The New Jew and How Conversation has the Power to Remake Us

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 2nd, 2016 – 2 Kislev, 5777

Flames in Israel. Since Tuesday, November 22nd, Israel was racked with fires for eight days. 1773 fires to be exact. Sadly, 25 of those are linked with malicious arson. For a country that justifiably takes pride in making the desert bloom and reclaiming the land, the destruction of its forest is painful to observe. Some of the destroyed places I’ve most likely hiked. When I was 19, I lived on Kibbutz Ramat HaShofet for half a year. It is located in northern Israel between Afula and Haifa. A short bus ride took me to the nearby forests and trails where I loved to wander. Now so much of that is gone. If you’d like to donate money to help reforestation efforts, click here.

Recent weeks have seen an increase in hate crimes across the United States, some of which I wrote about in a previous column. Concern is high, and people are eager to take action, take a stance, or somehow respond to these disturbing events. I’m grateful that congregant Peter Wigmore has been invited to Lake Oswego Junior High in January. Peter’s mother survived the death camps, and he is part of the speaker’s bureau of the Oregon Holocuast Resource Center. He’ll make a strong positive impression on the kids.  Meanwhile the Oregon Board of Rabbi’s issued its statement of response. Unfortunately the link to view it is broken.

As a heads up, my reflections below are longer than normal. It captures the fullest expression of my thinking to date of how our country across the political spectrum has reacted to the presidential election. Yet it is a spiritual account more than anything. It also is an account of some great people I met last Saturday night. You might want to print it out to read at your leisure over Shabbat. 

The New Jews and How Conversation Has the Power to Remake Us

While there are times we are called to bear arms, normally the best antidote to hatred is compassion. Meeting hate with hate or anger with anger or arrogance with arrogance escalates a bad situation into a worse one. We absorb the other person’s anger, convert it and color it with our own values crayons, but in the end, we still just spit out anger. Yes, it may be another color, but this sort of a response is not transformative in any way.

After all this time, we still have a cultural bias that views love, dialogue, empathy and compassion as weak tools. We don’t believe they can be powerful–after all, historically we define and confine them as qualities belonging to the “weak feminine.” We don’t imagine that real leadership can be had with these tools, and instead we imagine that a more “masculine,” direct, even confrontational style is genuine leadership. We resort to name calling. We issue proclamations. We hunker down.

Not only don’t I believe that the qualities of compassion and understanding (I was recently called “too nice.”) are weak, I strive to keep my thinking and emotions from turning to hatred or even righteous anger. Like every other person on the planet, I’ve failed at times and fallen prey to the seductive destructive power of self-righteous posturing. That’s hardly surprising. The line between righteous and self-righteous anger is extremely thin and hard to maintain. It’s too easy to end up on the wrong side, and by that time, you’ve let false and painful thinking occupy your brain, where it tends to reshape it.

Better to think in a different way in the first place. Better to tune our hearts and turn to a strategy of love. When it’s intentional and strategic, there is nothing naive about approaching the world in this manner. In fact, it’s a path of tremendous spiritual sophistication chosen by many religious masters. They’ve left a map so that we can follow their way–if we want.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of those modern masters, lost his extended family in the Shoah. Yet you’ll be hard pressed to find him discussing the Holocaust in his writings or public speeches. Rather, he took in the lessons of that grim period of time and the specific failures of humanity that occurred and dedicated himself to teaching us how we all can be better people. For him, that in no way prevented him from taking action. His activism, however, was elevated and noble. His words endeavored to change people from the inside out. He may not have approached the aftermath of the Holocaust in a direct and loud manner, but that in no way meant that he had succumbed to neutrality. His intent was clear even as his tactics were sophisticated and informed by a religious spirit.

Empathy and love, you see, are truly revolutionary. Here’s a story about that which I’m calling, “The New Jews and How Conversation Has the Power to Remake Us.”

Last Saturday night, five of us–congregants with willing hearts and able hands–made 4 gallons of soup and fifty sandwiches. We loaded up, then drove the parts of Portland that don’t make it into the tour books. We had one goal–meet and talk with the homeless where they are. The food was a nice but secondary goal. One of our group called this guerilla compassion. I like that.

Jim was the first homeless guy we met, and I was initially a little reticent to approach. Thankfully, that shyness was just a momentary feeling. Tall and lithe, a hard life had carved itself into Jim’s 53 year old face. Yet his eyes were alive. They lit with a hard-won wisdom and a weary peace. Jim has late stage hepatitis C. He imagines that he has two or three years left. He wants them to be good ones, and a few years back he quit all the drugs and alcohol that had defined much of his life.

His mom left his abusive father in Cincinnati when Jim was only eight and took him to Oregon. But she never could really love her son. Looking at him brought back the pain of his father, and she did her best to rid herself of him, even forbidding her sister from taking her son in. She sent him to a military school, which didn’t fit and he ended up on the street as a runaway. While he later was an “indoor person” and raised a son, the street remains in his bones. What struck me most about Jim was how clear and level-headed he was.

Indeed, when our efforts to meet and feed the homeless were confined to the tent people who were stationed under bridges and sheltered areas, we discovered folks who  had a supportive community of the fellow homeless and understood the trajectory of their lives. In a different part of town, we met two street theologians–the religious homeless. One of these gentlemen noted that the difference between their lives and our lives could be boiled down to a long series of small choices. How simple and profound!

Another man really caught my attention by his analysis of how the city responds to the homeless population, and the periodic forced relocations the authorities make them undertake. He said (before we told him who we were), “We are the new Jews.” The new Jews–society’s undesirables, the “other” who are only provisionally part of the community and can therefore be shunted around as needed. Those for whom we have no responsibility precisely because we have removed them from the camp of humanity. He noted that the protests and riots we witnessed in downtown Portland in the days after the election actually helped the homeless. The police were so occupied with the protesters that they had no capacity to relocate our street people.

If this were simply a matter of the homeless, the dilemma would be less severe. From my vantage, it seems we’ve all grown accustomed to creating many camps of those who are in, and those who are out. We live in an era where new Jews are everywhere. After France’s terror we learned to call out and say “we are all Jews.” While this was meant as a call of unity, in some ways it speaks of a deeper isolation that permeates so much of society. We are all Jews. We have all become outsiders to larger and larger numbers of people. We’ve lost our connections.

At its simplest and most complex level, this points to a form of existential shyness, the sort that washed over me when I first met Jim. To engage with those who are not us requires we step outside of our normal comfort zones. Danielle Allen offers a penetrating perspective on this in her 2004 book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. I’d like to leave you with it as I wish you a peaceful and restful Shabbat.

‘Don’t talk to strangers!’ That is a lesson for four-year-olds. Eyes that drop to the ground when they bump up against a stranger’s gaze belong to those still in their political minority. If the experience of the most powerful citizen in the United States is any guide, talking to strangers is empowering; the president is among the few citizens for whom the polity holds no intimidating strangers. Presidents greet everyone and look all citizens in the eye. This is not merely because they are always campaigning, but because they have achieved the fullest possible political maturity. Their ease with strangers expresses a sense of freedom and empowerment. At one end of the spectrum of styles of democratic citizenship cowers the four-year-old in insecure isolation; at the other, stands the president, strong and self-confident. The more fearful we citizens are of speaking to strangers, the more we are docile children and not prospective presidents; the greater the distance between the president and us, the more we are subjects, not citizens. Talking to strangers is a way of claiming one’s political majority and, with it, a presidential ease and sense of freedom.


Rav D

We are planning another evening of soup, sandwiches and “gorilla compassion” on Saturday night, December 17th. Please let me know if you are interested in participating.