A Cry in the Desert: Reflections on My Nation and the Role of Religious Leadership

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 5, 2020 / 13 Sivan 5780

THROUGH A LENS OF FIRE: Hasidic Insights on the Torah continues on Wednesday June 10th at 12:30 pm. Please check the CNS calendar for the most up to date Zoom link.

Summary: This past week, I attended a large gathering of African American leaders held at SEI, an organization in North Portland dedicated to guiding underserved youth to realize their full potential. Later that evening, we held a virtual gathering attended by my friend and brother, Pastor JW Matt Hennessee and Pastor Emmett Wheatfall who came as representatives of Portland’s African American community. We sought strength in one another during a terrible time.

In more quiet moments, I have felt myself at a loss. I don’t like obvious answers to big social problems, because they almost always fail, and they seem designed to alleviate people’s anxieties without dealing with the deeper problems. This week, I share some of my own inner turmoil and thinking. It is my second attempt to capture some of my own swirling complex of thoughts. I hope you will feel comfortable to share your reactions with me, because I would love for this to be the beginning of a conversation rather than another article.

These days, I have more questions than answers.

I have more pain than a way out of the pain.

I’ve never been one for lip service. Stating obvious truths because they sound good has always bothered me. Such utterances seem like symbolic tokens, ways to avoid the real work. And sometimes, such speech is meant to placate—or rile up—the mob. To show, “I get it, I feel you.”

For me to approach the world in that way would be deeply inauthentic to whom I am.

Simultaneously, my own more plodding approach feels insufficient. When the world is on fire, you don’t stand looking at the flames, you have to grab a bucket of water. You need to be part of the fire brigade.

These are the dilemmas of an intellectual. A ponderer. Someone who analyzes moving parts, who was trained in chess and habitually looks six moves down the board.

I know there are congregants who would love for me to denounce our president in absolute terms, to state that his rhetoric, his behavior and his abnegation of responsibility for this entire country are abhorrent. They have a need to hear their religious leader make such a stark statement.

Why? Why do you need that from your rabbi? What do you imagine will change if I were to do that? That those who feel or think as I do are now part of a team, a tribe? As though we didn’t have enough tribes? Isn’t racism in part an outcome of one tribe taking advantage of another? Why do we imagine that our tribe is somehow more righteous, will use power for the benefit of all? When has that happened in history?

Simultaneously, we also know that the more people hear about values and see people living by values, the more their own brains adapt to those expectations. So speech alone, lip service alone, is not futile. It makes real change. It raises up and directs us.

These questions and so many more lead me to a larger question, one I ask of myself all the time. What is the role of religion in today’s world?

Let’s not turn to the normal functions, like educating kids, guiding us through lifecycles, comforting mourners, creating social opportunities and nurturing community. Let’s assume those are the givens, the areas where we must devote most of our energies and resources.

Here’s the point. We might be at an inflection point, a moment in time when conditions have boiled over so that we can’t go back again to what was. We have developed a remarkable global system that regularly feeds 6.5 billion people every day (not so great a system if you are in the last billion who don’t get fed). We have established institutions that reduce violence to a pittance of what it was in the early days of the species. And still, people are murdered. George Floyd being the most recent and most egregious example.

But compared to our most ancient ancestors who experienced a murder rate of 30%, the 5 in 100,000 who die today marks a high water mark in human evolution. As a species, we are less violent to our own kind than ever.

And yet, and yet. The planet is dying. Animals are going extinct at a frightening rate. The fate of the bumblebee hangs on a thread. The Black person feels the system is stacked against them—and they are not wrong. At this point, a sizable part of our country feels it’s not working for most people, regardless of race or ethnicity.

Not only can’t we see how far we have come, we also know that the promised land is still out of reach and that too many of us are lost in a desert of despair and upset. It doesn’t matter how far we’ve come, because we still stand in a place of discontent and injustice.

There is lots of unintended violence directed at the natural world and many minorities. Such violence doesn’t even need to be malicious. Human greed and desire for more is sufficient to create inequality without hatred or bigotry ever rearing their heads.

So what is a reasonable goal for religion in such a time?

Tikkun Olam? Ok. Neveh Shalom does a fair bit of that. Can we do more? Of course. There is always more. But how capable are houses of worship compared to a tailored and focussed non-profit such as the Oregon Food Bank?

Political action? Set aside the fact that we are politically diverse, American laws restrict the sorts of actions houses of worship can participate in.

Education and inspiration? Why not?

Introspection to see how CNS can eradicate our own unexamined racism? Of course.

A forum where difficult conversations can occur that are almost anathema and taboo in the larger society? Yes, that’s what we Jews are supposed to do best. We could do more of this also.

But really, the role of religion today simultaneously has to be both grander and more subtle than any of those above courses of action.

What religion (all religions) is called upon to do is to create tools to change how we see one another and the world around us. It must point us to find satisfaction in ways that are neither consumptive (consumerism) nor oppressive. It needs to nourish joy and growth and relationship. It must teach us to live with less while feeling more full. It must guide us to understand that self-growth rather than self-acquisition is the goal of human life. It must achieve this challenging uplift to the human psyche, for if it doesn’t, there will be millions, if not billions of George Floyds. If humans can’t refocus the mission of being alive, all of us will be left gasping for breath.

This task will take generations if it is achievable at all—if we have the will to become who we must. While this spiritual task of becoming unfolds, we must continue to fight for justice in the ordinary ways. In the courts, on the streets, at the ballot box. By providing food for the hungry, education to the ignorant, health care for the hurting. As we do so and make those very small correctives, we must also enhance our sense of humility. For the way we seek justice today is inherently unjust. We are like young children sitting on the floor pushing blocks around and imagining we are building new and better cities.

Finally, if religion can help us make these difficult changes in consciousness, then something else will occur along the way. More of us will first become self-actualized, and then later achieve a degree of transcendence, a deep sense that we are all connected.

Such people won’t need their rabbi to condemn a president. They won’t feel disappointed when their religious leader doesn’t resort to lip service or pretty words. Rather, they will role up their sleeves and pick up their part of the load without rancor, bitterness or disappointment.

We may not be in the promised land. But let’s not forget it is still out there, waiting for our arrival.

In love and painful hope,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

There are many questions embedded in this week’s article. Consider using some of them to deepen your own Shabbat discussions.

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