Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Colleagues in Convention Convened

My regular readers know how much I like it when a book I am reading seems somehow magically to mirror something that is actually happening in my life at the same time. I’ve written to you about some such occurrences on several occasions, but I had another one this last week while I was both getting further into Kenzaburo Oe’s newly translated novel, The Changeling, which I am enjoying immensely and also attending the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization of Conservative and masorti rabbis of which I have been a member for more than thirty years.

Oe’s book, based on the real-life suicide of his brother-in-law and its complicated aftermath, is about a lot of different things but is mostly a kind of meditation on the way the past lives through the present and on into the future, and how this process is somehow both dependent on the individuals involved and also independent of them. I don’t want to write about it here in detail both because I’m still in the middle of the book (and you all know, I think, how much I don’t like to express myself about books I haven’t finished reading yet) and also because I’m not entirely sure I have seized the nuances of Oe’s basic concept more than just vaguely. But the notion that the past, as William Faulkner famously wrote in Requiem for a Nun, is not only never dead but also not really even ever truly past has been with me all week as I’ve spent days in the company of about five hundred rabbis, among whom I number many colleagues who have been my friends for well over half my life. But even among those who are not intimate friends are many people that I’ve known for decades and whom I have watched grow and develop over the many years that have passed since they were first ordained and set loose on the world as newly-minted rabbis. And then there are scores of other rabbis that I’ve met here and there along the way and towards whom I harbor collegial feelings even without really knowing them intimately or, in some cases, very well at all.

These conventions are actually peculiar experiences. Because I see so many of my colleagues only once a year, there is something in the experience that is more akin to the way time lapse photography works than to the way we generally observe our friends as they pass through the years of their lives. Indeed, seeing my colleagues a year or so older every time I look makes the aging process seem acute and more than vaguely menacing in a way it almost never does when we see people regularly and barely notice them growing more gaunt or more chubby or more gray or more bald as time passes slowly and mostly non-threateningly. I have also lived through some extreme variations on this theme in the last few days. Tuesday evening, for example, I found myself unexpectedly listening to a lecture given by a woman whom I had last seen in summer camp in 1972 when we were both nineteen. (She looked like she had grown up to be her own mother, which thought you will be pleased to know I had the presence of mind to keep to myself.) And then Wednesday morning I met a JTS professor whom I had last laid eyes on, I believe, in 1978. (He looked somewhere between ancient and spectral, yet his voice was strong and he sounded clearly to be as sharp as ever even if he clearly had no recollection of ever having met me previously.) And layered over all these kinds of Dorian Gray experiences was the parallel one of meeting young, recently-ordained rabbis, some of whom actually are the children of my classmates, and wondering when they started letting people into rabbinical school directly out of junior high school. (And, yes, I know they don’t even have junior high schools anymore, but what can I do about that?) Can you feel old and young at the same time? I’ve been feeling that way all week! But mostly I’ve been feeling invigorated and hopeful about the future of the Conservative movement in a way that I haven’t felt in recent months or perhaps even in recent years.

There were about five hundred rabbis in attendance and since the convention was held in Morningside Heights on the JTS campus there were also some pre-ordained rabbinical-student-types hanging around and taking part in the program as well. As I wandered from classroom to plenary session to lecture hall and back again, I was struck by the degree to which my colleagues have, almost to a rabbi, kept faith with their calling. I am usually much more cynical about things, but here were so many people—young and old, male and female, North American and Israeli and Latin American and European—all still dedicated to the same set of values they began to embrace, some of them at least, as children or teenagers, and which still serve as the ideational pillars of their spiritual worldviews. And it was also moving to observe them all still so intensely interested in learning more, in sharpening and deepening their understanding even of basic ideas that they themselves have taught to others not dozens but hundreds of times, in broadening the basis of their own learning and their own sense of what the Torah exists to teach us all. I felt inspired by the presence of so many people wandering the same path in life that I myself have chosen to wander…and the degree to which they are still keepin’ on keepin’ on, still chipping away at the marble in the expectation that David will eventually emerge. (I am thinking of Michelangelo’s remark that the way to create a statue like his David is simply to buy a huge block of marble and then chip away the parts that don’t look like David.) I felt hopeful at JTS this week, hopeful and optimistic and confident about the worth of our message and our approach to Judaism. It was a great convention!

Much has been written lately about the doldrums in which our movement is said to find itself, about the degree to which we have lost our way. I fret about that myself a fair amount of the time, but I came away from the convention this year energized and reminded that the world is still filled with rabbis who refuse to surrender their spiritual or intellectual integrity, who feel drawn to help create a kind of Judaism and Jewishness that is as suffused with honesty about the past as it is with hope about the future, who say their prayers every day not because they are paid by their congregations to show up at minyan but because they are possessed of the conviction that there really is a God in heaven to listens to all prayers spoken honestly and humbly, and who are convinced that the future to which our people is called will be attained neither by making a fetish out of anti-intellectualism nor by denigrating traditional modes of observance and piety. As I wandered around JTS and looked at the rabbis who had assembled there for a few days of relaxation and rededication, I felt proud to be numbered among them. And I think that you would have felt the same way if you too could have been there this week!

A highlight of the convention was the dedication of Machzor Lev Shalem, the new prayer book for the High Holidays that we will be introducing this year at Shelter Rock and which many other congregations have also purchased. (The book has already gone into a second printing and about 130,000 copies have been sold as of a few days ago. And many more copies are expected to be sold before the holidays.) After more than a decade of work under the leadership of Rabbi Edward Feld, the book is ready. I have a copy in my possession—orders in bulk have yet to be shipped but individual copies were available at the convention—and I am entirely convinced that this book will radically improve the average worshipers ability successfully and movingly to be drawn into the prayer service on the High Holidays. I went to the dedication partially out of allegiance to the committee that produced the book under Rabbi Feld’s leadership, but also because I have been a part of the Rabbinical Assembly’s effort to publish quality books of many different sorts for well over a decade. And so, seeing this effort—this incredibly complicated and creative effort—come to a happy conclusion was truly thrilling for me and it too reminded me why I am feeling so upbeat about the future: the kind of movement that can produce a work of this caliber is not moribund or in decline, but both alive with ideas and with purpose, and also entirely sure of the worth of its message to the world. You’ll love the book! But I think I love even more what the existence of the book says about the future of Conservative Judaism in the world.

I signed on as a Conservative rabbi years ago because I was unconvinced that religion absent candor could amount to much and because I could not imagine that it could ultimately be necessary to purchase my faith with my intellectual probity. I feel even more certain now than I did back then that I was right….and somehow the existence of Machzor Lev Shalem seems to demonstrate to me how just right I was and still am to feel that way.

I’ve been going to these conventions for a very long time. For many years, they were as often at the Concord resort in the Catskills as they were elsewhere. But then the Concord closed down and the RA began to hold its conferences in all sorts of different places. As was probably inevitably going to be the case, some of these worked out less well than others. But, as the years pass, I find myself less focused on the specifics of venue and menu that pertain at any particular convention and far more drawn to consider the pageant of shared purpose and purposeful enterprise that is unfolding all around me as I survey the scene and attempt successfully to take it all in. As I wandered around JTS this week and communed with colleagues from near and far, I felt hopeful and proud. I wish you all could have been there with me!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Arizona Law SB1070

Like many of you I’m sure, I find myself very interested in the debate swirling around the legislation recently adopted in Arizona officially known as Arizona Immigration Law SB1070. You can find the full text of the law at, but the specific part of the law that has become a source of instant controversy is the section that reads as follows: For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person. In effect, that appears to legislate that police officers require anyone with whom they have any contact of any sort at all and whom they suspect might be here illegally to produce adequate documentation to demonstrate that that is not the case. At first blush, that sounds fair enough. If a police officer thinks someone may be committing a crime, why shouldn’t he or she be permitted to follow up on that suspicion at least to the point of ascertaining whether that hunch was right or wrong? Isn’t that what police officers are supposed to do?

Our country has a complicated immigration policy that admits more than a million foreign-born individuals to American every year. (In 2006, for example, the Department of Homeland Security issued 1.3 million so-called green cards to persons wishing to become American citizens.) Millions of people obey the rules, but there are also vast numbers of people who attempt to circumvent the system by sneaking into the country and then remaining here illegally, and their numbers are too high to consider them merely as individual lawbreakers. Indeed, the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan think tank devoted to immigration issues, estimates that there are about eleven million illegal immigrants in the United States at the current time, down from 12.5 million a few years ago. (You can read more at the institute’s website: Of these illegals, the Pew Hispanic Center (also visitable at estimates that about 57% are from Mexico, 24% are from other countries in Latin America (most of them in Central America), 9% are from countries in Asia, 6% are from European countries, and the remaining 4% are from the rest of the worlds’ countries.

And so we come back to the Arizona law and ask whether, in light of the statistics just cited, merely being a Hispanic person constitutes enough of a reason for a police officer to suspect illegality. Does the fact that over eighty percent of the illegals are of Hispanic origin mean that the Arizona law requires police officers to demand proof of citizenship or legal residence from people they come across who merely look Hispanic? Given that there are about 1.8 million Hispanic American citizens in Arizona and that they constitute about 29.2% of the population of the state, that seems like an awful lot of people to suspect of illegality merely because of their physical demeanor or the language they speak! And that, added to the details that we Americans are specifically not required to carry our passports or our birth certificates with us—and that we do not even have national identity cards here similar to the ones in use in France or Israel—makes the whole situation even more strange. If I myself, born in New York City and the child and grandchild of six American citizens, was stopped on the street by a police officer who thought I looked illegal and ordered to demonstrate my citizenship, I’m not sure what I would do. A driver’s license is not proof of citizenship! And I only carry my passport when I am intending to leave the country, a practice I think I must share with almost every other citizen.

Another feature of the Arizona law that has garnered a lot of attention is its so-called “sanctuary” provision, which formally forbids municipalities in Arizona from adopting local laws that promote under- or non-compliance with state or federal immigration policy. This too sounds at first like a no-brainer, but it too speaks to a real phenomenon: at the current time, a serious number of major American cities (including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, Baltimore and about two dozen others) have adopted laws forbidding their police officers from inquiring about anyone’s immigration status, thus in effect making themselves into sanctuaries in which illegal immigrants can at least not worry about their status being uncovered by local law enforcement officials. Reactively, a number of state legislatures, including those in Georgia and Tennessee, have enacted laws forbidding localities in their states from declaring themselves to be sanctuary cities. And now Arizona has joined their ranks.

Both proponents and opponents of the Arizona law have made ample reference to biblical precedent and it is that specific aspect of the debate I would like to address. (Where else should Jewish citizens begin in their evaluation of this or any matter of public policy if not by asking what our Torah has to say on the matter?) And, as it happens, it has plenty to say. Our Torah, for example, actually does promote the concept of sanctuary cities to which individuals guilty of inadvertent manslaughter can escape and there be safe from the vengeful relations of their unintended victims. Yet, the notion of establishing such cities can only be considered a reasonable parallel to the modern phenomenon if we suppose that the federal agents in charge of immigration are being motivated by the unjustifiable desire for vengeance or, at the very least, if we suppose that the illegals themselves are somehow accidentally responsible for their illegal status in a way parallel to how the person guilty of manslaughter has accidentally taken another person’s life. To me, that seems almost ridiculously exaggerated. Regardless of how anyone feels about the direction American immigration policy should take, it’s hard to find a compelling parallel in the biblical passages relating to the cities of refuge. Even the use of the term “sanctuary cities,” suggestive from a biblical point of view that those seeking refuge there are victims of unfortunate happenstance, strikes me as misleading.

Far more interesting, however, is the verse from Deuteronomy that forbids the faithful from returning an escaped slave to his or her master. The verse, found at Deuteronomy 23:16, reads as follows: You shall not return a slave to his master after he has sought asylum from his master with you. Instead he shall live with you in the midst of your community or wherever he wishes or in which ever one of your cities’ gates he finds appealing. But you may not oppress him. It’s an interesting verse. In context, it seems to be suggesting that because you have no way to know how the slave was treated in his master’s house (and presumably also because you can neither verify the slave’s account nor guarantee how he will be treated upon being returned), you have no choice but to step back and let him settle into your city to live his life as a free person. Left unspecified is whether the runaway slave actually becomes a free person or merely may live as though that were the case. But what does it matter? The bottom line is that when people run away from some situation they find intolerable, Scripture tells us not to judge or condemn but simply to act kindly to strangers in need.

Does this have anything to do with illegal immigrants today? On the one hand, it seems exaggerated to describe living in Mexico or Guatemala as suffering the latter-day equivalent of the ancient agony of being a slave-owning master’s living property. Indeed, when the citizen of a foreign country really does have a claim of having been truly oppressed or in danger of being oppressed in that country—in other words, when the parallel is far more apt and demonstrable—then we have an entirely different process for admitting people to our countries as bona fide refugees. Can we suppose, therefore, that the millions of illegal immigrants in our country are specifically people who do not qualify to apply for legal status under the Refugee Act of 1980 that specifically makes room in our country for individuals unwilling to return to their countries because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion? I suppose we probably can assume that anyone who could live here legally as a refugee would surely do so. And it is also worth noting that over 100,000 refugees were admitted to the United States between 1980 and the end of the twentieth century, a number of which all compassionate Americans should be proud.

So on the one side of the ledger we have the oft-cited but not truly applicable biblical precedents of the cities of refuge and the law forbidding returning runaway slaves. But on the other side of the ledger is the single most often repeated commandment of the Torah, the one commanding the faithful to be kind to strangers because they themselves were once strangers in Egypt and know all too well what it means to be alone and defenseless in a strange, new place. And layered over all of this is the reality, unpalatable to the strict constructionists among us but still impossible to ignore, that this debate is not about statistics or legal theories but about actual living people. Deporting a woman here illegally does not mean entering some revised number into a government computer somewhere, after all, but arresting someone’s wife or someone’s mother, then taking her forcefully from her family and then banishing her from what may well have been her home not for months but for years or even decades. As Jewish people who have so often been exiled from places in which we delusionally imagined ourselves to be fully welcome, it does not behoove us to forget that the human dimension to this story is the only one that exists in the real world, that the theoretical part of the discussion is just so much political blather, that the individual deported for the crime of having come here illegally is far more likely to be a father seeking a better life for his children than the kind of person anyone of us would normally think of as a criminal. And yet…does not our security as a nation of individuals rest in the rule of law?

If there were an obvious solution to the question of illegal immigration, our nation would have embraced it long ago. And yet the status quo is intolerable—a world in which not thousands but millions of people in our country cannot phone 911 if they are in danger of being robbed or raped for fear of a police officer inquiring about their status, in which unimaginable amounts of tax revenue are lost because the workers who should be paying their taxes do not dare to step forward lest they draw attention to their illegal status here, in which there exists a subculture of workers to whom labor laws simply do not apply because they cannot complain if they are abused or subjected to unsafe work conditions—this simply cannot be considered a rational way to leave things merely because doing nothing will probably antagonize the least number of people! Proponents of the Arizona law SB1070 claim that the real solution to illegal immigration is to get rid of the illegal immigrants in our midst and to make it impossible for more to come. Furthermore, they argue that the new law will not have any deleterious effect on legal residents of our country, only on criminals posing as legal residents. In the long run, both assertions may well be true. But the new Arizona law is merely a draconian measure enacted out of frustration with federal inaction on the matter, not a real solution to the problem. As such, it deserves to be vetted by legal experts as to its constitutionality but will serve a much finer and much more important purpose as a wake-up call issued by the citizens of one of the fifty states to the federal government, as a demand on the part of some citizens that Congress set its propensity for interminable in-house bickering aside and act in concert and forcefully to find a reasonable solution to a very serious problem facing our nation, one that affects not only the illegals among us but the very fabric of our society and our right to refer to that society as just, charitable, and fair.