Category Archives: Humanity

Standing for Voting Rights

Min hameitzar karati yah; anani bamerchav yah.
I cried out to God because everything was so cramped; God answered: “Make the circle bigger!”

Atem Nitzavim Hayom Kulchem Lifney Adonai Eloheychem, our Torah reading begins. Before we read, we’ll break down a few key verses and see what they have to teach us about turning away from narrow-minded ideas and the narrowly-drawn lines that enforce them, and embracing a much broader view of who we are as a nation. Continue reading

Base fears or better angels: Levi Yitzchak on leadership (Chukat 5776)

It was a scary time in the life of the young nation. Political infighting was rampant. A demagogue posing as a populist rose up and attempted to grab power. Though sustained and sated like no nation before, the people still felt insecure. A faction lived on appeals to nostalgia…though the “good ole’ days” were anything but. A woefully understaffed and overworked judiciary was utterly incapable of dispensing justice. Foreign policy? Forget about it. Enemies were on the horizon, and the tasks that lay before this nation seemed to them to be far beyond their capacity. They felt small. They were afraid. Yes, it was a scary time..for Israel in the wilderness. Continue reading

The Book and the Sword

June 13, 2016, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Remarks at a vigil in memory of the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre.

Sunday morning’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub took place during both Pride Month and Ramadan, timing significant for both the LGBTQ victims of the crime and the nominally Muslim perpetrator. For gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, and the queer community, the timing is especially painful. The same can be said for the vast majority of American Muslims who are being unjustly tagged as complicit in the crime, or sympathetic to its goals.

Sunday also happened to be the Jewish festival of Shavuot, a day which my Tradition marks as the anniversary of the Giving of the Torah. It is the day on which God proclaimed the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, sending the Word down from heaven into the world. It is a day on which Jews typically greet each other with the words chag sameach, “may your holiday be joyful.” This year, it was anything but. Continue reading

Tamid. Tamid. Tamid.

Caring Community Shabbat, May 20, 2016.

“You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” So wrote Paul Kalanithi, a young father, a physician, and the victim of an aggressive form of lung cancer. Kalanithi’s journey is chronicled in a powerful book, When Breath Becomes Air, published posthumously earlier this year. Face to face with his own mortality, he recognized that, while some tasks can never be fully accomplished, the striving never ceases. Rabbi Tarfon said it well, in the pages of Pirkei Avot: “You are not required to finish the job; neither are you free to desist from it.” Continue reading

Old Column, Same Message

This is what happens when talk in the office turns to the nuts-and-bolts of synagogue bulletins: pulling up some examples of formats from my tenure in El Paso, I came across an old Rabbi’s Column (October 2010) that remains all too relevant, six years later. In it, I cite statistics about suicide rates among gay teens; for transgender teens, the suicide attempt rate is even more tragic. Much of the research reports that transgender youth are ten times more likely than their cisgender peers to attempt suicide. Like gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, trans kids who have been bombarded with messages of exclusion and worthlessness are most at risk. I’m reposting this in memory of North Carolina teens Ash Haffner and Blake Brockington, and with the fervent prayer that one particularly odious message of exclusion — H.B. 2 — will soon be relegated to the dustbin of history.

I am writing this column in the last days of the fall festival season. The prescribed emotion is joy. Vesamachta bechagecha, vehayita ach sameach, “You shall rejoice in your festival; be entirely joyful!” I’m doing my best, but it’s hard when the picture that stares at me from every screen is that of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, zichrono livracha Continue reading

“Always Public, Never Partisan: Kosher and Treif Politics at Shul”

D’var Torah at Judea Reform Congregation, April 1, 2016.

The Priests were our teachers and guides in the realms of both ritual and ethics, and we are currently in the middle of their book, Leviticus. This week’s portion, called shemini, includes among other things, rules regarding which animals were considered proper, or kosher, for consumption.

Much ink has been spilled in the worlds of traditional Jewish scholarship and also in the academy trying to understand just why animals are on the menu, or off. Some see allegorical lessons whereby we ingest only animals whose character traits we find appealing. For others, kashrut amounts to an ancient health code. Some believe the purpose was simply to create an idiosyncratic diet as a way of cultivating group cohesion (you aren’t going to mix with others if you can’t dine with them!). Some see it as a way of cultivating compassion, as if to say, “your appetites conflict with the very lives of other beings, and so your appetites need to be limited.” And for others, the whole point is that the list is arbitrary: it’s there to teach discipline.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that to live within these particular mitzvot requires a well-developed capacity for havdalah, or “discernment.” The verse near the end of Leviticus 11, the lengthy chapter describing the various species, says it this way: l’havdil bein hatame uvein hatahor — “to discern, or distinguish, between that which is improper and that which is proper.” Continue reading

Remembering Amalek…and Remembering to Return

D’var Torah at Judea Reform, March 18, 2016…

The Shabbat just before Purim is called shabbat zachor, the Sabbath of “Remember.” It gets its name from the opening words of a special Torah passage (Deut 25:17-19) which tells us to “remember what Amalek did to us on our journey.” As Purim approaches, we note the connection between Amalek and Haman, and many a sermon on Shabbat Zachor has called attention to the need for Jews to be ever-vigilant in the world, on guard against the oldest hatred of all. Continue reading

Reflections on the Detroit Debate: finding each other’s faces again

Last-Minute Larry. I came by my childhood nickname honestly, preferring the rush that accompanied a tight deadline to the calm sense of accomplishment that came with finishing my assignments early. Not much has changed, I guess. Sharon Halperin, who directs the Center for Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights Education of North Carolina gave us several weeks’ notice that we’d be welcoming teachers from around the state to our services this evening as part of their attendance at a two-day workshop entitled “Witnessing the Witnesses: Teaching the Holocaust in North Carolina.” Still, my message was crafted in the aftermath of this week’s Super Tuesday primaries. Oh, why deny it? My message was crafted in the aftermath of last night’s Republican debate on Fox. Continue reading

“Dealing shrewdly,” in ancient Egypt and present-day America

January 1, 2016

The Honorable Loretta E. Lynch
The Attorney General
Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building
950 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest
Washington, D.C. 20530-0001

Dear Madam Attorney General:

Six months ago to the day I had the privilege of spending ninety minutes with you on the campus of North Carolina Central University. Your office brought together law enforcement officials, clergy, and human rights leaders for a round-table conversation about justice and civil rights. Charleston had just happened, churches were burning, and the voting rights trial was about to commence in Winston-Salem. It happens to have been my first day on the job as as Rabbi of Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, so I remember it well.

Your charge to us in the room that day was to hold you and your department accountable and to keep the lines of communication open. It is for that reason that I write, adding my voice to the many others calling for a broadened investigation into the conduct of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty regarding the killing of Tamir Rice by Officer Timothy Loehmann. Tamir’s family deserves better than they received from the local authorities. If ever there were a case that cries out for a trial (at least), it is this one. Continue reading