Category Archives: Politics

A VOTE FOR HOMES: AUSTIN IS NOT S’DOM

A Vote for Homes: Austin is not S’dom

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The Sodomites rejected the poor and vulnerable within their midst.
In Austin, we voted to keep and help strengthen our “weaker links” for the sake of justice and righteousness.

Last Tuesday, Election Day, Austin voters passed–by a wide margin (over 60% of the vote)– the city’s “2013 Affordable Housing Bond” proposal,  designating $65 million in general obligation bonds for affordable housing. I am proud to have played a small role in supporting the “Keep Austin Affordable” campaign and want to believe that the Jewish community played its part in responding as concerned citizens to the needs of the poorest in our midst who are in constant danger of being priced out of town. Last month, in the run-up to the election, my congregation, Kol Halev, hosted my friend, local activist and Jewish community-member, Isabelle Headrick, executive director of Accessible Housing Austin!, who spoke to us about the proposition and the importance of vigorously addressing Austin’s housing crisis.

I introduced Isabelle to the congregation by way of that week’s Torah portion, Vayera, in which we witness three relevant events. First, we see Abraham’s immense hospitality to three visitors, the proverbial opening by Abraham and Sarah of their tent, a reminder about the moral goodness inherent in providing shelter–without our knowing their full story–to those who, even temporarily, are homeless. We then jump to the scene in S’dom (usually rendered in English as “Sodom”), where selfishness and intolerance reign and the arrogant hoarding of resources and subjugation of the vulnerable translates, symbolically, into the literal attempted rape of these same travelers. Contrary to the common Christian emphasis on the story, the Jewish view was never about anything sexual but about the violent rejection of the stranger.

This excellent article, “The New Sodomites,” by Aryeh Cohen and David Waskow, from way back in a 1997 issue of Tikkun, spells out the critical moral lessons of the story as they appear throughout the history of Jewish exegesis. While the authors cover several different social issues and are directly responding to President Clinton’s “disastrous” efforts at welfare reform, their overall analysis of the way American society has lost its direction in terms of addressing the widening gap between “haves” and “have-nots” remains terribly relevant, and much of their discontent with the legislation they discuss appears to have been horrifically prescient:

[W]e will continue to suffer from the substantial gap between givers and receivers, who will each remain suspicious of a welfare system that deprives them of human connection. And that gap will be precisely the political opening needed by those who benefit economically from an eviscerated welfare system and the subsequent expanding disparity in income between the rich and poor. They will use the need for reshaped welfare paradigms as an excuse for what has become the central political practice of today – the demand that we keep what is ours and force others to get what is theirs.

Yet, right before this gloomy prophecy, the authors offer some thoughts about how what was clearly already a broken welfare system could be reconstructed in ways that would address the core problems:

[W]e may need to develop new models for welfare that reflect the truly civic nature of tzedakah as it was understood by the rabbis – for whom a sense of connection among a city’s dwellers was more palpable than it is for us. Perhaps in our era – when writing checks is so easy and giving to the homeless on the street often so difficult – we need a model of mutual responsibility that demands direct encounters between giver and recipient.

As Cohen and Waskow make clear throughout their article, the model we need to destroy is the one embodied by the citizens of S’dom. It is clear that those who seek to simply increase the divide between rich and poor through neglect and a proverbial “closing of doors” are actually doing much worse: they are figuratively breaking down the fragile and unsustainable walls of shelter in which the homeless seek refuge–and the result is a metaphoric raping of the destitute. It is these selfish members of our society who are the “new Sodomites.”

In our story, the unsustainable refuge of the homeless visitors to S’dom is inside the house of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. They and their host only make it out alive because of their own supernatural intervention (they are described both as men and angels and are not ordinary human beings). In our case, we know that we cannot rely on miracles and need to take action to overturn the Sodomy that is so rampant in our society. We need to take our own action, like that which Cohen and Waskow recommend above, to create new forms of connection and repair in our cities–so that rich and poor alike can live safely within our municipal borders. The fictitious Rabbi Jake Schram (Ben Stiller’s character in Keeping the Faith), offered his own dismissal of the misunderstood sexual emphasis on the S’dom story in favor of one celebrating human kindness and communal care:

JAKE: But seriously, what is the story of Sodom and 
Gomorrah really about? - Anybody. Steve Posner.

STEVE: Sexual perversion.

JAKE: Sexual perversion. Steve Posner's watching a little 
too much Spice Channel, okay. ...
And Lot takes them in and he protects them. What happens 
next? Anybody. Greta Nussbaum, before she pulls her rotator 
cuff.

GRETA: God spares Lot and his family.

JAKE: Bingo! Two-week cruise for Greta! You're goin' to the 
Bahamas! You know, when you think about it...God is a lot
like Blanche Du Bois. He's always relied on the kindness of
strangers. And that's really what the story is about--it's 
about us taking care of each other. God relies on us to 
take care of each other.

When Isabelle finished speaking to our congregation, I took us back to the critical interlude that occurs between the hospitality offerings of Abraham and Lot. After the angelic visitors move on from Abraham and make their way towards S’dom, God invites Abraham into a conversation about the plans to destroy the two cities as punishment for their wickedness. What we then learn–even though, ultimately, the cities are not found deserving of being spared because of a lack of a minimal amount of righteous people besides Lot and his family–is that the Torah celebrates the human challenge to Divine policy. We human beings, represented by Abraham, enter into the “legal” system (God, of course, is law-maker, judge, and executive ruler) to challenge its processes and premises. God recognizes that Abraham and his descendants, in keeping the Way of the Divine (derech hashem), are to manifest “righteousness and justice” (tzedakah u’mishpat). Abraham responds to this expectation by calling God out for falling short of those very ideals: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? … Should the Judge of all the earth not manifest justice? (Gen. 18: 23, 25)” God allows Abraham to influence the approach to the impending situation. The message is clear: We are supposed to challenge injustice wherever we see it, even if it is coming from the Divine. All the more so, when we interact with our fellow human beings, should we be advocating for righteousness and justice in our social policies. And the Torah’s strategic placement of this message makes even clearer that we ought to be especially vigilant about justice when it comes to welcoming the stranger and housing the vulnerable.

My message to my congregation, then, was that this non-partisan bond measure that lay before us–a robust commitment by our city to help build homes, sustainable shelters of safety that secure the wellbeing of the poorer members of our city and allow them to remain our fellow Austinites–was a perfect opportunity for an appropriate political stand by a faith community. I made no endorsement of a candidate or party and acted completely within my prerogative as a rabbi to implore my congregants to vote for the bond. It was a matter of religious commitment to not be like the Sodomites but rather to be like Abraham, a caring and hospitable doer of righteousness and an unflinching advocate for justice.

I am delighted that people of faith from throughout Austin responded similarly to this sacred opportunity to be guardians of the wellbeing of our city, to enable us all to walk the Divine path and uphold universal values of openness, compassion, and opportunity. If you voted for this bond, thank you.

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The Blessings of Health and Choice vs. the Curse of Coercion

Stand Up Monday – Rally at Texas Capitol:
July 1, 2013
Clergy Opening Remarks:
“The Blessings of Health and Choice vs. the Curse of Coercion”
Rabbi Rick Brody

“Enough!” to the invasive curse of meddling lawmakers who seek to deprive women their rights.  “Yes!” to the blessings that come with the safe, free exercise of conscience. 

[Video courtesy of Roz Altmejd]

I am blessed to stand here today with courageous and resolute Texas women. I stand here as a rabbi, as a husband, and a father. As the son of Democrat and Republican parents who are both ardently pro-choice. Parents who adopted two newborn children—before a surprise pregnancy with me. Yes: my parents, my siblings, and I all know—intimately—that what’s unplanned can become a blessing; but only when choices are made freely, without the curse of coercion. There is no blessing in treating a woman’s body contrary to her wishes. And even the best-laid plans can intrude on blessing—when a woman’s health is at risk or when a fetus holds no promise of a healthy life. My tradition shares both a deep reverence for the blessing of potential life and also this adamant conviction: the blessing of a pregnant woman’s life takes precedence over the potential life of her fetus at all times—and up until the moment of birth, the fetus is part of her body.

But with clinics beyond her access, or if her doctor is denied privileges at hospitals asserting their religious views, or if certain fetal complications are not yet detectable, or when women find themselves cursed with despair in back alleys—then, the state has endangered women’s health and the state has cursed their dignity. By imposing one moral conclusion to such a profoundly complex set of choices, the state tramples my religious teachings and violates the most basic religious freedoms that are the hallmark of this great nation.

In my tradition, a pregnant woman is the best judge of her own body’s needs, even over the judgments of her doctor. And many extend the welfare of the mother to include her emotional health—in direct contrast to the current, repressive legislation. The curse of lifelong torment to a woman’s mind is no less a part of her body and no less real. Yet those with one narrow religious view in Texas seek to tell all women and their health-care providers and their religious leaders that they can make better choices for Texas women. For the sake of religious liberty, for the sake of the dignity of choice for all women, and for the sake of women’s safety and health, I stand today with Texas women and say “Enough!” to the invasive curse of meddling lawmakers who seek to deprive women their rights. And I say “Yes!” to the blessings that come with the safe, free exercise of conscience.

At the July 1 rally, immediately following this speech, Rabbi Rachel Kobrin delivered this stirring call to action.

Marriage Equality: Turning the Tide Towards an Idea Whose Time Has Come

Marriage Equality: Turning the Tide Towards an Idea Whose Time Has Come

by Rabbi Rick Brody

As one who has never been quiet about my advocacy for equal rights and inclusion for the queer (LGBTQ) community, including marriage equality, and as the unnamed husband in a popular submission on the Huffington Post from a rabbi who staunchly promotes those same values, I figured it was time for me to offer up a post of my own.

A Facebook friend shared a communication from MoveOn.org about marriage equality and criticized it for being propaganda that conflated a notion of inevitability (“You can’t stop an idea whose time has come”) with the need for a “revolutionary vanguard” (his words) to push the revolution (“Help us turn the tide”). He then compared this phenomenon of “turning the tide” to that of the Bolsheviks. He also mistakenly spoke about the “pushing” of “gay marriage.”

Here is the post in question, followed by an adaptation of my response to my friend. I should clarify from the outset that I have no affiliation with MoveOn.org and, while I agree with many of the stances the organization takes, I make no official endorsement of anything it says or does:

While I make no hesitation in expressing my absolute conviction in the moral necessity for marriage equality, I’m not interested in debating the “merits” of my views or criticizing someone else’s; what I am interested in doing is clarifying the way you framed the issue and the particular “propaganda” you have criticized above because I believe you have severely misunderstood and distorted the message:

No one is “pushing” for “gay marriage.” The issue is equality under the law. I’m not pushing for atheism when I demand that Christian bias be removed from public textbooks and classrooms. Nor am I pushing for abortion when I demand that a woman be left free to care for her own body as she so chooses without the government getting between her doctor and her vagina. As many have said, “If you’re opposed to abortion, then don’t have one.” And, “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married.” The “implementation of a policy” that you’re referring to is not about a revolutionary change. It’s about taking the rights afforded to some and extending them to all, equally. Perhaps more to the point, it’s about ending a particular policy, one of discrimination. No one ever spoke about heterosexual marriage as a “policy,” at least not until people began challenging hetero-only marriage as a discriminatory policy. It just simply was, and nobody gave any thought to that reality being any different, because enough brave people hadn’t yet spoken up and begun living their lives openly and honestly, demonstrating to the world that there is no logical, rational, or ethical reason to prohibit them from having the same access and entitlements to this “policy.” Those of us arguing for marriage equality are saying that the new status quo of equal protection under the law also should not be a “policy;” it simply should be what it is.

As for “the idea whose time has come,” I understand the comment to be not in conflict with the notion of “turning the tide.” I see it this way: A critical mass of people obviously already exists to challenge the status quo, raise the consciousness of others, and expand the conversation about marriage equality. It is part of the national conversation; the courts have established this fact by their repeated hearing of the legal challenges at various levels of the judicial system, the majority of state legislatures have felt the need to address the issue one way or another in their laws (while, again, 30 years ago it was a non-issue), and the president has commented on it repeatedly. So, undoubtedly, the idea has “arrived.” One of the only things in its way is bigoted lawmakers who refuse to see the ethical necessity of accepting this idea. MoveOn is saying, “the idea is here and we, supporters of equality, are not going to let it go away because we believe in it unflinchingly.” So it’s not a comment about descriptive inevitability–even though it is a fact that regularly, more and more people, especially younger people, poll in growing numbers in favor of marriage equality. The comment is one of the ethical appeal of the idea and the fact that supporters of it will not rest until the idea becomes the law.

Call that propaganda if you like, but Thomas Paine was an extraordinary propagandist and he helped us enshrine an idea (an independent democracy free of royal tyranny) that I hear few people in this country complaining about well over 200 years later. The suffragists of a century ago also succeeded in spreading the necessary propaganda for dismantling gender-based discrimination in voting rights. Not every “idea whose time has come” is another Bolshevik disaster. Sometimes it’s just a matter of what’s right. And helping “turn the tide” to ensure the success of an idea whose time has come is also just the right thing to do.

Rabbi Wolpe, Iran, and One-Issue Voting

Rabbi Wolpe, Iran, and One-Issue Voting

by Rabbi Rick Brody

A brief, mostly dispassionate attempt at objectively evaluating
the pragmatic value of one-issue voting.

The very eloquent Rabbi David Wolpe weighs in on his concern for averting nuclear disaster.

My quick take: All his concerns are valid, but is the person occupying the oval office really going to make the biggest difference in addressing this concern–and is it really even possible to distinguish the way in which the two current options for that role would be able to do so? I don’t see it. I’m sure they would both handle the gravest of threats on this matter–as presented to them by a multitude of advisors and many non-partisan professionals within State, Defense, NSA, etc.–in pretty much the same way when push comes to shove. Well, I have less trust, in general, in one of the candidates, but I don’t see this issue as necessarily being the one where he’d totally drop the ball. Nor do I see the one whom I trust more being so radically more pronounced in his personal ability to address this issue over anyone else that it would affect my voting decision. Right now, I’d say that any “evidence” to use in judging these two individuals’ ability to make a significant difference on this issue is, mostly, rather empty rhetoric (which is probably also the case for the things Iran says, though certainly the free world must prepare for the very real possibility that the crazy leaders there–and anyone, even crazier, within their reach–would indeed match their bark with bite).

I’d be more convinced about being a one-issue voter on something like judicial appointments. But even there time and again the reality is that the older justices hang on until there’s a president in place whom they can feel comfortable about appointing a likeminded successor to their seat. So the only real concern for you as a voter then is the possibility of an unexpected death or incapacitating illness of one of the judges you like. This scenario still seems more likely than the likelihood of one possible president treating the Iran threat completely differently than another possible president.

There are probably other issues and concerns where people can make some convincing arguments about the direct role a president can and will play and the ways we can know well enough how each option will definitively respond differently to the matter at hand. My first thought was judicial appointments. I’d be curious to hear other ideas.

So, from a purely pragmatic perspective, while Rabbi Wolpe’s deep concern for averting disaster is one that I can’t see anyone disagreeing with, I don’t see how it connects realistically to the choice of president.