Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Parashat Shoftim - Justice Justice Shall You Pursue

            I know I haven’t written in a few months, and I’m not sure how often I will continue to write. But I’m sitting on the train back from my amazing, relaxing vacation in Maine, where I spent almost a week with my partner in near-solitude, with a car lent to us by my parents and a house lent to us by his parents, kayaking and watching movies and shutting out the world. Now I’m on the train back to the real world, and I’m listening to Ani DiFranco’s album “Not So Soft.” I received the album as a holiday gift sometime around 2004 and didn’t even realize at the time that it was already almost 15 years old. The anger at classism, racism, and sexism was still so current and felt so validating for my budding teenage raging leftism to hear. And now, another ten years later, the tones of the album are still so relevant and still feel so validating for my young adult raging leftism. So, with Ani’s melodic anger in my ears, thinking about my anxiety about my work load in the coming months once the school year starts and sadness about certain events of white male entitlement of this past year, I turn to Torah.
            This week’s Torah portion is from Deuteronomy, the final book of Moses. The parts of the Bible that lose narrative tend to get overlooked or forgotten, but this parasha, Shoftim, is full of some good lines. It contains my favorite laws regarding fairness in war, reminding us that trees are innocent bystanders and not to cut down the foliage surrounding the city your warriors are sieging (this seems like a good time to remind anyone who reads this in time that the Arava alumni are throwing a fundraiser at Central Bar in NYC on Wednesday, August 27 from 6:30-9:30, and if you cared about environmental cooperation between conflicting nations, like the Torah tells you to, you will be there!). Ahem. Also, most notably perhaps, Parashat Shoftim contains the line “Tzedek Tzedek tirdof,” or, “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” (16:20).
            Many of you are already pursuing justice. Good on you. Some of you think you are, but more likely are doing exactly what I am doing. Seeking half-heartedly to better educate yourself, getting sad and angry at the situation, thinking to yourself, “Someone should do something!”, wondering what you can do to help, then going back to enjoying your privilege and what’s left of your summer and shutting it all out because it’s just so hard. Probably no one who would read this is heartily in favor of maintaining the racist or sexist systems that in some fashion hurt us all (and in all fashions hurt others significantly more). However, every time we don’t actively pursue justice, we are aiding these systemic subjugations.
            And just in case, any readers out there might be on the wrong side of history (and I assure you, this is not a matter of difference of opinion, there is a wrong side in cases of violent sexism and racism), and are willing to support systems of oppression that pre-judge certain members of society, I remind you that this Torah portion also contains two verses that tell us at least two witnesses are needed (17:6 and 19:15) to pass judgment. Whatever your feelings on the death penalty as the outcome of a fair and honest trial, and whatever you may think was done that warrants persecution, it is at least clear that no one person ever has the right to take the life of another person, for any reason. Claims of self-defense muddy the waters and tend to be open to interpretation, but self-defense rarely involves multiple gun shots, including to the back, or strangling someone from behind to death. And anyway, self-defense starts to seem a flimsy excuse when those doing the “defending” are people in power and those dying are people without.
            Although my references should be pretty clear and not at all vague, I’ve purposely not named specific cases, because these specific cases represent a larger whole and the larger whole is completely abhorrent. Elliot Rodger’s killing spree in May and the police killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner this summer were very different in nature, but were equally wake up calls for me. It is not enough that I have been loud and proud with my raging leftism my whole life, that I have always considered myself a feminist and anti-racist, that I got on some soap boxes and used to have a serious interest in social activism before rabbinical school consumed my whole life. We are too long overdue for real equality in this country to be self-satisfied with our own baby steps toward progress and equality. I understand real change takes time, and we are battling centuries of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, but come on. It is 2014, people.

            I’m partially writing this because I needed it off my chest, because Ani inspired me, because this week’s Torah portion suited it, because I needed something to do with this train ride, because I wanted anyone else who wasn’t jolted awake by these killings to be awake now, because I love my #LizzRants. But I also am writing and posting this, because I’m hoping it will make me more accountable to myself. This is out there now. You all know how I feel and I that I am setting a goal to get more educated, more involved in fighting systemic oppression. First and foremost, I am participating in a fellowship with American Jewish World Service and have pledged to bring more social justice mindfulness and hopefully opportunities to the Academy for Jewish Religion this year. But that isn’t really enough. Please join me in pursuing justice. Let’s hold each other accountable, educate one another, and gently remind one another when the [social] media gets bored of #Ferguson that we can’t get too comfortable and forget that racism still lurks there and everywhere. Rapists and misogynists continue to walk the streets and troll the internet despite the fading of #YesAllWomen, but the awareness it sparked is real and it hasn’t completely disappeared yet. Real change is attainable, but only if we pursue it.  Justice Justice shall you pursue. Let’s pursue it.