Giving Thanks For Righteous Gentiles – A reflection on the tragedy in Kansas City

During this zeman cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom, I would like to make a solemn acknowledgment of righteous gentiles in our midst. In light of the recent tragedy in Overland Park, KS, it is all too easy to focus on sinister, age-old bigotry which continues to haunt Jewish people still today. But, as we celebrate freedom, we can recognize that with most of our neighbors, whether or not we share the same theology, we share the mutual understanding that we are all imbued with inherent rights to believe, to worship, and ultimately to live in any way we wish so long as we do not bring harm to others. Without this acknowledgment, we would not be able to enjoy our freedoms. As Jews, we have many friends, allies who support us, who defend us, and who work with us to guarantee religious freedom and safety for everyone in our communities. Rabbi Mark Levin, from Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park where I was confirmed, wrote these words recently as part of his response to the attack:

“I wish… that you could receive the loving calls I am receiving from friends and clergy all over the wider metropolitan area and    indeed around the world. Our neighbors: Jews, Christians and Muslims are outraged that senseless murder would be aimed at our community. We live among friends, and that is very different from Pharaoh’s Egypt, Nazi Germany, or any other place in which Jews have suffered persecution.”

I too have received such calls from friends and clergy in Nebraska, not just because people know I grew up in Kansas City, but because they understand the pain all Jews feel when senseless violence is directed toward us. They want to express their love and care for our community who though distanced from the events by geography, still feel the wound in our Jewish hearts. These people are righteous gentiles, willing to befriend us, to support and defend us, in difficult times. It is important that we do the same for them whenever the opportunity arises.

It is therefore important to acknowledge the three victims of the heinous crime, none of whom were Jewish themselves. Each one died while making use of Jewish communal institutions. They were taking part in a community singing contest or visiting a loved one, normal actions taken out of shared interests which transcend any religious belief or cultural identity. Knowingly or not, they were friends of the Jewish people in the best way possible. In a way that would make Martin Buber proud, they did not see themselves as Christians or Jews as Jews. They only saw people they wanted to sing with and with whom they could share the responsibility of caring for aging parents. They saw the Jewish communal buildings as inviting places with wonderful resources which are meant to be shared. Nothing was I-It. It was I-Thou, people simply appreciating being with other people without consideration of difference. It was a model for peace and community relations which, I am grateful to say, had become quite ordinary. But the good feelings were momentarily shattered with the actions of one hate-filled person. Three Christians died from gunshots intended for Jews. By mere accident, their deaths prevented the killer from reaching his target. However, these victims did not choose to martyr themselves, nor would anyone have asked them to. They died simply because they were friends of the Jews modeling the humanity which can unite us all. They were righteous gentiles.  In this season of our liberation, let us give thanks for them and all other who enable our freedom.

Let  us remember and pray for the families of:

              Reat Griffin Underwood

              Dr. William Lewis Corporon

              Terri Lamanno

May the God of mercy grant them refuge in the bonds of everlasting life.  And may their memories abide for eternal blessing.  

Amen.

Perplexed at Passover- Cosmos and Questions

I want my child to be perplexed. This may sound like bad parenting, but I sincerely believe it to be the complete opposite of that. Having a perplexed child would actually be a sign that my wife and I are doing something right. Let me explain. My 5 ½ year old son, at my urging, has begun to watch the new Cosmos show with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The show is outstanding, and I am blown away that it appeals to both of us equally. My son asked specifically for the show the other day because “I want to learn about the world.” That was music to my parenting ears. And then I thought about him attending religious school, which he affectionately calls “God School,” and I grew concerned. In God School they talk about the Genesis story of creation and other stories from the Torah, and none of them are consistent with the mesmerizing science presented so beautifully by Dr. Tyson. When he realizes the disparity, he will be in a state that the great Jewish thinker of the 12th century Maimonides called “perplexed.” And that will be just fine.

As a rabbi, I love the Torah with its rich language, its captivating imagery, and the engaging narratives which have for millennia connected an inspired Jews to live ethical lives of goodness. I love the openness to commentary and the on-going debates about what the text really means and how we continue to embrace our ancient teachings even in the face of scientific discoveries which contradict descriptions found in the Torah. Ahead of his time, Maimonides, a rabbi, doctor, philosopher and rationalist, recognized the necessity of this discovery. Great joy can actually come from being perplexed because, as Maimonides taught, it inspires further study of both Torah and science. It leads us to ask better questions about each.

When we approach the Torah asking ourselves “how and when did these things really happen?,” we are asking the wrong questions. The better questions are what are we meant to learn from the biblical stories, from the laws, and the ethical codes? Those are questions that scientists cannot answer, and our time in Torah study is better spent tackling those big questions rather than wasting our time debating the unprovable, whether creation really took place in six days, or if there really was a great flood, or if the Red Sea actually parted. These stories, if we allow them to, can teach us much more. For example, six days of creation are followed by a day of rest when we quit trying to control all things and just exist in the world appreciating it as it is. The flood and the rainbow that follows teach us that there are be better ways to fight immoral behavior rather than just subduing and wiping out populations en masse. The Red Sea, with Moses raising his staff and the midrash about Nachshon ben Aminadav, teaches us not to simply wait for miracles, but that we have to participate in creating our own fortunes. Good lessons all.

With the Torah, there is so much more to learn than meets the eye in a plain reading. I hope my son will embrace this learning the way I have. Meanwhile, as we learn by watching Cosmos, the Universe is also filled with more secrets than meet the naked eye. I hope my son will always want to learn more about the world. At the same time, I also want him to be perplexed and to take joy in asking big questions about them mysteries and meanings of life. I want this especially as we approach the Passover holiday when asking questions and accepting nothing at face value are central to our celebration of freedom. Taking our cues from the Hagaddah which tells us at our seders, “we begin in shame but conclude with praise,” we at first approach all things perplexed. But this leads to questions. Questions lead to inquiry. Inquiry leads to knowledge. And knowledge is freedom. Therefore, I hope that my son will be perplexed so that he may eventually discover, in the spirit of Maimonides: science explains how we live, while Torah instructs how we might live well.

Have a Happy and Joyous Passover.