Tag Archives: Civil Rights

Thanksgiving and Interdependence

In 1621, after a brutal winter in which nearly a third of their band succumbed to the harshness of life on new shores, the European pilgrims sat for a three-day feast with their Native neighbors to celebrate a successful harvest. The two different peoples, we are taught, understood their growing interdependence, and how together they could forge a life in which they could dwell together in harmony and peace.

The story of Thanksgiving is one of gratitude for interdependence. It is a celebration of how the cultivation of humility helps us to realize the value of difference, how much we need to rely on the wisdom and experience of the Other.

Jewish tradition teaches us to give thanks throughout every single day. In the very moment of waking each morning, we are taught to say: “Modeh Ani L’Fanecha – I am grateful before You … that you have returned my soul to me.” Our first words of the day express our gratitude for life. Three times a day in prayer we are taught to offer thanks. We don’t need to wait for the fourth Thursday in November.

Each day I give thanks for the blessings of my life – for my good health and the health of my wife, children, and family. I give thanks for our prosperity – for the fact that we have a strong roof over our heads, that we have plenty of food to eat, clothing to wear, safety and security. I give thanks for all the personal blessings I am so fortunate to enjoy. Especially this year, when so many are missing loved ones taken by the scourge of illness and violence, I hold my family close.

But Thanksgiving reminds us to be grateful for the United States of America.

I am grateful for the ideals on which this country was founded – the idea that all are created equal, the idea that we are endowed with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am grateful for the freedoms that America made sacrosanct – the freedom to say what I choose, to worship how I choose, to print what I choose, and to gather with whomever I choose.

I am grateful that the American dream rejects autocracy and tyranny, and that our founders fought to ensure that no one person should possess power that cannot be checked. I am grateful that America’s experiment with democracy continues to empower every citizen with the rights and responsibility to elect a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. I am grateful that no matter how contentious our politics, we still transfer power from one party to another without firing a single shot.

But on this Thanksgiving, I give thanks for those who fight for those American ideals. I give thanks for the valor and courage of those who serve our country in uniform, many of whom will spend this Thanksgiving in harm’s way far from home. I give thanks for those who give their lives for public service, who resist the cynicism of selfish gratification to work for a better society for all. I give thanks for those who work to open and grow the minds of our children, who give them the tools they need to understand themselves, to build a moral core, and to find paths to lives of personal meaning and larger purpose. I give thanks for those who fight for justice, who work to protect the vulnerable, the needy, and the weak.

To secure the virtues of the American ideal, we must embrace our collective interdependence with those who are different than we.

No matter whether we are indigenous to this land, came here for new opportunities, fled here from persecution or were brought here in chains – we are interdependent.

No matter what religious faith we embrace, or even if we embrace no religious faith – we are interdependent.

No matter our gender – male or female or somewhere in between – we are interdependent.

No matter whether we are rich or poor – we are interdependent.

No matter whether our skin is dark or light – we are interdependent.

No matter how we build our families or whom we are drawn to love – we are interdependent.

No matter our political philosophy or which party we choose to support – we are interdependent.

That interdependence demands that we harness our collective American spirit to look out for each other, to lift up each other, to work as hard as we can to ensure that the ideals of America become the reality of America. May this Thanksgiving inspire us to gratitude for our individual blessings, and inspire in us a collective resolve to stand up for the values of the American ideal.


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First Steps Toward Justice For The LGBT Community

Following are the comments I offered at a Panel Discussion Sponsored by Temple Beth El and the ADL called “Moving Forward Together”.  It is my hope that this panel discussion will be a first step toward civil rights and justice for all, irrespective of sexual orientation.


I want to tell you why I’m here tonight.  I’m here because it’s time for our world to change.  It’s time for what we think of as the way it is to be the way it used to be.  It’s time for us to Move Forward Together to a world in which justice and fairness and love triumph over ignorance, injustice, and fear.

When Gandhi began his famous Salt Marsh on March 12, 1930, he left his home with just a handful of followers.  He knew the cause of freedom was just, and he knew that when people would see the justice of his cause, they would rise to walk with him.  By the time he arrived at the sea 24 days and 240 miles later, there were millions of people by his side.

A few weeks ago, as we sat around our seder tables, we talked about the liberation of our people from slavery in Egypt.  Our people were enslaved for four hundred years.  So what changed?  Why was it at that moment in history that God finally responded to our cries of anguish and pain?

I think it was because God finally found Moses.  But who was Moses?  Unlike all of his people, who suffered under the yoke of slavery and bondage, Moses grew up in the palace privileged and free.  And yet, when he went out to see his people, and he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, he felt that slave’s pain and suffering.  It became his own. Moses was a man who felt the pain of those who were not like him.  He didn’t see the suffering of that slave and feel nothing?  He didn’t say to himself, “he must have done something to deserve that beating.”  He saw that suffering and it became his suffering, he saw that pain and it became his pain.

But he did more than feel that pain.  He chose to act.  He chose to rise up and say injustice will no longer be tolerated.  He did not simply feel compassion, but he acted on that compassion.  He did not simply see an injustice and say, “isn’t that terrible.”  He saw an injustice and sought to make it right.

It is for that reason that God turned to Moses and said I need you.  I need you as my partner to do what you think can’t be done.  I need you to go to Egypt and change the people who live there to imagine a new reality – a reality when freedom is enjoyed by all and injustice is made right.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham an essential truth – “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  And for men and women who are gay, bisexual, or transgendered, there is profound injustice in the State of Florida.

Others tonight will speak more about the impact of that injustice on their every day lives, but I want to talk about why I believe securing civil rights for the LGBT community is a Jewish imperative.  In the Talmud, the rabbis try to find the once verse in the Bible that sums up the totality of Judaism.  First they turn to the prophet Micah, who qualified Judaism into three ideas.  He said:

“What is it that God demands of you?  Only this: to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly in God’s presence.” – (Micah 6:8)

Isaiah based all the mitzvoth on two ideas:

“Keep Justice and Righteousness” – (Isaiah 56:1)

Amos reduced it to one:

“Seek me and live.” – (Amos 7:5-6)

Rabbi Akiva said:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)  This is the most important precept of the Torah.

But Ben Azzai said:

“This is the book of the Generations … Humanity was created in God’s image.”   This is an even greater principle.

Ultimately, the entirety of Judaism rests on these two ideas.  The fact is, as Jews, we are obligated to love.  We are obligated to reach beyond the confines of our own immediate selves and seek to build bonds of love and intimacy with each other.

The Holy One clearly had a problem with sex for it’s own sake.  Pages of proscriptions in the book of Leviticus describe sexual encounters that are not founded in real intimacy and love as abominations.  But what Ben Azzai tells us is that humanity is created in God’s own image.  And that image is not gendered.  The essential nature of our humanity is not male or female.  The essential nature of our humanity is the spiritual energy that comes from love.  All we are is love.

But too often we focus on the vessel that carries that love.  We focus on the color of that vessel, or its gender, and assume that the vessel is really the self.  But we know better.  The tragedy of the Ferry disaster in South Korea is not that the boat is lost, but the people who were trapped within.  It’s not the loss of the vessel but the loss of life that matters.

The fact is, God does not care whom we love, but that we love.  And Ben Azzai taught us that the core of Torah is that we treasure the sanctity of each and every individual life, created in God’s holy image.

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, as he is known taught that in the beginning of time, God had a thought – a thought driven by an overwhelming and all powerful sense of love:  What if I could make a world?

The universe was filled end to end with light, and God withdrew some of that light to make room for our world.  This act of Tzimtzum not only left room for our world, but left a vacuum of darkness in which that world was born.  So God began to pour light back into the world, back through the holy vessels of wisdom and knowledge, compassion and justice, our drive to achieve, and our call to step back in wonder.  And the light was too powerful for those vessels to hold, and they shattered in a spiritual cataclysm from which we are still trying to recover today.  Shards of light and holiness were scattered throughout the world, hidden for us to find.

Thus it becomes each of our sacred callings to effect the work of Tikkun – of repairing the broken world which we inherit for all to brief a span, and to pass it on healed and well to our children and our children’s children.  Moses, God’s partner in freeing the Israelites from slavery, who led our people to the promised land, at the end of his journey admonished us as a people:  “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice shall you pursue.”

And so we must come together to fix what’s broken in our world.  We must gather together an overwhelming mixed multitude of people and say the injustice that is done daily to the gay community must be repaired, that we cannot stand idly by, that we will come together to make a difference.

I’m here tonight because I’m hoping to find partners, lots and lots of partners who feel the suffering of others and feel compelled to make it right.  Together let us move forward into a world that is healed of bigotry, injustice, and fear, into a new world where justice is championed for all, and God’s love and ours will spread a shelter of peace over us all.


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