Why is President Obama Ignoring Black Africa? by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 26, 2011

The most frustrating thing for me about President Obama’s foreign policy is that he is letting his obsession with issues in the Middle East take him away from the most pressing and devastating humanitarian issues going on in the world: Darfur – where hundreds of thousands of people are facing starvation  and bombings – a brewing civil war between North Sudan and the soon-to-be independent South Sudan, including plans for ethnic cleansing and worse, and most of all  the horrific murder and rape campaigns going on now in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  A recent U.S. study, released May 12, estimated that during the study’s one-year time frame, between 2006 and 2007, 400,000 women were raped in the Congo, or 26 times higher than what the United Nations has been reporting.  400,000 rapes!  In one year!

How can anyone excuse talking about the plight of anyone in the world – whether it is the Palestinians or anyone else – when there are 400,000 women being raped in one area in one year.  Shameful!  We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on helping a unknown group of rebels in Libya while we are ignoring millions of women being raped, and thousands of men, women and children being killed,per  year?

If you are Jewish, whether on the Left or the Right, you have every right to obsess on Israel – that is your religious, cultural and national obligation.  And if you are Palestinian, by all means you can complain about Israeli checkpoints which are forcing people to spend hours in traffic getting to work, or a security fence which is separating you from your friends and relatives.  But if you are not either Israeli, Jewish, Arab or Palestinian, then you have no right to focus on Israel and Palestinians or even Libyans or Syrians or Bahrainis while hundreds of thousands are experiencing death and rape and genocide in sub-Saharan Africa.  It is morally repugnant for our first African American president to be ignoring the worst humanitarian crises in our world, simply because the Arab world and the Palestinians, and many Jews, are “dreying his kup” – are distracting him – for their own interests.  President Obama needs to set the moral agenda of America and prioritize the areas that truly need our humanitarian attention: Sub-Saharan Africa, Sudan – not Israel or the Middle East.

And to the Jewish community I have a message: If we want the Administration to continue to obsess on Israel-Palestinian peace, we just need to remember that we are being selfish; we need to remember that for every hour Obama has to meet Netanyahu to pressure him, that is an hour that hundreds of more women are being raped in the Congo and another hour closer to finishing the genocide in Darfur.  We may feel that getting Israel out of the West Bank is worth it, or ending the occupation for West Bank Palestinians is worth it, but when the tally of deaths and rapes in Africa is taken, I hope it is not on our heads that the leader of the free world ignored his own homeland and left them to continue living in a hell of rapes, killings and destruction. May God open our eyes and hearts to the suffering of our fellow human beings in Africa, and make sure our President is addressing this moral imperative as he should.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Rabbi Lopatin Gives Invocation as First Jewish Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, Begins Work at City Council

May 18, 2011

Below is the text of my invocation. However, the most amazing thing is how excited and tickled the Muslims, Christians, even Native Americans, are at having a Jewish mayor. I think to everyone it means that anyone, regardless of color, ethnicity or religion, can make it in America and Chicago.

Honorable mayor , City clerk , City treasurer, new and returning members of the City Council,
As you enter on this new journey together, I bless you with the “Traveler’s Prayer”:
May it be Your will, God, that you guide us toward peace and let us to reach our desired destination for life, joy and unity. Rescue us from the hand of every foe, every challenge along the way, and all afflictions that may trouble our city. Send blessing in our work and let us find grace, kindness and compassion from You and from all who see us take on the sacred task of making our city work.
As we begin this new era in the history of our city, the blessing of renewal:
Baruch ata ado-nay elo-heinu Melech ha’olam, shehechiyan, vekiymanu, vehigiyanu lazman hazeh,
Blessed are you God, who has given us life, strengthened us and brought us to this wonderful moment!
And let us say, Amen.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, May 18,2011

Our neighbors: Jeffrey Dahmer and Osama bin Laden –by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

May 12, 2011

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.” -Proverbs 24:17

“Then Moses and the children ofIsraelsang…Pharos’s chariots and army God has drowned in the sea!” -Exodus 15:1

Should we cheer at the fall of Bin Laden?   The Biblical book of Proverbs would seem to indicate we should not.   On the other hand in the Biblical book of Exodus when the Jewish people walk through theRed Seaand the Egyptians who are perusing them drown Miriam and Moses lead the Jewish people in song and dance in thanks to God for saving them from Pharaoh and his army.  So which is it?

The Talmud, Judaism’s most basic book of law, in discussing capitol punishment asks how capitol punishment should be carried out if a criminal is deserving of the death penalty.   The Talmud concludes that it must be carried out in the most painless way possible.  This is learned from a familiar Biblical verse used in a shocking way:

“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – Choose for him a good death (Talmud, Sanhedrin 52b).

Of those we are inclined to see as “our neighbor” to be treated as ourselves, the least likely candidate for such status is a criminal so horrendous they are deserving of capitol punishment.  Yet it is precisely to such a situation that the Talmud understands the Biblical dictum to apply.

I remember about 15 years ago I was in the dollar store and came across a book by Jeffrey Dahmer’s father about his son’s life.  Dahmer was, in most of our minds, the most horrid of criminals.  He met men at bars, brought them to his apartment, had sex with them, cut them up into bits and ate them.   I paid my dollar and snuck the book out of the store as if it were pornographic.

In reading the book I was amazed.  This individual whom I saw as so horrible as to not really be human, at least not the same catagory of human as I, had a real life, a real father, mother, and childhood, not unlike most of us.  He played, ate, waked the dog, and had what seemed to be normal parents.   It was a revelation to me.  Suddenly this person whom I thought was so other, so disgusting as to not be of the same humanness as the rest of us, was indeed much like the rest of us.

It made me wonder if perhaps we all have the potential to be so evil and I began to see the most horrendous of criminals as a little less “other” -as my neighbor.   Which does not mean we should not punish them or even mete out capitol punishment when deserved, but at the same time we must realize they are human like the rest of us, and in loving them, our neighbor as ourselves, we must do the work of choosing for them the best death.  Death and justice certainly, but a death in which we can not free ourselves from seeing them, we can not see them as wholly other, but as our neighbor….albeit a neighbor so wicked they deserve death.

Perhaps the message is that justice must be done, it is good to bring Osama Bin Laden to death and rid the world of a bit of evil, but at the same time perhaps we must not separate ourselves mentally  from him, we must realize he is “our neighbor”  and choose for him a good death.  A death  not of revenge and pain, but of mercy and justice.

Jews and the Dream Act: Weren’t we just there? Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 11, 2011

The Dream Act is being introduced in Congress.    All Jews who immigrated to the United States – that’s all of us! – need to support it if we have any gratitude to God for allowing us and those who came before us enter this country, or other countries of refuge.  The Dream Act would enable tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who entered this country as children and who are either serving in the U.S. Army or going to college to gain legal residency and eventually citizenship.  The Dream Act failed in its first round, mostly because Republicans in congress demanded that the government deal with securing the boarder before certifying any formerly illegal immigrants.  But this issue has to be a priority for America and for the Jewish Community.  It is a moral matter for Americans, who know that our country is the right place for these people who have lived almost their whole lives here, and who have achieved the American dream – of serving our country and getting an education to enable our country to continue its leadership of the Free World.

Just over a week after we commemorated the Holocaust, where millions of our people died because England and the United States refused entry to our people, and just a day after Israel independence day, our beloved Jewish state which was established to Never Again allow Jews to be refused entry to escape persecution.  Yes, these undocumented children are not refugees; their parents came illegally to our country and brought them in illegally.  But our mothers and fathers came to America for a better life as well, and how can we not be sympathetic to people desperately trying to enter our country to better their lives?  Yes, we did not enter illegally, probably.  But these children are innocent of any crime as well.  They were brought in by their parents or others and had no choice.  They are not responsible for being here illegally.  And now they are part of the United States; they have adopted the best values and visions of our country.  If we Jews do not have sympathy for “geirim” – for strangers – if we do not have sympathy for children, who will?  Didn’t the British at least let in the children to England through the Kinder Transports?  That was in 1939.  If Britain of the thirties could take pity on Jewish children, cannot we Jews take pity on Mexican children who only know life in America and are doing their best to be good Americans.

Undoubtedly there were those in Britain who said that if you let  in Jewish children it would cause all sorts of social ills.  Thank God the voices of morality overcame those foolish utilitarians.  Today there may be voices against the Dream Act: American Jews of all political persuasions need to step in and say, Even though this act will only help our country, it is first and foremost a moral act, and we who understand what it means to go from servitude to freedom, know what it means to go from the poverty of Mexico or so many other countries to the freedom of the United States of America.

Because our parents and grandparents got lucky and worked hard to get into this country, we Jews of America are in a position to influence American policy.  Let us not show a lack of gratitude to our predecessors or to God for giving us a position of privilege to be American citizens.  Thank God for America, and thank God their are children who grow up, unrecognized and undocumented, who love our country and are willing to serve it with their lives and with their minds. Let us learn from the tragedy of a world so panicked that it did not let Jews into the bastion of freedom – the USA – nor into our own homeland – Palestine at the time.  Let us commit that it never happen again, not just to us, who suffered so egregiously from that panic, but to any people, and, especially, to the innocent children of this world.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin

Exciting News from Israel on Conversion by Rabbi Asher Lopatin

May 5, 2011

I just read that the JTA is reporting that the Chief Rabbinate has decided to accept all Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. I question how they will define what is Orthodox, and who is Orthodox. But it does seem like real news regarding opening up a closed system. Another difficult question: Is the enticement of getting your own conversion accepted going to lure previously excluded Orthodox rabbis into forgetting about the other fight going on: Reform and Conservative fighting to get their own conversions accepted in Israel. But remember that for now, Reform and Conservative conversions done in America are accepted by the State of Israel regarding Law of Return and citizenship; non-establishment Orthodox conversions are not. So things are crazy, especially for our Jewish state that is always worrying about demographics. The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and the other Orthodox International Rabbinic Fellowship are both having their conventions in two weeks – with new presidents coming in. Let’s hope that is a time of real change, where Jews all over can connect with their land and with Judaism. Great way to go into Yom Ha’atzmaut weekend.

Avoiding the comforts of extremism

May 3, 2011

Sometimes the middle path is perceived as that which is noncommittal and lacking passion.   But in the realm of religion the opposite is true.  It is moderate positions that require more passion and commitment because they tend to be less black and white and thus harder to balance.  Extreme ideas in contrast are easy to grasp and hold onto.

Within Judaism, especially within more traditional arenas, there is disagreement regarding to what extent one should put up isolationist walls as a bulwark against western culture for fear of it compromising one’s religious values, or be open to outside people and ideas.

Sometimes those who form more extreme insular communities are seen as more pious.   In truth though, every stricture, every religious piety comes with an equal and opposite religious compromise not as readily apparent.  For instance, the more isolated and protected a community is the more they may retain their exclusive religious values, but at the same time their religious values will be less able to impact the outside world and thus less able to render them a “Light unto the nations” or as God put the Jewish mission to Abraham in the book of Genesis, “A blessing to all the families of the earth.”

Rabbi Marc Angel makes this point well in a recent article about Passover in the Jerusalem post http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=217325 in which he writes that true religious life is balanced, not veering to the side of “ice” or skepticism and hedonism, nor toward the side of “fire” or religious passion that expresses itself as fanaticism and isolationism.

Yet it is hard to stand for moderation and balance, it is much easier, and I would add more sexy, to take extreme positions.   The extremes of “ice” or of “fire” are less complex and at the extremes we are prone to see ourselves as self righteous, a position that, while locking out others, usually makes us feel pretty good.

Justice and Comfort on Yom HaShoah

May 2, 2011

Friends of justice and those who value human life all over the world are celebrating the victory of American forces over one of the great forces of evil in our world in the past two decades, Usama bin Laden, who was killed by American Special Ops in Pakistan. And celebrate we must! On this Yom HaShoah, commemorated in the Diaspora on Sunday and in Israel, today, Monday, we remember the millions for whom there was no worldly justice. So let us celebrate that sometimes we are able to carry out justice on earth; sometimes we are given the power to vanquish our enemies. From the Song at the Sea to the Song of Devorah and to the chants of the Star Spangled Banner and “USA, USA”, let us sing a “shira chadasha”, a new song, that this victory will be only the beginning of a final and sustained victory over hatred, terrorism which usually centers around the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Kudos to President Obama – great work and a great speech – the US military – pulling this off despite a helicopter crashing – and to the United States in general, which is fighting the good war with her greatest ally, Israel. As our great prophetess Devorah said, “Kein yovdu kol oyvecha Hashem” – just as Bin Laden was vanquished so may all of God’s enemies be vanquished, with God’s help and with our efforts.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin