God’s Presence Accompanied Them

Exploring Babylon: Chapter 1.2

Deuteronomy closes with hopes, on the banks of the Jordan and declarations of Israel’s particular relationship to God:

So Israel dwelt in safety
the fountain of Jacob alone…

Happy are you, O Israel!
Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD,
the shield of your help,
and the sword of your triumph!
–Deut 33:28-29

Much later, after Israel had experienced more trial and loss and exile, the idea developed that God was in exile along with the People, as much in need of rescue as the People. In particular, Sukkot prayers include a verse, “Ani va-ho” — sometimes translated as “Yourself and us!” or “Rescue me and the divine name!” — followed by another that begs:

As You rescued the communities You exiled to Babylonia, and Your merciful Presence accompanied them — so save us.

This line of thought, which has been developing for centuries, is mean to teach that “when there is suffering in the world, God is not on the side of the oppressors. Rather God is with the oppressed and suffers with them” (from Or Hadash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom; download and more at Rabbinical Assembly).

The idea that “God is with the oppressed” is too often, I fear, used as a sort of universal Coup-fourré card, a “safety” to correct any “hazard,” so as to stay on the road.

…For those who never played the old card game Mille Borne, maybe “ace in the hole” or “Get out of jail free” card will make more sense; but I find Coup-fourré — the process whereby one is able to surmount a pitfall and keep rolling along — more apt here….

It is way too easy to let “God is with the oppressed” console the already comfortable while leaving the afflicted with their travails. As we enter the new year, I think it’s time for the comfortable among us to examine our “safety” cards.

 

Following God’s Example

We must ask ourselves where we are when there is suffering and injustice in the world. It’s not enough to be concerned or write letters or even stand out in the street in protest — although all of those things are important. God went into exile with us, and something similar is required of us, if we are to make any progress on racial and ethnic justice issues.

We must take steps to remove any sense that we are somehow entitled to dwell in safety — as we find Israel at the close of Deuteronomy — when others cannot. If God could join us in exile, we can work to dismantle White Supremacy and other protections that can never be equally shared. Where there is suffering in the world, we cannot simply declare ourselves “on the freedom side.”

We’ve got to follow God’s example, to the extent we are able, and be willing to be vulnerable, explore what it’s really like in Babylon, not just our romantic ideas about it from outside. We have to look carefully at any place where oppression thrives and ask, “how we are complicit?” Really, deeply, honestly ask ourselves and our communities: “Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?”

And then take action, even if it means compromising our own safety or sense of self.

NOTE: A version of this mini-dvar [word, sermon] was given at Fabrangen and Tikkun Leil Shabbat joint Simchat Torah celebration, 10/11/17.

“Babylon” (Bavel) means many things in Judaism and in U.S. popular culture. Join “A Song Every Day” in Exploring Babylon over the next 40 weeks.

 

Which Side Are You On?

Background on the song/chant —

Florence Reece (more here) wrote “Which side are you on?” lyrics in 1931 as part of labor organizing effort —

Freedom Singers adapted it for the mid-20th Century Civil Rights movement —

A version of this is still used, as in #BlackBrunch in Oakland (above), but protestors in the Movement for Black Lives also use a combination song and chant, as in this snippet:

Chant: [Example Leader] was a Freedom Fighter
who taught us how to fight
We gonna fight all day and night
until we get it right

Sing: Which side are you on, my people, which side are you on?
We’re on the freedom side!

Map Your Heart Out, part 1

“Pursuing Racial Justice: The Jewish Underpinnings of Anti-Racism Work,” held recently at Adas Israel (DC) and featuring Yavilah McCoy of Visions-Inc and Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block of Bend the Arc, offered many insights and challenges. I plan to share some of what I gained in readable portions over the course of the next few days. I begin — as Pirkei Avot (5:9) tells us sages should do — with “first things first [al rishon rishon].”

Asked how to avoid burnout in social justice work, especially in these trying times, McCoy said “first, you need a practice.” She stressed the importance of a daily practice for centering the self and for awareness. Failing to take time each day to check in with ourselves and understand where we are usually results in whatever we haven’t paused to address spilling out into the work. In addition, both McCoy and Kimelman-Block said, a daily pause/practice offers an opportunity to notice signs of burnout and arrange rest and healing measures.

heart Some of us rely on the Jewish liturgy for daily practice. Earlier this month, I shared a “heart map” focusing on some of the Jewish prayers most central to me and to my understanding of how prayer helps Judaism to work in the world. (See “Covenant and Liturgy.”)

My map was created in adaptation of one of the projects in Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking by Jill K. Berry. Some readers may be interested in creating their own prayer maps, in some kind of graphic form, in outline, or in prose.

I found the exploration behind my map helpful in understanding which prayers I find essential and why. I recommend the process.

A bit more on cordiform maps here.

More on the texts I chose for my own map coming soon.

Facing Race. We’ve Seen This

The “Facing Race” conference concludes on November 12. For those reading early in the day, there’s still time to participate via LiveStream. For those checking in later, there’s useful information at this conference link.

Calls for Jewish Signatures

“To the millions of immigrants, Muslims, people of color, LGBT people, women, people with disabilities, and everyone who is threatened by the President-Elect and his administration, we want you to know: we are with you…”

“We’ve Seen This Before” — open letter; Jews are encouraged to sign.

No Time for Neutrality — rabbinic/cantorial letter from Truah

A few bits background interest:

“CAIR Calls on President-Elect Trump to Repudiate Attacks on Muslim Women by His Supporters” —press release

The 74 — Make Schools Safe Again

Race Forward statement on the National Election

Blasphemy of Pharaoh’s Overreach: Theology, Context and the Trouble I’ve Seen

“Claiming the center stage, just like Pharaoh and Caesar did in their time, has always been a blasphemous overreach that actually places oneself on the margins of God’s reign,” thus writes Drew G.I. Hart in Trouble I’ve Seen. 

This new title focuses on “Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism,” but much of what Hart says needs equal attention in the Jewish thought. (Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.)

Religious Thought and Practice

Hart notes the optional or alternative status of “women’s,” “peace,” or “black” theology:

According to [teacher John Franke] white male theologians have often seen themselves as objective and neutral overseers of Christian tradition. They function as “theological referees” for everyone else, while imagining their position as neutral and unbiased in the center of all the action….Missing is that white men have a social context too.

— p. 163, Trouble I’ve Seen

TroubleA parallel situation still applies all too well in much of the Jewish world. As does his analysis of how well-intentioned attempts at diversity and inclusion often fail to create real change. Many of his recommendations for the Church are ones other faith communities should explore as well:

  1. “Share life together.”
  2.  Practice solidarity. (See, e.g., Be’chol Lashon, Jewish Multi-Racial Network, and Jews of All Hues, as well as links at “Exodus from Racism”)
  3. “See the world from below,” by changing reading habits, for example. (See “Range of Possibilities” for some suggestions.)
  4. “Subvert racial hierarchy in the [religious infrastructure].”
  5. “Soak in scripture and the Spirit for renewed social imagination.” (Explore  “Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart,” e.g. and these resources from Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center.)
  6. “Seek first the kingdom of God.”
  7. Engage in self-examination.

— from p. 176, Trouble I’ve Seen

Current and Historical Re-Examination

Hart’s exploration of “White Jesus” and related Church history may seem irrelevant to those outside the Christian faith. This is important background for every U.S. citizen, however, and worth review for those as yet unfamiliar.

Moreover, Jewish communities would do well to consider whether our members are aware of essential demographics — such as a recent study showing white men with criminal convictions more likely to get positive job-application responses than black men without a record (see p. 145) — and the individual and cumulative effect of everyday racism experienced by the author of Trouble I’ve Seen.

Most importantly, Jews must join our Christian neighbors in examining how we “resemble this remark”:

Too many in the American Church have perpetuated the myth that this land was build on Christian principle rather than on stolen land and stolen labor.

p.145, Trouble I’ve Seen

Hart’s new volume provides important food for thought as we continue to read Exodus this winter and experience it in the upcoming Passover season.

Hart

Drew G. I. Hart

More about “Anablacktivist” Drew G.I. Hart

Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.

What are you reading this Exodus season?

Please share your resources and your thinking.

Life, Liberty, and the Promise of Peace

Readers may have noticed a long silence on this blog. But I have not been entirely silent.

At start of June 2015, I began an additional blog, #SayThisName, to mark those lost to homicide and police action in the District of Columbia. Since then, I have personally typed out and said aloud the names of 95 individuals lost in our city in less than six months. The list includes friends of friends, a domestic murder-suicide a few blocks from my home, and a shooting on the steps of a church across from my work. I glimpsed a few seconds of the latter scene nearly three months ago, and the picture rarely leaves me for long. These are not statistics or abstractions. And this recitation has, it seems, captured a large part of my voice.

I am grateful to Temple Micah (DC), one of my spiritual homes, for their practice — several months old now — of listing the names of those lost to violence in the city as we rise to recite Mourners Kaddish. It is clearly having an effect on many in the congregation, including our new rabbi, Susan Landau, who is also new to DC. While guns are not behind every death in our town, they play a big role. And Rabbi Landau is joining with others nationally to address this problem.

Rabbi Landau spoke powerfully at the interfaith “United to Stop Gun Violence,” November 3, at the National Cathedral.

Project End Gun Violence activists with Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT 5th, Newtown-Sandy Hook) at the Cathedral 11/3/15

Project End Gun Violence activists with Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT 5th, Newtown-Sandy Hook) at the Cathedral 11/3/15

Rabbi Landau’s remarks begin at 23:00 above.
Imam Talib Shareef of DC’s Masjid Muhammad speaks at 28:00.
Film includes other local and national activists, prayers, and song.

Many national groups working on gun violence from one angle or another participated in the November 3 event. Some of the resources shared there appear on this page.

See also this blog with resources on childhood trauma, a big part of the situation.

Additional related sources: “Stragglers on the Road Away from Bondage” and “Honoring a Teacher,” and “Meditations on Morning Blessings.”

Prayer Draft

To support National Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath, which is coming up December 10-14, 2015, I am crafting a prayer to be part of Temple Micah (DC) services on that weekend.

It is based on the prayer “for our country” in Mishkan T’filah, the most recent prayerbook of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. (Mishkan T’filah, NY: CCAR, 2007. This prayer is on p.258 here.)

[this blog originally shared a draft for comments]

Here is an updated version for considering, sharing, and, most importantly, for praying!

Prayer Amid Gun Violence Prayer Amid Gun Violence

Prayers, Advocacy, and #RippleEffect

Continuing the discussion, at “If a corpse be found…”, about the need for new approaches to meeting our communal responsibilities.

Some possible responses to the trauma and tragedy of multiple murders, particularly in Washington, DC —

Prayer

Residents in some of the most affected neighborhoods of the District are asking for prayers, calling on everyone in and around the city to #Pray4DC, as one united town. If you know others who engage in intercessory prayer, please pass along this prayer concern. And, however you approach such requests yourself, please keep the need for “one DC” in mind.

Also, if you know members or clergy in other congregations who might be willing to prayerfully acknowledge DC’s losses to homicide — as Temple Micah has begun to do — please ask them to sign up for #SayThisName.

Learn and Advocate

Learn a little about child trauma and how it affects learning and then advocate for trauma-sensitive schools – particularly in Washington, DC. The District also needs trauma-response units to help young people on the scene cope with the violence they too often face.

You will find more background and links to several pertinent resources in this recent feature report from the Education Town Hall.)

For DC residents, please note particularly, that the DC Council held a roundtable on this topic in June and should be poised to act.

Playing for Change

This one involves the Grateful Dead — some Temple Micah (DC) people know I hate to let a summer pass without somehow bringing in the Dead. And those who follow such things know this summer is the Dead’s 50th anniversary….

Ripple Effect Campaign

As we began the Standing Prayer, I mentioned the idea of ripples of pain moving outward from a bomb or a bullet and how kindness and prayer can also have a ripple effect. (See “Prayer in the Midst of Bullets and Bombs“)

The #RippleEffect Campaign — named for the Grateful Dead son, “Ripple” — simply involves engaging in acts of kindness or telling about a how an act of kindness affected you… and then encouraging others to do so as well, creating a kindness ripple.

Part of the effort involves social media, for those interested. But it’s certainly not required for the spreading of kindness, or for doing so with the intention of helping to heal all that is broken in DC and beyond.

Playing for Change Day

2015-bnr-PFC_squareA second goal of the Ripple Effect Campaign is to raise awareness and funds for a project called “Playing for Change” that teaches music and dance to young people around the world, including in the U.S. Playing for Change (PFC) helps youth use music for everything from improving education to resolving conflicts, preserving cultural heritage, and building community, locally, and connections worldwide.

PFC Day — with activities in 61 countries last year — is an annual effort, scheduled this year during the Days of Awe.

Organizers say

This day of music, peace, and change keeps instruments, music instruction, and inspiration flowing to children around the world, … and contributes to positive vibration that connects and inspires us all.

Justice, Justice you shall pursue

The related dvar Torah, “If a corpse be found…”, continues the discussion of ripples — ones of pain, outward from bullets and bombs, and ones of healing.

Is anyone else interested in pursuing a Playing for Change activity in DC and/or the Jewish world?

Seek the Peace of the City

Houses of worship across the United States are separated by many things: culture, religious denomination, style of prayer, theology and language. We’re also separated by demographics and location, even in the same town.

I believe it was DC’s former police chief Isaac Fulwood who noted that 10 a.m. on Sunday is the most segregated hour of life in the city. Of course, many things have changed since Fulwood’s tenure in the late 80s — and Jews, as well as some other religious communities, don’t hold their biggest weekly worship on Sunday. But his basic point remains.

The relative segregation of our lives and our worship communities means that, in cities like the District of Columbia, some communities mourn violent deaths with terrible regularity while others, in the same city, remain largely unaffected.

It has been one of my deepest prayers that we can find ways, in our various worship communities, to ensure that our worship reflects the welfare of our own city, specifically, while never losing cite of our wider place as citizens of the world. One place we must start, I continue to believe, is for every house of worship in the city to acknowledge the violent losses of its citizens, even if those lost and their primary mourners are not members of the congregation.

#SayThisName

In this past week, the District of Columbia has been bereaved of the following individuals through homicide:

  • June 26 1200 block of Raum Street, Northeast
    23-year-old Kevin Cortez Johnson, of Southeast, Washington.
  • June 28 1600 block of E Street, Northeast
    33 year-old Darrell Michael Grays of Northeast, Washington, DC.
  • June 29 Unit block of Galveston Place, Southwest
    25 year-old Rodney Delonte Davis, of Manassas, Virginia.

We are still in the 30-day period of mourning for these individuals, lost to homicide:

  • June 8 5100 block of Southern Avenue
    21-year-old Qur’an Reginald Vines of Southeast, Washington, DC.
  • June 10 (after June 3 injuries) Gallaudet and Kendall Streets, Northeast
    57 year-old Anthony Ray Melvin of Clinton, Maryland.
  • June 13 3200 block of 23rd Street Southeast
    54 year-old Kenneth Fogle of Southeast, Washington, DC.
  • June 13 2300 block of 15th Street, Northeast
    44 year-old Donald Franklin Bush of Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
  • June 14, 5200 block of Central Avenue, Southeast
    26-year old James Brown of Northeast, Washington, DC.
  • June 17 1300 block of Orren Street, Northeast
    25 year-old Larry Michael Lockhart of Northeast, DC.
  • June 17 3300 block of D Street, Southeast
    28 year-old Antonio Lee Bryant of Southeast, DC.
  • June 18 800 block of 51st Street, Southeast
    42 year-old Brian Sickles of Southeast, Washington, DC.
  • June 18 1300 block of 5th Street, Northwest
    26 year-old Patrick Shaw of no fixed address.
  • June 19 3600 block of Calvert, Northwest
    53 year-old Joel Johnson of no fixed address.
  • June 20 (after June 16 injury)
    16 year-old Malik Mercer of Clinton, MD (former 10th grader at Ballou SHS in SE).
  • June 23 (after June 21 injury) 2200 block of H Street, Northeast
    26-year-old Arvel Lee Stewart of Northeast, Washington, DC.
  • June 23 1200 block of Holbrook Terrace, Northeast
    19 year-old Heineken McNeil of Southeast, Washington, DC.
  • June 24 at the Tidal Basin
    20 year-old Deante Tinnen of Southeast, DC.
  • June 25 16th & Galen Streets, Southeast
    21 year-old Stephon Marquis Perkins of Maryland.

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