Shabbat Akharei Mot/Kedoshim: Plumbline Ethics

Some of us are lucky enough to call ourselves fortunate these days, if despite the pandemic we are feeling well and our greatest challenge is cabin fever. We know that so many are suffering, both within our community and beyond. 

How to respond? What can we do in these days to share whatever we are lucky enough to have? How not to be dragged down by despair and fear in these strange and uncertain times?

We are fortunate in another profound way: we have an ancient tradition that guides us toward justice at all times. The ancient Israelite prophet Amos once used a wonderful metaphor for the Jewish idea of justice: he called it a “plumbline.” Our ancestors learned about the plumbline, אנך anakh  in Hebrew, from Egypt, where it was developed over four thousand years ago.

A plumbline, held in the hand of a worker on top of a wall, is a weighted string. When allowed to hang freely it shows the “plumb” angle and allows those building to avoid creating an off-centered structure.

Jews and those who love them who belong to and are informed by Jewish community and its ethics are lucky: we are never adrift, wondering how to act or react, how to initiate or respond – how to help and how to live.

This week our parashat hashavua includes a direct treatment of this theme. Whether your issue is how to vote in our local elections, how to figure out what you can do to share what you have safely and effectively, or just how to think about your life this week and next, the guidance for Jews is clear. A few examples:

1. That which we are lucky enough to have is not ours alone, according to the Rabbis who developed our justice tradition. That which we’ve worked for is only rightfully ours once we’ve shared it (the law of tithing is of Jewish origin). The work of our hands is not kasher  until it is shared – that goes not only for produce but for other kinds of productivity.

וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם

You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. (Lev.19.10)

2. We must insist upon the truth, we must support those who work to find and uphold it, and we must speak truth ourselves. While it’s tempting to become cynical and adapt our expectations to the shocking deceit displayed by those with power over us, that way is not plumb, to use Amos’ image. That house will fall.

לֹ֖א תִּגְנֹ֑בוּ וְלֹא־תְכַחֲשׁ֥וּ וְלֹֽא־תְשַׁקְּר֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ בַּעֲמִיתֽוֹ׃

You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. (Lev.19.11)

Erev Shabbat falls on May Day, long associated with the celebration of all those who labor, i.e. all essential workers. The plumbline of Jewish justice is not swayed by nightly applause when cheers do not have the ethical effect of just wages, access to care for all regardless of social status, and respect for human dignity among all people. 

לֹֽא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת־רֵֽעֲךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א תִגְזֹ֑ל לֹֽא־תָלִ֞ין פְּעֻלַּ֥ת שָׂכִ֛יר אִתְּךָ֖ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃

You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. (Lev.19.13)

You shall be holy in all your doings. That is the clear Jewish plumbline by which we can check our words and our doings. And what is is to be holy? It is not to give in to cynicism, not to despair of the effectiveness of your acts, and not to forget that you are part of an ancient, incredibly wise tradition of human beings striving to understand how best to live our lives in gratitude for the gift of life we are given.

Need more support for your choices? Torah study will sustain you for the rest of your life if you immerse yourself in it. It will help you hold that string steady and see how it falls clearly, all the days of your life.

Shabbat shalom

May Day: Short Sighted Police Leadership

I submitted this letter to the Oregonian but I can’t even find the responses they published to the “hot button” question regarding whether the police were too harsh on May Day at the rally and march downtown. I don’t think they published my response – so here it is.

The actions of the Portland Police demonstrate short-sighted thinking among those who direct them

I was there, downtown, on May Day 2017 in Portland, and I remain dismayed by the outcome for all those who had gathered to participate in this celebration of workers’ solidarity. It was truly amazing and heartening to see the different groups there.

I was disappointed by the small minority of people who were clearly bent on destruction from the moment the march began. Men – some young, some old enough to know better – with megaphones hurled abuse at the police who stood alongside the route. Some were content with words, but others were eager to do damage.

And I was horrified by the actions of the police. Rather than working to separate out the minority violent element from the march, there was indiscriminate escalation, including the throwing of tear gas – by definition a weapon that cannot discriminate between the thug and the peaceful marcher.

Those who direct police actions must be told: neither tear gas nor beatings is ever effective in creating a peaceful society. Only justice can do that.

Our police must be trained to distinguish between the destructive element and the peaceful marchers, citizens they are sworn to protect and to serve. The City of Portland must change the tone of police interaction with peaceful marchers. They did not deserve the disrespect of having their permit summarily revoked and their march ended, unjustly identified with a small minority which acted destructively.

Rabbi Ariel Stone

May Day Portland 2017

On Monday, some of us gathered at the Park Blocks at 1pm. We witnessed an hour of dancing – skilled indigenous dancers and drummers in beautiful costumes demonstrating their art in honor of the international workers’ day. Then at about 2pm we heard an hour’s worth of speakers: leaders and activists in communities such as immigrant, Muslim, migrant worker, and labor union – including a woman who tearfully asked if we could help her free her son from detention, since his own small son was missing him for these last six months.
Did you know that the observance of May 1 as International Workers’ Day began in Chicago in 1886? You can learn more here:
All this time, people continued to gather. The light rain had stopped and many milled about in the growing crowd, greeting each other, distributing newsletters and petitions. The May Day Coalition had brought together so many groups under its umbrella for the gathering that it took two speakers five minutes to read all the organizations’ names. We were asked to donate toward the work of creating solidarity among so many, and all who gave got a button to wear.
Then around 3.15pm it was time to line up in the street and begin the march. Just in front of me a man with a megaphone began a regular chant: what do we do when immigrants are attacked? “stand up, fight back!” we responded. What do we do when women are attacked? “stand up, fight back!” He included all you might have suggested to him: LGBTQ, Muslim, Trans people and more – a long list, unfortunately, of all those who have been targeted and made to feel vulnerable.
We carried signs: הנני Here we are – Jews for Justice; Jews demand צדק, justice. I wore my tallit for greater visibility, and ended up giving an interview to a nice young Jewish woman from the socialist workers’ newspaper. A young Jewish man came over to say “Hello to Shir Tikvah!” Parents, children, even some dogs marched (one wore a sandwich board). Many people stood on the sidewalks as we passed by – I saw a few members of our congregation in the mix. We passed a young man holding a case of Pepsi and holding out one of the cans (if you are unaware of the reference, look here).
I had an appointment I had to keep on the East Side, and the women I was marching with also needed to get places, so at a corner where the march made a turn, we headed toward our cars. It was not until I had reached the place where I was to meet a local civil rights attorney (who is kindly helping me to learn Portland racial relations and local government politics) that I had a chance to check my trusty Twitter feed and see that the march was disintegrating into chaos.
I was sad, and extremely disappointed. Sad for the organizers of our local expression of support for International Workers’ Day, and for all those who had worked and organized to be part of this celebration of workers’ solidarity. It was truly amazing and heartening to see the number of different groups that had come out.
And disappointed in the extreme: at the small minority of people who clearly were bent on destruction from the moment the march began. Men – some young, some old enough to know better – with megaphones, hurling abuse at the police who stood alongside the march. Some were content with words, but others were eager to do damage.
I am also disappointed in the police, for behavior that is reminiscent of that which ended the first May Day gathering in Haymarket Square in Chicago. On that day, one projectile aimed at police caused them to target the entire crowd for reprisal. Yesterday we saw the same indiscriminate escalation from the police, including the throwing of tear gas – by definition a weapon that cannot discriminate between the thug and the peaceful marcher.
How to understand all of this? As Jews, how to respond?
Although we were immigrants, some of us don’t feel that connection viscerally. And although our ancestors in the U.S. were radical, many of us feel ourselves far distant from that identity. We don’t celebrate the names of the Jews who led the fight for fair working conditions, who formed unions, and who led strikes and walkouts – consider even the name of their newspaper, the Forward!!!  We today, distanced from the Jewish culture and traditions that nurtured their ethical energy, aren’t as confident that we know a Jewish way forward for ourselves – and so we go to all the safe, high-profile (and pretty much white) marches on Shabbat, ironically enough. Although we have to leave our Jewish practice aside for such a march, that feels like where we are comfortable.
We are not those expressing the stress of the culture today; we are watching others express it. Their terms are loud and violent and upsetting – perhaps because they are expressing an outrage we are distanced from, have learned to live with, or barely register from our safe distance.
There are those who argue that demonstrations and marches will win no allies when mass transit is disrupted and people can’t get home after putting in their long day of work, and there are those who argue that targeted people in our communities live under stress far worse than transit disruption every day. If a family is torn apart because of any kind of injustice, should any of us be entirely comfortable?
As Jews, let’s suspend judgment, as our tradition urges. As Jews, let’s resolve to learn more about our place in this time of upheaval – wherever you decide yours is, let it not be out of fear, or a desire to stay separate from it. That is not tikkun olam, that is not doing our part to repair the world.
This was a disappointing May Day. I am committed to working through the Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance and other venues to demand that the City of Portland do more to change the tone of police interaction with such crowds as marched, mostly peacefully, yesterday. They did not deserve to have their permit revoked and their march ended because a few people set fire to a trashcan.
And, just as importantly, I remain committed to working to understand how to influence the small group of those who are destructive, and attempt to help to move them toward more constructive demonstration.
I don’t approve of the destruction in any way, nor the hateful rhetoric toward the police, of course. But we need to understand that those who are so alienated from our society (although they apparently enjoy many of its perks, they looked well dressed and well fed) are not the problem. If you consider systems analysis, you might see them as a visible manifestation of the stress, horror and anguish many of our fellow residents of the United States are suffering.

As the Associated Press put it: May Day demonstrations, celebrated as International Workers’ Day, were far more peaceful in other international cities, which saw protesters demanded better working conditions.

But the widespread protests in the United States were aimed directly at the new Republican president, who has followed up his aggressive anti-immigrant and anti-socialist rhetoric on the campaign trail with action in the White House.

I will continue to offer you chances to learn how to ground yourself in meaningful and safe engagement. I hope you will join me in this terribly important work at the level which is right, and righteous, for you.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other…