Sunday, November 16, 2014

Why Be Jewish?

Why Be Jewish?
Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom, Chevy Chase, MD

          So Sarah dies, and Abraham is faced with the first of a number of tasks he perhaps should have taken care of long before – he must find, secure, and use a burial site for his wife.  Having wandered the land he had been promised as an inheritance, Abraham’s first permanent place, our first legally firm foothold on this land where we were to build new lives… is a grave.
          But Abraham pivots, he turns now towards the future.  He sends his servant Eliezer back where they had all come from, back to Mesopotamia, to find a wife for his son Isaac.  A famous scene at a well transpires, with dusty travelers and thirsty camels, and a new and powerful woman walks into Jewish history.
          Haggling and the pretense of politeness follow, arguments over arrangements and departure dates ensue, until, astonishingly, it finally occurs to one of the men to actually ask a woman what she wants.  Vayom’ru: nik’ra l’na’ara, v’nishalah et piy’ha.  Let us call the girl, and see what she has to say.  Vayik’r’u l’Rivkah, vayom’ru eleyha: hateilchi im haIsh hazeh?  So they called to Rebecca, and they asked her: ‘will you go with this man?’  Vatomar: eiylech!  And she said: ‘I will go.’”
          Vatomar: eiylech!  I will go.  Into an unknown future, into the embrace of a stranger, off to a land she had never seen.  Compare, if you will, what it had taken Abraham to move.  Lech lecha, we read, a direct command from God.  “Go,” the Hebrew says, but it took more than that.  “Go… unto yourself.”  Or, rather, with Rashi, “Go, and it will be for you.  It will be for your good.  You will benefit from it in the long run.”  Two words it took Abraham, and the promise of a benefit.  Even one which might be a long time in coming.  One single word from Rebecca: “Eilech.  I will go.  Whatever the future holds.  Unconditionally.  And, too: with Abraham it took a command from God.  With Rebecca, it was her own response.
          And we, we stand between Abraham and Rebeccca.  This thing we do, this life, this faith, this practice and identity… This Jewish thing.  Will it be for us, will it be for our benefit, will we get something out of it?  Or is it just a response, a way of being.  Is it just, simply, who we are?

          Several weeks ago, with the support of our Temple member Ash Gerecht and the National Center to Encourage Judaism, we tried an experiment.  Taking seriously the verse from Isaiah “ki veiti veit t’filati yikarei l’chol ha’amin, My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” we placed ads in local papers, and we opened our doors… to any and all who wanted to ask questions about Judaism.  It was just meant for anyone who was curious, for any of your friends who had ever asked you questions about Jews or Jewish tradition.  Susan Zemsky helped get cookies and coffee, and Ash’s son, Mike Gerecht and I, sat in the chairs and wondered if we would be chatting alone all evening.
          But people came.  Four interfaith families were represented, one Mormon couple came, and two (unrelated to each other) African American Baptists.  The very first question we got was about what Jews teach about heaven and hell… and from there things got interesting really quickly. 
I made it clear that in Jewish tradition – all of Jewish tradition, from secular to Orthodox – whatever we did believe about the afterlife, we did not think that only Jews got in.  If there is an afterlife at all – a concept some of our visitors had a bit of a hard time processing – then, Judaism teaches, it is based on action, not belief.  Whatever there is – and there are various Jewish views about the world to come – whatever it is, if it is real, well, you don’t need to be Jewish to get there.
          In fact, actually – and here’s a problem we have with our own PR – it may be harder to get there if you’re Jewish.  After all, our tradition teaches that there are 613 mitzvot, 613 commandments Jews are supposed to follow.  And for those who are not Jewish?  Don’t say Ten!  That’s actually not right.  The Ten Commandments include Shabbat, which was meant for Jews.  No, the Jewish teaching on what non-Jews are supposed to follow in order to be considered “good people” is called the Noachide Laws, the Sheva Mitzvot B’nai Noach… the seven laws of the Children of Noah.
          And suddenly, with a light in her eyes, the young Mormon woman who had come leaned forward and stuck up her hand.  It is an obvious question.  It’s one which, in its own way, has been kind of hurting us for the last several centuries.  “So you’re saying,” she said, “that if you are Jewish you have to do 613 things to get into heaven?  And if you’re not Jewish you have to do seven?  So, um, well.”  And then she said it straight out.  “Why be Jewish?”
          Look, it’s not, you know, a bad question.  This was one of the flaws in the philosophy of Moses Mendelssohn.  In response to being challenged – Christian society had accepted him, after all, so why did he not do the right thing, people said, and accept Christianity? – in response to a challenge, he developed the notion that ethics were binding and universal for all human beings… but that if you were Jewish, you also had to follow the ritual laws.  Otherwise everyone is all the same.
          But if that’s it, and there is no other difference – well, that’s not a very compelling reason to stay Jewish.  And, indeed, none of his grandchildren, including Felix, the well-known musician, remained within the fold.  No qualitative difference or existential benefit to being Jewish?  So why bother?
          What a troubling question, for religious liberals and non-fundamentalists.
          Why is it a challenge, in particular for us?  Because there is one other easy answer, which we also can’t use.  It is an ancient attitude, from the days when we were the only ones in the world with a relationship with the One God, and it is a danger which lurks in the DNA of all monotheistic faiths.  It is a facile and superficial application of the concept of being chosen, the idea that we’re just better than others.
          So, the first answer was that we get an eternal reward, a special prize for doing this – which our tradition as I understand it flat out denies.  And the second relies on some sense of inherent superiority – an assertion which neither evidence nor experience can possibly support. 
          (There are some ethnic, secular Jews who still cling to the notion of our being the chosen people, without any sense of responsibility that comes with it.  But let’s be clear about this: chosenness towards a task may be defensible.  Chosenness without content is simply chauvinism.)
          I am sure – or at least I hope – that all of you have your own answers to the question of why be Jewish.  I would love to hear them at some point, to share in how you sift through the compelling calls of a tradition which has not, always, been that easy to follow or obvious about its benefits.  Here, now, though, is part of my answer.
          First, as I said to the woman who asked the question, the idea that good people of all faiths earn a place in the world to come, whatever that world to come might be… this just seems… well, first of all it seems nice, and I like it.
But secondly, it also seems right, by which I mean correct, accurate.  I can’t believe that what we believe matters so much more than what we do; I do believe that, whatever there is beyond this world, we face it in equal measure, as part of the human experience.  At some level, I am Jewish because the totality of this system – certainly not many of its parts, but taken as a whole… it makes a lot of sense to me!
          But a calmly considered rational analysis is not going to move mountains, as it were, nor inspire masses.  To some extent the personal question “Why be Jewish” points towards the ultimate communal question of “what is the purpose of Judaism?”  Or, better: what does Judaism teach about our role in this world, as human beings?
          Every spiritual tradition answers some questions really well.  Buddhism, I believe, has a terrific answer for “why is there suffering in the world, and what can we do about it?”  The answer is: there is suffering because things change, and we are attached to what is.  The response: separate from those attachments! If we are detached, then change will no longer be a source of pain.  Christianity, perhaps, has a better answer than Judaism does to the question of personal sin.  Let’s imagine, for a moment, that you are a repentant murderer.  You killed someone, not in self-defense and not out of necessity, and you feel bad about it.  Christianity offers a path of salvation and redemption here that, well, in Judaism you have to repair the damage you have done as part of the path of repentance.  And some things just can’t be fixed.
 Some of you know the story that once I wrote a piece called “The Kaddish and the Grateful Dead,” which appeared in print in a magazine, which somehow found its way into a prison in the Midwest.  In the article I wrote that Jewish tradition teaches that murderers do not earn a place in the world to come.  So not long after the article appeared I get a letter from this Jewish murderer.  Why, he asked, if there is no salvation for him, shouldn’t he just kill again?   This letter came to my home address in Buffalo. In response, we moved to Washington.  (Well, we were already in the process of coming here.)  And I did write him back, of course.  The substance of that exchange is still available on our website, in a sermon called “Letter from a Murderer.” 
After all these years, though, I am still troubled by the realization that on the level of individual and personal salvation, Christianity has a better, or at least more obvious path forward here.
But there are some questions that Judaism answers in a way which feel deeply, powerfully right – not right in a slow nod of the head, but in a way which can touch our soul and change our lives. 
Why are we here?  We are a people, yes – and as a people our connection with one another is inherent and inalienable.  It goes beyond belief, it does not depend on doctrine or practice.  And yet, originally and somehow still, we are a people with a purpose.  God, we are told, or whatever made this world we live in, clearly, obviously left it… a bit of a mess.  Undone.  Incomplete.  And, instead of railing against the imperfection, we teach that this was done for us.  Because it leaves us a task, it bequeaths to us a destiny.  We are here, we teach, “l’taken Olam b’Malchut Shadai; to perfect the world in the service of God.”  We are partners with the Holy One, in fixing, repairing, mending the brokenness of the world.  We are here to heal, to help and to hope!  And, even for one who does not believe in God in a traditional way: we are here to make the world a better place, in goodness and godliness. 
Unlike Mendelssohn, unlike, indeed, even the early founders of Reform Judaism, this is not just about ethics.  All the rituals, all the rhythm and movement, all the practices, all the arguments in Judaism and all aspects of identity… pull together towards a complete picture, they prop up a people and in pursuit of a purpose.  They are instrumental, yes, but not therefore unimportant.  Some of our practices just focus on us, on the particular; they promote survival of the group…   But that is because the group bears a mission, and so something that looks inward ultimately supports that which looks outward.  That is why I am not among those who say: oh, all that really matters is being a good person.  No, identity embraces it all: the old and the new, tradition and creativity, connection and culture and emotion and commitment, sound and song as well as words and acts.
Why be Jewish?  Because Judaism teaches that we have work to do.  It is the most important work there is.  And almost any aspect of Jewish life and culture and faith and practice can resonate to support that work.
Our first foothold in the land, as we learn this week, might well have been a grave.  But our purpose can be summed up with a different word.  L’chaim!  An embrace of life, to make all our lives as holy, as healthy, as whole, and yes, often, even as happy as they can be.
We don’t know what this mission will bring.  It calls, but it does not promise.  Well, not always.  Maybe Abraham had a sense, in stepping in, that it would all be to his benefit in the long run.  Lech…lecha!  But for Rebecca?  Just: Eilech.  Just one word in Hebrew, which it takes three to convey in English: “I will go.”  Stepping in, to history, to destiny, to identity, to purpose.  Without the outcome being clear.  But resonating, so obviously coming… from the very deepest part of her soul.

Friday, August 01, 2014

On the Other Side of the Jordan

Parashat Devarim
August 1, 2014

          My friends, I can say, indeed, that it is good to be back.  But to be honest, it was also good to be in Israel, even now.  In some ways, in the midst of all of this mess, I would rather be there than here, at least for part of the time.   As I said in my message to the congregation, when your family is in trouble, when your family is in pain, you want… you need, you have to be there with them.  Even if you can’t make the pain go away.
          Closer to home, this week our Reform movement heard some important news – that Rabbi David Saperstein, for decades now the Director of our Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., has been appointed to a position as the next Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom.  Once referred to as the 101st Senator because of his tremendous influence in this city and on the national stage, Rabbi Saperstein will now need to be confirmed by the Senate.  If he is, he will be the first non-Christian to take this post… and it will lead to a transition in our leadership at the Religious Action Center.
          But I was already thinking about Rabbi Saperstein this week, even before I heard the news.  He told us, once, when we were interns working for him, that if you ever faced a time when you could not think of a title for a sermon, you could always use…. “For Such a Time as This.”
          For such a time as this…   Almost used it this week.  In the end, though, I am holding off on that one, in case I need it in the future.  I do, actually, have a theme and a title tonight.   It is called “The Other Side of the Jordan.”  It is based on an anomaly in the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, the very first verse of the book of Deuteronomy.
The book opens in the following way:
 אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל,
           הַיַּרְדֵּןבַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין-פָּארָן וּבֵין-תֹּפֶל, וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת--וְדִי זָהָב בְּעֵבֶר.
These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel on the other side of the Jordan; in the wilderness, in the Arabah, over against Suph, between Paran and Tophel, and Laban, and Hazeroth, and Di-zahab.”
          On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the opening at all.  The book purports to be a farewell speech from Moses, recalling everything that has gone before.  Beware, by the way… be very careful around politicians who tell you they are just repeating the past; invoking nostalgia is often a cover for radical change.  This so-called review is really a revolution, but that is a tale for another time.
          But one phrase kind of… jumps out from this sentence, one thing that is kind of strange.  “These are the words that Moses spoke to the Israelites… on the other side of the Jordan?”
           Now, wait a second here.  Doesn’t Orthodox tradition teach that Moses… Moses wrote the Torah?  But if he was the writer…  who is it that is speaking here?  If this is before the Israelites entered the land, what is this reference about… the other side?  Doesn’t this whole sentence make sense… as a retrospective comment?  Something written much later.  And therefore, something written by someone… on this side of the river?
          Already as long ago as the early 12th century, the brilliant Biblical commentator Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote the following about this and other, similar verses in the Torah: “If you can grasp the mystery behind the problematic passages: you will understand the truth.”  And then Ibn Ezra said something truly astonishing.  “V’hamaskil yavin, the smart will understand – and the wise will be silent!”  Ibn Ezra, in other words, was one of the first to see that a logical and rational reading of the Torah’s own words undermine the assumption of Mosaic authorship of the Torah.  Yet that assumption was a primary foundation of Ibn Ezra’s religious life, and the society of which he was a part.  And so he saw, he hinted…  He had a secret, but he did not spell it out.
          For now, though, I am interested in the spiritual significance of the words, and the lesson they can teach us, not their role as a major clue in unraveling an historical puzzle.  Tomorrow morning I will return to an exploration of how Deuteronomy came to be written, and what its form and structure mean, a lesson that will lead to a teaching about something called a “sovereign state of mind.”  For right this moment, for right now I am less interested in who wrote the Torah than in what we can get out of it.  I want to ask what it might mean that Moses spoke to all of Israel from “the other side.”
          Missiles fall, sirens sound, and we are, it seems, coming together again.  At least at first, as is often the case, all but a radical fringe, all but a handful of voices within our community proclaim unity and solidarity and support.  This is largely as it should be, with but a few caveats I will share in a few moments.
          Indeed, the threat is very real, complacency and security and a psychological sense of well-being have all been challenged in ways we have not seen in years.  The basic slogans are right: if Hamas were to stop using violence there would be no more war; if Israel were to stop using violence there would be no more Israel.  Some would say it is just as simple as that.  This is a just war, a defensive war, fought in urban settings and crowded conditions with horrendous tragedies happening all around us.
          And more: the double standard stinks!  Hypocrisy renders conversation with friends and neighbors unbearable, and often impossible.  There are relationships strained – friendships ended – on arguments over Israel.  This is our family, and those who do not understand the defense of our family, it is as if…   Look, this sounds harsh, and this sounds personal, but the reality is that we cannot trust our own lives to those who cannot understand the nature of this attack.    
          And in the world beyond our personal conversations…  How much anger towards Israel’s response.  A leader of Turkey claims that this is worse than Hitler and has the gall – Turkey, with all its unacknowledged baggage, its own closet-full of atrocities it will neither own up to nor yield for others to examine – Turkish leaders have the chutzpah to use the term “genocide!”  What mirror do they use to look at themselves in the morning? 
          And where were the riots in London and Paris, over the actions of Assad, or ISIS, or more?  ISIS: calling last week for the conversion, subjugation or outright slaughter of the Christians under their control.  And Assad: whose supporters are slaughtering innocents in Syria in far greater numbers still than the losses in Gaza.   And in Lebanon, where massacres of Palestinians in refugee camps even last year go unnoticed and without response.  And where was the sense of shame in a United States urging restraint in how Israel approaches civilians – not that the cautionary note was wrong in and of itself, but where was that finger wagging and impulse towards restraint in any of our own recent wars?  How does the civilian to combatant percentage compare, between texts and phone calls and knocks on the roof – in contrast to drones and bombs from high up and far away?  Where is the rage on the street when Muslims kill Muslims, or Christians kill Christians, or Muslims and Christians kill each other, or anyone kills Jews?  No, indeed, while I do not assert that antisemitism is behind each and every criticism of Israel, still, let us open our eyes and see how the world reacts very differently… when it is Jews who hold a sword rather than meekly falling beneath it.  The smoke of hate and hypocrisy so thick we could any of us choke without being able to change it at all.
          True, true, all of it…
          And yet let us not let the roar of self-approval and the shouts of acclamation make us deaf to a voice that might come… “from the other side.”
          Though I blame Hamas as the instigator and moral monster and see them as essentially and in all ways that matter entirely responsible for this terrible war, though I know the threat is real and ran myself three times to take shelter… I cannot totally shut out at least some of the images, and some of the voices, from the other side.  Not those who defend Hamas, God forbid.  But those who dare to ask what now, and what’s next.
          In Israel there have been rallies both questioning the war, and bringing Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs together in prayers for peace.  Before the missiles flew I found myself walking amidst those who help up signs saying “Lo l’alimut v’dai l’nekama!  No to violence and enough with revenge!”  My friend and colleague Rabbi Edgar Nof, once of Haifa and now Netanya, writes movingly of many interfaith efforts he has participated in over the past several weeks.  It is not true that the only pictures we should have are of bleeding children in Gaza and well-armed Israelis riding tanks.  There are voices of hope and prayer and peace.
          Some of those rallies, though, even ones which do not challenge the war but express hope and sympathy for the innocent on all sides, some of these gatherings have been attacked.  Not just verbally, but violently.  Right-wing voices have screamed not only “mavet la’Aravim, death to Arabs,” but also “burn all leftists” and “go to Gaza” (which, in Hebrew, is a phrase very close to the Hebrew equivalent of “go to hell,” so I suppose the chant was so linguistically obvious as to be politically inevitable.)  In the pages of HaAretz there are those who raise other scenarios, who ask questions about alternatives, and implications… and the writers are treated as terrorists themselves.  A left-leaning singer, Achinoam Nini, known abroad as Noa, was boycotted on Facebook and disrupted in the middle of a concerts in Israel for voicing pro-peace sentiments… and then attacked on a tour of Spain self-righteous pro-Palestinian Euro-thugs as “Noa the Terrorist,” simply for being an Israeli.
          How can we hear, in the midst of sirens and explosions, expletives and hatred?  And if we cannot hear, how can we ever get from where we are, to where we need to be?  What does winning look like, short of kill-‘em all and let the earth choke on the blood of martyrs?
          Long ago Ibn Ezra made a point that we needed to be right, and we need to be wise.  Is there a truth here that we see but cannot say?  Or is it, rather, that wisdom will come in finding and giving voice to hope, in a world where hope seems to leech away with every passing day?
          This night I have more questions than answers.  It felt right to be in Israsel, it feels right to stand with Israel.  But I also sense that there is another story, and that what feels right… is not enough.
          I hear the sirens, and the screams.  But when I close my eyes, I think: Belfast.  And Johannesberg.  Paris, and Berlin.  These are places once torn asunder, whose troubled past has been, mostly at least, put aside.  And Selma, and Birmingham...  Problems remain but progress is possible even in the darkest of places.  It has happened before.  It can happen again.  I can see what tomorrow might look like.  Just because I don’t know how to get there… does not mean… we can give up trying.
          What am I saying?  In some ways I was being cautious and deliberately vague.  But at the end of these remarks I guess it is time to come out and say it straight: Israel may be mostly in the right, but it does not mean that that is the end of what there is to say.  “Right” does not mean “smart,” and while there are no easy answers, I believe we need to listen to as many voices as possible now… our own, that of our family, that of those who serve with force and valor… and those who serve with placard and pen.  And yes, somehow we need to see, we need to hear, we need to take in… the voice that cries out… from the other side.  That, too, is Torah.  That, too, is part of our heritage.
          A famous quote, from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Ancestors: “lo aleicha ham’lacha lig’mor; it is not incumbent upon you to finish the work.  V’lo ata ben chorin lihivatel mimena; neither, however, are you free to desist from it.”

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

In Memory of Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger:
One Jew’s Views on His Legacy and Life
Parashat Terumah; January 31, 2014

          A story, from the book of Joshua.  The people stood at the banks of the river, and were not sure how to cross over into land.  But then, we read “the waters coming down from upstream piled up in a single heap… and all Israel crossed over on dry land, until the entire nation had finished crossing the Jordan.”
          This story is so familiar that… well, wait.  I admit, until I studied it in rabbinical school I had never heard of it.  I’ll venture a guess that not too many of you are familiar with this tale either.
          Why not?  One Chasidic rabbi, listed in my sources only as “Rabbi A. Chein,” gives the following answer: “The miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea endures in the memory of the people on account of the song they sang at the sea…” the powerful words of exuberance and gratitude most familiar to us as the prayer “Mi Kamocha.”  But, Chein goes on, “the miracle of the splitting of the Jordan has not survived in our memory because… there was no song.”
          My friends, if there is anyone, anywhere, who has ever illustrated the power of the song to move mountains and change the world, it is the giant figure we lost this past week, Pete Seeger.  Not two, not three, but over a dozen of you have shared a sense of deep sadness and loss, a hole in our hearts which his voice once filled.   Some of us have cried, others drifted off into reflection: when we heard his music, what he meant to us.  Some of us share stories of having heard him live, or even having met him in person. Truly, the stories and causes he brought forth with his banjo lived for us; they have been some of the central issues in our lives for…well, in my case, for my entire life.
          Pete Seeger was about, I think, “giving voice.”  He heard and preserved, performed and recorded and revived a whole tradition of pre-digital folk music which otherwise might have disappeared.  He gave voice to old music, and gave venues to new musicians, with promotion and support and partnership and collaboration. 
And he gave voice to the causes that, either with him or in part because of him, we came to care about the most.  My youth would be less whole and my understanding of the costs of war more poor, my hope for peace less complete without “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  My sense of justice would be lacking without having the injunction, somewhere in the back of my memory, to “Look for the Union Label.”  My sense of self and my understanding of the suburbs would be weaker without “Little Boxes.”   The legendary late Joe Glazer may have sung it right here on our pulpit for Labor on the Bimah in 2005, but it was Pete Seeger’s setting, pacing and publication of “We Shall Overcome” that earned this song its place at the heart of the civil rights movement.   And I am not sure the modern environmental movement would have been the same without him, neither clean water standards without his love of the Hudson, nor blue recycling bins without his song “Garbage.”
          Let’s pause for a moment.  Everyone has their own memory, their own way in which this man touched their lives.  What was it for you?  What did he add?  What would have been missing without him?
Much has been written in the Jewish press in recent days, of course, on the question of whether he was “good for the Jews.”  The issue, as usual, is Israel, and his recent possible support of the BDS movement.  But let’s be clear: Seeger himself was hard to categorize on this issue – and he proclaimed a position which was constantly evolving, and said that he was open to new information.  As recently as four years ago he did work on behalf of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in the Negev, resisting pressure to withdraw.  And he was a leftist for long enough that he remembered a different Israel – an egalitarian ethos,  a socialist vision… an image of Israel which he and the Weavers actually helped awaken in America with their rendition and wide-spread performance of “Tzena, Tzena,” beginning in 1950.  A critic of Israel late in his life, perhaps, but he remained a believer in dialogue, and supporter of Israel and the Palestinians.  He was never an anti-Zionist, as so many modern leftists have become, and he remained sensitive to Jewish narrative and need.
As did many artists and authors and ordinary Americans alike, he suffered for his beliefs in justice and equality – he ducked and dodged and brilliantly redirected questions of the House Un-American Affairs Committee in the mid-1950’s, and while he avoided prison for contempt of Congress, he was banned from network television until the Smothers Brothers eventually broke the back of the blacklist in the last 1960’s.  In the midst of the political divisions and vitriolic rhetoric in our midst today, it is perhaps useful to recall an era when things were even more divided, more fearful… an era we survived and which led to a new time of openness and creativity in its aftermath.
Creativity and hope in the face of fear.  That is, perhaps, the message I am left with now that Pete Seeger is gone.  He gave voice to so much, and he kept on singing even as his voice grew weaker. He was passionate, and committed; he cared and he shared and he made a difference in the world.
If his voice has fallen silent it is, then, now up to us: to see clearly, to find our voices and to use them.  There are so many needs in our midst.  There are so many who cry out in need.  Which voices will we hear?  And what song will we write, to make music out of madness?  Shiru L’A Shir Chadash… sing unto God a new song…
          On the Jewish calendar, this Shabbat we read Parashat Terumah, the Torah portion from the middle of Exodus in which we first receive the instructions to build the tabernacle.  While the words of Ecclesiastes come to mind, of “Turn, Turn, Turn,” as a tempting choice, still, because of the portion… there is, for Cantor Levine and me, just one choice what music to turn to at this point, as anthem and reflection, in tribute and in memory.   That choice would be: “If I Had a Hammer.”
May Pete Seeger’s spirit live in us, and through us.  May his song be on our lips and in our lives forever.   

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

What's In a Name -- An Open Letter to the Owner of the "Redskins"

Mr. Daniel M. Snyder
Owner, Washington Redskins 21300 Redskins Park Drive Ashburn, VA 20147

Dear Mr. Snyder:

We ask that you change the name of the Washington professional football team. As Jews and leaders of synagogues in this area, we believe that changing the name is an honorable action that upholds the best of our religious and cultural values.

We appreciate your tenacious devotion to the team and its traditions. We also have been lifelong fans of the team, and have likewise reveled in the many triumphs over the years such as three Super Bowl victories under Coach Joe Gibbs. While we understand that you mean no harm by keeping the team's name, we believe that the time has come to change the name of the team.

Abe Pollin, the late former owner of the Washington Wizards, honored Judaism when he changed the name of the team from the Bullets to the Wizards. After the assassination of his friend, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, Mr. Pollin became concerned that the name "Bullets" connoted violence. He invited the community to submit names for consideration and then changed the name of the team. His actions serve as a model that we urge you to emulate in the great tradition of Washington team owners.

Native Americans have made it clear that they are hurt by the team's name because the name is demeaning and dehumanizing. Over a period of several decades, they have filed lawsuits that have gone all the way to the Supreme Court, they have led countless demonstrations against the name, and most recently they have met with senior officials of the NFL.

 Over the centuries, Jews have been called all sorts of names. The name calling is not simply teasing. Rather it is a conscious effort to dehumanize a people and justify cruelties, culminating in the Holocaust. Some people dismiss the concerns of the Native Americans over the name of a football team. We do not. It is not a trivial matter. Society should never condone name calling and major institutions with profound influence must not adopt names that races and ethnicities find offensive. Sports are inextricably intertwined with society. In particular, we believe that belittling names and mascots send harmful messages to impressionable young fans who may grow up harboring unhealthy stereotypes of Native Americans.

In your letter to fans, you cite the proud tradition of the team. Yes, the team has a proud tradition but parts of that tradition must be discarded. The first owner of the team, George Preston Marshall, was an avowed segregationist who was the last owner in the league to integrate his team. He claims that he named the team to honor a coach in the 1930s that was Native American. Yet, that coach's claim to being Native American has been cast in doubt by scholarly research. You should not steadfastly cling to a name that was coined by a racist owner who subsequently used that name in tasteless marketing campaigns involving stereotypes of Native American dance and song.

The NFL Commissioner recently stated that if one person is offended by the name, then we must listen. The President has politely suggested that you change the name. As Jews, we must stand in solidarity with a people that have been hurt and injured. Mr. Snyder, this name hurts Native Americans. We stand in solidarity with Native Americans. Appealing to your better angels, we ask that you change this name and that next season we no longer have to be ashamed to root for a team with an injurious name.


Michael L. Feshbach
Senior Rabbi
Temple Shalom Chevy Chase, MD

Josh Silver
Past Chair, Tikkun Olam Committee Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD