This week's parsha takes us deep into the details of the mishkan, the portable sacred dwelling place that the Israelites built in the desert. And amidst the details of the priestly garments and building materials, pure gold, crimson yarn, and fine linens, The Holy Blessed One reminds us what it's all for:
וְשָׁ֣כַנְתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל
"I will dwell among the children of Israel" (Ex 30:45).
The message of this week's parsha, which echoes the message of last week's parsha, which essentially is the core Jewish message embodied in the Shema prayer, is that we are all interconnected and we need to live in a way that embodies that truth. That message, in biblical terms, describes the presence of the divine dwelling among and between us.
This was on my mind earlier this week when I got a phone call from NPR. It was very unexpected. I was about to teach a class on prayer and they just had a quick request: Would I be willing to appear on air in the morning to comment on the recent political controversy with Ilhan Omar's tweets? And then the producer continued, more specifically, that they wanted to invite another "more centrist" rabbi onto the show so that we could publicly debate our views. It did not take long for me to realize this was not a good idea. Not because there isn't nuance and difference of opinion in the Jewish world. And not because I don't believe in giving voice to that nuance and finding ways to constructively disagree, even in public. For me, this didn't feel like a good idea because I felt it was playing directly into the strategy of the right. It is my personal sense that the alt-right is trying to divide us from each other, target women of color, and define public discourse on antisemitism. In this case, Ilhan Omar was criticizing the influence of AIPAC. Regardless of our views on Israel, I imagine we are all able to see the negative impact of lobbyists in government and her inherent right to voice criticism as free speech. This is very scary to me, because it censors free speech and uses the rhetoric of antisemitism as a tool to silence women of color in leadership. Censorship is so deep and dangerous, that even as I write this email I fear I may be censoring myself, so worried about how you will interpret it.
The request from NPR also scared me because pitting two rabbis against one another in public debate on this most controversial issue directly does the work of antisemitism for the right, and has us fighting against each other as opposed to actually fighting the forces of true antisemitism in our world. None of this, says my inner compass, would invite holiness into our midst.
In the wake of Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, we are raw. We know in our bones that antisemitism is real and dangerous. The call from the producer at NPR was so startling, because it pointed to a wound in the Jewish psyche which is becoming a deep chasm in the Jewish community. How do we respond to white supremacy with dignity and integrity? What do we need to do to understand the source of real antisemitism? It is my sense that the right wing propaganda machines are using media attacks and political smear campaigns, largely targeting people of color (Linda Sarsour, Marc Lamont Hill, Angela Davis, and now Ilhan Omar), to pit us against each other and to divide us from our natural allies. And as a result, we undermine each other's dignity and ultimately jeopardize each other's safety. Put in Kabbalistic terms, sending the Shekhina, the indwelling presence of the Divine, into exile.
You may not agree with me about any of this. That is welcome. Kol Tzedek is still your community. I welcome disagreement, feedback, and respectful debate in our community. I share all of this with you, hoping we as a community can deepen our capacity for real connection. In the weeks and months to come, I invite you to pay attention to this with me so that we can together develop our collective consciousness and find ways to speak with compassion, clarity, and integrity about antisemitism, holiness, and the chasm between.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.