Erev Rosh Hashanah
– Judy Chicago
This poem, which has found its way into contemporary Jewish liturgies, appears in the book, The Dinner Party, written by Judy Chicago. Born Judith Sylvia Cohen in 1939, she was descendant, on her father’s side, from a twenty-three generation lineage of rabbis going all the way back to the Vilna Gaon. Her father’s affiliation with the American Communist Party, as well as his liberal views towards women and support of worker’s rights strongly influenced Chicago’s ways of thinking and belief. And one would like to think that the Jewish values transmitted over those generations of rabbis and teachers in her family also had a hand in shaping her vision of the world as we pray that it will one day come to be.
But on this Erev Rosh Hashanah, as we bid farewell to 5776 and welcome the New Year, 5777, we are painfully aware of how far away we are from realizing this vision.
In the secular calendar, every fourth year is a “leap year” (with the noted exception of century years that are divisible by the number four). But when it comes to the Hebrew calendar, every fourth year is a “leap-of-faith-year”, because every fourth year Rosh Hashanah falls just as the Presidential election cycle shifts into high gear.
Now it is not my intention tonight, nor would it be appropriate for me, to try to influence your choice of party or candidate. First of all, I respect the diversity of political views in our community, and the right of every citizen to exercise his or her franchise and vote their conscience. Second, I am an “outsider”, what the Torah calls a “ger toshav—a resident alien”. Not yet an American citizen, I do not yet have the right to vote, but as a “ger toshav” with a “green card” affirming my permanent residency among you, I am deeply concerned about the issues before us, and I do have a stake in the outcome. Third, I am a rabbi, not a political analyst or partisan advocate. As a rabbi, one of my primary responsibilities is to give voice the values, morals and ethics of Jewish teaching, as it has been passed down through Torah and Mesorah, that is the teaching of the Torah and the Rabbis, from Moshe Rabbeynu (Moses, our Teacher) to the rabbis and scholars of our day. As a rabbi, I do this in the hope that we can better fulfill our sacred responsibility to be “or l’goyim—a light unto the nations”, or at least, in this moment, a ‘light unto our nation”.
And so I will offer some thoughts tonight on a number of critical issues that are a part of the current discussion among people of good will across the political spectrum, with a view to seeing these issues through Jewish eyes.
“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This verse, which we repeat each year as part of the Passover Seder, reminds us that it is all too easy to forget what it feels like to be an oppressed minority when we are not in that minority. It reminds us of the vulnerability and insecurity, the fear and exploitation that is real in the heart and soul of the stranger.
For almost two millenia, we had no problem remembering the feelings of the outsider. We were, after all, outsiders in every land in which we lived. Following the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from the Holy Land by the Romans in 70 CE, we wandered among nations in which we were a minority, and more often than not, an oppressed minority.
In Rome, we were a tolerated minority, but one considered foreign, and not welcome. When we lived in Arab lands from the 7th to 12th Centuries, we were a “protected minority,” with a more or less secure status. There were laws which safeguarded our freedoms, but they came with significant restrictions. In Medieval Europe we were truly an oppressed minority through most of the Middle Ages, with rights significantly curtailed and few protections.
In 21st Century America, however, it’s a different story. We remain a minority, but certainly not an oppressed one. While it is not true that all Jews are well off, on the whole, Jews live as well, or perhaps even better than other Americans. We enjoy greater political influence than our numbers would suggest (I’m not sure of the numbers in the House of Representatives, but at present Jews make up about 10% of the senate, as opposed to the percentage of Jews in America, which is about1.3%). That is to say, we are now an entrenched part of the fabric of the nation, strangers no more.
Given all of this, our Tradition tells us that we need to remember what it feels like to be the outsider, and to use our new-found position, whatever power and influence we have gained, to help the stranger in our midst.
America was founded as a nation of immigrants, seeking religious freedom and freedom from political oppression. Historians believe that Jews fleeing Spain at the time of the Expulsion were among the crewmen of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria that made their way to the New World. Some even suggest that Christopher Columbus was, himself, a crypto-Jew. And in the spirit of the founding of the nation, Jews were welcome as immigrants and we established the Touro Synagogue on December 2, 1763, in Newport, Rhode Island, the first synagogue in the American colonies.
We remember how hard it was for Jews to assimilate into the United States when we first arrived, and periods of discrimination and restrictions in trade and commerce. And we remember how we felt when immigration quotas limited the number of Jews who could enter the country, especially those who sought refuge from the Nazis in our own day. (And just so you don’t think that this “outsider” is being too hard on the United States, just as the St. Louis was being turned away from these shores and its Jewish refugees being sent back to their fate in Germany, the Canadian Foreign Minister, when asked how many Jewish refugees Canada might absorb, replied “None is too many!”)
The Torah teaches us the value of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming the stranger. In Genesis Chapter 18, we find God talking to Abraham. When Abraham sees three strangers approaching from afar, he suddenly jumps up to offer them food and drink. Abraham welcomes them into his tent and treats these strangers royally. He serves them the finest foods, and involves his whole family in the mitzvah.
The principle here is “b’tselem Elohim–emulating God.” In describing the mitzvah to walk in God’s ways, the Talmud says: “Just as God is merciful, so you be merciful. Just as God is kind, so you be kind.”
“You shall welcome the stranger.”
“It is permissible to sell a Sefer Torah to redeem a captive.”
“One who saves a life is as if he has saved an entire world.”
Of course, the issue is complicated; securing the border, following the rule of law, dealing with illegal immigrants and their children born here, refugees from Syria and other Moslem nations. Well-meaning people, and not-so-well-meaning people, will offer their solutions. But our Tradition and our historical experience make it clear that we must treat the stranger with compassion, and in a way that makes them welcome among us.
Criminal Justice Reform
We read in the book of Exodus,
And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, ‘Every son who is born you shall throw into the river, and every daughter you shall let live.’
In his commentary on this verse, Rabbi Yaakov Culi, the 18th century teacher known as the Meam Loez , writes,
Pharaoh’s decrees became harsher and harsher. Soon he decided that throwing the infants into the Nile was not sufficient… If a man did not make his quota of bricks on a given day, he was given a ghastly choice: Either he or his child would have to be placed in the structure to make up for the missing bricks… Many Israelites were mortared into the walls of the structures while still alive. They screamed and begged for mercy, but no one would take pity on them. Many infants were also thrown into the fire. Throughout all this, the Israelites did not know that this was a plan devised against them by Pharaoh. They were led to believe that such ghastly acts were being done by individual Egyptians on their own initiative. Many Israelites even complained to the authorities, and were told that if proper witnesses would be brought, the perpetrators would be punished. Eventually, of course, the Israelites discovered the truth.
In his article, “The Myth of Police Reform,” (The Atlantic, April 20150 Ta-Nehisi Coates observes,
A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It’s avoidance. It’s a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems.
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum offered these three teachings as part of a clergy protest in support of The “Black Friday 14”, a group of Black Lives Matter activists who chained themselves to a BART train on Black Friday 2014 to protest police violence. They were brought up on criminal charges and asked to pay $90,000 in restitution. The good news is that the county agreed to drop the charges against the activists. The bad news is that state violence against people of color continues in our nation, in the form of racial profiling, police use of deadly force, disproportionate arrests, sentencing and incarceration.
From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Today, the United States represents 5% of the World population, but it has 25% of world prisoners. If we combined the number of people in prison and jail with those under parole or probation supervision, 1 in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population would be under some form of correctional control.
Even more troubling is the significant racial disparity concerning who gets incarcerated. African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population. According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%. One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. 1 in 100 African American women are in prison. Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons.
A lot of this has to do with disparities in sentencing for drug offences. About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans report using an illicit drug. 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites. African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense. African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).
Inner city crime prompted by social and economic isolation is a contributing factor, as are “Get tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies and mandatory minimum sentencing, Zero Tolerance and the “Three Strikes”/habitual offender policies.
And the worst part is that incarceration is repeatedly proven ineffective in crime reduction or rehabilitation. Jail reduces work time of young people over the next decade by 25-30 percent when compared with arrested youth who were not incarcerated, and nearly two-thirds of prisoners will offend again. And the cost is exorbitant. About $70 billion dollars are spent on corrections yearly. Prisons and jails consume a growing portion of the nearly $200 billion we spend annually on public safety.
Education is part of the answer. On Selichot, we showed the film, Crime After Crime, which highlighted the injustices faced by African- American and other minorities in our criminal justice system, to begin a conversation on how to effect change in our own communities. Advocacy is also part of the answer. In September, Deborah Schweizer and I represented BIJ at a gathering of Reform California, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Social Action arm here in California, where we met with Governor Brown and received his support for Proposition 57, which deals with evidence-based rehabilitation for non-violent criminals, and encouraging juveniles to be tried in juvenile courts, rather than as adults.
These Days of Awe are focused on “teshuvah—turning”. Our tradition prefers repentance and rehabilitation over punishment for its own sake. Surely we can bring this essential value into the public discourse.
And there are many more issues: economic justice, racial hatred, affordability and access to health care and higher education, a living wage and equal pay for equal work. Our Tradition has an opinion on all of these issues. Our Torah offers instruction and guidance for your consideration, and I will be happy to point you to the sources.
Our people did not always have a vote. For thousands of years we wandered from state to state, often at the mercy of the civil authorities. We were given no voice and paid no regard. But here in America, we are equal citizens, with equal civic duties and responsibilities. Every vote counts and every vote matters. It is our responsibility, as Americans and as Jews, to exercise our franchise and vote our conscience. Together, may we repair our little corner of the universe, and enjoy the blessings of freedom as we move ever closer to the Garden.
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then all will be, so varied, rich and free
And everywhere will be called Eden once again
Rabbi Margot Stein (based on Judy Chicago)
Ken Yihi Ratzon