From the Desk of Rabbi David
Among the Ten Commandments is the second commandment, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, no any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down unto them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20, JPS Translation).
Since the incident of the Golden Calf and the Israelites’ subsequent and faithful acceptance of God’s covenant represented by Torah and its teachings (cf Exodus 32), statues, obelisks, monuments, and the like have been an abomination. To the commandment’s charge, add the fact that in Jewish history our people has been driven from homes and lands in nearly every century. Jewish communities were never the main governing power where they lived; they could never have had major monuments or statues of their own. The combination prevented the Jewish people from ever establishing deep roots and erecting monuments to their heroes or achievements. What they left behind in the places they fled from were "monuments” to intellectual, artistic, economic and political achievements and contributions.
What they took with them were the essential Jewish ideals and values that sustained them until they found a safe haven, again, if they were fortunate to do so. The only physical objects they created, and in some cases took with them where they were going, were ritual items such as wine cups, Torah adornments, and candlesticks. Even so, they were not objects of worship or adoration; they only enhanced the beauty of the ritual mitzvah on the Sabbath and holidays. Few examples of monuments exist even in Israel, and those that do exist are interpretations rather than molds or images of people. That is why the subject of Confederate statues and monuments in America, fails to attract Jewish responses. We’re frankly unaccustomed to the matter because we have no experience venerating, let alone bowing down to, "idols” of any sort. So, what could be our Jewish position in the current debate on Confederate statues?
First, we learn from Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi who wrote about memory and history in his book, "Zakhor” (1996). Jews, he explained, excel not at history, at recording dates, times and details, but at memory, of preserving the meaning of what happened in their past. Erecting statues and monuments do not teach about history; rather, they establish collective memory. Thus to erect one is not educational, but rather it is meant to evoke an emotional response, and for many, that response is painful when they are confronted with confederate statues.
It follows that those who oppose removing them because it’s tantamount to erasing history are wrong. The presence or absence of statutes doesn’t change anything about history that’s already recorded in history books or will be researched by scholars. Only revisionists and redactors should be feared for the damage they do to honest scholarship even about regrettable periods in our countries past.
Second, saints and iconography are norms in some Christian faiths and eastern religious traditions. Venerating statues and worshiping before iconography are integral to their faiths’ creeds and ritual observances. It’s no wonder then that removing flags, statues, monuments, etc., are akin to erasing something or somebody from the present. To them, they’re one and the same. However, they don’t symbolize what our nation stands for, today. They remind us of what the Confederacy hoped to achieve at the expense of our nation’s integrity and unity.
Though Abraham Lincoln first entered the U.S. into the Civil War to maintain its territories, he soon came to understand the depth of the inhumanity of human slavery and was driven to abolish it. Public statues and monuments to a lost and inhumane period of our nation’s past are an affront to our population of men, women and children who are today’s beneficiaries of a proud nation, not the lost plunder of a failed Confederacy.
Therefore, our Jewish position is clear: Take down those statues and monuments. Move them to a museum where history and education are the purpose, or transform them, as Isaiah spoke, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4). Praise those who honor our nation’s values and its people’s rights. Let the spirit and values of our nation and its people be represented in words and deeds that no person or army can ever tear down, because they alone are inviolate, enduring and true.
You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.
From the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
A week ago, in Charlottesville, Virginia, our nation’s under-belly emerged with brown shirts and swastikas to foment hate, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. Their racist message was clear and their purpose was unequivocal. The only muddled message and equivocal response came from our president. His failure to address the nation with knowledge of history, sensitivity to persecuted communities, and selfless regard for humanity stunned the world. There was no excuse for him or anyone in elected office to misunderstand and, thus, misuse the Office of President on such a dire day in our country. No one aims to blame a president, but no one who is president should aim, even carelessly, to blame a citizenry who defends the "unalienable rights” all Americans are privileged to enjoy.
Earlier this week, I reached out to Judicatory leaders, religious heads of Catholic and Protestant faiths, to join me in writing an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle to reach the people of greater Houston. They agreed immediately. Using words from the Bill of Rights, Cardinal DiNardo’s personal message to the Galveston-Houston dioceses, and from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, I composed a letter that responded to the atrocities in Charlottesville. In Thursday’s op-ed page and on Chron.com, you’ll find the letter in full; but, if you missed it, it’s printed below for you to read, share, and promote.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” These are foundational words upon which this country was built and the creed which Americans are to believe and live by. There is no room for hate and bigotry with these words. These words are inclusive of all men—white, black, brown, educated, uneducated, rich and poor, people of faith and of no faith.
In light of the horrific events in Charlottesville, and elsewhere, and under the veil of weak support from the White House to condemn bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia, we wish to lift up our voices and represent our faith traditions in concert with American values we all cherish.
What do we say to the world that is on the brink of war and brimming with hate? The late Richard Rorty taught that "the world [itself] does not speak. Only we do. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human—farther removed from the beasts (his word)—than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses." We must speak up to a world that needs to hear our verses about truth, civility, love, and peace. We must strive to speak to a world that is mute without us so that we can gain victory with our voices over violence and inhumanity against men, women and children.
His eminence Daniel Cardinal DiNardo said, "As we learn more about the horrible events of yesterday, our prayer turns to the people of Charlottesville who offered a counter example to the hate marching in the streets. Let us unite ourselves in the spirit of hope offered by the clergy, people of faith, and all people of good will who peacefully defended their city and country. We stand against the evil of racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazism. Let us offer a special prayer of gratitude for the brave souls who sought to protect us from the violent ideology displayed yesterday. Let us especially remember those who lost their lives. Let us join their witness and stand against every form of oppression."
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, urged the President of the United States to stand up to inhumanity, unequivocally. Rabbi Jacobs wrote, "We commend the opening of President Trump's statement condemning the 'egregious display of hatred bigotry and violence' but are deeply troubled by the moral equivalence evident in President Trump's statement. White supremacists wielding Nazi flags and spewing racist vitriol need to be specifically condemned, not only violence and hate 'on many sides.'"
Together, we call on the people of Greater Houston to "Love your neighbor as yourself.” Faith in such an enduring teaching is the beginning of love between us and all God’s acts of creation. Permission is not granted to human hands to destroy God’s handiwork; to do so is an act of ultimate moral weakness. Rather, defending the poor, sheltering the widow, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and loving your neighbor are demonstrations of ultimate moral strength.
If our nation’s moral authority emboldens White Supremacists against Jews, blacks and other minorities, then we must link arms and hands, and join voices and verses to labor for a strong and loving nation; the America our forefathers bequeathed to us. We know the difference between good and evil; we have room in our hearts and our homes for those who know or will come to know the difference, too.
His Eminence Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston
The Rt Rev C Andrew Doyle, Episcopal Diocese of Texas
Rev. Lynn Hargrove, Presbytery of New Covenant
Bishop Scott J. Jones, The United Methodist Church
Rabbi David A. Lyon, Congregation Beth Israel, Houston
Dr. John D. Ogletree, Jr., First Metropolitan Church, The Metropolitan Organization
Michael Rinehart, Lutheran Bishop of the Gulf Coast Synod, ELCA
You may reach Rabbi David Lyon here.
the Desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Moses’ final words to the Israelite people about their future in the Promised Land continue in this week’s Torah portion called Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25). In 8:7-10, Moses describes what the Land will provide the Israelites when they enter it and observe God’s commandments.
"For the Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper.”
In this list, we learn about the resources that will sustain the Israelites. There is enough water for the people and to irrigate the fields. The soil, very rich in nutrients, can sustain and grow wheat and barley. There are grapes, figs, fruits, olive trees and honey for ordinary and sacred uses, alike. There is wine from the fruit of the vine for sanctification; olive oil to light the sacred lamps, and even honey that will later be associated with the sweetness of the New Year. There will be plenty of food and they will lack nothing, not even clothes and general provisions. Furthermore, the land and hills will provide metals and minerals to shape tools for use in the fields, and iron, used to make instruments of war, for defense.
Before the section concludes, Torah teaches that after the people nourish and sustain themselves on all these rich resources, they must give thanks for all that they have been given. Deuteronomy 8:11states, "When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land given to you.”
An examination of the Hebrew makes it clear that the people should eat and satisfy themselves. They should nourish their bodies and grow strong on the produce the land provides and the blessings God bestows on them. "V’achalta” means you shall eat. "V’savata” means you shall satisfy yourselves; in essence, take a big plate and have seconds, too. And, then, "u-veirachta” you shall bless the Lord your God; that is, give thanks.
In our day, our economy is fairly good; the stock market is high and unemployment is relatively low. Whether that’s good news or not depends on who we ask, but compared to some years ago, it’s a better time for most. Though gross and conspicuous consumption without charitable and generous giving is an affront to Jewish values, living well and prosperously is not. We wish each other a prosperous New Year, and count economic well-being as a blessing rather than mere luck. Even now, centuries later, in light of our wealth, which is not tied to the produce of the land as it was in ancient times or in agrarian societies of the past, we still bear the religious duty to give thanks.
Yes, we can consume ample amounts of good and services. Yes, we can satisfy our appetite for the good life. And, yes, we must give thanks to God. The blessings we enjoy are not of our own making; rather, they are benefits we derive from skills, talents, and opportunities that cannot be attributed simply to our own good fortune or luck. After thanking God, the most meaningful form of thanks, today, would be sharing our prosperity and opportunities with others who lag behind for no other reason than they have limited access to resources, including education, nutrition, and healthcare. Before they can imagine prosperity of their own they must jump higher hurdles than most. There’s nothing wrong with jumping high, but a fair and good running start would enable more people to feel that their aspirations and goals are reachable, too.
Let’s take time to give thanks for the blessings in our life, for the abundance we have come to know, and for the privilege to help others to find reasons to give thanks, too.
You may contact Rabbi David Lyon here.
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