Friday, July 3, 2015

Enough! Balaam's Ass and Church Conventions

When we teach bible stories to the kids in the religious school, there are many that are difficult for the students to understand or which fail to hold their attention long enough to explain so that they might. This Torah portion contains one of the stories that belies those problems. This Torah portion is one during which they giggle when we discuss it. You see, it features a donkey. But of course, the text doesn’t use that term. It uses “Ass.” Giggle. Giggle. “The rabbi said ‘Ass!’” Yep, it’s even true for adults. The story of Balaam’s Ass is one of the best in the Jewish tradition and certainly one of my favorites, not because I get to say the word “Ass” from the pulpit, but because it is a meaningful story.

The story is about how Balaam riding his donkey encounters an Angel blocking the road. Of course, the donkey sees the Angel. Balaam, looking right at the Angel, doesn’t see it and gets angry with the donkey which does. Balaam then beats the donkey, which then speaks up to stop him. Of course, the fact that this is a TALKING ASS doesn’t register as strange for Balaam either.

By now, you’re all thinking “And I know a few of those…” That’s another reason that adults giggle. Regardless, this Torah portion speaks to us, for sure. But other than enabling us to giggle at its vocabulary and get a jab or two in at those we know who at times act like donkeys, how is this story relevant for us today?

To get there, I’ll ask a question. What does the donkey say to Balaam?

He says, “Look, I am the ass you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” And Balaam answered, “No.”

To what topic does this simple conversation apply? It occurred to me that it applies all too well to one that is important and problematic for Jews today.

Any guesses as to the one about which I speak?

How about if I rephrase what the donkey stated as follows, “Look, I am a Jew that you have known and interacted with years? Have I been in the habit of doing or supporting what you casually accuse other Jews whom you don’t know of doing and supporting?”

This is a good explanation of how antisemitism and anti-Jewish racism found its way to be commonplace at the national conventions of our progressive Christian friends. This story helps us understand how, knowing Jews in their personal lives who act nothing like the way that some in their movements are accusing Israeli Jews of acting, progressive Christians too often nonetheless ignore the Jews in their midst whom they know well and instead act as if even the most heinous accusations make sense of the entire population of Israel.

This week, the United Church of Christ, perhaps the Reform movement’s closest of all of our friends in the Christian community, with whom we regularly interact on almost every social issue that arises, chose to beat us without talking to us. That’s a bit blunt. What a significant majority of its national conference delegates did was to condemn Israel based on false testimony, to advocate for the spreading of falsehoods about Jews and Israel as facts, and to do so without making any effort to reach out to Jews who were loudly protesting their actions until after the fact, if at all.

My friend, Rev. Matt Mardis-Lecroy of Plymouth Congregation, the largest UCC affiliated church in Iowa, reached out to me yesterday to apologize for not conversing with me before the vote which took place earlier in the week. He also sent along comments which he will publish stating that this vote doesn't necessarily bind or represent his church. I appreciate those sentiments, especially since he is the only one of a number of UCC ministers who could have reached out. We have yet to meet to discuss the issues, but this far he, nor any other UCC minister here in Des Moines has offered any statement of significant disagreement with or outright rejection of the contemptible discussions and votes which took place at the UCC national convention.

And they were contemptible. Not only did the UCC vote to divest itself from companies that “profit from the occupation,” a significant majority of UCC voters actually supported a vote that would have deemed Israel an “Apartheid state,” AND the UCC is advocating that the basis of its education concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be the “Kairos Palestine” document which the Central Conference of American Rabbis stated in 2009 was both full of falsehoods and outright antisemitism.

On Wednesday, the CCAR issued what is perhaps its strongest ever condemnation. I am going to read it to you:

With sadness and dismay, we condemn the action of the United Church of Christ (UCC) to target Israel with divestment and boycotts. With this vote, the UCC has now taken sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has explicitly joined the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a contemptible effort to delegitimize the State of Israel and deny the Jewish people's right to statehood. We do thank and commend the small, brave, minority of delegates to the UCC General Synod who voted against the wrongful, self-defeating resolution.

[I add my appreciation for all those in our local UCC churches who would have done so if given the opportunity.]

We note with even greater revulsion the majority vote of the General Synod to brand Israel an apartheid state. We take cold comfort in the fact that the "apartheid" resolution failed for want of the two-thirds majority required for adoption. This vote most closely resembles the odious 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism. Though later revoked, it marked the emergence of the U.N. as a venue of implacable anti-Israel hostility.

Reform rabbis are particularly saddened by this development, because of the long-standing and meaningful relationships that many of us and our communities have cherished, and will now be forced to re-evaluate with UCC clergy and congregations. We note with disgust that our UCC colleagues chose to consult a virulently anti-Israel organization, calling itself "Jewish Voice for Peace," rather than their trusted friends and allies who lead the organized Jewish community. Like our UCC colleagues, Reform rabbis are deeply engaged with the plight of the Palestinians, and we strongly support the peace process to achieve two states for two peoples.

We affirm what the CCAR resolved in 2005: "We deeply deplore efforts that blame [only] Israel for the failure of the peace process or that seek to use economic actions against Israel, including singling out for shareholder actions or divestment, companies working in Israel. These shareholder efforts are more likely to hinder rather than advance the peace process. Israel's adversaries may interpret them as endorsing continuation of their strategies of rejectionist and terror. In addition, the one-sided nature of these actions undermines their credibility [,. . .] thereby creating the perception that the sponsoring entities [in this case, the United Church of Christ] seek to delegitimize the very existence of the State of Israel."

This decision is a shameful episode for the United Church of Christ.

Yet, how more shameful was it to invite Rev. Mitri Raheb to offer a keynote speech the day before the UCC voted to support divestment?

Rev. Raheb, beloved by those who advocate for the Palestinian side, believes that Palestinian Christians have inherited all of the blessings offered to the people of Israel in the Torah, that the Jews who exist today are all people from Eastern Europe, descended from Khazars who converted to Judaism, and that today’s Jews have no historical connection to the land of Israel at all. Raheb always refers to Jesus as a Palestinian and not as a Jew.

These things are not representative of a difference in policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are representative of racism and antisemitism as well as utter ignorance and hate.

Let me be very explicit here. It is both ignorance and racism to argue that Jews as a race descend from Khazars. End of discussion. Racism. And antisemitism as well because this utter falsehood demeans Jews as people. It is therefore clearly anti-Jewish. Finally, the argument that Jews have no connection to the land, an obvious falsehood, is designed and used to instill contempt of the Jews by arguing that the Jews as liars have stolen what never belonged to them and therefore have no rights to any state at all.

My friend, Dexter Van Zile, wrote about Raheb’s speech at the UCC Convention. He said in a recent article for
No, Raheb is not a Nazi, but no one who knows about previous efforts to separate Jesus from Judaism can applaud Raheb’s sermon in good conscience. No one who knows anything about the impact of efforts to separate Christianity from its Jewish roots can applaud Raheb’s polemic.
But that's what UCCer's did at the denomination's 30th General Synod.
What makes Raheb’s sermon so much more troublesome is that when he did mention Israel in his sermon it was in reference to “the occupation.” Clearly, Israeli policies have an impact on Palestinians, but nowhere during his talk did he mention Palestinian violence against Israel, only the “suffocating Israeli occupation.”
In sum, Raheb removed Jews from the land of Israel, deprived them of their history and then portrayed the modern Jewish state as the singular source of suffering endured by the Palestinian people.
And for this he got a standing ovation.
Raheb, the people who invited him to speak, and the people who applauded after his sermon engaged in a sinful act of false witness against the Jewish people and their homeland.
Our friends, who have known us a long time, are blinded and are wrongfully beating us. It is time for us donkeys to speak up about it.

Rev. Matt Mardis-Lecroy and I will be meeting in a couple of weeks and I will make an effort along with others among the Jewish leadership in town to reach out to others.

Our message is simple:

We may disagree on the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the possible ways in which it might be resolved, but the promotion of anti-Jewish racism and traditional antisemitism as well as Christian supercessionism are not an acceptable part of the conversation whether they are being discussed by known White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis, for whom they are standard tropes, or by Palestinian Christian religious leaders, or even by Nobel laureates. And furthermore, study materials concerning the history of the conflict and its possible resolutions, along with any discussion of the nature of the Jewish people or of Israelis as Jews, must be devoid of that racism, antisemitism, and Christian supercessionism to be meaningful and helpful in approaching possible resolutions.

It would be unfair to suggest that only the UCC is guilty of this type of behavior, though the extent of what took place at its recent convention deserves specific condemnation. Unfortunately, the UCC simply has added its advocacy to a number of other churches who have chosen to promote hateful Antisemitic tropes in their anti-Israel pro-Palestinian advocacy efforts. 

This week, as we read the story of the Ass, let us hope Balaam will stop beating us long enough to realize he’s wrong.

Shabbat Shalom!