Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Symbolic Statement for Equality by Richmond City Council

The Symbolic Statement for Equality by Richmond City Council
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
November 1st, 2013
Richmond, Virginia

This past Monday night I listened to language that was laced with hatred, venom and vituperation.  It could have been used at many early junctures in American history. It was fortified with theological certitude over what God wants. And it was spiked with threats of eternal damnation. If I was somewhere else other than the chambers of the City Council of Richmond I might have feared for my life. Personally, I have not heard such language in a very long time. The issue that attracted such diatribes was the proposed ordinance that, at such time that the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia permits, partners in same-sex marriages of employees of the City of Richmond would receive equal benefits as all others.  The ordinance had three sponsors on the City Council. It needed two more votes to pass.

Sometimes it is hard to imagine that we live in the year 2013 or even better, 5774.
I wonder whether fellow citizens have paid attention to the development of society.

            The arguments voiced harkened back to the denial of civil rights for African-Americans.
            The positions espoused could be used to subjugate any segment of society that was
different than the speaker's.

I was stunned but not really surprised. I did want to shout “Oy veys meir!” But I didn’t.
The vote of five to four by which it ultimately passed was partial vindication for the experience of the evening.

I am proud that a colleague in the ministry, when his turn to speak came, publicly noticed me in the audience in support of the ordinance. There were too many speakers to fit into the thirty minute allotment. But with my appearance and the whitest kipah I own on my head, I was easily identified. It was important personally and for our religious community to be present so that my position could be acknowledged.

If I had the podium and more than three minutes to speak, these are the points I would have made to the City Council.

1. God has not spoken to me recently, so I don’t know what God wants. It is vital to come with humility and not with certitude. We have a holy text that has historical narrative, specific laws that surely reflect an earlier time and place, and a theology about humanity. One speaker cited the Book of Leviticus and would have been very pleased if, based on that text, LBGTQ population would all be put to death. I would have asked the gentleman: What about unruly children? What about Sabbath desecrators – regardless of Saturday or Sunday? What about adulterers? If you are going to cite the Bible for killing one group, then at least be consistent and kill them all!? I wish the absurdity of that statement to be apparent. I don’t deny the verse in Leviticus. I just don’t apply it, and I certainly can’t imagine that this is God’s absolute last word on the matter and that He - or She – [that would have caused the speaker an apoplexy] wants me to commit murder. I have to work very hard to believe that I know what God wants.

2. I would have asked the Council members: what are the two most important verses in the Five Books of Moses? And I would have referred them to the same Book of Leviticus where it states that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. On a previous Shabbat I have explained that the Hebrew word usually translated as neighbor really means ‘the other.’ And The Torah doesn’t restrict this verse just to men and not women, young and not old, Israelite and not foreigner. The second most important verse comes from Genesis where it says that “these are the generations of Adam.” It refers to all  humanity, implying that the Divine design is to have a varieted humanity that looks different, sounds different, talks different, is different and yet are all related to each other. Those who are LBGTQ are just as much related. And if Leviticus commands us to love each other, meaning to take care of each other, be considerate of each other, see to the welfare of each other, then it means that we should love them too.

3. Judaism expounds the view that our understanding of anything and everything evolves, even as a core bedrock values are eternal. So I would have asked the Council: What is the most important value of all? Is it democracy? Capitalism? Conservativism? I would recommend to the Council that the most important value of all is that of holiness, the holiness of each and every person, of the air, of the land, of life itself. Holiness is the reflection of the Divine in all of creation. It adheres to all that is with no distinction. There are no restrictions to holiness. It can be found in all. It can be found in everyone that stands in relationship to something other than themselves, and even in the relationship of one to one’s own self. It can be found in all segments of society, the straight and the LGBTQ alike.

From all of this it is preeminently clear to me that the granting of spousal benefits to gay employees of the City of Richmond, at such time as we change the constitution of the Commonwealth, was and is the just and righteous thing to do. This is what I believe God wants of us. I commend my Council member, Mr. John Baliles for voting in the affirmative. I wish the other members had made it unanimous.

Yet I have one further comment. Several Council members said that this was “only” symbolic, and as such, was inappropriate for the Council to do. I would suggest that they consider the inherent power of symbolic statements. What is the difference between a sign and a symbol? The answer is that a sign points only to itself or a limited action or moment. A stop sign does nothing more than indicate that a car at that place stops before proceeding. It has no greater message. A flag is a symbol for it indicates history, evokes devotion, galvanizes action, stirs emotions, and points to the past and to the future. Symbols, symbolic actions, symbolic statements have great power and meaning. It was and is worthy of the City of Richmond to make symbolic statements for they reveal what we think of ourselves and what we dream for the future.

With its particular history, it is right and dutiful that the City of Richmond to have stepped forward in the extension of rights and benefits for the partners of all of its employees. Now all we have to do is change the Constitution.

Shabbat Shalom.

What’s In a Name?

What’s In a Name?
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
October 25th, 2013

One of my favorite songs is by Johnny Cash and is entitled “A Boy Named Sue.” In the song, Sue wants to meet the person who gave him that name and ultimately will meet his father and they will have a big fight yet wind up embracing. Yet at the end he swears that if he ever has a son, he will give him any name other than Sue.

What is such a big deal? There are boys names that are used by girls, so what is it that made this song so popular in its time, other than Johnny Cash is singing it?

The issue is that in a mysterious way we come to identify with the name we are given. We respond when called by that name and by no other. Some people use an initial for their first name and use their middle name as the given one. Our name identifies me to myself and to everyone else. Some names are rare, like my first name, and it even sounds a bit odd when you meet someone else who also has it.

Names give power. When my mother or father called my name, the tone and tenor of how it was pronounced and where they put the accent, and how loud or soft, was all that I needed to know. They gave it to me. They labeled me. At least until a certain age, they had the power. As they were my parents, they had the inherent right to give me my name and call my name.

That is why God names Adam and Eve, with the meaning inherent in each name, his meaning ‘earth’ and hers relating to ‘life.’ God created the earth and put them on it, and they will be the progenitors of all human beings. Similarly the first thing that God had Adam and Eve do in the Garden of Eden was to give names to all the animals. It indicated that there is a hierarchy in the world and that human beings are at the epitome of the ladder of existence. Human beings are ultimately permitted to slaughter animals for food, but an animal that kills a human being is put to death. Giving a name to another has many implications about their relationships and even their destiny. That is why God changed Avram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah, by adding the letter “Hey” referring to God to each of their names.

The Ashkenazic Jewish tradition is to name our children after the deceased, so as to perpetuate their memory in the family. I know that I am named after my two maternal grandfathers. Ruby and I named Menachem, Yonina and Tzeira after family members and made sure that they knew who their namesakes were. Through names we can tie the generations together and keep some cognizance of from where we come. It is a powerful dynamic. With Moshe Tzvi’s second name, Tzvi, and Raya’s name, though deceased, my father and my uncle are kept ever present in the family by the mention of their names.

What’s in a name? Everything.

Those following something besides the World Series and Wall Street might have guessed where I am leading, but before getting there I want to inject one other issue.

Judaism has core values and one of them is entitled “K’vod HaBeriyot,” – “The Honor of living beings.” It isn’t relegated just to one sphere of existence. It is applicable to animals and human beings alike.  It is fundamental in Judaism that everything in existence must be respected. Religiously we say that everything traces its origin back to God who is the supreme Creator. The insertion of Va’yachulu in our tefilot tonight stresses that religious belief. Thus everything inherently has, inherently reflects God’s holiness. Even the earth, an inanimate object, is God’s creation and thus requires our respect. The earth is holy, too.

It is easy to connect my two subjects, names and respect. How we name someone, how we call someone, indicates what we think of them, how we relate to them, what is our relationship with them. Does it indicate power or honor? Does it show respect to ancestry or diminishment of the past? How we feel about ourselves is reflected in the names we call ourselves and the names we reject when used against us. I am proud to be called a Jew, when someone says “You’re Jewish.” I have to correct them we they call me a “Hebrew,” usually used out of ignorance. It has been a long time since any derogatory term has been used against me. I bristled and called them out when they did. I want to be respected for, with and by my name. I give respect in using others’ names.

So what should we do about the National League Football team in Washington, D.C., currently called “The Redskins.” Only slightly distant are the Atlanta Braves and the tomahawk chop, the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Chiefs. All other major league teams in baseball, football and basketball have benign names. Yes, these nicknames have a long history with their teams. I also confess to not knowing how they were chosen.

But should they keep them?

The Cleveland team is currently asking their fans about using their name. The Atlanta team is already under demands to reevaluate theirs. I haven’t heard anything from Kansas City. But the term “Redskins” is certainly derogatory. It reflects an attitude to the only group that is native to this continent or surely antedates us by millennia. It is pejorative no less than the Yiddish word used for African-Americans. For those who remember television in black-and-white era, let us recall how Native Americans were portrayed. How did they speak? What were they called? [Answer – savages.] How did they dress? How were the women and children portrayed?
Did this show respect?
Did is show insight into their culture?
Did is reflect the honor and holiness that they showed to the earth?
Did is reveal their spirituality?
Did it present the values of their cultures?
                                                                                    Hardly if ever.
How would we as Jews feel if the period of sojourn in Eastern Europe or in the Middle Eastern countries (besides Israel) was held up to satire, lampoon and ridicule? I think that this could be done to everyone. It should be done to no one.

So let’s find another name for the National League Football team in Washington, D.C.

Given their location I could suggest a few: the nudnicks; the do-nothings; the empty tea-cups; the disgrace; the ruinations. They don’t sound good in a cadence, but they are more befitting than the current appellation. Of course these suggestions are just a little satire. But if we can have the “Flying Squirrels” I am sure that they come up with something useful for Washington.

What’s in a name?
Self respect.

I am proud to be called a Jew. Let’s join our voices to show honor and respect to others.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Washington, D.C. and Sodom & Gomorrah

Washington, D.C. and Sodom & Gomorrah
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor
October 18, 2013

In this week’s Torah portion the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by God because of their evilness. Lot, Abraham’s nephew chose to live there because of the external beauty of the area. He clearly never heard the maxim: “don’t choose a book by its cover.” The Torah describes it as something akin to a cross between the Garden of Eden and well-wateredness and fertility of the land of Egypt. Certainly there had to be plenty for everybody.

And yet the Torah indicates that amidst this land of plenty there was an embedded evilness that warranted its destruction. It is so bad that God Himself must go down to inspect and see if it is true. What did God find? Jewish commentators indicate an endless number of sins, even as the text will center on the episode of the strangers that come to visit Lot. They are more than unwelcome in Sodom and Gomorrah. There is an abject hatred of these strangers, so much so that the city descends on Lot’s home and demands that they be handed over for whatever malicious evil will be done upon them.

There are many questions for this complex story, but I will pose just two.

1. Why amidst the plush lushness of the valley, so much so that it is the object for takeover by several neighboring kings, that there is clearly more than enough for everyone, that the people didn’t want to share the wealth?

2. Why did God turn to Abraham and not Lot to save the city? God reveals His design to Abraham and affords Abraham the opportunity to enter into negotiations for the future of the city, all the way down to ten righteous people, which since God can’t even find that many, He destroys the place. Why didn’t God engage Lot, who was already living there instead of Abraham who was far off and didn’t even know the kind of people that were there?

Both questions and answers have immediate applicability to today. While I am loathe calling Washington, D.C. the modern day incarnation of Sodom and Gomorrah, as the old adage goes, “if the shoe fits….”

1. The answer to the first question – for some people, no matter how much they have for themselves, it is never enough. And not only that, because they do have so much, they care even less about anyone else. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah had an innate jealousy that their abundance could be shared and thus an equally innate hatred of the other. I am really mystified how they could accept Lot to live there and then turn on three measly strangers that come to visit. Nevertheless it is clear that even though Lot welcomed them into his home and he tried to bribe off the mob, he was not prepared to go any further. They overstuffed society had no ‘golden rule’ of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’ They had no consideration for anyone else who might have been poor or injured or incapable. They were self-center, concerned with self-aggrandizement and self fulfillment that they could not bring themselves to share the wealth.
2. Why not Lot? Didn’t he grow up in Abraham’s home; listen to his uncle’s teaching about justice and righteousness? While Lot is certainly a good person who welcomed in the strangers, that was about as far as he could go. He did not go outside his home to argue with the mob. He did not proclaim a vision of society. Lot did not share the ideals of loving others, sharing and caring, of chesed and mishpat, righteousness and justice. He was good enough to practice it himself, but he was not good enough to fight for it in the public space. Abraham was different. He didn’t give lip service. He walked enough of the walk to earn the right to do the talk with God.

What we have witnessed and endured this past period of time is surely a modern day incarnation of these issues.

While there might significant issues in the details of the Affordable Care Act, can anybody say with any sense of dignity and self respect that they deserve health insurance and others don’t?

Can anybody say that the richest country on the face of the earth cannot take care of each other, while Israel, which has a much larger per capita cost to defend itself, can have universal health coverage and we can’t?

Can anybody justify hurting millions of people, from veterans who have defended us in the past to those in the military who defend us now, from those validly counting on their weekly SNAP and social security to those hardworking men and women in other arms of the government which then extends like a spider’s web throughout our society with untold damage and harm, financially, psychologically and spiritually?

If that’s not Sodom and Gomorrah, I don’t know what is!

While debt is a serious issue and American financial health is very important, like Lot, where is the vision? Where is the wisdom to implement responsible government that addresses all the issues and all the needs of this country? Maybe all of them are no better than Lot in the Torah, a good man, but no better. A moral person in an immoral world, but no better. A likeable guy in an evil place, but no better. His best answer was “take my girls and leave me alone.” “Where there is no vision, the people perish” said Solomon in Proverbs. How close have we come?

That is why we are called the children of Abraham, because he had a vision of justice and mercy, kindness and consideration and was prepared to enunciate in the highest public place, before God, and Lot did not. When Abraham had no children, in the custom of the ancient world, Lot his nephew could have become the inheritor of the line of the family, and his descendants become the leaders. Oy for a world filled with people like Lot!

The need to be the children of Abraham is needed now more than ever before. “For I have known (Abraham), that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep God’s ways, doing righteousness and justice.” [Genesis 18.19] The battle has just begun.

        Shabbat Shalom

What is wrong with this picture?

What is wrong with this picture?
From the Heart
Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

From the dawn of my religious awakening in fourth grade when I began “Hebrew” school, I have lived my life inside Conservative synagogues. I grew up in USY and the short lived college program ATID, worked in Camp Ramah at different locations on the east coast, served as a USY advisor and youth director at Conservative synagogues. My education was centered at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Since 1974 I have been a Rabbi of six United Synagogue affiliated synagogues. I have spent a lifetime dedicated to facing the dynamics that confront us in the open society and to strengthening Jewish identity qualitatively and quantitatively.

There is nothing in the recent Pew report about the American Jewish community that surprises me.

There has been the long-running mantra that “being” “Jewish” is more than just being “religious.” Some offered “culture” referring to cuisine, arts, music, literature that are “Jewish” but not “religious.” Others turned to campaigns to create or fulfill their definition of “being” “Jewish,” such as the campaign to free Soviet Jewry and then the resettlement programs. The Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 made Israel a major focus of “Jewish” “identity” and activity. And certainly philanthropy for Jewish/Israel causes filled the “Jewish” “identity” quota by the amount of activity enjoined and the sense of doing good (which it certainly is). These were and are good and worthy endeavors for and the Jewish people.

And certainly there were and are many Jews, however self-identified, who are not attracted to Judaism or any of the above. To some degree, that could be the easiest to expect and anticipate.

So what is wrong with this picture?
The answer is that, while valuable, unto themselves these are not sustainable, transmittable nor transformable. They have no internal compelling force. In a world of infinite possibilities, many have answered: “Who cares?”

These are really just derivatives of the eternal, nuclear core which is Judaism: is a faith that believes in a God who chose Abraham and his descendants to be His representatives and exemplars in the world for all time, standing in a covenantal relationship with God expressed through rituals and prayers that refer to our sacred history; lead to holy living; and, creates a community of those who share the faith.

After all is said and done, adults need to determine:                         do they have the faith?
                                          Adults need to determine:            will they transmit the faith?
                                          Adults need to determine:            will they live the faith?
                                          Adults need to determine:            will they make communities of faith?

This is not a question about children, the old Yiddish quote: “Alle fun de kinder”-“everything for the children.” Faith is an adult issue. One has to look inside themselves for that answer. The future of Judaism rests on the answer to these questions. That is what the Pew report tells us.