Saturday, November 22, 2008

What Torah Expects of Leaders and Citizens

When I created this blog, I promised more Torah than politics, but the election kind of got in the way. So now that the dust is beginning to settle, I expected to find something in Torah or our liturgy or some other issue of Jewish interest to chew on. But guess what? I looked in one and still found the other.

While the Torah reading of Dina is still 3 weeks away, I've been asked to chant it at my synagogue, so I started preparing this afternoon. After all the times I've read it and chanted it and taught it, I found something new there today that deserves noting.

To summarize: Jacob's daughter Dina wants to take a stroll in the town where her family has just settled, to see what's going on. The prince of the town, son of the ruler and apparently the real power in that family, sees her, "takes her and humbles her." Presumably, he rapes her. He takes her to his home and goes to her family with his father to demand her hand in marriage. Enraged that their sister has been defiled, the brothers plan their revenge. They say that their sister will not be given in marriage to anyone uncircumcised. Further, if the prince and his father want their families to intermarry, all the men of the town will have to be circumcised as well. Fine, say the men of the town. (And privately, the prince and his father make the circumcision attractive because it will be the way they will acquire the wealth Jacob and his sons have brought to town.)

The men are circumcised, and when they are weakened, Dina's brothers Shimon and Levi attack the town, killing all the men. They find their sister and take her home. Not a pretty story.

But here was the aha moment. Why did Shimon and Levi kill all the men in the town? Why not just exact their revenge on the rapist? The sons of Jacob despoiled the city because they had defiled their sister. (Gen. 34:27)

While it might be said that this is a desert style of vengeance - attack an entire city for the sin of one of its citizens - I think there's a much more profound lesson to be learned. In parashat Shoftim (in particular, Deuteronomy 21), we learn that if a corpse is found in a field between two cities, the elders of both cities must be brought to the field and attest to the fact that neither is responsible for the person's death. This is an important lesson about the nature of society and the role of leadership. It isn't necessary for the elders to ever have actually seen the individual - only to attest that their society was not one that would have let a stranger pass through without feeding and sheltering him. The elders take public responsibility for their cities. In the story of Dina, on the other hand, the people of the city seem to be held responsible for the actions of their prince.

Here's the lesson, then. Neither citizenry nor leadership can pass the buck and say they are not responsible for a failure of government. If leadership leads, really leads, the society will be such that the most vulnerable will be safe. If this society does not function so that all are safe, it is the leadership that is at fault, whether they ever lay eyes on the homeless or the hungry (although, if they never see the vulnerable, how can they say they are fit to lead?).

On the other hand, if the citizens of a city or a state or a country allow their leaders to be lazy or careless or corrupt, they will also be held accountable. Because a citizenry gets the leadership it deserves.

Government is thus a partnership, and sometimes we forget that. The people need to know its leaders are trustworthy and honest. The leadership needs to know its people will share in their vision. If leadership envisions a holy society and the people rebel, it's not the leaders who are at fault. But if the people demand a holy society and the leadership resists, the people have a responsibility to change leadership.

Who says there's no political wisdom in Torah?

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Huxtables Go to Washington

I really hate people who gush. I try very hard not to gush. I don't like being a groupie, and I try hard to see all the warts on what others claim is perfection.

That having been said, I am sitting here in a glow having just watched the Obamas' interview on 60 Minutes last night (thank you, TiVo). It's been a long time since I've seen a couple function so - uh - functionally. No one was trying to upstage the other. No wife was trying to be self-effacing, or staring into the camera, clueless as to what her future would look like. I loved that they held hands during the interview. I loved the gentle back-and-forth over dishwashing ("I find it soothing" "When do you ever wash dishes?" "When I have to, I find it soothing.") I loved that each spoke without having the other step all over their words. I loved the respect Obama showed his mother-in-law. I loved that when Steve Kroft asked about whether Michelle would really be a mom-in-charge for the whole time she would be in the White House, given her education and professional C.V., her husband never said, "Well, that's where she belongs," or "That's what's really important." He said that he had no doubt that she would carve her own role in the White House but that being the girls' mother was indeed her first role. What a role model to women everywhere! That while a professional career was not a wrong choice, neither is mothering. And that Michelle Obama will teach women what it means to be a full-time mom and still have a voice in the marketplace. OK, so she'll have help with the kids. Big time. But I love that this mother will place her kids first.

I've stumbled across some really ugly stuff on the Internet that has been disguised by its writers as "humor." Really ugly, and I won't repeat it, but it talks about the fact that a black family has come to Washington. Really? A family that presents itself as a loving couple in a healthy relationship, with two children whose welfare they put before everything else, and a love and respect for the generation that came before? This is bad? A woman who was assistant dean of the U of Chicago Law School and a man who's now "reading a lot of Lincoln, because there's so much wisdom there." This is a bad thing? Frankly, we've had 43 white men in the White House, with varying degrees of dignity and literacy. I'm thrilled that we have this articulate (read: can walk and talk at the same time and speak in complete sentences), graceful (I can't remember a man who walked with such easy grace since JFK) man about to move in.

Watch out, crackers. This family is going to raise the property values.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

About Proposition 8

Whether you live in California or not, you undoubtedly are aware of Proposition 8, that odd piece of democracy in action that sought to overturn California's Supreme Court's condoning gay marriage. Thanks to a campaign of fear, the proposition was passed, and after the glow of five months when same-sex couples enjoyed the benefit of marriage, the door has once again been shut firmly.

There are many difficulties with this example of "the people speak," but there's one issue that I don't think has been raised.

While I would never take away the people's right to lead its leaders, to introduce legislation (read: initiatives) to push the state legislature in directions they're not ready to go, there's a fundamental problem with the initiative process. It allows pretty much any initiative that gets a given number of signatures on a petition to be put before the voters. And sometimes, the voters are invited to march into an area where they have no business going.

I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent Team of Rivals, her monumental examination of the Lincoln presidency and how Lincoln turned his rivals on the road to the presidency into allies by inviting them to join his government. The time is a century and a half ago. The feelings about blacks were complicated back then. The South, of course, demanded that slavery not only be allowed to continue but to be spread to the new territories about to become states. In the North, abolitionists were agitating for outlawing slavery everywhere. And in between, there were those who wanted to leave slavery alone in the South, where they believed it would die an inevitable death, while prohibiting slavery in new states. What I did not know was that the issue was only freedom for slaves. There was nothing in any piece of legislation about voting, access to juries, or even the freedom of living where they wished. Black laws (read: Jim Crow laws) were still on the books and no one (even Lincoln) foresaw removing those laws. In the spirit of the times, the only issue was slavery versus simple freedom.

So I'm thinking: if freedom for slaves had been put to a vote by the people of the United States - even only in a Northern state, say, Illinois - the issue would have died a quick death. When the rights of a minority, indeed a minority that is suspect at least, despised at worst, are at the mercy of the electorate, the results of the election are sadly a foregone conclusion unless the winds of change have already begun to blow. And for the gay population of our country, like the black population of 19th century America, unfortunately, the winds of change have not yet become much more than a breeze.

Some things should not be put to a vote, and primary among them, the rights of others. Keith Olberman reminds us that the right of blacks and whites to marry was denied as recently as 1967. Had the people been asked to vote (since only whites had the freedom of the ballot box, even though suffrage was supposedly universal), I am sure that the status quo would have stood. Had the people been asked about whether separate schools were really equal, they would have responded with a resounding yes - but we didn't give the people a chance to vote. The Supreme Court took care of that issue, to its great credit. Imagine if a national initiative had been sparked after Brown vs. The Board of Education, and the decision had been overturned. Imagine.

And yet, in California today, the electorate claims the right of overturning judiciary rulings because, after all "the people had spoken" during a previous election. The problem with democracy, it seems, is that it relies on the voice of the people, and the people are often too easily led by fear and ignorance.

Isn't it time we thought twice about allowing any issue to be placed on a ballot? Isn't it time we placed restrictions on initiatives that seek to take rights away from others? Or do we have to wait until an electorate led by fear takes away rights from people like us - whatever "us" looks like?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Feeling Comfortable Talking about Faith

This can't be possible. Two blogs in one night, one on Bush, now one on Sarah Palin, and both are going to be sympathetic. As a lifelong Democrat, I feel very weird speaking words of defense on behalf of either of these two, but this whole flap about Sarah Palin and her trust in God have pretty much had me throwing up my hands in despair.

Liberal that I thought I was, I was pretty disgusted at Chris Matthews' derision of Palin's invoking of God's guidance in her career. This isn't an issue of the separation of church and state. This is an issue of a woman for whom faith is a very important part of her life. She didn't say "God told me to run for VP." She prayed, "If there's an open door, God, please don't let me miss that open door." I can relate. I know how it feels, not knowing where I'm headed and asking God to please remember me and not let my spiritual flashlight batteries run down.

But somehow, the language of prayer is frightening to a large number of pundits. That's discouraging. I would hate to think that thinking voters have to make a choice between liberal politics and the language of faith. Must I leave my faith at the door in order to talk about politics? Especially given the fact that so much of the liberal agenda finds its roots in the pages of Torah.

Sarah Palin antagonized a lot of people during the campaign, and I'm not apologizing for that. I'm just wondering whether she's become less a person and more a symbol to be demonized and satirized, and frankly, while I wouldn't vote for her, I'm not so threatened by her language of faith. Maybe it's because I'm a rabbi, and I talk about God on a regular basis. Maybe it's because I believe I'm doing what I'm doing because God wants me to do it. And maybe it's because I have permission to say that because I am a rabbi, but politicians can't invoke the "G" word. That's really a shame. We want our politicians to be honest, and when they are, we get itchy.

Easing Up on Dubya

Let me start by saying I'm no fan of President Bush. From the election from hell in 2000 through two terms that went from disappointing to frightening, I've had an on-going headache that's only now beginning to lift, with the approaching inauguration of his successor. I've got a Countdown Calendar on my wall. I've regularly used Molly Ivins' terms - first Shrub, then Twig.

But I've had an epiphany. And I've stopped making fun of the president. And now my tolerance of political satire is at zero. While I know that satire is what political comics do, I think I've had enough. And here's why.

I was watching David Letterman a few weeks ago. He has a bit he calls "Great Moments in Presidential Speaking." He has clips of presidents known for their speaking skills - JFK, Reagan, even Eisenhower - and then he juxtaposes them with President Bush, and of course it's an easy laugh because George Bush will never be remembered for his oratorical skills.

So this particular evening, I see JFK declare "Ich bin ein Berliner," and Ike speaking about the military-industrial complex, and then Bush comes into a room and greets a group of people, presumably reporters, who are standing in front of a bank of microphones. Bush takes his place behind the mikes, smiles at the group of people, and invites them to be seated. What follows broke my heart. It apparently occurred to him only then that there were no chairs and there was no place for the people to sit. The look on his face seemed to say, "Damn. I stepped in it again." It was at that moment that I stopped laughing at George Bush.

I think his story is our country's latest national tragedy, a man of no towering intellect, who presumed to hold the most powerful office in the world, wanting only to impress his father and never quite succeeding. I may not like his politics. Change that: I do not like his politics, nor the people who have surrounded and influenced him. They have produced a handful of crises, any one of which would have sounded the death knell to any hope of a positive legacy. But this is a profoundly flawed man who consistently fails, and no one has the right to point a finger and laugh at someone who fails, since none of us would have done any better in his shoes.

Further, he has the great misfortune to be followed in office by a rock star, someone who has inspired the imagination of the entire world. While the Obamas do not exhibit the glamor of the Kennedys, they are so very different from the Bushes. And I'm watching the clip of the two men walking to the Oval Office for their first meeting, and I can't help but smile at the sight of the young, energetic incoming president, walking with easy grace toward his future office.

I might have wondered what was going through Bush's mind at that time. But as I watched the clip being re-aired on the Daily Show, I hear Jon Stewart doing what he does best - poke fun. But a point came when it wasn't funny. Stewart made the point of the "young, healthy Black man, striding down the corridor, next to the short, aging [excuse me?] little white man." It wasn't funny.

My reaction surprises me. I have laughed as loudly as anyone at the humor that has helped get us through the past eight years. Maybe knowing those eight years are nearly at an end is helping me stop laughing - I don't need to cope anymore because, uh, change is coming. But I really think it's more than that. We've been unfair to Bush. There's nothing wrong with attacking a man's choices and his political style. But we continue to hit below the belt when we satirize George Bush, and I hope it stops soon.

Monday, November 10, 2008

In Defense of the Boomers

I guess it all began with Garrison Kiellor. I'm very fond of him and his Lake Wobegon crew. People driving next to me must think I'm nuts because I'm either laughing out loud or singing along with his guests - of course, with no one else in the car.

But on his broadcast following the 2008 presidential election, he made the observation that this was probably the last election when his generation (i.e., my generation as well) would run a candidate. It's over, he said. We'd given the world Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and now the torch had been passed. (OK maybe he didn't invoke the torch. I heard it anyway.) He then proceeded to reflect on his generation, the partying at Woodstock, the greed of the 80s, and how what we'd given the world was self-absorption and whining.

In truth, I'd been reflecting for some time about what my generation had given the world. We came of age shaking our adolescent fists at our parents, accusing them of having done poorly in transmitting a world badly in need of repair. We would fix the world, we declared.

And then as I held my first grandchild, nearly eight years ago, I found myself whispering an apology to her for the world we were giving her, and the prayer that her generation would do better.

So my friend Garrison really only articulated in a joking manner what I'd been thinking for a while.

But while we may never be called the Greatest Generation (although doesn't every generation have the opportunity to rise to greatness at some point?), I don't think we've done so badly.

Ours was the generation that stopped the tide of complacency. We were the ones who demanded answers. Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, born technically two years before the official start of the Baby Boom, died for the cause of civil rights. Our generation boarded the buses and rode through the South, literally taking their lives in their hands, to further the rights of the descendants of slaves.

Ours was the first generation to refuse to go to war. Sure, there have always been conscientious objectors or pacifists, but we looked at Viet Nam and said no. We knowingly broke the law by hiding or fleeing the country, because we refused to support a war we believed was wrong.

We were the generation who read Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and decided that there was more than one kind of inequality that had to go.

Our children and grandchildren have rights they take for granted because we stood up and said no - to de facto segregation, to an illegal war, to sexual oppression. And I do believe that subsequent legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act can trace their roots to the drive for civil and sexual rights that saw their greatest expression in the 60s and 70s.

We weren't all partying at Woodstock. We didn't all listen to Timothy Leary. We didn't all crash on the streets of Haight-Ashbury. Some of us got educations and got married and raised children. But we learned to think and to question and to challenge, and we made questioning and challenging not only acceptable but a requirement for a functioning society.

Our country would be very different if the 60s had been just a continuation of the 50s, when we accepted life as it was (remember the photo of all those movie-goers wearing 3-D glasses? Quick: how many blacks do you see in that photo? I'll tell you - none. And we never thought there was anything wrong with that). We accepted that no photograph was ever shown of FDR in his wheel chair. We accepted that it would have been a problem if such a photo had been shown. We accepted a lot. And then we stopped accepting and started questioning. And I think our society is more open and more healthy for that.

I think I've stopped being ashamed of my generation. I hope Garrison Kiellor can agree with me.