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A Living Legacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy this weekend. This past Shabbat, we concluded the book of Genesis by reading Parashat Vayechi. Two of the main characters of the book of Genesis, Jacob and Joseph, die. Jacob, our patriarch and our namesake as a people, spends much of the end of the book on his deathbed offering his last words to his children. One would expect words of blessing and love, an ethical will of sorts, from their father, but in many cases, Jacob did anything but bless his sons. He did not to intend punish them or yell at them. Rather, Jacob feared that as a father, as a leader, he wouldn’t be there to guide his children anymore. He wouldn’t be able to teach them right from wrong. It was a hard enough challenge when he was alive. He worried even more about their paths in life when he is gone. He told his oldest, Reuben, that he is unstable as water and shall not excel (Gen. 49:4). He told his sons Simeon and Levi that their weapons are tools of lawlessness and that his soul wouldn’t come into their council (Gen. 49:5-6).These aren’t exactly the blessings you want from your father when he is on his death bed. But there is a deep sense of fear by Jacob that all that he taught his children, the ethics and values that he himself learned as an adult after he changed his ways, would be forgotten. Jacob feared that without his leadership and guidance, his children would not continue on the trajectory that they were on.  

The portion concludes with the death of Jacob’s favored son, Joseph. Unlike his father, Joseph does not offer final blessings. Instead, he simply asked all to make a promise that in the end, when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they wouldn’t leave Joseph behind. Joseph was embalmed and mummified, as was the custom of ancient Egypt, and made his brothers promise that they would literally take his bones with him when they set out for the promised land. Joseph was worried about being left behind, figuratively and literally. Joseph was worried about being forgotten.

The haftarah reading for Parashat Vayechi, finds King David on his deathbed, also sharing last words with his loved ones. Unlike Jacob or Joseph, David is much more blunt with his words. He tells Solomon to “keep charge of God, walk in God’s ways, and follow the ethics, values, and laws of the Lord” (I King 1:3). David expected his son to follow on his path and made sure that he knew it. 

Jacob worried that all he believed in would fall by the wayside without him leading the way, Joseph wanted to live on and continue on life’s journey after he died in hopes that he could continue to impact the world in death just as he did in life, and David made sure to remind his children the importance of walking in his path and in his footsteps. On the day when our nation remembers the life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can’t help but think of Dr. King’s legacy as well. What were the last words he would’ve said, if he was on his deathbed? In a way, we already have that answer. 

Dr. King received daily death threats and knew that any day could be his last. That did not stop him from preaching God’s word and striving to finish building the world that the Almighty set out to create; that did not stop him from working towards a more just society. The last public speech he gave, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, focused on the thoughts he wanted to leave this world. Legend has it that Dr. King almost didn’t share these words at the Mason Temple to Memphis Sanitation Workers. He was under the weather, but at the crowds urging, he spoke anyway. He got up there and said: 

[I]f I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?”… “Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy. Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

King ended his speech not knowing what would happen in his life, but said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the next day by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Hotel.

He too wished that he could see his work – and the work of justice – come to fruition. He too was hoping to see the world that he dreamed off become a reality. But he knew that whether we was killed that very next day or died in his sleep at the ripe old age of 120, he wouldn’t be able to see the fruits of his labor. But he still made a promise to work at it, to fight for justice, even if he didn’t experience justice. He essentially was explaining the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon: one is not obligated to finish the task, but one is not free to ignore it either (Pirkei Avot 2:21). King knew that his dreams wouldn’t be fulfilled in his lifetime. But he believed that his followers would continue the fight. He believed that the nation would make great progress, He believed the the trajectory our nation was on would bend further towards justice. King believed his legacy was not about what he did while he was alive, but what would come of him and his beliefs after he died. A legacy is not about the impact that we have on this world when we are living. A legacy is about the impact we have generations later, long after we left this world. 

As we prepare to honor MLK’s legacy, we are reminded that this federal holiday is not a day of remembrance, but a day of service. This is not a day of reflection, but a day of action. We look at the world around us, the world that we are living in, at this transitional moment in our nation’s history, and wonder, is this a world that MLK would be proud of? We are left wondering how Dr. King would react in such a society and in such a world. Ultimately, legacy does not only live on through memory, stories, textbooks or children’s books, or movies about the civil rights movement. Legacy lives on through action. 

When we bury our loved ones in the Jewish faith, we pray that the souls of the departed are bound up in the bond of our lives. That does not mean that we believe in resurrection. That does not mean that we believe our loved ones communicate with us from the world to come, even if we find comfort in that. What this means is that as long as we live our lives just as they did, they live on. As long as we believe in the same ethics and values that they did and walk the same path, in their footsteps while creating a pathway for ourselves, they live on through us. At this turning point in our nation’s history, may we not forget to act as Dr. King acted, to live as he lived. May we fulfill his promise in his final speech so that all of society finally reaches the promised land. And may we make sure his legacy lives on through all of our actions. May he not only be remembered, but also bound up in the bond of our lives. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

Watch Revereend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech here:

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Transgender Bathrooms are a Human Rights Struggle – and a Jewish Imperative

This article was originally published on May 22, 2016 by Haaretz. The full article can be found on their website here.

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As Jews our responsibility is to embrace the gender identity of each individual not only in our communities but in society at large. That means repealing transphobic legislation like North Carolina’s HB2.

North Carolina’s controversial “Bathroom Law”, which stipulates that in government buildings, individuals may only use the restroom that corresponds to the gender on their birth certificates, continues to make headlines. Proponents of the law, known officially as HB2 “The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act,” claim that it is about safety, preventing men from “claiming to be transgender” just so that they can enter a women’s bathroom and invade their privacy. But over 200 local, state, and national organizations that work with assault victims claim that there is nothing to support the fears of these lawmakers. And none of the 18 states that have nondiscrimination laws that protect transgender rights has seen an increase in public safety issues because of these laws.

HB2The fight over the law hit a tipping point when the Department of Justice determined that HB2 violates the Federal Civil Rights Act and gave North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory an ultimatum to ensure that the state would not comply with the law. North Carolina didn’t budge, and instead sued the government. The Justice Department responded with a lawsuit of their own, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch describing the battle over this law as the civil rights struggle of this era.

But the fight over HB2 is more than a civil rights struggle; it’s a human rights struggle. And as Jews, we have a particular imperative to treat it as such.

As Jews, we have an obligation to see each individual as made in God’s image. Each individual is unique and created differently. We are not God, and therefore, it is not for us to put parameters on the divine nature or image of another person. Rather, we should honor each individual as divine, regardless of one’s gender identity. Even the rabbis of the Talmud understood that we do not live in a gender binary system. We find six different gender identities in the Talmud. This Talmudic precedent suggests that we should not only acknowledge one’s gender identity, but also celebrate it.

Some Jewish institutions are starting to implement policies in line with this thinking. Last year, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution that “affirms the right[s] of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals” and “urges the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity and expression.” Similarly, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is in the process of voting on a resolution that affirms its commitment to fully welcoming, accepting and including people of all gender identities in Jewish life and general society. These statements understand our commitment as Jews to honor each individual. Last June, I wrote that ensuring that all can use the bathroom in our institutions “is as integral to the sacred nature of the building as is creating a transcendent prayer space.”

These statements reflect an understanding of the importance of making sure that our sacred communities and sacred spaces are welcoming of everyone. But our obligation as Jews to embrace the gender identity of each individual does not end with our institutional buildings and programs. We have an obligation as Jews to build a society that is just as inclusive and accepting as the communities we set out to create.

Judaism teaches that pikuach nefesh, saving a life, supersedes everything else in Jewish law. A study by the Williams Institute think tank shows that 41 percent of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals have attempted suicide. This number is substantially greater than the overall suicide rate of 4.6 percent in the United States. The way society has treated transgender individuals makes them feel as if there is no place for them in this world. Denying them the basic human right of going to the bathroom, as North Carolina has attempted to do, only reinforces this feeling.

But embracing all and creating inclusive communities can have the opposite effect. A recent study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and accepted by family, friends, teachers, clergy, and society as a whole are no more anxious or depressed than other children their age.

HB2 supporters claim the law will keep individuals safe from bathroom predators. But this law doesn’t ensure anyone’s safety. Instead, it puts lives in danger. It endangers the lives of people in the transgender community by further denying them basic human rights, by suggesting that they don’t really exist, and by closing them off from society. If our responsibility as Jews is to do what we can to save every life, then we have an obligation to repeal HB2 and similar harmful and discriminatory legislation in other states.

We learn in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 that whoever saves a life, saves an entire world, but also that whoever destroys a life, destroys an entire world. We, as Jews, have an obligation to save lives and save worlds. May 17 was the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. May we make a commitment every day to stopping all transphobic legislation that destroys far too many worlds.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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What it Means to Become a Bar Mitzvah

I occasionally share on my blog the speeches, reflections, and divrei Torah that B’nai Mitzvah share with our congregation. I wanted to share the speech and words of Torah that a recent Bar Mitzvah shared with our congregation and community.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

What it Means to Become a Bar Mitzvah 

By Noah

Shabbat Shalom. As I stand up here celebrating becoming a bar mitzvah, I reflect on what exactly that means to me. To become a Bar Mitzvah, a son of God’s commandments, is to start acting like a Jewish adult, accepting responsibility, and serving as one of God’s messengers in this world. It means giving food to the poor, visiting the sick, standing up for all people, and fighting for civil rights and human rights.

It’s not right to just let someone bully another person so we must stand up for someone being treated unfairly. As a Bar Mitzvah, I will march in civil rights and justice marches and give money to organizations that fight for civil rights for all because I’ve experienced this struggle. My moms are gay and they shouldn’t be treated any different from any other person because of that. I just turned 13 years old and yet, it was only a few months ago that my moms were finally able to get married. We traveled to New York for their wedding because they couldn’t even get married in our home state, because IT’S NOT LEGAL IN FLORIDA.

I think it’s unfair that my moms are treated differently. If we truly take responsibility for all and stand up for them, then we need to be able to celebrate that we are all the same, made in God’s image, instead of being divided by how we are different.

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Naso, we find a number of things. It begins with the requirements to take a census of select groups and clans of the people of Israel. It also mentions the Nazirites vow. But chapter 6 of the book of numbers concludes with what is likely the most famous of all blessings mentioned in the Torah:

May the lord bless you and keep you. May the lord deal kindly and graciously with you. May the Lord bestow God’s favor upon you and grant you peace.

This blessing, which is really three blessings rolled into one, is Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction. This blessing is a blessing that Moses tells Aaron to bless the people of Israel with. In fact the Kohanim chant this blessing to the entire congregation while standing on the bimah on the high holidays. It’s also known as the parental blessing because parents say this blessing to their children every Friday night on Shabbat.

This blessing is a blessing in which we pray for God to keep us safe. We pray for God to be kind to us and for us, as God’s messengers, to be kind to others. And finally, we pray for peace because knowing that we look out for the safety of others just as God looks out to us, and knowing that we must be kind to others just as we pray God is kind to us, we can bring peace to this world and peace in our lives. A blessing of peace, security, and grace is a blessing in which we stand up for everybody.

Judaism — and faith in general — is not just about offering blessings. It’s about making the promise of blessing a reality. We don’t just sit around and wait for God to act. We act.

It is our job to be the voice to those who are silent to stand up for the rights of all to ensure the protection God promises. That’s why I believe everybody should have equal rights. That’s why we must fight for the rights of all and specifically I fight for the rights of my two mothers. It is my obligation as a bar mitzvah — and our obligation as the Jewish community. We pray for peace but we work for peace: for peace in our lives, peace in this community, and peace in this world.

As a Bar Mitzvah, son of commandments which takes responsibility for my actions and the actions of others, it is my job, it is all of our jobs, to make this blessing a reality. So as Jews and as B’nai Mitzvah, children of God’s commandments, let’s not only ask for God’s blessings, but let’s recognize the blessings in our own lives and make this blessing, the priestly benediction, a reality.

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Proud to Be an Ally

I am proud to be a part of the “We Are Straight Allies” campaign, bringing together allies for LGBT inclusion and equality throughout Jacksonville and Florida’s First Coast. This campaign, launched by Chevara Orrin, Dan Bagan, and Laura Riggs, features individuals — children and adults — throughout the community who stand up and support the sanctity of each individual, as we once again attempt to pass the Human Rights Ordinances. This campaign includes changemakers like Gloria Steinem and local business leaders, like Florida Blue CEO Pat Geraghty. I am proud, as a faith leader, to stand with other clergy involved in this campaign, and “Come out as a Straight Ally.”

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As I shared in the campaign:

“As a rabbi, I believe that God created each individual in God’s Divine image. I believe that each individual is holy; each individual is sacred. I cringe when I hear preachers and people of faith spew hate in God’s name or try to make conclusions of discrimination or inequality based on scripture. My responsibility as a rabbi, member of the clergy, and person of faith, is to promote inclusion, promote love, and promote the holiness of every individual, regardless of background, faith, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. That is why I am coming out as a straight ally. We need to stand up for the rights of all of God’s creations and celebrate the sanctity of all.”

Check out the campaign here and here. Take action. Get involved. Make a difference.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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