Homeland Security

08.08.2016

Last week Janine and I were in Ashland, Oregon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And, our time in Ashland coincided with the Democratic National Convention. And, today I’d like to reflect on the connection between those two experiences.

One afternoon, we attended a panel discussion on making Shakespeare relevant. One of the panelists was Jatinder Verma, the director of a British theater company called Tara Arts.  Verma was born in Tanzania and raised in Kenya before he moved to England and became a British citizen.

Ethnically, Verma is a Sikh. His parents were born in Punjab, India. And, he grew up speaking English, Hindi and Punjabi with equal ease. When a 17 year old Sikh boy was victim of a racist murder in England, Verma entered the theater with a mission to create a dialogue between East and West.

Verma’s theater company does Shakespeare, as well as non-Western theater. He is struggling to find his own ethnic voice within the Shakespeare tradition. He accepts that Shakespeare is at the core of British culture. He doesn’t denigrate Shakespeare as a dead white male. And, he is a British citizen. He is never going to live in India. But, Punjabi culture is also a part of him. And, he believes that there is a way in which Shakespeare can also be presented with a Punjabi flavor and still be authentic.

Jatinder Verma is the embodiment of the new world we live in. It is a world in which people cross boundaries freely. It’s not just physical boundaries that are being crossed, but boundaries of identity. And, that can be upsetting to people.

We all have a need to know who we are and where we belong. And, when our place in the world is uncertain, it causes anxiety. One of the Shakespeare plays we saw in Ashland was Richard the second. In the play, Richard was an incompetent king. So, he is challenged by his cousin Henry who eventually deposes him. But, Henry’s own father John is opposed to overthrowing Richard.

Why? Because England at the time believed in the divine right of kings. God decides who the king will be, not the people. If the people get to decide who is best fit to be the king once, they can do it all the time. And, that’s not monarchy. That’s democracy. And, monarchy was at the core of British identity. So, as John saw it, getting rid of a bad king might seem like a good idea. But, it would upset the natural order of things. It would overturn the entire world view of the English people. And, that was much more terrifying to John than living with an incompetent monarch.

There is a creative tension that exists within every human being and every society. On the one hand, we want to grow and to change. On the other hand, we want stability and continuity in our lives. We want to know there are some things that will never change and that we can always rely on.

We see that tension in today’s parasha. The Jewish people have been through a lot of change. They’ve left slavery after 200 years of stultifying sameness. They’ve marched into the desert, a place with no boundaries. In Egypt, they were miserable, but they knew what to expect. In the desert, every day was new. That can be exhilarating, but also terrifying.

So, under these circumstances, it is understandable that the Jewish people longed for the familiar. After the people of Israel conquered the East Bank of the Jordan, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe asked Moses if they could settle there. It was perfect pasture land for their flocks. Moses was worried that they would not cross the Jordan to fight alongside their brothers.

We could understand why they would want that. After forty years of uncertainty, these tribes wanted a home. After moving from place to place for so long, they wanted to settle down. They wanted to come back every night to the same house, the same family, the same routine. And, Moses’s job was to show them that there is nothing wrong with wanting stability. But, there was still some growing and changing that the nation had to do.

And, the same is true for us today. This election is about boundaries. But, it’s not really about physical boundaries. I know that Mr. Trump has said that we have to erect a wall to keep out illegal immigrants. And, we have to prevent Muslims, or now, people from terrorist countries, from crossing our borders. And, this, he says, will bring law and order to our nation again.

And, yes, people are genuinely concerned about terrorism. But, the idea that illegal immigrants are responsible for a massive crime wave in our country is preposterous. That’s not what people are primarily afraid of. There is something deeper going on here. What people are afraid of is that their world is changing too quickly. The order of things is being overturned. All the categories have been jumbled.

When we were in Ashland, we were asked to fill out a questionnaire about our theater experience. One of the boxes you had to check was—male, female, or….’neither of these two categories apply’. Even three years ago, you would not have seen that third category on a questionnaire.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be there. Our sensitivities have been raised and rightly so. But, it’s an indication of just how deeply and how quickly the world has changed. If even the categories of male and female are no longer categories I can rely on to define who I am—then what categories are stable? In a world of such fluid boundaries, how can I have a stable identity?

So, it’s understandable that under these circumstances, people will develop the fantasy that if we just build a wall, we can keep these changes from happening. If we just turn back the clock, we can once again live in a world of fixed borders, a world in which everyone has their place. The only problem with this world is that if your place happens to be on the bottom of society or the outside of society, you’re out of luck. There is no chance for you to change your station in life. And, America has always been about being able to make that change.

We cannot turn back the clock, and we should not. Thank God, America is a more diverse, more inclusive country than it has ever been before. But, we should also not dismiss with contempt the anxiety about loss of clear identity in a world of rapid change.

Former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg told us at the DNC that he is neither Democrat nor Republican. He goes into the voting booth and chooses the best candidate. But, most of us are not like Bloomberg. We need to pick a side. We need to have a stable identity. And, then we can make adjustments. Yes, we need to break apart the order some times to make it more inclusive, but only for the sake of having a more inclusive order, not for the sake of having no order at all.

I want to close with a story of something that happened to me this week. HNT has had a dialogue with the local Muslim community for over four years now. On Tuesday night, we gathered at the Teapot in Bellevue to discuss our goals for the coming year. At the end of the evening, as I went to pay the bill, the owner of the Teapot, who is an Asian American, smiled and he said to me: What kind of group is this? Jews and Muslims? What brings you together?

It struck me at that moment that there was something going on that night that was quintessentially American. The sight of Muslims and Jews eating together struck the owner of the restaurant as unusual. It defied expectation. We had shattered a boundary. And, yet, there was tremendous respect for boundaries within our group. There was no question of who was a Jew and who was a Muslim. We were as distinct as distinct could be.

America is a staging ground for this kind of encounter. America provides a space where the ‘we’ and the ‘I’ can co-exist. In our group that night, we were all very conscious of our ‘we’/the communal identity that set us apart. And, yet, there was enough of an ‘I’ in us so that no member of the group was reduced to the ‘we’ and nothing more.

I hope we will not elect a leader who will build a wall or turn back the clock. But, I also hope that we will learn from this election a new way to bring together the “I’ and the ‘we’ that lives within all of us, so that identity and change can live together in a new harmony.

 


Matot/Masei 2016
Homeland Security                               
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum


Last week Janine and I were in Ashland, Oregon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. And, our time in Ashland coincided with the Democratic National Convention. And, today I’d like to reflect on the connection between those two experiences.

One afternoon, we attended a panel discussion on making Shakespeare relevant. One of the panelists was Jatinder Verma, the director of a British theater company called Tara Arts.  Verma was born in Tanzania and raised in Kenya before he moved to England and became a British citizen.

Ethnically, Verma is a Sikh. His parents were born in Punjab, India. And, he grew up speaking English, Hindi and Punjabi with equal ease. When a 17 year old Sikh boy was victim of a racist murder in England, Verma entered the theater with a mission to create a dialogue between East and West.

Verma’s theater company does Shakespeare, as well as non-Western theater. He is struggling to find his own ethnic voice within the Shakespeare tradition. He accepts that Shakespeare is at the core of British culture. He doesn’t denigrate Shakespeare as a dead white male. And, he is a British citizen. He is never going to live in India. But, Punjabi culture is also a part of him. And, he believes that there is a way in which Shakespeare can also be presented with a Punjabi flavor and still be authentic.

Jatinder Verma is the embodiment of the new world we live in. It is a world in which people cross boundaries freely. It’s not just physical boundaries that are being crossed, but boundaries of identity. And, that can be upsetting to people.

We all have a need to know who we are and where we belong. And, when our place in the world is uncertain, it causes anxiety. One of the Shakespeare plays we saw in Ashland was Richard the second. In the play, Richard was an incompetent king. So, he is challenged by his cousin Henry who eventually deposes him. But, Henry’s own father John is opposed to overthrowing Richard.

Why? Because England at the time believed in the divine right of kings. God decides who the king will be, not the people. If the people get to decide who is best fit to be the king once, they can do it all the time. And, that’s not monarchy. That’s democracy. And, monarchy was at the core of British identity. So, as John saw it, getting rid of a bad king might seem like a good idea. But, it would upset the natural order of things. It would overturn the entire world view of the English people. And, that was much more terrifying to John than living with an incompetent monarch.

There is a creative tension that exists within every human being and every society. On the one hand, we want to grow and to change. On the other hand, we want stability and continuity in our lives. We want to know there are some things that will never change and that we can always rely on.

We see that tension in today’s parasha. The Jewish people have been through a lot of change. They’ve left slavery after 200 years of stultifying sameness. They’ve marched into the desert, a place with no boundaries. In Egypt, they were miserable, but they knew what to expect. In the desert, every day was new. That can be exhilarating, but also terrifying.

So, under these circumstances, it is understandable that the Jewish people longed for the familiar. After the people of Israel conquered the East Bank of the Jordan, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe asked Moses if they could settle there. It was perfect pasture land for their flocks. Moses was worried that they would not cross the Jordan to fight alongside their brothers.

We could understand why they would want that. After forty years of uncertainty, these tribes wanted a home. After moving from place to place for so long, they wanted to settle down. They wanted to come back every night to the same house, the same family, the same routine. And, Moses’s job was to show them that there is nothing wrong with wanting stability. But, there was still some growing and changing that the nation had to do.

And, the same is true for us today. This election is about boundaries. But, it’s not really about physical boundaries. I know that Mr. Trump has said that we have to erect a wall to keep out illegal immigrants. And, we have to prevent Muslims, or now, people from terrorist countries, from crossing our borders. And, this, he says, will bring law and order to our nation again.

And, yes, people are genuinely concerned about terrorism. But, the idea that illegal immigrants are responsible for a massive crime wave in our country is preposterous. That’s not what people are primarily afraid of. There is something deeper going on here. What people are afraid of is that their world is changing too quickly. The order of things is being overturned. All the categories have been jumbled.

When we were in Ashland, we were asked to fill out a questionnaire about our theater experience. One of the boxes you had to check was—male, female, or….’neither of these two categories apply’. Even three years ago, you would not have seen that third category on a questionnaire.

I’m not saying it shouldn’t be there. Our sensitivities have been raised and rightly so. But, it’s an indication of just how deeply and how quickly the world has changed. If even the categories of male and female are no longer categories I can rely on to define who I am—then what categories are stable? In a world of such fluid boundaries, how can I have a stable identity?

So, it’s understandable that under these circumstances, people will develop the fantasy that if we just build a wall, we can keep these changes from happening. If we just turn back the clock, we can once again live in a world of fixed borders, a world in which everyone has their place. The only problem with this world is that if your place happens to be on the bottom of society or the outside of society, you’re out of luck. There is no chance for you to change your station in life. And, America has always been about being able to make that change.

We cannot turn back the clock, and we should not. Thank God, America is a more diverse, more inclusive country than it has ever been before. But, we should also not dismiss with contempt the anxiety about loss of clear identity in a world of rapid change.

Former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg told us at the DNC that he is neither Democrat nor Republican. He goes into the voting booth and chooses the best candidate. But, most of us are not like Bloomberg. We need to pick a side. We need to have a stable identity. And, then we can make adjustments. Yes, we need to break apart the order some times to make it more inclusive, but only for the sake of having a more inclusive order, not for the sake of having no order at all.

I want to close with a story of something that happened to me this week. HNT has had a dialogue with the local Muslim community for over four years now. On Tuesday night, we gathered at the Teapot in Bellevue to discuss our goals for the coming year. At the end of the evening, as I went to pay the bill, the owner of the Teapot, who is an Asian American, smiled and he said to me: What kind of group is this? Jews and Muslims? What brings you together?

It struck me at that moment that there was something going on that night that was quintessentially American. The sight of Muslims and Jews eating together struck the owner of the restaurant as unusual. It defied expectation. We had shattered a boundary. And, yet, there was tremendous respect for boundaries within our group. There was no question of who was a Jew and who was a Muslim. We were as distinct as distinct could be.

America is a staging ground for this kind of encounter. America provides a space where the ‘we’ and the ‘I’ can co-exist. In our group that night, we were all very conscious of our ‘we’/the communal identity that set us apart. And, yet, there was enough of an ‘I’ in us so that no member of the group was reduced to the ‘we’ and nothing more.

I hope we will not elect a leader who will build a wall or turn back the clock. But, I also hope that we will learn from this election a new way to bring together the “I’ and the ‘we’ that lives within all of us, so that identity and change can live together in a new harmony.