Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Prophets and Demagogues—Rev. Wright Revisited: D’var Torah Parshat Metzorah, Glenn Gottlieb

(Leviticus 14:1 - 14)

Glenn Gottlieb

Prepared by Glenn M. Gottlieb for the Leo Baeck Temple Community Retreat, April 11-13, 2008, Brandeis-Bardin Campus of the American Jewish University. Glenn is an Attorney-Mediator practicing in Los Angeles, California (http://www.glenngottlieb.com/).

In today’s Torah portion, you are about to hear some pretty wild stuff!

Imagine the scene: a person who previously was declared “unclean,” because affected with some scaly skin disease (mistranslated, we are told by Rabbi Plaut, as “leprosy” – probably only some sort of skin rash) has been banished outside the camp. After some time, a priest (probably dressed in some sort of ritual or ceremonial garb) goes outside the camp to examine him to determine whether he has been cured of this affliction. If he has, the priest engages in a rather bizarre ritual involving the slaughter of a bird over a bowl of water and dipping of another live bird into its blood.

This blood and water, mind you, has been mixed with some cedar wood, some red yarn and some pungent spice. He then shpritzes the poor shmo with the mixture seven times (“Of course!”, you say. “Seven is a magical number!”) and lets the live bird fly away. The person washes his clothes, shaves all his hair off and takes a bath. After all this, now the guy is actually declared “clean,” and is allowed back into the camp. But he still isn’t allowed to go back inside his own tent.

Another couple of rituals continue seven and then eight days after all this. I’m stopping here – but it goes on . . .

Okay – I haven’t seen this done lately, but it sounds pretty bizarre! Talk about the “heartbreak of psoriasis”!!

Now imagine this scene: you are going with a friend to attend their place of worship. It is a religion you have heard of, but are not very familiar with. As you enter the hall, you see rows of seats in front of a “stage.” At the head of the stage appears to be a large closet of some sort, with double doors, decorated in strange characters that look like an ancient, foreign alphabet. The leader and the congregation say most of the prayers in a foreign language that not too many people in the world even speak any more, and it appears not many, if any, in the congregation understand. The worshipers stand up and sit down at various times in the service that seem sort of random, and usually face the head of the stage, but turn back toward the door at least once, and sometimes everyone, including the leader turns and faces the closet.

At one point in the service, everyone stands up, the leader approaches and opens the double doors of the closet and takes out what looks like a dressed-up, double scroll of old parchment, which is paraded around the room, and everyone touches and kisses it with reverence. They then read from this scroll in the same foreign language and put it back in the closet. Not many folks in the congregation seem to understand the language or what they are saying, and no one except maybe the leader seems to understand what is being read from this scroll.
Okay, you get the idea.

Now the last scene: a video tape of an African-American minister, passionately preaching a “fire and brimstone” sermon - shouting and gesturing wildly: “God bless America? No! God damn America!!”

Need I say more?

The chapter of Leviticus we read today is part of the Torah laws that, needless to say, seem pretty far out and anachronistic in the extreme in today’s world. Given the importance we Jews attach to the Torah, however, someone trying to find out about us and “what we believe in” – picks up our holy book and reads these laws. Out of context, that person might assume we believe in some pretty weird stuff.

Indeed, if they attended for the first time a modern prayer service like I have described, in a Reform congregation, much less Conservative or Orthodox, they might very well conclude we still believe in and practice some pretty weird stuff.

What if they also found out the translation of one of our most revered prayers – the “Aleinu” – one of the ones in which the rabbi him or herself stands solemnly in front of the Ark, bows down in front of all these holy parchment scrolls – and everyone says, “We honor and revere you God, because you made us Jews, and did not make us like all those other people out there”?!

As I have watched the controversy unfold over the sermons of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Wright, I have been concerned in the same way that it is not just the “what” Reverend Wright was preaching about that was being brought into question. I have had the strong sense that there was an underlying seed of fear his opponents were trying sow in the “how.”

That the playing and replaying of the video was intended to play on folks’ discomfort with the unfamiliarity of the ritual itself – you know, is Obama one of “those” holy rollers who scream and shout in such an undignified fashion in religious services? It’s the age-old fear of “the other” that is being invoked, having nothing to do with who he is, much less what he actually believes in.

I have also been concerned that even the “what” – after all, it seems to legitimately be pretty inflammatory stuff to be shouting “God damn America!” in front of a large crowd of pious church-goers – may be a way of giving folks an excuse to express what is really thinly-veiled racism on their part.

Because whatever Barack Obama may be, and whatever he may believe, nothing in his history or what we’ve seen of him indicates that he “hates” America or is an “angry black man” of the sort we witnessed and feared in Malcolm X or Eldridge Cleaver or Huey Newton in the race wars and rebellions of the 60's – or in the current manifestation in Minister Farakhan, whose views and endorsement Obama has explicitly rejected.

But by focusing on his pastor and giving these fears a “respectable” cause – a “politically correct” something to point at – it has allowed “respectable folks” to give an excuse to express their deeply buried, and perhaps even unconscious, prejudices. So that in rejecting the man they do not have to take responsibility for or examine their own hearts too closely about what it is about him that truly gives them cause for concern in his becoming the leader of our country.

But “you know,” they will say, in hushed tones, furtively looking over their shoulder to see who is listening, “look at who his pastor is and what he said. Can we really trust someone to be our president who has this kind of guy as his closest spiritual advisor?”

Reading these lines from Leviticus, I urge us all to remind ourselves that in our own synagogue comfort zone, we, too, engage to this very day in some rituals which, while to ourselves they may seem warm and familiar, to an outsider might seem quite strange and even disturbing. That our own Senior Rabbi Emeritus was railed against and even as much as called a traitor when he was out in front of public opinion, criticizing our government for what the rest of the country finally came to believe was an unjust an immoral war.

I ask you: was Jeremiah Wright so wrong when he cautioned his congregation that for the sins we are committing as a country – right now, in our day – we may very well be damned by an avenging God of justice and righteousness? Was his message so divergent from that of our own prophets we hear railing at our ancestors every week in our Haftarah readings? Do we need to be reminded that, although it may be in his faith tradition’s own style, Reverend Wright is actually preaching from that very same source?!

When we go into someone else’s “home” – that is, their house of worship, and experience their forms of observance, these passages about literally being totally isolated from the community, about bathing in slaughtered bird’s blood, cedar wood and spice – and so forth – much less other passages about red heifers and scape goats and sacrificial offerings and such – in our own holy and sacred literature – should remind us to not judge so quickly the religious observances of others – and certainly not to take them out of context.

Lest you think that the parallels I have drawn this morning are a little stretched. Rabbi Plaut informs us that, in the midrash, the rabbis actually made a pun on the name of today’s very portion, metzora, meaning “leper,” likening it to “motzi ra” – a slanderer, someone who literally, according to the Hebrew, “brings forth evil.”

Just last week we marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

On this Shabbat – just one week later, may we be reminded of the dangers of “character assassination.”

Let us remind ourselves not to fall victim to the appeal to our baser instincts by demagogues who would play on our fears for their own cynical, political ends.

May we be reminded to judge others, as Reverend King exhorted us, “not by the color of their skin” – or, forgive me Rabbi, by the ravings of their spiritual leaders – but solely by what it is that they believe and do, and most importantly, by the content of their character.

Kein yehi ratzon.



Glenn Gottlieb, a Los Angeles attorney and professional mediator, is a native of Southern California and has been involved with many community-based organizations, including serving as a member of the Executive Committee and Board of Directors of The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, member of the Board of Directors of Bet Tzedek Legal Services and member of the Board of the Los Angeles Urban League.

Mr. Gottlieb is a Vice President and a member of the Board of Trustees of Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles, California, and also served on the Advisory Board of the School of Communal Service of the Los Angeles Campus of the Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion. Mr. Gottlieb is proud to be an active “Big Brother” with the Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Los Angeles. Mr. Gottlieb was the 2007 recipient of the Ameinu organization’s Tzedek ("Justice") Award for his history of service to the Los Angeles Jewish community.

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