrote about the angst that he felt that something of this nature had happened in one of his stores, and about the plan the company had put together to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

     Many of you know that I grew up in the Reform movement, and I remember to this day one of the lines in the Reform Mahzor we used in my shul on the HHDs.  It was in that list of sins that we recite on YK, and the reason I remember it so well is that it had a word in it that I didn’t understand as a boy – it said this:  on the sin we have sinned, because of xenophobia.  Xenophobia, I thought as a boy?  How could any word that sounds so strange and seems so complicated be describing a sin?  It was only later that I found out – probably when I was studying vocabulary words for my SATs – that xenophobia meant fear of the other.  The word comes from two ancient Greek words – xenos, meaning ‘strange,’ or ‘foreigner.’  And the second word we all know – phobos, which means fear.  Fear of the stranger, of the other, of what you are not.

     Certainly as Jews we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that kind of fear.  I am reading the second volume in Simon Schama’s new history of the Jewish people.  It begins time wise in the mid 1400s, and location wise in Spain where Jews were being forcibly converted to Christianity by the thousands.  As we know many of these Jews – called Marannos – continued to live Jewish lives in secret.  But one of the things that struck me about Schama’s description of the period was that even when the Jews converted, and even the Jews who converted who lived faithful Christian lives – they were always under suspicion, they were always viewed as being other, different, suspicious, strange, even dangerous, and they were never fully accepted.  

     It may be that the natural human tendency to view ‘the stranger’ – those who are not like you – with suspicion is as old as human history.  It certainly is as old as the Bible, and that sense of xenophobia that seems so present in our society today is at the heart of a troubling story that appears in this morning’s Torah portion.  It is a difficult time for the Israelites as they begin their journey through the wilderness, a journey that will last for forty years.  And it is an even more difficult time for Moses, who has to deal with the people’s complaining, and a variety of rebellions along the way.  But I suspect the most difficult moment of the entire journey for Moses occurs in this morning’s reading because it is personal, it is his own brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, who are publicly speaking out against him.  And what is their complaint?  כי אישה כושית לקח – they complain that their brother has married a Cushite woman.  That is to say, he has married a foreigner, someone who is a stranger.  So Aaron and Miriam, two of the greatest figures in the Torah, fall prey to the sin of xenophobia.

     And if it can happen to Aaron and Moses, it can happen to any of us.  Particularly in these difficult times, when political discourse has become so strained and even conversation between friends can be so difficult.   I don’t know about you, but it feels to me like that natural human tendency to fear the other is as strong as it has been in a long, long time.  Which is one of the reasons why police are called when young black men are innocently sitting in a Starbucks.  And it is also one of the reasons, by the way, why anti-Semitism is on the rise.  The old saying is ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’  But the opposite is also true.  Xenophobia, racism, hatred, fear, mistrust of the other will not only affect a single group.  It will not only be directed at African Americans, or Muslims, or immigrants, or Jews – it will ultimately be directed at every minority group, and as that happens, it brings us all down, coarsening our society and our culture and diminishing our values.

     So in Roseanne’s tweet, you saw one reaction to what is going on, and that was to buy into it and to contribute to it.  To give in, either to the fear that she felt, or the distrust, or the racism, or maybe a combination of all of those things.  But in Howard Schultz’s letter, you saw a different reaction.  Not only the apology, the sincere regret, but also the determination to actually do something about it, to create something through his stores that would help, even if in a small way, to make our society more tolerant, more open, and more accepting.  So that, as he wrote in his letter, a Starbucks store will be a place where everyone feels welcome, regardless of where they’ve come from, what language they speak, what color their skin is, or what faith they believe in.  Don’t we need more places in America like that?

     The Torah would suggest the answer to that question is yes.  One thing Judaism is quite clear about is that God created all people, and that all people are equal in God’s eyes.  One faith tradition is not better than another, one skin color is not better than another, one ethnic identity is not better than another.  Our job is to always remember that.  If we are able to do that, if we are able to remember it, we will be living more authentically Jewish lives.  We will also, one conversation at a time, one interaction at a time, one friendship at a time, rise up together on a tide that draws us closer to one another, and to God.

may that be God’s will, may that be our work, and may we do it together – 

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Integrity

 

In his column in this morning’s NY Times David Brooks seems to suggest that we should evaluate the Trump presidency by dividing the president elect into two.  On the one hand, we’ll have the Trump who will send out late night tweets, ranting and raving against those whom he sees as enemies, making strange policy pronouncements, commenting on product lines or movie stars (Trump #1).  On the other, we’ll have the Trump who sits in the Oval Office and works with his staff, crafting the nation’s agenda and working to implement economic, domestic, and foreign policy (Trump #2).  Brooks argues that we shouldn’t evaluate Trump #2 by what Trump #1 might say or tweet. Almost as if they are two different people, unconnected in all but appearance.

Certainly there is precedent for this idea.  We have long understood that the private behavior of the president does not necessarily reflect on his ability to do the job, to lead the nation, to be the voice for all Americans.  Bill Clinton’s indiscretions come to mind.  So do JFK’s, the famous Camelot of early 60s Washington now tarnished by the probing scope of history.  But there does seem to be a limit.  Nixon’s image was irreparably damaged by Watergate, crossing the line from indiscretion to illegality the way he did.  Nevertheless, at the end of the day evidence indicates that we want someone in the office who can do the job, whether or not they are a paradigm of moral rectitude and probity.  Whether or not they are a person of integrity.

Of course integrity has another meaning, commonly the second definition you’ll find when you look it up in the dictionary.  From its verb form, ‘to integrate,’ the word also means the state of being whole and undivided.  That is to say that the outside of a person matches the inside, the public persona and private persona are one and the same.  This is a challenge for members of the clergy.  Publicly we espouse certain values, we sermonize  about faith and our fellow man, we challenge our congregants to become better people (and for rabbis better Jews!).  But privately we may struggle with our own faith.  We may all too often give in to our baser instincts, over time souring and sinking in a sea of cynicism.  We may begin to look at others and wonder what they want from us, instead of what we can give to them.  This may be all too human, but it is not holy.

There is an old midrashic comment about the ark that contained the tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai.  According to Torah text that ark was gilded with gold, both on the outside, and the inside.  Of course the outside makes sense – that is what is visible to the world, so when the people looked at the ark they saw the beautiful gold gleaming in the sun.  But why bother with gold on the inside, a part of the ark that no one saw?  The answer, of course, is that the inside is just as important as the outside.  At the end of the day the people we are most impressed with are those whose inner qualities shine through, creating a brighter light than any polished gold ever could.

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