Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, November 26, 2021

(Almost) Thanksgivukkah

2013 was the first time since the late 1800’s that the first day of Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving day. This won’t happen again for a long time. We’ll get a “partial” Thanksgivukkah in 2070 and then not again until 2165, when Hanukkah will begin the evening of Thanksgiving. God willing, 84 year-old-me will live to see the first of those.

Which is to say...I declare that we can make this weekend an honorary Thanksgivukkah!

So go for it... put your Thanksgiving leftovers to good use. You can find plenty of recipes like sweet potato latkes topped with turkey and gravy. Light your menurkey – a combo menorah and Turkey on Sunday night (it’s not a real turkey, in case you were wondering).

It’s fun and games and I think there’s a lot more to this rare pair of holidays.

First, the themes and symbols overlap considerably: miracles, thankfulness, and community. Because of this, I really like this blending of the two holidays.

It’s also a time to reflect on the American Jewish experience. A time to think about how we’ve adopted this country, and, overall, how it has adopted us. Jews in America experience freedom and prosperity that Diaspora Jews have never experienced before, even in all the golden ages and times of quiet. We have never been this blessed.

The joining of the holidays also seems apt because they share a clear message: by working together, we can overcome great obstacles.

That is…if we adhere to the traditional, mythical stories about both holidays. For Thanksgiving, that is the Pilgrims and Native Americans coming together to join in a bountiful feast of friendship, taking on the formidable winter together. For Hanukkah, that’s the Maccabees bounding together with their fellow Jews to take on the formidable Syrian Greek army.

But just as famous as these stories is the fact that they’re considerably white-washed. What came after “the first Thanksgiving” (if it even existed at all)? Forced assimilation, migration and genocide of Indigenous Americans.

What happened after the Maccabees restored the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? A civil war broke out among the Jews. The Maccabees put themselves at the top of the government and made themselves the ruling Hasmonean class. They eventually became so corrupt and ineffective that just 100 years later, the dynasty fell to an invading empire.

A questionable and controversial past seems to be something Thanksgiving and Hanukkah also have in common.

And yet we go all in, us American Jews. Particularly us Reform Jews. But that’s because our job is to go to the heart of the myth, shine a light on the values and develop them anew. The two values we want to look at this weekend are gratitude and joy.

For Thanksgiving, we’ll draw out the gratitude. We Jews are supposed to say 100 blessings a day! We get this teaching from two places:

In Deuteronomy 10:12, Moses tells the Jewish people: "What (mah) does God ask of you?" The Talmud explains that the word mah can be read as me'ah, meaning 100. The interpretation is that we should recite (at least) 100 blessings every day.

There’s also the midrash that in the time of King David, 100 people died every day due to a terrible plague. Realizing that the plague had a spiritual cause, King David instituted a "measure for measure" response: the saying of 100 blessings each day. Once implemented, the plague stopped.

Thanksgiving is a secular but powerful ritual that reminds us to keep up this very Jewish daily practice.

For Hanukkah, we’ll draw upon the joy. The joy of miracles and marvels done for our ancestors in days of old! The “joy” of Hanukkah is light hearted joy: gift giving, spinning dreidels, latkes and doughnuts and oil and chocolate! That would be enough, but Hanukkah comes around to show us how a religious holiday can dig even deeper. And joy, as simple as it seems, is a pretty complex emotion.

Hanukkah’s joy is wrapped up in more than tinsel and bows. The miracle of Hanukkah was not the oil, but the Maccabee’s ability to break down a formidable foe - that even in the face of walls and armor and elephants, they turned the tables. It was a given that an established army would win. But with some ingenuity, pluck, and through a grassroots movement, the Maccabees reallocated the power. Hanukkah’s miracles are not just our everyday blessings, but the reassessing and redefining of our power.

Never have I felt this theme of the holiday as strongly as I felt this week. In a matter of hours, grassroots voices of justice experienced major triumph in the face of established norms and calcified structures of hate in our country. This happened through two significant verdicts.

First, nine  plaintiffs consisting of students, clergy, peaceful protestors, and innocent bystanders -- who were victims of a coordinated attack by white supremacists during what was called “Unite the Right” in August 2017 -- won a historic victory against the white supremacist groups and individuals who conspired for months to bring violence to the streets of Charlottesville.  This will cripple the morale and financial structures of the so-called “alt-right.” Integrity First for America, the small organization supporting the suit, and their grassroots network of supporters, smashed more cracks into the wall of White Supremacy that has long been buttressing American society.

And then just hours later, all three defendants in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty of murder. This caused celebration and fanfare in the face of a biased system that for so long has upheld such terrible actions as the killers. A miracle!

But should it have caused such cheers? Charles Blow reflected: 

The guilty verdicts landed oddly for me. This was the right decision, the way it should have gone. There was an impulse to celebrate the victory, but it felt a bit like celebrating a mother caring for her children or respecting a spouse.

If you are humane, this is what you do, not because there is a need for fanfare, but because it is the right and honorable way to behave.

But that’s just it: Our justice system is so racially biased, so often allowing vigilantes and police officers to kill Black people with impunity, that simply having the system not perform in that way becomes extraordinary.

To pair Hanukkah with these two important verdicts, is to remind us that today’s miracles should be tomorrow’s everyday blessings. It shouldn’t be remarkable that Black lives are valued, it should just be the way it is. It shouldn’t be remarkable that we are starting to dismantle white supremacy, it should just be rubble.

These two cases will not destroy the oppression and hate that was poured in the foundation of our nation, but it will create cracks through which we will shine a light and from which we will re-build a more sound structure.

Charles Blows words hit me deep:

Of course none of this will change the fact that Arbery was murdered. Nothing can bring him back. Nothing can ease the ache in his mother’s heart. But at least the pain was not compounded the way it was in other cases.

I dare not say that this one case teaches us much about the American justice system. I dare not say that it demonstrates a trend or a shift. There is simply too much evidence to the contrary.

I will only say that a shooting star that streaks across the night sky, that disrupts the darkness, is worthy of being noticed and appreciated. It doesn’t alter the night. It doesn’t convert it into day. It comes without warning, a phenomenon onto itself, not a herald for others to follow.

We’ve taken note of our blessings. We witnessed some miracles. It is now time to kindle our Hanukkah lights. Let’s disrupt the darkness. We won’t fix it all in 1 night, or even 8. But as the nights develop, so too may our resolve. Afterall, the menorah only becomes brighter as the holiday progresses. Light by light by light, we get closer to being the shining beacon we aspire to. Can we get there by 2070? Well, it’s worth trying.

Friday, November 12, 2021

A Light Unto...

On Saturday morning, I sat down to breakfast and opened the New York Times Magazine. I had only a few minutes to thumb past the usual columns and get a sense for what articles might await me later in the day. A couple of sections in, I flipped open a two page spread that contained a large photo of a familiar place with familiar faces. It was two Hebrew Union College students. They were standing with Mishkan T’filah prayer books in hand in the Hebrew Union College New York campus sanctuary. My wide eyes rested upon the headline: Inside the Unraveling of American Zionism.

Not a great headline from the point of view of a Zionist like myself.

The second line was a little tamer: How a new generation of Jewish leaders began to rethink their support for Israel.

The main gist of the article: In the second week of May, students from various US seminaries wrote an open letter condemning the violence in Israel that was happening at that time. What was new, though, was an adamant desire for American Jews to reckon with the unequal power dynamics between Israelis and Palestinians. The letter was a departure in that “it contained several provocations. It compared the Palestinians’ plight to that of Black Americans — a group whose struggles for civil rights have long been embraced by the same establishment the letter was calling out. “American Jews have been part of a racial reckoning in our community,” they said. “And yet,” they added, “so many of those same institutions are silent when abuse of power and racist violence erupts in Israel and Palestine.” It described in Israel “two separate legal systems for the same region,” and later called this system “apartheid.” It arrived amid war, violating the imperative many Jews felt to stand with Israel as the rockets fly. And it did not contain alongside its indictment of Israel’s actions a straightforward condemnation of Hamas’s aiming weapons at civilians.”

While we have become accustomed to seeing such accusations in progressive spaces, they have only secretly come to roost in liberal Jewish spaces. This letter outed the not-so-secret secret that the liberal relationship to Israel is changing - and fast. But what was most notable about this letter is that the 93 signatories represented the future leaders of the progressive Jewish movements.

You can go read the article, if you’d like. I don’t want to talk about the issue itself tonight, as much as I want to talk about another struggle it brought up inside of me. I’ve known that these sentiments about Israel have existed in liberal Jewish circles. I’ve struggled with this very topic with my friends and colleagues and even here on this bimah. But these are decidedly Jewish spaces, behind our “synagogue doors,” so to speak. Publicly, I feel it is my responsibility to maintain Israel’s good name among the nations. If we Jews don’t, then who will?

The NYTimes piece felt like a burning light of inquisition shining upon my community - like an interrogation in a detective film - splashed out for the whole nation to see and judge. The HUC Sanctuary in the picture is MY sanctuary, and there it was, open for the whole world to critique.

To further compound my troubled heart, the next day the Sunday review had an opinion piece titled: “Israel is Silencing Us.”

“See?” I thought to myself. “We get enough bad press without having to create it ourselves.”

This is the sticking point for me, and this is the age-old Jewish question: how much should we reveal to the general public about the inner life and workings of the Jewish community? Is it better to keep our business to ourselves and not give them fodder to hate us more? Or do we shirk our responsibility by not seeing justice through, even on the most public stage?

On the one hand, we know that even in the absence of fodder, they’ll develop conspiracy theories about us: blood libels, money manipulation and space lasers.

But on the other hand, history has shown that sweeping things under the rug - whether it is our own Jewish community or other religious organizations, never ends well. At best, it leads to disenfranchisement and disillusionment. At the worst, it leads to trauma and abuse.

As I mulled this over - my gut reaction and then my reaction to my gut reaction - the next public reckoning for the liberal Jewish community came along. On Tuesday, the Hebrew Union College published the full findings of an independent investigation by the firm Morgan Lewis into allegations of past sexual harassment, gender bias, and other forms of inequitable treatment at HUC. The seminary chose to publish the whole report - without PR spin or apologetics. The full report was sent out. It goes into excruciating detail, with reports from decades ago to today. Credible and heartwrenching stories of bullying, sexual harassment, abuses of power and fear of retaliation.

I’m lucky to say that I never experienced this. But it turns out people I know and love did.

It was only a matter of time until the headlines came. The Washington Post reported: “Reform Jewish seminary report uncovers 50 years of sexual misconduct.”

But the report, and its frank, in-your-face presentation of the disgusting and heartbreaking facts helped me make sense of this “public vs private” debate I was having in my head.

Yeah, this was airing our dirty laundry alright. The report placed a bright spotlight on our community, showing we are not exempt from any of society’s deep-seeded ills: misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and more.

As I list the transgressions, I realize that the Morgan Lewis Report is like the Ashamnu prayer - when we list our sins, one by one, and beat our chests as we recount each one. We recite Ashamnu out loud, for all to hear, for all to witness where we have egregiously misstepped. In owning up as perpetrator or bystander, we seek to break the callousness from our hardened hearts, and let a compassionate light shine out again.

I am proud of HUC for putting the report out there in its terrible fullness. To sweep it under the rug, or to limit its exposure, would be to remain complicit. Its very public publication is the ultimate admission of guilt and the only way to honestly move forward with integrity. It’s like saying, “here it is: the grim reality; the shadow life of our community that we will banish with the light of justice!”

This insight transformed the way I view the NYtimes magazine article and the letter that inspired it. The students who signed the letter are speaking out in the name of justice. They aim to be shining a light on a topic that the progressive Jewish community is loath to speak about. I may disagree or want to amend parts of what they said, but I understand that their public stand - both in writing the letter and being interviewed for the Times - is pushing for a serious conversation.

We Jews aspire to be “or l’goyim,” a light unto the nations. Isaiah says that God has called us into righteousness, “and unto your light,” he says, “nations shall walk, and rulers unto the brightness of your rising.”

In shining a light into the changing views on Israel by progressive leadership, and by owning up to the extent of the transgressions at HUC, we begin to have productive conversations and authentically rise to the challenge of meeting the high standards we Jews set for ourselves. We can only be a beacon of justice if we lead by example - and in this moment, that is to expose and reckon with what we have learned about ourselves in Israel and at home.

How much should we include broader society in this reckoning? It varies. But rather than waste our time saying, “don’t let the others know,” we should spend our energies banishing these injustices from our midst.

This week, we read the words of Hosea: “Return, O Israel, to the Eternal your God,

For you have fallen because of your sin...take [righteous] words with you and return to the Eternal...bring the offering of your lips…”

Our voices are powerful. We should not fear retribution if we speak of justice. We are a light unto the nations - proving that from vulnerability comes honesty, which helps us to lead with integrity.