Friday, March 18, 2016

Fasting and Hamantashen: the Dark and Lighter Sides of Purim

Purim is upon us! Fun for kids and grownups: carnivals, masquerades and hamantashen. Also thinking of others too — mishloach manot (sharing gifts of food) and matanot l’evyonim (giving gifts of money) are central mitzvot, as well as hearing the story of Esther on Purim night.

The day before Purim is not a jolly day. While we may be getting our costumes ready and preparing plates of hamantashen to share, the day before Purim is a Jewish fast day, Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Esther). Most liberal Jews I know ignore this and other fast days that appear in the Jewish calendar (except Yom Kippur, and maybe Tisha B’Av).

These “minor fasts” usually recall tragic events in Jewish history. Ta’anit Esther is different. First of all — spoiler alert — the Book of Esther is not historical. It’s a fictional account of Diaspora life as imagined in ancient Persia. The fast of Esther does not commemorate a tragedy; it is lifted from the account of Esther preparing to meet the king.

The Book is not only fiction, it is a farce. Every aspect of it is meant to be laughable. The king who approaches every occasion as an opportunity to hold a feast and get drunk. The Jewish woman who masquerades as queen, and whose identity is revealed at the critical moment, to save her people. The comedy of the villain leading his nemesis around town on a horse, following the king’s orders to sing his praises as the villain himself had wished to be praised. The book is filled with ludicrous reversals of fortune, similar to those found in comic opera or Shakespeare.

Even the dreadful denouement in chapter 8, when the Jews go on the rampage, is a communal catharsis, a ridiculous fantasy. Since the King cannot change his own decree (how ironic!), he gives the Jews “permission” to defend themselves against those who come to destroy them. In the process they slaughter 75,000 people, and while many others immediately chose to convert.

The Book of Esther was written at a time when it was inconceivable that Jews might be given permission to kill others, even in self-defense. Through times of persecution, exile, pogroms, and massacres, for one day a year Jews enjoyed the Purim celebrations and retold the Purim story as a time for release and revelry.

It can be difficult to recognize comedy in literature. I remember the first time I read Pride and Prejudice. No one told me that it contained satire. I only discovered the humor years later while watching numerous film versions of Jane Austen’s masterpiece and howling with laughter.

Reading the 8th chapter of Esther in our own day, particularly in a political environment poisoned by vicious hatred, raises legitimate concerns. The violence is worthy of being noted and condemned. However, those who believe these passages provide a precedent for violence today are missing the point of the story. Not just for the Jews but among persecuted peoples everywhere, playfully imagining the destruction of one’s attackers is not akin to real violence. While we need to be careful about the link between violent speech and violent action, we also need to be able to see cartoon humor for what it is.

Nevertheless, some contemporary Jewish extremists have misread these sections and used them as a mandate for violence against any enemies of the Jewish people. These Jews are wrong and their actions bring shame on all Jews. For this reason, I choose to fast on Ta’anit Esther. This is the way that I respond to the fantasy violence in the Purim story — by grieving the deaths of those who have been the victims of Jewish hatred. I was living in Israel when Baruch Goldstein slaughtered innocent Muslims at prayer on Purim. Most Jews were shocked by this immoral act. Baruch Goldstein not only did violence to innocent Muslims, he violated Purim itself. Just as the Fast of Esther was the queen’s way of acknowledging the danger that awaited her when she went, unbidden, to see the king, this fast is my own “tikkun,” my personal act of repair, for the danger that has been unleashed from the Purim story.

I love Purim and I deplore violence. Yet I choose to celebrate the holiday with abandon, and I refuse to delete the offending passages. One essential lesson of Purim is to recognize that we can hold joy and humor at the same time we acknowledge grief and suffering. The world is filled with both. One of my very favorite rabbinic takes on Purim addresses this paradox directly.

Rabbah and Rabbi Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became drunk and Rabbah arose and killed Rabbbi Zera. On the next day, he prayed on Rabbi Zerra’s behalf and bought him back to life. Next year, Rabbah said: “Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together?” Rabbi Zera replied: “A miracle does not take place on every occasion.” (Talmud Megillah)

This is a Talmudic joke, built on a terrifying story. That’s the poignant truth of Purim, right there. Celebrate until your heart’s content, and be wary of the dangers.

As my colleague, Rabbi Rena Blumenthal, has written so beautifully:

“Purim is the most exhilaratingly honest of holidays. For one day a year we stop pretending that we understand the way of the world, that we know the purpose of our lives, that we can possibly comprehend God’s will.… We playfully hold up the idolatrous masks under which we have been hiding, laugh at our elaborately costumed selves, and, in opening our hearts to the terrifying truth of the human masquerade, experience deep liberation and joy.”

Wishing you joy, even amidst our fear and sorrow.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Thursday, March 10, 2016


“Wendy’s is the new Haman!”

That was the conclusion our Chaverim School students came to after hearing about Wendy’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program and treat the tomato pickers fairly.

Last week, our students created colorful “Tomatoes of Justice” (protest letters) to Nelson Peltz, CEO of Wendy’s, which I carried to a protest rally in New York City on March 3. Check out the link for photos! You can also see color photocopies of the kids’ tomatoes in the entrance to the temple (by the office).

I reported back to them that the tomato pickers announced their decision to BOYCOTT WENDY’S. All our kids took the pledge to boycott, and to tell other people why.

The students knew about boycotts that have succeeded in the past. They brought up the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I told them about the successful Hyatt Boycott. But not all boycotts are successful. The CIW is choosing boycott as a last resort. 

For over three years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has tried to persuade Wendy’s to sign on to the Fair Food Program. This tactic was successful in the past with Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Stop n Shop, as well as the other major fast food chains. The only boycott in the CIW history was its first campaign to convince Taco Bell to sign on in 2005.

Instead of protecting workers through a system of accountability, Wendy’s has abandoned the Florida tomato fields altogether. Now they are buying tomatoes from Mexico where workers suffer exploitation and abuse without any recourse. That’s why the CIW decided to take the next step, to BOYCOTT WENDY’S.

What can you do to give migrant workers a fair wage and a work life free of exploitation, sexual harassment, and violence?
  • Take a moment to watch a short video from the Worker’s Tour as they stopped to honor women on International Women’s Day.
  •   Click here to access everything you need to know about the CIW, Wendy’s and how you can be a part of the Tomato of Justice.
  •  Take the pledge to BOYCOTT WENDY’S.
  •  Share the story of the CIW, their fight for justice, and the WENDY’S BOYCOTT. Post a link on social media. Tell your friends.
Since 2011, HBT has supported the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to inform consumers about the plight of migrant tomato workers. Our visits to managers at Trader Joe’s contributed to the CIW’s successful effort to get Trader Joe’s to sign on.

We have partnered with T'ruah (The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) to make the Jewish community a significant supporter of the CIW.

I am proud to be a “Tomato Rabbi.”

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Just Mercy: Reflections from Sabbatical

“I am a member of a racial minority. Often, a person I do not know will take pains to bring a matter to my attention (a news article, movie or lecture) that features the subject of my race. I don’t pretend that people are color blind. But I am put off when a person I have just met tells me that I should read a book on my group’s experience with the American justice system. How should I respond?”

This question came to the NY Times advice columnist, Philip Galanes. In his February 25 column, Galanes suggested several thoughtful ways to respond, including asking them “Why, exactly, do you suppose that book will interest me?” Then the columnist added “(And if the book is “Just Mercy,” everyone should read it.)”

Everyone should read this book.I'm grateful to Alice Levine and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg for urging me to read it. When I finally picked it up last month, I could not put it down.

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson is a marvel. He is obviously a skilled and talented attorney, who has freed hundreds from unjust prison sentences. He has argued to change incarceration laws for juveniles successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court. Twice. His organization, the Equal Justice Initiative continues to work successfully on behalf of those “who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.”

Stevenson is also an engaging writer as he unfurls the tale of Walter McMillian, a death row inmate who was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and committed to death row based on flimsy evidence (at best) and corruption and racial bias (at worst). In alternating chapters, he also describes how women, children, mentally handicapped, and poor people fall victim to our broken criminal justice system. Nearly every chapter broke my heart.

Surprisingly, this book also offers redemption and hope. Just as he depicts the system as unbearably out of whack, Stevenson’s honesty and personal commitment provide a stirring model for making real change.

The title of the book encapsulates Stevenson’s inspiring approach to his life and work. “Justice” and “mercy” are usually opposing goals. On Yom Kippur, we ask God to set aside justice and become merciful with us. Others in our culture embrace punitive justice without regard for mercy. (Angry reactions to the recent sentencing of Philip Chism are just one example.) “Just mercy” implies that these two truths can (and ought to) coexist.

The prophet Micah implores us to find a balance between justice and mercy in our everyday relationships. “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with…” (Micah 6:8) Micah lived through a time of upheaval, moral degradation, dislocation, and fear. He witnessed the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE and the exile of its leaders. He surely knew the suffering of the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who endured the Assyrian siege of the fortified city protecting the capital, Jerusalem. Micah was one of the first to have foreseen the ultimate fall of Judah, which finally occurred more than a century after his death. Despite the terrors of war and destruction, Micah continued to preach a message of hope: “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with…”

In our own day, we are also witness to upheaval, moral degradation, dislocation and fear. We may be filled with despair. Like a prophet, Stevenson offers us a path out of our fear and anguish. At the end of the book, he tells us that he’s learned that “fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous.” Then he turns around and instructs us that “mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given.” That is, through love we can find the way to overcome injustice and to embrace hope.

One of the many gifts of having sabbatical time is having time. Period. Time to read. Time to write. Time to think. Time to cook healthy meals and enjoy being with loved ones. Time to do one thing at a time.

Coming back from these nine weeks “away,” I felt reinvigorated. It feels good to do the work that I love. I’m delighted every time I see someone who has been out of my line of sight for two months. I’m particularly grateful to learn that, while people are happy to have me back, the temple and its programs ran very smoothly during my absence.

One teaching I hold onto from this sabbatical time is not to wait until the next one. My book project has a long way to go. You are a part of that project, as I continue to think about Micah’s teaching of justice, mercy, and humility. From time to time I will share these thoughts with you, to continue to learn how these prophetic words can make a difference in our lives.