June 22nd: Politics and Religion are Intimately Linked, Whether We Like It Or Not

The purpose for religion, for many people, is a way to attempt to do the right thing in the world, according to some notion of morality. What do we do, then, when our religious ideologies get different people to arrive at different outcomes? And what do we do when we are faced with politically motivated ethical questions?

This is the question that stuck with me when I read an article in the New York Times last week that looked at political party affiliation amongst American religious leaders. The study assessed what percentage of rabbis, priests, pastors, and other religious authorities throw their support behind a particular political party, and what that means in terms of their leadership of their congregations. According to the story “like their congregants, religious leaders have sharply divided themselves along political lines.”

Interestingly enough, the study also found that the religious leaders tended to find themselves even further down the political spectrum than their congregants. A rabbi who supports the democratic party, for example, is generally more liberally leaning than the congregants they serve. A pastor who identifies as a republican does so more vehemently than do most of their flock. Why is it, then, that religious leadership and political activism seem to go so hand-in-hand?

It is first important to note how fascinating it is that, as a general rule, religious leaders are coming to their political beliefs based on ideas of morality. Religious thinkers generally are trying to “do what is right” according to some kind of faith-based doctrine, generally by looking through the Bible itself or historical commentary on it. The fact that rabbis, pastors, priests, and leaders can read some of the same books, thinking through the same notions of morality and come to such dramatically different conclusions is proof that we cannot rest upon a single idea of right and wrong. The waters are far murkier, leaving us with the challenge of figuring out how to apply the religious dogma of our faith with the reality in which our modern lives put us.

Incidentally, this article came at almost the same time that the question arose of whether or not religious leaders should be engaging with politics in a vocal manner from the pulpit. A fascinating debate between Rabbi David Wolpe and Rabbi Rick Jacobs recently asked the question: Should we use the opportunity of the sermon to try to inspire the political leanings of those who seek our guidance? Rabbi Wolpe argued “I know outstanding rabbis on the left of the political spectrum and others on the right. You can love Torah and vote for Trump. You can love Torah and think Trump is a blot on the American system. What you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say that the Torah points in only one political direction.” His argument is that we should be reading the Torah for higher values, rather than bringing it to the level of the headlines. Rabbi Jacobs argues instead that “The Judaism that I live compels me to use those lessons to understand the most urgent challenges we face.”

In today’s world, politics are everywhere, including, as the New York Times’ piece alerted us, on the pulpit. Our religious leaders hold strong political beliefs, some of which they discuss, some of which they hold privately. In either case, the politics of today is finding its way into our congregations and our churches, and demands some kind of answer in terms of how we guide people to a morally and ethically right decision.

It is possible to be religiously ethical and be a republican. It is possible to be religiously ethical and be a democrat. It is not possible to be religiously ethical and to ignore what is going on in the world around us. How we choose to use those voices is what will determine how we move the future of faith-based leadership forward.

June 13th: The Jewish Whiteness Question

I took a Southwest flight for the first time this past week. I experienced the fierce battle that is finding an aisle seat with a priority spot in the B section, and waited, while the rest of the plane filled up around me. Finally, a man and his 10-year-old daughter sat down in the two seats next to me with a smile and a head nod, and everything seemed to be going just fine.

As we began to taxi toward take-off, I took off my Cubs hat and put it on my knee. As I did, I noticed the man’s face next to me change as he discovered the kippah on my head. The man didn’t get upset, he didn’t get angry, he didn’t get aggressive. But he was most definitely uncomfortable. What he had thought was a perfectly normal traveling companion had turned out to be an “other,” someone different than what he expected. He remained quite polite, still treated me just fine, but the look on his face told me that my ability to pass as a white person had disappeared in the flash of a moment.

In recent weeks, there has been a resurgence into the evaluation of the whiteness of Jews, perhaps inspired by Wonder Woman (played by an Israeli woman), or perhaps simply because it’s about that time of year again.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that, unlike other minority groups, a large percentage of Jews are light-skinned. This allows many Jews to “pass” as white, fitting into the majority without any outward signs of their ‘otherness’. This means that, if they so choose, many Jews are able to pick and choose when they identify themselves as Jewish, and when they get to fit in with the rest of society.

Yet, at the same time, we are only 75 years removed from a time when it didn’t matter what color your skin was. Jews were murdered for their identity, regardless of their outward looks. Sure, a small percentage of Jews were able to hide their beliefs in favor of fitting in with the rest of the German people, but that didn’t stop the extermination of 6 million Jews, having nothing to do with the color of their skin. We can discuss and debate and argue all we want about our whiteness, and someone else can snatch it away in an instant.

The vital piece here is that it doesn’t matter what the outside expressions are: the moment one’s Judaism is exposed, their ability to pass disappears, just as mine did on the airplane last week. Sometimes that comes with questions, sometimes it comes with distrust or anti-semitism, and sometimes it is simply cataloged away as fact. Jews are only able to enjoy the privilege of whiteness so long as their “true identity” remains hidden, which, in turn, means that it isn’t true whiteness.

The truth, though, is that Jews shouldn’t be debating about their whiteness. Our ability to pass is seen by many as the opportunity to fade into the background, to be able to turn on and turn off our role in either community. I posit, rather, that we, as white Jews, have an obligation to maintain our membership status in both the “white” and “minority” communities, in order to create a better world for those around us who don’t have the same privilege. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to be lights unto the nations, that we are supposed to protect the stranger because we too have been strangers. We need to use our outward appearances to bring other white members of the majority into a willingness to listen, to understand, to embrace the diversity of other members of our communities. If I am using my whiteness to hide, I am fundamentally misunderstanding my privilege AND my faith. As a white Jew, my privilege is that I have the tools to force the door open and make the world a more inclusive place for others who don’t have the same foot in the door.

One of the greatest challenges of this conversation is that, by confronting the notion of whether or not Jews are white, it actually is forcing the issue of putting people into boxes. When we force a label on a group of people, we are asking them to bend their identities to match your understanding. Instead, we need to embrace the indeterminacy. We need to stop trying to identify whether or not someone IS a particular category and need to start embracing individuals. We need to stop treating all Jews as the same, all whites as the same, all blacks as the same, all of any group as experiencing the same issues. A Jew of color knows that their experience is very different from my own. When I meet a Jew of color, I don’t want to assume things about them, I want to learn about their experience and their identity. I hope that, even as a white Jew, I can be given the same opportunity.

It is always difficult to write something like this, knowing that I open myself up to the immediate disregard by someone saying “well, you have white privilege, you don’t get it.” I certainly don’t claim to know what it is like to be anyone else, or to have struggled like anyone else. All I am pursuing is a deeper understanding of identity than simply the demographic groups we fall into. If we really want to get to a point where we are creating spaces of inclusion and welcoming, we need to be doing so with the understanding that we human beings are complicated jumbles of identity, and that, in some cases, we need to be willing to understand that we are not always going to understand. When we don’t understand, we have the obligation to ask, and the opportunity to learn.

June 2nd: Waiting for the Cubs to Find Their Identity

Baseball, as Kyle Schwarber will tell you, is a fickle sport. One week ago, the Cubs were coming off a 7-2 homestand, including a sweep of the Reds and a strong three-game winning streak.

Cubs 3Well, it has been a week since the Cubs won a ballgame, and the past six games have been the worst we’ve seen in the Joe Maddon era. A sweep at the hands of the Dodgers would be hard to swallow, but being swept by the lowly Padres was beyond anything Cubs fans could have expected. No one thing is wrong with the Cubs, and it isn’t simply waiting for one or two players to perform at their expected level. There are 20 players on the Cubs who aren’t living up to expectations, and until they do, this is going to be a sub-.500 team.

Going into the 2017 season, Cubs fans were dreaming of what it would feel like to be a modern-day baseball dynasty, following in the footsteps of the late ‘90s Yankees. We had a young, controllable core, a manager who seems to know all the right buttons to push, and a fanbase that had tasted victory and wanted more.

2017 has proven to be less than kind, and Cubs fans are finally getting frustrated. For the first two months of the season, Cubs leadership has claimed that everyone is calm, that things will change, that we will snap out of it any day now. Some Cubs have made the ridiculous claim that it has never been this bad before, forgetting the 108 years of losing that had come before. As a 24 year old, I’ve seen a lot of bad baseball in Chicago, and this hasn’t even broken the surface of how bad it could be.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at San Diego PadresYet, the Cubs have to realize that the struggle here is in the dissonance between how good we SHOULD be and how bad we HAVE been. A team that was supposed to be the greatest offense in the league, maybe in history, is now struggling to hit minor-league caliber pitching. Starters haven’t been able to hold a lead, and the offense hasn’t been able to give them one. The bullpen went through two or three rough weeks to start the year, then got good just in time for there to be no need to be; games were lost far before we got to the 7th inning.

The Cubs roster is too good to stay this bad for long. There will be a moment for the team to click, and for everything to get back into the swing of things. Last year, the Cubs had a similarly awful streak in late June and early July. The All-Star break gave everyone the chance to relax a bit, and then they took off with the division and never looked back. There is a strong chance that is what will happen this year, although the Cubs can’t afford to wait until the mid-July to turn things around. The rest of the NL-Central has been waiting for the Cubs, with both the Brewers and Cardinals losing in bunches as well. The division is ripe for the taking, but the Cubs aren’t in any position to do that until they figure out how to hit again.

The season is young, and there is still plenty of baseball left to be played. But the Cubs have some soul searching to do to figure out what kind of baseball team they can be and how to make that happen. For now, as a Cubs fan, it isn’t fun to watch this team play, and every day comes with the desperate plea that maybe, just maybe, today will be the day that the Cubs remember who they are.

June 1st: Losing Our Heads Over Things

Comedy only works when it is funny. This week, Kathy Griffin was not funny when she posted a photo of herself holding a prop that looked like Donald Trump’s severed head. It was over the top, it was crude, and it wasn’t the kind of thing we should be joking about in a country that has an evil streak of violence that we can’t seem to overcome.

She was swiftly fired by CNN, she apologized profusely, and she will, no doubt, go through a period of banishment from the spotlight. She is not the first person to do something stupid and wind up with a scandal, and she most certainly won’t be the last.

Kathy Griffin was wrong. She was thoughtless, she was over the top, and she did something that should have been comedy but instead was uncomfortable and offensive. The response by Donald Trump, though, was what caught my attention.

In a tweet to the public, as he likes to do, Trump said “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself. My children, especially my 11 year old son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!”

Now, he’s absolutely right. Kathy Griffin should be, and seems to be ashamed. And he’s also right: No child should be made fearful of their father’s safety and well-being in a terrible joke. But here’s where we run into a problem. Donald Trump attempted to spur up compassion for him and his family by claiming to be a victim, a poor soul who hasn’t done anything to deserve this.

Let’s shift that thinking for a moment. How does the President think an 11 year old with a parent with a pre-existing condition feel when Trump ensures that they will not be covered by insurance? How does the President think a transgender 11 year old feels when told that they have no place to use the bathroom in their school? How does the President think an 11 year old feels when the government puts forth legislation that makes it easier for people to get guns to bring to school, rather than harder for people to get guns? How does the President think an 11 year old child of immigrants feels knowing that their president considers them to be the enemy?

The argument that we should do anything with consideration for how this may affect those around Trump is no longer on the table. It is no longer viable to ask for compassion from the general public when it has been made perfectly clear that no compassion will be returned in exchange. If anything, Trump is now getting the chance to experience the kinds of questions and nightmares that parents all across the country have to quell every day. And not all problems are as easy to explain away as a comedian with an ill-considered joke.

Kathy Griffin did something that was disrespectful and inappropriate. She is being punished for it, and things will soon return to normal. But, we need to remind the President that while he absolutely shouldn’t be experiencing these kinds of things as a human being, he cannot cry unfair play simply because he now has to explain away the actions of an ignorant person who made the world seem scary. American parents have been having to do that for months already. Welcome to the Trump America, Mr. President.

May 25th: Balancing Our Mentality With Our Budget

In a satirical column in USA Today, I learned that Kentucky is the state that most depends on Federal assistance to run their operations. I also knew, based on this election and every one that came before it, that Kentucky tends to be one of the most Republican-friendly states on voting day.

This comes as a bit of a shock. How is it that a state that depends so much on the help from the national government can so regularly support the political party that wants a small central power, with the real strength being given to the states? If that was the case, Kentucky would be dooming itself by biting the hand that feeds it, in favor of being left to its own (rather poor) devices.

This kind of political dissonance is baffling to me, and begs to question: what is it that Republican voters like about their Republican candidates that they would be willing to sacrifice themselves in that way? We know there are pet projects that the Republican party supports that are hot-button issues in places like Kentucky: guns, abortion, same-sex marriage, and others. But, on the larger scale, these are small issues when confronted by the fact that, if all goes according to the Republicans’ plan, states like Kentucky will be left out to dry.

It makes very little sense that a state so dependent on the national government for support would be willing to so consistently vote for the party that seeks to make government “small enough to drown in the bathtub.” And it should be for even greater concern when we consider what would happen if the people of Kentucky actually got what they have been asking for.

May 24th: A Pain We Must Endure

I was listening to NPR today, and heard a report discussing the aftermath of the terror attack in Manchester. While comparing the incident to other examples of mass destruction in recent European history, the reporter mentioned that he was noticing less devastating grief, and more resigned sadness, as if the people of England have become desensitized to the terrible things of the world.

In that one instant, my heart broke. In discussing the death of dozens of young people at a concert, we are no longer shocked, horrified, or surprised. These kinds of incidents have become part of what it means to be a citizen of the world, as if terror is something that is natural and normal. Simply put, it isn’t, and we need to be reminded of that.

It is actually an incredibly human thing to desensitize ourselves to the horrors of the world. We wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves if we fell into devastation every time something bad happens in the world. Over time, we come to terms with the kind of things that we know are part of life. It’s why we ask “was he old?” when told of someone’s. Does it matter that he was old? Does that make it hurt less to a loved one? In a way, yes. We have programmed ourselves that the death of the old should be less sad than the death of a young person. It isn’t necessarily true; each individual gets to determine how they feel. But, in our subconscious, we insulate ourselves from losing ourselves in our grief.

Devastation and grief isn’t necessarily preferable. But the important thing we need to remind ourselves is that this isn’t how life is supposed to be. This isn’t normal, it isn’t natural, it isn’t something we need to learn to live with. A human being reached out and tore the life away from dozens of people, cutting their lives off entirely, and devastating the lives of countless others. Hate like that can never be made normal. Violence like that can never be allowed to become expected.

It is a terrible feeling to see the world falling apart and not know what to do about it. To get constant text messages and updates with acts of violence and not know how to help, how to make it better. But we need to live with that desperation, that passionate need for the world to be better than this. Because the other option is that the world continue as it is, and that simply isn’t acceptable. We have to be inspired to find a way to stop this hatred and this terror, and we aren’t going to be able to do that if we numb ourselves to the pain. The only way to make it hurt less is for us to figure out a way to happen less.