In God’s Image; Working for Justice

A short invocation I gave on November 8, 2020, in Norristown, PA at the invitation of People 1st PA and other progressive organizations.

Good afternoon!

My name is Rabbi Maurice Harris, I live in Montgomery County, and I’m honored to start us off with a few words. I’ve been asked to speak for a few minutes and to offer a prayer. In my tradition learning is itself a kind of prayer, so I’d like to share some of my recent learning with you, and close with the kind of prayer that can be summed up in two words: “Help us.”

First, the learning part. You’ve probably heard before that all of the major monotheistic religions teach that every human being is created in God’s image. The first place we find this idea in the Hebrew Bible is in the very first chapter of Genesis. There we read:

And God said, “Let us make the human being in our image, patterned after our design. And God created humankind in God’s image; in the image of the Divine, God created the first human; male and female, God created them.”

Some of you might be asking, “Wait, what about the Adam and Eve in the garden story?” That story is in the Bible too, but there are two accounts of the creation in the Bible, and the one that speaks to this moment, and to the work of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, is the one I’ve just quoted from. The one in which the first human created by God has no specific gender, is the ancestor of all humans to come, and is created in God’s image. All people – you, me, our neighbors, our ancestors, our allies and our oppressors – all of us bear the seal and imprint of the Creative Consciousness at the heart of Reality.

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“Trust, Release, Ask” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 / 2020 Sermon

Rabbi Maurice Harris

String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation

Shana Tova. It’s an honor to be with the String of Pearls community this year for the High Holidays. Though we are connecting online and not in person, we are connected by many invisible lines extending across distance and time. 

Tonight I’d like to talk a little bit about coping. Coping with fear, with uncertainty, with loss, and with the stresses of living in some of the hardest times we’ve shared as a society. I’d like to offer up an exercise, especially for when the craziness of life feels like it’s just too hard. It’s a practice that I call “Trust, Release, Ask.”  

Trust. A lot of what goes on in the world of religion attempts to instill fear in people. Fear that God is going to judge them and punish them. Fear that people will be hurt or tortured, if not in this life, than in an afterlife. We don’t have as much of this kind of thinking and teaching in modern Judaism as in some other religions, but we have our versions of it. The everyday world we live in also gives us plenty of opportunities to be fearful – I don’t think I need to list out what the past months have brought all of us in terms of shock, anxiety, disillusionment, outrage, and despair. It’s been rough.

It was already rough for so many people who tend to get overlooked or diminished in this world, no doubt, and at the same time there’s no question that the past year has been intense in its particular combination of terrible things. Our fears are understandable, and yet at the same time, our tradition teaches that fear is not a foundation to build a life upon. We ultimately have to decide whether we want to fear the Universe we are a part of, or whether we want to try our best to trust it – trust that whatever suffering may come and go as part of life and death, that the Universe holds us and that we belong to it.  

What I wish all of us would do, whether as part of our religious teachings or our general social values – is to help children from the youngest age develop a deep, abiding sense of inner trust that they are part of something greater – something creative, wonderful, and alive. That they are part of the Life of the Universe itself, which many of us call God – and that even though this life includes joy and pain, birth and death, it is something eternal and good that they are a part of that they can fully and entirely trust with all their being. Imagine if you had been told this every day of your life from the moment you could first understand the words, and others around you over and over again reinforced the message that you are part of something greater, the mysterious force of Life itself, and that you are loved and held by that power in a way that will never end. 

Continue reading ““Trust, Release, Ask” – Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781 / 2020 Sermon”

Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020

I shared this talk with String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation on September 27, 2020.

Good Yontiff. For those of you who joined us for Rosh Hashanah, welcome back. And for those just joining us for the first time, it’s good to be connected with you tonight.

Tonight I’d like to talk about what Valerie Kaur calls “Revolutionary Love.” If you haven’t had the chance to read or listen to Valerie Kaur, you are in for a wonderful discovery should you decide to look her up. She is a civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, and is the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which I’ll say more about in a moment. She is also a Sikh-American – a member of the Sikh religion. If you’ve ridden a subway or gone to the grocery store and seen people wearing cloth turbans, there’s a good chance they are Sikhs. 

Valerie Kaur

Sikhism is a 500 year old religion that was founded in the Punjab region of what is now part of India and Pakistan. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was a witness to terrible violence between Hindus and Muslims, and he founded a new monothesitic religion based on core beliefs that are similar to those of many of the world’s religions and prophets. Sikhism teaches that all are equal before God – a teaching that we emphasize in Judaism through our practice of burying our dead in a simple cloth shroud in a modest coffin. Sikhism also stresses the obligation to treat everyone equally, to be generous with all in need, and to be brave and stand up to defend those who are being oppressed. 

It’s that last part that may distinguish Sikhism a bit from the other monotheistic religions. What I mean by that is this: all of the monotheistic religions share the same core values. We know this. One God. Do unto others. Justice, justice shall you pursue. But there are different insights, emphases, and commitments that jump out from different religions, in the same way that all doughnuts are made of dough and taste good, but they have different fillings and icings that distinguish one kind from another. I know: did the rabbi really just make a food analogy when we have only just begun fasting? And did he mention doughnuts, no less? 

Guilty as charged. I ask for your forgiveness.

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Why we win

So, I know this may sound presumptuous, but I’ve come to understand why we are going to defeat Trumpism. We are winning and we are going to win.

Even if he steals this election.

Even if he lucks out and ekes out an electoral win again somehow.

It’s because we started winning the day people started organizing in this country with a new level of determination to have an America built on democracy, fairness, pluralism, environmental responsibility, and social justice. There have been, throughout these incredibly painful 3 and a half years, so many people who have organized and taken action like never before in my lifetime.

Black Lives Matter. The Women’s March. Indivisible. HIAS. Run For Something. A zillion more groups. Democrats and progressives running for local, county, state, and federal offices and often winning. Postcardstovoters.org targeting winnable off-year election races and flipping seats at every level of government.

Civil service officials refusing to be corrupted, or to be silenced. Whistle-blowers. Republicans defecting from Trump publicly. Journalists fact-checking his lies and doing investigative reporting. FBI officials and federal prosecutors investigating and indicting and convicting many of his cronies. The House of Representatives under Pelosi and its committees holding hearings, dragging Trump officials in front of investigative panels, and releasing damning information to the public. Even the Senate, with some of its Republican led committees, from time to time contradicting the Administration.

Ordinary citizens tweeting, posting on social media, calling and writing their elected officials, unafraid – continuing to exercise the right to free speech, the right to dissent. Late night talk show hosts ridiculing and exposing Trumpworld for its corruption and authoritarianism, its hatred of true democracy, its lies and absurdities.

When bullies are challenged, they are temporarily stunned at first. Their underlings get worried they might have their careers ruined if power changes hands, or that they might even go to prison. Acts of non-cooperation, of questioning the legality or appropriateness of corrupt directives, whistle-blowing and leaks to the press are all actions that slow down the machinery of fascism and authoritarianism. Lots of mid-level and low-level henchmen stop for a moment, worry that they might in fact get in trouble, and have to re-calibrate their plans in order to deal with multiple layers of non-cooperation and dissent within the parts of a democratic system that still work according to the rule of law.

Yes, we have lots of moments of fear and despair, as we watch Trump and his people repeatedly “flood the zone” with multiple fronts of aggressive abuse of power, big lies, and sneering contempt for the rule of law and democratic sacred norms. But that’s only one kind of power in the overall system. Throughout this vile Administration there has also been a growing, creative, and strengthening counter-force of many faces and forms, organizing to defend the core pillars of democracy and civil rights, and willing to directly challenge Trump and his people without hesitation or intimidated deference.

And so we’ve seen people at every level of government stand up to Trumpism and even sacrifice their careers while saving their honor and giving our democracy yet another chance to right itself. We’ve seen Democratic candidates for president show no fear of speaking the truth and calling Trump a liar and a con-man and a tyrant. This is very, very good for our democracy.

We’ve seen new alliances of different politically active groups focused hard on resisting Trump’s attempt to turn this country into something that at least half of its citizens don’t want it to be — a pathetic, cult-of-personality dictatorship based on white supremacy and rank corruption.

Am I saying I know Biden’s going to win and then take office? No. I don’t know that. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, or if this election will be fair, or if things will be sabotaged by Trump’s people.

But what I am saying is I know we are going to win, because we are already winning. We are winning because we are resisting and standing up to the bullying.

We may not always be able to keep up with the daily barrage of abuses of power and misdirection that Trump and his inner circle of smart guys think is stronger and faster than us – that we’re a bunch of “pussies” who can’t stop them (screw them and their misogyny by the way).

But they are definitely not keeping up with us – not keeping up with the multi-pronged, multi-headed hydra of organizing, activism, protest, and plain old unwillingness-to-yield that has pushed back against them and is working hard every day to build, build, build a progressive, inclusive future for this country. In unprecedented numbers, we’re running for school boards and city alderman seats now. We’re organizing in the Black community, in cities, in suburbs, among veterans, among nurses, and among students. Pro athletes are stepping up. Lots and lots of Democrats are having spines and standing strong. There are so many of us who have been working so hard these past 3 and a half years, and it’s not going to stop.

If Trump somehow manages to get another term, whether legitimately or not, we’re going to keep building on what we’ve done and keep getting stronger. If Biden wins and takes office, we’ll be working hard to take advantage of the changed circumstances and make major structural changes in this country. Either way, we’re not giving up, we’re not bowing down to Trump, we’re not letting the minority of Americans who embrace his cult run our lives, and we’re not finished.

We’re already winning, and we will make this country better than it was before. More progressive, fair, creative, open, compassionate, environmentally sustainable, peaceful, just, and inclusive. And the more we win, the more people who were afraid of this better version of our country will realize that it’s better for them too, that they have a warm and joyful home in this diverse, inclusive, multi-racial, multi-everything free and fair society that is our unstoppable dream.

Yom Hashoah 2020 / 5780

Primo Levi wrote: “Auschwitz is outside of us, but it is all around us, in the air. The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”

So much of what he described characterizes our time, here in the US, and in so many other parts of the world. It’s in the macho strutting of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the craven racism of Netanyahu and his allies, the smirk Putin wears, the raging tantrums of Trump, the successful con-artistry of Nigel Farage, the entitled murderous manipulations of MBS. Here we are.

Thankfully, there are a zillion people refusing to consent to these authoritarian delusions. Levi also wrote of his time in Auschwitz, “…We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last — the power to refuse our consent.” There are, all over this country and throughout the world, all kinds of people who are repeatedly refusing their consent. I put my faith in them, and in my own determination to be counted among them.

I see a connection to a very different text – a biblical text from Psalm 146:

אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֤אֵ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂ֝בְר֗וֹ עַל־ה’ אֱלֹהָֽיו׃

Happy is the person who has the God of Jacob for help, whose hope is in the ETERNAL ONE,

עֹשֶׂ֤ה שָׁ֘מַ֤יִם וָאָ֗רֶץ אֶת־הַיָּ֥ם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֑ם הַשֹּׁמֵ֖ר אֱמֶ֣ת לְעוֹלָֽם׃

maker of heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them; who safeguards truth throughout all times and places;

עֹשֶׂ֤ה מִשְׁפָּ֨ט לָעֲשׁוּקִ֗ים נֹתֵ֣ן לֶ֭חֶם לָרְעֵבִ֑ים ה’ מַתִּ֥יר אֲסוּרִֽים׃

who makes justice for those who are oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The ALMIGHTY sets prisoners free;

ה’ פֹּ֘קֵ֤חַ עִוְרִ֗ים ה’ זֹקֵ֣ף כְּפוּפִ֑ים ה’ אֹהֵ֥ב צַדִּיקִֽים׃

The ALL-SEEING ONE restores sight to the blind; the SOURCE OF LIFE makes those who are bent stand straight; the TRUE JUDGE loves the righteous;

ה’ שֹׁ֘מֵ֤ר אֶת־גֵּרִ֗ים יָת֣וֹם וְאַלְמָנָ֣ה יְעוֹדֵ֑ד וְדֶ֖רֶךְ רְשָׁעִ֣ים יְעַוֵּֽת׃

The SOUL OF THE UNIVERSE watches over the stranger; God gives courage to the orphan and widow, but makes the path of the wicked go crooked.

May the power we hold, to refuse our consent to authoritarian rule, and to continue to seek fairness, justice, peace, and empathy, be nourished by the Source of Life and the True Judge. May we strengthen one another’s hands in this effort. May the memory of the 6 million Jews and the millions of other peoples and groups who were murdered by the wicked Nazis and their supporters be a blessing and an inspiration for all of us to continue working for a world redeemed.

PrimoLeviquote

C’mon dudes this could be a great year progressives…

So, in the midst of this pandemic, those of us deeply hoping for a Democratic White House win this November have been reflecting on Bernie’s recent announcement that he has ended his campaign, leaving Joe Biden as the presumptive nominee.

If Bernie can help Biden and Dems win a big wave election, there are A LOT of very progressive young Dems running for literally everything downballot, and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with at every level of government.

I no longer engage with my FB or other social media the way I used to back in 2016, when I spent hours and hours reacting to comments by pro-Bernie friends who hated Hillary and, unbeknownst to me at the time, often re-posted Russian-troll generated fake news about her. I don’t do that anymore, so I don’t know whether the intensity of that kind of thing is as bad as it was then. I know there’s a pro-Bernie / Biden-loathing constituency out there, but I am not interested in debating people about my determination to support whomever is the Dem’s nominee, so I have no sense of what that whole situation looks, sounds, or feels like, and I don’t intend to find out.

And Then There Were Two: Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden | The New Yorker

What I am aware of, however, is that there’s an incredible opportunity that could be brewing, if Bernie, Joe, and a bunch of other Dems and progressives figure it out.

Here’s what I see: if Bernie leads by example and focuses on defeating Trump and maximizing the influence of his core supporters on the Dems’ platform and Biden’s agenda, and if Biden and all the other major figures in the D party seek to meet them halfway and show that their top priorities will be part of the overall D agenda, 2020 could be an unparalleled year of progressive gains.

By dropping out at this stage, so much earlier than he did in 2016, Bernie has already changed his behavior from four years ago. Right now he has leverage to influence a center-left nominee and (I hope) administration. I hope Bernie will focus on that goal and stay engaged with and identified with the party. If he leads in this way, he can continue to move his core ideas forward and build up the progressive wing of the party. He’s in a strong position to play the role of the father of a progressive renaissance within the Democratic party – one that works with center-left Dems to defeat neo-fascist Republicanism at every turn, while simultaneously promoting and popularizing progressive policy ideas. Part of this strategy should include Bernie elevating young Dems who can be the future of his agenda.

If Bernie can help Biden and Dems win a big wave election, there are A LOT of very progressive young Dems running for literally everything downballot, and they’ll be a force to be reckoned with at every level of government. That’s the key. 2020 could be a great year for progressives if Bernie and Joe both see the opportunity for what it is and work for common goals.

A Serious Injury or a Mortal Wound?

Is this the end of the USA’s democracy? Or does American democracy recover in a few years from Trump and his supporters? I wish I knew. This American dystopian unraveling of democracy that we’re living through, and which may easily last another 5 more Trumpian years (or more), has made me question a lot of things I have taken for granted my whole life about this country. I’m in agony, and I know a lot of other people who are too.

One of the things I didn’t see coming was the way that the times we’re living in have made a newfound literary love of mine feel prescient and relevant in immediate ways I never previously thought possible. I’m talking about sci-fi. And I wish that what I’m about to describe wasn’t the case…

Continue reading “A Serious Injury or a Mortal Wound?”

Relieved, grateful, frightened

I’m listening to a Laura Marling song, which I find really moving and beautiful. It’s maybe half an hour after I’ve absorbed the news that the House voted to impeach, and I’m thankful for the Dems determination, perseverance, focus, and willingness to take political risks to try to save our democracy.

But seeing no Republicans (except I think one ex-Repub) vote yes, and hearing that they seem to be locking arms around a narrative of lies, and hearing that Trump’s approval ratings have even ticked up recently, and knowing that he and his fellow GOPers are going to full-court press their Fox News conspiracy theory BS and present it as “the real truth” and continue to whip up the frenzy of hate and lies — well, it’s what frightens me even more than Trump himself. It’s my fellow Americans who are all in for 45, for the kind of willful pretending that he hasn’t lied over and over again, conned people left and right, and spewed racist and sexist and just plain nasty divisive speech over and over and over again.

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People I’m Grateful For

Fred Halliday

Aretha Franklin

Adam Schiff

Melissa Crabbe

Lori Pompa

Andy Levin

Deborah Waxman

Kitty Piercy

Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin

Arik Ascherman

Stephen Colbert

Harvey Milk

Bernard Lipnick

Leon Lissek

Walter Kania

Sheila Peltz Weinberg

David Teutsch

Linda Holtzman

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Harriet Tubman

Anat Hoffman

Sarah Silverman

Marjorie Berman

Jon Stewart

Jerry Curtis

Leonard Cohen

Fred Rogers

Melanie Oommen

Rosa Parks

MLK

Bob Dylan

Barack Obama

Michelle Obama