Thursday, June 25, 2015

Peace and Justice in a Violent World

This week, we witnessed two remarkable, passionate, and contradictory responses to acts of horrific violence.

Our country was awestruck to hear the families of the nine murder victims in Charleston face the unrepentant murderer saying, “You have taken something precious from me. And I forgive you.”

A few days later, many victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and their families spoke with derision at the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Still feeling the pain of their loss, many refused to accept his words of apology. Several reiterated their support for the death sentence.

How can some people be so forgiving while others are not? 
Is it possible to seek peace and justice at the same time? Can we love those who hate?

Rev. Norvel Goff gave a resounding answer to that question last Sunday at Emanuel AME Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last Sunday, saying, "In order for us to begin the healing process, we must forgive as we have been forgiven. That does not mean that the process of justice does not continue."

What I heard in his moving embrace of these seemingly contradictory values was the foundation of building meaningful relationships, even with those who hate us. When we stop to open our hearts to forgiveness, we do not release the criminal from his own responsibility. But we do everything in our power to prevent hatred and violence from entering our own hearts. We do everything in our power to stop hatred and violence from spreading.

Last week, Ali Abu Awwad and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger spoke to a crowd at Temple Israel about the Roots project, working to bring together Palestinians and Israeli settlers and building trust between Israelis and Palestinians in a process Awwad calls “Painful Hope.” The former Palestinian prisoner and the settler rabbi each spoke authentically and openly about their backgrounds, their beliefs, and their prior attitudes about the people who had been their enemy. We were moved by their ability to speak their truth and at the same time to hear the other’s truth. We were inspired by the growing respect and love that resulted from their painful work together, despite their prior hatreds and fears.

In all of these examples, justice and love are bound together to seek peace.

Justice is a foundational concept in Judaism. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof—Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deut.16:20) demands that we be vigilant in our pursuit of justice. Judaism is a religion of laws, built on a vast system of rules and an emphasis on scrupulous judicial fairness, compounded by centuries of interpretation and practice. I firmly believe in justice.
Interestingly, the word tzedek is not commonly found in the words that Jews repeat regularly in our liturgy. If the words of prayer are intended to penetrate our consciousness and frame our thoughts and behavior in the world, then we should note which words do repeat: ahava  (love) and shalom (peace). Whenever we end the main prayer of every service, the Amidah, we pray for peace.

In addition to the verse cited above, demanding that we pursue justice, the Rabbis urged us to pursue peace, as the Psalms say “bakesh shalom v’rodfehu, seek peace and pursue it" (Psalm 34:15). The Rabbis who established our liturgy believed in the power of love and compassion, and understood that love and mercy are often at odds with justice. They taught that rachamim, compassion, trumps din, judgment.

Pursuing justice is essential, but it is not the ultimate goal. Forgiveness is also essential, but is not the ultimate goal. Both are tools that temper one another in order to bring peace. Our goal is to create a different kind of society where, on the one hand, we honor the dignity of the individual and, on the other, offense leads to a just pursuit of justice. Our ultimate goal is, as Micah teaches, for all of us to live peacefully and authentically beneath our vines and fig trees (Micah 4:4).

As we contemplate our congregation’s response to the Charleston massacre and to the racism that pervades our society, as well as the other conflicts we witness in our world, it is essential that we consider these values, despite the tension between them. On one side: love, compassion, forgiveness. On the other, justice, action, integrity.  Together, we hope and pray, they move us closer to a non-violent, peaceful society. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

PEDRO--An Unorthodox Review

I have a confession to make. I’m a bit of a latecomer when it comes to being a Red Sox fan. It took more than a decade after we moved to Boston before I finally went to see a game at Fenway Park. At my first game I recall walking up the ramp behind home plate and being amazed as the lush green diamond, the Green Monster (before their were Monster seats), the Coke Bottles and the Big Screen all rose before my eyes. At that first game, I thrilled to see Albert Belle hit a grand slam—even if it was for the Orioles. Ever the lover of the game, I became a member of Red Sox Nation.

By the time our whole family stayed up and burst into tears watching the tragic loss in the ALCS in 2003, I was a true Boston believer. And in 2004, when we finally reversed the curse, I actually sent a message to the mayor, asking him to delay the “Rolling Rally” until Saturday afternoon, so that the kids going to b’nai mitzvah around town (and rabbis who happened to be on duty at those b’nai mitzvah ceremonies) could take part. (The Mayor did not respond.)

Some players transcend team rivalries. That’s why Pedro Martinez was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this year on the first try, receiving an overwhelming 91.1 percent of the 549 votes cast by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

You don’t have to be a Red Sox fan to admire Pedro.

I’m not a baseball writer, so I won’t go on about Pedro’s stats or athletic feats. I leave that to longtime HBT member, Michael Silverman. A sportswriter for the Boston Herald and friend of Martinez, he co-wrote Pedro, the pitcher’s autobiography, which came out on May 5.

Michael graciously donated a couple of autographed copies to the temple for our annual Spring Fling auction. I cherish my personal copy, and thoroughly enjoyed every page. Michael captured Pedro’s complex personality, his wacky humor, his fierce pride, and Pedro’s deep desire to tell the story his way.

Here’s what I think Pedro has to say, not about baseball, but about living a life of meaning. If he were Jewish, we might say:

Pedro believes in kibud av va’em (honoring parents) and lifnei seivah takum  (respecting elders). In other words, Pedro holds his family close. He even stopped playing tend to his dying father.

Pedro is a model of yosher (integrity). Much of what he reveals in this book are opinions that he discreetly kept to himself until after he retired. Of course, Pedro wasn’t always quiet and deferential. But he respected certain principles and refused to make excuses for his own failures.

Pedro is an exemplar of ometz lev (courage). Literally, it means strength of heart. Throughout the book, we hear that Pedro had “the heart of a lion”, which of course is a very Jewish symbol.

Pedro is a tsedakah hero. Not only does he help others financially, but he believes in what Maimonides called the highest form of tsedakah: helping people become self-sufficient so they are not dependent on tsedakah. Talk to our custodian, Socrates “Moreno” Guzman about what Pedro has done for the people of the Dominican Republic, and why he is so widely respected there. Moreover, Pedro gives so quietly, he hardly mentions his own generosity in the book.

Believe it or not, Pedro is a man of anavah (humility). In the Jewish Mussar tradition, humility does not mean modesty. Humility means knowing your place and acting appropriately to the situation. Pedro’s roots in poverty in the Dominican Republic continues to play a central role in his life. Like many of our Jewish ancestors, Pedro faced discrimination, rejection, and the indignities of learning a new language and culture when he came to the US. He had to prove himself time and again to get the respect he deserved. The pride and the arrogance we remember arose from Pedro’s desire to be respected for his skills, talent and effort in the game. Pedro has never forgotten where he came from or the people who helped him become one of the greatest pitchers of all time.

Thank you Pedro—and thank you to Michael Silverman for bringing his story to us!

(Red Sox highlights begin at 2:45)

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Ice Cream Didn't Melt, but My Heart Did

One of my family’s favorite stops during a summer vacation to Canada was the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour in Waterbury, Vermont. As everyone in Massachusetts knows, ice cream is great any time of year. But getting tastes of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream on the tour, followed by a full-size cone, is a very special summer treat. Somehow, I always finish it before it has time to melt!

Ben & Jerry’s has also set the standard for business practices that protect workers. Their mission reads:

“Ben & Jerry’s operates on a three-part mission that aims to create linked prosperity for everyone that’s connected to our business: suppliers, employees, farmers, franchisees, customers, and neighbors alike.”

While they purchase fair trade coffee, vanilla, sugar and bananas from around the world, it appears that they could improve conditions for workers in their own home state of Vermont.

This week, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—who have successfully eradicated slavery in the tomato fields of Florida and brought better working conditions to the migrant workers there—released a short video in support of the dairy workers of Vermont. Migrant Justice, a farmworkers organization, has launched the “Milk with Dignity” campaign to persuade Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream to do the same for their suppliers. My heart melted when I watched it.

The “Milk with Dignity” campaign is modeled on the Fair Food Program in Florida. Many of you participated in persuading Trader Joe’s to sign on three years ago. Now, we can make a difference for the migrant workers in the Vermont Dairy industry.

Yes, I was surprised to learn about migrant workers milking cows in Vermont! They don’t appear in the Ben & Jerry’s website, much less on any of its products or advertising. In the video we hear from several immigrants who describe exploitation in the dairy industry in Vermont. If Ben & Jerry’s were to sign an agreement to buy milk products from farms that promise to abide by fair working conditions, dairy workers would have more oversight to ensure fair treatment.

So far, the Social Mission division of Ben & Jerry’s has not agreed, trying to handle these problems in a voluntary way, without making demands on its supply chain. We know from experience in Florida that this is not an effective method to make change.

Watch the short documentary and then put June 20 on your calendar for a day of action, when you can bring a letter to your nearby Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop (Newbury Street, in the Prudential Center and in Cambridge) and urge them to sign on. 

Remind them that they state on their website:

“We strive to show a deep respect for human beings inside and outside our company and for the communities in which they live.”

True respect for the human beings at the bottom of the supply chain requires giving them a voice. We look forward to the day that Ben & Jerry’s is a full supporter of Milk with Dignity. You can help bring that day soon!