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The Torah of Reparations for Slavery

The Torah of Reparations for Slavery

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein

[We are in the midst of an extraordinary event in American history: a multiracial nation-wide uprising against deeply dug-in racism. It started with rejection of the use of racist violence by some among police forces. That was a profoundly wise response, since our whole society has assigned the police the American monopoly on the legitimate use of violence inside our country. If they use that license in racist ways, the whole society is responsible to change course.

[This movement has broadened, to look at other aspects of institutionalized  racism that have been the long long shadow of enslavement. One question that has arisen is whether some form of reparations is due from America to the Black community. For Jews, this question has special importance. For we and the Japanese-American community are the only segments of American society that have in fact received reparations --  Jews from Germany, for the almost unfathomable violence against the Jewish people in the Holocaust; and Japanese-Americans from the US government, for their imprisonment in detention camps and loss of property during World War II. So the Jewish community may have some special insight into the ethical issues involved in reparations.

[In addition, our deepest spiritual and religious roots – the biblical story of the Exodus – are intertwined with a story of reparations to the whole people for having been enslaved by Pharaoh, the embodiment of Mitzrayyim – the Hebrew word for Egypt, which means “the tight and narrow place.”  So The Shalom Center will bring our members and readers a series of articles from various standpoints – religious, historical, and personal -- on the question of reparations. The following is the first in a series of such essays. It is a much-abbreviated version of Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein’s extraordinary 2018 article, “The Torah Case for Reparations,”  which you can read in full at this link. The author prepared this shortened version especially for The Shalom Center. --  AW, ed.]

The Torah of Reparations for Slavery

Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein

In the last several years, cultural and political winds have moved the demand for reparations to Black Americans from the fringe into the mainstream of American politics. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s magisterial 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations”, deserves much of the credit for this shift. Slavery and its aftermath sit at the heart of the mythic consciousness of Judaism. Does Judaism have anything to contribute to a national consideration of reparations? I think it does. 

 We Took Reparations

Jews must support reparations in principle, because we took reparations for our slave labor, we were commanded by God to do so, and we were promised these reparations in the earliest Divine plan for our liberation. The Torah emphasizes that on the way out of Egypt, the Israelites emptied their Egyptian neighbors of their wealth (Exodus 12:35-36).

This taking of reparations was not castigated as dishonest plundering or sinful vindictiveness, nor even as an optional bonus, but was a required component of liberation, as God had explicitly commanded the day before (Exodus 11:2). Receiving reparations was a core component of the Exodus. God’s first promise to liberate the Israelite slaves, spoken to Moses at the burning bush, already explicitly included abundant reparations (Exodus 3:21-22). The taking of reparations is at the very heart of the slavery story, even promised to Abram as part and parcel of the Bible’s first premonition of slavery and redemption.

The first time the Torah’s core story — slavery and liberation — is revealed, the entire content of that liberation is the future departure from Egypt with reparations: “Know for sure that your seed shall be an alien in a land not their own, and shall serve them; and they shall abuse them -- four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with significant property” (Genesis 15:13-14). We recite this passage ritually in our Passover seders to this day, annually reviewing that God’s faithfulness is expressed through a promise kept over hundreds of years, and that that promise was reparations for slavery.

Are these Really Reparations?

The Rabbis of the Talmud understood the wealth taken by the Israelites as slavery reparations, as shown in a piquant story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) which imagines the Egyptians suing the Jews in the court of Alexander the Great to return the wealth they took on the way out of Egypt. A non-rabbi named Geviha ben Pesisa serves as defense attorney for the Jews and countersues: “I, too will bring you evidence only from the Torah, as is said, ‘And the Israelites’ residence, which they resided in Egypt was 430 years’ (Ex. 12:40): Give us payment for the labor of 600,000, whom you enslaved in Egypt for 430 years.”

The Egyptians offer no response and drop their case. Egypt had exploited the Israelites for hundreds of years, stealing their labor. Egypt owed the Israelites generations of reparations, but was not about to pay them willingly or to acknowledge the depth of its wrongdoing. According to the Talmud and even the Torah itself, not only were reparations just, but taking them by any means necessary, even deception, was just and commanded by God and should be intelligible to the international community.

The Rabbis place this (fictional) lawsuit during a Sabbatical year, when Jews are prohibited from farming. Observing the sabbatical year disrupts anyone’s domination over land and people. The land is released to grow wild and debts are relieved. Temporary economic straits, then, cannot plunge a person into structural poverty and servitude.

Just as the Torah contrasts Egyptian slavery with observance of the weekly sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:15), the prophet Jeremiah tells the people that God commanded the Sabbatical year laws “on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Jeremiah 34:13). For the Rabbis, Egyptian spoils

Torah Teaches: Consult the WHOLE People. How Can WE, USA 2020?

Who should get to vote in an American election?

Especially an epochal election that will decide on life or death for tens of thousands of Americans living in the midst of a botched governmental response to a world pandemic;  an epochal election that will decide whether American democracy survives or is subjugated by a fascist government; an epochal election that will decide the future of life on this planet?

Many of our politicians act as if this were just a matter of partisan politics. But our most ancient spiritual teachings insist that at such epochal moments, the whole society must take part.

Let us look briefly at three such moments: when the people of Israel, the Godwrestling folk, stood at Sinai to receive Revelation; when the people were just about to leave the wilderness and begin to live as shepherds and farmers in the land beyond the Jordan River; and when those who had been exiled to Babylon returned and were trying to establish a People with a Covenant.

And after looking at these teachings, I will share with you what we can do to uphold them is this epochal moment,

Deuteronomy 5: 1-3:

Moses called all of Israel together and said to them ... “YHWH [Yahhhh/ The Breath of Life] cut with us a covenant at Horeb [=Sinai, but with a name that means “knife”}. Not with our forebears did YHWH [Yahhhh/ The Breath of Life] cut this covenant , but with us, yes, us, those here today, all of us alive.”

Deuteronomy 29: 13-14:

Not with you, you-alone do I cut this covenant and this oath, but with the one that is here [at Sinai]/ Horeb], standing with us today, facing YHWH [Yahhhh/ The Breath of Life] our God, and also with the one who is not here with us today.

Deuteronomy 31: 10-11:

And Moses commanded them, saying, “At the end of seven years, at the appointed time of the year of release, on the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot, when all Israel comes to be seen facing YHWH [Yahhhh/ The Breath of Life] your God, at the place The One chooses, you are to proclaim this instruction in front of all Israel in their ears.

“Assemble the people, the men, the women, and the little ones, and your sojourner that is in your gates, in order that they may hearken, in order that they may learn and have awe for YHWH [Yahhh, the Breath of Life] your God to carefully observe all the words of this instruction;

“So that even their children, who do not fully understand, may hearken and learn to have awe for YHWH [Yahhh, the Breath of Life] your God all the days that you remain alive on the soil that you are crossing over the Jordan to possess.”

Excerpts from Nehemiah 9 and 10

Chapter 9: 1 Now the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads.

4 On the stairs of the Levites they cried with a loud voice to YHWH [Yahhhh, the Breath of Life] their God..  

 

 32 “Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our rulers, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our forebears, and all your people.

36 “Behold, we are subjugated-people this day; in the land that you gave to our forebears to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are subjugated-people. 37 And its rich yield goes to the rulers whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress.

38  “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing; on the sealed document are the names of[6] our princes, our Levites, and our priests.

Chapter 10: Those who sealed it were: Nehemiah the governor;the Levites;10 their associates; 14 the leaders of the people; 28 the rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, musicians, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand— 29 all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of YHWH [Yahhhh, the Breath of Life]..

The teaching is clear: We in the United States have turned Moses’ call to Assemble the people every seven years to hear and commit to Torah, into a commitment to gather the people every two years to choose our national leaders.

If some part of the government seizes the moment to exclude some people, so as to elevate its own power, it is violating not only the Constitution but the most basic spiritual truth: Especially when the whole people faces an epochal choice, the whole people must be present and involved.

How do we make this happen, in the USA, in 2020?

The “whole people,” it is now most clear in the midst of pandemic, need the US Postal Service and Vote-by-Mail if the whole people is to be involved. It is hardly surprising, if one of the epochal choices we face !s democracy vs. authoritarian rule, that authoritarians want to shatter that possibility. And they are doing what they can to break USPS, the most democratic and most beloved of all the Federal agencies. One built on connecting We the People.

I have tried to imagine some way We the People could create our own way out of this. I imagined “Democracy Bonds,” which the public would buy (as patriotic people bought “War Bonds” during World War II)  to lend the Postal Workers Union – not USPS --  enough money to get them and us past the election. Then a new President and Congress could repay the bonds. Clever, a number of people said, but it would take six months to set up the arrangements. Too late.

Okay. Next best, try to make the Federal system, even authoritarians, support the democratic institution. At least to make utterly clear to all who need the mail, who is disrupting its delivery.

Two channels: Congress, and the Board of the USPS. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is mobilizing people TONIGHT to lean heavily on Congress. Click to www.rac.org/everyweek

Eve Ilsen warmly circulates a proposal from Varda B, below.  

"Hello People -- In case you don't see any other way - PLEASE WRITE & CALL the 6 People who supervise the USPS Board -- See all contact info below, and SHARE this info!!

"Louis DeJoy, the Postmaster General and Trump appointee who is now dismantling the USPS on Trump's behalf, “serves at the pleasure of” and reports to the 6-member USPS Board of Governors. These six men have the power & duty to #StopDeJoy & prevent Election Day chaos.

Join Life-Conversations with my book: Dancing in God’s Earthquake

In my next-to-last letter to you, I mentioned that my book Dancing in God’s Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion will be published in October. A number of you wrote asking for more information and how to order the book. I am glad to invite you to a special virtual gathering with me, before publication. Here is the way it will work:

I will meet with you and other clergy and spiritual leaders for a series of three sessions from 7 to 8:30 pm Eastern US time, on Tuesday evenings, August 11, 18, and 25. For each session, I will send you ahead of time one chapter of the book. For each session, we will discuss that chapter. When the book is published in October, I will send you a free copy, personally inscribed to you from me.

The cost of the series will be $72. To register, please click to ex ex ex ex

I am sharing with you the endorsements of the book that will be published on the back cover.

A wonderful book! Before the hierarchies and divisions of religions, there was the all-inclusive circle of spirituality. In Dancing in God’s Earthquake, Rabbi Arthur Waskow helps us trace our path back to our spiritual home.” –Gloria Steinem

“Rabbi Waskow calls each of us to reach down deep in our moral and religious traditions and have a grownup conversation about the response our present crisis requires. I'm glad to lift up this invitation for all to join the divine dance of love and justice.” –William J. Barber, II, President of Repairers of the Breach and Co-Chair of the Poor People's Campaign

Like poetry on a cold day, this book warms the heart and mind both. A fierce look at religion, a willingness to question history, to see the connections between the world’s faiths, to suggest how we might move forward from today’s hard times.”—Ruth Messinger, American Jewish World Service

“We are in a moment of great crises and gathering travail, and so one thing we need to learn is how to steadily, joyfully, determinedly pass through these trials, not just intact, but in love with the world around us. There could be no better guide than Arthur Waskow.”—Bill McKibben, author, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out

“This is a delightful and refreshing book, full of wit, wisdom, and hope--all of which we so desperately need amid the perpetual upheaval and crisis of the world today. I'm deeply thankful for both Arthur and this book.”—Jim Wallis, Founder and President of Sojourners

There are also a number that will be published inside, because they didn’t fit on the back cover. I will send you the endorsements of these others later, but I can tell you now that they include Rabbis Art Green, Jonah Pesner, and Jill Hammer; Marge Piercy; and other notables from the Christian and Muslim worlds. And I can tell you that these endorsements follow from people having insisted on reading the entire book before they wrote their comments.

  I look forward to having a conversation with you about the book. and with the book about our lives. -- I see the book as a harvest of my whole life experience in religious commitment, spiritual delight, and social transformation. Many people look on a “harvest” as a product of past sowing and growing. But I see this book as what a harvest is really supposed to be – food for the future

Please join us by clicking to the registration page:

“I Can’t Breathe” -- WE Can’t Breathe -- Earth Can’t Breathe

 “I Can’t Breathe”

Again and again,

With gun or choke-hold.

Police steal the breath of Black Americans

The police are not merely police

For they hold a national authority

To use violence on behalf of the nation:

To serve us all, protect us all.

When they subjugate the Black community

They implicate us all,

They make us all Subjugators

And their misdeeds have stirred

A great Uprising against racism.

 

We can’t breathe.

All humanity is choking

From a virus that invades our lungs.

We have left no space for other species

And the virus leaps into our lives,

And then when our rulers ignore the danger

It becomes still worse--  

Choking our societies, our jobs, our businesses,

Our democracy. Our lives. 

 

Earth Can’t Breathe

All life on Earth depends on Interbreathing

Plants breathe in Carbon dioxide, breathe out Oxygen.

Animals breathe in Oxygen, breathe out Carbon dioxide.

Our Interbreathing is the Breath that keeps all Earth alive.

Nishmat kol chai, tivarekh et shimcha: Yahhhh elohenu:

The breath of all life praises Your Name;

For your Name in truth whispers all life.

YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh/ Yah, is our God.

The God of all life.

But too much CO2 is the “climate crisis” -- 

Chokes our breathing.

And when Earth can't breathe

We ourselves can't breathe:

The fires that ravage California

Send smoke that chokes our breathing.

Earth can’t breathe.

Can't   -----  br--- the.

  

"You shall not take My Name with an empty heart."

Every breath we take

Is Itself the Name,

Part of that great Breath that is the Holy One.

You shall not rob My peoples

And My life-forms

Of My Name, My Breath.

We must breathe.

             

My small personal crisis and the Great American Social Crisis


Dear friends,

This past Wednesday afternoon, I found all my leg muscles very weak and my speech slurred. Seemed like it might be a stroke, so Phyllis with the help of wonderful friends hurried me into an ambulance to a hospital. The hospital found there was nothing at all wrong with my brain, but something was wacky with my liver. During the next 24 hours my liver calmed down. The medical hunch was that there had been a stone interrupting the internal processes of the liver, the stone passed,  the processes worked right, and I felt fine. On Friday afternoon they sent me home.

It was a powerful lesson: In the Hierarchical picture of the world, my Brain is in charge. The liver is deeply subordinate. But that is just not so. In an Ecological picture of the world, the liver, kidneys, lungs, heart, belly – – including even the million microscopic creatures living in my belly that are not even me – – as well as my brain work together to keep me alive and making sense. If I were to act as if my liver were unimportant, a mere appendage, disaster. Domination, subjugation can kill me.

There was another powerful lesson. The official ethic of the hospital was honesty and transparency with patients. But over and over during those 40 hours, particular medical professionals withheld vital information from me. Their refrain: "We didn't want to scare you." My refrain: "I'm a grown-up. I want to know the truth." It was only because I pushed and challenged that I found out what was going on.

"Easier" for them to control the information, even if that meant I didn't get fed dinner and didn't get medicine pills I needed. It was only because I pushed and challenged -- made them uneasy -- that I found out what was going on.

In the great American social crisis we are living through, the official ethic of America is democracy and honesty in government. But the White House has chosen Domination, Subjugation, and a flood of lies to support them as the mode by which to lead America. It has viewed with contempt and oppressive behavior the liver and the kidneys and the lungs of American society. It has done that literally in the face of a virus that is saying, “Pay attention to all the organs!” And so Americans are dying by unnecessary tens of thousands.

More metaphorically, the Black community which has always been treated like an unimportant liver in the American social system has wakened not only itself but many other organs of the system who understand the Ecological rather than the Hierarchical way of keeping America healthy. So there has perhaps for the first time, or perhaps for the first time since the Civil War, been a multiracial uprising against racism.

The White House, in its obsessive commitment to Dominate and Subjugate, is trying to deal with at uprising by making an American police state. That may create chaos, but it will not create health and prosperity.

That obsession with Subjugation is the politics of Pharaoh. It ended up drowning Pharaoh himself in the Sea of Reeds, but it took tens of thousands of Egyptians with him. First in ecological upheavals we call the Plagues, finally in the death of the firstborns.

What can we do? Nonviolent action both inside and outside the system are necessary. The House of Representatives should be refusing to appropriate any money at all for the Department of Homeland Security without a physical withdrawal of all its police forces from American cities, and with legislative provisions to prevent what has happened in Portland and now in Seattle. Senators committed to democracy with a small “d” should be filibustering every so-called “must-pass” bill until no American city is under Pharaoh’s occupation. The ACLU should be going to court everywhere to restore and renew the right to vote freely and to demonstrate freely.

And I do not think that this kind of action will happen, or will matter without nonviolent direct action by the people. I emphasize nonviolent. Even where a particular building is itself a repository of Subjugative violence, it will make more sense in this situation to avoid attacking that building. We should be enforcing a nonviolent discipline in order to gather against Pharaoh’s violence.  Closing the roads around such a building, closing the highways, creating a campaign for “denial of service” to computers in Department of Homeland Security and the White House – – all those will be necessary to protect us in our myriad vital organs of society from Pharaoh and from the Plagues that Pharaoh has brought upon us.

I want to come back to my own personal crisis of life and death. In October I will be 87 years old, and as one of those who is most vulnerable to terrible torment or death by the Coronavirus, I have been extraordinarily careful to protect myself and my immediate family.

In early October, what I think may be the most important work I’ve done since the Freedom Seder in 1969 will be published. It’s a book entitled Dancing in God's Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion. It’s an effort to reimagine Judaism, Christianity, and other religious communities as committed to an Ecological rather than Hierarchical vision of the world. I very much hope to be here, able to speak and to write and to teach what that book is saying.

Yet if between now and January 20, 2021, it is necessary to bring all my organs, all my body, into the struggle to prevent a police state under Pharaoh, then I will.

With blessings for each and all of us – – each human being and all life forms, free and unique organs to give life to the Loving and Beloved Community, the ONE –
 Arthur

Is Coronavirus a Biblical "Plague"?

In the ancient biblical tradition, what is a "plague"? Where does it come from? Is it anything like coronavirus? Is it anything like the wildfires that have so damaged California and Australia? Can these ancient stories teach us anything today?

Some of the great plagues of the Exodus are what we would call diseases, but not all. There is a cattle affliction that sounds something like mad cow disease. There is an affliction of all water in the land of Egypt, not only the Nile but even water in pots and pans. There is the death of all firstborns.

But there are also the invasions of frogs, of locusts, of lice or mosquitoes. These are ordinary animals in extraordinary numbers and places. But so are diseases. The Coronavirus is perfectly normal until it leaps a species. Carbon dioxide is perfectly normal – – even necessary – – until human corporations create so much of it by burning fossil fuels that it becomes extraordinary, planet-destroying. The Exodus move to a freely wandering, struggling, learning, growing journey in a Wilderness, seeking to become a loving and beloved community.

The Exodus is empowered by a series of Ten Plagues. In some understandings, they were brought on by a God Who is a sort of Super-Pharaoh in the sky, proving he is even more powerful and more cruel than the Pharaoh on the Egyptian throne, who claims to be a god. Pharaoh enslaves Israelites; God kills Egyptians.

This understanding that the Exodus is a contest between a king and a Super-King is underlined by the false biblical translation of YHWH as “LORD.” (The rabbinic tradition substituted “Adonai/ Lord” for “YHWH” but the Hebrew Bible does not.) It is more likely that YHWH with no vowels is simply a breath – Yyyyyhhhhhwwwwwhhhh: the Breath of life, sometimes the Wind of change, sometimes the Hurricane of destruction. 

This Ruach (Hebrew for “breath, wind, spirit”) is what intertwines all life. We know now this is literally, physically, scientifically true: the Oxygen-CO2 interbreathing between animals and vegetation keeps all life alive. So YHWH is the bearer of consequence, not punishment or rewards. Try reading the whole Plague narrative substituting “Interbreath of life” instead of “LORD.”  For me and others who have tried this, it changes the whole story. 

From this vantage point, the concentrated power and the arrogance, cruelty, and stubbornness of a Pharaoh whose subjugation of human beings soon became subjugation of Earth. The cruelty that Pharaoh sows, all Egypt reaps.

Those plagues did not come from outside us. They came from our own society, from our own government, from our own way of living. "We" allowed a Pharaoh who turned Egyptian farmers into sharecroppers and an immigrant community into slaves.

And that's the case today. The coronavirus only becomes destructive and deadly because we don't leave space between ourselves and various other species. We don't leave space for bats who fly around perfectly well carrying that virus. We take up all the space there is, and we take up all the air there is with far too much CO2. We allow ourselves to become "sharecroppers" within the system that brings plagues upon us. And we become accustomed to the system of domination, so much that we think it is normal. It is not arrogance, it is not cruelty; it is normal.

Until Earth rebels, and what is normal becomes lethal. Some groups of us suffer more from the "diseases" than others, die more than others. More and more of us even begin to notice that the "overseers" who casually murdered Israelite slaves in the ancient story are not so different from the police today who use their legitimized authority to kill more Blacks. Then more and more of us realize that some of us are sharecroppers and some of us are enslaved.

Yet these plagues have an unexpected effect, in the ancient story and for us today. Though the ancient plagues were the horrifying results of Pharaoh’s cruelty, they became the instruments of liberation.

How could both truths be true? The Exodus story splits the targets of the plagues. For Egyptians, they were utterly destructive. For Israelites, who according to the story were physically and ecologically separated in their own region of Goshen, the plagues were liberating. Zoom becomes our Goshen. And if we stop to think, we know that Zoom is a class and racial privilege. The deeply poor do not get to live in Zoom.

Whether the separation was factually accurate or a part of a larger parable, it was a way of celebrating the emergence of a new kind of community  -- committed to a new birth of freedom yet welcoming, as the story of Pharaoh’s daughter indicates, to “renegade refugees” even from the palace of privilege and power.

We, living in the midst of the Coronavirus Plague and the varied plagues of global scorching, do not have the luxury of regional separation.  Our own “Goshen” is retreat into our own homes, scattered everywhere. Our own new plagues imposed by modern pharaohs are again horrifying and might-be liberating: Undrinkable water.  Intrusive “forever plastics,” even inside human bodies. Droughts. Famines. Floods. Fires. Human beings becoming unable to see each other through the darkness of fear. Ultimately, the dangerously impending death of the next generation of the human species -- our own first- and second- and tenth-borns.

Our new Plagues might be sounding the death-knell of an old world order of Domination and Hierarchy. Or they might by making uprising for freedom so difficult to do in public and by destroying jobs and workplaces, reinforce the power of our pharaohs until all of us are conscripted into the chariot army that drowns in the Sea of misery, despair, and death.

Which future is our future depends on us. Can we suffer from the plagues and yet --  and therefore! -- act on them as birth-cries of a new worldview of ecological interwovenness: seeing our communities of life as conscious interconnected ecosystems of biology, culture, and society--rooted in love and flowering in life-affirming justice? 

In the ancient story, on the very night when they must choose Exodus or Death, the Israelites must encircle the doorways of their houses with blood. To leave the Tight and Narrow Land, they must leave a household rimmed with blood. There is one bloody house that every human being exits: the womb, in every birth.  Here a whole people is reborn.

 And then, those Israelites who made that choice – not every descendant of Abraham and Sarah did, and some Egyptian-born, like Pharaoh’s daughter, joined that choice to be reborn –- met another birth-choice on the seventh day.

On that day they found themselves at the shores of the Sea of Reeds, a roaring, roiling ocean. Behind them they heard the drumming hoof-beats of Pharaoh’s horse-chariot army. It was coming to insist they turn back to familiar life: slavery, yes, and accustomed onions, garlic, chewy meat.

Which should they choose? The unknown? The Sea of drowning? A wilderness beckoning on the other shore -- still more unknown?

They chose another birth – the breaking of the waters.

Today the whole human species is standing between the Unknown Sea and the world of Customary Order – garlic, onions, and slavery.

Time to choose.

"Supremes" rob women of Religous Freedom

 The Supreme Court majority decided yesterday that an employer who has religious or moral objections to birth control can refuse a health-insurance contract that covers it for his employees.

They did this in the name of "religious freedom."

But in fact they refused to recognize the religious freedom, the moral freedom, the conscientious freedom, the freedom of conscience,  of thousands of workers. For the boss, it's money saved. For the workers, it's freedom lost. -- No, not lost. Stolen. A life lived by their own consciences in the most intimate parts of their lives --  stolen.

But they are only women. They have no moral agency, no right to consciences of their own, anyway, The bishops of the Roman Catholic Church and the heads of various "evangelical" denominations have a religious conscience. Even a boss who never goes to church but claims a "moral" objection has a conscience. But a woman who has decided to make her own choice whether or when to get pregnant has no moral choice, no conscience. No religious freedom. Please notice: This is not even about abortion, where it is possible to make a coherent ethical case at some point in a pregnancy that a viable fetus has rights. There is no fetus. No being that has rights.

Where does this come from? Two roots, like many practices: An intellectual formulation that meets the needs of some group for power over others. For the Catholic Church and some other forms of Christianity, a tortured interpretation of the Eden story plus power for a certain body of males. The interpretation in its best-shaped version came from Augustine -- I won't call him a "Saint."  The "original" sin of Eden was not just "original" in the sense of "first." It was the corruption of our origins -- that they came from the pleasure of sex. And the invitation of an archetypal woman --  Eve. So pleasurable sex was sinful. But sex was necessary for the continuation of the human species. Sooooo -- prohibit all sex that was not for procreation. No birth control, no contraception. And since "Eve" had invited all this, men should rule.  What a convenient theory to make "legitimate" the rule of men who claimed to be celibate (though they often lied).

It isn't what Eden was about. It was about refusing to have the self-restraint to leave even one tree uneaten -- to not gobble up the whole of material abundance. When that obligation to our Mother Earth was violated, two dangerous consequences: (1) The abundance vanished: Men had to work hard in the sweat of their faces because  Earth gave forth only thorns and thistles. And (2) Hierarchy entered the human community: If Humanity thought it could rule over Earth, then men would rule over women.

The story was urging the human race to grow up enough to rise beyond both consequences. Humans should learn to invent tools that eased their own labor while nurturing Earth. Women and men should learn to be equal. Nobody thought the first consequence was a command -- no tools! But the second -- aah, no equality!

But not everybody accepted Augustine's tortured -- and torturing -- logic. Not even Catholic women. Every sociological study, every survey, shows that about 97% of Catholic women actually use the very forms of birth control that the male bishops of their church prohibit. In the Church's convenient acceptance of Augustine, each of the all-male bishops has a religious conscience. Women? A laughable idea.

Let me be clear -- this is just as reprehensible when it is male Orthodox rabbis or male imams or males who claim to be the "heads" of any religious community

And of course this has a class and race dimension too. Many women will have the money to buy contraception, even while they are robbed of conscience, But the poor won't. No freedom of religion for THEM. How can a poor Black woman have a conscience?

There will be only two ways to reverse this decision to enforce religious tyranny.  Bodies on the line to vote, and bodies on the line to block and create in the same breath. When the Supreme Court dares again and again to Subjugate, not Liberate, when it denies those "inalienable rights," then get ready to "alter or abolish it." Get ready for a struggle to change the Supreme Court, not just the Senate and the White House. It is necessary but not enough for women to vote, if the Court insists on robbing them of conscience, of religion.

This is as much Subjugation, Tyranny, as police killing Blacks with impunity. As destroying health insurance. As yanking babies from their mothers' breasts at the Southern border. As imposing coal-plant dust and asthma epidemics on poor neighborhoods. As burning California and drowning Midwestern towns to multiply the profits of the Carbon Pharaohs. As pepper-gassing peaceful demonstrators to make space for photo-ops of holding a Bible upside-down.

We must unite to win our freedom, our bodies, our souls.

Shalom and salaam mean not only paz, peace, but wholeness. Namaste means "In you I see God." It is time for all of these. Fierce urgency of NOW. The vote and the body and the soul.

Your action is necessary. And right this moment, please help us help you to make these actions real by clicking on that "Contribute" banner in the left-hand margin of this page --  Arthur

#ShareSukkot2GrowVote.

Dear friends,

If the religious communities of America are serious about our deepest spiritual teachings of the profound worth of every human being and every species, Growing the Vote is crucial. For Jews, sharing Sukkot (the festival from the evening of October 2 to the evening of October 9) and its profound teachings with the “seventy nations of the world” and drawing on its wisdom to Grow the Vote is crucial.  

We invite you: “Share Sukkot” to “Green and Grow the Vote!"

There are many values hidden in the Sukkot festival that may only show up when you need them. One is hidden in plain sight: Because both Sukkot and the dates of major U.S. elections are connected with the Harvest, Sukkot in every national election year always comes several weeks before the election. The festival could become a period of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual preparation for voting.

Could doing that take the values rooted in and affirmed by Sukkot, giving them a new voice in the broader world? And could that, for many Jews, give richer meaning to and more joy in a festival that has had little intrinsic meaning for them?

We are exploring the second possibility. Let me give an example:

Torah says that the runaway Israelites who had just fled from slavery to Pharaoh sat “in sukkot” (the plural of “sukkah,” the vulnerable “booth” or “hut” in which some sit and eat and even sleep. To remember this sojourn as refugees fleeing for our lives and liberty, we should live in sukkot for the seven days of “Sukkot”   --  with a capital “S,” the name of the festival.

You shall live in sukkot [huts]  seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in huts,  in order that future generations may know that I settled the Israelite people in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Narrowness [Egypt], I YHWH/ Yahhh/ the Breath of Life --  your God. (Lev 23: 42-43)

So Sukkot affirms the value of protection for refugees – – an important issue in the upcoming election.

Another value: the sukkah, a hut with a leafy, leaky roof is open to Earth. Its relationship to the fall harvest strengthens its connection with Earth. Rabbinic tradition teaches that the sacrifice of 70 bulls during Sukkot when the Temple stood represented Jewish prayers for the abundant prosperity of all the “70 nations of the world.”  So Sukkot represents a commitment to a loving relationship for all nations with all Earth.

Easy to see how that affirms a much stronger version of the Paris Climate Accords to work with all nations to make sure that we protect Earth’s ability to nourish every people.

These are values. How can we connect the festival of Sukkot with voting --= to make a real difference for those values?

Already The Shalom Center has prepared a number of posters that honor heroes of the struggle to achieve voting rights for all Americans. Why posters? Because there is a tradition of posting in sukkot the names and pictures of ushpizin -- sacred guests. Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, are traditionally among those sacred guests. Each represents a different aspect of God's world and our lives.

To them we would add Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman – – two Jews and a Black who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi during Freedom Summer of 1964 for working to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote a brilliant dissent against a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court which gutted the crucial provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  And many others.

Even these sacred guests are expressions of value and commitment, not action to Grow the Vote. What could happen during and after Sukkot to make the commitment real? Jews and others from the “70 nations” could take time during the festival to make phone calls and Zoom gatherings to make sure that people are ready to vote and know how to make sure that their votes get cast and counted. They could focus on constituencies that often undervote -- Black, Ladinx, and young Jewish communities, for example.

All this we are calling #ShareSukkot2GrowVote.

If you want to work with us on this, please write me by simply clicking “Reply.”  And if you want to help The Shalom Center do this work, please contribute through the purple ”Contribute” banner just below.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, paz, peace, namaste – - Arthur



 

Elders Call: Defend Our Voting Rights

[Dear friends of The Shalom Center, For about nine years I have been a member of the National Council of Elders. It is a consulting council of veteran activists who helped shape the great social-change movements of the mid-20th Century. Among its founders was my beloved friend Vincent Harding, of blessed memory.  

[In the midst of the political convulsions of this past six months, we decided to issue several statements that draw upon our experience. One of them is about the current election campaign and various threats to the crucial right to vote. I was one of those most deeply involved in drafting this statement on Dangers to the Right to Vote.

[The Shalom Center is already involved in what we are calling “Share Sukkot: Green and Grow the Vote.” The Harvest Festival of Sukkot comes in every other year just a few weeks before a US national election. We have already prepared and are preparing more resources to make Sukkot in those years a time to express the eco /social justice and peacemaking values of Sukkot as a framework for greening and growing the vote. More information on Share Sukkot will follow. Today I am sharing the NCOE statement – AW, editor]

NATIONAL COUNCIL OF ELDERS

Immediate Release June 25, 2020

We call upon all Americans to exercise this fundamental and essential right to vote. We call upon all Americans to demand the right to vote by mail. We call on all Americans to make clear we will not allow any attempt to steal the election by any means.

Contact
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Philadelphia PA; Frances Reid, Oakland, CA;
Mandy Carter, Durham, NC
E-mail: elders4belovedcommunity@gmail.com

The National Council of Elders (NCOE) Call: Prepare to Defend Our Voting Rights in 2020 Election

We, members of the National Council of Elders, were deeply involved in the great movements of the 1960s and ‘70s to advance American democracy, winning many important victories for freedom. One of the greatest of these victories was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was passed after the non-violent actions of Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Selma to Montgomery March, which were met with violent repression, killings and brutal beatings.

The right and responsibility to vote in a free and fair election is an essential aspect of democracy. Yet that right has been weakened by two crucial and badly decided 5-4 verdicts of the Supreme Court:

The 2010 Citizens United decision to abolish decades of election law preventing great wealth from buying US elections on the grounds, among others, that corporations were “Persons” entitled to “free speech.” [I would add, No corporation is “made in the Image of God.” Human beings are, and their right to shape the society they live in and the government that governs them is partly rooted in that sacred character. --  AW]

The 2013 decision to cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, the requirement for preclearance to pass new voting laws for jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg brilliantly said, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."

As we prepare for the national election of 2020, the Supreme Court has again attacked the right to cast a vote by refusing to allow an expansion of voting by mail in Wisconsin in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, the citizens of Wisconsin defended their right to vote by showing up at polling locations in huge numbers, despite the danger of sickness or death, similar to the courageous men and women of the South in 1964 and 1965.

We call upon all Americans to exercise this fundamental and essential right to vote. We call upon all Americans to demand the right to vote by mail. We call on all Americans to make clear we will not allow any attempt to steal the election by any means.

The president has threatened to use military force against the American people to halt the practice of free speech and free assembly. We are concerned about the danger that the current holders of power in the federal government may use anti-Constitutional force before or after the election on November 3 to maintain their power.

We call upon the American people to be alert to such danger and to meet it:

With a vast and vigorous turnout of voters, casting no doubt that pro-democracy forces have won the Presidency and both houses of Congress

With maintaining vigilance if the current president is voted out of power, until he is well gone in January

With preparation by resilient grass-roots groups to be ready to apply broad and deep civil resistance, should a usurpation of our democracy be thrust upon us.

Come hell or high fever, we must vote – and we shall!

National Council of Elders Members: Ms. Rachele Agoyo, Ms. Dorothy Aldridge, Rev. Dorsey Blake, Mr. Louis Brandon, Ms. Candie Carawan, Ms. Mandy Carter, Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Rev. John Fife, Ms. Aljosie Aldrich Harding, Dr. Gloria Aneb House, Dr.Shea Howell, Dr. Dolores Huerta, Mr. Phil Hutchings, Ms. Joyce Hobson Johnson, Rev. Nelson Johnson, Mr. Frank Joyce, Rev. James Lawson, Rev. Phil Lawson, Dr. Catherine Meeks, Mr. Gus Newport, Ms. Suzanne Pharr, Ms. Lyn Pyle, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Ms. Frances Reid, Ms. Kathy Sanchez, Mr. Charles Sherrod, Ms. Shirley Sherrod, Dr. G. Zoharah Simmons, Friar Louis Vitale, OFM, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Mr. Hollis Watkins, Mr. Junius Williams, Mr. Bob Wing, Rev. Janet Wolf.

Deceased Founding Members: Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, Dr. Dorothy Cotton, Dr. Vincent Harding, Father Paul Mayer, Mr. Ron Scott.

Facebook contact: National Council of Elders@ncoe20century

 

When Shabbat Is the 4th of July

This coming Shabbat is also the Fourth of July.

For Americans, that day embodies the deepest of our internal confusions. That day we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, affirming the equality of all "men" and the responsibility of government to meet the needs of the people – especially for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we affirm the right of the people to alter or abolish any government that does not meet those needs and to substitute new government that does.

That Declaration was written mostly by Thomas Jefferson. Yet he owned hundreds of human beings, and enslaved them. When he wrote about slavery in his native state of Virginia, he wrote “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Yet he owned hundreds of human beings, and enslaved them.

The contradiction between his words and his actions has been repeated through all American history. When slavery was abolished at the cost of many lives, after a brief period when freedom flourished and racism staggered, slavery was replaced by KKK terrorism, lynchings, and Jim Crow. When protests gathered and people risked and lost their lives to make equality real, the Black community created new power bases and racism staggered. But Jim Crow was replaced by a system of “criminal injustice” that began at the point of a policeman’s gun and culminated in unjust bail, unjust courts, and mass incarceration. It was replaced by the massive wipeout of Black ownership and personal capital in the Great Recession of 2008 and the Coronavirus Depression of 2020.

What was the use of the Fourth of July and the Declaration of Independence in all that history? As Frederick Douglass said in an extraordinary speech on July 5, 1852, what was the Fourth of July to a slave? Yet Douglass worked his way through a long speech to say:

… Notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. "The arm of the Lord is not shortened," and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.
While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age. Nations do not now stand in the same relation to each other that they did ages ago. No nation can now shut itself up from the surrounding world, and trot round in the same old path of its fathers without interference.
Notice that the Fourth of July still bears witness for him, IF. If it is connected to the “obvious tendencies” of the present.  That is a lesson to us. What can we draw on from the past, how do we make that vision take on bodies and action in the present – in ourselves, not elsewhere in the world?

Not only is Shabbat this year the Fourth of July, the Fourth of July is also Shabbat. How can we honor this confluence in a Shabbosdik way?

We can lift up for ourselves as Jews the commitment that goes back about 2500 years. There is an ancient ancestor of the Declaration of Independence. We should add it to the public Torah readings for this Shabbat:

 When you enter the land that YHWH / Yahhhh / Interbreathing Spirit of life your God is giving you, and you possess it and settle in it, should you say: I will set over me a king like all the nations that are around me-
You may set, yes, set over you a king that YHWH / Yahhhh / Interbreathing Spirit of life your God chooses; from among your brothers you may set over you a king, you may not place over you a foreign man who is not a brother-person to you.
Only: he is not to multiply horses for himself, and he is not to return the people to Mitzrayyim/ Narrowland [Egypt} in order to multiply horses, since YHWH the Breath of Life has said to you: You will never return that way again!
And he is not to multiply wives for himself, that his heart not be turned-aside, and silver or gold he is not to multiply for himself to excess.
But it shall be: when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he is to write himself a copy of this Instruction in a document, before the presence of Levitical priests.
It is to remain beside him, he is to read out of it all the days of his life, in order that he may learn to have-awe-for YHWH the Breath-of-Life his God, to be-careful concerning all the words of this Instruction and these laws, to observe them,
That his heart not be raised above his brothers, that he not turn-aside from what-is-commanded, to the right or to the left; in order that he may prolong (his) days over his kingdom, he and his sons, in the midst of Israel.
                              (Deuteronomy 17:14-20, in the Everett Fox translation of the Five Books of Moses [Schocken])

What does that warning mean --- your leader, your ruler, shall not return you to Narrowland to buy horses?  

Horse-chariots were the great and expensive weapon of the Imperial Army. (Its jet bombers carrying H-Bombs.) To build and equip that army meant turning the citizenry into slaves in order to pay the bill. But the Breath of Life had freed the Israelites, even when the horse-chariot Army pursued them to the edge of the Red Sea, and the Breath of Life forbade an Israelite king from returning the people to slavery to equip his quasi-Imperial Army. The passage was a more vivid version of what Martin Luther King said when he called militarism one of the deadly triplets afflicting American society.

We American Jews are not only heirs of the Torah. We are heirs of the Declaration, too. And facing society-wide racism, we must also face our own. We are not only “white.” Among us are Jews as Black as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, as swarthy as Anwar Sadat, as colorful as Gandhi and Liu Xiaobo. We could treat the Declaration of Independence as a prophetic commentary, a Haftarah, on the Torah portion we have just read.

Hazan Jack Kessler has done the work of making the heart of the Declaration into a Haftarah. You can watch the exquisite way in which he brings his physical presence, his emotional and spiritual as well as intellectual focus into giving the Declaration new life in a very old form.

To see his “Declaration of Independence Haftarah” click to –
https://youtu.be/WIVDVOg-QkQ

And then we urge that in the discussion we raise questions and create activist midrash about the meaning of the Torah and Haftarah today.  Within the Jewish community and beyond it. Is “community” one of the “inalienable rights"? Is there a right to a livable income, livable time to pause and learn, a livable planet? Are we obligated to risk “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” if we face a government that defaces the Declaration and the Torah?

###  ###
For further thought toward action on these approaches see --

Jack Kessler’s article about his work in Kerem Magazine: Creative Explorations in Judaism Final Issue: #1 “English Leyning: Bringing New Meaning to the Torah Service”
kerem.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Kessler-Final-PDF.pdf


 And for a collection of speeches like Douglass’ about the original Declaration and new imagining of what a Declaration for our own day might be like, see
https://theshalomcenter.org/treasury/103

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