Tag Archives: Jewish Social Justice

Every Breath of Life

The final words of Psalm 150, and thus, the entire Book of Psalms are:

Kol HaNeshamah Tehallelyah, Hallelujah.

With every breath of life, you shall praise the Divine. Hallelujah!

The Book of Psalms concludes with this charge, but this verse also serves as a reminder that every breath of life, every time we breathe, we need to be reminded of God’s presence, God’s majesty, and the everyday miracles of life. When we stop breathing, when someone takes that life away from us, then God’s presence fades as we fade away. And taking that life away, stopping that breathing, is a chillul Hashem, not just the transgression of taking another life, be it intentional or accidental but truly a desecration of God.

It is not a coincidence that in Hebrew, the words for breath and soul (neshama) are the same. To cause someone to stop breathing does not only kill them, but it destroys their soul. As it says in the Book of Job, “Remember, all life is but a breath.”

The haunting last words of Eric Garner linger:

I can’t breathe.

And the reality of a police officer killing another — even if it was accidental — by using unnecessary force (not to mention a chokehold that the NYPD does not permit) when Garner was accused of simply a petty crime (selling untaxed cigarettes) is a troubling reality that cannot continue.

The voices for racial equality were outraged by the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson by the Ferguson Grand Jury. The officer killed an unarmed black teenager and was not indicted. Yet, there were conflicting witness accounts and forensic analysis that suggested Michael Brown may have had a physical altercation with the officer. There was no video to prove what happened. If only there was video.

Yet, it seems that video doesn’t matter. When Eric Garner was killed by a police officer in Staten Island on July 17, 2014, an eyewitness videoed the entire altercation. Still no indictment. The actions by these officers, a result of broken windows theory which targets minorities, and specifically black men, are unacceptable. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was an attempt by social media users to participate in hashtag activism. But activism cannot be limited to Twitter and Facebook.

In Mesechet Yevamot 87b, the Talmud teaches that silence equals consent. Being silent in the face of such brutality is accepting it as norm. Our responsibility then as a Jewish community and our obligation is to be speaking out for Eric Garner, who can no longer speak for himself. The Jewish community has dealt with oppression and discrimination in our history. Yet, we also acknowledge that we are privileged. I am white. I am male. I am straight. I am not discriminated against in many parts of the country, or even in my own backyard, in the way others are. All the more so, it is my responsibility, and it is our responsibility, to stand up for those who are being discriminated against. It is our responsibility to speak up for justice.

RabbisProtestI read tonight that there was a peaceful action and protest tonight among Manhattan’s Upper West Side Jewish community, organized by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Rabbis within the peaceful protest were arrested this evening as well. I am proud that New York’s Jewish community has not remained silent. I am proud that the community understands that #BlackLivesMatter.

My hope and prayer is that the Jewish community as a whole, and all communities, will understand the sanctity of each life as well. I pray that we will all come to understand that we are all responsible for one another. We are all responsible to protect each other. We are our brothers’ keepers.

Let us take deep breaths and breathe new life into a society that desperately needs change, to breathe new life into a justice system suffering from systematic racism. We need to breathe. Let us recognize that every breath, every soul is precious. And let us not remain silent, for all those who were unjustly taken from this world.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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The Ger Toshav, the Jewish Community, and Immigration Reform

It initially looked like bipartisan immigration reform would happen in 2011 or 2012. This was delayed because politicians were more focused on getting elected than making change. A bipartisan immigration reform bill came to the floor of the house in 2013, after it overwhelmingly passed in the Senate. It has since been stuck in the gridlock that is the United States Congress. President Obama seemed determined to act on immigration reform this fall, but was pressured by leaders of the Democratic Party to again wait until after the recent midterm elections. They were concerned that such action would have an impact on close races. Pundits now suggest that such inaction was in fact what kept the Democratic base away from the polls on election day.

ImmigrationReformNowMany news outlets have been suggesting that President Obama will act as early as this week, using his executive authority to change America’s immigration policy.  Such reform would not be citizenship and would not be issuing green cards. Rather, it would be an opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief for some five million members of society who live in the United States and work in the United States, who identify as American even if they were not born or raised here, even if they are not citizens. Such action would ensure that these five million individuals are not deported and separated from their children who were born here and are American citizens.

This past week, we read Parashat Chaye Sarah, the Torah portion of Chaye Sarah. The Torah reading begins with Abraham, in Hebron, attempting to find a burial site for his recently deceased wife, Sarah. He ends up buying Ma’arat HaMachpela, the Cave of Machpela, and burying her there. What is so interesting to me is why he chooses Hebron, in the biblical land of Canaan, as the burial site for his wife, and eventually himself as well. He only recently journeyed to Canaan, to the land that God promised to show him, and yet, it felt like home. It was the destination of his journey. It was where he believed things would be better.

He was not a citizen of the land. He was not truly settled and familiar with his surroundings. Yet, he dwelt there; he considered it home. He did not return to his birthplace of Ur Kasdim to bury Sarah, or to Haran where they had settled for many years. He chose Hebron, and in Genesis 23:4 he referred to himself as a Ger Toshav, a resident alien, there. A stranger. A dweller. Someone who feels at home even if others treat him as an outsider. Abraham remarkably identifies himself as a Ger Toshav. The Hittites, even more remarkably, welcome him in with open arms, offering him land before Abraham insists on buying it.

I have my opinions about the President using executive orders to change policy. I also have my opinions about the United States Congress doing its best to never pass any legislation. Regardless of how immigration reform is passed, I think it is important that we remember that our patriarch Abraham referred to himself as a Ger Toshav, as a resident alien. We cannot ignore, neglect, or dehumanize the Ger Toshav among us.

We are commanded to welcome the stranger more times in the Torah than any other commandment. With each command, we are reminded that we were once strangers in a strange land. That is true for the Jewish people. That is also true for American society. The beauty of America is that it is a country full of immigrants, a melting pot of different ethnicities, races, religions, and cultures, each coming to this country with a belief that it would bring about new opportunities. We were each once a Ger Toshav. In some ways, we all still are. Just as the Hittites did with Abraham, we have a responsibility as Americans to welcome in those immigrants in our midst, who are a part of our culture, our society, and our workforce, regardless of how they arrived in this country.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


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