Social Justice

Reflections on a Winter Nor'easter

As I write, my family is stuck in our home, as the most recent nor’easter has brought down trees and power lines on our street. We spent last night by candlelight, cooking dinner in our fireplace.  Shabbat is arriving imminently, so a cousin will come and pick us up around the corner and bring us to her house, and we’ll get a reprieve from the cold and dark.

Much more important is the elderly couple on our block, who are being evacuated by the fire department and will be taken to stay in a local hotel until the street is cleared and the power returns, which seems to still be a few days away.

And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s a hassle, for sure.  But if nothing else, it should be a reminder—a reminder of just how darn easy and comfortable we have it here in these affluent suburbs. Not everyone, of course. We have neighbors in our town who struggle to make ends meet, people who have grave financial worries about their future. My wife and I know people well who have lived without a roof over their heads, who are not able to provide three meals a day for themselves and their families.

But most of us live fairly comfortable lives here—not just the wealthiest nation in the world, but the wealthiest nation that the world has ever known. 

And a little inconvenience from Mother Nature should be a reminder of just how good we have it, and how there are people near and far who know real desperation. If times like this don’t help us grow into people with deeper stores of empathy and compassion, then we are truly hopeless.

If you happen to live in an affluent place, and if you know that your electrical power, automobile, food supply, and security in your housing will regain their equilibrium pretty quickly, you should be profoundly grateful. Because that means you don’t have to count yourself among:

·      The ¼ of all human beings in the world who live without electricity, approximately           1.6 billion people[1]

·      805 million people in the world who do not have enough food to eat.[2]

·      769 million people who live (or not) on less than $1.90 per day.[3]

It means that your children, whom you would do anything to protect, need not be counted among the 1 billion children of other people who are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, 22,000 die due to their poverty every day.[4]

And if we needed reminders, America is not immune to extreme poverty either. There are 40.6 million Americans living poverty; 12.7% of the population.[5] According to the point-in-time count of America’s homeless community in 2017, there are 553,742 people without housing on a given night.[6] (Noting that there are different kinds of homelessness—chronic, transitional, episodic; plus the many thousands in America who live on the brink of homelessness, just a paycheck or two away.)

If I sound crabby, it’s not because I haven’t showered in two days. It’s simply a profound frustration of our human nature—my own absolutely included—that forgets that what we consider to be inconveniences are so ludicrous in the grand scheme of need that really exists in the world.

It’s a frustration born of living in general proximity to some of the wealthiest Zip Codes in America—and knowing that materialism, greed, and complacency co-exist (and often prevail) over empathy, generosity, and living gratefully.

A destructive winter storm like this one really stinks. Some neighbors will experience lots of property damage (and insurance claims), work hours will be lost, appointments will be missed, food in the freezer will probably go bad.

But in a few short weeks, equilibrium for most of us will return. Spring will arrive. At that time, Jewish people will sit down at their seder tables. We’ll raise a piece of matzah and say, “This is the bread of affliction… Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

In order for those words not to reek of irony and hypocrisy, we have to recognize that in our inconvenience is the tiniest taste of what real suffering is like; a flavor that a staggering number of human beings around the world know intimately.

If we can emerge from our inconveniences with a deeper sense of empathy, generosity, and an awareness of how unbelievably, undeservedly blessed we really are—then maybe this Passover will bring a bit of real liberation after all.

 

[1] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007.”

[2] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2014.”

[3] “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide from Its Deep Poverty Problem,” Angus Deaton, New York Times, January 24, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/opinion/poverty-united-states.html

[4] “UNICEF: Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed,” United Nations Interagency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME), 2014.

[5] https://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/poverty.html

[6] National Coalition for the Homeless, http://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/

The Stranger Who Resides with Us

I wrote this in 2016 for ARZA's commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Given the Netanyahu government's efforts to expel African refugees--and the massive demonstrations to protect them--it seems timely. I think it still holds up:

A walk through South Tel Aviv is not generally on the itinerary of a regular trip to Israel. It may as well be another planet from the all-night clubs, fancy restaurants, soaring hotels, and refined art galleries of what was once known as the White City. Most tourists have no idea that the place exists—and they certainly do not know about Holot.

South Tel Aviv in the flesh can break the heart of any thinking Zionist. It houses the largest concentration of Israel’s oft-hidden underclass: Africans from Eritrea and Sudan who have fled some of the world’s most vicious regimes. Any Jew who experiences the reality of South Tel Aviv—its appalling living conditions, overcrowded housing, and air of desperation—must ask, is this the best the Jewish state can muster?

Over 45,000 Eritreans and Sudanese currently reside in Israel, but the government’s treatment of them is nowhere near what we might consider the “Torah standard.”

“Refugee” and “asylum seeker” are legal terms; if these labels were applied to Israel’s African residents, a host of legal protections would kick in. Therefore, the government employs different language: a policy of “temporary protection” or “delay of removal” is in effect. In other words, desperate people who have fled to Israel find themselves in limbo: they cannot legally work or apply for citizenship; they cannot be deported back to where they came from; they have nowhere else to go. The vast majority want “asylum seeker” status, but Israel has granted that status to fewer than 1% of them; it is the lowest rate of recognition in the western world. Some activists accuse government officials of waging a racist campaign of incitement against the Africans, calling them insidious “infiltrators.”

And then there’s Holot. Located in the remote Negev near the Egyptian border, Holot is a detention facility—it’s hard to differentiate it from a prison—where Africans streaming into the country are held without trial. Over the past few years, the Knesset has tried to detain migrants for years on end; the High Court of Justice called the government’s policy “a grave and disproportionate abuse of the right to personal freedom.” As of December 2015, there were 3,300 people in Holot where they may remain up to twelve months. Its capacity is “full” according to the Israeli Immigration Authority.

While Europe dominates headlines with the refugee disaster pouring out of Syria, this subversive crisis to Israel’s soul shamefully has been absent from the American Jewish agenda.

It is difficult to read Parashat Kedoshim and not think of South Tel Aviv or Holot:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ 
כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens;
you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:
I, Adonai, am your God.
(Leviticus 19:33-34)

These verses are directed towards a Jewish community that is a majority culture, self-assured and established in its own land. The Torah warns that the Jews, when they have become that majority, will have a minority community of non-Jews living among them—and they must assiduously protect the rights of that minority.

To understand this passage requires a better grasp of three familiar concepts: the “stranger,” “do not wrong,” and “you shall love.” Each of these ideas is more nuanced than may appear at first glance.

Who is the ger?

In the Tanakh, the meaning of the word ger is very specific: a minority group dwelling among a native majority. The ger is someone who has been transplanted from his native home. In contrast, the word for “native citizen” (“the ger… shall be to you as one of your citizens”) is ezrach. Biblical scholar Baruch Levine suggests that the term ezrach is connected to the linguistic root of a tree firmly rooted in its soil: “…well-rooted, like a robust native tree” (Psalm 37:35). He writes, “If this derivation is correct, an ezrach/citizen is one whose lineage has ‘roots’ in the land, one who belongs to the group that possesses the land.” The ger is the outsider, the stranger in the midst.

Thus the Torah frequently reminds Israel that we know the feelings of the ger, because we’ve had that status before. This is precisely the situation the Jewish people knew in Egypt; a displaced minority among an indigenous majority culture.

What does the Torah mean what it says “you shall not wrong” the ger?

In context, the verb lo tonu / “you shall not wrong” comes from the noun ona’ah, which refers specifically to economic deprivation, manipulation, and taking advantage of another who is in a weaker position. For instance, Leviticus 25:14-17 opens and closes with an injunction not to “wrong” one another, and in between it illustrates this “wronging” as a matter of economic injustice:

When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.
In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years:
the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I Adonai am your God.

We can conclude that from a p’shat point of view, ona’ah in Leviticus 19 means unfairly leveraging an economic situation where the other person—namely, the ger—is relatively defenseless.

The Mishnah takes this idea one step further: “Just as there is ona’ah in buying and selling, so too is there ona’ah in words.” For the Rabbis, ona’ah—the very acts which are prohibited against the ger and others—is expanded to mean “oppression, wrongdoing, or causing shame.”

Finally, we need to ask: What does it mean “to love the ger as yourself”?

Many have asked how the Torah can command love, the deepest of human emotions. Earlier in Kedoshim we were commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself”; elsewhere the Torah command us to love God (who reciprocally loves us) and, here, to love the stranger.

It is a conundrum if the Hebrew word for love, ahava, simply means deep emotion. However, biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is much more than sentiment; love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds. This is especially true in Deuteronomy, which speaks of covenantal love. The ger is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing his commandments (Deut. 11:1), and God in turn “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).[1]

Thus, to “love” the ger and to “not wrong him” are inverses of one another. The fulfillment of this Mitzvah means not only not to exploit a person who is politically weaker, but also to support him, to include him in festival celebrations, to allow him to rest on Shabbat, and to provide him with appropriate safety.[2]

It is hard to read these words at the culmination of our Torah portion and, again, not to reflect on our reality. Certainly, “real life” occasionally intrudes on idealism and mitigates our ability to behave according to our highest standards. But still, we have to ask: are we fulfilling what the Torah demands of us?

The words of a modern commentator are jarring:

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) was a major figure in 20th Century Orthodoxy. Rabbi Sorotzkin was born in Belarus, served as the Rabbi of Lutsk in Ukraine, and ultimately fled to Palestine during World War II. There he became the vice chairman of Agudat Yisrael (the main Ashkenazi Orthodox party in Israel at the time); he was certainly not a “liberal” figure by any means. Which makes his comment on this verse particularly compelling:

“In your land” (Leviticus 19:33):  You should not say [to the ger] that Eretz Yisrael is just for Jews, as extremists [!!] everywhere claim that their land is just for their own people and minorities have no part in it. For the Land was given to Abraham, who was called “the father of a multitude of nations,” and each nation that believes in the God of Abraham and who clings to his descendants should not be considered a “foreigner” in the land that was promised to him. And this is the lesson of the verse, you shall not wrong him (Lev.19:33): with your ona’at devarim [wronging someone with words, above], as if to deceive him into thinking that he dwells in your land, in a land that is not his.[3]

What would Rabbi Sorotzkin say if he were to observe the plight of the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel today?

The Torah commands us to protect the rights and dignity of the stranger no less than 36 times (and some authorities say 46 times)—it is repeated more than any other Mitzvah in the Torah. When you go home, the text implies, you have an enormous responsibility to care for those who are vulnerable. This injunction is, in fact, the moral barometer of any society. This is one of the resounding lessons of Jewish history: we know the heart of the stranger, because we’ve been that stranger many times: in Egypt, but also in Babylonia, Morocco, Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Ellis Island, and Poland. Woe to those of us who are so estranged from our past that we can’t look into the eyes of the African refugees and see the reflection of our own living history.

For more information about supporting African migrants in Israel: 
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, http://hotline.org.il/en/main/

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible, 2000, p.1653.

[2] Milgrom, p.1706.

[3]R. Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznaim LaTorah, in Itturei Torah on Leviticus 19:33.

A Thought for MLK Day - King & The Jews

Thinking about Martin Luther King Jr. and his legacy today. How willing would much of the Jewish community be to embrace his message? This day always reminds me of this passage from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (z"l)'s memoir. King asked Hertzberg, at the height of the struggle, why he cared so much. Hertzberg didn't respond with pious passages from the prophets, or the Declaration of Independence, or anything like that.

Instead, he spoke about his father. Herzberg's father was a Hasidic rabbi, a descendent of Elimelech of Lizhensk, and the leader of a shul in Nashville, Tennessee.

Here's what he wrote:

One Friday we came to synagogue for the evening service to find that an imposing black man wearing a very high yarmulke was there. He introduced himself as Rabbi Matthews and added that he was also a cantor. To prove his self-description, the visitor produced documents from a very respected rabbi in Toronto who attested to the fact that he had officiated at the conversion of Rabbi Matthews, in order to remove any doubt of his Jewishness… and that further training as cantor had been imparted to Matthews in Toronto. What all this meant was that the visitor had the right, in well-established Jewish practice, to claim the reading desk so that he might lead in the chanting of the service—and, ultimately, claim a donation for his sustenance.

My father looked at the certificate and said very quietly (when he was quiet, I knew he was at his angriest) that he was the rabbi of this synagogue and it was his duty and prerogative to decide questions of religious practice. The congregants refused. They pretended that they did not believe that the visitor was indeed a Jew, and they barred the way of this Black cantor to the reading desk.

My father put his arm around this man, whom he had met just ten minutes before, and headed for the door. He stopped and said, very quietly, that he would never come through that door again, because they had insulted a human being made in the image of God. We said prayers at home that Shabbat. My father had thrown his job away over a principle, and he did not find another for many months. I expected my mother to berate him, but she did not say one word, that day or later.

(Arthur Hertzberg, A Jew in America, 2002)

I should probably just let it sit on the page, but it triggers some other questions in me. What would happen in an Orthodox shul if the same scenario unfolded today? And as for liberal synagogues - what lines in the sand are left that would make a rabbi say, "I can never step foot in here again"? And why, fifty years on from MLK's death, do we still have to march for such obvious matters of civil rights?