The Jewish people have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Our fixation on remembering renews the trauma of an oft-attacked people. The Jewish calendar cycles us through a history of slavery, exile, and annihilation. We read through Torah, year after year, with all of its tales of flood, famine, and warfare. As a result, modern Judaism needs therapy.

The association of memory and emotion is key to understanding Judaism today. Scientifically speaking, negative emotions are more easily affixed to memory. As Bob Dylan might say, Judaism is tangled up in blue.

On the Jewish calendar, we are rounding the corner past Tisha B’av. On that fast day, we recall when the Holy Temple was twice destroyed. Later in the calendar, we celebrate Passover by revisiting slavery in Egypt. Our tradition demands that we recall these tragedies in every generation. Engagement with our history of victimhood reconnects us with emotions of anxiety, stress, and fear. Yet, our PTSD battle cry is “never forget!”

Moreover, the connection of our emotional states to memory alters how we recall the past. When trauma is associated with memory, our brain tries to cope with the distress. As a result, our memory is compromised and our narrative gets distorted.

Here’s an example from Torah. In Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the events of forty years in the desert. Yet, the narrative is revised from the prior books of the Torah. Moses recites previously unknown and unlikely conversations with God. Moses blames the people for his own disappointments. This leader’s emotions colored his memory and created new narratives. Moses’ speeches in Deuteronomy set out a template for the Jewish future, based on his emotion-distorted memory.

Jewish responses to the Shoah present another example. After the Holocaust, Judaism was reimagined. Yeshivas taught that Hitler’s goal was to eradicate Torah. Orthodoxy doubled down on Halachah to exceed past adherence to Jewish law. Ultra-Orthodoxy today attempts to compensate or overcompensate for the six million lives lost. “To the Yeshivish world, true defiance and triumph came from total subservience to God’s commandments and an unquestioning acceptance of His will, regardless of the circumstances,” wrote Andrew Altman in the Forward in 2018.

Others in the post-Shoah era formed Jewish identity as a shield from anti-Semitism. Jewish life was defined for many with activism spanning from the Anti-Defamation League to the Jewish Defense League. Another response to the Shoah is an ebullient Zionism that promotes and protects Israel, the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the Shoah. These shifts were the consequence of memories linked to trauma. Beginning with a three thousand-year history of suffering stored in Jewish memory the trajectory of Jewish life was again redirected post-shoah.

Judaism, as a religious experience, continues to be shaped by trauma. My fear is that future generations will distance themselves from a Jewish life that operates either under the heavy yoke of Jewish law or the crushing weight of Jewish victimhood.

I believe we need to carve out a version of Judaism that allows us to be free from the baggage of both trauma and the orthodox overemphasis on halacha. Our task is to put Judaism into therapy so a healthier and emotionally uplifting Judaism can emerge. I believe we need to carve out a version of Judaism that allows us to be free from the baggage of both trauma and the overemphasis on Halacha. Let’s make an appointment to explore that thought!

Rabbi Evan Krame

 

The Washington Senators decamped to Minnesota in 1961 and became the Twins. Perhaps in return, two judges originally from Minnesota were soon nominated to the Supreme Court, Warren Berger, and Harry Blackmun. The Nixon administration selected them precisely because they were conservative-leaning jurists. The two were also known to be dear friends. The press referred to them as the Minnesota Twins. Their legacy reminds us of the primacy of justice in a democracy.

By 1970, Richard Nixon put his imprimatur on the Supreme Court. Hoping for judges in the moderate to the conservative range, he selected Berger to be chief judge and Blackmun as associate justice. In 1973, Berger selected Blackmun to write the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade.

Commentators today explain that the decision was based on uncovering a right to privacy, not explicitly granted in the Constitution. I prefer to understand the Court’s decision to acknowledge the primacy of justice. Then, as now, the American legal system is flawed and marred by injustices. I believe that Blackmun wrote based upon a moral obligation to elevate individual rights over any system of laws or over any individual law.

The focus on justice over law can be found in Torah. As the fifth book, Deuteronomy opens, Moses begins by recalling the need to establish a judicial system shortly after the people reached Sinai. Before receiving Torah, and without a legal code, seventy elders from the tribes were selected for judicial roles. Their decisions could not be based on statutory law. Therefore, there must have been an understanding of justice that was common to all people.

On the last day of his life, Moses recalls the story of his leadership beginning with the establishment of a judicial system. He does not begin with the miracles or the Mishkan (tabernacle) the people made. Justice is more critical than any miracle performed or any tangible item. Moreover, people ensure justice. We do not rely upon God to bring moral certainty on a daily basis. Our role is to preserve humanity by virtue of our willingness to submit to a legal system rooted in universal concepts of morality.

The Supreme Court’s Minnesota Twins set aside political affiliation and strict legal interpretation for a higher purpose: the primacy of justice. Their approach is as old as Torah. Judaism teaches that a system of justice cannot be detached from morality. Justices who are partial to a legal philosophy fail to account for the true purpose of the judicial system. The protection of individual rights and civil liberties is more deeply rooted than any partisanship. Yet, in every generation, we need Minnesotan sensibility to recall the primacy of justice.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

Talking heads on television refer to breaking news as unprecedented. Their use of language belies history. The United States was founded in an insurrection. Both inspired and immoral revolts recurred in the years after. More uprisings will certainly follow. What is uncertain is how good people respond.

Insurrections are as old as Torah. Do you remember the revolt of Korach? After years of miracles and desert travels, Korach leads a revolt against Moses. In Parshat Pinchas, God ordered a census of the Hebrews. During the detailed count, Torah notes that the descendants of Korach did not die. Korach’s legacy is that his inheritors of rebellion will rise again.

The breaking news on cable television will report the next revolt. “History shows that both those who do not learn history and those who do learn history are doomed to repeat it,” wrote Nicholas Claremont. The question posed is how we minimize the threat of future violent, anti-democratic insurrections.

Good people forget these lessons. We share in the responsibility when we stand idly by. Recall these words written about the Shoah. “Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander,” wrote Yehuda Bauer. “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing,” wrote Simon Wiesenthal.

The Congressional hearings on January 6, 2021, are only the beginning of the necessary process of quelling the latest insurrection. Public truth-telling is the beginning of recovering this nation’s balance. Recording testimony is a start. It must be combined with our response – at the ballot box, in the halls of government, and by teaching our children.

The descendants of Korach did not die. They will not die until good people pay greater attention. Otherwise, the history of insurgency will repeat. The need for moral outrage and the demand for justice never ends.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

The Old Synagogue stood on Rosenstrasse, at the edge of the oldest part of Berlin. A small park and quaint buildings form a typical Berlin thoroughfare. Here, on February 28, 1943, an unprecedented demonstration began. The Aryan wives of Jewish husbands protested to prevent the deportation of their husbands.

Such protests were not only illegal but quite dangerous. Dozens of Jewish men were detained in a final Nazi attempt to clear Berlin of all Jews. After a week of protests, dozens were released from custody before being sent to certain death at Auschwitz.

These women are remembered in a 2003 movie for their heroism. There is a memorial on Rosenstrasse dedicated to these protestors. But I wonder if the world should celebrate these women. By definition, speaking truth to power is not merely calling out a government for a slight or setback. Speaking truth to power implies a moral or ethical motivation to benefit a greater good. The women of Rosenstrasse were brave, perhaps courageous, but their efforts were limited to their own self-interests. Never had there been any such demonstrations for the other 55,000 Jews deported from Berlin by the Nazis.

In Torah, we learn about speaking back to those who are powerful. Balak, King of the Moabites, summoned the prophet Balaam to come from Mesopotamia to curse the Hebrews. Three noteworthy conversations take place. In the first, Balaam seeks God’s approval but misunderstands the reply.  In the second, Balaam is embarrassed by his talking donkey, who calls out his master for being an “ass.” In the third conversation, Balaam is forced to confront Balak’s frustration and wrath. Balaam tries to explain that he is only able to speak the words fashioned in his mouth by God. Instead of curses, Balaam blesses the people.

Each of these conversations is a way of addressing authority – between a prophet and God, between a donkey and its rider, and between a servant and his royal master. Only when Balaam reveals God’s honest truth to Balaak is he speaking truth to power. His words honor God.

Speaking truth to power became a fashionable phrase among progressive groups in America. With moral certainty, protesters object to war, injustice, and discrimination. The history of free speech reaches far beyond these holy pursuits. Americans have a certain enthusiasm for degrading those in power. Today many people delight in the upstart or firebrand who speaks as a victim but is really a bully. Ultimately, we may have lost the distinction between the holy act of speaking truth to power and merely speaking out.

In the most recent hearings of the January 6 Committee, administration insiders have come forward to speak of their last-ditch efforts to curtail a violent overthrow of the United States. We applaud their willingness to speak out. Yet, I worry that we give them too much credit. These newly designated heroes waited far too long before standing up for our nation. Perhaps their last-ditch efforts were as much for their own self-interests as it was for our nation.

It takes courage to speak out publicly. The act of protesting to the leader or president is what makes a person seem heroic. As Jews, it is not sufficient to be heroic. Rather our tradition asks that we be ongoing spokespeople for what is moral and ethical. Pursuing our self-interests is not sufficient. The perilous times we live in demand that call out injustice as a practice or prayer, for the sake of peace, for the sake of our democracy.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

The current United States Supreme Court again ruled in ways antagonistic to universal rights. The Court curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to set standards on climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions for existing power plants. After the horrifying decision endangering women’s health, the Court has moved on to jeopardizing our well-being and our planet. Choices on protecting the planet and expanding individual rights are as old as the Torah. With Torah there is hope.

Some countries are leaders in protecting rights and the environment. Germany is one such country. While on vacation in Berlin, I saw a homeless man lying on the street. Our guide told us that the man was homeless by choice. The German government guarantees shelter for anyone in need. Their social welfare system works well – free childcare, excellent health care, and a dynamic social security system. Environmental advocacy is ubiquitous. When buying a bottle of water at a kiosk the vendor made certain that I would return the bottle for a refund.

As I read Parshat Chukat in Torah this week, I found cautionary tales for our times. After Miriam died, the miraculous water source that sustained the Hebrews dried up. God instructed Moses to speak to a rock and draw water. Instead, a curmudgeonly Moses hit the rock and chastised his people. Water gushed from the rock. Poor Moses was denied entry into the promised land for his faithlessness.

An environmental advocate might offer a modern understanding of this story. As the planet warms, extreme droughts are underway. To save the planet, thoughtful and sustained water management will be essential. Striking out will not suffice.

A few chapters later, Moses is instructed to gather the people. Where they gathered, the leaders of various tribes together dug wells. With a spirit of cooperation, a source of water was released. Everyone benefitted from the joint efforts.

Economic cooperation and environmental collaboration are hallmarks of Germany’s successes today. These values mimic the arc of the Torah’s description of how to move from a water crisis to coordinated environmental management. Moreover, Germany is committed to equal participation by all people in social, political, and economic life – regardless of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color, disability, or other traits.

This year, even as we celebrate America’s birthday we grumble about America’s turn toward extremism. I suggest that we look to both Torah and Germany for inspiration on how to resuscitate our Democracy. Germany’s take on Torah is expanding freedom and preserving our planet. It may strike you as odd that the words Torah and Germany are used for the same proposition. Yet, it gives me hope that any desperate situation can be turned toward the good.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

Have you had the urge to shout, “to hell with this” or “enough is enough!”? Now is the time to raise your inside voice and start acting. Our personal anguish does little to effectuate change. We need to band together for a little rebellion.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Jefferson understood rebellion as a way of holding governments accountable. Even an unsuccessful rebellion serves to establish an encroachment on the rights of disadvantaged people. The challenge is to discern which rebellions are necessary and holy.

In Torah, Korach and 250 leaders of his generation spoke against Moses’ leadership. The rebels claimed that Moses elevated himself above God’s holy people. At first glance, their argument appeals to democratic principles. Upon further examination, their claims were baseless. While the mob claimed to be proponents of equality, I believe that they really wanted to usurp power from Moses and Aaron. The rebel leaders failed the test of the fire pans. Thereafter, their minions were swallowed up by the earth.

Another unholy rebellion took place in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021. The righteousness of that rebellion fails the test of our constitutional system of government. Those rebels are judged by their emails and texts rather than firepans. If justice prevails, many will be swallowed up by the legal system and incarcerated.

We who love democracy and protect human rights bristle at the idea of rebellion. We are horrified to think of conflict to protect these principles. Yet, there are times when a little rebellion is needed to restore dignity and freedom. The rebellion we need will be a storming of the polling stations and not the Capitol.  The insurrection we want will redirect the focus of government toward the people’s aspirations and away from special interests.  The uprising we require will restore balance to our nation and diminish incivility. The little rebellion is already underway.

Instead of taking up arms, take out your credit card. Support not-for-profit organizations that seek to safeguard individual rights. Instead of watching the protests, march in demonstrations. Share your optimism with friends and encourage their participation as well. Together, we can fashion a little rebellion that will protect our democratic and free nation.

Evan J. Krame

While watching Real Time with Bill Maher, I learned the word pusillanimous. Do you know it? It means showing a lack of courage. In Torah, the Hebrew people committed a great offense when they were too timid and too afraid to act. Now as then, we need the courage to challenge our foes.

In Torah, Moses sent twelve spies to scout out the land of Canaan. The land of milk and honey, promised to them by God, was already occupied by hostile tribes. Ten of the spies panicked. Those spies displayed all the courage of the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who ignominiously retreat from battle to the cry of “run away!” The pusillanimous scouts infected the people with their fear. The other two brave scouts, Joshua and Caleb, could not exhort them to action.

Democracy-loving leadership in our country may be suffering from a similar malaise. To me, the progressive leaders seem pusillanimous. The January 6 Select Committee has scouted out the land and their reporting is frightening. However, the Committee politely defers to the Justice Department and law enforcement to decide if criminal charges should be brought. We will still await legal action even after the Hearing Committee’s report is done. To set the country right we need a true and unflinching commitment to incarcerate the insurrectionist leaders. I want to hear that cause championed by our elected representatives.

On the other hand, Trump loyalists have never been circumspect. Trump’s first electoral victory rose on the chant of “lock her up.” Trump’s frustrated minions in 2020 offered the battle cry of a stolen election. The struggle for our republic looms large and menacing.

Democrats have not been as daring.  I fear that Democrats’ lugubrious pace might mean the death of our democracy. We are only months away from mid-term elections that will likely shift the majority in Congress from Democrat to Republican. Frightful clashes, political and bellicose, may ensue.

In the wilderness of Sinai, the Hebrew people were punished for their faithlessness with 38 more years of wandering. In our United States today, those devoted to democracy and human rights must demand action and eschew reticence. Otherwise, we might all be condemned to decades of wandering through a wasteland of autocratic governance.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

I offered my farewell address last week. Two years ago I was elected President of the Washington Board of Rabbis. Back then the Covid pandemic already seemed interminable. What a challenging time for all of us, especially the clergy. The challenges of spiritual leadership were magnified by our disorientation and alienation. Rabbis needed peers to help them through that wilderness. I stepped up to lead the way.

This week in Torah, we read a story that encapsulates the angst of separation. Moses’ father-in-law, Hobab (also known as Yitro) accompanied the people after meeting at Mt. Sinai, about two years time. Hobab was the high priest of the Midianite people. He was an ally but not a “convert.”

The cloud lifted, the trumpets blared and the Hebrews readied to march. Moses said to Hobab “We are setting out for the place of which God has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for God has promised to be generous to Israel.” (Numbers 10:29).  Instead, Hobab turned to leave. Commentators suggest that Hobab understood there was no place for his Midianite clan in Israel. Moses pleaded with Hobab to stay, again offering to share the land. There the conversation ends. Exit Hobab stage right.

The text says that Moses hoped that Hobab would be a guide through the wilderness. I believe that a deeper connection had formed. Moses longed to continue the personal relationship with a fellow spiritual leader who had also served as a mentor.

Through the lens of this story, I thought about changes in the way we work and the effect on relationships. From home offices, we don’t have a personal experience of the people with whom we work. Zoom only offers limited interaction configured in boxes. Between the safety of staying at home and the conveniences of technology, our work lives are similarly encapsulated. Yes, we may get more time to hike and bike, binge watch, and binge drink, but less quality time with our professional peers and workmates. As work is often the greatest daily source of stress, camaraderie can be a source of comfort. As we near the end of the wilderness of this pandemic, we might reevaluate the benefits of sustaining a collegial and mutually supportive work environment. Moreover, we can appreciate our leaders’ need to be supported by peers.

Moses knew the challenges of leadership and understood the benefit of having colleagues. Whether examining the life of the first “Rabbi” or leading a group of 157 local rabbis, my admiration for religious leaders has grown. Send some love to a rabbi you know who has had to pivot and persevere through a challenging time. Especially those that lead us through the wilderness on their own.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Joe Papp, the great theater impresario, produced plays about outsiders. His devotion to the outcast or interloper helped create a new era on Broadway. To champion the underdog, it helps to feel like an underdog.  Joe Papp was such an outsider, a product of his Jewish identity.

To be Jewish is to step into a tradition of being an outsider. Torah had its own mechanisms of creating outsiders. In parshat Naso, we read various ways Torah created “othering” categories. Favored persons might be priests or those who are pure. The priests placed impure people outside the camp.

If you wanted to achieve greater purity, you could expand your “otherness.” In Torah, you might become a Nazir. A Nazir demonstrated tremendous commitment, living an ascetic life in pursuit of a new “insider” status. Joseph Papp was a modern-day seeker of holiness, in the lineage of a Nazir. While not an ascetic, Papp was wholly devoted to a holy cause.

Papp understood that every person has had their nose pressed to the glass, looking inside and feeling like an “other.” The more obvious reasons might be sexual identity, skin color, or immigrant status. Papp intuited that if we approached the world from our own place of differentiation, he could foster understanding and thoughtfulness.

Joe Papp hid his Jewish identity as a young man. Yussel became Joe and Papirofsky became Papp. In his early career, he told no one he was Jewish. A notorious workaholic, Papp began building what became the Public Theater in Manhattan, far off-Broadway, operating as a non-profit organization. That stage showcased the stories of outsiders because of Papp’s worldview. In particular, the Public was a venue for actors of color to embody roles traditionally played by white actors. The theater-going public learned to appreciate the world through the eyes of an “other.”

Papp turned to Shakespeare early on. His first Shakespearean play in 1962 was The Merchant of Venice. Shylock the moneylender is the quintessential outsider. A Jewish man limited by his identity trying to protect his family and his capital. But Shylock is also portrayed as sinister and craven. The Jewish community of New York protested the choice of play. It was then that Papp made public his own Jewish identity, declaring he would personally direct the play and that he would not produce a play that betrayed his own Jewishness.

The Merchant of Venice, featuring George C. Scott, was a triumph for the Public Theater and a turning point for Joe Papp. Shylock’s anger was portrayed not as the arbitrary venom of a congenitally spiteful man, but rather as a product of Jewish suffering inflicted by anti-Semites and their allies. In Papp’s hands, the scornfulness morphed into an appreciation of the outsider.

Papp was the “nazir” of the New York theater world. He elevated his outsider status, with devotion to a holy cause – to connect every theater goer with the fullness of society. His success can be measured by the broad public awareness his plays gave to racism, the Vietnam war, homophobia, and sexism. The Public theater first brought us The Normal Heart, Hair, and For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.

The lesson for us today is to seek out the stories of others. We can begin by acknowledging our own sense of being other. From knowing our own frailty, we can better hear their stories – trans people, new immigrants, our African-American neighbors, and our Asian co-workers. We too can expand understanding and kindness if we allow ourselves to be challenged to see the world through other eyes.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

 

 

I am trying not to shut down emotionally. The sense of overwhelming pushes on me like a bully’s knee on my back. The crush of despair begins with numbers, compresses with names, and swamps us with images.

The current wave started to crash with the war in Ukraine, continued through the shootings in Buffalo, and flattened me with the murder of school children in Texas. As is my practice, I tried to think about these episodes through a Jewish lens. The opening of the book of Numbers, BaMidbar, which we read this coming week offered some framing.

The book begins with the requirement of a census.  We count people. Thereafter, we group people with names. The numbers of Hebrews counted are associated with the names of clans. Only after some framing does the book of Numbers veer off into some of the most colorful depictions of people we have in all of Torah.

Each morning, as if a ritual, I watch Morning Joe. One commentator followed another. First, they offered numbers.  More children die in this country from gun violence than by any other means. Over 100 people die from gun violence each day in America. Then there was a discussion of the individuals who died, we shifted from Ukrainian names and then the names of people in Buffalo to this week naming teachers and children in Texas.

I was able to hold onto my emotions through numbers and names. But the images, the color commentaries, and the personal stories had the effect of shutting down my emotional response.  Then I watched President Biden exhibit bitterness and sadness during his comments on the Texas massacre. Senator Chris Murphy pleaded with his Republican colleagues to enact gun control laws. Deep emotion can be directed toward action.

On the other hand, emotion can impede action. When I was in Israel recently, our group met with a Palestinian journalist. He shared the tortured path of his family, disconnected from each other by borders and walls. Yet, he shared that he was no longer wedded to his anger. He described anger as an impediment to progress and a detriment to his own health.

In the United States, too many are operating from a place of anger. It is the anger of displacement.  It is the rage of oppression. The fury is most often directed at unnamed others – people with other skin colors, people who follow different faiths, and people from other countries. Yet, the anger doesn’t stop with the other. The anger becomes antagonism, leading to confrontation rather than cooperation.

I am learning that shutting down emotionally is counterproductive. But indignation and anger, on any side of an issue, will not bring peace anywhere. Emotions must be applied in a productive manner. And because emotions are so powerful, each of us will be challenged to take a breath, notice our emotions, and select those that help us resolve differences and which can motivate positive change. The numbers, the names, and the stories are now ours to carry forward. Let’s do so with productive emotional energy. Tamp down the anger and bring on the holy.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame