Thursday, September 18, 2008

On the Oneness of God and Humanity

I was the only Jew present at my first meeting of "Thinking Together," the World Council of Churches' think tank on cutting edge issues in interfaith dialogue. For half of the four-day meeting in 2007, I had struggled with powerful reactions to many of the things group members, particularly the Christian theologians present, had to say about conversion, the group's current topic of discussion. Over and over again, my mind shouted, "Do you guys know what it is like to be on the receiving end of Christian conversionary activity?" "Do you know that when you say, 'mission,' this touches my deep memory of the persecution, exile and genocide that my people has suffered?"

By the end of the meeting, I had learned that these people did indeed know a great deal about the Jewish experience at the hands of Christians. In fact, several of the people at the table had written renowned books on the subject. What is more, some of the Hindus at the table had even more recent reason than I did, as a Jew, to associate conversion with destruction of communities and cultures. I learned that in recent years there has been a great deal of tension, and some violence, related to the aggressive activity of Christian missionaries in Hindu communities. By the end of the week, I had learned far more from these people than they had to learn from me.

This summer I was joined by an old friend, a renowned Jewish educator from Israel, and a long-time participant in the group. No longer the only Jew in the room, free of my internal need to convey "the Jewish perspective," I was open to whatever learning this year's meeting would bring.

As before, I was struck by my good fortune to be sitting with this remarkable group of people. There was a senior Jewish educator from Jerusalem, a progressive imam and Islamic scholar from South Africa, a Buddhist professor of conflict resolution from Thailand, a professor of Hinduism from India and Trinidad, a senior leader of the Presbyterian Church in the US, an internationally known Christian scholar and leader of the interfaith dialogue movement, and a Buddhist monk and scholar from Sri Lanka wearing bright orange robes, among others. I knew that the experience would further develop my identity as a citizen of the world, expanding my perspective and stretching my heart and mind. This happened, though, in a surprising way.

Since the topic was conversion, we expected that challenging moments might arise in conversation between the proselytizing religions represented at the table (i.e. Christianity and Islam) and those religions that tend not to seek converts aggressively (i.e. Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism). To our surprise, this year our attention was drawn to a different fault line in the group, the differences between those who consider themselves monotheists and those coming from traditions that are not theistic, or emphasize multiple manifestations of the Divine.
In my opening remarks on Jewish perspectives on conversion, I had sought to articulate why seeking converts has not been a prominent part of Jewish practice over the centuries. I emphasized that Judaism does seek to serve as a "light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6), but that this is about bringing the world to God and to justice, not about persuading the peoples of the world to adopt the particularities of Jewish practice. In the course of exploring that point, I cited beloved texts that are central to my own prayer life, such as, "On that day God will be one and God's name one." (Zechariah 14:9, quoted in the Aleinu prayer)

When I finished my introductory talk to the group, my Hindu colleague, Anant Rambachan, offered some appreciative words about what I had said. Then, very gently, he said that my remarks on bringing people to the one God and my reference to the prayer for the recognition of God's oneness were difficult for him. "Such texts," he said, "remind me of times when, growing up in Trinidad, people would break into our Hindu temples and destroy the murti (sacred images)."

Anant is an elegant man, brilliant and gracious, and he commands great respect and love in the group. The room fell utterly silent as he spoke. I, for one, was mortified that I had said something that had been offensive to someone whom I hold in such high esteem. I rushed to tell him that I was sorry to have offended him, that that had certainly not been my intention. He made clear that he had taken no personal offense, but we all realized that something important had happened. We had encountered a profound difference between the self-described monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, on the one hand, and Hinduism, on the other, with its rich teachings of the many different names and manifestations of the Divine in the world. And the monotheists at the table were forced to confront the ways in which belief in one God can convince people that theirs is the only truth, and to make this a rationale for hurting the other.

For me, this was a stunning moment. In my work life, I have spent a good deal of time and energy seeking to help Christians understand that some of the ideas, language, and images that are most precious to them resonate very differently for Jews, evoking memories of many centuries of oppression. I have asked Christians to examine their liturgy and their sacred texts, and to try to take the empathic leap of imagining how these might seem to Jews. As an heir to the profound Jewish historical memory of persecution (and worse), I have argued that Christians have a responsibility to look self-critically at their own tradition and history, to see how it has done harm, and to consider the implications for Christian practice in our own day.

Suddenly, my own religious language – words that I have known since I was a small child and recited daily for decades, was a source of pain to another, who had himself been on the receiving end of religiously motivated violence. The concept of monotheism lies at the epicenter of Jewish tradition and Jewish self-understanding. How could this concept possibly be a source of harm to others? Yet here was my treasured colleague, challenging me to contemplate the damage that had been done in the name of my own cherished belief.

These were the very moments for which the "Thinking Together" project was created. Moments when each of us might enter into an entirely new understanding of our own tradition by seeing it through the eyes of "the other." In relationship with people of different religions and from different parts of the world, we are forced to consider hitherto unimaginable questions. Our relationships of respect and affection lead us to examine unthinkable thoughts, considering our most treasured convictions from multiple perspectives, seeing our own worldview as only one among many imperfect human attempts to make sense of a world far beyond our own understanding.

In such moments, one does have another option. One can say, explicitly or implicitly, "No! I am right and so you must be wrong! My truth is correct and I have no intention of considering your perspective on it!" After all, we see this kind of behavior modeled every day in the public square in our own country, and perhaps in our personal relationships as well.

But for thoughtful people who desire to understand more about God's world and to respond to the sacred call to make peace in our world, we must listen to "the other," even when he or she challenges beliefs that are axiomatic for us.

Having experienced this conversation, what is my obligation? Do I need to stop saying the offending words in my daily prayer? Reconstruct my whole theology to excise monotheism from my beliefs about God and the world? I don’t think this is my obligation, nor did my conversation partners at the table in Geneva want me to abandon my own religion in deference to their feelings. But it is incumbent on me to take in the depth of their challenge, bringing new questions into my ongoing relationship with Judaism based on my relationship with them.

Fundamentally, this is how individuals can contribute to the building of peace in the world: by our willingness to listen deeply to truths very different from our own, to grapple with these truths and allow them to affect how we think and who we are, to stretch our minds and hearts beyond our own comfortable truths. This is the essence of peace-making, of world-repair, one conversation at a time.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Peaceful Presence at the RNC

September 2008

From the moment I heard about the project, I knew that I wanted to be part of it. Back in June, a soft-spoken Catholic woman came to a meeting of an interfaith dialogue planning group I attend in St. Paul, Minnesota. She told us that her Catholic community would sponsor a “Peaceful Presence,” a space dedicated to silent prayer from 8 AM to 8 PM each day of the Republican National Convention. The goal was to create a silent haven of prayer very near the noisy, combative energy of the convention. Those present would be invited to focus their prayerful attention on peace, cradling the more contentious energy of the convention and its environs with care and compassion. All would be welcome to enter, as long as they respected the silence and the non-political nature of the space. Each day would be punctuated by three worship experiences, each from a different religious tradition. The group had reserved the sanctuary of a Presbyterian church near the convention center and was beginning to get the word out and to find leaders for the worship services. I was thrilled and immediately handed her my card.

When the day of my service arrived, I came early to the church to sit in the silence with the others before I needed to serve as their prayer leader. I knew that I had been excited about the opportunity. (I had even e-mailed some peacemaker friends around the country, letting them know how tickled I was that I'd be teaching Compassionate Listening down the street from the Republican National Convention.) But I was utterly unprepared for what would happen to me when I stepped into the church.

The sanctuary was enormous and traditional in style. At first there was just a handful of people scattered in seats around the sanctuary, each in his or her own private space. All in complete silence. The quiet in the room was exquisite, and the sense of prayerfulness powerful. I felt deeply drawn into the quiet, happy to be in this place, happy to be part of this sacred enterprise.

My instructions had been to just stand up at the time scheduled for my service, to introduce myself and begin. I stood up, prepared to offer the brief introduction to Compassionate Listening that I had agreed to do. But deep inside, I was loath to break the silence, which was so deep and beautiful. Balancing my commitment to teach and my desire to honor the silence, I began to sing a soft chant on the word "Shalom," hoping to gently sing the group (now a group of twenty or so) out of the silence. We sang together for peace, quietly and tenderly.

When I began to speak, I told the group how moved I had been by their silent prayer. I mused about the project of creating a peaceful presence down the street from the RNC, about the sacred generosity of those who were spending many hours in this place, offering their time to pray for peace – at the convention, in our country, and around the world. "I suspect that many of us," I said, "are people who at times – in our own lives, in our own spaces, pray over the newspaper, pray for the world, seek to offer our prayer as a cushion for the world's suffering and a gentle embrace around people in conflict. But there is something remarkable about our bringing ourselves and our energies here, to this place. I am so moved by those of you who have come here day after day this week. I am so honored to be here with you."

I did my thirty-minute meditation on Compassionate Listening, then sang the group back into the silence again with the same "Shalom" chant. I wrote Jewish prayers for peace in the book of personal prayer on the altar, then took my seat again to settle back down into the silence. I heard some people quietly leaving, but I could sense that I was not alone. There were a few of us, alone again in the huge sanctuary, filling the space with stillness and with our heartfelt hopes for our country and for the world.

When it was time to leave, I embraced the coordinator of the project. She sweetly gave me a single rose as an expression of thanks, but I had already received an enormous gift. Out on the street, the light was bright, people were hurried, police barricades were everywhere. But inside me was a great well of quiet prayer, and I was grateful.


August 2008

Through an extraordinary stroke of good fortune, I had been invited to join a think tank exploring cutting edge issues in interfaith dialogue, sponsored by the World Council of Churches. For two consecutive summers, I have had the remarkable experience of traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, to meet with this exceptional group of people: a senior Jewish educator from Jerusalem, a progressive imam and Islamic scholar from South Africa, a Buddhist professor of conflict resolution from Thailand, a professor of Hinduism from India and Trinidad, a senior leader of the Presbyterian Church in the US, an internationally known Christian scholar and leader of the interfaith dialogue movement, and a Buddhist monk and scholar from Sri Lanka wearing bright orange robes, among others. Now with this group for the second time, I was thrilled by the opportunity to develop my identity as a citizen of the world, listening and learning about how the world looks from parts of the globe far beyond my own experience and perspective.

As our four days of work drew to a close, we were treated to an outing: a hike in the hills outside Geneva and a festive dinner together. We set out on our hike, expecting to find a path in the hills set aside as a place for contemplation, with texts by great spiritual teachers planted at various points along the way. It sounded like a wonderful thing to do with this group, and so we hiked. And hiked and hiked – uphill. We were a good-natured group, enjoying one another's company, offering pseudo-theological explanations for why the expected spiritual texts continued to elude us. Finally we reached the top of the hill, and it was clear that we were not going to find the rumored signs. Several people mused about how spiritual "texts" may have been present for us on our walk together, but not in the physical form we had expected. Suddenly beautiful words began to pour forth from Thomas, a prominent Christian scholar and theologian from India, as he pointed to the greenery around us.

"Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? "Therefore do not worry, saying, "What shall we eat?' or "What shall we drink?' or "What shall we wear?' . . . For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble."

I was stunned at the beauty of Thomas' words. My knowledge of the New Testament is woefully lacking, and I knew Thomas to be a person of great eloquence. So I paused, deeply moved by the suggestion of his words that the "texts" had been all around us throughout our hike together, in the beautiful plants we had seen, the glorious beauty of our surroundings, in the blessings of our friendships and our shared work. Yet his words – they had such a ring to them – had perhaps exceeded what even Thomas could have created in the moment. I swallowed my pride and asked, "Did you just make that up?" My Jewish friend, with decades of interfaith dialogue work in her background, was quick to point out that Thomas had been quoting a passage from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:28-34). Thomas laughed, his whole face lighting up with delight, graciously accepting my ignorance of his sacred text. No, Thomas said, he would not have been able to make up those words. He laughed in a self-deprecating tone about the way in which he had been educated to memorize large chunks of the Bible when he was a child. "You learned this text when you were a child from your Bible," I said to Thomas, "but I just received it, right here on this mountain top, from you. I will treasure it as a gift from you."

On a mountaintop outside Geneva, with my new friends, spanning four continents and five world religions, I had received the blessing of a beautiful walk in the woods and an introduction to one of the great sacred texts in the history of religion, the Sermon on the Mount. At the perfect moment, Thomas had shared his beloved text with me, transforming a light-hearted afternoon with friends into a sacred pilgrimage. I will always have a special relationship with the Sermon on the Mount, for I learned it at a special moment in my own life, with gratitude.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Stealing from God and from our Neighbors


Among other beautiful things, Parashat Naso brings us this intriguing piece of text: "God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow person and commits theft from God, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution . . . " (Numbers 5:5-7)

Commentators and translators alike have struggled to understand the connection between "mikol hatot/commits any wrong" and "commits theft from God/lim'ol ma'al." On the one hand, the language "commits any wrong" and the remedy – confession and restitution – suggest that what we have here is a general description of sin and teshuva. On the other hand, why would the Torah bring us a central teaching on teshuva in the context of the very specific sin of stealing from the sacred precinct?

This piece of Torah pulsates with meaning for me, in the aftermath of a day my children and I spent in Postville, Iowa, witnessing first-hand great wrongs – and perhaps great theft – perpetrated against the workers of the Agriprocessors plant.

First, a bit of history. In 2003, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals began documenting horrific accounts of cruelty to animals, inconsistent with the spirit if not the law of kashrut, at the Agriprocessors plant. Many thought this could not be; perhaps this was the work of people who wished to discredit the whole system of kashrut. In 2006, after the Forward published a scathing expose of worker abuse at the plant, my colleague Rabbi Morris Allen resolved to conduct a quiet and thorough investigation, doing his own study of the plant, and repeatedly inviting the plants' owners to respond and make the needed changes. When they failed to do so, the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative was born, seeking to create a national mechanism whereby the Conservative Movement would work with producers of kosher food that already received Orthodox kashrut certification to evaluate their businesses' ethical standards in terms of treatment of workers and corporate management practices.

On May 12th of this year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials rounded up nearly all of the employees at the Agriprocessors plant and arrested 394 undocumented workers. For the very first time, instead of deporting the undocumented immigrants, the government chose to prosecute these people on the federal felony of identity theft and then imprisoned them for a period of five months, leaving women behind to care for their children. The women were required to wear GPS monitors on their legs to ensure that they could neither work nor leave the area. After incarceration, the husbands, along with their children, would be immediately deported, and the mothers would then serve their own five-month sentences. With felony convictions on their records, these people would never be eligible to enter the U.S. again.

A call went out for rabbis in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the largest Jewish community in the vicinity of Postville, to travel to the town to listen to the workers, to convey a supportive Jewish presence, and to show the aggrieved people a different face of Judaism than they have come to know. My daughter speaks Spanish, and so I invited my three college-age children to come with me. I could not have anticipated the profound impact the journey would have on us.

What we encountered in Postville, Iowa was a confluence of two dismal situations, both of them tragic and shameful:
(1)systematic abuse of workers by owners and managers of the Agriprocessors plant, which supplies 40% of all poultry and 60% of all koshermeat in the U.S. and (2)the human face of our government's distorted and dysfunctional immigration policy.

We met with three union organizers, one leader of the Hispanic community in Postville, and three families who agreed to allow us into their homes to tell us about their experiences. A remarkably consistent pattern of stories emerged from the people we met, parallel to information in the affidavits filed by government agencies. (We were told that 16 federal agencies are investigating this plant, including not only ICE but OSHA, USDA, IRS, and the FBI.) We learned that workers were regularly paid a lower hourly wage than had been promised to them, and rarely paid for the overtime hours (including 12-14 hour shifts) that they frequently worked. We were told that bathroom breaks were inadequate and accompanied by harassment by supervisors, and that the workers' cafeteria was in an unsanitary condition. Workers were regularly forced to pay for their own uniforms, counter to U.S. labor law. Serious accidents were common, including lost limbs. There was no on-site medical care, and workers were discouraged from seeking medical care. When necessary, the company doctor performed procedures in his office that should never have been attempted outside of a hospital then rushed the injured worker back to work.

The list of abuses grew more and more chilling. There was a regular pattern of managers extorting money from the impoverished immigrants, by insisting that a worker buy a car on credit from the manager as a condition of employment, creating a kind of indentured servitude. Managers regularly humiliated workers and occasionally struck them. We were told that sexual favors were demanded of female workers, in exchange for work or better work assignments, and we learned that from 40-80 teenagers, age 14-16, worked illegally in the plant, facilitated by a business partner of the plant's owner. We were told that "everyone knew" of the rampant abuses, yet workers who dared to approach the owners to report on abuses at the plant were fired. An atmosphere of intense fear, harassment, and dehumanization prevailed.

It was clear that the company had knowingly recruited undocumented workers for many years, as we saw copies of Spanish-language ads placed in Mexican and Guatemalan newspapers. At some point, managers aggressively urged the workers to obtain fake Social Security cards (for which the workers are now serving time in prison), actively facilitating the distribution of the illegal papers. Thus the immigrants and the company shared culpability for the workers' illegal employment, but only the workers were prosecuted.

The people we spoke with were kind, dignified and completely credible. But even if only half of what we heard was true, gross abuses were committed.

A few moments were burned into my memory. A leader of the Hispanic community in Postville described for us the way in which the treatment of workers deteriorated in 1999-2000, with work conditions becoming increasingly difficult, harassment increasing, and the company exerting pressure on the immigrants to obtain false identity papers. For a moment, the narrative sounded biblical to me, an echo of the tale of the Egyptians' increasingly oppressive treatment of their workers – our ancestors, the Israelites.

I remember Marta, who responded to our questions with terse, respectful answers, covering over a powerful sense of despair. All the while, her hand alternately massaged the part of her lower leg where the electronic monitor was attached and carefully readjusted her skirt to cover the monitor, as if its presence was a source of humiliation.

A young mother named Maria told us that she has no idea where her husband is, except that he is in a prison somewhere in Iowa. She had no idea where she and her 3-year old son would go at the end of the month (two days after our visit), when she would be unable to pay her rent.

Our last visit was to the home of Elida, a woman of beauty and dignity. She let out a deep sigh when we asked her to tell us about her experience. Like a poet or playwright pondering how to tell a tragic story, she said slowly, "I have no idea how to tell you what this has been like." She agonized over how to respond to her children's questions about where their daddy has gone. One of her children – a strikingly beautiful little girl – wandered in and snuggled with her mother, wondering about the presence of strangers in their living room.

I am a person who believes deeply in the power of human presence, the great potential of one person listening to another in times of pain. Yet sitting in the homes of these lovely people, who had suffered indignity while laboring to produce the meat that my family and I had enjoyed, and who now faced desperate circumstances, my offer of compassionate listening felt profoundly inadequate. Toward the end of each of the home visits, I experienced just one satisfying, even redemptive moment. Before bidding farewell to each family, I spoke for the group by identifying myself as a rabbi, and describing our group as representatives of the Jewish community, saying, "I want to tell you that I am ashamed of what has been done to you to help me live my religious life. And I am ashamed of what my government has done to you." It was a tiny part of the teshuva process – a public acknowledgement of shame and remorse for actions for which I know that I have been indirectly responsible.

By far, the bright light of our visit to Postville was our time at St. Bridget's Catholic Church. This small-town church had had an outreach program to the Hispanic population prior to the raid, so it was here that the workers sought refuge after the raid. Upon entering the church, it was instantly clear that this was a holy place. There were many people in the church's simple sanctuary: some alone in prayer, small groups in quiet conversation, others bathing in the sense of safety and caring this place offered. The church, under the leadership of Sister Mary McCauley and two priests, had transformed itself into a full-service social service agency, providing food, counseling, and assistance with immigration, housing and financial issues. Professional and volunteer staff hurried around the church, offering support, seeking to respond to the many dimensions of the crisis each family faced.

Sister Mary spoke to us plainly and starkly about the stories she had heard, about the process of gaining the trust of traumatized people, and about the enormous challenges they faced. She estimated that the church would need $700,000 to keep the families fed and sheltered until the end of the period of incarceration, and she spoke with gratitude about the support of the Jewish and Lutheran communities. I wrote her a large check, thanked God for her work and prayed for her success. God's presence was as palpably present in that place as it felt painfully absent elsewhere in Postville.

On the way out of Postville, I asked my children what they were thinking and feeling. They responded resoundingly: we cannot talk about it right now. I thought of the kind of shocked silence groups often fall into after visiting places where atrocities have been committed, as if the soul needs quiet time to absorb the horror it has seen. After an hour or two, the kids began to speak of their questions and observations: "Now we know why the meat from this plant was less expensive – it's because the workers weren't being paid fairly!" ""It seems like the wrong people are in prison!" The dynamics of globalization are unfolding right in our back yard!" "Who is going to keep the pressure on to be sure the people responsible are brought to justice?"

And we talked about what to do now. We all knew that we would not consume meat from this plant until these issues were resolved. My daughter, soon to leave for the Mexican border for a semester studying issues of immigration, poverty, and human rights, knew that she would soon be confronted with many more such horrors. Our older son, just back from a semester in South Africa, felt deeply the injustice of a dysfunctional immigration policy and a national blindness to the realities of the people living south of our border. Our younger son, on his way into journalism school, mused about the power of the media to keep the story alive, to be sure the government investigations would be brought to a just conclusion. We all wondered how we, each of us in our own way, could be part of the educational challenge now standing before the Jewish community, to insist that it would be better to consume no meat at all, or to pay substantially higher prices, than to continue our complicity with a system by which we depend on the abuse of workers for the performance of our mitzvot.

In the days following our visit, the experience was as fresh as ever. One son published a letter to the editor in the New York Times about his experience; another, a staff member at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, engaged the camp director in conversation about how to teach issues of kashrut, worker rights and immigration to campers this summer.

Gradually, we discerned three necessary levels of action in response to what we had seen.

(1)A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Postville. Unlike the distant relationship we might have to families affected by a natural disaster across the globe, the Jewish community itself was complicit in the suffering of these families, since we continued to buy kosher meat and support Jewish institutions' relationship with this company long after we knew that serious allegations had been made. St. Bridget's Church estimates that it needs $700,000 to care for the affected families. Not only are we obligated to contribute to their care as an act of tzedaka. As my husband told our synagogue community, before we give gifts for the care of the workers, we must first literally repay our debt to them, since we now know that the low prices we have paid over the years for our kosher meat are a direct result of the wages denied these workers. Contact information for donations appears below.

(2)Reuniting Kashrut with Justice
Until we know that the plant has corrected the many wrongs inflicted on the workers, the meat and poultry from this plant cannot be considered to be kosher in any but the most narrow sense. The Conservative Movement has advised its members to "to evaluate whether it is appropriate to consume Rubashkin products until this situation is addressed” and the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative is moving forward in its plan to supplement traditional kashrut supervision with certification of a producer’s employment practices, including wages and benefits, health and safety, environmental impact, and corporate transparency.

Uri L'Tzedek, an initiative of students at the Orthodox rabbinical seminary Yeshivat Hovevei Torah, has called for an outright boycott of Agriprocessors, and is organizing both local and national leaders to restore ethics to the processing and distribution of kosher food. Jewish leaders are urged to work with local sellers and distributors of kosher meat and poultry to reject Agriprocessors products, sold under the names "Aaron's," "Aaron's Best," "Best," "Shor Habor," “Supreme,” and "Nathan's," until the word "kosher" can once again be associated with ethics, with holiness, with "answering to a higher authority."

(3)Immigration Reform is a Jewish issue.
Good-hearted people can surely disagree about exactly what must be done to repair our nation's broken immigration system. But one thing is certain: pleading ignorance to the injustices that are committed against immigrant workers to support our familiar ways of eating is no longer an option. The veil has been lifted, and we now know clearly (as many had warned before) that consumption that we consider a normal feature of our life as Americans and as American Jews is intimately related to desperate poverty in Central and South America and to American trade and immigration policy. Thus immigration reform is a Jewish issue, a humanitarian issue, an urgent advocacy issue for all thoughtful Americans. We have not accepted "We didn't know" or even "We didn't know what to do" as an excuse when it has been used by those who acted against us. The Torah calls to us with painful clarity, "Al ta'amod al dam rei'echa," "Do not stand idly by as your neighbor's blood is shed."

Finally, a return to the question with which we began. How are we to understand the verses in Parashat Naso that ground the system of teshuva/sin and repentance in the crime of "theft against God"? The Sefat Emet teaches, " . . . the mitzvah of teshuva is based on the verse, 'They will confess their sin.' (Numbers 5:7) But this verse is written in connection with theft. Every transgression, he taught, is a sort of theft. One who restores everything to God, the source of life, recognizes God’s mastery over all Creation. Such a person surely will be free from sin."

Whatever you think of what you have read and heard, regardless of where you stand on the spectrum of the immigration debate in this country, know this. Over three hundred people who crossed the border to find work in this country, despairing of being able to provide for their families' most basic needs in their home countries, now sit in prison, their wives and children left behind in fear, confusion, and desperation.

Know too: many serious offenses were committed against the undocumented workers of the Agriprocessors plant, and these crimes amount to theft on a very large scale: "lim'ol ma'al baShem" – stealing from that which belongs to God. Stealing from vulnerable people not only the wages that by any standard of decency belonged to them but also their hope, their dignity, and their freedom. Stealing from the good name of the Jewish community in the eyes of the aggrieved people and in the eyes of every American who has now read these dreadful stories. Robbing God of dignity, as the whole world now knows what has been done in the name of a very narrow version of the mitzvah of kashrut, a very narrow vision of Torah.

Once we could claim we did not know, but no longer. These acts of theft were committed in our names. We are complicit and so we are responsible. The Torah calls out for verbal confession of sins and restitution to those who are wronged. The call for teshuva here applies not only to the direct perpetrators, but to all of us who literally ate the fruits of their sins.

May we be guided to restore that which was taken from impoverished people who labored so that we could feast. And may we – by our acts of tsedaka and advocacy - help to heal the ways in which God's name has been desecrated in our names.

Donations to provide basic services to the affected families can be made to the following:

St. Bridget's Hispanic Fund, P.O. Box 369, Postville, IA 52162, in care of Sister Mary McCauley
Jewish Community Action/ATTN Postville, 2375 University Avenue West, Suite 150, St. Paul, MN 55114 Phone 651/632-2184 Fax 651/632-2184.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

God and Peace-Making

April 14, 2008

There are moments when things just come together. Decades of prayer, meditation and personal work converge in some miraculous way, by the grace of God, and for once, we find that we know just what to do.

I had such a moment recently. Some years ago I was called to turn my time and attention to the work of peace and reconciliation. I prayed to be of service in the cause of peace, prayed to be shown how I might contribute in some small way to the creation of a more peaceful world. The call had come in the context of my impassioned prayer for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but how was I to serve this cause from my home in St. Paul, Minnesota?

The door that opened to me was the work of interfaith dialogue. It became clear that I was being invited to serve the cause of peace by creating relationship between Jews, Christians and Muslims. The job appeared, even the paycheck was provided, and I began to create structures that would invite Jews, Christians and Muslims to cross the usual boundaries in order to know one another more deeply, to explore one another's faith and humanity, to learn to hear truths different from our own.

One of my most faithful partners has been a Muslim leader originally from Pakistan. During the first year of our work together, I heard him say over and over again that this work was not about geo-politics. What happens "over there" is a million miles away, he would say; our task is to learn about our neighbors, about their families, their communities and their faith lives, not to talk about political struggles beyond our control or influence. We both knew where "over there" was, and were well aware of the significance of a Muslim leader and rabbi working together, seeking to draw our people into more peaceful relationship with one another.

One day, over a year after we began to work together, we sat at a planning committee meeting, creating a program on Justice in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. When our planning was nearly complete, in a temperate and matter-of-fact tone, my Muslim colleague asked my colleague, the rabbi at the table who would be presenting the Jewish view of justice work, "Have you thought about how you will respond if someone asks, given the Jewish passion for justice, how you understand Israel's treatment of the Palestinians?"

The Jews at the table suddenly grew tense and frightened; the Muslim was confused – he thought he had asked a simple question. After the group meeting ended, he asked me honestly, "Why did my question create so much tension in the room?"

Days later we went out to dinner to explore his question. We chatted until we had gotten settled, then it was time to dive in to the conversation we needed to have. Like many rabbis, I am normally a person of many words. I have a lot to say about most things, especially those political and religious issues about which I feel most passionately. So it could only have been by the grace of God that, when the moment came for me to respond to his question, "Why was the Israel-Palestine question so sensitive for the Jewish members of the committee?" I responded briefly and from the heart.

It took about a minute for me to respond to the question. I can't honestly say that I intentionally did anything. I did not choose to drop into prayer; I did not even choose to take a long conscious breath. Somehow, beyond my control, my attention dropped into the heart and I spoke what was for me the simple truth. I said that the Jewish people, my people, has suffered greatly throughout history, and that while we – and our brothers and sisters in Israel – may look strong and powerful, inside we are still very frightened.

Miraculously, I did not need to say anything else, and I stopped talking. My friend began to talk to me about how Muslims in Pakistan see the world, and I was aware that I was being blessed with a glimpse of reality I might never have encountered, but for my relationship with this man. In that graced, quiet space of heartful communication, it became clear that our relationship had changed. We were both moved, and we were having a conversation that was utterly new for both of us. In subsequent encounters, it became clear that something altogether different had happened in our relationship.

Truly, nothing very dramatic had happened. We did not make peace in the Middle East that evening. We did not even fall into one another's arms, professing lifelong friendship despite the ways in which culture and religion divided us. But I knew that God had guided my words that evening, and I had been able to follow the direction I had been given.

The rabbis of the Talmud taught that God's name is peace. Having called God's name so many times throughout my adult life, having uttered so many fervent prayers for peace, that evening I was given a small taste of what it is to be a peace-maker, a follower of God in search for peace. I pray that I will remember what I learned that evening, and that God will use me again to bring a moment of peace to our war-torn world.